The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

small seaside town, harbour, sand, some dancersPosted on 23rd August, 2010.

The Hel peninsula is a 35 kilometre long sand bar separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea. It was once a chain of islands that formed a strip of land only during summer months, busy for countless generations with only the herring trade. A road and a railroad run along the peninsula from the mainland to the town located at the furthest easterly point, Hel, where ferries arrive from the Tri-cities. In the period between the two world wars, after Hel became part of Poland, it became a popular spot for artists, writers, politicians and the nouveau riche. During World War II, the Kreigsmarine used it as a training ground for their U-Boats crews, then the Polish Navy up until the mid-1990’s.

Posters around the town advertise a forthcoming tourist attraction – a re-enactment of the Normandy D-Day landings later in the month. It seems to be an annual event. The harbour is lined with bars and stalls with tourist bric-a-brac, seashells galore, coloured sand in jars, fluffy seal soft toys.  Fake miniature pirate ships offer short trips around the peninsula. One of them has a very convincing one-armed pirate, who is successful in good humouredly press-ganging people on board his particular vessel. The sun is shining, but storm clouds quickly bring a heavy downpour, and we rush for cover into a small café for a bowl of soup. The rain drenches the t-shirt vendors.

The main street runs parallel to the shore, with all manner of street traders, restuarants, arcades full of sea-themed trinkets, some restored fisherman’s cottages, some bed and breakfast accommodation that looks more like a prison or reformatory. There’s a summer season of theatre in the fire station – Teatr w Remizie.  Photographs from a performance by actor Marcin Kwaśny hang on a line outside a 15th century church which functions as a local museum and has boats in the churchyard. There is also the Fokarium, an aquarium with only seals, run by the Institute of Oceanography at Gdańsk University, with the aim of restoration and protection of the colony of gray seals in the Southern Baltic.  At one end of the main street is the railway station, crowded with tourists at the end of their vacation, bags piled high. At the other end, the road simply peters out into a forest trail, which soon leads to the sand dunes.

The last thing we expected to see here is a friend organising a promotional tour for a boutique whose prime target audience is 15 year old girls. There’s a big tent on the pavement, selling clothes at special discount, and a DJ and a group of dancers out front demonstrating salsa and reggaeton. The dancers have been recruited from Warsaw dance schools. A boy in a Newcastle United football shirt squats at the front and studiously watches every move. (There are a lot of Poles here wearing English football team shirts.) Later, after some dance competitions with the growing audience, they will take a bus down to the other end of the street, throwing out footballs and prancing cheerleaders to promote the boutique. Why they want to throw footballs is not clear to me, except for the obvious fact that Hel is populated by visiting fans of the beautiful game.

Inside the tent is one of the stars of a Polish primetime TV comedy series, Aleksandra (Ola) Szwed. She is signing autographs in the tent, while some dancers gyrate on tables above her, and people snap up fashion bargains. As a child actress, she starred in Foster Family/Rodzina Zastępcza, which ran for over 10 years. More recently she has starred in various TV talent shows of the singing and dancing on ice variety. She came runner up in the Polish competition to choose their last Eurovision entry and posed for the August issue of Playboy. Today, she’s an essential ingredient of this promotional tour.

Ah, here comes a classic batucada tune. Our friend keeps her large dark glasses on, as if she hopes not to be recognised. Today, Hel, tomorrow Władysławowo, she sighs.

Along the river to the seaPosted on 21st August, 2010.

The ferry to Hel pushes slowly out of the Motława into the one of the widening branches of the Vistula, which finally drains into Gdańsk Bay. We leave behind the SS Sołdek, a coal and ore freighter, the first ship built in Poland after the Second World War, which is now part of the Maritime Museum here.

We pass empty shipyards and decrepit buildings that look as if they are pasted together with tarpaper and tacks, a graveyard of great river economies. On either side there are mountains of coal, heaps of shredded crushed compacted metal, lines of elegiac and idle cranes, crumbling banks, concrete piers subsiding into the water. Two ships sit by one dockside, a Turkish tanker and a ship registered in Monrovia. A few yellow lights aft give some indication of habitation. Not a single person is to be seen, except those aboard a few outbound leisure boats and a trio of jet-skiers skipping over the water.

