The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

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.

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