The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

At Worlds EndPosted on 22nd July, 2011.

You’ll find several places on the map so named, but I am thinking of a series of stories recounted in Sandman comic (51-55), about a group of travellers gathered in the middle of a storm at an old inn called Worlds’ End, a free house.

Here the house where travellers gather and share stories is the house of the Borderland, on the border with Lithuania, who are here to join in a celebration of  the centenary of Czesław Miłosz, and partake of several days of presentations, debates and events associated with his ‘autobiography as social history’ – Rodzinna Europa (Native Realm), first published in 1959. Tonight, the old synagogue (which is now a cultural centre) will host an event with readings from poets.

The phone rings. ‘Have you seen Johan? We’re starting.’ It’s nine ‘o’ clock. Johan is here, at the Lithuanian bar, getting some food and drink. We’ve been taken by bus to a roadside café on the border for days on end for breakfast, lunch and dinner and we’ve come here for a change. It’s busy and they’ve just stopped serving food. Don’t worry, I said to him much earlier, Everything will be running late, that’s the way of things here.

Our little group resembles the beginning of a joke. An Englishman, a German, an American and a Pole walk into a bar. In addition, there is our poet from Brussels, who is also a Doctor of Slavic studies. He recently wrote a novel about a taboo subject in a country deeply psychologically divided, taking as its subject the Flemish nationalists who fought on the Eastern front for Hitler, believing that a collaboration with the Nazis offered some hope of independence. Tomorrow he will swim out into the lake at night, unperturbed by mosquitoes, listening to the sound of klemzer concert floating over the water.

I tried swimming earlier but there were too many mosquitoes for my liking. The idea of swimming to Lithuania faded. The romantic vision of a graceful dive from the wooden platform into the dark waters of the lake was reduced to shinnying down the ladder and a quick pathetic splash about through the reeds.

At this gathering, we might encounter a journalist who has has travelled along all the borders of Fortress Europa, musing on the people who create and patrol the barriers and those who wish to cross, at their reasonings and their philosophies, their motivations and demons. He tells of a bizarre interview with Norman Lowell in Malta, a former banker, self described ‘Radical-Racialist-Right-Revolutionary-Reactionary’, and founder of Imperium Europa, whose aim is to unite all European natives under one flag.

There is a young American theatre director and performer from Philadelphia, who has Latvian-German roots, and a much older American we have met today, the type of American from the 20th century we’ve almost forgotten exists – big hearted, enthusiastic, generous and inquisitive – who first came to these parts thirty years ago in search of the story of his father, the village tailor who left here in 1905 and travelled to the hope of the America’s. Don’t get me started on those Tea party people, he says.

The phone call has interrupted our reveries. Tonight I am wrong. Things run like clockwork. We finish our drinks and I show Johan the way back to the old synagogue, where there will be this Café Europa event. Earlier, we’d helped lay out the tables and candles and wine and tea cups. It’s not far. Are you nervous? I ask. Yes, a little, he says, I don’t know what to expect. He plans to read his poems in three languages. He can choose from Dutch, French, Polish, English, German, Polish or Russian, as he speaks all of these. 

When we get there, we find the place is crowded. Overflowing. There is no space, barely room to breathe. It’s hot inside. Soon, the wine will run out, the tea and the water also. So many people, so many poets, so many rhythms, cadences and languages. It looks like the beginning of a long evening. He takes his place by the piano, behind the spotlights. I promise to find him a drink. I wander off to look for a shop to get some beer and vodka. Maybe I’ll see an Apteka on the way, so I can get some mosquito spray for the concert by the lakeside tomorrow night. No Apteka but a shop on the other side of town, busy with a long queue for alcohol. Six bottles of beer and a bottle of Sobieski Malinowa, please. I go back and give the poet some beer, and later a steadying glass of vodka. He seems relieved and delivers his lines. All is well. Outside, the thick air parts and it begins to rain. The overspill from the synagogue breathe deeply and the smokers smoke in little groups. I sit on a bench with some of the behind-the-scenes workers and share the vodka. Calm descends.

rozumiesz?Posted on 20th July, 2011.

