The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

conversation in a warsaw bar: 3Posted on 28th February, 2008.

I am a drinker with a writing problem.
- Brendan Behan

It seems that each time I meet her, whether in a bar or not, she has some precious nugget of information to share with me. There is a huge electrical storm passing over the city tonight. Late into the night, we sit under huge parasols that threaten to collapse with the weight of the downpour. I listen carefully and record her pronouncements.

She says:
You may be a heavy drinker or an artist because Praga has this black legend. A little unsafe, a place of thieves, of the working class… The market I go to has three types of social typology:  old people – quite old – then there are the young girls, quite young, pregnant for the first time, maybe accompanied with her boyfriend, usually shaven head and tracksuited… dresiarz is the word in Polish. Then there is, after 11’o’clock in the morning, you understand – when most people are working – the people with dreadlocks and India t-shirts, the bohemians, those artist types, musicians and so on, buying yoghurt for breakfast at noon.

There is a word I’ve invented for ‘dresiara’, a girl from Praga: Prazynka. It’s a joke. Prazanka is a girl from Praga, Czech and Warsaw as well, and prazynka is a potato chip. They tan a lot, so they get dark and crispy.

You know, when I drink vodka, there is deeper, more proper, more serious conversation. You know, at a party, people getting drunk on wine, vodka or beer, the boys are in the kitchen. The Polish kitchen is the centre of Polish drinking. When they get the vodka from the fridge, they prepare for the ‘long night of Polish conversations’. Mickiewicz speaks of this in a poem. Do you know this?

No, I say, I don’t know this poem but I must find it.

Correspondence: Strike!Posted on 19th February, 2008.

Of course, we have sequel to discussion on complicated relation of Polish vodka and Polish spirit. As you perhaps know, last year a new film of Schlöndorff was released – ‘Strike’ is based on story of Anna Walentynowicz, one of the most important leaders of August ’80 events – a lot of details were changed, esp. considering bio of Walentynowicz, but anyway we have (or rather had, as I think that film didn’t appeal to many viewers) discussion in our current debate (or rather fight) about the past – who was an agent and who was an angel, about revision of last 15 years and last 50 years, and new thread appeared.  Namely “we didn’t drink vodka” (not so much, anyway ;-)

And it’s funny – there’s a sort of truth in it -  I think that during normal underground meeting probably there was vodka, but during the strike workers proclaimed prohibition – it was an act of self-awareness of workers class, considered (or rather performed) the first step to real emancipation (precise reason was to avoid any accusations of chaos and criminal events, easy going with alcohol). In famous ‘Man of Iron’ by Wajda (made just after that August ’80. Did you see it? We may have film evening again :-) the journalist who is to gather bad materials on strike’s leader is also an alcoholic; during some talks he manages to get some vodka (last hidden bottle), but the most dramatic moment (in alcohol context) is in the beginning when he comes to the hotel, and wants to drink. But there is prohibition, and everybody serves the rules of Strike’s Committee (no way, no alcohol); our brave journalist has a bottle of his own, but suddenly oops – it crashed on the floor in bathroom; then with a towel he gets last drops of precious liquid…

dear i,
I found this on the letters page of Ireland’s Eye, Issue 313, a magazine my Mother receives from a relative.

Ireland Sober
Ireland Free
Sir -
I would like to thank you for your faithfulness
to Ireland and its heritage.
I attended a Pro-Life conference some months
ago and I heard a lady saying Ireland Sober,
Ireland Free. It struck me like a ton of bricks, so
I decided to do something with it. I would also like
to know who would be able to, or want to promote it?
It might help people to think Irish. Our country has
become a keg of beer nearly, with drink being sold
everywhere. I firmly believe that there are some Irish
people out there and if they were to sober up that they
would have so much to offer our language, heritage,
freedom etc.
John Donohoe, Inchicore, Dublin

With reference to the workers and alcohol…. I think that this could also be changed to
Poland Sober, Poland Free
(what do you think? will all this influence our vodka project and give us some extraordinary material?)

There are some importants events of this kind in Polish culture. (I don’t mean me drinking ;-) . As Marek Hlasko, a writer, who was carrying his friend, Krzysztof Komeda (composer of Rosemary’s Baby) after heavy drinking together and they fell down. Komeda struck his head and died in coma several days later. And it happened in Hollywood.

Yes, definitely.

Polish literature, esp. Pilch, Stasiuk, Varga – all three drinking men :-)


Conversation in a Warsaw bar (or three or four)Posted on 7th February, 2008.


We went to see ‘Rezerwat’ (Reservoir) at the Kinoteca. This cinema is in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science, much loved and much hated building. Gifted by Stalin to the people or Warsaw (or imposed, whichever your preference), it is a landmark indeed. The film is set in Praga, where I am living, and it was enjoyable to spot the locations. It tells the story of a photographer, down on his luck, who is forced to move to a flat in an old tenement block on the east side of the river (purportedly the rougher part, this ‘dark Praga’ – described to me by Jacek, himself a Praga resident, as a cross between Gotham City and Montmartre). The film follows his encounters with residents there. It plays on working class stereotypes, the ruffians, the drinkers, the blonde hairdresser with a heart of gold.

As is the tradition, we drink beer in the cinema, two cans in her handbag. She was amused to see her former drama teacher from Krakow on screen. The film felt like two different films in one, and reminded me of the gentle French comedies of Eric Rohmer and of Ealing comedies.