Shipbuilding here goes back to the days of the Teutonic Order and the Hanseatic League, who made this region rich with their maritime trade. Ostrów Island, in the middle of the channel, has some semblance of activity, a low humming sound of machinery and motors. Gdańska Stocznia Remontowa, who repair ships and build off-shore constructions, are based here. The website of the Port of Gdańsk has a Chinese language option (as well as English and Polski) which suggests where most of the shipping business originates these days. It’s possible shipbuilding may turn a profit once again and these blighted industrial zones reshaped. The EU recently approved over 350 million euros in Polish state aid to the old Lenin shipyard which birthed Solidarity (now owned by a Ukrainian company). Even in the last two months various parts of that shipyard have been demolished, signs of change and redevelopment, artistic events have been held in the wastegrounds there and there is talk of a new visitor centre at the gates.

We pass Wisłoujście, an 18th century red brick fortress with a single high central tower. The fortress is undergoing some repair, with scaffolding covering the outer walls. Small yachts are moored in a marina nearby, tug boats line the wharves, a buoy repair yard a little further on. We move into the widening channel, where on the west side lies the ferry to Sweden and on the east side stands the Westerplatte Monument. On the peninsula here once was a resort, from the 1830’s, with a beach, forested park, a seaside bath, a health spa. It became contested territory, after The Free City of Danzig was created in 1920 as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles. Previously part of the German Empire, its population lived in a strange uncertain limbo. In 1925, the League of Nations allowed Poland to keep a small contingent of soldiers on Westerplatte, one of many sore points with the National Socialists, which could only be redressed by the naval bombardment which marked the beginning of war in 1939. Today a line of umbrellas move in surreal unison, protecting visitors to the memorial from the persistent drizzle. We pass a line of black cormorants interspersed with seagulls on the last spit of shore, the red lighthouse, and out into the open sea.

I find myself thinking of Pawel Huelle’s Moving House (1996), one of a series of short stories set in the Tri-City bay area after the war, in which a young Polish boy becomes entranced by the piano music played by an elderly German neighbour, much to the annoyance of his parents. Huelle explores this notion of identity and national character, of transgression and of childhood memory of these inter-minglings. Then I think of long hours reading The Tin Drum (1959) by Günter Grass, a remarkable story of growing up (or refusing to grow in the case of the narrator, Oskar) in pre-war Danzig/Gdańsk and the advance of fascism. Or Cat and Mouse (1961) by the same author, a slim volume in comparison – about teenage boys in this place at the beginning of the war, who swim out to a wreck off the shore, a partially submerged minesweeper of the Polish Navy.

The borders move, the definitions change. It seems a common fact of life here. Everything is transient, no matter how hard we try to fix it, as if in amber, which can be found in great abundance hereabouts. The sky is as grey as the water below, the rain gathering force. In the distance, way out into the Baltic, leaden storm clouds gather and forked lightning strikes down.

off the railsPosted on 19th August, 2010.

The SKM trains run from the main station at Gdańsk all the way to Wejherowo, much further north, stopping at Sopot and Gdynia – a kind of on-the-surface Metro or U-bahn system. It’s a great way to get around the Tri-City area. Alongside the tracks, the graffiti soon begins to bloom. Every upright surface is covered, except for some rusting bridges over the tracks. The inscriptions run over grain stores, abandoned houses, railyard offices, old garages and grey buildings, corrugated tin fences, along the back walls of a kwiaciarnia/florist. At first much of the graffiti is monochromatic, off-white and worn black, with a splash of some silver and florid yellow, some of it done with paint and not spray cans. The major works seemingly half-finished – a graffito interuptus or simply boredom with the effort of the act – and abraded as if the marks were made long ago at the dawn of a democratic Poland. After Galeria Bałtycka - where there is a conspicuous absence of tagging but the litter of brand signage – and closer to Sopot, there is a better class of illustration. A pristine silver pipeline provides an opportunity for an explosion of colour and stylistic innovation, some old rail wagons offer a canvas for a comic strip. Here’s a dash of Fauvism passing by the window, and then a glimpse of German Expressionism, then some grinning bald headed creatures uncannily inspired by the Michelin Man advertisement.

Occasionally, you might find a message, with a strange resonance, but mostly it’s the calligraphy of the indecipherable.

Hot spells and floodsPosted on 16th August, 2010.

