The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

It’s a long way from wigan casinoPosted on 24th January, 2010.

We walk from Metro Ratusz to the crowded Capitol Theatre, along with numerous fans of the TV show Taniec z Gwiazdami/Dancing With the Stars. Approaching minus 15 degrees tonight isn’t stopping us or them. The building used to be a cinema, but is now a private theatre and nightclub, and it’s quickly filling up.

Like elsewhere, there are numerous popular dance programmes on television, partnering professional dancers with celebrities. Each week in Poland, Taniec z Gwiazdami draws an audience of five to seven million viewers.  The live show tonight, telling the story of a certain Lady Fosse, is a 90 minute dance extravaganza with eight dancers – four men and four women, all who have appeared on  this style of TV programmes. A narrator, an older guy in a white 30’s style gangster suit and trilby, makes the occasional appearance and in a deep deep voice, he loosely connects the dance sequences. Ah, Lady Fosse, oh how she loved to dance. She loved to be the centre of attention. She loved to have fun…

Lady Fosse appears, or rather there are four Lady Fosses, each identical in a jet black Louise Brooks bob cut, though my friend disagrees with this association and thinks it is more like Cleopatra.  Jazz, charleston, rumba, rock & roll, jive, modern jazz in dizzying various combinations, with a little contemporary and abstract dance to slow things down. Quick costume changes, songs from the 20’s, 30’s, 60’s, Shirley Bassey belting out ‘Hey, Big Spender…’ It is the faster, high energy numbers and gymnastic leaps and kicks which get the crowd clapping and cheering. The first two rows of seats are taken by a corporate party, and the next few rows by excitable teenagers on a school trip. Some other stars from Taniec z Gwiazdami  are in the audience behind them, applauding their colleagues, urging them on. The kids notice them straightaway, and say to each other, Look, they’re not in the VIP seats. I think they’re trying to blend in with the normal people.

Capitalising on the popularity of the TV programme, the show is travelling to different cities, selling out each venue.  Later, we meet one of the performers, after one of the auditions for another one of this assembly line of dance programmes, Po Prostu Tańcz!/You Can Dance! She seems a little exhausted and is shrugging off a muscle strain. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to make it up the stairs after one of those dance routines, now or even 20 years ago. We tell her about a grumpy guy in a shiny black suit who was sitting next to us, at the back of the theatre, who only seemed to be there to please his girlfriend. How he breathed a sense of relief as the narrator came to the front of the stage after the final dance, sat down at a table and poured himself a glass of vodka. The show was brought to a close with a few philosophical thoughts about feminine wiles and the nature and pitfalls of desire. The narrator raised his glass to the audience as the lights went down. The grumpy guy leaned over to his girlfriend and said, See, I told you, it isn’t possible to have any fun without alcohol. He was not a convert, at least not yet.

It’s a long way from Wigan Casino, the Catacombs and the days of Northern Soul, but still…

Sparkling like Christmas trees in PolandPosted on 22nd January, 2010.

After 9 pm it becomes impossible to talk. An anonymous DJ arrives with a box of cds, looking a little frustrated and agitated. She has a fight with a large coat stand, which is inconveniently placed in front of her booth. She plugs in her equipment and arranges some fairy lights. She is not only a DJ, she is a multi-tasker, taking orders for drinks. Then she turns it up loud.

One of the men nearby climbs up and turns the speaker against the wall. The effect is to bounce the bass inside our rib cages. He shrugs.

Warsaw is not like a real city, she says. The public transport is awful here. Where we live in Dollis Hill, it’s straight into the centre on the Jubilee line. The equivalent on the outskirts here is one bus every hour. Her pristine face has a particular look of shock or disgust. And the buildings have no architectural merit. She was not happy with such inconsistencies in urban planning. Her family are from Warsaw, the outskirts but still in the city boundaries, but she is now a convinced Londoner.

Further down the table, he has been in the countryside for the last three weeks, and now is back in the city, bleary eyed and unshaven, looking like a young dishevelled Bukowski. It’s not so cold here, he says. It was minus 25 where we were. No-one went out the whole time, except to milk the cows. We stayed in and drank. And filled in end of year tax forms. That was useful. Every time we thought we’d finished, her father then brings another full bottle and said, ‘It’s not a full bottle, don’t worry, look there’s a little space at the top to add juice’. So we drank. I think we used up all his supplies.

The snow is piling up in the courtyard outside. Flakes are fluttering down, sparkling. The lights on the Christmas tree in the main square have disappeared under several layers of frozen vapour.

The first time I saw snow in Poland, real snow, deep and soft, emerging from a faint memory of childhood winters, I ran around in it, scooping it up. People looked at me quizzically. I tried to explain it was so long since I had seen proper snow. I was clearly suffering from snow-deprivation. Are you mad? they said, It’s cold, let’s go inside and drink vodka.

Perhaps they are right. This cold brings a hundred pinpricks to the face, and the jaw starts to lock.

wintry photos: Alicja Rogalska, Ania Chojnacka

Uwaga! Bear on the loosePosted on 17th January, 2010.

