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.

‘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.

Forewarned, forlornPosted on 1st February, 2011.

The snow lies on the rooftops of the old town. There are still Christmas lights strung along the narrow streets there and the length of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat. They will be gone by the end of the week, dismantled by argumentative workers with fork lift trucks. There is an exhibition of Polish Actresses standing on the pavement outside the Film Institute. Many of the panels have been vandalised, kicked apart or stolen, within plain of the guards by the Presidential Palace. The faces of Gabriela Kownacka and Hanka Ordonówna have been smashed in. Karolina Gruszka, Elżbieta Czyżewska and Lucyna Winnicka have gone and perhaps now adorn a kitchen wall in Gocław. Wrapped around the display, fluttering reams of red and white tape warn pedestrians of danger.

Late at night, the sound of Polish rappers engaged in a street battle drifted over the Barbican. Early in the frozen morning, a crashing sound of empty bottles being collected. We walk to Kafka for breakfast. A snowboarder speeds down the slope behind the university wall, leaping through the air to grind sideways along a large concrete pipe. He does this again and again. In the dreamy warmth of the café, we talk about the writer Andrzej Stasiuk. Last night, we watched a film based on his stories of rural Galicia* – Wino Truskawkowe/Strawberry Wine, for which he co-wrote the screenplay. These rural summer landscapes seem a distant fantasy – the sky here is a constant leaden grey, the visual representation of a gnawing headache, the daylight fading quickly. There is little magic realism to be found within the city boundaries. We find more of a resonance with the sad streets of Warsaw described in his 1995 book, Biały Kruk/White Raven.

This tells the story of a group of men in their mid-thirties, who embark on a foolhardy winter trip into the mountains of the south, near the Czech-Slovak border. Bored with their lives in a city slowly grappling with the conflicts of the free market, their journey becomes increasingly desperate as one of them gratuitously murders a militia policeman. On the run, they forage like imaginary and forgotten partisans, marching with closed eyes through snowstorm where all directions look the same. In the bitter cold, they seek refuge in the ruins of an old kolholz or in a youth hostel in the middle of nowhere. They find shelter in a shepherds hut or with an old farmer who asks no questions. They sleep under the remnants of a ruined church dome. Cigarettes are smoked, vodka is drunk, memories consumed, along with pig fat fried with onions, bread and some garlic. The snow keeps coming and they move higher and further into the mountains. The landscape is described with tenderness and beauty, while their lives are depicted without sentiment, almost brutally. Communism has fallen apart, and the bright new future is viewed through a dim light.

This is an enclosed world of bruised masculinity. The story flips between their present dilemma and past memories of growing up together, living in the ‘shitty suburbs’, learning how to match up to the men who worked in the Żerań car plan. Dispossessed nights spent drinking, boasting, dreaming. “Live or die. If you want to die, die” – is the philosophy of one of the characters, who has the idea to make this trip into the mountains. He suggests this in a bar called Crossroads, on one of their nights of heavy drinking. Outside, the city is pitiless. “Down the concrete gutter of Lazienkowska thoroughfare foamed a colourful sewage of cars, a stream of glistening vomit flowing from east to west and from west to east, while we sat in what felt like a terrarium, among people with dead faces and slow-motion gestures.”

Outside, midst the silence of black trees of the city parks, it’s easy to imagine no surrounding metropolis, no Palace of Culture lit by an eerie purple light, and to be wandering in those mountain ranges. “It was a strange mountain,” wrote Stasiuk, though I feel that the angst of masculinity is more likely to be rediscovered these days in salsa classes, hip-hop rhymes or even car sledging.

* You’ll find a nice essay by Stasiuk on the First World War battlefields and burial grounds of Galicia (where he lives) at signandsight.com, which also appears in his book ‘Fado’.

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.

In a Warsaw bar (or three)Posted on 7th October, 2010.

Our conversation shifts to the world of bars. We talk about the old ones that are disappearing, one by one. On a chilly night in Wola, you might be waiting for a tram at the dark end of the street, and notice nearby a small window with a blue light, and a darker still doorway. Nothing to give away what might lie behind the glass. Peer closer and you might make out a few tables and chairs,  a few huddled figures, a shiny counter with a few bottles behind it. There is no sound of music, only a drift of conversational voices, the clink of glasses. It may not seem that welcoming. The basics only, with no frills. You may look into the monthly Warsaw Insider magazine – it’s a useful starting point, let’s not deny it – and not find this bar. It’s more likely you will wander along the spruced up Nowy Świat towards the Palm Tree then turn left under some arches, past some Vietnamese fast food places and find here some bars with no name on the doors, housed in the small cabins with the metal grills in front, which seem tiny and intimate but also have a larger crowded basement. Here people just say, We’re going to Pavilions.

The nouveau popular bars in Praga – on Ulica Ząbkowska (which have been there a long time for the cognoscenti and are deserving of their reputation) or around the courtyard on 11 Listopada – we can surely leave you to find those yourself.

We wander the streets, a curmudgeonly pair, bemoaning the loss of the old bars. Warsaw is a fast changing city, where you might notice some evidence of the economic downturn, but in the past decade it has been knocking itself down and building itself up again in a fury of transformation. Already I find myself saying, Where’s that one gone in old Ochota, where there was one type of vodka only and one brand of beer, that seemed like a dusty corridor piled up with beer crates and boxes of crisps and only had two small tables? It’s been swallowed up by the pizza house next door. Or it’s now a wine shop. Or an empty space. Forgotten.

On Nowy Świat there is one bar that seems to have been there since time immemorial, though it looks a little tidier these days. Amatorska, the basics with mirrors, was once the kind of place where an old guy walked in the door and by the time he reached the bar at the end his drink and choice of food was laid before him, where these customers were long standing. Here’s a glass of vodka to wash down a portion of chicken liver or French fries. You might try flaki (tripes), fasolka po bretońsku (beans a la Bretagne), sausages, sometimes pierogi. There’s rather nothing much for veggies. If you venture down the tiny spiral stairwell to the bathroom, you can, we have been assured, experience ‘the true smell of PRL’. The air freshener down there has a particular spicy quality that is both dusty and pungent, and in no way contemporary. It simply smells of the past. (For aesthetes, there is also bar Piotruś opposite, an ancient institution managing not to turn into Starbucks.)

Another bar that seems slightly out of place can be found Al. Solidarności near to Metro Ratusz Arsenał. If you stand on the tram platform (the trams going across the river to Praga), you’ll see a small building at the foot of a block of flats. Large windows, brown lace curtains usually drawn, you wouldn’t know it was a bar. Enter and you find a warm wooden interior, a little careworn perhaps, a number of round tables, people drinking tea or coffee, beer or vodka with a hot dog or wuzetka cake or apple pie. These are places that people pop into after work, or between taxi jobs or shifts. They are palpably untrendy, and all the better for it.

Finally, for an acceptable version of trendiness, or for an evocation of old good times, let’s call in at Przekąski Zakąski, the 24 hour bistro opposite Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście. This one is the original recreation of the old style bars, with a basic selection of traditional snacks and vodka and beer at a basic price. And open all hours. Magnificent and popular – it has a fans page on Facebook of course. This is the place to discuss irregular verbs with a Varsovian, whose sense of English grammar is far superior to mine.

I drink some vodka (present);

I drank some vodka (past);

I have drunk some vodka (past participle).

