The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Conversation in a Warsaw bar: 5Posted on 30th November, 2008.

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At last, the first snowfall of winter. There was a small flurry the day before, but by the time we finished our Indian meal (at a place called Mandala) it was melting in the darkness.

Plan A was to go to an art opening in Praga. Plan B was to find a warm and cosy bar. I have to be up early in the morning to go to Sejny, but this Saturday night seems to stretch out leisurely before us as we finally end up in a bar near Pl. Zbawiciela. Later, I find out this is described on one web site as follows: ‘Drunkenness is rife and encouraged, and it’s only fair to note this place has become a bit of a magnet for expat lads looking to tap up impressionable Polish girls.’

Tonight, I can only hear Polish speakers and my city-by-night guide is not so impressionable. She orders a particular vodka mix – żubrówka and wiśniówka, with pepper added.  She explains the name of this drink is ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’ – which is intended as an insult against a particular politician.  I fail to pronounce effectively in Polish.

She explains: So the story of the President and drink… in 2002 during the campaign for the President of Warsaw, Kaczynski got involved in the short argument with some old git. The press was around because it was right after some public meeting. This guy accused Kaczyński that ‘You, politicians, change parties as rats, chasing from one to another, if you have some business in any’, and the response from Kaczyński was ‘spieprzaj dziadu’. This can be translated as: ‘Sod off, you old wanker’ or ‘Sod off, you old git’ or even ‘Bugger off, you old git.’ But none of these versions carries the meaning that can be connected to the drink. Why? Because the word ‘pieprzyć’ in Polish, from which derives an imperative form ‘spieprzaj’, means both ‘to add pepper’ and ‘to fuck’. You can ‘pieprzyć coś’ (add pepper to something) or ‘pieprzyć kogoś’ (‘fuck someone’, meaning to have sex or to aggressively offend). Then this story of swearing was picked up during the Presidential campaign in 2005 and somehow reversed, as it has become a key sentence for all that and for all those who were and are against Kaczyński, his way of conducting political affairs, his political allies and the so called Fourth RP (the projected ‘better’ Polish Republic in the vision of Kaczysnki, with new constitution etc., now we have Third RP).
 
This drink is very Polish, she finally says, Polish liquors with pepper added, I love the idea.
 
There is no equivalent to this drink in England, or no politician that merits such emotions. Normally my city-by-night guide might be sitting at home, listening to Satyricon (black metal Norwegian band). But we have several toasts with a glass of ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’, and watch the snow fall. We walk back to the central station and miss the night buses, and go into the station to wait for the dawn ones. There is a big crowd in front of a TV monitor, watching the sports news. They disperse when the next programme comes on, which is about buying a flat in Ochota, in a newly built gated community. There isn’t much about the quality of the flat itself – the big selling feature appears to be the amount of CCTV and security guards. Is Ochota this dangerous? I look around me at the sleepers and the all night drinkers. There is a guy having an argument with a soft drinks machine. He kicks it until it disgorges its contents.  I have often seen an old guy here on the concourse, who has a small portable chess set, who sits next to you and asks you to play. As the game progresses, he suggests politely you put some money down on the outcome. It’s a gentle hustle. He’s not here tonight, or this morning as it surely now is.

My city-by-night guide, who might or might not also be a poet, concludes the conversation: But tonight if we haven’t missed the buses we wouldn’t have a chance to feel the snowflakes melting on our cheeks. I love the sound of snow cracking under my feet and the way the spinning snowflakes shine in the city lights. If we weren’t putting vodka into our projects or projecting vodka on to our lives we would be just unproductively asleep and the first snow would just pass unrecognised.

But sometimes I need some sleep.

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Home-makingPosted on 29th November, 2008.

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It is particular kind of cold, seeping damp into my bones and fingers numb.
We are on a northern border near Lithuania, a mere lake away but I won’t be swimming today however tempting the clear calm inviting water looks. A house is being built on this gently rolling land, within walking distance of the old family home of the poet Czesław Miłosz, what was once the local Manor House. That particular wooden building is now ruinous, left empty during the decades of Soviet occupation, but it will be repaired and renewed over the next few years as part of an ongoing cultural project.

