The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Carefree holidays in the Polish CountrysidePosted on 30th June, 2010.

Smoke rises lazily from the village houses in the distance. Across the fields, on this side of the river Pilica, which feeds the lake, a young deer strolls through the long grasses. We are standing on the perimeter wall that once provided one measure of protection to the Cistercian Abbey of Sulejów. Founded in the 11th century, it has been restored as a hotel, as romantic a building as you might wish to find for an assignation. The lake to the north is artificial. Constructed in the 1970’s, it made this a popular tourist spot for water sports and angling. Our huge room overlooks the Romanesque-Gothic church, which still functions, and in the grounds there is a corporate party underway, with much vodka drinking and singing. Apart from that there seem to be no other guests in this cavernous and curvaceous building.

We try to find our way on foot to the lake. An old guy at the car park says, Yes, yes, it’s that way, and we follow his outstretched arm down an old track. We pass through a small wood, expecting to see the lake soon as the way declines and becomes muddy and waterlogged, but the path then continues across an open field. Mosquitoes are everywhere. Ahead is a raised embankment, with no lake on the far side. More fields and copses, paths in several directions. We’re lost and getting bitten. The heat is draining and we decide to turn back. In the distance, a black BMW draws up in the middle of a field where four horses are grazing. The driver pulls out several bales of hay from the boot. There must be a road somewhere over there, maybe it leads to the lake? We eventually find the road and follow it. There are a few houses, though they become more and more spread out, some empty and half built. Some kids are playing in the abandoned constructions, and a weatherbeaten guy on a bike veers past us in a staggeringly drunken way. There are some bed and breakfast places here, and signs for hiking and watersports. A couple of holidaymakers sit on an upper balcony, sunning themselves, glistening with oil.

The road ends in a pine forest, and a track which finally leads us to the lakeside. Here we find some more people – cyclists, campers, picnics, kayaks. No sight of anglers seeking to catch pike, perch, bream, eel or carp. The lakes around here have suffered some poison, we are told, and the fish is no good. The sun has gone in and it’s turning a little cold. Too grey to swim. We return to the village and look for some food. No small shops are open. There is a pizza takeaway and down a side street we find a small Tesco – but surely a PRL version, as the shelves are unexplicably half-stocked. (And there is no hope of any cream to treat insect bites.) We settle for some fruit, bread and tomatoes. It’s enough.

I can’t help thinking that much of rural Poland is like this, small, depressed, lonely – even desperate – villages and townships, in between places with a fainter and fainter echo of history. As a young man, Chopin enjoyed carefree holidays in the Polish countryside with the peasant girls singing their songs of love and sorrow, old women chanting in the fields as harvest was gathered, drinking songs sung late into the night as barrels of vodka were rolled out of village taverns – all of which were said to inspire his polonaises and mazurkas. There is little of that to be found here today, just a lot of mosquitoes and the corporate karaoke.

WeselePosted on 28th June, 2010.

Of course, of course, a friend in Warsaw said, You went to a traditional Polish wedding. Don’t tell me! Singing serious songs, very serious songs, drinking songs, children dancing with grandparents, people face down in their food, dying, I completely understand your interest!

Yes, we went to a wedding on the outskirts of Białystok. An air hostess met a sailor and fell in love. The air hostess contingent came from the capital and wore the contemporary cosmopolitan styles of Emporia Armani. The women from the coast brought their own distinct style, with big coloured hair and bodices that would have graced a Madonna video. There were several costume changes as the celebrations stretched over a number of days.

The night before, we men piled into a number of taxis to downtown Białystok, to a club inside an old building, the insides completely stripped out and replaced with three floors of glass and steel platforms and walkways lit with blue and red fluorescent tubes and video screens, connected by circular steel stairwells. The video screens mostly had films of women in various lingerie and swimsuits. I had a minder, the best English speaker in the group. He was serving in the Army and recently been in Iraq. Before we went inside, he explained that an improvised explosive device had gone off near his vehicle. I’m sorry, he said, but I’m a bit deaf as a result. So the pulsing Polska pop pumping out of the speakers meant that communication was entirely limited to hand gestures and holding up of vodka glasses and a little male bonding on the dance floor in what used to be the basement.

