The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Long time no see…Posted on 18th December, 2011.

I nearly gave up on vodka project. Less opportunities and reasons to visit Poland. A year of unenthusiasm perhaps. Jobs to do to pay the rent and less time to travel at a leisurely pace. But a trip on impulse provides a necessary tonic. Therapeutic xmas shopping in Warsaw. It’s not snowing.

Tonight I am being taken to the wilder outskirts of Warsaw. I receive an offer to attend a guerrilla theatre event. I am advised to dress warm as there will be no heating and my guide suggests a small bottle of vodka in the pocket would not go amiss. We meet by the Lux/Torpedo bar, which I have passed by many times but never knew what it was called. My instructions received by txt read: Between the stairs heading to the Metro Centrum entrance and the train station. It’s a silver lorry. Indeed it is silver. I wouldn’t call it a lorry though. The figure of a footballer from the Polish national team with a stone bust of Chopin on its shoulders is printed on the side of the vending machines by the cabin.  A gigantic football is positioned in front of the Palace of Culture. Thus the city is being branded to welcome the incoming fans of the Euro football championships next summer.

The night is turning colder as we briskly walk to take an eastbound train. The train trundles over the river and passes by the glowing new stadium – which may be finished in time, which is likely to host some of the matches but no-one knows if it will be used again. Isn’t it a horror? she says. I admit that I too long for its predecessor. She expects mischief. You know the Army museum, she says, can you imagine all those football fans, what fun they’ll have climbing on the tanks and those rockets? I asked the museum what are they going to do to control this and they said they will employ a few extra security guards. Don’t you think it will be crazy? I agree with her. I need to decide whether to be here at that point with the English fans will be an experience, or whether I should avoid the city at all costs.

We leave the train at a platform that looks abandoned, in the darker recesses of the eastern peripheries. The rain is turning to sleet. Only two other people disembark and immediately climb down onto the tracks and take a short cut to the roundabout where there is a solitary bus waiting. Lights on a church steeple twinkle in the distance somewhere back towards Praga, otherwise it’s mostly dark. A few yellow lights swinging near the rail junction and freight yards. We might be In Rembertów but I’m not sure. Neither is she. We have to cross the tracks, two sets, that’s what she says. She asks directions from a guy operating the barrier over the rail tracks. He shrugs. We wander towards some warehouses. She calls a friend but they are coming by car and can’t tell us where we are. We cross the tracks, several pairs. We come to a small shop. I wouldn’t have spotted it. It’s just a blue light in the distance. The shopkeeper asks her, Are you with this gentleman? You’re not going there alone? I stare at the pastries, wondering if I’m feeling peckish. I’m a bit underfed to be a convincing bodyguard. We carry on and find a guy who tells us to go behind that large building and cross the railway tracks. More tracks. The wind is getting colder and the light sparser. This looks a great place to commit suicide, I suggest. A good place for any sort of crime, she suggests. On the other side of the tracks, large concrete blocks that seem to serve no purpose, and an outcrop of stunted trees. Between the branches a sort of path and then a line of candle lights which lead to what looks like an abandoned garage. Inside, it’s quite cosy. There is some heating. This is the base of Teatr Akt, an independent group of artists.

The audience experience a performance with no words, physical theatre, comedy, music and pantomime, which plays with the idea of sporting challenge, football specifically. The Beautiful Game, played around with, a work in progress, which will be performed on the street during the Championships. I have bad memories of the disaster of the English team against Poland in the 1970’s. I’m not sure she will understand this trauma. She is too young. After the performance a glass or two of vodka settles my nerves, then we cram into a car to go back to the city to another party, more vodka and an early night at 4.30am.

The Golden AgePosted on 20th October, 2011.

In Poland it’s been the Year of Miłosz, the centenary of his birth. The events have come thick and fast. I heard a story about the American poet Brenda Hillman, who recalled Miłosz appearing at the door, always with the salutation “Vodka, Brenda!”  They kept a bottle in the freezer for such visits. She once asked him, “What is heaven? What is it like?”  To which he replied: “Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”

The Belgian poet in Brussels told a different story to me. It was a hot day in May when he met Miłosz in Krakow, where he was living because – the famous poet said – it reminded him of Vilnius. He was doing an interview for Belgian radio. The offer of three days in Poland and one hour to interview the author of ‘A Poem For the End of the Century’ was too good an offer to resist. It was, he recalled, a very special hour. He asked me what language did we wish to conduct the interview in – Russian, Polish, French, Lithuanian or English? It had to be in English, for it was to be broadcast on a Dutch radio station. I remember he talked a lot about the eroticism of language and as I was learning Russian I understood what he meant. I fell in love with the language, that’s the only way to put it.

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:  http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/en/2/512/Download_English_printandplay_version_of_Kolejka_game.html

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.

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.

‘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.

Notes:
‘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.

back to the castlePosted on 20th February, 2011.

Ujazdowski Castle was first constructed at the beginning of the 17th century on top of the escarpment, looking out over fine views of the river Vistula and used as a summer residence for the King. You can eat on the terrace here at a restaurant Qchnia Artystyczna. I’ll recommend the potato cakes with wild mushroom sauce, but there’s no time for that today – and it’s not the time for dining on the terrace. We’re here for the art.

The castle has been rebuilt many times, before being burnt to the ground in the Second World War. It lay in ruins until 1954, when the remaining walls were demolished. It was not reconstructed until the 1970’s as a two storey square castle with four towers around an internal courtyard. The six lane Łazienkowska highway runs nearby, in a deep cutting towards the river. There are plans to redevelop this with a Museum of Polish History spanning the highway, and constructing a ‘culturepark’. An architectural competition was announced and a shortlist drawn up, but no-one knows how long this vision will take to realise, with other large construction projects in the city facing delays.

