The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Good morning, MariensztatPosted on 30th August, 2009.

The noise was driving her slowly mad. The apartment stands within a stone’s throw of the bridge and bears silent witness to the cacophony by day and night. The Trasa W-Z highway, running out from the tunnel and over the river, is being entirely resurfaced. New tram tracks are being laid down with much drilling, hammering, scraping, humming. The workers, tattooed and glistening, nut brown from labouring throughout the heat-soaked summer, begin their work at 7am, sometimes earlier, working shifts long into the night. It seems the whole public transport infrastructure of the city is being rebuilt, as the country looks forward to hosting the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships. The road and the bridge is due to reopen on September 1st.

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She and her neighbours say to themselves, Why do they work so late into the night? Can you remember how it was better with the normal traffic? At least the noise was constant, without this intermittent screaming of vehicles reversing, Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! And these squealing and grinding noises.  They keep their windows closed, in a vain effort to keep out the sound and the dust.

Then there are the newly arrived students in the top apartment, who insist on playing death metal after dark, in a bizarre accompaniment to the bridge workers. Somewhere, someone is playing sounds from the mid-90’s, songs by Garbage (‘Stupid Girl’) and Evanescence (‘Bring Me To Life’), repeatedly. The new tram cables are being strung up between poles, the air clammy with the crackle and hiss of the arc welders. No-one is playing the old song by Lidia Korsakówna and Andrzej Stockinger – ‘Małe mieszkanko na Mariensztacie’ -where they sing of how they don’t want anything more than a small flat here in Mariensztat, and how both of them will look happily out of their window onto the Trasa W-Z.

Buses still emerge from this tunnel and turn off to the right, rumbling down the cobbled street toward the river bank, before making a loop under the reconstituted highway and back up the other side, to wait at temporary lights, engines rumbling. Only one lane is open across the bridge throughout the construction. When the sounds of work finally fade away – or on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a public holiday when all work in the city must halt – you might hear the sound of the clock tower of the Royal Castle chime the quarter hour, an old and comforting sound. For a long time, this clock lay dormant, unrepaired, like the clock at the University, where irritable Professors, for so long accustomed to a non-working mechanism, winced when the twelve chimes of midday boomed out to interrupt their glorious polemic.

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In the morning, after disturbed sleep, the small details of verdant Mariensztat provide some comfort. As she leaves her apartment, she watches how the light reflects off the open windows in the hallway, casting flickering sensuous shadows down the stairwell. At the doorway to the building, there is a lingering smell of fried food from the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant next door. The best duck in Warsaw can be found here they say, and this passing thought makes her stomach rumble a little, as she has missed breakfast. She passes the solid and resilient statue on the corner. She calls it the Fish Wife, a figure of a women with a hen by Barbara Zbrożyna, but its official name is the Przekupka (the Hawker). She walks up the terraced steps past the willow trees, through a courtyard onto Bednarska Street.  She thinks of how this place has its stories, of hidden walled rooms, of collected art treasures lost, of bordellos and bare-knuckle boxing matches, of suspected drug dealers arrested, of mysterious creaking floors in the night, of the woman who helped Władysław Szpilman and who always wore lace gloves, of the cheap bar patronised by the university students, of the green window from which sounds of the 1970’s emerge, usually the Bee Gees of the Saturday Night Fever period.

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Mariensztat was founded on a love story. In the 18th century, when Eustachy Potocki married Maria Kątska, this area by the Vistula was part of her dowry. He made a village here, under the walls of the city and named this after her – Maria’s town. Potocki today is more associated with the production of vodka than with aristocrats.

So Mariensztat lay outside the old city walls, between the river and the higher ground on which stands St Anne’s church and one of the oldest streets in the city, Krakowskie Przedmieście. It was the first part of the city to be reconstructed after the Second World War, rebuilt in 1948 to a new street design as a model socialist housing project. The reconstruction was a key element of the 1954 film ‘Adventure in Mariensztat’, the first Polish feature to be shot in color.

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The film opens with scenes amidst the ruins, old walls tumbling into clouds of dust and a new city emerging, being rebuilt. Building materials by road, rail and water being transported to the ruined capital. Young people folk costume crowd onto a convoy of trucks, accompanied by accordionists. They are singing about how young hands will rebuild the city, and build young ideas – ‘Tomorrow we will be able to defend what we create today! It’s the youth coming, youth, youth, and they sing, for it’s the youth who creates the world!’