Those were the days, my friendPosted on 6th September, 2010.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: I don’t know how well this expression translates into Polish, but we are finding versions of the 24 hour bistro Przekąski Zakąski springing up in various sidestreets in Warsaw and it’s tempting to travel from one to another in between the September rainstorms and dark skies as summer has abruptly ended. There’s one in Foksal Street for example, first visited some months ago. Small, homely, with the basic selection of traditional dishes (sausages, herring, hams, pickles) to go with your vodka at a reasonable price. Mirrors also. There you might decide not to take a clear vodka but instead choose the sweet honey-flavored krupnik. The décor was pure fake PRL, but inoffensive. That was the evening when we wondered whether or not to wander along to the Empik superstore on Marszałkowska, where via a tweet we knew that favourite author Neil Gaiman would be doing a signing. His partner, Amanda Palmer sang a song by Radiohead and later they were going to a club whose manager we knew, where she might do a little performance, but we decided that – let’s face it – there are a lot of Gaiman fans here in the city and it would all be faithfully recorded and put online. Sometimes it’s sensible to keep your heroes at a distance to avoid disappointment.
And so it came to pass…

Mr Gaiman then went on to Moscow where he reported faithfully in his comprehensive online journal: I did more Vodka shots in the last three days than in the previous lifetime. Mostly because my Russian hosts were convinced that it was the cure for the flu-cold-thing I arrived with from Poland. I suspect that they would also have pitched Vodka as a cure for anything else I had arrived with, including broken limbs, heartbreak or psoriasis.

I finally got around to reading his award winning ‘The Graveyard Book’ this last month. No mention of Poland within its pages. This was straight after devouring ‘Fado’ by Andrzej Stasiuk, bought in the American Bookstore in Arkadia shopping centre, which has a marvelous selection of English language books. Stasiuk’s book is a travelogue of impressions of Central and Eastern Europe, and of his home in the Carpathian Mountains. There was one essay there about the visit of John Paul II to Warsaw in 1979, which I wanted to immediately take to any remaining Defenders of the Faith sleeping overnight on the chairs outside the Polish Film Institute and say, Please worship this instead of the theories about the deliberate murder of the President by Putin and Tusk and other shadowy figures complicit within the New World Order. Stasiuk speaks of humanity and communality and freedom and connection, and not of paranoia and suspicion. But somehow I feel they would be more likely to believe the remarkable fantasy worlds conjured up by Mr Gaiman – even though his Gods are usually Norse.

On that evening, not so long ago, not as warm but not cold, we headed to a quieter location, an old railway ticket office built over 50 years ago – Warszawa Powiśle - now restored as a bar come cultural centre. It was fairly empty (Mr. G obviously drawing the hip crowds of well-wishers) and a little off the beaten track. You can get breakfast here or a substantial cappuccino or find some small concert. It’s not a big place, a lovely little circular building with the original lettering standing intact on the flat roof – a space age modernist environment as imagined in the Sixties – here by the railway and under the darkness of the arches of the road bridge than spans the river. A large collage photo-mural wraps itself around behind the bar, constructed by the young artist Jan Dziackowoski, who makes small scale collages of tourist postcards images of Western Europe combined with PRL era socialist propaganda imagery to great effect.

That night, only several young people busy with their laptops updating their Facebook profiles, and some cyclists, one of whom worked there. There was an animated discussion amongst the latter about how to fix her pedals. They stood around an up-ended mountain bike and an old drunk guy added his commentary. Beer was his choice of poison. I don’t think he had a page on Facebook and what would it say anyway? Pissed again, life is good.

My fascination with Warsaw bars delayed me longer than intended, and this being an out of the way place in terms of public transport, it meant a long walk home – but not unpleasant, through green terraces all the way back to Mariensztat. Maybe I should get a bike. But not now that winter seems to have bypassed autumn.

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

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

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

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

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

The demonstrations, it seems, will continue.

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

Short conversation in a Gdańsk barPosted on 11th July, 2010.

I’m a bit of a Second World War buff, he said. That’s why I’ve been to Poland a few times. Here, of course, that war began on September 1st, 1939, with the dawn bombardment of Polish positions at Westerplatte by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein and the landing of German infantry on the peninsula. The Westerplatte is a promontory at the harbour entrance beyond the shipyards, and several tourist boats from the old town waterfront run there and back. On that fateful day, German forces attacked the Polish Post Office. The surviving postal workers were executed as partisans.*  In March 1945, the city fell to the Red Army. In the carnage, little of the city remained. What was left of the German population in the area were expelled, and the city repopulated with Poles from Central Poland and the eastern settlements annexed by the Soviets. The city was rebuilt, as an important maritime and industrial centre for the Communist bloc.

He was a big friendly Brummie in his fifties, with a beach boy shirt and a shock of bleached blonde spiky hair. After sharing our parochial memories of the Steve Gibbons Band and 12-bar blues joints, he told me of his Polish adventures. Warsaw, Kraków, Auschwitz - Birkenau, been to ’em all, he said. He hadn’t yet been to the Stutthoff concentration camp to the east of Gdańsk, from where bodies (mostly Poles, Russians, Uzbeks) were supplied to the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute for the manufacture of soap and leather. This gruesome work continued even as the city went up in flames. As historian Anthony Beevor put it: “The most astonishing aspects of this appalling story are that nothing was destroyed before the Red Army arrived and that Professor Spanner and his associates never faced charges after the war. The processing of corpses was not a crime.”**

He was impressed by the salt mines at Wieliczka and the square at Krakow. Big, isn’t it? Supposed to be the biggest in Europe. Went and did the Schindler’s List thing as well. Now Gdańsk and, you know, I like Gdańsk the most. It surprised me. Last time I was in Warsaw, I went with my blind cousin. That was a story. I like to stay in those hotels named after the Three Musketeers. Aramis is a big grey one, like housing estate around it. They’re alright. The public transport’s good, isn’t it, but after a few bevvies I’m lazy and I get a taxi. We were in this beer only place, me and my cousin, bit of a dive but alright. Then they brought out this vodka from the freezer. I don’t think they were supposed to sell it, but anyway we finished it off. Then the owner sent this young lad out to get another from the shop, so we had a few that night. Wyborowa it was was called. Very nice, that one. Later, my cousin kept saying, We’re in the wrong hotel, we’re in the wrong hotel. I said, No, we’re not, what are you on about? He kept saying, But we’re in the wrong hotel. All slurred like. I said, Don’t be daft, you’re blind drunk, how would you know? He said, I can tell cos there’s no carpet on the floor in this place. He was bloody right you know.

Lovely people the Poles, he said. Lovely beer. Good music. And lovely women. Even the ugly ones are beautiful here, aren’t they?

He assured me it wasn’t the drink talking. I told him he was preaching to the converted.

* A fictionalised account of these days can be found in ‘The Tin Drum’ by Günter Grass, first published in 1959, with a new English translation published for the 50th anniversary.
**Anthony Beevor, ‘Berlin – the Downfall’, 2008

Sparkling like Christmas trees in PolandPosted on 22nd January, 2010.

After 9 pm it becomes impossible to talk. An anonymous DJ arrives with a box of cds, looking a little frustrated and agitated. She has a fight with a large coat stand, which is inconveniently placed in front of her booth. She plugs in her equipment and arranges some fairy lights. She is not only a DJ, she is a multi-tasker, taking orders for drinks. Then she turns it up loud.

One of the men nearby climbs up and turns the speaker against the wall. The effect is to bounce the bass inside our rib cages. He shrugs.

Warsaw is not like a real city, she says. The public transport is awful here. Where we live in Dollis Hill, it’s straight into the centre on the Jubilee line. The equivalent on the outskirts here is one bus every hour. Her pristine face has a particular look of shock or disgust. And the buildings have no architectural merit. She was not happy with such inconsistencies in urban planning. Her family are from Warsaw, the outskirts but still in the city boundaries, but she is now a convinced Londoner.

Further down the table, he has been in the countryside for the last three weeks, and now is back in the city, bleary eyed and unshaven, looking like a young dishevelled Bukowski. It’s not so cold here, he says. It was minus 25 where we were. No-one went out the whole time, except to milk the cows. We stayed in and drank. And filled in end of year tax forms. That was useful. Every time we thought we’d finished, her father then brings another full bottle and said, ‘It’s not a full bottle, don’t worry, look there’s a little space at the top to add juice’. So we drank. I think we used up all his supplies.

The snow is piling up in the courtyard outside. Flakes are fluttering down, sparkling. The lights on the Christmas tree in the main square have disappeared under several layers of frozen vapour.