The wedding took place in an impressively huge church with the threat of a rainstorm. The bride looked suitable gorgeous, the groom looked a little worried, as if he was trying to remember something he shouldn’t have forgotten. The best man reassured him that the ring was in safe hands. The video crew seemed in charge of the proceedings, directing the couple to move this way and that, positioning the priest to get the best angle. It even seemed they asked them to repeat some of the lines. The bride and groom endured the rigour of the production. After the older priest gave the final blessing, medium close up, a younger priest christened their daughter in a side chapel, a more intimate ceremony with the opportunity for extreme close ups but none of this Lights! Camera! Action! business. The sky had darkened, the rain tumbled down as they left for the reception.

Coaches then took the guests to hotel some kilometres on the outskirts of town. The celebrations could begin in earnest. Games, toasts, songs, food, drinking, dancing. The sharing of bread, salt and wine is an important feature of a Polish wedding, where the parents of the newly married couple give them rye bread (may you never go hungry), sprinkled with salt (may you overcome bitterness in life), and a glass of vodka (may you enjoy the sweetness of life). When the couple enter the reception, the guests sing a song which is also sung at birthdays:

Sto lat, sto lat niech zyje, zyje nam,
Sto lat, sto lat niech zyje, zyje nam,
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,
niech zyje, zyje nam, niech zyje nam….

Good health, good cheer, may you live a hundred years,
one hundred years….

Some highlights I remember:

- A dance in a circle where you hold the ear of the person next to you.

- A drinking song which includes each month of the year, and then drinking a toast to each birthday for each person in this month.

- The decorations – it’s amazing what you can do with fabric and balloons.

- An old song which is explained to me as being about: ‘Hey guys, remember the good old days before you were married, remember what times we had when we were single and could stay out drinking all night and not worry about coming back to the wife?’ This was a very popular song with the guys, who dance in a circle, tearfully emoting every heartfelt sentence.

- The showband. Heroic efforts. Non-stop entertainment and MC-ing.

In preparation I was encouraged to watch the 2004 film ‘Wesele’ (The Wedding), written and directed by Wojciech Smarzowski. A black comedy in which the father of the bride tries to keep control of everything. It involves drinking, games, music, dancing, bribery, local gangsters and – of course – everything does not go to his plan.

This wedding was not quite like that. At the reception, I sat next to 9 year old Kajtek, who decided to teach me Polish. He was concerned I was leaving on Sunday and wouldn’t know enough Polish to get back to Warsaw. Don’t worry, I said, I’ll just follow your Auntie. Nevertheless, he took my notebook and he started to construct a Polish-English Dictionary for me. (Not sure when I’ll need an armata though.)

The party continued into the night, and continued into the next afternoon. It looked as if some people had not slept. In the middle of the night there was even the traditional fight, when some of the women from Szczecin took exception to the women from Warsaw – it was some kind of argument over fashion sense. The men step in, coats are removed, exception is taken to some comment or other. The band, still alert, strike up a popular drinking song and the men are dancing and singing together instead of fighting. I swear it’s another version of ‘Boys, remember the good old days…’ My head is a little hazy at this point. I could be dreaming all this. The train back to Warsaw is overcrowded, standing all the way, packed like sardines, but passage is eased with a bottle of home-made vodka from the sailors in Szczecin.

Postscript: a reader, a writer himself, writes:

You’re doing fine with Polish in general:) One thing just came to my mind, that you could mention in a few words in the Vodka Project (however I don’t how wide span of this subject you have chosen). I mean the so called wedding vodka. It is quite an ambiguous topic: on the one hand wedding vodka used to be drunk heavily by the wedding party guests, they were also often given a bottle to take home. On the other hand this was an illegal alcohol made God-knows-where and by whom in large quantities and the most murky thing about it is, that in most regions it was fully controlled by the regular mafia, not some canny little gray-sphere entrepreneurs but the guys who were dealing with drugs, ransom harassment or human trafficking. And it was a big deal for them, worth millions of untaxed zlotys. So we got happy couples and weddings on the one hand and gloomy no-neck-guys with square faces and baseball bats on the other.

This, in part, you will see in the above mentioned film ‘Wesele’.