This music and dance troupe are en route to appear at a festival in the newly built square of Mariensztat. In the first part of the film they are taken on a tour of the magnificently rebuilt city. The main character Hanka, also played by the afore-mentioned Lidia Korsakówna, leaves the tour to wander by herself. She is deeply interested in the new modern monumental architecture of the new city, and not so much the rebuilding of the old town. She meets a bricklayer, Janek, and they spend a joyful evening in Mariensztat. She goes back to her village, but then decides to move to Warsaw, where one day she accidentally meets Janek again. He is a worker honored and rewarded for exceptional diligence in increasing production – ‘przodownik pracy’. Janek agrees that she can join his ‘masonry trio’ (trójka murarska). But master Ciepielewski’s aversion to working women causes conflicts between Hanka and Janek, so Hanka quits and joins a women brigade. The men and women brigades start to compete in work efficiency, increasing their productivity, and eventually Hanka and Janek make up and live happily ever after. The film shows the countryside (from whence the hard working workers come) as idealised in an anachronistic way. It is a place of the past, frozen in time like a picture by Józef Chełmoński, stuck in the 19th century and not the 20th, impossible to reform. And so, our heroine must leave behind the fields of potatoes and go to the city to join the project to physically build the pure socialist state. Here the young people are ripe for revolution, because they have the energy and, of course, because they have no memory. And the workers are building their own homes, so they will live contently in the new Mariensztat, or Muranów or Żoliborz.

You see, she tells me, to work one hundred per cent is not good enough, we must work three hundred per cent. This is the battle cry of the workers who reconstruct Mariensztat. I must have seen this film a hundred times. And now my beautiful building is falling apart.

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Today, as she walks up to the centre to her place of work near the Ministry of Culture, she passes by a film crew on Bednarska, taking advantage of the picturesque steep cobblestoned street, with its slightly ramshackle buildings, as a backdrop for some TV soap. This is not a street for high heels, she thinks. At the top of the street, there is a busy new café bar, Skwer, alongside the freshly remodeled Herberta Hoovera Square. She points out how someone has already carefully graffitied the brand new street sign so it now reads: Herberta Hookera Square.

39 Grzybowska StreetPosted on 19th August, 2009.

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These blocks were built, so close to the city centre, for some of the key workers of the state. For example, he said, I have for a neighbour a former air stewardess and a postal worker. So there are a lot of people here now in their 60’s and 70’s, not many young people.

He is one of the young ones, involved in theatre in the city. He shares his 11th floor flat with an opera choral singer, and he is fortunately a fan of opera –  Strauss’s Salome in particular, performances of which he has seen in several different cities – as well as being interested in cynology and felinology.

We look out of his window on the city skyline.

I think there was a park here, he says, before these huge buildings, and before that of course here lay the ruins of the ghetto. Now, there is a big expensive hotel there, and they plan to build three new big skyscrapers, which will completely obscure the view of the Palace of Culture – which, though partially concealed, tonight glows with an ethereal yellow light.

One of these new skyscrapers will be a 54 storey tall glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Złota 44, a luxury apartment tower in the shape of a tall thin sail, will stand 192 metres high – the third highest skyscraper in the city – with 251 luxury apartments. It now lies dormant, a skeletal fraction of its proposed size, all construction halted. The credit crunch seems to have crept upon this city, though across the river a dozen huge cranes or more encircle the site of the new national football stadium.

The view here, they like to call it Little Manhatten. I think this is exaggerating. It’s a little loud here sometimes, when the school kids are in the playground down there or there is a sports match. It was meant to be a quiet area, and a bit luxurious. They planned swimming pools on the roof. This didn’t happen. I guess the communist authorities ran out of money.

The flats are not so special. The kitchen has no window, the bathroom has no window, it is too hot here in the mornings. There isn’t even a balcony, just the impression of one, a door that opens to nowhere. There is a metal gate is across the doorway at waist height to stop you falling out. A large bottle of Smirnoff is on the table – 3 litres or more – and a bottle of home-made from Loomza, snacks and a tuna salad. This is maybe not such a good location for a wild vodka party.

I think there are too many monuments around here, he says. Yes, it’s important to have a memory of the ghetto, but even to buy a carton of milk I have to pass several monuments. There’s just no escaping it.

Mazovian nightsPosted on 16th August, 2009.

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Somewhere on the Mazovian plain, a small town like any other. A few thousand people live here. I would call it a village, but my host insists a village has less than nine houses. On the outskirts, fields of corn ripening, a graveyard on a small incline, strips of woodland and farmland, then a few dusty streets with a secondary school, some council offices and police station, a library, a hairdresser, with two or three shops in cabins – a bakery, a clothes shop and one selling general foodstuffs and alcohol. There is an imposing church and a small park with a new children’s playground and picnic area and a small swampy lake. There is a tributary of a river nearby, which provides some fishing. A railway line runs to one side of the town, along a raised bank, cutting through the fields and woods in a straight line as far as the eye can see. The tracks are a little overgrown, and the old station has crumbled to ruin. It’s raining and we seek refuge in the library and talk to a man who has been labouring in the west of Ireland for two years. He likes to read Stephen King books. In Ireland, he explains that they have some books in Polish language in the library, which he has read twice over, but no Salem’s Lot or Dark Tower in his own language. He complains about the food in Ireland. I’ve lost weight, he says, look, my clothes don’t fit me anymore! The contractors feed us Indian food. How can this satisfy my appetite? He is filling up on kiełbasa and sernik while he is here visiting.

