The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Sauna NightsPosted on 28th July, 2008.

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As all the plumbing in her apartment block in Powiśle is being renewed,  Dr. Kurz reasons that it is a good thing to keep an eye on in case of some dreadful mishap (the majority of plumbers having relocated to England and France), so we convene here in for an impromptu vodka project meeting to eat a Chinese takeaway and watch a movie or two and listen to workmen bashing things, removing doors and showers. (Some flats seem to have had their entire contents stripped out and piled up in the corridors). After some PRL propaganda film shorts about the danger of drinking – which are legion and will be the subject of a future posting – she pulls out the main feature from her vast collection. Perfect for a warm summer day in Warsaw, it is a film set on New Year’s Eve in Russia, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath’. Forget watching Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, and enjoy this film which was a great blockbuster in Russia, released on December 31st 1975 and shown traditionally every New Year’s Eve thereafter. I try to remember what I was doing in this past time – I have a strong suspicion I was drinking Southern Comfort with a strawberry blonde girlfriend on the ramparts of some Iron Age fort in woods near Cheslyn Hay and debating the merits of the latest Roxy Music album with her friends… I am reminded of this because of the Polish actress cast in the role of Nadya, Barbara Brylska, was also a blonde. Iwona tells me she was a huge star in USSR and talks about this interesting historical phenomenon – the enormous popularity of Polish actors in Soviet Union. In 1976, Brylska was elected the most popular actress in Russia and she also won the State Prize of the USSR (1977). As a result she was not so popular back in Poland. She also appeared in an early episode of Zero Seven – as a mysterious blonde, what else?

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In the Russian film, a comedy of errors, a group of male friends traditionally meet at a sauna on New Years Eve. The consumption of much vodka and beer makes two of them unconscious. Sasha has to leave that night for Leningrad but in the drunken confusion instead they put Zhenya on the plane. Zhenya wakes up at Leningrad airport, still utterly drunk, and thinks he is still in Moscow. He takes a taxi to what he thinks is his home. The joke here is that the street name is the same, the apartment block of flats is exactly the same, even his key fits because the locks are the same) -  an example of typical Soviet-type ‘economy’ architecture. He climbs into bed to be soon woken up by the return of the women who actually lives here, Nadya, whose fiancé is about to come round for a romantic New Year’s Eve… Last year a sequel to it was released, following what happened to the characters….

heat, thunder, lightning… all we need is fireworksPosted on 22nd July, 2008.

We take a bus from Lublin to Nałęczów, when a bus finally arrives (three of four or maybe five don’t bother to stop at our particular bus stop). We are standing in the heat on the side of a dual carriageway named after General Sikorski for a very long time and I think I am hallucinating and imagining I am in Kabul again. I didn’t bring a hat and she is ready to faint and getting more and more angry at the non-stopping buses (which are clearly not full). Finally, we are on the bus and she is feeling unwell and asks me to stop talking. Last night, after the visit to Polmos, we wandered towards the Old Town, stopping to eat grilled vegetables, bruschetta and chicken salad in a quiet café on ul. Kościuszki that had a large plasma screen of Jamie Oliver running around London buying vegetables and hugging people (sound turned off). Then the drinking began in earnest under the parasols that ring the market square and the town hall that squats in the centre. The square is small and compact, lit by various coloured floodlights. There is a stage in one corner, with a trio of accordionists, who are followed by a ubiquitous reggae band. If you ever wondered what happened to Shaggy or Black Uhuru, you are likely to find them performing on a summer stage in the rynek of one Polish town or other. Old friends are meeting here. Excuse me, but I will speak English to you after two beers. I have not spoken English for two years, so it will be better then. And far better than my Polish.

A fine powerpoint presentation at the Polmos factory informed me that Poles actually prefer beer to vodka. 88% of the total alcohol consumed here is beer, with vodka at only 7.5% and wine with a 3.2% share. Whiskey, liqueurs and brandy account for the rest. So first, the traditional beers, then a tour of the old town down alleyways and through ancient courtyards up to the castle overlooking Plac Zamkowy.