The heat is tremendous. It will not dissipate all day. This weekend the city has emptied, people seeking the nearest lakes or shaded hillsides outside of the urban environment. At nearby Ossów, you will find a re-enactment of ‘The Miracle at the Vistula’ battle of August 1920, when Polish forces stopped a Bolshevik army intent on taking Berlin, then Paris.  The following day is Armed Forces Day, a celebration on August 15th to coincide with the anniversary of the victory. Preparations are underway. Near to the Presidential Palace, on either side of the street, huge images of Lenin and General Piłsudski face each other. Lenin glowers at the photographer, Piłsudski calmly smokes a cigarette. The event has proved the perfect opportunity to clear away the troublesome Defenders of the Cross. The cross remains, a little naked now that the flowers and candles and memorabilia and protest banners have gone from the pavement.

A few Defenders stand forlornly on the opposite side of the road, behind a crash barrier, right in front of a gallery that has non-stop Chopin playing out of speakers day and night. Perhaps several repeats of Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, “Funeral March” will finally put the last nail in the coffin of their catastrophe demonstration.

It only seems a short moment ago that a blistering storm unleashed itself on the capital, with roads and basements flooded like a Venetian parody, and in the south-west corner of the country – as the rivers rise and burst their banks once more – houses, cars and belongings are swept away disastrously. The news carries a story about a bride and groom who fled to higher ground when the church was flooded. The wedding party drove some considerable distance away from the rising waters to find another church to complete the ceremony.

Now the heat is unrelenting and soporific. I feel I should follow the example of Chopin’s tutor. He rarely bathed but did believe that in the swelter of a Warsaw summer you should indulge in a full body rub with vodka, that it was highly efficacious for good health. There seems some sense in this.

The lesser known warsawPosted on 15th August, 2010.

Each Saturday throughout August, you will find a 1950’s blue bus standing near to Coffee Heaven at Plac Teatralny.  This is a Jelcz 043, manufactured in Poland in 1974 with Skoda engine – nicknamed ‘ogórek’ (cucumber) – holding  about 30 passengers, and will take you on a free tour of different districts of the city, off the beaten track.

The bus starts shakily up and after a brief introduction from one of the tour guides, we head off to a soundtrack of Sen o Warszawie, a 1966 song from Czesław Niemen, where he sings about his colourful dreams of the city. As we take the corner by Hotel Victoria, the driver’s door swings open and doesn’t want to close again. He deftly negotiates the roundabouts of central Warsaw while holding onto it. Fortunately the bus can’t manage much more than 40 kilometres an hour flat out.

Our first tour takes us to the boundary of the 19th century city and beyond Mokotów, to the fringes of Sadyba and Stegny, large residential high rise estates built in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stegny estate was designed to channel air. From the west the estate is sheathed from the cold air by long 11 storey buildings, so it’s not too warm and not too cold. Finally, we take a walk through Park Morskie Oko, built at the end of the 18th century for Princess Izabela Lubomirska.

Our second tour wanders past Plac Politechniki with a brief stop at Lwowska Street, where we pass through a gate to a rear courtyard to find Rusiecki Palace, built in 1912. The apartment block in front, which encloses it, is also an original building, surviving the war. The bus putters along through the backstreets of Śródmieście and Powiśle, culminating in a tour of the new Legia Warszawa stadium. The stadium opened with a pre-season match against Arsenal, who won (just about).

The old stadium held 14,000 and the new one has a capacity of 23,000 (though they still have to complete one side). We are allowed on the fake grass by the side of the pitch, but not the real grass. Our Legia guide tells us that not even the groundsmen are allowed much time on this hallowed turf. He says, No-one is allowed on this pitch, only the players. The only ones with unlimited access are the pigeons, as you can see.

From the top of the stands, almost a birds eye view of Warsaw. The new national stadium rising up on the other side of the river, the Palace of Culture downtown, the sports and athletica fields of Ulica Agricola, Ujazdowski Castle nearby – which houses a centre for contemporary art – but much of the city is obscured by greenery from this vantage point.

Below the stadium, towards the river, is a memory of old Warsaw. The decaying remnants of a swimming pool, a partially ruined mosaic at its former entrance. The pool has been long filled in with dirt, trees and bushes growing there. A high concrete diving platform still stands, a smudge of blue paint on the floor surface, a recollection of Socialist leisure and health. The river, smelling powerfully in the heat, is hidden from our view, the few remaining beer and vodka bars along the embankments obscured.