On the news, a bear has escaped from an animal reserve in the Ukraine
and has crossed the Polish border near Przemyśl, whose coat of arms feature a walking bear with a cross above it. In the Middle Ages, bears symbolised power, bravery and tenacity towards enemies. The host of this evening, DJ Envee, is nicknamed Niedźwiedź, which means bear – shortened to NW (pronounced as a ‘v’). He escaped from Silesia and came to Warsaw in search of dance grooves. The Ukrainian bear’s motives are not known. Envee once made a record as part of a DJ combo called Innocent Sorcerers, named after the 1960  film by Andrzej Wajda about a group of young jazz musicians living a beatnik life under communism. I bought this record as a random selection several years ago and it sits next to Cool Kids of Death and Jacaszek’s Lo-Fi Stories in my Polska collection.

It turns out to be DJ Envee’s birthday party. The downstairs dancefloor is crowded. Soplica Wiśniowa is still the drink of choice, but several people are drinking shots of vodka and blue curacao.  Envee is the jovial master of ceremonies. His decks are flanked by a drummer and a trumpet player. The stage is low and people jump up to dance alongside or have shots of vodka with him, or grab a cowbell and play along. He alternates with a companion DJ, who is hunched over his laptop calling up samples and beats.

The drummer, Janek Młynarski, is amazing, hardly taking a break the whole night, and it is a long night. His is a simple, minimalist drumkit, but how he plays along with the electronic rhythms. These are famous jam sessions, I am told. But at one point the jam goes into uncharted territory with the drummer following some existential path that no-one else can fathom. DJ Envee waves his hand, shakes his head and downs another blue vodka.

There’s some crazy dancing here. No-one cares what they look like. It’s not a place for poseurs. There is one couple, refugees from some late New Romantic era – a skinny guy with floppy fringe haircut, black peg leg trousers, pvc shiny pointy shoes, huge dog tooth check jacket. Perhaps disappointed at the lack of Le Roux or Human League synth- driven pop, they leave after a short while. No matter, the party is on and it’s not going to stop till they run out of vodka. It cools down around 5am with some Nina Simone mixes. By then, it’s mostly guys left in the corners, rooted to the spot, swaying drunkenly to the music.

The snow is piled high, sodium yellow under the city lights, cars frozen, the hum of the city now silent. Icicles two feet long hang thickly from the roofs. Statues assume new shapes. I think about the bear, who by now is face down on the frozen ground, shot by tranquillisers, and will no doubt be deported from the EU. He will not join the city bears sleeping in Park Praski, or make a special guest appearance at the next DJ Envee party. Though a dancing bear would be quite something to see, on stage with the drummer and trumpet player, and centre stage, his namesake DJ Envee.

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

How quickly the tram empties and the flow of people descend into the tunnels beneath Dmowskiego roundabout. Workmen are at the bottom of these steps, waiting for the crowds to pass, for a moment between passing feet to shovel the slush and ice away with a large flat wooden shovel. The cold carries down into the tunnels and mixes with the warm aromas from the baked goods and sliced pizza place. You could get lost under here, and you would not be alone. Everything you need to sustain you can be found here, in small cabins with barely room to swing a cat, if you had one to hand.

There is a parallel complex under the Central Station, a few hundred metres to the west. The passages were constructed together with the station itself.  Construction of the station began in 1972 and the job was completed in a rush to coincide with the visit of Leonid Breznev in 1975. There is a scene in the very first episode of ‘Zero Siedem’ (o7, often called the Polski James Bond, though the character is in fact a cop.) Aired in November 1976, the lead character is shown leaving prison and walking through the station, where he plays bemusedly with the automatic doors – an innovation at the time.

I am convinced there is a direct way through, that they are linked by a subterranean umbilical cord, but my friends insist, No, you have to come out by the Metro entrance and walk on the surface before descending again.

Here’s a random selection of what’s available down here: kebab turecki, sweets and wine gums, toy cars and trucks, large red lollipops which say ‘I Love You’, mobile phones, dvds and cds, cigarettes, shoes, newspapers and magazines, needle and thread, sewing machines, herbata, pastries and breads, fruit, juice and water, items of clothing, souvenirs, chocolates. There is an Afro shop, a kantor, and I pass by a rubber mask of Bin Laden. There are ticket offices related to various forms of travel and even, closer to the train station, a bookstore.

There is always a yellow, watery light below ground and a multitude of glowing signs, directions for various trams and buses that spread out across the entire city. There are games arcades, internet stations, bars – piwo and wódka, the basics, with some guys with shaven heads, wearing trackies and white trainers, smoking, looking a little unwelcoming. It used to be that, in PRL days, a shaved head indicated someone recently released from an institution, whether psychiatric care, prison or compulsory military service. Somehow the associations remain in such places, below the surface.

I am not sure if a map exists of this place under Dmowskiego Rondo. It dates from the 90’s and the beginning of the recommercialisation of the city centre. The cabins are small, mostly occupied by a solitary person and their stock. It can be stifling down here in the summer, warm and sticky, a little bit closer to the earth’s molten core. I wonder, where do these people go to the toilet? There is no indication of any such facilities. It seems unlikely these cramped cabins have such a private facility. But perhaps there is, some secret recreational area behind the walls, a hidden world of service tunnels with their storerooms, rest areas, tv monitors, bathrooms and deeper, camouflaged PRL nuclear bunkers.