The first time I saw snow in Poland, real snow, deep and soft, emerging from a faint memory of childhood winters, I ran around in it, scooping it up. People looked at me quizzically. I tried to explain it was so long since I had seen proper snow. I was clearly suffering from snow-deprivation. Are you mad? they said, It’s cold, let’s go inside and drink vodka.

Perhaps they are right. This cold brings a hundred pinpricks to the face, and the jaw starts to lock.

wintry photos: Alicja Rogalska, Ania Chojnacka

Uwaga! Bear on the loosePosted on 17th January, 2010.

On the news, a bear has escaped from an animal reserve in the Ukraine
and has crossed the Polish border near Przemyśl, whose coat of arms feature a walking bear with a cross above it. In the Middle Ages, bears symbolised power, bravery and tenacity towards enemies. The host of this evening, DJ Envee, is nicknamed Niedźwiedź, which means bear – shortened to NW (pronounced as a ‘v’). He escaped from Silesia and came to Warsaw in search of dance grooves. The Ukrainian bear’s motives are not known. Envee once made a record as part of a DJ combo called Innocent Sorcerers, named after the 1960  film by Andrzej Wajda about a group of young jazz musicians living a beatnik life under communism. I bought this record as a random selection several years ago and it sits next to Cool Kids of Death and Jacaszek’s Lo-Fi Stories in my Polska collection.

It turns out to be DJ Envee’s birthday party. The downstairs dancefloor is crowded. Soplica Wiśniowa is still the drink of choice, but several people are drinking shots of vodka and blue curacao.  Envee is the jovial master of ceremonies. His decks are flanked by a drummer and a trumpet player. The stage is low and people jump up to dance alongside or have shots of vodka with him, or grab a cowbell and play along. He alternates with a companion DJ, who is hunched over his laptop calling up samples and beats.

The drummer, Janek Młynarski, is amazing, hardly taking a break the whole night, and it is a long night. His is a simple, minimalist drumkit, but how he plays along with the electronic rhythms. These are famous jam sessions, I am told. But at one point the jam goes into uncharted territory with the drummer following some existential path that no-one else can fathom. DJ Envee waves his hand, shakes his head and downs another blue vodka.

There’s some crazy dancing here. No-one cares what they look like. It’s not a place for poseurs. There is one couple, refugees from some late New Romantic era – a skinny guy with floppy fringe haircut, black peg leg trousers, pvc shiny pointy shoes, huge dog tooth check jacket. Perhaps disappointed at the lack of Le Roux or Human League synth- driven pop, they leave after a short while. No matter, the party is on and it’s not going to stop till they run out of vodka. It cools down around 5am with some Nina Simone mixes. By then, it’s mostly guys left in the corners, rooted to the spot, swaying drunkenly to the music.

The snow is piled high, sodium yellow under the city lights, cars frozen, the hum of the city now silent. Icicles two feet long hang thickly from the roofs. Statues assume new shapes. I think about the bear, who by now is face down on the frozen ground, shot by tranquillisers, and will no doubt be deported from the EU. He will not join the city bears sleeping in Park Praski, or make a special guest appearance at the next DJ Envee party. Though a dancing bear would be quite something to see, on stage with the drummer and trumpet player, and centre stage, his namesake DJ Envee.

Safe european homePosted on 23rd November, 2009.

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The wind groans, whipping around the apartment blocks. The dulling concrete surfaces are invigorated with a coat of fresh paint, bright pastel colours, the name of each block marked out in large letters, with an occasional decorative flourish – such as a painting of a white stork in flight. At the foot of the blocks and on the walls of the walkways is a reoccurrence of graffiti, a careful calligraphy rather than a random poorly realised scrawl, both fastidious and rhythmic in its application, which almost matches with the overall scheme of things.

That’s the block where the problem families are placed, she says, and that one there is where there are alcoholics placed sometimes. Do they house people in this way in England?

Yesterday, a fire brigade came to this block, somebody on the first floor left something in the kitchen on the open fire, I suppose. The brigade came with a lot of noise and from the sleeping room window we saw that they actually awoke the inhabitant who could make the block burning. It was a 130-140 kg around 60 years old man, in slippers, scratching his head and yawning while the neighbours were making a mess around…

This is the local drama of a small town on the eastern borders. Ancient forests once covered this area and stretched far to the east, home to hidden guerrilla armies in the war years and subsequently. After dark, dogs are yapping at anything that moves in the surrounding woods and meadows and lakeside undergrowth, perhaps elk, roe-deer, red foxes, beavers.  There are some wolves in these parts still, and wild boar. But living in a small town is not to be part of an idyllic arcadian state and certainly not in the winter days of little light. The sun broke through the clouds for a few hours, after days of mist and fog. Now the rain falls heavily on the tin roofs. The smell of burning wood and coal hangs on each street corner. The compensations of summer and swimming in lakes are soon forgotten.

The waitress asks, Do you want a shot or the whole bottle? We decide shots will be ok. We are drinking Sobieski cranberry vodka.  Later she says we should have had the whole bottle after all, it would have been cheaper.

Did you know this is one of the worst parts of Europe for allergies in children? You wonder if it is a legacy of Chernobyl? But the doctors don’t pay close attention. They nod for 5 minutes and write a prescription for Zyrtec. Here you can go to one medical centre only, or go to the hospital, so there isn’t much choice. If you talk about homeopathy, they don’t know about it. If you talk about food intolerances, they say, But everyone around here eats white bread, what’s the problem? And I tell them, look here, everyone is sick. They worry about flu, they say there’s an epidemic spreading from Lithuania, rumours and more rumours. They say, You must be careful, avoid contact. Then I go to the kindergarten and I see every child is coughing and sniffling. You know, I would rather treat my children myself than have them asleep all the time because of Zyrtec.

Our conversation shifts from health issues to making an inventory of Birmingham bands she has heard of. From Editors, we slip back further and further in time. Duran Duran, the Beat, UB40, Steel Pulse, then Black Sabbath leads us down a side-track to Aleister Crowley, but the mood lightens with her impromptu rendition of one verse from ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners.

The wind howls, the small town sleeps and keeps its own dark secrets. On these eastern borderlands all that remains is, as one commentator wrote, ‘a drama of failed encounters’.

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.

PowiększeniePosted on 28th July, 2009.

In a club named (possibly) after the 1966 Antonioni film, Blow Up, a track by Joy Division – ‘These Days’ – blares out of the speakers above my head. The song was recorded in January 1980 at Pennine Studios, Oldham, before most of these people existed. It was released as a b-side to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. These days, you can get it as a ringtone.

We should switch to vodka, she says, but I don’t know if my body would like it. Or my head. I won’t drink on my own, but if I did I’d get hammered pretty quickly. And people would laugh!

She explains how she has survived several months in Granada, avoiding the pitfalls of flamenco dancers and studying the local language with some finesse. Back in Warsaw, with a new job starting Monday, she found herself in a bar whose lower floors collected denizens of the freshly arrived in the city and trying very hard to be cool and hip variety. After a few drinks, they didn’t look so bad, or so hip. Sitting at the bar with her friend, she was approached by a man who introduced himself as a film director who has been busy in New York shooting a film. Have you heard of Faye Dunaway, by any chance? He offers to buy them drinks. They are not particularly impressed and later, after several drinks, she forgets his name, leaves the bar and gets caught up in a stag party on the loose. She evades their clutches    and congratulates herself with a few more vodkas. She was home, in Poland after all.

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She remembers Tarifa, on the beach at night, here at the southern most point in Europe, with the wind coming from Africa, with bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka – what else! – and those English people were pulling faces as they knocked back shot after shot. They said, How can you drink it like that? She wondered why they seemed so surprised. This is what Polish girls do, she said.

But upon this particular night, on safe and familiar territory, this close acquaintance indeed proves to be her downfall. On an ordinary street, she misses a step, severely sprains an ankle, and ends up in the hospital. And, as a consequence, arrives at her first day at work on crutches. Uwaga! The perils of vodka drinking.