It is now home to the Centre for Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski), established in 1985. It has a new Director, Fabio Cavallucci, following an open competition, the first international curator to run a Polish institution. It has a permanent collection, which has been re-interpreted by curators Grzegorz Borkowski and Marcin Krasny under the title of ‘Things Evoke Feelings’. Starting with work from Martin Creed, the exhibition presents such themes as Passion for Construction, the Trauma of Ideology, Breath, Women’s Revolt, Patience, and the Oppression of the Everyday. Here, we bump into a tutor from the University, who is walking with the aid of a stick. He explains he fell off the sofa while adjusting the Christmas lights. He insists no vodka was involved or any other kinds of shenanigans.

We are really here to see the exhibition ‘Fragment’, a gathering of the video works of Mirosław Bałka. It’s receiving a huge amount of media coverage. While I am not a fan of most video work, and I have seen some of these pieces individually in other shows, together they have a powerful effect. In a series of reconstructed rooms we enter into a huge sculptural space lit only by almost colourless projections on the walls and floors – grey wintry images of concentration camps, almost indistinct fragments of history and experience, spinning, turning, moving, blurry, all shot in a ‘muted twilight’. The inside of the building is as chilling as the snow dimmed landscape outside. In the castle bookstore, which is warm and cosy, overhearing the sensitive discussion about the unexpected danger of Christmas lights, I buy the catalogue to Balka’s Tate Turbine Hall show ‘How it is’, which provides a great review of his work if you care to investigate further.

Balka prepared a film programme to accompany the exhibition under the title ‘Sculpture film club’, presenting films by Pier Pasolini, Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Béla Tarr. He started with ‘Come and See’ by Elim Klimov, and ended with ‘The Ascent’ by Laria Shepitko, both set during the Nazi occupation of Belarus.

I recall meeting Balka on a warm July day some years ago in Wrocław, at an event organised by the Borderland Foundation, where he is watching his concept unfold from a drawing on a sheet of A4 paper into physical reality.  A tightrope was set across the path that led to the door of the White Stork Synagogue, a building in the process of restoration after decades of ruination. Sitting in a courtyard behind Włodkowica, in the District of Good Neighbourhood, this was a neo-classical building that dated back to 1829. Participants at the ‘New Agora’ event gathered here one evening to learn to walk the line, guided gently yet firmly by circus artist Ante Ursic. Eyes focused on the end of the rope, balancing on one foot, then changing to the other. Ante said, Let your toes guide the way, grip the line – this is a line that vibrated with a particular intensity. Ante coaxes the participants across. If you fall off, don’t worry, it’s not so far to fall. Get straight back on the line and continue; again and again until you reach the end of the rope. You have to get back on the line and finish, even if you are only 10 cm away from the end. Sorry, Ante says, but I’m traditional. Find your balance and walk – or no supper in the Rynek, they joke (or perhaps not). You then assist the next person, walking alongside the apprentice rope walker, hands barely touching in the air – as Ante insists, you do not hold on or grip.

This particular activity takes place for two hours, so all participants can walk the line once, twice, and then back again. Mirosław seems happy with the way his concept is realised. There is a café and a bar here, in this courtyard, and these onlookers watch the proceedings pensively. Some join in with the conference participants. Here they sit and drink hot chocolate with cherries to celebrate this ‘action’, but what might this ‘action’ represent? To be persistent, to try again, to not try for one moment and then give up.  Or perhaps the crossing of a border, in between a physical space and a cultural divide, between the precarious balance and the effect of gravity, along the thin line between right and wrong, between competing ideas or groups.

Now looking out over the darkness of the bleak snow covered landscape, much the same monochrome as his videos, following the line of the river to distant Otwock where he lives, thinking of him sitting in the studio in the house that he grew up in, the stone mason’s yard outside, I read one description of Balka’s work – it has ‘a bare and elegiac quality that is underlined by the careful, minimalist placement of objects, as well as the gaps and pauses between them…’ Perfect for this kind of tired and slow day.

Stadion XPosted on 18th February, 2011.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the site of Stadion X. I’ve passed it by in all weathers. Of course, we can see all the cranes and the new construction rising in the distance, taking shape. It grows significantly in our consciousness, if somewhat sluggishly.

As the autumn began and the air was clear and bright, looking at it from the terrace by Castle Square – above the Trasa W-Z highway, which crosses the river, where shiny new trams begin to traverse the west-east axis and the old trams are banished to outer districts – it is becoming a landmark. I cast my mind back to my first visit there, almost a decade ago, when it seemed both desolate and busy, a place of contradictions. Vietnamese stalls and food joints at its lower end, Africans selling fake branded trainers somewhere in the middle, and Russians selling all kinds of stuff at the upper levels. Some Polish there of course; they had not all left back then to open a small sklep in England. We were carrying a large sunflower, bought from one of the food markets there. Put your camera away, don’t take photographs, our companion told us. Don’t attract attention. We bought some games software for a pittance, that we didn’t expect to work, but worked perfectly well. There was a stall selling old firearms. You want some bullets, you can get those too but not here. Come back later, over there. In good working order, yes. We guarantee. I was reminded of an old bazaar in Herat. I was not sure they were joking with foreign tourist. My Polish companions were not convinced either.

The ground here on the right bank of the Vistula, between old Praga and Saska Kępa, was once marshland, some farms and horses. It became a dumping ground for rubble from the utter ruins of the city after the war. At first, the 10th Anniversary Stadium – as it was officially called – began with an architectural competition for a sports stadium between the bridges to hold 37,500 spectators, with the option of expanding to 60,000. Warsaw was selected to host the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, and needed a suitable arena for this socialist spectacle. So the stadium came into being, with seating for 71,000 and a capacity of 100,000. It was built between June 1954 and July 1955, the games starting soon after. It was named for the anniversary of the proclamation of the Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation in July 1944.*

In 1968, a 60 year old father of five, Ryszard Siwiec, set himself ablaze during a harvest festival event in the stadium attended by 100,000 people in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.   The story of his death was finally told in a 1991 documentary film ‘Hear My Cry/Usłyszcie mój krzyk’ made by Maciej Drygas.

