The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

International Women’s DayPosted on 16th March, 2008.

March 8th for many years used to be an important holiday in Poland. The day was not free from job (as it was in Soviet Union – and still is in Russia). Yet, as a matter of fact, no gross income would be make for Poland on this date. All men in the country wanted to celebrate their female colleagues – usually with a carnation (beautiful flower, just now coming back from the hell of official overpopularity in People’s Poland), sometimes – formally, from the head of factory or office – with pair of stockings, and/or towel, and/or bar of soap, and/or bar of chocolate. All necessary goods, all hard to get goods. There were also greetings from the first secretary of Party to all hardworking women building socialist family and country (lazy ones were excluded).

And – of course with a glass of vodka (it is and of course it was illegal to drink in work place, but…). These celebrations could be so long and loud (and liquid) that actually men lost their wish and ability to celebrate their home women: wives, partners, sisters, mothers and daughters. It’s hard to stop when you start. As Wiesław Gołas sung: “Before the first large shot will go to our head / we take the second glass”. The title of the song was Into Poland we go, fellow men [W Polskę idziemy, panowie] ­– and was supposed to be ironic, as the song itself. Another proof that participation in culture is unpredictable – people (men) just sang it, and – went into bars and streets of the country, holding a broken carnation for the lady.

Now the holiday has been regained by women who on the day in some Polish cities organise manifestations (“manifas”) in call for their rights. For 8 years now this day belongs to us. In the evening organisers usually have a party in a chosen club. Not much vodka is being drunk there, though. And the song sounds now more like Into Poland we go, fellow women…

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piękni polacy – beautiful polesPosted on 2nd March, 2008.

Guidebooks sometimes provide us with a guide to what we already know. They invite us to admire, but not to be curious. They lead us down certain (well-worn) tracks and perhaps confirm some existing prejudices. “The railway station was not among Poland’s finest” is a polite invitation to visit somewhere other than this particular town with the unremarkable railway station.

You may spend your entire journey reading the guidebook from beginning to end and no longer have any need to experience the real city, to go to the streets, museums and churches that have been described to you in great detail. In Warsaw,  I have never been to Museum Narodowe and stood in front of The Battle of Grunwald by Matejko, but I feel as if I know this painting intimately.

I consider one of the more interesting guidebooks to be by the travel writer Jan Morris. ‘Fifty Years of Europe: An Album’ is a both a personal map and contemplative portrait, as the writer reflects on his/her experiences of the continent since 1946, with overlapping geographical and historical references and memories. Poland does not feature very much in this book, a still unknowable and rarely visited place of which Morris writes: “At first I thought the country infinitely dispiriting, because nobody seemed to have much hope of changing things.”

Last week there was a meeting at the Institute of Polish Culture to discuss the future of cultural animation. There was concern from the older generation that the heroes of yesteryear, the heroes of our youth, our influences and inspirations, are no longer an influence on – or even of any interest to – the new generation. I ask, does this really matter? The counter-culture moves into the mainstream. The mainstream adapts and changes.

Perhaps it is the role of the older generation to preserve rather than pontificate – to act as librarians and archivists. (I know, it doesn’t sound so very exciting to someone whose youth was full of revolutionary vim and vigour!) I do not mean ‘to preserve’ as in to contain something in permanent stasis, or like an insect caught in amber 200 million years ago, but ‘to preserve’ as in terms of both maintenance and advocacy. To create the conditions for curiosity and exploration. To open a door and invite someone in, rather than simply stand behind a closed door.

For me, I find it interesting that my daughter (who is now 18) is plundering my punk rock record collection and discovering this for herself. As she explores this period of social upheaval in the UK (1976-1980 I would say) she asks me questions and she wonders why so many of her own friends are unquestioning and uncritical of the status quo in this late-Blair period. Though they have the opportunity and freedom to travel far more extensively than their parents did, taking a casual cheap flight to weekends in Prague or Barcelona – or even Montreal – their curiosity does not appear to extend beyond the bar and club. (The words quoted above that Morris used to describe Poland may now be applicable to the UK.) I can see a little anger in her eyes and attitude, a little revolution stirring – it is not something that is taught or prescribed but a natural irrepressible energy about to burst forth.

It is wonderful to inadvertently find someone such as the author of ‘Conversations when cutting down a forest’ (Stanisław Tym) or the gothic tales of Stefan Grabinski. This is not to say that I believe we should be complacent and make no effort – our stories need to be told, our voices need to be heard – but we need to find a role as a guide, as a mentor, as a sharer,  as a guardian of culture rather than as some kind of cultural policeman.