She came from Silesia. On one side of her family, her Grandfather was German. He ran away from the Wehrmacht and stayed on the other side of the border when the war came to an end. He lost his citizenship because of this and could not go back. In these corners of Europe, where the muddled roots of Poles, German, Czechs and Austro-Hungarians might be found, nothing is simple. Old enmities and traditions linger. She told us she went to German studies in Krakow and all her friends there in that city said to her, Why do you want to learn German, you’re a Pole aren’t you? She told us, But Silesia is different. In Silesia they don’t feel Polish or German. They’re Silesian and it’s specific. She explained it’s more like the feeling of being a Basque or being a Catalan. She lives in Berlin now. I have a German boyfriend too. Who knows what those friends will make of this? They’ll say to me, Are you mad? You want a German baby?

I was reminded of a book by Olga Tokarczuk, which is set in Nowa Ruda, in Lower Silesia. ‘House of Day, House of Night’ is a series of interlinked stories about the inhabitants of this place, in the present and the past, their mysteries and mythologies, dreams and hopes, those Germans who were expelled from this area at the end of World War Two and the displaced Poles who arrive to take over the farms and cottages.

She writes: “The Poles eyed the Germans’ habits with suspicion – how strangely they ate! For breakfast they had a sort of milky soup, for dinner jacket potatoes and some cheese and butter, and on Sundays they killed a rabbit or some pigeons and made barley soup. For their second course they inevitably had noodles, then stewed fruit. The men went to the barns to inspect the Germans’ farm machines, but they didn’t know what they were for or how they worked. They’d squat outside arguing about it and drinking their home-made vodka – that usually went on until evening. Finally someone would fetch an accordion, the women would come and the dancing would begin. They turned that first summer into one long Polish holiday. Some of them were never sober. They just felt glad they had survived and had reached a destination somewhere, anywhere.”

Our land, our territory, our home, our identity examined through these gently undulating and overlapping tales – here you will meet a monk who finds himself undergoing a strange transformation as he investigates the life of a potential saint, or an old woman picking camomile who believes that ‘people are like the ground they live on, whether they like it or not, whether they are aware of it or not’. There is another character who foresees and patiently waits for the end of the world, a classics scholar who turns into a werewolf and our narrator, who shares dreams collected on the internet.

Thinking of this, I pulled out and old interview with a member of the Anglo-Polish Society who had arrived in Britain (coming from Holland) in 1950. Her abiding memory of England at that time was that it was dirty, black and bleak and all she ate for weeks was greasy sausage rolls. She came to work in a carpet factory in Inskip, Lancashire, alongside Italian girls. Then she was sent to work in Wolverhampton, where there were Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and Ukrainians, all waiting for the borders of Europe to be reassembled to determine where their ‘home’ might be.

Here are some of her words: Where I come from, in the Bohemia forest, we have been displaced according to the Yalta agreement. We had to move – because I come from inside of Czechoslovakia, which used to be Austria-Hungary on the border. So we were just these people who was just cut off and who were shifted to the other side. On the continent the frontiers were very elastic you know, they go backwards and forwards. So somehow they didn’t know what to do with us really. I mean the older people they just stuck somewhere with some farmer or somewhere near the border. But with the young people they didn’t know what to do with them. I mean especially my age – we were just teenagers and during the whole, after the war it was only in the 1950 when the whole thing started to get better.

My husband was Polish. We met here in England. Absolutely unbelievable! You wouldn’t have thought we had anything in common would you? But where my husband came from was near Kraków and that used to be Austrian crown colony too. The great-grandfathers of my children were both in the First World War fighting for the Austrians.  My grandfather died in Sarajevo at the beginning of that war. What have we got in common is that culture we grew up in, the houses were more or less the same and the equipment in those years gone by. But they don’t know quite how to take me, you know. Because I am not Polish, because I speak German. I can’t say that I am Polish so there’s no use I am saying that I am Polish. I wouldn’t want to be Polish anyway, if I had a choice you know. I get on well with Polish people – very well – but you must know them and understand the way they feel. Let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t want them to tread on my toes and I don’t tread and theirs.