Conversation In a Warsaw barPosted on 5th July, 2009.

She said she was a Chechen Princess. I had no reason to believe otherwise. She had a particular style, striking in its own way, shiny and glittery surfaces, leopard skin patterns, long leather boots with the highest of high heels. Her eyes were as black as night. We drank some Wiśniówka cherry vodka. The bar was on Brzeska in Praga, on the right bank of the city. From the outside, it looked like a shed next to a large open patch of tarmac between higher old tenement houses. Inside, it was far more attractive. The barman was interspersing old Warsaw songs by Adam Aston with the Andrews Sisters. Everyone was smoking. She said she was married to a Dutch guy and made a poor living of sorts in Warsaw. She organised classes with young Chechen children, teaching them to remember the traditional dances of their homeland. Earlier that day she – and the kids – had performed on a pavement in front of a tiny stage put up by Łazienki Gardens. The stage was too small, she said, much too small for our choreography. It was sufficient for six musicians from the Tatra mountains who were dressed in their splendid traditional Góralski costume; they didn’t move about so much – their fine musicianship was not matched by their stagecraft. It was good enough for the man dressed as a robot in a silver foil outfit, silver sprayed skull cap and glasses that lit up (this was the highlight of his act). He did various slow robot dance moves to a mix of early Kraftwerk. This small stage provided the cultural and live element of No Smoking Day in the capital. Several stalls were spread along the pavement with health information or barbecued sausages. It was an odd location, given the proximity of the park with all that space and crowds of people enjoying the sunshine, just the other side of the fence. The narrow pavement here was a point of transit between two points; coaches dropped off tourists by Belveder (the old Presidential building) and the Piłsudski statue, who then rushed to see the Chopin monument in the park, barely pausing for a moment to take a snap or video of the guys in their Góralski costume. There were people walking around handing out how-to-stop smoking leaflets, who carried giant cigarettes in the shape of a Kalashnikov. For the performances, which were intermittent, there was an appreciative audience of five people and a dog. In this context, the Chechen children gave a spirited performance. The Chechen Princess also gave a display, which was marred by technical hitches (the CD of music kept sticking) and by her sudden and lengthy disappearance for an unscheduled costume change. The deep purple was replaced by black and she danced draped in her national flag. She said she was going to make a political statement but changed her mind.

Later, in this bar on Brzeska, she was supposed to give a short performance, but there was no audience here either and the bar owner kept filling our vodka glasses in commiseration. Another time perhaps? Na zdrowie! Instead, she talked about being a refugee from the Caucasus, where there is still conflict. Several years ago, in Suprasł, on the eastern borders of Poland, I came across an old hotel commandeered by the government for refugees. One group was there in spring, another in autumn – people were moved on, no-one knew where to. 90% refugees in Poland are Chechen. EU regulations state that a country where a refugee first arrives is where he or she must apply for residence. Poland, on the edge of the union, has been a conduit for a flood of refugees from the wars in the Caucasus, but only about 5% of those who apply get refugee status. They are in a kind of limbo, dispersed in small encampments. She has been in Poland nearly 10 years. It seems unlikely she will return home. She dances on the pavement and most people pass by oblivious to the reality of life for some on the fringes of Europe. We drink vodka, as there is nothing more to say.

She said, I guess it’s not too horrible…Posted on 24th March, 2009.

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It’s still snowing in Warsaw and Lublin. It seems the spring has forgotten to arrive. Take a few steps outside into the cold, the alcohol still warming your bloodstream and breathe in the night. The city is quiet, though it is not that late. There are a few forlorn tracks in the snow. No-one is out and about, intent on violence or lunacy. I have learned that the last trams, while having a destination, may not be the destination I have in mind. They can deviate, swing away to the left when in the day they surely veer to the right. They can proceed north to Park Kaskada when I expect them to proceed east across Most Gdanski to Nowa Praga. Regardless, the tram rattles along with its drunkards and would be lovers locked in a late-night embrace, taking them somewhere. They look as confused as I am. Brows furrowed, we depart unsteadily at the next available stop and stand on the platform in the whirling snow, trying to make out a familiar landmark. Here are two skinny latte American women, dressed in business suits and not prepared for this weather, wavering on the platform and discussing whether to go to a club or find a taxi home to Żoliborz. Tonight, I distrust the direction of trams and trust to an inner compass.

Leaving the outskirts of Wola behind, a complex of railway junctions below me and in the shadow of a vast flyover, I pass by an old-fashioned vodka bar at the foot of a block of flats, still open for business, smoky and dark, a floodlight church opposite. Further on, old crumbling walls coloured by a yellow light, a splash of illegible graffiti here and there and bizarrely, a crude picture of a washing machine spray-painted onto the plaster.

I trudge on through the snow. The trees are black, patches of open derelict ground are fenced in with advertising hoardings promising new apartments. There are fragments of the older city here and there, a machine shop, a faded sign for a car repair yard, below it a brama, a stygian tunnel leading to a darker back yard. Huge illuminated billboards hang like guiding stars above me. The only human presence now, a lonely security guard one floor up, sealed in a glass box, in silhouette against a bank of computer monitors, surveying empty corridors, closed doorways and underground car parks. Or perhaps asleep – as the figure is unmoving, captured in a frozen chairbound pose. And so I head to the centre of the city. Tonight I drink to the mirror.

Strzemiennego!Posted on 28th February, 2009.

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The kissing clarinet player got a little too close for comfort. Admittedly, the room was small and there was a crowd. He darted in and out of the tight-packed audience, charming the women, and this was a cellar like venue, but not cavernous. He caught her by surprise, leaning into her with a sinuous and practiced ease as he passed. His lips clung to the reed yet somehow seemed to run over her earlobe and across her cheek, the notes still ringing out – none were missed – and they were precariously balanced for a moment, on a precipice of intimacy, she leaning further away as he leaned closer into her body. She later said that he was her physical type until this moment of physical contact and that she preferred a serious man, the very opposite of a showman. He had a theatricality he clearly enjoyed demonstrating throughout each and every song. Perhaps he is a frustrated actor, she commented. She fixed her eyes on me. Why didn’t I take his hat off? And why didn’t you kick over a chair and punch him? Why didn’t you defend my honour?

She was, I think, now demonstrating her own talent for melodrama, and the atmosphere of the evening allowed for it. The snow lay outside the window, the room was candlelit, the food and wine – ordered in between performances – were delicious. There were drinking songs of course. The Hassids are drinking, they sang. The audience sang along.

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She knew the accordion player. Our tickets were reserved, with a table at the front with the band half a metre distant. Their vodka glasses sat on the table alongside the wine, Krupnik and small jars of Slivovitz. After the show – and what a show – we continued to drink more Krupnik.  The accordian player joined us. He said he hadn’t drunk Krupnik in years, but he has good memories of it. When he was 19 and he first joined a band, they played for a documentary film, over five hours in studio and there was a bottle of Krupnik drunk for every hour, at the very least. He enjoyed that experience.

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The hours slipped away into the dark of morning. Come on, one last drink or two. Strzemiennego! (Which seems to translate as, Jump on the horse!) We walked through the bone chilling empty streets to a gallery in another deep and warm basement. Ukrainian cognac made an appearance. At least, that’s what they called it. By the time we got back to her Grandfather’s flat, uncomfortably close to dawn, I was so cold and shivering I needed to defrost under the shower in the tiny too small to stretch out PRL era bathtub. There would be, for sure, a hangover the next day, to be ameliorated by a walk through the snow and bright sunshine in Park Saski, and a deeply appreciated fresh carrot and apple juice in small bar. She said, I was very restrained and well-behaved, not a wild gypsy woman, but knowing me I knew this would break. And it did. Alcohol melted me.

Conversation in a Warsaw bar: 5Posted on 30th November, 2008.

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At last, the first snowfall of winter. There was a small flurry the day before, but by the time we finished our Indian meal (at a place called Mandala) it was melting in the darkness.