Above ground, there are plans for a new museum of modern art, and a new city park. The 24 hour kebaberies and sex shops nearby the corner of Marszałkowska and Królewska will disappear, though this development scheme has been delayed. Perhaps when the cabins underground have also gone, filled in, like the ones in the old underpass outside the gates of the University on Krakowskie Przedmieście, the city will finally have moved from Central Europe to the West, lock, stock and barrel.

PrzyjaźńPosted on 5th January, 2010.

For the last two years there hasn’t been much snow in Warsaw, and I don’t like the snow in the city. They put down salt and the snow ends up in big dirty piles, and the salt ruins your shoes. On the hill nearby, we went sledging, always.

The snow is fluttering down again tonight, and sledging is possible. Before venturing out into the cold, we are listening to the Top 100 songs of all time, as voted for by the listeners of Radio Trójka, the annual end of the year rundown of their favourite tracks. In the UK, John Peel used to have a Festive Fifty on Radio One, a selection from the passing year, but this is a compilation of the listener’s all time favourites, for the fifteenth year running.

Led Zeppelin top the poll with Stairway to Heaven, and have another four songs in the chart. Deep Purple are at number 3 with Child In Time and King Crimson at 4 with Epitaph, from their first album in 1969. Black Sabbath are number 43 with Paranoid. Pink Floyd register 8 songs, with Comfortably Numb at 19. Monty Python make an appearance at 35 with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. Budgie, a 70’s band from Wales, have a song at number 95. They were the first heavy rock band to perform behind the Iron Curtain in 1982, and are well loved still. The full 12 minute version of The End by The Doors is played (at 56), a song which is now mostly associated with Apocalypse Now. This film had just started a run in Warsaw in December 1981, when martial law was imposed. I think of the famous photograph by Chris Niedenthal, taken on the morning of December 13th, which shows an armoured personnel carrier in front of Cinema Moskwa (Moscow) and the banner advertising the movie Czas Apokalipsy.

These are not only songs of longing, of an imagined freedom broadcast from the West – there are some Polish desires represented. Czesław Niemen – with Dziwny jest ten świat (Strange is this World) – is at number 9. A protest song from 1967, by an musician fond of long hair and psychedelia (and thus disapproved of by the authorities), his song is number 1 in the Polish Top Songs of All Time.

More contemporaneous, Dżem have 5 songs also including one called Whisky at number 67. Kult have 5 songs in the top 100, with Kazik also in at number 40 with 12 groszy.

They don’t seem to be played in any particular order, and other songs make an appearance. Anarchy in the UK is playing as we leave and make our way to Bemowo, one of the western districts of Warsaw. We leave the bus and overhear some guys walking in the same direction. I hope its gonna be a good Sylwester, they are saying, I hope they’ll be some fights. We are walking through an estate of old barracks, wooden dormitories and cottages. These first housed Russian builders and engineers who were involved in the construction of the Palace of Culture. The estate was called Przyjaźń – Friendship – and had all its own facilities, clubs, sports areas, libraries. The wooden cottages were Finnish, exchanged for coal. After 1955, the estate was given to the Ministry of Higher Education and today it is mostly still occupied by professors, researchers and students.

My grandfather used to live near here, at the next junction over, she said, when it was the end of the city. The end was clearly demarcated. There were all these blocks of flats. And then cabbage fields as far as you could see. Now the city is spreading and now apartment blocks are being built on the cabbage fields.

The only instructions for the New Year festivities are: It’s 20 metres from Klub Karuzela. Here, behind a metal grill opening, down some steep stairs, behind a curtain, is a pub in a basement, usually occupied by fans of the football club Legia. The club is, in fact, just called ‘Basement’. The black walls are adorned with a Polish flag, a Legia flag, a Jamaican flag, a poster of Bob Marley, and various football memorabilia. There’s plenty of food laid out, and Wyborowa, Smirnoff and Żołądkowa Gorzka are the drinks of choice.

Very few of the songs from the Trójka Top 100 are being played in the basement tonight – though perhaps Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode (at 44), an ever popular song in Warsaw, would go down well. Or one of my own favourites, Polska by Kult (at 51) would get everyone singing along. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson is a crowd pleaser with several outings (though only at 98 on the radio). His sister LaToya is in the city tonight for the festivities in Plac Konstytucji, enjoying the performance of a rather muscular Michael Jackson impersonator and many moonwalkers, at a tribute event costing 3.6 million zloty. Here, in the basement, we enjoy a more modest celebration. Behind the bar, a TV plays a programme about windsurfing and other beach activities far far away, the sound turned down.

At midnight, upstairs in the frozen air, splendid fireworks, here and across the city in every direction. This is shortly followed by an unfortunate collision of three heads with each other and the dancefloor, which may or may not have been caused by vodka, or quite possibly by the DJ playing a Britney Spears remix. An ambulance takes one person to hospital for a check up – she will recover. The face of Bob Marley looks on impassively. The snowflakes flutter down. The night buses move remorselessly across the city.