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Then via a small shop to buy bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka to rest awhile on an unlit wooded terrace behind the cathedral. This was the tradition of my youth, we had the small bottles and we walked around the town taking small sips and talking about life. Wiśniówka is another local brand, made from cherries, which I am also quite fond of. She then says, I was not drinking Wiśniówka because of local patriotism. I drank it only after I left Lublin and it was long after this I had this raised consciousness about it being locally produced. I just liked the taste. Then we go to another late night drinking place (and another 24 hour alcohol shop) in a square near the Catholic University. I have to lie down in the bushes for a while. I can’t keep up with the others. There was some staggering home at dawn after that, but I can’t quite recall how.

We can rest in peaceful Nałęczów, a spa town and health resort due to its micro-climate, set amongst gently rolling hills and woods. Only 25 kilometres away from Lublin, the intense heat we felt earlier in the day has disappeared. We sit in the garden and eat pierogi and borsch, the perfect antidote. A rain storm passes quickly over, throwing down a heavy burst of rain, but the air remains pleasantly warm and fragrant. After dinner, she says with a sigh, Life is so short, so here is a taste of life. A pause, and then: Of course, forbidden fruit tastes the best… (I am finding that most Polish have a certain poetic flair with our English words. I must ask my colleague, the good Doctor, to extrapolate on the tradition of romanticism in Central Europe…)

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We take a long walk in the splendid park at the heart of Nałęczów, with the restored sanatorium, a lake and river, and a palm house where you can taste different types of mineral water, variations on the Nałęczówianka brand which is produced here. Next to the palm house is a Wedel, if a hot chocolate is more your cup of tea (as this cafe specialises in divinely flavoured hot chocolate…) It is a fine place to recover the wits one lost the night before. From within one of the neo-classical buildings a pianist with the light touch of Debussy accompanies a woman singing an old Ukrainian melody. Another storm approaches with dramatic lightning and we scurry to hide under an arch, escaping a soaking. Later, there is another terrific thunderstorm in the night, drowning the flowers on the balcony and drumming hard on the roof.

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One way to spend saturday in Poland…Posted on 20th July, 2008.

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Some days you regret waking up. It is the day of the Holy Hangover. We are late for breakfast with Babcia, two hours late at the very least. We stand on the balcony, to catch our breath in the hot morning air, drinking water. It will be a stifling 32 degrees today. We look down at the foot of the tree where her Aunt’s favourite cat is buried. It died in the middle of winter and the ground was too hard to dig, so she had to hide the body in the basement of the flats until the thaw, when she finally snuck out into the middle of the night to bury the body. Red flowers grow on the grave.

We arrive suitably apologetic. I am in a daze. Her Grandmother greeting: You stink of vodka! Why must you drink so much? Who is this strange man with you? Is he responsible? I am reminded of what Mike Summerbee, a player on the wing for Manchester City, once said when recalling his late nights drinking with George Best, of rival team Manchester United: We flitted from club to club. They tended to become more downmarket as the night wore on. George didn’t drink pints, he drank vodka and lemonade. It doesn’t smell and there’s no real taste, but it’s a dangerous drink.

I doubt he ever met a formidable Polish Grandmother and therefore had his vodka habit outed. George – one of the most exquisite football players ever, a handsome Irish rover – was often quoted as saying: I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted.

We sit down to eat porridge. I ask for a small portion. Small is large in Babcia land. I hate porridge since a regrettable incident with nuns in primary school. Eat it all, she says, or Babcia will be offended. Somehow I manage to politely eat most of it, with an awful lot of sugar and jam to kill the taste. This is followed by a selection of home cured meat and bread. Grandmother says, See, I told you porridge is not enough for a man!

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Eat it all, she says again, more sternly, please! I say nothing and thoroughly stuff my face. The meat is delicious and I remove none of the fat. There are also fresh gooseberries and a raspberry compote. I wonder when I will faint. I quietly eat, while she is interrogated about her life and loves. We are given a package of food to take with us. We walk out into the heat. I am proud of you, she says. The wrath of Grandmother was avoided. You know, after all last nights drinking I really want to puke but I will not. Instead of this I will show you my old school and where I used to live. This is on the other side of the dual carriageway and an impressively large concrete Catholic church. The heat is oppressive and I feel unusually faint.