Plan A was to go to an art opening in Praga. Plan B was to find a warm and cosy bar. I have to be up early in the morning to go to Sejny, but this Saturday night seems to stretch out leisurely before us as we finally end up in a bar near Pl. Zbawiciela. Later, I find out this is described on one web site as follows: ‘Drunkenness is rife and encouraged, and it’s only fair to note this place has become a bit of a magnet for expat lads looking to tap up impressionable Polish girls.’

Tonight, I can only hear Polish speakers and my city-by-night guide is not so impressionable. She orders a particular vodka mix – żubrówka and wiśniówka, with pepper added.  She explains the name of this drink is ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’ – which is intended as an insult against a particular politician.  I fail to pronounce effectively in Polish.

She explains: So the story of the President and drink… in 2002 during the campaign for the President of Warsaw, Kaczynski got involved in the short argument with some old git. The press was around because it was right after some public meeting. This guy accused Kaczyński that ‘You, politicians, change parties as rats, chasing from one to another, if you have some business in any’, and the response from Kaczyński was ‘spieprzaj dziadu’. This can be translated as: ‘Sod off, you old wanker’ or ‘Sod off, you old git’ or even ‘Bugger off, you old git.’ But none of these versions carries the meaning that can be connected to the drink. Why? Because the word ‘pieprzyć’ in Polish, from which derives an imperative form ‘spieprzaj’, means both ‘to add pepper’ and ‘to fuck’. You can ‘pieprzyć coś’ (add pepper to something) or ‘pieprzyć kogoś’ (‘fuck someone’, meaning to have sex or to aggressively offend). Then this story of swearing was picked up during the Presidential campaign in 2005 and somehow reversed, as it has become a key sentence for all that and for all those who were and are against Kaczyński, his way of conducting political affairs, his political allies and the so called Fourth RP (the projected ‘better’ Polish Republic in the vision of Kaczysnki, with new constitution etc., now we have Third RP).
 
This drink is very Polish, she finally says, Polish liquors with pepper added, I love the idea.
 
There is no equivalent to this drink in England, or no politician that merits such emotions. Normally my city-by-night guide might be sitting at home, listening to Satyricon (black metal Norwegian band). But we have several toasts with a glass of ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’, and watch the snow fall. We walk back to the central station and miss the night buses, and go into the station to wait for the dawn ones. There is a big crowd in front of a TV monitor, watching the sports news. They disperse when the next programme comes on, which is about buying a flat in Ochota, in a newly built gated community. There isn’t much about the quality of the flat itself – the big selling feature appears to be the amount of CCTV and security guards. Is Ochota this dangerous? I look around me at the sleepers and the all night drinkers. There is a guy having an argument with a soft drinks machine. He kicks it until it disgorges its contents.  I have often seen an old guy here on the concourse, who has a small portable chess set, who sits next to you and asks you to play. As the game progresses, he suggests politely you put some money down on the outcome. It’s a gentle hustle. He’s not here tonight, or this morning as it surely now is.

My city-by-night guide, who might or might not also be a poet, concludes the conversation: But tonight if we haven’t missed the buses we wouldn’t have a chance to feel the snowflakes melting on our cheeks. I love the sound of snow cracking under my feet and the way the spinning snowflakes shine in the city lights. If we weren’t putting vodka into our projects or projecting vodka on to our lives we would be just unproductively asleep and the first snow would just pass unrecognised.

But sometimes I need some sleep.

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boxes and labelsPosted on 15th November, 2008.

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Arriving in Warsaw, I receive a text from my friend: ‘Hi, I am in a pub/club at pl. zbawiciela… let me know when you land, if you want to meet there or at mine…’

I check the bus timetable. I’ve just missed the last bus but there is a night bus going to the centre of town in a short while. (God bless Warsaw night buses, you can almost get anywhere) Do you need help? asks a woman who was on the same plane. I explain that I’m wondering whether to go to Ochota or to pl. zbawiciela. You don’t want to go to Ochota, she says, it’s a very rough part of town. There are some great bars at pl. zbawiciela. This is a good place, I can show you.

She tells me that she just got back from Portugal, where the weather was good but her skin did not tan. Now I need to go to the Solarium tomorrow, she says, otherwise my friends will not believe I have been away.

I decide to get off the night bus at Banacha, thinking I might walk that way, but there’s a bus to Szczęśliwice. The end of the line, by the park. So I go to Ochota anyway and my friend is now at home, with a pot of soup ready.  Don’t ask questions, just eat it. It might seem peculiar because I made it and then decided there wasn’t enough if all the musicians came round who had promised to come round, so I added another base to it. But only Adam the guitarist came, and he doesn’t like it so there is a lot of soup. It has a sweet and sour taste, but I get used to it and eat it all. Sometime after 2 am we take a taxi to Praga to a musicians after hours party in a bar in a courtyard.

The musicians are in good spirits, playing in twos and threes. Others simply crowd the bar and consume the spirits. There are two guys at the bar who start talking to or at us as we wait to get served. Ignore them, they’re jerks, she says, they make me sick. They are making assumptions about us. They’re saying, ‘Is she with him? Bloody foreigners coming here and taking our women, he must be a fucking artist.’ One of them asks me what I do, while the other starts talking French and Russian to me. I tell them I’m an artist. What else can I say? I don’t encounter this attitude very often, this kind of soft antagonism mixed with national pride. It’s hard to be an independent woman in Poland, she says later, you always have to be in the possession of some man. This attitude really annoys her (for the next few days). I suggest we could get t-shirts saying ‘We’re not a couple’ or ‘Actually, we’re gay’ or ‘I should be so lucky…’ She is not amused.

We drink a Wisniowa cherry vodka poured over a large glass of ice. This Praga is sometimes usually described as the wild part of town (in the quality press, as in ‘take a walk on the wild side’…) The guitarist is here tonight in preference to a gig on the TV show ‘You’ve Got Talent.’ He could have provided the accompaniment to a post office worker, Pani Marianny, who will be singing a song about a little dove. She has wanted to be an actress for the last 30 years, and this is her big chance. The guitarist has chosen, perhaps wisely, to be here instead of in a TV studio, where he would have been obliged to wear a sombrero. He calls us on Saturday to remind us to watch the programme, and celebrate his missed opportunity. This time Pani Marianny does not win the sympathy of the audience or jury with her unusual vocalisations. She is beaten by a rather good acapella group covering a Red Hot Chili Pepper song and a blonde blind girl whose guide dog is very ill who performs a song about her deceased father. She looks like a saint and she’s bound to win the final.

Text Message from BerlinPosted on 21st September, 2008.

I have found a bar selling Żubrówka and cloudy apple juice. 
All is good.

Helena

Conversation in a Krakow barPosted on 24th August, 2008.

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He told me it was supposed to be a great trip but it clearly didn’t turn out as he planned.

He said: Don’t ever mention the word ‘trip’ to me. We drove down all the way here from Wolverhampton, 24 hours overnight. A lot of interesting places caught my eye on the way but we didn’t stop. I didn’t get much sleep in the van and we got here by lunch time Friday. We’d got an apartment in the centre of town. Krakow looked all right to me. We had a walk round and found a pizza place. They didn’t seem to want to serve us so we found another one where it was sort of Middle-Eastern themed. The barmaids were dressed as belly dancers and they had vodka and apple flavoured hookah pipes. In the town square there were some naked English guys on a stag night. I didn’t want to look too closely. They soon got arrested. There’s a lot of English here, getting drunk on the cheap beer and vodka. So were we.

Yes, I understand, I said, it’s to be expected. Don’t mention piołunówka to me. It’s a killer.

