The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

She said, I guess it’s not too horrible…Posted on 24th March, 2009.

snow

It’s still snowing in Warsaw and Lublin. It seems the spring has forgotten to arrive. Take a few steps outside into the cold, the alcohol still warming your bloodstream and breathe in the night. The city is quiet, though it is not that late. There are a few forlorn tracks in the snow. No-one is out and about, intent on violence or lunacy. I have learned that the last trams, while having a destination, may not be the destination I have in mind. They can deviate, swing away to the left when in the day they surely veer to the right. They can proceed north to Park Kaskada when I expect them to proceed east across Most Gdanski to Nowa Praga. Regardless, the tram rattles along with its drunkards and would be lovers locked in a late-night embrace, taking them somewhere. They look as confused as I am. Brows furrowed, we depart unsteadily at the next available stop and stand on the platform in the whirling snow, trying to make out a familiar landmark. Here are two skinny latte American women, dressed in business suits and not prepared for this weather, wavering on the platform and discussing whether to go to a club or find a taxi home to Żoliborz. Tonight, I distrust the direction of trams and trust to an inner compass.

Leaving the outskirts of Wola behind, a complex of railway junctions below me and in the shadow of a vast flyover, I pass by an old-fashioned vodka bar at the foot of a block of flats, still open for business, smoky and dark, a floodlight church opposite. Further on, old crumbling walls coloured by a yellow light, a splash of illegible graffiti here and there and bizarrely, a crude picture of a washing machine spray-painted onto the plaster.

I trudge on through the snow. The trees are black, patches of open derelict ground are fenced in with advertising hoardings promising new apartments. There are fragments of the older city here and there, a machine shop, a faded sign for a car repair yard, below it a brama, a stygian tunnel leading to a darker back yard. Huge illuminated billboards hang like guiding stars above me. The only human presence now, a lonely security guard one floor up, sealed in a glass box, in silhouette against a bank of computer monitors, surveying empty corridors, closed doorways and underground car parks. Or perhaps asleep – as the figure is unmoving, captured in a frozen chairbound pose. And so I head to the centre of the city. Tonight I drink to the mirror.

Something’s changingPosted on 2nd March, 2009.

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Walk from Park Szczęsliwice along Opaczewska to the crossroads of Banacha and Grójecka and you will experience two sides of the city, passing from the modern world of free enterprise to the older remnants of PRL and earlier. From one end of the street, you can see the park with the ski slope and the artificial lakes, and the gated housing complexes, some still under construction, and behind them the nearby dome of Blue City shopping mall. Beyond the park lies the ruin of a 19th century Russian fort, one of several that circle the city. Opaczewska itself is a wide avenue, the traffic separated by a central reservation of grass verges, flowerbeds, trees and a pathway for walkers. Within minutes, the newer fresher Ochota gives way to the older Ochota, the development of tall blocks and modern ‘designer’ apartments along the edge of the park in sharp contrast to the post-war communist blocks. Behind these older ‘brutalist’ blocks, in the courtyards, you may find a shrine to Maria, Mother of God, a few swings for children, a bench or two. And at the bottom of these predominantly grey and worn concrete blocks (some have recently been repainted in bright colours) are the traditional shops – a bakery, a shoe-repairer, a vegetable shop, a good butcher, a seamstress.

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The inhabitants of one of these tower blocks are the subject of a new novel, by Sylwia Chutnik, Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet (Pocket Female Atlas) which tells of some of their lives. It is, I am told, neurotical fun, brave and well written. On one corner, a circular concrete and metal platform protrudes from the earth, all that remains of a post-war bomb shelter. In amongst these blocks, some of the older pre-war housing survives, though not much – as this was the scene of vicious fighting and devastation in 1939 and 1944.

