Dollar's slide gives Poles buying edge
There was a time when Poles kept their life savings in dollars tucked under mattresses or hidden in socks, counting on the greenback's strength to help them weather the blows of political turmoil, inflation and their own weak currency.
But no more.
The dollar has not only fallen against the euro, but even against the currencies of emerging economies like Poland's, giving unprecedented spending power to a resurgent middle class since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
"During communism, the dollar seemed like a god," said economist Irmina Kurzawska. "But now the dollar is getting weaker and weaker -- it seems to be endless."
In the past year alone, the dollar has fallen 21 percent against the Polish currency, from 3 zlotys in January 2007 to a nearly 13-year low of 2.3949 on Jan. 15. The dollar traded at 2.5263 zlotys on Tuesday.
Gone are the days when Americans could live like kings in the region. Today U.S. expatriates and tourists are being squeezed tighter as the dollar buys them ever less of the local currency.
Meanwhile, Poles, who have historically immigrated in droves to the United States to earn those once-prized dollars, are these days just as likely to catch a direct flight to New York for sightseeing and a show on Broadway -- and snap up some bargains while there. The newly opened arrivals hall at Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport, a spacious new terminal of glass and steel, itself attests to the country's growing wealth.
Ewa Wdowiarska, 37, a company director, returned Friday from a four-week shopping trip in New York with her husband and young daughter -- and a car.
"It wasn't my first visit to the U.S., but the first time I went only to shop -- and it was because of the weak dollar," she said as she pushed a cart piled high with suitcases through the terminal.
The family picked up a one-year-old Mazda6 for $15,000, a bargain even with transport costs since the same car would cost double that in Poland, she said. They also bought clothing, a cell phone and KitchenAid equipment for a house they just had built.
"I earn money in Poland and spend it in the USA -- this is something new for Polish people," Wdowiarska said. "The world has changed."
Michal Mroz, 26, a businessman from Krakow, traveled this month to Chicago for work -- but slipped in some shopping while there, picking up $700 worth of clothing from Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and shoes from Ecco.
"You pay three times as much in Poland for brand clothing," he said. "It's rather cheap in the States."
Other benefits of the weak dollar have meant that oil and gas, which are priced in dollars on the international market, have not risen at Polish pumps as drastically as they have for Americans.
But not all Poles are rejoicing -- those who are paid in dollars or who rely heavily on American customers are feeling the pinch.
Take Anna Baczkowska, a small shop owner in Warsaw who sells traditional Polish pottery from the town of Boleslawiec, a highly decorated blue-toned ceramic that is popular with many Americans.
She says the weak dollar has caused her sales to fall by about 20 percent each year for the past several years.
"Customers are always thinking about the dollar, complaining that the dollar isn't so good," said Baczkowska, sitting in her office in the back of her shop, ANKO. "I don't have many Americans buying now."
Poland still has its problems in trying to overcome the economic legacy of communism.
Though salaries are rising amid strong economic growth, they still average only around $1,310 per month, making cross-ocean shopping sprees off limits to many.
The country also suffers from a jobless rate of more than 11 percent, while the low wages have driven hundreds of thousands to seek work in Britain and Ireland since Poland joined the European Union in 2004.
Nonetheless, heavy foreign investments and EU subsidies -- which have helped drive the zloty higher -- have fueled an economic boom that is bringing new life to the long-embattled middle class.
And frm the Daily Mail
As Poles flood into Britain, the story of the family who went in the opposite direction
"This one one might do,” I said to my wife, Anna, who was in the car tending to howling babies.
We'd pulled up in front of a 50-room, 17th Century palace in five acres of parkland - complete with 60ft ballroom and chapel. And all for sale at a quarter of the price of my three-bedroom semi in South-East London.
Call it a mid-life crisis - I'm 48 - but I needed a big adventure. The fact that the former bishop's palace was in rural Poland made it all the more attractive.
Poland is friendly, has a low crime rate and good schools. Of course, I'm biased - I married a Polish girl. So there was no hesitation: we bought our palace.
Abandoning prosperous Britain to live in down-at-heel Poland might appear contrary to some. “Proper bonkers,” said a friend, the actor Nigel Planer.
Others called it brave, my parents called it barmy.
They had a point. Most of the traffic has been in the opposite direction, with one million Poles reportedly moving to Britain to work since 2004.
Anna arrived in Britain six years ago, ahead of the big influx after Poland joined the European union.
Her work conformed to the stereotype of the economic migrant: cleaning houses, looking after children in a nursery school, serving beer in a bar.
All in contrast to her job in Poland, where she was a maths teacher.
Her half-brother, a brilliant concert pianist, works in a London branch of Tesco.