Note: The tour is one of several projects organised by a cultural association, Centrum Europy, aiming to give a new perspective to the city. In 2006 they published a guidebook to the right bank of Warsaw, by Michał Pilich, in English and Polish, and an accompanying web site, both of which we recommend.

To the church, to the churchPosted on 10th August, 2010.

‘To the church, to the church!’ This is one of the chants of the counter-demonstrators, a protest organised via Facebook – demanding an end to this fiasco and the removal of the cross to the church. There are many thousands more here tonight by 11pm. Most of it is good-humoured, many in costume, with cuddly toys as well as banners. Others call for the demolition of the Presidential Palace, so you can get a better view of the cross. At times it is impossible to pass along the street in front of the Presidential Palace, and past Hotel Bristol. The 24 hour bistro is doing good business, though it’s a little difficult to get in or out.

On the wall of the nearby Ministry of Culture hangs a piece of cardboard which reads:

I voted for Lech K!!!
He was my president (unfortunately weak in my opinion)
To cross in front of the palace
No to the radicals
No to Polish-Polish war
No to Rydzyk (sect)*
No for the politics of Jarosław K.
Yes to a memorial plaque
No for DuckFascism!**

After the ‘manifestation’ there is a journalist on the radio who says that the left wing demonstrators are simply, to borrow the words of Lenin, ‘useful idiots’. On the other hand, there is an article by a once controversial film-maker describing the site of the cross as a place where there is an ‘abundance of schizophrenic stupidity’.

The demonstrations, it seems, will continue.

* this refers to the founder director of Radio Maryja, a conservative Catholic radio station who have called on people to demonstrate in defence of the cross.
**The surname (of the twin brothers, leaders of the conservative PiS party) is Kaczyński -  in Polish this is a variation on the word ‘duck’.

Symbols and incantationsPosted on 5th August, 2010.

There’s an awful lot of people getting cross about a cross. The wooden cross in question was put up by scouts outside the Presidential Palace after the April 10th Smoleńsk plane crash which killed former President Lech Kaczyński and many others in government.

Following an agreement reached between the Church, the Presidential Chancellery and the Scouts, a deadline of 1pm, August 3rd was set for moving the cross down the street to St. Anne’s Loreto Chapel. The cross would be placed next to an already existing memorial to Katyń. A group of protesters have been resisting this, awaiting a government pledge that a proper memorial be erected. These ‘defenders of the cross’ are on vigil day and night, attracting the curious, other believers, drunks, tourists, the media and conspiracy theorists.

One of the protest posters suggests the complicity of the Polish government in the crash itself. Prayers are said, hymns are sung, arguments are lengthy and heated. One old woman who thinks that the cross should be moved to the church quickly attracts the approbation of several other women. One of these goes amongst the crowd, pointing back at her and screaming ‘She’s not a Catholic! She’s not a Catholic!’ A man complains to a police officer that the old people standing on the benches (to get a better view) should be reprimanded, because ‘they’re giving a bad example to young people’.

It’s not a big crowd, perhaps a thousand, creating a bottleneck on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. It quickly fades out a few hundred metres on either side. There is a huge media presence to document this, waiting for the inevitable highlight: a few dozen pushing forward at the crash barriers, extra police rushing forward, a few arrests, an appropriate sound bite ie: ‘This cross is a symbol of our Nation.” There are some counter demonstrators, armed with cuddly toys and a rocking horse, demanding that a memorial be erected to these symbols also.

At the appointed time a group of priests and scouts marched up to the cross but in the end there is no commemorative ceremony and no moving to be done, a lot of shouts of ‘Defend the Cross!’ The oddest thing is to hear abuse hurled at the priests and scouts who have come to make a commemoration and relocate the cross. There are shouts of ‘Communist sympathisers!’ and ‘Satanists!’ With the apparent indecision by the authorities, the crowd scuffled about for a while, before an announcement that the cross will not be moved today.

Further down the street, towards the Old Town, nuns enjoy an ice cream on this hot afternoon. Crowds of Polish scouts from communities around the globe (here for the Uprising Anniversary celebrations) wander the periphery of the Royal Palace and listen to a bongo player at the foot of Zygmunt’s Column, which is one of the oldest secular monuments in Northern Europe – even though he holds firmly onto a cross. They all seem oblivious to the commotion just 10 minutes walk away.