At the beginning of the 80’s the stadium, was more or less abandoned. No longer used for sporting events, by 1989 it had become a market – over and around it grew a remarkable plethora of open air stalls. It became known as Jarmark Europa, though people the people with me referred to it as the ‘black market’ or – perhaps more eloquently – as the ‘dodgy market’. Even then, I had a feeling this temporary space would disappear. Others did too. There was a series of remarkable cultural projects here, which included ‘A Trip to Asia; An Acoustic Walk Around the Vietnamese Sector’ (2006), a collaboration between Anna Gajewska and Ngo Van Turong, where participants were invited on a staged journey to explore this aspect of Hanoi that lived within the bosom of their city; or ‘Boniek!’ which was an one man re-enactment of the Poland-Belgium match in 1982 by performance artist Massimo Furlan.

Jarmark Europa is no more. God knows where this diaspora of people have now gone to (though you can find one of the Vietnamese vendors trading in a popular eating place on Chmielna Street in the centre). The new stadium, designed to be built over the old one (the original foundations of rubble being a little bit dodgy), will be open for business for the European Football Championships of 2012, which Poland co-hosts. At least, they say so… though the wastes around seem to fuel the rumours of delay and obfuscation that dog many large scale capital projects.

I have walked past here in early mornings, over the sobering Poniatowski Bridge, after a long night of vodka which usually ended in Café Szparka on Trzech Krzyzy, with frost heavy on the ground, or with spring freshness in the air, the migratory market workers leaving the first buses and disappearing into the tunnels underneath. They have all gone and what remain now is a skeletal shape, a fine background for a late night photograph on a cold night, after some nice Italian food in Saska Kępa
and a brisk walk between bars, as the future beckons.

*There is an detailed essay on this subject by Grzegorz Piątek: “A palimset inscribed on an ellipse on the stadium’s architecture’, published in ‘Stadium X: A place that never was.’

Photograph of a cold night courtesy of Anna Majewska.

The wheels just keep on turningPosted on 15th February, 2011.

She reminded me that the pedestrian subway near the contemporary art centre at Ujazdowski Castle hasn’t changed too much over the years. It still has those wonderful evergreens – a news kiosk, a 24/7 alcohol shop, a shop selling knickers and socks, another one with bags and two-parts, working supposedly under a slogan “be elegant even if you’re forty”. There’s a pastry counter and a book stall, a smell of damp and doughnuts – and a guard booth too, though I don’t remember that from other times. She told me, Sometimes think that the shops exist only thanks to the artists-in-residence that I work with, since it’s quite an empty zone here. There’s even no night bus going through. Two identical groceries – tiny, you’re buying your kefir from the window only – which have exactly same assortment and seem to be competing.

Elsewhere in the city, some of these subways are filled in and in other subways shops pop up and then disappear. Marking a current entrepreneurship which goes with the wind quite quickly usually, she said. Like the bar which was based on the idea that after you buy pierogi’s it’s so cool if you can microwave them on your own – in the shop there was a wall built up from the microwave ovens. Or Warsaw’s phenomena: grilled sandwiches that taste like Styrofoam. The boom was somehow connected with the fact that you could feel like a real conscious customer: choosing sauces (all mayo based), pickles or so called “fresh” greens, with onion or without. A shop with darkened windows – slot-machines and shisha’s. Right now it’s closed and sealed by police stamp. Those “service points” grew like mushrooms in warm rain last summer in Poland, when somebody found a gap in regulations regarding taxing the income from gambling – not applicable to one-armed bandits and similar stuff. Soon after that these became also shops where you could buy “dopalacze” – designer drugs that caused several deaths and the campaign against the shops that were selling them followed. And the last shop from this series: not so fashionable handmade jewelery of stones.

In this particular subway, out of the dull rain, the whole of one wall is still an elongated vitrine, stuffed full of paintings for sale. Or at least reproductions of paintings in vivid expressionist colours with strong brushstrokes, or the softening afterglow of Romanticism. They are less Stanisław Wyspiański and perhaps more like Apoloniusz Kędzierski.  Here you’ll see an abundance of Polish Hussars, along with Orthodox Jews, winter scenes and dreamy sun drenched landscapes, churches in the mountains, Stary Ryneks, a Łazienki Palace or two. Well, you know, she said, the memorable idea of art: what to hang over the mantle piece or rather on the wainscot. Landscapes which are the hundreth copy of Cossacks and Turner mixed together. A horse should be there for sure anyways. The portraits of Orthodox Jews – Poles keep them at home since there is a superstition saying that they bring financial success.

Where there is now an infestation of these portraits, patriotic themes of regional nature and historical scenes, back at the end of the 20th century, at odd times you could find a man selling posters from film and theatre productions from the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s. Here I first encountered poster artwork by Stasys or Jan Lenica, amidst a pile weighing down an old picnic table. They were ridiculously cheap by any standards. An artist colleague J- knew him then. He told me that this fellow used to work at the Castle (which also housed a cinema) as a kind of caretaker-technician and this selling on of posters was his sideline for many years, like all the sellers in the streets of Warsaw’s early capitalism. As time went by, he became more successful  and there was no longer a dodgy table, but his display of posters took over the display cabinets, one by one. Maybe he’s retired, or moved into the ornately framed painting business, or simply gone upmarket.

At the top of the steps of the subway, past the guard, a huge crowd of birds, what kind I can’t tell, wheel above in the darkening evening. They scatter amongst the trees of the park, not waiting for a suitable painter to mark their progress. We hurry through the drizzle. Time to find some other art within the walls of the castle.