The bar was where I met Anna. She was the quiet but beautiful girl serving drinks at my tennis club near Holland Park.
"The only one who can calculate the change correctly,” remarked one member to me, unaware of our relationship.
I asked her out in 2003 and we married in May 2005 in the Chapel Of St Kinga, which was hewn from salt down the world-famous mine in Wieliczka, near Krakow.
We had never intended to emigrate. Anna probably saw the life of a middle-class London wife stretching in front of her.
“This was your idea not mine,” she says every time something threatens to go wrong.
True. There was no pressure from her to go back, even though it was reported last week that up to half of the Poles now living in Britain plan to return to their homeland one day.
The seeds behind our life-swap were planted a couple of years ago when we hit upon the idea of investing in Polish property.
Jozefina, our first daughter, had just been born, so it seemed opportune to look to the future.
In contrast to London house prices, the idea of a property in Poland was appealing.
For around £50,000, we discovered we could get a five- or six-bedroom house set in at least half-a-dozen acres and just a few minutes from the ski slopes.
With Poland's economy growing at twice the speed of Britain's and a Polish wife in tow, I felt well placed to ride this boom. We briefly put our plans on hold after Anna became pregnant again. But when baby Henryka was born, we decided to return to Poland.
Having set our hearts on the idea of restoring a glorious ruin, we met the provincial historic monuments officer who put about 20 dots on a map denoting stately homes for sale.
For two days we drove around inspecting them, seeing everything from vast Hapsburg palaces to run-down manor houses.
Sometimes we didn't bother getting out of the car, while at others, I'd sneak through a broken window and explore.
Finally, we came to the tiny village of Piotrowice Nyskie in Opole province, South-West Poland.
There, in the centre of the village, was an imposing 17th Century former palace.
At 12,000 sq ft, it was on the small side compared with many we'd seen, albeit eight times the floor space of the average London house.
Although it was run-down and in need of plenty of tender loving care, at least its roof was intact and it had glass in most windows.
Still, we had to have it.
After another trip and a formal viewing, we bought it for £150,000 and moved in last August.
I didn't see any point in getting a survey done. The palace was built in 1660, with extensions in 1830 and 1930. A house that has stood for 350 years might collapse next year. On the other hand, it's just as likely to stand for another 350.
Officially the architectural style is classified as baroque, though its origins have been buried under more recent alterations.
Under layers of paint on the chapel steps you can make out a coat of arms, apparently that of one of the bishops of Breslau. The walls are one metre thick and there's an awful lot of masonry, including brick buttresses supporting the rendered elevations.
It's over-engineered. The Poles are fine engineers, but over-engineering is a German trait.
There is good reason for this. The house is situated in the part of modern Poland that used to be in Germany, a region known as Lower Silesia.
Until 1945, the palace's owners were a family called Von Lorentz, before that Von Wimmersberg, an Austro-Hungarian era family, and before that the bishops of Breslau.
After the Second World War, the Germans were expelled from the area and during the subsequent communist era the house was divided and occupied by five families who mostly worked the farm.
Large rooms, such as the ballroom, were communal.
“I had my wedding here,” said the man who fitted our gas stove.
Sadly, any decent original feature in our palace has been pilfered over the years - it had been empty for seven years before we arrived.
But we quickly managed to restore civilisation to one corner, keeping warm with a magnificent Norwegian wood-burning stove - at £1,500, including fixing the chimney, it's our biggest expense so far - using timber from the park.
Anna keeps every receipt. “Including the new shower and the kids' bunk beds from Ikea, we still haven't spent £5,000 so far,” she promises me.
We're a little concerned about our sewage. We know it goes, but the question "Where?" is one we avoid.
We have electricity, running water, and cook with gas from canisters.
The unoccupied 90 per cent of the house is damp and cold, hardly surprising given that the temperature is rarely above zero at this time of year, and can drop to -10C (14F).
So far, we have colonised three large rooms. One serves as a kitchen, dining room and sitting room; another as our bedroom and office. Our children use a third as a playroom and bedroom.
This cannot continue. Anna, 33, is pregnant again and the arrival of twins in March will oblige us to expand our living area, restoring one room at a time.
Given that I was once a stockbroker and am now a writer, house renovation hasn't come naturally to me.
But even the simplest task is difficult in a 350-year-old house. Take putting up a shelf.
In a London house that might be a matter of drilling a hole, inserting a Rawlplug and tightening a screw or two. Not so here.
Result: a hole twice as large as intended and much lime render and crumbling brick at one's feet.
Our first big project is the park. This might not seem like a priority, but it has acquired a life of its own.