The evening television news headline is Krzyż  Stał, Krzyż Stoi/ The cross stood, the cross stands still. Even later, as the vigil continues into the night, another crowd gathers, with many who are there to make fun of the defenders. There are a few indignant moments and arrests. One of the supporters of the defenders is taken away for making threat with an umbrella. He may or may not have been drinking. There’s a lot of confusion. One man here claims that after saying the rosary during a 22 hour vigil every day for a month his bad leg was miraculously healed. A woman next proclaims her cancer cured by the cross. One man asserts, to whoever wishes to listen, that because of the spontaneous nature of the demonstration it is surely the will of the people that a memorial be put exactly here. Part of his argument describes the supremacy of Latin culture over Byzantium culture, at which point we’re a little lost. Others argue that the protest is politically organised by the former President’s supporters whose brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a vocal opponent of the move. The defenders defend, the media reports, onlookers look on.

Across the street, tonight there are as many people crowding in the 24 hour bistro Przekąski Zakąski, who gaze into the bottom of the vodka glass and wonder how this is going to end.

66th anniversary dayPosted on 3rd August, 2010.

In the late evening, we stand under the yellow light of Palace of Culture and Science, tallest building in Europe for a few brief years in the mid 20th century. We are listening to a brief set of songs of Old Warsaw, re-ignited by Janek I Jego Combo (Janek and His Combo). These once were sung in sweaty basements, in bars and cabarets, as couples entwined completely, swooping around the dance floor, songs of pre-war years in the old Varsovian dialect. Songs of dreams, worries, daily life, love, despair, determination.

These days you are less likely to come home after the vodka has ceased flowing and collapse into your bed in tobacco-reeking clothes and poor  musicians are less likely to suffer from lung complaints but the songs endure.

The set list:

1. Przy kominku (By the fireplace), a tango with music composed by Artur Gold and words by Andrzej Włast – both of whom were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and did not survive the war.

2. Wspominałem ten dzień (I was recalling the day). They sing, “I mentioned that day, if it were yesterday, I mentioned that day, when the lilacs were in bloom.”

3. Czarna Mańka (Black Mańka). It is somewhat inevitable that she puts in an appearance, the story of a beautiful dark lady of the suburbs – ‘a lover of suckers who pay for her body’ – who one day falls madly in love with a thief and all round bad guy who does not care for her and uses her. One version of the story has him knifing him, in another she kills herself in despair.

4. Rum Helka, a drinking song.

5. W Saskim Ogrodzie (In the Saxon Garden)

6. Nie Ma Cwaniaka Nad Warszawiaka (There’s no-one smarter than a Warsaw guy) – these last two were both popularised by Stanisław Grzesiuk. Grzesiuk (1918-63) lived in the poor Warsaw district of Czerniaków. In 1940 he was sent to Germany as a slave worker, and somehow survived imprisonment in Dachau and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He returned to Poland with a legacy of tuberculosis which shortened his life.

He published a book in 1958 about his experiences in the camps, as well as a book of reminisces of pre-war Warsaw. As a singer he popularised many of the songs of that ‘golden age’, mostly street ballads using the slang and dialect of the working class districts eradicated by the war. In the song Nie Ma Cwaniaka Nad Warszawiaka – which tells us how no-one can suppress the spirit of a Varsovian or outsmart them, especially a little guy with a moustache – a ‘Hiszpan’ meant a dead body or corpse, a term which referred to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of the 20’s.

Janek and His Combo play these songs to a small but appreciate audience, which grows swells as people exit from the cinema in the basement and stop and smile and gently applaud.

Earlier in the day, the city commemorated the anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Most people on the street or in the shopping arcades are carrying small memorial plastic flags with the Kotwica, symbol of the Polish Secret State and Armia Krajowa  (Home Army). The P and the W merge to create an anchor shape (kotwica). The initials are an abbreviation of “Pomścimy Wawer” (“We will avenge Wawer”), one of the first large scale massacres of Polish civilians in the war. There are some re-enactment groups spread about the city, ceremonies and events in various parks organized by the Uprising Museum.  After dusk, one of the skyscrapers in the financial district left on a series of lights on different floors rooms to mark out the shape of the Kotwica.

As we walk back through the quiet streets, we lose count of the candles and flowers placed at every street corner where there is any kind of plaque commemorating the last stand of a particular individual or fighting unit. Down alleyways and behind buildings, glimpses of small dancing lights of the flames in red and yellow glass globes.