Have you noticed, he said, how there’s a lot of bars in basements here? In this particular one, I think the barmaids were in hot pants. I’d lost my friends by this point. No, I don’t know how I ended up there. Anyway, I tripped up the stairs on the way out and impaled myself somehow right under my chin. Fortunately, there was an ambulance in the square dealing with more drunk tourists in football shirts. Some paramedics patched me up and put a big plaster around my head. I was covered in blood. I was bleeding like a stuck pig. It’s looks pretty bad doesn’t it? I probably look like that medieval trumpeter up in the church tower, that one who got shot through the neck with an arrow by the Tatar hordes. Or maybe the Scorpio killer in the first Dirty Harry movie? What do you think? A policeman kept asking me if I knew where I was going, very polite, not at all like a Clint Eastwood cop. I did know where I was going. It was the only thing I could remember, where we were staying. I staggered back there. My new clothes are ruined. The blood stains will never come out. Sunday was a blur. I need to drink less. If I come to Krakow again, I would refrain from alcohol.

He paused, looked me in the eye, then said: I could be lying…

I had to agree with him – he did look like a stuck pig. (I have worked in a hospital and my Mother was a nurse and I never actually seen a stuck pig, but this is how I imagine it to be.)

We talked about how the English love to drink in excess. They are binge drinkers par excellence. And of course, the government wants to intervene – with new surveys suggesting that the UK now has one of the highest rates of youth drunkenness across Europe, with 24% of 15-year-olds saying they have been drunk 10 times or more in the past year. Per-capita consumption of alcohol in the UK has doubled since the late 1950s, while in other European countries it has halved. (A non-British friend thinks this is because other countries don’t bother to actually spend time and energy on surveys – she believes that the British, along with Americans, are obsessed with surveying themselves.) Add to this health department figures which tell us that around 70% of attendances at Accident and Emergency departments between midnight and 5 am on weekends are alcohol-related. The Reverend Peter Swales from the British National Temperance League compares it with “the dark Victorian times where you could get drunk for a penny and dead for tuppence.” Or before… in the mid-18th century, thanks to an influx of cheap gin, London had 17,000 ‘gin-houses’ in the 1750’s. During the Napoleonic Wars, British soldiers were issued half a pint of rum or two pints of wine a day as basic rations. The Duke of Wellington called his troops “the scum of the earth… men who have enlisted for drink.” Cultural commentator Jeremy Clarkson is against any kind of state meddling. In one of his columns for the Sunday Times he wrote: “The BBC says that if you drink too much your brain stem will break and you will die. The British government tells us that if a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine a day he will catch chlamydia from the barmaid in the pub garden after closing time. Rubbish. If a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine every day it’s the barman he needs to worry about.” His concern was not “the people who drink for fun, but the people who drink to live.”

With the increasing cost of wheat and barley products, we can expect to see an increase in the basic price of food and drink. Consumers appear to be fighting back. The Sunday Times also reports that Italians are threatening a pasta protest, the French government fearing baguette rage, while Mexicans take to the streets over the price of tortillas. We can surely expect an outbreak of alcohol anger in the UK. And more English tourists on a drink related weekend in cheap and cheerful Krakow. Then a Polish Clint Eastwood will suggest a zero tolerance clampdown. Na zdrovie!

some bar, somewherePosted on 17th July, 2008.

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Dr. Kurz politely suggested to Mr Jackowski that despite a large intake of alcohol during any evening it was quite reasonable and entirely possible to arise at 5 am in a positive and productive frame of mind. Mr Jackowski remained unconvinced and ordered another two towers – large beers with a vodka chaser. This evening, in an unusually liberal frame of mind, Dr Kurz went on to explain her utter opposition to the recently toughened Law of Lustration. This Law – originally intended to keep people who collaborated with the communist-era secret services out of positions of power (MPs, ministers, directors who pursue national interests) had been widely extended to people born before August 1st, 1972, and requiring hundreds of thousands of citizens in positions of authority such as academics, journalists, teachers, and state company executives, to declare in writing whether they cooperated with the communist secret services or risk losing their jobs. The revised law was being described as ‘Stalinist’.

More info on the topic can be found on this blog - beatroot.blogspot

A Report from the Institute of Anglo-Polish Cultural Affairs Field TripPosted on 18th May, 2008.

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Inspired by the possibilities of vodka consumption in Ireland and the rapidly expanding Polish diaspora, The Institute of Anglo-Polish Cultural Affairs was pleased to undertake some action research into the need for a similar institution in Ireland. Our primary fact-finding research took place in a bar or two in Roscommon. Members of the Institute were first treated to a walking tour of the town, and spent some time admiring the construction of the new fire station alongside the modern ring road, which was notably busy at all times of day. Unlike other parts of Ireland, there was little evidence of public art sited on the numerous flower-bedecked roundabouts.

Through a focused discussion group,  members discovered that there was a great deal of excitement about the National and World Ploughing Championships. While this years Ploughing Championships also saw the biggest farm safety demonstration ever held in Ireland -  run by The Health and Safety Authority in partnership with the National Ploughing Association and the Farm Safety Partnership Advisory Committee – this did not seem to stir the blood as much as the thought of ‘The JCB Dancing Diggers’, 10 tonne ballerinas mechanically choreographed to music such as The Phantom of the Opera.

Some of our more inquisitive members were invited to attend a local night club, Rockfords. Sinead told us that she tried to avoid it, but somehow all roads, winding or otherwise, seemed to carry her back there. It was variously described as both the “best fun in Roscommon” and “a bit of a cattle mart at times” and  “a numbing experience for all concerned.” The way that opposite members of sex interact in this context was described in detail by a local expert as follows: Now, say if yer a fella, all yer do is drink an awful lot then prop yerself up against the rail that goes around the dance floor. Eventually, a woman who’s drunk an awful lot as well, probably even more, will come staggering by and you both sort of collapse on one another. And that’s the mating ritual sorted. The local women present were of the opinion that “the boys grab ’em like flypaper and that’s them making an effort…”  It is in this context that a new generation of liberated Polish women, who are working in Ireland, form a remarkable revolutionary vanguard.

One man, Jimmy, told us: Sure, the local colleens are getting worried, cos there’s these new women in town and they’re different. They look different and they act different. They’re Catholic of course, but a very different breed of woman to what the men are used to. They’re a bit more glamourous, that’s fer sure. So the Irish girls are having to make a bit more effort. For a change. Another commented: It’s the first time in history that Irish women have anything to be jealous of.

The big question for Peter – regardless of whoever you were, whatever nationality, and whatever your station, high or low – was this: Did you know the difference between a shovel and a spade? He had a left handed shovel. It was, of course, the best shovel in the whole of Ireland, reliable rain or shine.  He thought that if you didn’t know the difference between a spade and a shovel, what use were you to man or beast?

You lift and scoop with a shovel, you dig with a spade, he said finally. It’s that obvious.

Though he knew that many Poles would be familiar with farming and rural ways, he was not aware if they were fully cognisant of the importance of this distinction between the two implements. He said that he expected any girlfriend he had any intercourse with to appreciate this crucial point. He was in agreement with one of his brothers, Tommy, who stated,  You know, Polish girls are tall, blonde and have great bodies, but their heads are full of turnips.

Indeed, several members of our Institute noted that many of the Polish women were indeed blondes, natural or otherwise, and were reminded of the advice proffered by the Argentinian coach of the Polish National Men’s Volleyball team. When asked what guidance he would give to a first time visitor to Poland, he said: Przede wszystkim radze jednak znaleźć sobie ładną blondykę na tłamacza. We understand that this translates as: However, I would especially recommend finding a beautiful blonde interpreter.

Most of the individuals in Roscommon we spoke to had nothing but respect for the new émigrés. They openly spoke of their admiration for Radoslaw Sawicki, who worked in a major supermarket warehouse in Dublin. Misleadingly described in the news media as ‘the new Lech Wałesa’, he had organised the Poles working there, gaining the support of local trade unions, fighting for equal labour rights. The supermarket and the employment agency now have cases in court. It was all to do with the number of boxes per shift that workers were expected to carry from one place to another and a glaring discrepancy in wages.  Irish people working in the same job, but employed by the supermarket itself and not by the agency as the Poles were, earned at least 200 euros a week more. Box moving quotas for the Poles were also increased.  Sawicki was quoted as saying: “I know it’s not my country, but it’s my Europe.”  Members of the Institute fully endorse this sentiment and we found common ground with every self-confessed lazy person in the pub who thought that while the hard working virtues of Poles were well-known this business of box-shifting was a ridiculous state of affairs in Dublin.