Near to us is an oval-shaped, grand hunting lodge, one of only three in Europe.
We knocked on the door and the owner, Bronislaw, invited us in. His lodge too belonged to the bishops of Breslau.
From there the bishops would once have hunted deer, wild boar and perhaps wolves. Bronislaw is a landscape architect - his own park is stunning.
He couldn't be more excited about the prospect of another baroque park to restore.
Already he's identified which trees need surgery, which are unusual, and which saplings need to be torn out. And he's made a plan for our sewage. Capability Bron, we call him.
In one corner of the house is a chapel, which belongs to us but is also the village church.
The village priest, Father Edvard, had never been inside the house itself in seven years preaching there. When we invited him in, he wanted to look at everything.
“You must have won the lottery,” he told Anna, “this will cost a lot to fix.”
One of the impediments to restoration is my dire Polish. I communicate in halting German with Bron, otherwise it's better if I stick to English.
Anna does most of the talking in Polish, so I am pathetically dependent on her as my conduit to the village.
She reports reactions back to me: “Everyone is glad the house is occupied again. No one likes a deteriorating palace in their village. They keep saying, 'You are very brave'." Pretty much what people said in London.
“Why don't you buy something modern where everything works?” villagers ask. It's understandable, after decades of creaking communism, that they should want all things to be shiny and new.
I don't think we were brave at all. On the contrary, it would have been braver to stay in London with four children.
Only a lucky few make enough money to afford the private education arms race in Britain, and the unpalatable alternative would have been the State schools in my part of London.
Then there was the constant feeling that you would be burgled, your wife mugged or your car broken into.
Perhaps foolishly, I had bought an old Bentley, which had cost less than a Ford Focus, and I lived in fear that a key would be run down its paintwork or a window smashed. That was probably the last thing I should have worried about.
In November 2006, the 19-year-old boy who lived opposite us was shot dead less than half a mile away from our house.
I knew him quite well; he was a nice lad who caught a bullet not meant for him. I knew then that it was time to move away.
It's too early to tell if Polish state education is superior to Britain's, but I imagine it can't be worse. Even my former MP, Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, refused to educate her children in my London borough.
Polish schools impress upon their pupils a respect for elders. So far, the children in our village are polite. I've found it's the same all over Poland.
Our children are enjoying an old-fashioned, free-range childhood. We trot Jozefina and Henryka out to see piglets being born on the farm that used to be part of the estate or to say hello to a new calf.
As they get bigger the girls can play hide-and-seek in the park. Capability Bron will see to it that we can swim in our lake.
Those are not the only entertainments on offer. A few miles away, over the border in the Czech Republic, locals play ice hockey on frozen ponds, and there are a couple of small ski lifts a quarter of an hour away.
Border controls were lifted permanently at Christmas when the two countries joined the Schengen agreement.
In between learning how to be a Polish plumber, bricklayer, joiner, electrician, and landscape gardener, perhaps I'll write another book - I've written four, the last being a ghosted effort for Robbie Williams.
Our adventure will supply lots of material. If not, it doesn't matter; there are other opportunities for wannabe entrepreneurs like me.
We nearly purchased a nearby campsite, and maybe we still will. We're buying a two-bedroom flat near our house for £10,000.
Such two-bed flats for young couples are in demand. Anna's sister, Ela, her husband, Marcin, and two small children share a two-bedroom flat with her widowed mother. Everything is cramped.
Many Poles live like this, several generations together, in concrete blocks thrown up by the Communists.
It's not surprising they are motivated to escape by earning cash in Britain.
A Pole working 80 hours a week in menial jobs can easily save £10,000 in a couple of years. Many of Anna's friends are returning home with that money.
Much of these £10,000 nest eggs are spent on new property, so much of Poland is currently a building site.
Many Poles aren't really builders at all, of course. They found jobs as labourers on British building sites and quickly learned how to plumb, plaster, lay bricks, join wood or wire - just like I'm doing in Poland.
With their new-found skills, they plan to build themselves a house. When the Polish building boom finishes in around five years, these people will be in search of jobs.
Luckily, their experience in Britain has made them flexible and multi-skilled.
Not only that, they've learned pretty good English, too, and are highly motivated.
Poland may be suffering a labour shortage at the moment, but workers returning from all around Europe, especially Britain and Ireland, will solve the problem.
I do miss lots of things about England: friends, family, the sheer variety of Chinese, Indian or Italian food, playing rugby, real ale.
The only Brit I've come across so far lives 40 minutes away. He, too, is fixing up a stately home and has a Polish wife.
And while Anna has made friends, I have my lonely moments. But the house is getting under my skin.
