The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

the long weekend – długi łikendPosted on 15th May, 2011.

I wasn’t able to stand up in the morning. I wasn’t the only one suffering from after effects of the long day and night before, whether sporting injuries, aching leg muscles and sore heads. It took a moment to orient myself. I could hear the patter of rain on the roof. The light bright outside, despite the clouds, the wood walls and ceiling of the attic room softly burnished. Curled up and deliciously warm and comfortable, I could smell breakfast or was it early lunch? There were bottles of vodka already on the table. People reading, tuning guitars, preparing mountainous skewers of meat and vegetables for cooking on the open fire later, some still sleeping, others breaking up wood and hauling it in a wheelbarrow. Time seeped slowly, as the sun follows the rain…

It had been an early start after a late night and onto a bus by 7am to Dworzec Zachodni on the west side of the city, where we have a lift waiting. The aim is to miss the mass exodus of Varsovians into the surrounding Mazovian countryside, but we soon get ensnarled in traffic. I’m dozing on the luggage. I hear a voice, We’ll get breakfast when we get there. Expect to have beer first. I imagine her body changing imperceptibly, the water percentage soon replaced with alcohol, as she’s not that big. Maybe even by night fall, as cranes fly over. I must be delirious. I only grabbed a few hours of sleep, watching the lights of the city across the sluggish river. Lack of sleep, emotional overload, who knows, go with the flow.

May Day weekend. There’s the beatification of John Paul II in Rome, the last stage before sainthood is bestowed. May 1st used to be International Workers Day – do you remember that? – with the necessary obligatory parades and flags and celebrations of the successes of socialism. May 2nd is National Flag of the Republic of Poland Day, Dzień Flagi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. Then May 3rd is Constitution Day, celebrating the day back in 1791 when the parliament signed what was to become Europe’s first national constitution (also only the second in the world). This is, thus, the longest weekend of the year.

The field and woods pass by. The car diverts into deeper greener countryside and lesser known roads to avoid the jams. Don’t worry, we’re going in the right direction. We’ve never been this way before, but it’s better than standing still. I’ve been to Łomża, I say. Drank vodka with a farmer, I mumble. Pah, they laugh. Patches of water appear, getting bigger, with sailing craft, speedboats, larger river cruisers, fishermen on the shoreline or out in canoes on the waterways and their tributaries. I have no idea where we’re going. You’ll see when we get there. We’ve gone past Legionowa. There’s the joining the river Bug with the river Narew, which both meander all the way from Belarus. Large signs for fried fish, a few bars and restuarants to service the tourism.

We make a stop at a roadside shop, go down some steps into a cellar like interior, an Aladdin’s Cave of provisions for the weekenders. We soon fill what little space there is in the car with crates of alcohol (beer from the Łomża brewery is the favourite) and a banana yoghurt and an apple pastry (drożdżówka) for my breakfast. We arrive soon after at the river side, where’s there’s a bus shelter made of chipboard and another shop with a lesser selection of goods. Here there is a large advert of a big red truck filling one outer wall of the shop, emblazoned with the proud letters; Wywoz Nieczystosci Plynnych – liquid waste disposal, a vital trade out here. The gang are sitting here by the reeds at the water side drinking, the empty bottles ready to be returned for small change. We head to the house down a long bumpy lane, past plots of land for sale and houses half built in amongst the trees. Some people are leaving as we arrive, yet more will arrive another day.

This particular county domek was built 15 years ago, constructed from the timbers of other older houses. Old friends gather, reminisce, discuss happiness and philosophy, play chess or football or volleyball – even if your leg is firmly strapped from a skiing accident – enjoy the air, drink beer and vodka, sit round the fireside, sing songs, some known to me, some unknown. Some Jacek Kaczmarski stuff  – ‘Sen Katarzyny II’, ‘Ambasadorowie’, ‘Obława’  – something by Maciej Maleńczuk – ‘Ach proszę pani’, ‘Święto kobiet’, ‘Uważaj na niego’, ‘Jestem sam’. And one song that is well known by the rest is ‘Jesienne wino’, it’s pretty much the Polish cover of ‘Summer Wine’. All mixed in with a daily and nightly rendition of ‘Tribute’ by Tenacious D, the Johnny Cash version of ‘Hurt’, a Cure song and some Beatles – the lyrics of which I really don’t know, guys, przepraszam. There’s no shortage of food – it seems to magically appear – as though there is a genie in the woods whose sole purpose is to provide a sumptuous feast at regular intervals. No shortage either of Lubelska Wiśniówka – oh, you know how to tempt me – Sobieski Cranberry vodka – a little sharp to my tongue – and the standard favourite Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.

The long weekend is long and the inevitable return to the city tiring. Bags are packed, the last omelette and nutella spread on  remaining pieces of chleb eaten almost ceremoniously, floors swept, shutters closed, empty beer bottles deposited at the nearest store. It’s turned bitter cold in Warsaw. By the evening there’s snow. I really can’t believe it, pada śnieg. Perhaps it was all a dream…

‘Nuda, cholera nuda…’Posted on 12th May, 2011.

Before any long weekend can stretch before me, I need to catch up on some morning sleep in Praga. Yes, you’ll need to store it, I am firmly told. It’s after midday and walking past the woman selling watermelons round the corner of Kępna onto the main street where the trams are on Targowa and there’s an artist waiting at a bus stop. She wears a combination of bright blue clothes and a severe haircut that that only an artist would have. Recently she was part of an exchange in Birmingham with the Polish Expatriates Association there. She had been filing her taxes, as everyone else is on this particular day. The smell from the bread shop nearby makes me feel hungry and distracted. There was no food in the flat, simply an untouched bottle of vodka in the fridge.

