The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Safe european homePosted on 23rd November, 2009.


The wind groans, whipping around the apartment blocks. The dulling concrete surfaces are invigorated with a coat of fresh paint, bright pastel colours, the name of each block marked out in large letters, with an occasional decorative flourish – such as a painting of a white stork in flight. At the foot of the blocks and on the walls of the walkways is a reoccurrence of graffiti, a careful calligraphy rather than a random poorly realised scrawl, both fastidious and rhythmic in its application, which almost matches with the overall scheme of things.

That’s the block where the problem families are placed, she says, and that one there is where there are alcoholics placed sometimes. Do they house people in this way in England?

Yesterday, a fire brigade came to this block, somebody on the first floor left something in the kitchen on the open fire, I suppose. The brigade came with a lot of noise and from the sleeping room window we saw that they actually awoke the inhabitant who could make the block burning. It was a 130-140 kg around 60 years old man, in slippers, scratching his head and yawning while the neighbours were making a mess around…

This is the local drama of a small town on the eastern borders. Ancient forests once covered this area and stretched far to the east, home to hidden guerrilla armies in the war years and subsequently. After dark, dogs are yapping at anything that moves in the surrounding woods and meadows and lakeside undergrowth, perhaps elk, roe-deer, red foxes, beavers.  There are some wolves in these parts still, and wild boar. But living in a small town is not to be part of an idyllic arcadian state and certainly not in the winter days of little light. The sun broke through the clouds for a few hours, after days of mist and fog. Now the rain falls heavily on the tin roofs. The smell of burning wood and coal hangs on each street corner. The compensations of summer and swimming in lakes are soon forgotten.

The waitress asks, Do you want a shot or the whole bottle? We decide shots will be ok. We are drinking Sobieski cranberry vodka.  Later she says we should have had the whole bottle after all, it would have been cheaper.

Did you know this is one of the worst parts of Europe for allergies in children? You wonder if it is a legacy of Chernobyl? But the doctors don’t pay close attention. They nod for 5 minutes and write a prescription for Zyrtec. Here you can go to one medical centre only, or go to the hospital, so there isn’t much choice. If you talk about homeopathy, they don’t know about it. If you talk about food intolerances, they say, But everyone around here eats white bread, what’s the problem? And I tell them, look here, everyone is sick. They worry about flu, they say there’s an epidemic spreading from Lithuania, rumours and more rumours. They say, You must be careful, avoid contact. Then I go to the kindergarten and I see every child is coughing and sniffling. You know, I would rather treat my children myself than have them asleep all the time because of Zyrtec.

Our conversation shifts from health issues to making an inventory of Birmingham bands she has heard of. From Editors, we slip back further and further in time. Duran Duran, the Beat, UB40, Steel Pulse, then Black Sabbath leads us down a side-track to Aleister Crowley, but the mood lightens with her impromptu rendition of one verse from ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners.

The wind howls, the small town sleeps and keeps its own dark secrets. On these eastern borderlands all that remains is, as one commentator wrote, ‘a drama of failed encounters’.