The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

conversation in a bar, as the fires began to burnPosted on 15th August, 2011.

We drank in a pub that used to be a known haunt of punk rock, which now serves traditional English beer and rather tasty Thai food.

They said, English is a bit of everything these days, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s all mixed up for sure.

Do you worry that the Poles are here to take over? one asks, in good humour. No, I don’t. ‘Poles simply work harder’. I do worry about young people being zombies. Not the chasing after you eating you type, but in the sense of the old fashioned sombulant unconscious trance. But maybe things are about to change. We talk about rock’n’roll and then defining national characteristics and stereotypes and he says how annoyed he was to get an election leaflet though his door from the BNP which opposed ‘mass immigration’ and which, to illustrate the British fighting spirit, showed a picture of a Second World War Spitfire. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at it and realised this particular plane was from a Polish Squadron, flown by a pilot who was Polish. The plane was from 303 Squadron of the RAF. During the Battle of Britain Polish fighter pilots shot down 203 Luftwaffe aircraft – around 12 per cent of total German losses. This annoyed him no end. Come on, he said, Can’t these people get even basic facts right? “It’s not a question of disliking the Polish people,” a BNP spokesman had said when questioned on this, “it’s just a question of economics.”

We then talk about the older expatriate community who, it seems, don’t take too kindly to the newcomers. For years they’ve sent money back to help Mother Poland survive and the moment they’re free and join the EU they come over here. You know, this is first generation to be able to freely express themselves, who can travel across borders without the memory of those times. Those tainted times of Five Year Plans and queuing. Now young Poles have the ability to say what they think, travel, work, and enjoy the same freedoms as ‘The West’.

He tells me about a local recipe for homemade, which apparently dates from the Grunwald Battle of 1410. He’s never tried it though. He also suggests I try coffee vodka. I know that some people from north of Poland what they do with normal vodka is that you take some coffee grains and put it inside a full bottle and leave it for around a week. Then the alcohol taste is killed and you have something like a coffee vodka…

Later I find myself dreaming of a different country, or rather two, where elements of Poland and the UK are irrevocably mixed up, a science fiction scenario that could be from a Stanisław Lem story. Maybe it’s the full moon, maybe it’s the shower of Perseids above…

Here, my ex-girlfriend is proudly showing me round one city, which has Spaghetti Junction traversing the Vistula in ever widening spirals. Here Polglish is spoken – and quite eloquently. It seems the Promised Land. Everywhere is a hive of activity. Old warehouses from Łódź  are jammed up against warehouses in Digbeth, a hive of technological and creative activity encased in 19th century brick and mortar. And beyond, you can see the gleaming shopping centres of downtown. This is Cosmopolitania, a shining new social democratic state, preferably with high mountains, where people work hard and play hard, where we find stubbornness, enterprise, individualism, a distrust of authority and a love of freedom, a land of chilled music festivals and mash up culture. On the large plasma screens in the city centre we listen to the implausibly gleaming model mother glowing on the television. ‘Rutinoscorbin is like the sixth member of our family!’  she says happily. Here glossy commercials for health products beam at all from the billboards, draped down the side of skyscrapers,  interspersed with private insurance schemes and endorsements from television celebrities. People talk endlessly of their management and economic degrees and the new elite dresses up for the party, talking about money and their future dreamed social positions. Here there are optimistic teenagers listening to Crashed Disco Balls with only a hint of melancholy, fringe theatre festivals are popular, there are beaches with sand, fresh fish and fresh fruit.

In the other country, Polgland, which is largely rural and unproductive, conspiracy theories are the main source of media entertainment, along with and repetitive talent shows. The paranoias of the Law and Justice Party and those further right have found their home here. Teenagers are pessimistic, lack lustre and jobless The old times are revered, reinstated even, where the clock is turned back, Orwellian spun via Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ or ‘The Black Dossier’. In high stone letters the slogan Why, Mother Knows Best is emblazoned above the entrance to the city hall. The churches and pubs are full, the football hooligans are in place, the League of Families gather in solidarity. The deeply conservative and eternally aggrieved live here, spread out across ramshackle housing estates that stretch out far across the plain. And there is still an underclass – for there must be a scapegoat – those Islamists and former members of the colonies, who work at night and clear away the refuse and recycle what they can, copper or tin. Here, a hefty dose of narcissism in the nationalist martyrology is welded onto a mournful reverence of the time when Brittannia ruled the waves. Here there are beaches with stones, New Brightons, cornettos, grease laden fish and chips, everyone size 16, too many TV reality shows about nothing in particular, and the deeply engrained pornification opium of the masses.

In both these future lands, there is one common problem: What to do with the Chechens?

No vodka was consumed during the writing of this post, though there is surely time yet. Alternatively, I’ll run through this blog about an expatriate living in Wrocław.

queuePosted on 7th August, 2011.

At the meeting of the Polish Expatriates Association, there is only a small queue to play a board game.  The game is called ‘Kolejka’ – which recreates the experience of shopping in communist-era Poland. A game for up to 5 players, it was produced by the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw. It was sold out within days, so this copy has come via Allegro (an online auction house).

The task is to send out your family (represented by five pawns) to queue at various shops on the game board to buy all the items on your shopping list  (a card you are given at the outset). Each round represents a day. The problem you face is that you don’t know whether there will be anything in the store when you join the queue. (Though older people reminisce that you could always get vodka and vinegar – though there was a period of serious unrest when even these essentials were rationed.) You may be in a queue of six people for two items or none at all, as there has been no delivery to that particular shop that day. Someone might have a card which allows them to queue jump, move the items to another shop (przepraszam, pani, wrong delivery!) or you may need to buy goods on the black market (at a different daily rate). Indeed, there are some speculators in the queue, ready to snap up the goods. The winner of the game is the first person to collect all the items on their list. There are sixty cards with particular items from communist days. Amongst these goods you might find loo paper, coffee, a guide to Bulgaria, or an elegant coat. This is a serious game, so no vodka is being consumed.

You can download an English version of the game from here:

The Polish Expatriates Association have recently produced an exhibition – and accompanying book and dvd – called ‘From Exile to Freedom’, which can be seen at The Drum in Birmingham, UK until September 3rd. They are also producing a Polish film season at the MAC in Birmingham in August. Details here. As the t-shirt said (from a tabloid headline): Poles Simply Work Harder.