The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

The Museum of MoonshinePosted on 30th July, 2010.

There, in the corner of the field, is a caravan with two pink plastic chairs outside and a sign which reads, Protected Object (guarded by security). It’s not referring to the caravan, which is modern and of modest proportions. It’s referring to what lies in the trees beyond. The field is at the far end of the Skansen, an open air museum outside of Białystok.

We have dutifully walked around the whole site, peered in every corner, stepped into the traditional villagers house, looked at the remarkable collection of wooden decorative carvings that adorned the gables of the roof, asked questions about beekeeping, looked carefully at the schoolbooks with Comrade Stalin promoting the joys of study and literacy, admired the windmill – all with a tingle of delayed gratification.

This is what we have really come to see, in that copse over there. We openly admit it and it’s attracted a few other curious people too. But we’re patient, and we go round everything else first. This museum has been open over 25 years. It has a range of original wooden buildings from all over the region. These are not reconstructions, they have been dismantled and brought here and carefully put back together again.

There’s a house of the gentry, then a peasant home. There’s a storeroom, a room for men, a room for women, and a communal space. In another, here Grandma slept above the oven. They house various ethnographical collections relating to farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, household appliances, folk pottery, textiles and costumes. Some of the buildings are still in pieces on the ground, awaiting better times. In other houses, people live. Elsewhere, there is a graveyard. The curator explains, The graves are reconstructed but there are no bodies here. This is the only part which is not real. They are to give the impression of what it was.

A press article has brought us here, which told a curious story of the latest addition to the museum. It may as well been entitled, If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be sure of a big surprise. In this copse, on the other side of the field, there is a reconstructed bimber factory. The curator explains to us that each of these tanks here can hold 150 litres of homemade vodka. They were uncovered in a local forest and confiscated by the county authorities. The culprits were given a 2 year suspended sentence and a huge fine, which they were able to pay off relatively quickly.  The Museum made a request to the court that they take the equipment off the court’s hands and restore it, as an example of local folk culture. The court agreed. The culprits even came by to ensure that it was reconstructed in the correct manner, adding personal touches such as the metal cup hanging on a hook for tasting. They were not too bothered by the loss of their equipment. They reportedly said,  No problem, we have new stuff, each tank can do 250 litres now.

On the way there and on the way backPosted on 27th July, 2010.


Warning: the word ‘traditional’ may be overused in this post.

On a long road trip it is necessary to stop off at some roadside tavern. This is not Route 66 and we aren’t looking for a Tex-Mex place on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It’s not some god-forsaken truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert which sells t-shirts and gives you food-poisoning. It’s dusty and hot but not that kind of landscape. We’ve taken a slight detour, west of Białystok, off the 671 to Kiermusy, where we find an old Polish Manor House called Dworek nad łąkami/Manor House in the Meadows. It’s a convincing recreation that Disney Imagineers would love to deconstruct and reconstruct. There are other traditional buildings remade here – Karczma Rzym/Rome Inn, Czworaki Dworskie/Manor Court, and Jantarowy Kasztel/Jantarowy chateau. Here visitors may spend a night in the Royal Chamber, Russian Room or Jewish Suite and ‘find relaxation in the Rasputin’s Steam Bath’. Whatever your choice, the web site promises that ‘fatigued guests can find a bit of relax with music near the fireplace in the living room’.

From the bright afternoon sun, we pass through the doors of Rome Inn into a dark cavernous interior and what looks like an old dusty wooden feasting hall. (I don’t think Disney would do the dust). We find a table by a small window and near to a huge bison head mounted on the wall. We are near to the home of Żubrówka vodka after all. The bison is wearing a crown. Underneath it are various small wooden sculptures, of gnomes, kings and warrior chieftains – a kind of shrine to arcadia – and dozens upon dozens burnt down candles, evidence of merriment the night before. The candles are real – I checked.

We are in the land formerly popular with Lithuanian princes, Polish kings and Russian tsars. They enjoyed the hunting and probably the Podlasie cuisine. This hostelry is known for this, meats prepared according to old recipes, bread freshly baked in the oven and locally made Kiermusy liquors, a kind of nalewka.