On another corner, we pass a church with a façade of pebbledash and glass, with a rectangular tower at one end. Inset, running up the length of the tower is a thin cross of glass, which glows at night from the interior illumination. One wall of the church is an entire wall of dark glass, slabs of brick thick glass, hundreds of them making up a huge panoramic mosaic. So here is a beautiful church I never go to, she says, Well maybe not so beautiful. I admire this for a while, as my Grandfather and his Father before him made their living in Ireland making such vitreous tableaux and lovingly restoring dilapidated churches. A little further and we arrive at the junction with Grójecka, where there is an Empik store and a Vietnamese café-restaurant. We wait for the trams and cars to halt, and cross to the market on the opposite side.

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Concrete memorials stand on either side of the road. One reads:
At this site soldiers of Polish Army and inhabitants of Warsaw fighting on the barricade stopped attacking Hitler units and in uneven battle heroically were defending access to Warsaw on days 8 –27 Sept 1939.

Barricades built here at the crossing of Opaczewska and Grójecka were vigorously defended by 4th company of the 40th ‘Children of Lwów’ Regiment. Over the first two days of the attack, the German army suffered heavy casualties, the 4th Panzer Division alone losing ‘approximately 80 tanks out of approximately 220 that took part in the assault.’ There are plaques with this poem by Jan Janiczek (1898-1944):

I am an angry street! Do not approach me,
Invader, you who bring a plane death…
My town I defend firmly and steadfastly
For a battle always eager and ready…

I am an angry street! I erect barricades
And spit with armadas, blaze with a rifle.
Your hail of bombs will not horrify me
And your reptile tanks I still seize impudently.

I am an angry street! But I love my children,
Of which more die every day on my bosom,
Whilst the gromnicę* of tenement houses shine brightly.

I am an angry street! But although the hunger importunes,
I will not let you into the city, you bloodthirsty violator!

Myself, Mrs Opaczewska, defends Warsaw today!

(* Gromnicę is a candle kept at the bedside of the dying. It is also lit at the time of baptism and first communion.)

Twilight has descended and the temperature dropped. For a moment you could taste spring in the air, despite the piles of dirty snow lying piled up on the roadsides. She notices it and says, I like this moment between winter and spring. People are tired of the winter and longing for spring. There is a change in the air. Her voice is so low, almost as if she is speaking to herself. We pass into Hala Banacha, penetrating a maze of market stalls. On the periphery, the clothes market is all but closed up for the day, though the shoe stalls are still piled high. The snow has turned to a light rain. Here there are a multitude of small metal sheds, alleyways covered with tarpaulins and layers of perspex sheeting. Plastic containers of all sizes lie on the ground, collecting drips from leaking roofs. The pavement is broken and uneven. We go deeper into the market, past the one-zloti shop and out onto the other side, where vans are parked, unloaded and loaded, and detritus of the days trading lies alongside a larger newer market hall. A few more paces and you are surrounded by a jumble of food stalls, still busy. The sky has completely darkened and naked light bulbs hang from the awnings, giving off a yellow light. Here it is likely you will find all you need; red peppers, purple beetroots, cauliflowers, potatoes, cheeses (including oscypek, a smoked cheese from the Tatra mountains, made with salted sheep’s milk, which makes an excellent breakfast when sliced and fried and served with a fresh baguette, garlic dip and zurawina, a cranberry preserve). You carry the bags, she says, Look how Polish men always carry the bags for the women. No matter if they beat them or sit and watch football while waiting for the meal to be put on the table, they always carry the bags… Back towards the road, through lines of small cabins packed with tinned goods, cakes, smoked fish and fresh fish (some still swimming around in a small glass tank), we pause to buy cat food. As we come out again on to the street, looming above these cabins is a huge illuminated billboard advertising an impossibly juicy Mcdonalds burger.

I know you like it, she says finally, but I don’t really see the fascination with Warsaw. It’s becoming Western without the standards of quality. And magical places like this are disappearing. It’s a cruel city. Everyone is too busy…

Not only vodkaPosted on 1st March, 2009.

Remember Sideways by Alexander Payne?
There is always appropriate time for opening the bottle – like, let’s say, right now