Thanks to Ania P.

You and me, us and themPosted on 3rd September, 2010.

I was asked with great curiosity if Catholicism is as fervent now as it was before and whether or not Polonia siempre fidelis? I said that today’s Poland is a piece of stale bread which breaks into two halves with a snap; the believing and the nonbelieving.*
- Witold Gombromicz

Now that the Defenders of the Cross appear to have been swept off the pavement by the celebrations surrounding the Miracle of the Vistula, I wonder if they might have missed an opportunity to walk along the street to the end of Nowy Świat to Muzeum Narodowe/National Museum and mount a vigil of protest there. In this huge building, next to the Stock Exchange, you will find a huge collection of ancient, Christian and medieval art, Polish and foreign paintings. The largest permanent is the Polish Art Gallery, which has over 430 paintings created either by Polish painters or by artists of other nationalities working in Poland.  The great painting of the Battle of Grunwald is absent, taken away for cleaning and restoration work. This is how Gombromicz described such places: ‘Large, empty rooms hung with canvases are repugnant and capable of casting one into pits of depression’.*

In some ways it may conform this view – ‘Darling, now here’s a striking example of tenebrism, don’t you think?’ - but around the building there was also a temporary exhibition (from June to September), Ars Homo Erotica – a survey of homoerotic imagery from antiquity to the present. It features classical works from the collection alongside contemporary art. It features work made in response to the suppression of gay rights groups in Eastern Europe.

Though he lies far away under Wawel Hill, the spirit of the dead president may be a little restive. When he was Mayor he had, of course, banned gay pride parades in the capital in 2004 and 2005.  The exhibition opened just prior to the closely contested Presidential elections in June (which twin brother Jarosław lost). And in July, Europride 2010 was held in Warsaw. One MP from the Law and Justice Party, upon hearing that such an exhibition was planned, declared that there was no such thing as homosexual art. His remarks compared homosexuality to necrophilia, bestiality and pedophilia, and prompted a letter from the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights. (View the letter here.)

The curator of the show, Paweł Leszkowicz, was quoted as saying: “There will be nudity and male genitals on display, but no pornography. We just want to please the audience.” Still, it seems highly unlikely that the MP concerned will frame his letter or be pleased to give pride of place in his dining room to an image of soldiers kissing, or any drawing that includes a penis, however bearded and manly and 19th century the owners are.

So, at two ends of the street, two different aspects of Poland, oil and water you might say.

* Note: Witold Gombromicz was a novelist and dramatist who went into exile in South America in 1939. Quotes from Diary Volume One: 1953-56, originally published in France in 1957, under the title Dziennik.

barefoot in the sandPosted on 20th July, 2010.

Sopot lies between Gdańsk and Gdynia, a short train ride between them, the three towns together making up the metropolitan area called Trójmiasto. It has the longest wooden pier in Europe, over 500 metres long.* The pier was built in 1827 and extended to its current length in the 1920’s, when an opulent casino was constructed on the seafront (now the Grand Hotel) as a playground for the rich and famous. From the 1960’s it resurrected itself with the birth of Polish beat music and today has some of the greatest property prices in the country.

My first sighting of this premiere league holiday resort was in the first episode of ‘07 zgłoś się’ (originally broadcast in 1976). Our Warsaw cop hero Sławomir Borewicz stays here with his girlfriend, while investigating unruly gangsters. I was then undergoing a crash course in the basement of the Institute of Polish culture (next stop, Violetta Villas and her collection of dogs, Kabaret Starszych Panów/Old Gentlemen’s Cabaret, then Czterej pancerni i pies/ Four tank men and a dog).

Today, far from that fiendish basement and that midwinter scene, we walk down Bohaterów Monte Cassino – the pedestrianised main street crowded with holidaymakers. We go past the pier, walking along the fringe of the golden sands. The end of the pier is undergoing some reconstruction and hammer drills resonate over the bay. We pass a group congregated around the red lifeguard tower. Their bicycle hampers are stuffed full of alcohol. In contrast we simply carry water, pastries, strawberries and raspberries. The bicycles are leaning against the struts of the tower, and so are two of the people. When they let go, they sway as if caught in a strong wind.

As we pass, one of the women is kicking off her jeans and cracking open a bottle with her teeth. My girlfriend asks, Are my contact lenses playing up or is that woman not wearing any underwear? She does have underwear, but it’s skin coloured, so from the waist down she looks like a plastic doll. One of the guys with her staggers down to the water and jumps in fully clothed. Maybe it’s a good idea, as the Baltic can be cold. Not many people are in the water today. Some windsurfers on the horizon, a banana boat ride and a couple of jet-skis.

A significant number of people on the beach are wearing wristbands signifying they are attending the Open’er Festival, four days of music on the site of the old airport at Gdynia. After a hard night of Pearl Jam or Grace Jones, they are relaxing on the sand, eating excellent fried fish at the beach cafes along with celebrities and stars of various kinds. And here comes Katarzyna Figura, once primarily cast as a blond bombshell, though I can recall she had a brief cameo in Polański’s ‘The Pianist’. I wouldn’t have recognised her today, dressed anonymously in white, as perhaps befitting an actress wishing to be undisturbed on her normal summer holiday.

Her two kids are making sandcastles, which is not so easy with this fine sand. Her husband is filming them – it looks quite a production, and the kids are getting a bit bored with all the retakes. When Dad’s back is turned, the older girl sulkily kicks the sandcastle to smithereens. Then there’s writer Jerzy Pilch sitting on a wall, looking past the fried fish to the Baltic. You should go and talk to him, A- says, He writes a lot about alcohol. His book ‘The Mighty Angel’ won the Nike Literary Award in 1991. She tells me it’s about the alcoholic misadventures of a writer named Jerzy. Perhaps you would like it? I wander by and promise to look it up.