Now, one of Peter’s younger brothers has avoided any potential Polish-Irish conflict and has got himself a German girlfriend. She doesn’t like drinking, smoking or going to discos, so he has to hide the fact that he does like all of these things and in abundance. So he pretends that he is visiting his sister at 3 am in the morning. It’s a bizarre relationship, Peter says.

The last official census, in 2006, recorded 63,276 Poles living in Ireland, far more than those of German origin. The Irish Times of July 5th 2007 estimated there are actually 200,000 and said half of them do not intend to return home. There’s a lot of lonely Irish guys out there for sure and not just at Rockfords on a Saturday night.

In Roscommon, there are also a lot of Brazilians, working in a bakery and a halal meat factory that exports to England. These did not form part of our research at this point, though, for future reference, it would appear from our observations that they are great drinkers and enthusiastic pool players. At this time we are unaware of the potential vodka market in the South Americas.

The Institute of Anglo-Polish Cultural Affairs will debate these matters further at its AGM in October. The main topic of this meeting will be about the group of young Polish writers called the New Neurotics. If you wish to put forward a motion to the meeting, contact the Secretary through the usual channels.

Miss Vodka RegretsPosted on 27th April, 2008.

I agree with Paolo Coehlo’s simple travel advice: Frequent bars. It’s where you’ll find city life. Always in a Warsaw bar, many times I have been asked about which parts of Poland I have visited. The truthful answer – Szczecin, Warsaw, Białystok, Sejny and so on – seems to be an unexpected and wholly unsatisfactorily reply. “You have not been to Kraków? Or Zakopane?” Sorry, no, I haven’t. Usually this is followed by a look of disdain or sorrow or just confusion, a sad shake of the head and a look that asks Why? or What is wrong with you?  (Though one person did tell me, rather forcefully, ‘Forget about Warsaw and all the other places! Leave Poland! My advice is go to Prague!’) I finally hit on the perfect answer. “I’m visiting vodka factories…” This seems to make some kind of perfect sense to the questioner. “Ah, rozumien… I understand.” This is where this project started of course.

Fortunately, I have now been to both Kraków and Zakopane and very nice they are too.  But this weekend, in Kraków, there was a small but disturbing march of the ONR – a Polish nationalist political party from the 1930’s, which was recreated in the 1990’s.  Deriving its philosophy from fascist models, they are wearing Brownshirts and use Nazi salutes, and carry a banner that reads Niesiemy Polsce Odrozenie. My Nowe Pokolenie. We bring Poland revival. We, the New Generation.

There is also a very vocal anti-fascist demonstration, and a lot of riot police, all in amidst the tourists taking in the picturesque views of Wawel Castle and taking photographs of the balcony where Pope John Paul II once stood. Photographs of the riot police seemed less popular.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration/death camp complex organised by the Nazis in the Second World War, lies some 70 kilometres west of Kraków. This particular weekend is also when the March of the Living occurs, with Jewish teenagers from all over the world coming to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Speilberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’, filmed locally, is the Saturday movie playing on Polish television. The definite book on the subject, for me, is  ‘Auschwitz – The Nazis and the Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees (BBC Books, 2005) and there’s some sobering thoughts on Auschwitz logic in contemporary Middle East politics at spectrezine.org/war/Auschwitz.htm

Meanwhile, we sit in Alchemia, a bar in the Kasimierz district, formerly one of the main cultural centres of Polish Jewry, discussing a new law passed by the country’s ruling conservatives. The anti-communist lustration law, which previously affected only lawmakers, government ministers and judges, was extended recently to include academics, journalists (or anyone who had anything published), managers of state-owned firms, school principals, diplomats and lawyers, potentially affecting nearly three-quarters of a million Poles. The law allows the Institute of National Remembrance, which holds the communist security-service files, to identify collaborators – however that might be defined. Individuals have to submit their declarations to this Institute or risk losing their jobs. They also face a ban if they are considered to be economical with the truth. Lustration, from Latin, means purification through ceremony or sacrifice but the words purge and witch-hunt also come to mind, with uncomfortable resonances from the not-so-distant past in Central and Eastern Europe. The issue of what consists of collaboration is a thorny and diffuse one for many people – in future, might I be considered a collaborator in the war in Iraq if I vote for the Labour Party in the forthcoming local authority elections on May 3rd?

A group of journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, which is one of Poland’s most influential newspapers – originally created by anti-communist dissidents – has announced they are boycotting the law. Warsaw University also has called for the suspension of the new law. Many critics of the law feel it is a specific attempt to stifle critics of the government and control an independent and free media. Miss Vodka Regrets, we may be culling the intelligensia today… All in all, a very peculiar weekend indeed.

conversation in a warsaw bar: 3Posted on 28th February, 2008.

I am a drinker with a writing problem.
- Brendan Behan

It seems that each time I meet her, whether in a bar or not, she has some precious nugget of information to share with me. There is a huge electrical storm passing over the city tonight. Late into the night, we sit under huge parasols that threaten to collapse with the weight of the downpour. I listen carefully and record her pronouncements.

She says:
You may be a heavy drinker or an artist because Praga has this black legend. A little unsafe, a place of thieves, of the working class… The market I go to has three types of social typology:  old people – quite old – then there are the young girls, quite young, pregnant for the first time, maybe accompanied with her boyfriend, usually shaven head and tracksuited… dresiarz is the word in Polish. Then there is, after 11’o’clock in the morning, you understand – when most people are working – the people with dreadlocks and India t-shirts, the bohemians, those artist types, musicians and so on, buying yoghurt for breakfast at noon.

There is a word I’ve invented for ‘dresiara’, a girl from Praga: Prazynka. It’s a joke. Prazanka is a girl from Praga, Czech and Warsaw as well, and prazynka is a potato chip. They tan a lot, so they get dark and crispy.

You know, when I drink vodka, there is deeper, more proper, more serious conversation. You know, at a party, people getting drunk on wine, vodka or beer, the boys are in the kitchen. The Polish kitchen is the centre of Polish drinking. When they get the vodka from the fridge, they prepare for the ‘long night of Polish conversations’. Mickiewicz speaks of this in a poem. Do you know this?

No, I say, I don’t know this poem but I must find it.

Conversation in a Warsaw bar (or three or four)Posted on 7th February, 2008.

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We went to see ‘Rezerwat’ (Reservoir) at the Kinoteca. This cinema is in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science, much loved and much hated building. Gifted by Stalin to the people or Warsaw (or imposed, whichever your preference), it is a landmark indeed. The film is set in Praga, where I am living, and it was enjoyable to spot the locations. It tells the story of a photographer, down on his luck, who is forced to move to a flat in an old tenement block on the east side of the river (purportedly the rougher part, this ‘dark Praga’ – described to me by Jacek, himself a Praga resident, as a cross between Gotham City and Montmartre). The film follows his encounters with residents there. It plays on working class stereotypes, the ruffians, the drinkers, the blonde hairdresser with a heart of gold.

As is the tradition, we drink beer in the cinema, two cans in her handbag. She was amused to see her former drama teacher from Krakow on screen. The film felt like two different films in one, and reminded me of the gentle French comedies of Eric Rohmer and of Ealing comedies.

From there we went to her favourite café, which now has a smoking ban – which is not the norm in Warsaw. Do you have a secret corner for smokers? she asked the waitress. No, said the waitress sternly, we have a duty to care for our customers. Then I won’t be able to recommend this place any more, she said, quite exasperated. She is from Lublin and has high expectations of the capital city. She went outside looking for a light. There was a man visiting from Białystok there, a smoker also. He said, It’s strange, no-one in Warsaw looks you direct in the eye.