Will we stay for ever? I think there's a strong chance. Whatever happens, it's going to be fun.
This second article makes my blood boil!
I'm not going to address it now as the amount of expletives might very well get us kicked off the web altogether, but suffice it to say that this guy is the smuggest, most self absorbed fuck I have ever had the misfortune to read.
"Capability Bron we call him"
"WE"? Do me a favour! How many Poles have heard of Capability Brown, let alone could put together such a play on words? No disrespect, or anything.
I'm going to have to write to the Daily Mail. Or is this article available online? With a comments section?
And just LOOK at the pair of them!
My thoughts exactly!!
I also loved the wedding photo
Another renovation article:
Renovating Stables in Poland
Levis Minford has never bought a house that was finished. Building and renovating have become almost a habit for Mr. Minford, a native of Idaho, and he always has some kind of construction project going on. So it was no surprise that, when he was looking for a house outside Warsaw, he settled on an 18th-century stable that had to be turned into a house.
Now a film distributor, Mr. Minford was living in Brussels and doing market research for American film studios when, in 1990, he moved to Warsaw, attracted by the business opportunities available in Poland’s young free-market economy. In 1995, he was renting a house in Konstancin, a posh spa town outside Warsaw, when he spotted a desolate red-brick stable on the far outskirts of the resort.
It was in ruins — the roof had caved in — but it attracted him with the promise of quiet and seclusion. The building stands on the edge of a protected forest and faces a pond, separating it from the 17th-century Baroque palace it once served.
“I liked the location and the fact that it was a very unique property,” Mr. Minford, 58, said as he sat on a bench in the grass-covered yard of the U-shaped building. “It’s very different from anything in Warsaw or the States. And it’s only 25 kilometers from the city center.”
The palace and the stable originally belonged to an aristocratic family but were nationalized under communism. The stable was passed to the High School of Agriculture in Warsaw, which allowed it to deteriorate; the palace is now used as a writers’ retreat.
Mr. Minford said it took about a year to complete the sale, which included getting permission from the Polish Interior Affairs Ministry for him, as a foreigner, to buy land. The 7,800-square-meter (1.9-acre) property cost $60,000, the price of a small apartment in Warsaw at the time. Now, he estimates, the property is worth at least 15 times as much, thanks to his improvements and the country’s soaring residential prices, propelled by its growing economy and falling interest rates. A real estate agent generally agrees with his estimate, although hers is slightly less.
Renovating the building, whose middle section is some 250 years old, has been a daunting task over the last few years. Work has been completed on less than half of the 1,500 square meters (16,146 square feet) of living space. He has spent $400,000 on the project and estimates that the rest of the work will cost about $350,000 more, although right now he is unsure whether he will finish.
At the beginning, Mr. Minford hired Belarussian workers, who lived in the building while they worked on it. “I could not communicate with them so I would just draw on a dirt what I wanted them to do,” Mr. Minford said. “I had no plans, no architect. It was all very spontaneous, as a work in progress usually is.”
The men put on a new roof; replaced much of the old red brick in the outside walls and covered them with cement; and installed electricity, oil heating and water pipes. Creating a two-bedroom apartment in a part of the building’s southern wing took about a year.
“I moved in section by section, first to what is now an apartment for the housekeeper,” said Mr. Minford, who lives in the house with his Polish wife, Beata; their 2-year-old son, Luc; two dogs; a cat and a Peruvian pig in another part of the southern wing. The area includes a 160-square-meter (1,772-square-foot) living room and dining area, a kitchen furnished with antique chests and cupboards to create a Provençal look, and a two-level bedroom.
The northern wing, which still features stone feeding troughs for cows, houses a four-car garage.
The oldest section, in the middle of the building, is not finished. “The middle section has much more potential because it is much taller,” Mr. Minford said, pointing to six-meter (almost 20-foot-high) wooden beams that now stand in the middle of the area to support the roof.
He has enlarged the windows to let in more natural light — something he regrets not having done in the southern section of the building — and envisages a living room with a soaring ceiling, a dining room, a wine cellar and bathrooms. But so far there are only unfinished interior walls and scaffolding.
“Renovating is a fun thing to do,” he said. “It’s a way to create your own surroundings. ‘This looked like a good prospect, but it has turned out to be much more than I anticipated.”
Mr. Minford says he sometimes considers selling the property and buying something less ambitious to renovate. But it must be something as private and quiet as his current home, he said.
“It is a good therapy,” he said. “It’s very relaxing. On weekends we rarely leave the property. The only thing is that I could do without the noise of the frogs.”
He smiled as he gestured to the nearby pond. “But I got used to it.”