We start with the traditional non-alcoholic drink Podpiwek, a dark drink made from flour and yeast, with a caramel colour and sweet aroma. It’s a little sour tasting at first. She tells me, This is more in the Russian tradition and in the Ukraine it’s called ‘kvass’. Here the borders these things get mixed up. The name can be translated into English as ‘under-beer’. There is no written menu here. The waiter offers chicken breasts in a sauce with kasza gryczana, a plate of cold meats with slices of fat, with a delicious homemade thick tomato soup to start with. As well as the traditional homemade vodka.

After the meal, I ask where the traditional bathroom is. The waiter says, You go past the bar and into the wardrobe. And indeed you do. Like Narnia, you stoop through the double wardrobe doors and find a fragrant (stuffed with lavender wreathes) pastoral bathroom.

If you were to wish to stay – and many do – there is accommodation on site, including a faux-medieval castle, across wooden walkways through the reed marshes.

Nearby is the village of Tykocin. Before World War II, the village had 5,000 inhabitants, Catholics and Jews. There are less than 1800 today. In the summer of 1941, all the Jewish residents of Tykocin -  an estimated 3400 – were taken to the nearby forest and shot by the Nazis. The 17th century restored Synagogue there has been preserved as a museum. Even before an awareness of this history, there is a forlorn feeling of these places in the east, with their cobbled streets and timber houses, once thriving rural communities that have been physically and metaphorically emptied within living memory.

The Wiking Inn is a different kind of experience. On the outskirts of Białystok, it’s another huge place, of dark wooded interiors, the perfect size for coach parties or group bookings. It’s near to the forest on a slight rise and a brand new road bypasses it, but it’s big enough to be noticed in the distance. While perhaps the Wikings did manage to sail down the Vistula and ravage a few Warsaw tenements, I’m not sure they made it this far. Nevertheless this place is kitted out with Norse brasses, axes, helmets and shields and there is an anachronistic disco ball in the middle of the rafters.  The wooden menu comes complete with reddish horse hair stuck to the outside, or perhaps it’s wild boar? Ravenous from our raiding and pillaging of Polish culture, we order Kiełbasa z rusztu/grilled sausage, placek po węgiersku/potato fritters ‘hungarian style’. And we’ll certainly try the Szabla Wikinga/Wiking Sword – a plate piled high with different types of meat.

To the north of Warsaw is the village of Rynia, by Zalew Zegrzyński (Zegrzyński Lake), which features a Viking settlement called Warownia Jomsborg. During the summer you might come across the invasion of a Slavic village, battles and rituals – an increasingly popular leisure activity with many Poles. While preparing to traditionally manhandle the portions of meat before us, I wonder if perhaps this will be our next stop?

She asks if I want to try ‘Potato guts Podlasie region style’, but it really does not appeal to me. These places were made in the Seventies and Eighties, she says, when there was a fashion for using wood for interior design, putting it on every wall, like in Scandanavia. You see, this became a symbol that we were becoming a richer country, that it was Ok to consume.

I recalled the shock of the new when I went to live in a house in the south of England at the beginning of the Eighties, where the huge kitchen and bathroom were encased similarly, floor to ceiling with blonde wood. I wondered, Where on earth was the nicotine stained brown floral wallpaper? At the time, it was as alien a concept as yoghurt. (The family, who were teachers, exchanged their house each summer with a family in Sweden for the holidays).

Everyone could be in Scandinavia today, or dressing up as Vikings somewhere out there in the woods. The Tavern itself is quite deserted. Apart from a couple in the corner, we are the only guests at this lunch hour.

WeselePosted on 28th June, 2010.

Of course, of course, a friend in Warsaw said, You went to a traditional Polish wedding. Don’t tell me! Singing serious songs, very serious songs, drinking songs, children dancing with grandparents, people face down in their food, dying, I completely understand your interest!

Yes, we went to a wedding on the outskirts of Białystok. An air hostess met a sailor and fell in love. The air hostess contingent came from the capital and wore the contemporary cosmopolitan styles of Emporia Armani. The women from the coast brought their own distinct style, with big coloured hair and bodices that would have graced a Madonna video. There were several costume changes as the celebrations stretched over a number of days.

The night before, we men piled into a number of taxis to downtown Białystok, to a club inside an old building, the insides completely stripped out and replaced with three floors of glass and steel platforms and walkways lit with blue and red fluorescent tubes and video screens, connected by circular steel stairwells. The video screens mostly had films of women in various lingerie and swimsuits. I had a minder, the best English speaker in the group. He was serving in the Army and recently been in Iraq. Before we went inside, he explained that an improvised explosive device had gone off near his vehicle. I’m sorry, he said, but I’m a bit deaf as a result. So the pulsing Polska pop pumping out of the speakers meant that communication was entirely limited to hand gestures and holding up of vodka glasses and a little male bonding on the dance floor in what used to be the basement.

