The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

We are not PolishPosted on 25th December, 2015.

This site is now archived. However,  in 2016, we plan to resuscitate the blog, with offers of visits to explore such places as hat I should undertake vodka project research in places I have not visited like Owińska or Hajnówka.

Meanwhile, here are some reflections on the background to this blog…

Let me start with a confession: my Father was not Polish. All the time people would ask, ‘Is your Father Polish?’ To confuse them, I would reply, ‘No, my Mother is Irish.’ While not actually Polish, he was a long-time member of the Anglo-Polish Society of Wolverhampton, West Midlands Branch, nominated and duly elected as Cultural Secretary – on the grounds that his son, yours truly, had made a career from obscure artistic activities. With baffling central committee logic they said to themselves, Like son, like Father. He held this position for many years before finally being promoted to Chair of the Association. In his capacity as Cultural Secretary he organised the raffle, bingo sessions and various coach trips to the seaside, to English Stately Homes or to country pubs with bowling alleys, as well as volunteering to be responsible for booking the guest speakers for the annual commemorative event at the Katyn Memorial Stone in Cannock Chase, north of Birmingham. This stone is in the middle of what was originally, in medieval times, a Royal Hunting forest, and is now a leisure park for outdoor pursuits – for serious ramblers, casual walkers with or without dogs, picnics, deer spotters and mountain bikers. The forest also contains a large German Military Cemetery, where the bodies of aircrew shot down over Britain during the Second World War were gathered and laid to rest.

I once asked my Father where his particular fascination with Poland had originated. He told me he had always been interested in the history of Poland as a young boy and that, of course, not long after his 11th birthday, Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany to safeguard the independence of the Second Polish Republic. This was the defining moment of his generation. Though it is interesting to note that throughout his 1939 copy of Odham’s Universal Knowledge A – Z (1144 pages long) the entries circled in pencil are almost exclusively locations to be found in the North Americas – Fundy Bay, San Bernadino, Fredericksburg, Bedloe’s Island, Waterbury, Nova Scotia and many others. Warsaw is not circled, nor any Polish heroes – not even Joseph Conrad, though I know my Father read his books. He seemed more interested in Covington, Kentucky – ‘It is notable for its great suspension bridge and for its manufacture of X-ray apparatus.’

Perhaps it was easy to mistake my Father for not being English. His facial features leaned towards those of Central and East Europe; he was tall and thin – invariably the word used to describe him in his youth was ‘lanky’. His nose was highly prominent – a Roman nose, he called it. He was also big-boned and his hands were large, hands made from a family lineage of hard labour, from working in the mines or for working the earth. When I pointed out the fact he was actually brought up in the colliery village of Silverdale in Staffordshire and not Silesia, I remember one woman saying, ‘But he was so tall and distinguished looking, like all those young Polish airmen.’ Here then is beginning of another fiction. Let me be clear: my Father did not serve in the Royal Air Force, though many people to this day still have this impression. Perhaps they were aware that, throughout my childhood at least, he kept a flying helmet of worn leather on the back window of his car and so began a series of assumptions and fabrications.

On long car journeys, travelling by night through Wales towards the ferry terminal at Holyhead or down to the south coast, I would lie on the back seat wearing this helmet several sizes too big for my childish head, looking out at the stars and I imagined being in the belly of an aeroplane. My Mother asleep in the front, my Father happy to indulge this fantasy, as the pilot of our old crate, indulging his son with all the murmured instructions required to keep us in the air, trimming the rudder, adjusting the pitch and roll, talking to ground control or other invisible members of the crew about meteorological conditions, requesting details of the flight path from the nameless navigator, describing the pitch-black landscape over which we flew, as we drove the slowest possible route to our destination. You see, we always travelled on those circuitous A and B roads and never motorways – my Father had an irrational fear of those – so these journeys seemed never ending. We always flew at night, guided by distant stars.

In reality, my Father was too young for military service, though he did try to enlist on more than one occasion, only to be discovered and returned home. One of his best friends did succeed in deceiving the authorities, travelling by train to a recruiting office much further afield where no one could identify him. This friend, barely sixteen years old, flew for a few short weeks in a Lancaster bomber, as a rear gunner – the ‘Tail-end Charlie’.  On his second mission, the plane went down in flames over Düsseldorf, another casualty of the ruthless and relentless destruction of the cities of the Third Reich. My Father, instead, made do with the Air Training Corps, which prepared more of those young boys for war, and he finally took to the air in a Wellington bomber on a routine training flight. The plane had barely landed when the war in Europe was declared over and people’s thoughts turned to demobilisation and reconstruction. He kept his flying helmet as a souvenir and years later – in the 1960’s – it adorned the back seat of the family car, firstly a Ford Anglia, which looked like a small tank, then later a Ford Zodiac, more truly a representative of the Space Age now upon us. One day it simply disappeared, never to be seen again, and my Father grumbled about it for years afterward. It is a memento I regret not having in my possession. Only recently my Mother admitted how, sick of the stories surrounding it, she secretly took it and threw it unceremoniously into a neighbours’ bin.

My Father romanticised the air war, preferring to ignore some of the brutal facts; that sixty out of every hundred crews lost their lives in the RAF bombing campaign. A voracious reader, he had numerous books on the subject and sufficient familiarity with the topic that many people, on the fringes of his acquaintance, came to believe that he had indeed served in the Royal Air Force. And to think that perhaps he was also a little Polish, as there were also many books on the Polish 2nd Army, the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Warsaw Uprising, the Crime of Katyn. Despite gentle disavowals, this myth persisted. ‘Oh, I’m sure he was Polish, wasn’t he?’ Even some Poles thought he was Polish. Perhaps some modesty disguised the truth of the matter, but to add to the confusion his given Christian name was Ivan. Though he is dead some years, to this day people will ask me how did I end up being called Brendan when my Father came from Poland?