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This house, on the other side of the woods, is currently a plan and a large hole dug in the ground. We gather here to mark the laying of the cornerstone, facing north-east, towards Mother Russia. A coin belonging to the Grandmother of the woman of the house-to-be will be laid on the cornerstone, for luck as tradition has it, and doused for further luck with a copious helping of vodka. The vodka is the best in Poland, says the man of the house with a gentle laugh. It is Finlandia. The coin, which has an image of a long-dead Tsar, is ceremoniously put in place, the vodka is poured, the mortar slapped on top and the first stone laid by the builder. Then, each and every person present, one by one, all down a shot of vodka to celebrate this moment. Then we eat a bowl of bigos, to warm our hands and bellies on this particularly cold morning. And a chill rain comes down, but no one is miserable. The builders go back to work, turning stiff sods of mud.
A bulldozer splutters to life and trundles forward to dig up another hole,
which one day will be a small domestic lake.

It feels both a gentle pleasure and a privilege to be here and witness this moment. After, we walk up the rise and down through the woods to the Manor House, its wet boards in need of some tender loving care.

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boxes and labelsPosted on 15th November, 2008.

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Arriving in Warsaw, I receive a text from my friend: ‘Hi, I am in a pub/club at pl. zbawiciela… let me know when you land, if you want to meet there or at mine…’

I check the bus timetable. I’ve just missed the last bus but there is a night bus going to the centre of town in a short while. (God bless Warsaw night buses, you can almost get anywhere) Do you need help? asks a woman who was on the same plane. I explain that I’m wondering whether to go to Ochota or to pl. zbawiciela. You don’t want to go to Ochota, she says, it’s a very rough part of town. There are some great bars at pl. zbawiciela. This is a good place, I can show you.

She tells me that she just got back from Portugal, where the weather was good but her skin did not tan. Now I need to go to the Solarium tomorrow, she says, otherwise my friends will not believe I have been away.

I decide to get off the night bus at Banacha, thinking I might walk that way, but there’s a bus to Szczęśliwice. The end of the line, by the park. So I go to Ochota anyway and my friend is now at home, with a pot of soup ready.  Don’t ask questions, just eat it. It might seem peculiar because I made it and then decided there wasn’t enough if all the musicians came round who had promised to come round, so I added another base to it. But only Adam the guitarist came, and he doesn’t like it so there is a lot of soup. It has a sweet and sour taste, but I get used to it and eat it all. Sometime after 2 am we take a taxi to Praga to a musicians after hours party in a bar in a courtyard.

The musicians are in good spirits, playing in twos and threes. Others simply crowd the bar and consume the spirits. There are two guys at the bar who start talking to or at us as we wait to get served. Ignore them, they’re jerks, she says, they make me sick. They are making assumptions about us. They’re saying, ‘Is she with him? Bloody foreigners coming here and taking our women, he must be a fucking artist.’ One of them asks me what I do, while the other starts talking French and Russian to me. I tell them I’m an artist. What else can I say? I don’t encounter this attitude very often, this kind of soft antagonism mixed with national pride. It’s hard to be an independent woman in Poland, she says later, you always have to be in the possession of some man. This attitude really annoys her (for the next few days). I suggest we could get t-shirts saying ‘We’re not a couple’ or ‘Actually, we’re gay’ or ‘I should be so lucky…’ She is not amused.