* If England were to consider itself part of Europe, then the pier at Southend-on-Sea would qualify as the longest. Originally built in 1846,            it is 2,158 metres long.

Sunday CollectionPosted on 28th February, 2010.

On the second Sunday of January, hundreds of thousands of volunteers collect money for what is the largest charitable organisation in Poland – Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy/the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. In 1992, the host of a popular TV show for children, Jurek Owsiak, first proposed a collection for medical equipment for badly equipped cardio surgery wards in children’s hospitals. His appeal proved so popular that this fundraising became an annual event, raising funds for a variety of hospital wards.

In the atmosphere and kindliness and goodwill, others are also on the streets looking for donations. A Slovenian student is selling angels to pay for her studies. A fine art student offers some religious cards of Mary Mother of God or John Paul II in exchange for a cash donation. He says he is saving up for a pilgrimage. Where to, we ask? Lourdes. Maybe the Vatican, he says. When we don’t respond favourably, he rifles through his pockets and pulls out a card of St. Christopher. Ah, maybe you are a driver?

The official collectors take a variety of guises. A man dressed as a 17th century Varsovian nobleman, complete with ermine wrap and sabre, or a group of women with several St. Bernard dogs. There is group in the role of PRL militia and police, complete with period vehicles, and lots of school students on every street corner in the deep snow. On the radio there are news reports of ‘some bad people’ taking advantage of the charitable activity. A group of young girls in Płock fight off an assailant and manage to hang on to their money. They say this is the largest collection of money in the world but today the snow is keeping many people off the streets, and there seem to be more collectors than potential donors. Nevertheless, over 42 million zlotis are raised.  The collectors are rewarded by the presentation of a massive free festival in the summer, Przystanek Woodstock, a thank you for all those who have donated their time and money.

The Old Town is quite deserted, though a few hardy salesmen stand resolute as ever under the shelter of the Barbican gate with their paintings and folk art objects, oblivious to the cold. A guy in a doorway holds his hand out for money, muttering, Jurek is asking and I am asking also. Though it is only mid-afternoon, the city is cloaked with dusk-like grey light. Through a gateway, an old woman stands staring down the street, as it descends to the river, obscured by the flurries of snow.

It’s a long way from wigan casinoPosted on 24th January, 2010.

We walk from Metro Ratusz to the crowded Capitol Theatre, along with numerous fans of the TV show Taniec z Gwiazdami/Dancing With the Stars. Approaching minus 15 degrees tonight isn’t stopping us or them. The building used to be a cinema, but is now a private theatre and nightclub, and it’s quickly filling up.

Like elsewhere, there are numerous popular dance programmes on television, partnering professional dancers with celebrities. Each week in Poland, Taniec z Gwiazdami draws an audience of five to seven million viewers.  The live show tonight, telling the story of a certain Lady Fosse, is a 90 minute dance extravaganza with eight dancers – four men and four women, all who have appeared on  this style of TV programmes. A narrator, an older guy in a white 30’s style gangster suit and trilby, makes the occasional appearance and in a deep deep voice, he loosely connects the dance sequences. Ah, Lady Fosse, oh how she loved to dance. She loved to be the centre of attention. She loved to have fun…

Lady Fosse appears, or rather there are four Lady Fosses, each identical in a jet black Louise Brooks bob cut, though my friend disagrees with this association and thinks it is more like Cleopatra.  Jazz, charleston, rumba, rock & roll, jive, modern jazz in dizzying various combinations, with a little contemporary and abstract dance to slow things down. Quick costume changes, songs from the 20’s, 30’s, 60’s, Shirley Bassey belting out ‘Hey, Big Spender…’ It is the faster, high energy numbers and gymnastic leaps and kicks which get the crowd clapping and cheering. The first two rows of seats are taken by a corporate party, and the next few rows by excitable teenagers on a school trip. Some other stars from Taniec z Gwiazdami  are in the audience behind them, applauding their colleagues, urging them on. The kids notice them straightaway, and say to each other, Look, they’re not in the VIP seats. I think they’re trying to blend in with the normal people.

Capitalising on the popularity of the TV programme, the show is travelling to different cities, selling out each venue.  Later, we meet one of the performers, after one of the auditions for another one of this assembly line of dance programmes, Po Prostu Tańcz!/You Can Dance! She seems a little exhausted and is shrugging off a muscle strain. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to make it up the stairs after one of those dance routines, now or even 20 years ago. We tell her about a grumpy guy in a shiny black suit who was sitting next to us, at the back of the theatre, who only seemed to be there to please his girlfriend. How he breathed a sense of relief as the narrator came to the front of the stage after the final dance, sat down at a table and poured himself a glass of vodka. The show was brought to a close with a few philosophical thoughts about feminine wiles and the nature and pitfalls of desire. The narrator raised his glass to the audience as the lights went down. The grumpy guy leaned over to his girlfriend and said, See, I told you, it isn’t possible to have any fun without alcohol. He was not a convert, at least not yet.

It’s a long way from Wigan Casino, the Catacombs and the days of Northern Soul, but still…

A walk around the former GhettoPosted on 28th September, 2009.

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A little way along Sienna Street, we stop at a locked gate and with the help of a passing resident, are let through into a private courtyard. It must be accessible sometimes, as there is a tourist information office down some steps in the basement (which is closed). The stretch of ghetto wall – one of two remaining fragments – stands between the backs of two pre-war buildings. It doesn’t seem particularly high or sturdy, today just an old wall in an old courtyard, but it was a sturdy enough concept then to enclose and entrap over 400,000 Jews. The red bricks are crumbling and some have been removed to provide a shelf for candles. Above the wall, a few minutes walk away, stands the ever present Palace of Culture.