To LublinPosted on 18th July, 2008.

The train from Warsawa Centralna first crosses the Vistula river through Praga district and then swings south past the village suburbs of Swider and Srodborow, slowly moving across the flat plain of Mazovia that surrounds the capital. ‘Not the most attractive of landscapes’ is how many guide books describe it. A few hours later, on the other side of the Kampinoska forest, after dark we arrive in Lublin. A city of over 350,000 inhabitants, centuries old, site of the Union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, which many contemporary observers cite as the medieval model of the contemporary European Economic Union, proposing as it did a ‘cooperation based on respecting the identity of those peoples and nations and preserving their ethic, cultural and religious features.’

The pungent smell in the air outside the station comes from the beet factory nearby. Further along the road is the Polmos vodka factory, which we will visit. We stay in a block of flats near the Avenue of the Legionnaires, not far from the Catholic University. These blocks are four or five stories tall, constructed during the post-war communist building programmes, laid out in rectangles with large inner courtyards, an oasis of flowers and trees, with a playground and sandpit. This is a typical family flat of the time, two rooms, with a kitchen and small bathroom. Personal social space was limited in Soviet times. It seems rather cosy now. The floors are parquet, the walls are plain, decorated with small reproductions of popular pastoral and romantic paintings. The kitchen overlooks the inner courtyard and outside the window is a chestnut tree, planted by her Grandfather and her Father, some fifty years ago. Imagine what it is like to be in one place for such a long time, and see something grow, she says. We are so transient and fluid now, moving on, dissatisfied, restless.

The living room (which also doubles as bedroom) looks out onto the road and newer higher curvaceous apartment blocks. There is a small balcony, usually bedecked with flower pots. Here Grandmother grew parsley in the summer and in winter she moved the plants into the warmth of the kitchen. Here Grandfather came home from work in the car factory. Here there used to be an orchard, now built upon, an orchard of yellow fruit the name of which she cannot say in English, too bitter to eat from the tree but which made good jam. Grandmother used to say, “Let’s go visit the drunkards…” because this is where you would find people drinking all day long. And here her Aunt would take her for secret ice creams, because Grandmother said ice cream gave her a sore throat. It is the funeral of this Aunt today, an actress of some note who visited the capitals of Europe. Tears are shed, memories are shared. She is not forgotten.

This Aunt is buried in the wooded cemetery on Ulica Lipowa. Here is also the resting place of both her Grandmother and Father. The names of her Grandfather and her Mother and their birth dates are already inscribed on the tomb, awaiting final reckoning. The cemetery offers a particular historical portrait. Some gravestones have Cyrillic lettering dating from Tsarist times and there is an Orthodox section with a Byzantine chapel undergoing restoration (as are many parts of the graveyard). There are wartime graves from the First World War, of unknown Polish and Austrian soldiers, and Polish and Russian soldiers from 1939-45. I notice that many of the Russian ‘liberators’ were not so young, many on their late thirties and early forties. To one side is a section of plain headstones, those of Party members who wanted an atheist burial. There is a modern shopping centre by the graveyard, the air conditioning units breaking our contemplative silence.

some bar, somewherePosted on 17th July, 2008.

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Dr. Kurz politely suggested to Mr Jackowski that despite a large intake of alcohol during any evening it was quite reasonable and entirely possible to arise at 5 am in a positive and productive frame of mind. Mr Jackowski remained unconvinced and ordered another two towers – large beers with a vodka chaser. This evening, in an unusually liberal frame of mind, Dr Kurz went on to explain her utter opposition to the recently toughened Law of Lustration. This Law – originally intended to keep people who collaborated with the communist-era secret services out of positions of power (MPs, ministers, directors who pursue national interests) had been widely extended to people born before August 1st, 1972, and requiring hundreds of thousands of citizens in positions of authority such as academics, journalists, teachers, and state company executives, to declare in writing whether they cooperated with the communist secret services or risk losing their jobs. The revised law was being described as ‘Stalinist’.

More info on the topic can be found on this blog - beatroot.blogspot