We drink a Wisniowa cherry vodka poured over a large glass of ice. This Praga is sometimes usually described as the wild part of town (in the quality press, as in ‘take a walk on the wild side’…) The guitarist is here tonight in preference to a gig on the TV show ‘You’ve Got Talent.’ He could have provided the accompaniment to a post office worker, Pani Marianny, who will be singing a song about a little dove. She has wanted to be an actress for the last 30 years, and this is her big chance. The guitarist has chosen, perhaps wisely, to be here instead of in a TV studio, where he would have been obliged to wear a sombrero. He calls us on Saturday to remind us to watch the programme, and celebrate his missed opportunity. This time Pani Marianny does not win the sympathy of the audience or jury with her unusual vocalisations. She is beaten by a rather good acapella group covering a Red Hot Chili Pepper song and a blonde blind girl whose guide dog is very ill who performs a song about her deceased father. She looks like a saint and she’s bound to win the final.

I AmsterdamPosted on 13th November, 2008.

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If you ever are in Amsterdam with less than an hour to spend and find yourself at the central train station and it’s raining, and you are in the company of a Polish national, here’s something you can do. (You don’t have to have a Polish national with you, but in truth she encouraged me. I was in a lazy mood and would have just hung around the station waiting for the train to the airport, looking glum.)     In the five days previous, we did not visit the Van Gogh collection or the Heineken Museum or the “collection of coffins and funeral heirlooms” in the Dutch Funerary Museum to be found in the centre of Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats cemetery (though I was keen). We did not seek out a Dutch equivalant  of Les Egouts de Paris (quite a treat really) but we had seen a sign on the tram for a Vodka Museum, which is near the Sex Museum on Damrak, but we were never quite near enough, except for today, with nearly an hour to kill. One sign at the station tells us it’s just 500 metres away. I’m unusually reticent and need jollying along to go out again into the torrential bitter cold rain. But I am carried on a wave of Alicja’s enthusiasm across the tram tracks and traffic lights and construction sites to find the museum.

It is housed above a tourist shop, and indeed it is really an extension of this shop really, though you have to pay several euros for entrance. A sign outside says, Russian Spoken.  We ask for a ticket and the woman looks a bit perturbed. You want a ticket? Yes please. Ah, the guide isn’t here. Can you come back later? Sorry, no we can’t, our time is limited.  She calls someone on her mobile, speaking in Russian. She’s asking some guy to get down here now, explains Alicja, who has command of several languages.  Can you wait just five minutes, just five minutes? says the woman. A guy in a smart suit turns up to take our money but he finds the cash register doesn’t work. He climbs under the desk for a while, unplugging and plugging wires. We have a problem, he says with a shrug. The ticket machine doesn’t work. He handwrites a ticket for us and takes us upstairs for a whistlestop tour. We’re joined shortly by two other curious tourists from the United States. The museum seems like a personal collection of vodka memorabilia, beautifully housed in proper museum cases, along with a few hundred (empty) bottles.

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Here the history of vodka is almost exclusively Russian, patriotically so. I’m a little disappointed,  I say, No Polish vodka in your Top Ten. Yes I know, he says, but we have some Swedish. He then agrees that Polish vodka is also good, particularly the one with bison grass.  I ask him if he has a personal favourite and he tells us a story about his father’s home made vodka, made with pears, in his childhood in Armenia.  We go through to the final part of the museum which has a neon lit mock bar, with interactive screens set in the bar top – here you can send a video message via email. Then our guide invites us to scroll through a series of vodka cocktail options. As part of the visit, you get a free cocktail! he explains excitedly. Please choose now! We both settle for the one called Russian Love. The Americans deliberate for a long time over which cocktail they want. They avoid Russian Love. We expect our guide will actually make the cocktail, but instead he reaches under the bar and pulls out a small miniature bottle of liquid. We don’t have a licence, he says, but please take this as a small memento of your visit. With a flourish, he then opens a large mirrored wall by the bar to reveal a secret room. He invites us to relax for a moment in the oval perspex chairs hanging from the ceiling – it’s like a scene from a 1960’s spy movie spoofed in the Austin Powers films. Is that really a glitterball?

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Was it worth it? I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says: we can learn from every experience.  Some experiences should definitely be avoided. Yes, for kitsch entertainment value, it was worth it, but I need to find a real vodka museum. Any suggestions?