But let’s start at Plac Grzybowski…
We began our walk at Menora, a Jewish restaurant on the corner of Plac Grzybowski, with a traditional lunch, waiting for the rainstorm to pass. We also start with ‘Jankielówka’ – which is a mixture of wódka Soplica, miód, sok cytrynowy and anyż.

On one side of Plac Grzybowski is Teatr Żydowski, a Jewish theatre, and on the other, All Saints’ Church. In the cellar of the church there was, until quite recently, a bookstore which sold anti-Semitic and nationalist literature. The patch of grass between the church and the theatre was intended to be the site of a monument of the victims of the Volhynia massacres (Poles who were murdered by the Ukrainians in 1942-1944). In this space last year, an artist created a very different kind of sculpture. Joanna Rajkowska created an artificial pond here, which generated a cloud of oxygen enriched air  – literally, a breathing space. Dotleniacz (Oxygenator) was planned for one summer, and dismantled, but due to popular demand from local residents may become a permanent feature in the redevelopment of the area.

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Nearby Próżna Street has some of the original buildings, and gives a sense of what it was like pre-war. Mostly the windows are boarded up, and images of former inhabitants have been hung on the wall. Closer to the main road, Marszałkowska, they are inhabited, and you will find popular café, Próżna.

Looking at a map, which shows the extent of the wall, we consider some of the facts. In November 1940, the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was sealed off with this barrier, constructed in a few months, using forced labour, by the firm Schmidt & Münstermann – who also helped build the Treblinka death camp. The Jewish community were then charged for its construction. The ghetto wall was 3 – 3.5 metres high, topped by glass and barbed wire.

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The Nazis didn’t call it a ghetto, they called it the Jewish quarter – Jüdischer Wohnbezirk. To establish the quarter, around 113,000 Poles had to vacate their homes, with the first 138,000 Jews taking their place. Some 30% of the population of Warsaw was squeezed into 2.4% of the city’s area. Many thousands of other Jews were brought here, taking the Ghetto population over 400,000. Over 100,000 of these died from hunger and disease, even before the Nazis began to send them to the death camps.

The former border of the Ghetto is partly marked out by bronze strips in the ground, tracing lost enclosed streets. There is one in the pavement outside the eastern façade of the Palace of Culture, or in the grass on the edge of Krasińskich Garden, a trace of the lost enclosed streets.

Take a tram along Aleja Jana Pawła II to Stawki Street, and walk in an easterly direction…
We pass a long line of white hand painted letters on one concrete wall which says: Every weekend 3000 drunken drivers, 50 of them go to God. We come to the Umschlagplatz memorial, a stone monument resembling an open freight car. On the northern boundary of the Ghetto, it was created in 1988 by architect Hanna Szmalenberg and sculptor Władysław Klamerus, and marks the point at which Jews were sent by train to Treblinka for extermination – a quarter of a million between July and September 1942. Across the road is a building which was the headquarters of the SS in control of the deportations. It is now part of Warsaw University, housing the Psychology Faculty.

Walk beyond this, and turn right down Stanisława Dubois street, past the post-war housing blocks… You will see one or two granite blocks with plaques in Polish and Hebrew, these are part of a Path of Remembrance commemorating various individuals from the Ghetto  – soon you will come to an open patch of ground, on the corner of Miła street, with a small raised mound. This is the remains of the Żob (Jewish Combat Organisation) command bunker during the Ghetto Uprising. ‘It is the place of rest of over one hundred fighters, only some of whom are known by name. Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.’

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For some, this part of Warsaw has a peculiar spectral quality, with these not-quite-forgotten traces of the city lying beneath these wide streets and large apartment blocks built upon the ruins after the war. On Lewartowskiego Street, between the site of the bunker and the 1948 Ghetto Heroes monument, one friend attended primary school here in the 80’s.

I excelled in Biology, she said. On the wall, there were two cabinets full of jars of specimens and there were two skulls. One was artificially made for sure, all white and polished but the other one was beige with darkish grey stains. This one had been dug out of the school grounds long after the war. As the best pupil in Biology, I was asked to take out this skull from the cabinet and parade it to the other pupils, so they could have a closer look. I thought it was deeply wrong to keep it here, but no-one else seemed bothered.  When I told my Mom, she was not shocked. She just said, ‘Oh we used to play with such things all the time. We’d find things like that all the time round here.’ It seemed normal to her.

The Ghetto Heroes monument was built from blocks ordered by Hitler to be imported from Sweden to construct a victory monument. The work of Natan Rappaport (1911-1977), it was sculpted in Paris, where he was living at that time, on the one side shows heroic figures on the other a line of dejected deportees, an implicit criticism of those who did not resist. It was unveiled on the fifth anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, amidst the ruins. The open space here is designated for a new museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews, scheduled for completion in 2013, after more than a decade of fundraising and argument.

At the monument, she told me, there were always old people sitting enjoying the sunshine (as they are today). All the conversations seemed to be about the idea that the Jews were going to come back and take the land and we’ll all be evicted. This was always the conversation, that we are living on borrowed land, and so the idea of the construction of a Jewish Memorial Museum here was not popular. ‘If we give them the museum, then they will come back and want more,’ that’s what their view was. It is impossible to think differently if you live in Muranów. My family came from across the river, they were peasants, but rich enough as they had land where the national stadium is now. These apartments were part of a socialist construction project, built for factory workers, on the rubble of the Ghetto, quickly after the end of the war. My Grandfather worked for FSO (Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych – Factory of Passenger Cars) in Żerań, and so he got a flat here.

The old people still sit around the monument in the fading autumn sun. The open space is surrounded by building hoardings, which mark the extent of the future five-storey building. There was a ground-breaking ceremony in June, and the serious work is about to begin. A tourist bus arrives and a crowd disembark to take photographs. There is a stall selling souvenirs, books and information about the Ghetto and the history of Warsaw. There is, I notice, a snow globe which contains, in crude miniature, the ever present Palace of Culture.