The wedding took place in an impressively huge church with the threat of a rainstorm. The bride looked suitable gorgeous, the groom looked a little worried, as if he was trying to remember something he shouldn’t have forgotten. The best man reassured him that the ring was in safe hands. The video crew seemed in charge of the proceedings, directing the couple to move this way and that, positioning the priest to get the best angle. It even seemed they asked them to repeat some of the lines. The bride and groom endured the rigour of the production. After the older priest gave the final blessing, medium close up, a younger priest christened their daughter in a side chapel, a more intimate ceremony with the opportunity for extreme close ups but none of this Lights! Camera! Action! business. The sky had darkened, the rain tumbled down as they left for the reception.

Coaches then took the guests to hotel some kilometres on the outskirts of town. The celebrations could begin in earnest. Games, toasts, songs, food, drinking, dancing. The sharing of bread, salt and wine is an important feature of a Polish wedding, where the parents of the newly married couple give them rye bread (may you never go hungry), sprinkled with salt (may you overcome bitterness in life), and a glass of vodka (may you enjoy the sweetness of life). When the couple enter the reception, the guests sing a song which is also sung at birthdays:

Sto lat, sto lat niech zyje, zyje nam,
Sto lat, sto lat niech zyje, zyje nam,
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,
niech zyje, zyje nam, niech zyje nam….

Good health, good cheer, may you live a hundred years,
one hundred years….


Some highlights I remember:

- A dance in a circle where you hold the ear of the person next to you.

- A drinking song which includes each month of the year, and then drinking a toast to each birthday for each person in this month.

- The decorations – it’s amazing what you can do with fabric and balloons.

- An old song which is explained to me as being about: ‘Hey guys, remember the good old days before you were married, remember what times we had when we were single and could stay out drinking all night and not worry about coming back to the wife?’ This was a very popular song with the guys, who dance in a circle, tearfully emoting every heartfelt sentence.

- The showband. Heroic efforts. Non-stop entertainment and MC-ing.

In preparation I was encouraged to watch the 2004 film ‘Wesele’ (The Wedding), written and directed by Wojciech Smarzowski. A black comedy in which the father of the bride tries to keep control of everything. It involves drinking, games, music, dancing, bribery, local gangsters and – of course – everything does not go to his plan.

This wedding was not quite like that. At the reception, I sat next to 9 year old Kajtek, who decided to teach me Polish. He was concerned I was leaving on Sunday and wouldn’t know enough Polish to get back to Warsaw. Don’t worry, I said, I’ll just follow your Auntie. Nevertheless, he took my notebook and he started to construct a Polish-English Dictionary for me. (Not sure when I’ll need an armata though.)

The party continued into the night, and continued into the next afternoon. It looked as if some people had not slept. In the middle of the night there was even the traditional fight, when some of the women from Szczecin took exception to the women from Warsaw – it was some kind of argument over fashion sense. The men step in, coats are removed, exception is taken to some comment or other. The band, still alert, strike up a popular drinking song and the men are dancing and singing together instead of fighting. I swear it’s another version of ‘Boys, remember the good old days…’ My head is a little hazy at this point. I could be dreaming all this. The train back to Warsaw is overcrowded, standing all the way, packed like sardines, but passage is eased with a bottle of home-made vodka from the sailors in Szczecin.

Postscript: a reader, a writer himself, writes:

You’re doing fine with Polish in general:) One thing just came to my mind, that you could mention in a few words in the Vodka Project (however I don’t how wide span of this subject you have chosen). I mean the so called wedding vodka. It is quite an ambiguous topic: on the one hand wedding vodka used to be drunk heavily by the wedding party guests, they were also often given a bottle to take home. On the other hand this was an illegal alcohol made God-knows-where and by whom in large quantities and the most murky thing about it is, that in most regions it was fully controlled by the regular mafia, not some canny little gray-sphere entrepreneurs but the guys who were dealing with drugs, ransom harassment or human trafficking. And it was a big deal for them, worth millions of untaxed zlotys. So we got happy couples and weddings on the one hand and gloomy no-neck-guys with square faces and baseball bats on the other.

This, in part, you will see in the above mentioned film ‘Wesele’.