She had just returned from her own long weekend near Sejny where her father had a country house. I’ve been digging a piece of ground for carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radish, beet roots, she says proudly. While we’re exchanging pleasantries, a guy talking on a mobile smacks the woman with him in the face. She thumps him back and he slaps her again a few times and they struggle and all the time he carries on talking calmly on the phone. They wander off bickering. Ah, typical.. Then there are two young children, sisters I’ve often seen, begging on the tram – singing a song in shaky harmony, holding up a sign and asking for money. They don’t get much sympathy. Yes, I’m definitely in Praga, I’m not still in bed, dreaming. Beyond the block of flats, a dusty path and a line of allotments with the old harbour wharves beyond. In one of the warehouses by this port there was a Vietnamese Cultural Centre – Thang Long/Flying Dragon – it’s gone, where to I don’t know, as the new national stadium rises into the air nearby. In the news they talk about the stadium being delayed by months. No-one expresses much surprise.

Targowa Street was a thoroughfare in the Middle Ages, and is lined by early 20th century tenements, many in a poor state, some still empty, waiting to fall down and for a new swanky apartment block to go up. The central reservation where the trams rattle by was once a green space. And some new trams are appearing this side of the river. This is the part of town where ‘the habits were violent and underperfumed’ – Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane. It has its charms for sure – the old Bazar Różyckiego is mere shadow of its former self, with it’s famous chitterlings and dumplings usurped by nearby kebab counters. The nearby streets embrace their funky little bars that have become oh so fashionable. Though it’s all in a constant state of change, as the city engorges and reinvents itself. Right next to the now mostly empty bazaar some of the oldest houses are being renovated and converted into a historical museum of Praga Muzeum Warszawskiej Pragi.

A little further along is the junction with al. Solidarnosci, where the trams and buses run west across the river to the Old Town, here is Centrum Wileńska, a shopping centre with a train station at its foot. And in between the roads, stands the The Memorial of the Brotherhood of Arms, commemorating the collaboration between the Soviet and Polish soldiers. Four soldiers with their heads bowed stand on the corners of a plinth atop are which three soldiers in battle action poses. Sculpted by Stefan Momot, it was the first statue to be erected in Warsaw liberated from the Nazis after the Second World War – its opening took place on September 18, 1945, though the figures then were only made of plaster, covered with bronze sealing paint. The metal sculpture was put in place in 1947, cast from fragments of the Nazi military equipment brought from the liberated Berlin. It is commonly referred to at ‘The Four Sleepers’.

The above mentioned artist in blue proposed a project to convert this and other monuments, writing ‘The ‘dead’ memorials in Warsaw should either disappear or be re­freshed’. She put a ‘swing’ on the Berling’s Army Monument, suggested a ‘slide’ for the Monument to the Red Army and a ‘carousel’ on the Brotherhood in Arms here – which would surely wake these four sleepers. (Read about it here: CarouselSlideSwing.pdf.) The monument will be moved at some point, as here is scheduled a new metro station. The Law and Justice Party in the City Council would like to see it completely destroyed. This logic of eradicating symbols of past oppressors may well apply to the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary Magdaleine just opposite, built in 1860 when the Tsar’s army was stationed in Praga, another clear indication of Russian power and influence.

There is a documentary film from 1957 which features several recognisable shots of Praga, including the wide concrete expanses of what was then the newly built national stadium. ‘Ludzie z postego obszaru’ – People from the empty zone – was directed by Kazimierz Karabasz and Władyslaw Slesicki was one of a series of reportage films coming out of Warsaw Documentary Film Studio between 1955 and 1958. These were described as ‘The Black Series’ – Czarna Seria.

After the death of Stalin, the barriers of censorship had weakened and documentaries like this began to be made looking at social problems. This film follows a group of disaffected young people, hanging out on street corners, who complain of a lack of money, flats that are hard to find, who say that noting is interesting about their lives. They hang out on the wasteland by the riverside – where they might find ‘a taste of the forbidden world’ – smoking, drinking, wandering.  ‘The same, bored faces with no expression’ says the commentary. ‘They don’t have lives of their own so they keep looking.’ A woman’s body is dragged from the river as they watch impassively. They go window shopping, looking at goods they can’t afford. Only a trip to the cinema ‘brings dreams closer’. The film follows them to a party in one of their flats, where they dance to rock’n’roll – Little Richard belting out ‘Ready Teddy‘ – and the drinks flow. This is contrasted with news headlines about young people, one of which states ‘Co dalej? Pytanie ciągle aktualne’ – What about the future? Still an open question…

One thing is certain, the future is wiping away more and more of old Praga. Once there was a bar on Targowa called ‘Oasis’ just after 1945 -  where, according to Jerzy S.Majewski, ‘herring and black Astrakhan caviar were in constant supply and secret police agent on duty kept eavesdropping the vendors and other patrons’. For some, those indeed were the glory days.

‘Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane’ is borrowed from an article on Place Hallera in Praga, in the ‘Book of Walks – Landmarks of People’s Poland in Warsaw’ by Jerzy S. Majewski, with additional texts by Iwona Kurz, Ewy Toniak and Waldemara Baraniewskiego; it was published by Bibilioteka Gazety Wyborczej in 2010.

A useful guide to Praga in both English and Polish, first published in 2006,  is Warsaw Praga Guidebook by Michał Pilich.