From there we went to her favourite café, which now has a smoking ban – which is not the norm in Warsaw. Do you have a secret corner for smokers? she asked the waitress. No, said the waitress sternly, we have a duty to care for our customers. Then I won’t be able to recommend this place any more, she said, quite exasperated. She is from Lublin and has high expectations of the capital city. She went outside looking for a light. There was a man visiting from Białystok there, a smoker also. He said, It’s strange, no-one in Warsaw looks you direct in the eye.

We wandered from bar to bar, intending to go home after eleven. But it was not to be. Wódka Zołądkowa  Gorzka and orange juice carry us through the hours long after midnight. (But not mixed in the same glass.) We ended up in a street with bars and cafés which never seem to close, by Three Crosses Square (I have had breakfast here before 7 am another time). I was not planning to get drunk with you, she said, but it has happened. It was a fine and beautiful evening of invigorating conversations. With someone half my age or maybe ancient and twice as wise – it’s hard to know which. We covered all possibilities, I think. Life expectancies, the nature of relationships – including the parental variety – chance encounters, personal and professional boundaries, and accidents that are meant to happen; all were felled by our alcohol sharpened words. It was after 5 am before we knew it. The night buses had finished and the morning buses began. The city streets were already busy, with many people walking purposefully.

I walked over the bridge Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego across the river towards Stadion Dziesięciolecia, the old national sports stadium built with the rubble from the ruins of the Warsaw Uprising. Literally ‘the 10th Anniversary Stadium’, it opened in 1955, the anniversary being commemorated was the first manifesto of the Communist Government of Poland. (On July 22, 1944, in Chełm, the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation issued the July Manifesto, which established a communist system, with the government then seated in Lublin.) I watched the young Vietnamese making their way to work at the famously popular black markets that traded around the tunnels and long abandoned football terraces. I wondered how long I could survive without sleep.

Short Vodka Stories No: 2Posted on 5th February, 2008.

Note from Iwona:

Two Russian soldiers were in need of liquid refreshment, as is apparently often the case. These soldiers took an armoured personnel carried from their military base, near Yekaterinburg in Siberia, and drove it to the nearest town, 25 miles away, to buy supplies of alcohol. After stocking up on the much needed vodka they headed back to the base, but their driving declined as they sampled their shopping en route. They were caught after crashing through a fence into a used car showroom and demolishing several vehicles. Local prosecutors said the pair will face “severe punishment”. Life was always tough in Siberia.

In a banya, near LithuaniaPosted on 3rd February, 2008.

Michal drove us confidently through the rain and sleet, into the empty countryside, down muddy lanes, trees branches scratching the roof of the minibus, towards the promise of the banya (in Russian, bania in Polish) and a dip into the frozen lake.  This is the kind of thing that could give us a heart attack, said Alex from Crete. I was also thinking this, but I breathed deeply and slowly and felt at peace. We arrived at an old farmhouse building in an almost deserted village called Czarna Buchta. The electricity is out. There are only storm lanterns, the glow of the wood fire, and the light of a dozen candles. Our host Czesław greets us with his homemade honey and nut vodka, which is indeed a delicious treat, with that thick quality that honey has, leaving a coating of the taste on the tongue.

The men drink a toast and then are led out into the darkness towards the woods and the banya by the lake. This is a traditional Russian steam bath, housed in a small wooden building that reminds me of a beach hut sitting on the pebbles at Lyme Regis, looking forlornly out at the sea. We leave our clothes in the outer room and enter the steam bath. There is a huge wood burning stove in the corner, with  heated stones on top, and a big oil can full of water. We sit on the wooden benches, which are almost searingly hot to the touch. There are two levels of benches, the cooler air (if you can describe it as that, at least comparatively so) on the lower level. After a while sweating in the heat, we go outside and run around in a circle in the chill rain, waving our arms. We go back inside and are each given buckets of cold water to douse ourselves with. Czesław throws cupfuls of water onto the hot stones. We sweat more. We go out again, this time to the lake, where there is a large rectangle cut through the ice. Our host thinks the water is too warm and so we retire to the steam room again. There is particular ritual to this, leaving the heat and plunging into the cold water. The ice underneath my feet feels so cold it is a relief to go into the lake. My testicles are gratifyingly tight. We go in and out two or three times. We bring back buckets of ice water to splash over ourselves. After the second or third sweat, we are given branches of  dried leaves (of white birch, I think) to soak in the bucket of water. We then use these to beat upon our skin, to improve circulation and help open the pores.


One of my companions asks, Would you like me to beat you? Yes, why not. (Alex is still a little unconvinced). The fragrance of leaves seems particularly strong. And the whole experience, the extreme of temperatures, induces a kind of natural high. Finally, we wash our hair and pour buckets of ice cold water over each other. I have no sense of how long we are in here, but eventually our host decides it is time to leave. He tells us that we would normally, at this point, dress and sit in the outer room and drink a few beers, but it is the women’s turn for the banya so we go back to the house.


As we return, the women sing a beautiful song that the Bulgarian visitors have taught them while we were in the banya. We drink more vodka and the toast is ‘To a New Life’. And indeed, I feel invigorated and renewed. Later we feast on the home cured meats of venison and wild boar that our host has hunted in the forest, followed by bigos. More vodka is drunk. Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish and Bulgarian songs are sung. Czesław knows many of them. Bev sings Marley. I attempt a poor rendition of ‘Carrickfergus’.  I can only remember half of the song, but I explain the Irish context to the table.

You were not in tune, says Bev, But at least you tried. For this project I am going to have to learn to sing well as well as drink.