The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

ReconstructionPosted on 29th July, 2009.

The city swelters. Mosquitoes infest the parks near to the river and those with any expanse of water. Rain approaches. Tremendous rainstorms by day and night do not dissipate the heat. The Metro is closed due to flooding. A single line runs from Młociny in the north to Kabaty in the south. Some people say that while Warsaw has only one Metro line it cannot be considered to be a modern city. A second line is planned, bisecting the original line at Świętokrzyska station. There will be a new station under the surrounds of the Palace of Culture, along with the construction of a new Museum of Modern Art designed by Christian Kerez, in this open space whose primary purpose in communist times was to provide a stage for state organised parades and mass rallies.

The Metro itself was originally planned in the 1920’s, but initial construction work only began in 1938. The outbreak of war put an end to that, and after the war, with the city now under Soviet control, plans were made to create an underground transport system which could easily transport troops under the Vistula river from the east of the city to the west. Hundreds of metres of tunnels were built with this strategic purpose in mind, but eventually abandoned after the death of Stalin. Work on the north-south line was renewed in 1984, and the current Metro opened in 1995. The second line is proposed to open by 2014 – though everyone expects delays. The Museum of Modern Art, proposed to be open in 2010, also faces delays. No construction work has been undertaken to date on the site.


Here in the shadow of the Palace of Culture, was a huge indoor market (KDT), which the city decreed must close in order for these new developments to proceed. The traders were supposed to leave by the end of December, but they decided to continue trading, while attempting to take court action to dispute the directive. Various proposals for relocation made by the City Council were rejected, resulting in the forcible eviction of traders in July by riot police and security guards, using tear gas and water cannons. Now, politicians argue about the cost of this action…


As posted on one web forum: Jul 21, 09, 23:49 Battle at Warsaw 2009
Tear gas, water cannon, hundreds of policemen and security guards against a few hundred desperate traders who don`t want to give up their work place, a giant steel hall in the city center. They used stones, fire extinguishers, barricades and live shields (their children) to defend themselves. Simply speaking, Warsavians have guts!

PowiększeniePosted on 28th July, 2009.

In a club named (possibly) after the 1966 Antonioni film, Blow Up, a track by Joy Division – ‘These Days’ – blares out of the speakers above my head. The song was recorded in January 1980 at Pennine Studios, Oldham, before most of these people existed. It was released as a b-side to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. These days, you can get it as a ringtone.

We should switch to vodka, she says, but I don’t know if my body would like it. Or my head. I won’t drink on my own, but if I did I’d get hammered pretty quickly. And people would laugh!

She explains how she has survived several months in Granada, avoiding the pitfalls of flamenco dancers and studying the local language with some finesse. Back in Warsaw, with a new job starting Monday, she found herself in a bar whose lower floors collected denizens of the freshly arrived in the city and trying very hard to be cool and hip variety. After a few drinks, they didn’t look so bad, or so hip. Sitting at the bar with her friend, she was approached by a man who introduced himself as a film director who has been busy in New York shooting a film. Have you heard of Faye Dunaway, by any chance? He offers to buy them drinks. They are not particularly impressed and later, after several drinks, she forgets his name, leaves the bar and gets caught up in a stag party on the loose. She evades their clutches    and congratulates herself with a few more vodkas. She was home, in Poland after all.


She remembers Tarifa, on the beach at night, here at the southern most point in Europe, with the wind coming from Africa, with bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka – what else! – and those English people were pulling faces as they knocked back shot after shot. They said, How can you drink it like that? She wondered why they seemed so surprised. This is what Polish girls do, she said.

But upon this particular night, on safe and familiar territory, this close acquaintance indeed proves to be her downfall. On an ordinary street, she misses a step, severely sprains an ankle, and ends up in the hospital. And, as a consequence, arrives at her first day at work on crutches. Uwaga! The perils of vodka drinking.

Conversation In a Warsaw barPosted on 5th July, 2009.

She said she was a Chechen Princess. I had no reason to believe otherwise. She had a particular style, striking in its own way, shiny and glittery surfaces, leopard skin patterns, long leather boots with the highest of high heels. Her eyes were as black as night. We drank some Wiśniówka cherry vodka. The bar was on Brzeska in Praga, on the right bank of the city. From the outside, it looked like a shed next to a large open patch of tarmac between higher old tenement houses. Inside, it was far more attractive. The barman was interspersing old Warsaw songs by Adam Aston with the Andrews Sisters. Everyone was smoking. She said she was married to a Dutch guy and made a poor living of sorts in Warsaw. She organised classes with young Chechen children, teaching them to remember the traditional dances of their homeland. Earlier that day she – and the kids – had performed on a pavement in front of a tiny stage put up by Łazienki Gardens. The stage was too small, she said, much too small for our choreography. It was sufficient for six musicians from the Tatra mountains who were dressed in their splendid traditional Góralski costume; they didn’t move about so much – their fine musicianship was not matched by their stagecraft. It was good enough for the man dressed as a robot in a silver foil outfit, silver sprayed skull cap and glasses that lit up (this was the highlight of his act). He did various slow robot dance moves to a mix of early Kraftwerk. This small stage provided the cultural and live element of No Smoking Day in the capital. Several stalls were spread along the pavement with health information or barbecued sausages. It was an odd location, given the proximity of the park with all that space and crowds of people enjoying the sunshine, just the other side of the fence. The narrow pavement here was a point of transit between two points; coaches dropped off tourists by Belveder (the old Presidential building) and the Piłsudski statue, who then rushed to see the Chopin monument in the park, barely pausing for a moment to take a snap or video of the guys in their Góralski costume. There were people walking around handing out how-to-stop smoking leaflets, who carried giant cigarettes in the shape of a Kalashnikov. For the performances, which were intermittent, there was an appreciative audience of five people and a dog. In this context, the Chechen children gave a spirited performance. The Chechen Princess also gave a display, which was marred by technical hitches (the CD of music kept sticking) and by her sudden and lengthy disappearance for an unscheduled costume change. The deep purple was replaced by black and she danced draped in her national flag. She said she was going to make a political statement but changed her mind.

Later, in this bar on Brzeska, she was supposed to give a short performance, but there was no audience here either and the bar owner kept filling our vodka glasses in commiseration. Another time perhaps? Na zdrowie! Instead, she talked about being a refugee from the Caucasus, where there is still conflict. Several years ago, in Suprasł, on the eastern borders of Poland, I came across an old hotel commandeered by the government for refugees. One group was there in spring, another in autumn – people were moved on, no-one knew where to. 90% refugees in Poland are Chechen. EU regulations state that a country where a refugee first arrives is where he or she must apply for residence. Poland, on the edge of the union, has been a conduit for a flood of refugees from the wars in the Caucasus, but only about 5% of those who apply get refugee status. They are in a kind of limbo, dispersed in small encampments. She has been in Poland nearly 10 years. It seems unlikely she will return home. She dances on the pavement and most people pass by oblivious to the reality of life for some on the fringes of Europe. We drink vodka, as there is nothing more to say.

Tradition getting strongerPosted on 4th July, 2009.

First in Poland museum of moonshining has just been opened in Białystok Museum of the Countryside. Among mills and traditional village houses one may find – hidden in woods – all equipment necessary for production of pure and usually high quality homemade vodka.

The only thing that troubles organisers is Polish law that doesn’t allow to make exhibition more vivid – and to treat visitors to a sip or two.

More in the article Jak po bimber, to do… muzeum in “Gazeta Białystok”, a local supplement to “Gazeta Wyborcza”. Text in Polish, but short video available to all.