Most people living here commute to work in the larger town nearby, which has a wide slow river – which could be quite an attraction, but it is unkempt and unloved. Rubbish litters the muddy water and clogs the banks and gathers under the parapet of the bridge. Some farmers supplement their income with agro-tourism, letting out rooms to holiday guests, and often providing an excellent breakfast and dinner. The meats are home cured and delicious, and with freshly picked vegetables from the garden. For the evening I buy a bottle of Sobieski, just ‘golden Dankowski rye from the fields of Mazowse’ and pure water, and ask to put it in the freezer. Mr Farmer notices this and invites me to a special meeting. This is translated to me as: We’ll meet later. At midnight. In the woods. I’ll have a treat ready for you, wait and see.

The moon is full and yellow, hanging hugely above the treeline. We follow the path through the woods as instructed. We come to a clearing, where there are some farm buildings, mostly disused, some of their roofs collapsing inwards. I’m not sure about this, says J, but what the hell. There is a light in one of the buildings, which is used as a pig abattoir. The interior, with lurid lime-green walls and a concrete floor, is bathed in a flickering fluorescent light. There are various metal tables and electric callipers, hooks and chains and pulleys along the walls. For a moment feel like we have intruded on the den from a serial killer in an American road movie.

Mr Farmer is waiting for us, makes us welcome, and eagerly explains the process of slaughtering an animal and the uses of the different implements. We pass through this first room into the white tiled cold store, then into what looks like a broom cupboard. And here is the laboratory for producing his home-made vodka. There is barely room for the three of us, to stand in between the array of pipes and condensers, pots and pans. He explains the process, and his favourite recipes. A small pipe leads to an old tin pan (green on the outside with delicate daisy patterns) into which the precious liquid drips, drop by drop by drip. I find myself thinking about the infinitely slow formation of ancient continents from the break up of Pangaea. It will take till dawn to make half a litre, but he has prepared a mug full for us to taste. He checks the alcohol content. Over 85% proof. He seems pleased. He offers us a shot. Don’t do it, says J. I throw it back in one. Mr Farmer, who is impressively built and would make a good wrestler, looks at me intently for a moment, then slaps me hard on the back and says, Bronek, You true Polish hero! J takes the second glass, and gently sips the rocket fuel.

The evening unfolds. More is drunk. We find our way home. That wasn’t so bad, says J, we can walk in a straight line. It’s dark in the woods and I can’t tell. The next morning, near to afternoon, we wake up stiffly and find bruises on our back and legs. At some point, says J, I think we fell down those steps. I agree, though I can’t remember.

Another anniversaryPosted on 10th August, 2009.

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On August 1st, the city was in a holiday mood, ready to commemorate the 65th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. 1944 is the year that defines this city. Not 1980, that belongs to the Gdansk shipyards and the strike that gave birth to the Solidarity trade union, or 1569, that belongs to Lublin and the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Veterans of the Polish Home Army are welcomed at official ceremonies. Concerts and events are happening all across the city – across the city a mass bike ride was organised by the Warsaw Uprising Museum and Warsaw Critical Mass, a group of bicycle enthusiasts.

A few thousand Home army veterans are still alive today, spread across the world, and many of them are here today. Most of these old, proud survivors would have been about 20 years old at the time of the Uprising. You can see them slowly wandering the streets, in navy blue jackets, neatly pressed trousers or skirts, usually wearing a beret and an Armia Krajowa armband, and a few unostentatious metal pin badges. They carry, as do many of the people on the street, little plastic Polish flags.

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At the University on Krakowskie Przedmieście, there is a concert. There are stalls with memorabilia on display, and some food vendors. At 5pm, sirens wail and the city falls silent for one minute at the exact time the Uprising began. At one of the food stalls, one man continues to make waffles, noisily enough that he is politely asked to stop and to pay attention. The minute silence in the hot sun passes. The band on the stage do not strike up. It appears there will be a delay. Electric guitars, keyboards, drums and bass continue the silence. Roadies with cables and leads shrug their shoulders and organisers run about the stage in heated discussion. Eventually, they decide to hand out free cds, featuring the bands who are supposed to play. These feature a series of patriotic songs that we used to sing in primary school, she says – now bizarrely married to reggae or Eighties style hard rock. Sample lyric: children of Warsaw we’re going to fight, for every stone we will spill blood.  Or every lad wants to be wounded because the nurses are such great girls….

Sorry, it’s a bad and very fast translation, she says, but I think you get
the idea.

Education in Polish under Nazi rule was banned and punishable by death. The University was turned into a fortification and despite heavy fighting, the Home Army never managed to break through and occupy it. By the end of the war, 63 of the university’s professors were dead, either in the Uprising or as a victim of Nazi policy of exterminating the Polish intelligentsia.

With this sober thought in mind, we retired across the road to the 24-hour bistro, Przekaski Zakaski – popular with university staff and students today – for a vodka and a beer. It is very crowded. Commemoration is a thirsty business.

There are some 1944 trams running, with young people dressed in period costume, also singing patriotic songs. Other young people are running about in various military apparel, with re-enactments happening in parts of the city. They like dressing up. I’m not sure if they think about it deeply. These days Germans are welcome. And indeed, there are many German tourists, young and old. For many, it was always the Russians who were to be feared the most.