We wandered from bar to bar, intending to go home after eleven. But it was not to be. Wódka Zołądkowa  Gorzka and orange juice carry us through the hours long after midnight. (But not mixed in the same glass.) We ended up in a street with bars and cafés which never seem to close, by Three Crosses Square (I have had breakfast here before 7 am another time). I was not planning to get drunk with you, she said, but it has happened. It was a fine and beautiful evening of invigorating conversations. With someone half my age or maybe ancient and twice as wise – it’s hard to know which. We covered all possibilities, I think. Life expectancies, the nature of relationships – including the parental variety – chance encounters, personal and professional boundaries, and accidents that are meant to happen; all were felled by our alcohol sharpened words. It was after 5 am before we knew it. The night buses had finished and the morning buses began. The city streets were already busy, with many people walking purposefully.

I walked over the bridge Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego across the river towards Stadion Dziesięciolecia, the old national sports stadium built with the rubble from the ruins of the Warsaw Uprising. Literally ‘the 10th Anniversary Stadium’, it opened in 1955, the anniversary being commemorated was the first manifesto of the Communist Government of Poland. (On July 22, 1944, in Chełm, the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation issued the July Manifesto, which established a communist system, with the government then seated in Lublin.) I watched the young Vietnamese making their way to work at the famously popular black markets that traded around the tunnels and long abandoned football terraces. I wondered how long I could survive without sleep.

dry your eyesPosted on 31st January, 2008.

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All my life it seems I have been pursued by visions of vodka drinkers. I am speaking of Polish vodka in particular. There have been vodka drinkers in my family, lined up alongside the legendary whisky drinkers. The Polacks and the Paddies side by side, drowning their sorrows in some down at heel bar in the back alley of the West Midlands. Of course, we now drink wine, as all good Europeans must. From Belarus to Bilston. Even in Poland…

I admit that I recently went to a wine bar here in Warsaw. Somewhere near Rondo Babka, considered by many inhabitants to be one of the worst traffic islands in the city, we searched for this particular wine bar. It was not so easy to find in the twilight, set back a little way from a deserted road in an area where the old and new jostle for position. Behind us, on the far side of the traffic circle, you cannot fail to see a modern shopping mall, a huge neon monolith which would not disgrace the centre of Birmingham or Manchester. (Inside, they are piping ‘Eleanor Rigby’ through the speakers, shoppers ironically mouthing the words ‘All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?’) On another side, beyond the towering 24 Hour McDrive sign, a vast cemetery, whose consumers are quieter by far. Spreading to the north and west, there is expanse of mostly abandoned manufacturing complexes cut through with a railway track and sidings. This is also near to the former site of an anarchist squat, Skład Artystyczny, found amidst the ruined buildings of forgotten five year plans; where we once waited in vain for a punk band from Germany to play some very loud music. Well, they did eventually turn up, several hours later than anticipated and missing a drum kit – it reminded me of the good old days on the road with The Prefects – but by then we had moved on to another party in Praga, on the other side of the river.

Tonight we convene in a large warehouse, full of wine crates alongside a small area for serving food and drink, with just a few tables, a bar counter and several stools. Pretty good food too, if the goulash was anything to go by. You walk around, choose a bottle or two of wine from the hundreds on display and it’s brought to your table and uncorked or decanted. It’s not cheap, but the wine is indeed good. Many people wander in, buy some bottles and go home. Our host, our wine concierge, is a Canadian by birth, married to a Pole. He appears to be always on hand to advise a customer, with genuine bonhomie, uncorked and oxygenated. I wonder if he is a secret vodka drinker, or if this might irrevocably corrupt his palate.

Telephone numbers and the name of wines escape my memory, so I cannot tell you what we drank this night.  I shall not go into the circumstances that brought me here, to this Aladdin’s Cave of Winery. Suffice to say it revolved around the search for alcohol and good company – or perhaps bad company, as we drinkers so often prefer to choose. Sitting amongst the wine cognoscenti in Warsaw might seem, to some, in poor taste – but dear reader, do not despair! We intend to search high and low in the Great Polish Nation to deconstruct the joys and sorrows of the dedicated vodka drinker.

England, one dark winter nightPosted on 5th January, 2008.

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We’re sitting in a vodka bar in Walsall, one of many that have sprung up in every town and city centre. That’s Walsall, England, not Warsaw, Poland, though the way I pronounce it a lot of people may easily confuse the two. It’s my Black Country accent. A sensitive ear from the south of England might mistake it for somewhere north of the border, those syllables forged in West Bromwich confused with those of West Kilbride.

In my old Hammond’s World Atlas of 1961, Walsall is a town 27 entries distance from Warsaw – conceptually and alphabetically separated by places such as Wangaratta, Australia, and Warri, Nigeria. It’s Tuesday in Walsall, it’s raining and miserable outside – snow is a forgotten phenomena in these parts and if it does snow then the country will come to an entire standstill for a minimum of 48 hours. But don’t worry about the weather, there’s live music in the vodka bar to cheer us all up. The promoter rang me up, encouraging me to come along, so three of us did. There’s maybe thirteen other people in the bar, including the staff and the band, which turns out to be one person with his guitar, microphone and small crackly PA. The band of one resolutely play on regardless, doing covers. An over-enthusiastic bartender (an Asian lad who reminds me of my dear friend Peter Singh in his youthful exuberance) does the rounds with a tray of shot glasses and demonstration tasters.

New flavours! Special promotion! Two shots for the price of one! he offers.

He means half-price, says Martin. Or the stuff they can’t get rid of. Or maybe just half-vodka?

Two shots for the price of one! he repeats hopefully. A bargain! Down them in one! he encourages. This is possibly because of the vile taste of these concoctions and not a cultural custom. His hair is gelled in impossible configurations which recall crystalline formations last seen under a microscope. He seems unable to speak without exclamation marks!

The vodka flavours on offer tonight might be described as variations on chewing gum, mixed with caramel or mint. They are sweet and sickly and – in the absence of any other taste – they certainly taste diluted.

So this is supposed to be a vodka bar? This is the question on the lips of the young Pole who has accompanied us. She isn’t much of a drinker and is clearly not impressed. She wears a perplexed look on her face for most of the evening. Taking a Pole to a vodka bar in Walsall never seemed a good idea. She said she would rather visit a Welsh castle or a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. She looks out the window at the rain and the rubbish trickling along in the gutters.

I am told it helps if you get pissed in England a lot, she says to no-one in particular. She sighs and turns her attention to the music instead.

The one man band does songs by Oasis, The Beatles, Bob Marley. Then he gets a pint glass thrown at him, still full of lager. One of his friends and the promoter chase the glass thrower out into the street. The singer is disheartened and says he will only do one more song. I’m only getting paid in beer, he mutters, but I think he means lager.  He stares disconsolately at the array of flavoured vodkas behind the bar, carefully lit. He is performing in a dark corner to the side of the bar, where only five of the audience can actually see him. He offers to do requests but there are no requests.

This dark, dark night it seems to rain endlessly.

Short Vodka Stories No: 1
Walsall Council trading standards officers are warning people across the borough to watch out for counterfeit vodka. Following a Food Standards Agency raid on an illicit distillery in the north of England, council officers caution that bottles of the fake spirits may have found their way to Walsall.

Formal samples of the counterfeit vodka show methanol contamination is not an issue, but the percentage levels of alcohol found in each product were inaccurate and not that declared on the genuine products. Trading standards manager John Beavon said: “Walsall Council is committed to ensuring the safety of all our citizens and we would urge residents to watch out for these products. It may be tempting for people to purchase counterfeit vodka, especially if it is cheap, but it is likely to be of poor quality and may be much weaker – or stronger – than the real product.”

Anyone finding vodka they believe to be fake should contact Walsall Council trading standards officers immediately. Food Standards Agency officers have received reports indicating that these products are available on sale in pubs and off licences nationwide. Walsall trading standards officers will be on the lookout for such products during the course of their routine inspections and they will take appropriate enforcement action if they find them.

found on Walsall MBC website, Tuesday, October 25, 2005