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

I have been to Kraków several times. There always seems to be an event of some kind. Once a splendid Corpus Christi procession, another time a small fascist march and an anarchist demonstration in response, or a huge folk festival in the Rynek with most people in traditional costumes of the Tatra mountains.

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I was also there on the memorable night of the Champions League final in Istanbul, when Liverpool played Milan, though finding a bar with live coverage was surprisingly difficult. In Warsaw this would not be a problem. Undoubtably there are fans in Kraków, supporters of Wisła or their arch rivals Cracovia, yet this city’s inhabitants perhaps see themselves as more urbane and sophisticated. By half time we found a bar with coverage of the match, but the exodus of English told us to not bother. It’s all over mate, they said, Forget it, they’re dead in the water. Milan are 3 up. So we went to a different bar and drank more vodka and forgot about it. Back at the hotel I switched on the TV to see how many goals Liverpool actually lost by, to find they had actually won the Cup on penalties after extra time. It was a Polish Match of the Day programme, and on the studio couch were a range of guests including Jerzy Dudek’s Mom (or maybe his Aunt), proudly wearing a Liverpool shirt, and they spent the next hour talking about how great Jerzy was. I hoped to see a replay of the goals, but all I saw were various images of our hero smiling, grimacing, sweating, shouting instructions, waving his hands, making a drop kick, throwing the ball, wobbling his knees, making the vital penalty saves – but never actually picking the ball out of his own net five times. The programme ended with a montage of these images to the soundtrack of the Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’.

I resisted the charms of Kraków for a long time. Everyone said, Yes, yes, you must go to beautiful Kraków, all the English do! I really try to avoid those notorious English binge drinkers but this weekend there are surprisingly few in evidence. I can now say I have taken in the views from Wawel Hill, and stood under the Pope’s window, and looked at the art nouveau murals and stained glass windows by Stanisław Wyspiański in the Franciszkanów Church, watched live re-enactments medieval knighthood in the Barbican fortification, ate passable tourist food on the Rynek, whiled a pleasant hour or two away at Cafe Camelot on ul. św. Tomasza (which has its own photo-gallery). I even considered taken a Crazy Communist Tour. I have also got lost in Galeria Krakowska, the huge new shopping complex (123,000-sq-metres) by the railway station.

The new shopping centre, seemingly open all hours, is a popular attraction, as some random comments posted on the Kraków Life web site reveal:

Conor, Ireland: I travelled to Poland recently and stay in the beautiful city of Krakow. Myself and my Polish girlfriend, Ilona, decided to shop in the Galeria and it was an amazing experience. Everything imaginable was there and even when I got tired (as men do) and Ilona had the energy to keep on shopping, I could relax in one of its bars, chill out and have a drink. This is a must for every shopping centre, specially for the guys.

Mariamii, Georgia: “I’m lovinnn it!!! it was great,everyone can find his/her Eldorado at Krakowskaaaa:x:x:x:x”

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Tonight, after sushi and before the rain, we walk to the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, on the south side of the city centre. The thunderstorms rolled over the city,  a tremendous downpour that will last till morning. We sit quietly, with an espresso and vodka or two, in Alchemia again, a popular bar on a small square, warm, candlelit, atmospheric. A young woman floats through, selling roses. While it may be a good night for romance, no-one is buying from her. When eventually we leave, the rain is heavily tumbling down. Round the corner, on the next side street, a brightly lit new bar offers temporary protection. It’s like stepping into someone’s living room. We order some tea and a non-alcoholic mint cocktail.

The rain isn’t going to stop, but the air is balmy and we decide to walk across town. The gutters are overflowing with rainwater, our shoes are full of water, our clothes are soaked through. Her mascara ran, but her heart was warmed by her introduction to Wiśniówka cherry vodka. Walking on these outskirts of the sodden old town, in tree-lined lanes, there is no-one about. No trams and very few taxis. Silence except for the dripping rain. The walls of the old Barbican stand forlorn in the yellow sodium light, devoid of tourists.

Sunday in Nowa HutaPosted on 11th September, 2009.

This is the second only ark in the world, he said. He explained the symbolism, the seven entrances and seven steps, related to the seven sacraments and seven blessings of the Holy Spirit. The floor is dark,
green and black, like the turbulent waters of the flood. See how the altar
is shaped like an outstretched hand?
He shrugged, If the priest does not
use his hands it is not a mass, it is only a performance
. The outer wall of
the church is a huge curve, made from small stones, 2 million or more carried here by the people to help build this ark.

Here are the stones which lay on the river bed for thousands of years, he says. Brought her a handful at a time. This church is a contemporary ark
to protect the people from the flood of immorality. I was there at the beginning. I wrote a book about the building of the church. I am sorry
but there are no copies left in English. There may be some copies available in German somewhere.

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When he approached me, I was looking at the mural painting of the Stations of the Cross, which stretches along an entire wall. It also represents the story of the Polish nation from the 19th century, from the time the country was partitioned between three powers and through to the wars of the 20th century. I was paying close attention to a peasant figure fallen down in a stupor, not in shock from the cruelties being heaped upon Christ as he passes, but because of too much vodka.  People from all over the world donated items to the church, he said. There is a crystal of rutile in the Tabernacle, brought from the Moon to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, and the statue of Mary is made from bullets removed from wounded Polish soldiers at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

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In 1949, the Soviets decided to build a new town on the outskirts of Krakow. It would be called Nowa Huta, literally New Foundry, filled with huge apartment complexes and metalworks.  The inhabitants would be as metalożercy (metal-eaters), who would help transform Poland’s feudal and peasant culture into a Marxist and proletarian utopia, of which iron and steel were the vital ingredients. It was also to be a city without God – no churches were to be built here. But after years of protest, officials finally gave a permission to build a church, with the proviso that no machines and tools would be given to construct it. So, in 1967 building of the Arka Pana Church began by hand. It took ten years, the river stones for the front elevation, pieces of wood joined without nails, even jewellery donated to guild the crown on the cross. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła consecrated the church in 1977, but it remained a contested site. During Martial Law, it was the focus of many protests and civil disturbances.

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The tram travelled from the centre of Krakow through the eastern suburbs of the city towards Nowa Huta.  We passed some crumbling concrete blocks, next to some newer ones which had the incongruous addition of fairy-tale turrets. These have practical purpose – open to the air, there are lines of washing drying in the high breeze.

As we approach Nowa Huta, I have a memory – almost a folk memory it seems so long ago – of an old decaying, blackened foundry in Moxley in the West Midlands of England. Johnny Russell and me sometimes walked up to the foundry to take lunch to his Father (lunch being a little after 10.30 am). We carried a package of cheese and pickled onion sandwiches on white bread, a bottle of beer and a bottle of dandelion and burdock.  Sometimes we took bread and dripping. Our next door neighbours, Mr Russell was one of many generations of tough hard men who laboured there by day and night, producing iron and steel.  We would wait for him to emerge from a darkened entrance, a figure of Herculean proportions, sweating, stripped to the waist. You could taste metal in the air. Even the air outside the foundry was overheated, surging from the melting-pots of the furnaces within.

Elihu Burritt, writing in 1868 of the industrialisation of the landscape he saw in the Black Country, said that nature was ‘scourged with cat-o’-nine tails of red-hot wire, and marred and scarred and fretted and smoked half to death day and night, year and year, even on Sundays’. One noticeable thing about Nowa Huta, despite the colossal steelworks, is the wide open views of the country from Central Square, and the number of parks and open spaces.

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The Vladimir Lenin steelworks here was the largest in Poland, employing nearly 40,000 workers. Once a source of indiscriminate environmental pollution as well as a bastion of anti-communist dissent, the works operate today on a reduced scale, with 9,000 workers. It sits now within the warm embrace of global capitalism, as part of the ArcelorMittal group.

The blocks of Nowa Huta were simply designated as C-3, B-3, A-4 and so on, though inhabitants created their own nicknames. The statue of Lenin has long gone, avenues have been renamed after Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan and General Władysław Anders. Outside the local cultural centre is a free-standing exhibition of black and white photographs chronicling this story of Nowa Huta. On this lazy Sunday morning, the sun shining, the wind blowing, the trams rattling by, and no-one else looking at this old history.

39 Grzybowska StreetPosted on 19th August, 2009.

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These blocks were built, so close to the city centre, for some of the key workers of the state. For example, he said, I have for a neighbour a former air stewardess and a postal worker. So there are a lot of people here now in their 60’s and 70’s, not many young people.

He is one of the young ones, involved in theatre in the city. He shares his 11th floor flat with an opera choral singer, and he is fortunately a fan of opera –  Strauss’s Salome in particular, performances of which he has seen in several different cities – as well as being interested in cynology and felinology.

We look out of his window on the city skyline.

I think there was a park here, he says, before these huge buildings, and before that of course here lay the ruins of the ghetto. Now, there is a big expensive hotel there, and they plan to build three new big skyscrapers, which will completely obscure the view of the Palace of Culture – which, though partially concealed, tonight glows with an ethereal yellow light.

One of these new skyscrapers will be a 54 storey tall glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Złota 44, a luxury apartment tower in the shape of a tall thin sail, will stand 192 metres high – the third highest skyscraper in the city – with 251 luxury apartments. It now lies dormant, a skeletal fraction of its proposed size, all construction halted. The credit crunch seems to have crept upon this city, though across the river a dozen huge cranes or more encircle the site of the new national football stadium.

The view here, they like to call it Little Manhatten. I think this is exaggerating. It’s a little loud here sometimes, when the school kids are in the playground down there or there is a sports match. It was meant to be a quiet area, and a bit luxurious. They planned swimming pools on the roof. This didn’t happen. I guess the communist authorities ran out of money.

The flats are not so special. The kitchen has no window, the bathroom has no window, it is too hot here in the mornings. There isn’t even a balcony, just the impression of one, a door that opens to nowhere. There is a metal gate is across the doorway at waist height to stop you falling out. A large bottle of Smirnoff is on the table – 3 litres or more – and a bottle of home-made from Loomza, snacks and a tuna salad. This is maybe not such a good location for a wild vodka party.

I think there are too many monuments around here, he says. Yes, it’s important to have a memory of the ghetto, but even to buy a carton of milk I have to pass several monuments. There’s just no escaping it.

Back to the classics 1: TuwimPosted on 3rd January, 2009.

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Just for Christmas – the best possible gift – we’ve got another edition of (in)famous book by great Polish poet Julian Tuwim: Polish dictionary of the drink (Polski słownik pijacki) – with modern supplement by Piotr Bikont.

Just in a case it was published in the series entitled For Fun of Writers (Zabawy literackie) – nobody should take it seriously. Nevertheless author believes that when someone loves something even mentioning the name of beloved thing/issue may be revitalizing – thus the dictionary containing 2000 entries naming people, liquors, practices, anything that could be associated with drinking.

Just to show Tuwim is a great – and serious poet:

The Dancing Socrates

I roast in the sun, old wretch… I lie, and yawn, I stretch.
Old am I, but full of pep:
When I take a slug from the cup
I sing.
My ancient bones bask in the sun’s glow,
And my curly, wise, grey head.
In that wise head, like woods in spring
Hums and hums a wiser wine.
Eternal thoughts flow and flow,
Like time.