In Wolverhampton, in the late 1940’s, it was easy to meet many Poles, freshly disgorged from the Armed Forces, inhabiting huge military and resettlement camps in nearby rural Staffordshire and Shropshire. Many of these Poles were from the Eastern Settlements of pre-war Poland, vast tracts of land then taken by the Soviets and submerged into the U.S.S.R. Dispossessed of their home towns and villages, they found themselves in a post-war limbo. Borders had been reshaped, torn asunder, and Poland itself firmly locked behind the Iron Curtain, a satellite state controlled by Moscow. Of this time Adam Zamoyski wrote, ‘They had not only been consigned to Hell; they were supposed to enjoy it.’

There were over 220,000 men in the Polish Army under British command in 1945, the majority of whom made their home in these England, Scotland and Wales, alongside women and children who had arrived from refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East.  I went to a Catholic primary school with a register that recorded the names of these exiles and escapees. Called out each morning – and most likely incorrectly pronounced – they echoed down the polished hallways. Kisiel, Mita, Lappo, Dobrowski, Frank, Malinowski, Smolinski, Swiderski, Syska, Cieslik, Pilecki, Bardza, Malinowski, Kowalczuk, Sachanowski, Szizechowska, Cebertowicz, Magnuszewska, Wozmirska. To me, compared to Hill or Clark or Guest or Barry, they sounded wonderfully exotic. The ‘continental shop’ run by a Polish couple on the market was the height of ‘otherness’ in late Sixties Wolverhampton; that and one man who always wore beads, John Lennon sunglasses and a flowery shirt amidst the factory and shop workers at the early morning bus queue.

I was walking down a street in Sejny, in North Eastern Poland, near the border with Lithuania, taking some snapshots, when a policeman posted outside the Lithuanian Cultural Centre stopped me and asked me what I was doing. I am assuming this is what he asked as I speak no Polish and he had little English – he was pointing at my camera and shaking his head and finger. He indicated he wanted to see my passport, which I was not carrying. He paced up and down shaking his head and finally let me go to retrieve it from my lodgings. Sitting in his booth, he looked it at for a long while and meticulously wrote down details in a logbook. He then said, ‘Father name?’ and pointed at the passport, flicking through the pages as though he wanted me to indicate the location. I tried to explain that there is no part of my passport which contains any official mention of my Father name. He continued to insist, ‘Father name!’ - as though it must be in there somewhere. I insisted with equal determination, ‘Nie father name!’ He telephoned someone and had a long agitated discussion. At the conclusion of this, he said again, evidently more aggravated, ‘Father name!!’ I shrugged. He tapped me on the chest and shouted, ‘FATHER NAME!!’ Finally, I took out a piece of paper and wrote down IVAN JACKSON and gave it to him. ‘Father name,’ I said confidently. ‘Father name?’ he muttered, pulling a confused face. ‘Rosyjski!’ he exclaimed, which understood.  ‘Nie Russki!’ I insisted. ‘Irish! Irlandzki!He looked at me disbelieving, then lectured me for a while – clearly with some kind of admonishment – before eventually dismissing me with an exhausted little wave of his hand.

My Father only carried three forms of identification – his driving licence, and membership cards for the Anglo-Polish Society and for The Albright & Wilson Working Men’s Social Club, this latter crumpled little card only until he retired. His Mother, Edna, was apparently – in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s – a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and some of his Grandparents – at the end of the 19th century – active in the local trade union association for mine workers. Despite this pedigree, I suspect my Father voted Conservative, though he never had a good word to say about any politician or party. As for the origin of his Christian name, it was unlikely that his parents were stirred by the Bolshevik propaganda poster by Ivan Malyutin To the Polish Front’, or were keen readers of Ivan Turgenev – though it is more possible that they were inspired by seeing the Hollywood movie ‘The Tempest’ that year, a Russian Revolution story which starred John Barrymore as Ivan Markov, a peasant soldier who becomes an officer in the army. I understood my Grandmother to be a keen Barrymore fan in her youth.

At school, Ivan was particularly good at Maths so when he left full time education, at the age of 14, a life underground was somehow avoided. His interest in the perfection of numbers meant that he often served as Treasurer on miscellaneous committees, though his first and only business venture – running a shoe shop in Darlaston – failed miserably. Apart from working as an unsuccessful shoe salesman, he was a travelling insurance agent, a clerk for the Great Western Railway, a pork pie salesman, and later worked in the wages department of Lucas in Birmingham, operating huge banks of punch card computers. He spent the last decade of his working life at the Albright & Wilson chemical works in Oldbury. He appears in a 1988 Health and Safety video for the company, ominously clad in gas mark, helmet and overalls, pointing stiffly to the emergency exit.

Though a travelling salesman in his early years, mostly in Staffordshire, Cheshire and Lancashire, he was not well-travelled. He went to France twice and to Ireland a few times. Mostly, he went on occasional holidays to Scotland and to Dorset, always drawn to Dorset. He seemed to relish the experience of life second-hand, gleaned from books and acquaintances. Perhaps he seemed unadventurous, fixed and static. His older brother – who shared the same birthday, two years apart – went away to the Army at age 16 and then to East Africa, leaving Ivan the nominal head of the family, with an ill mother and a younger sister to care for. Their Father, Horace, had long disappeared in slightly mysterious circumstances, of which I know little. After army service, his brother travelled further afield and had his own business, and my Father suffered in comparison. Malcom was ‘full of himself’ and Ivan was ‘insecure’; both were pig-headed, as stubborn as a brick wall, both were always right no matter what the facts of the matter. Malcom, the elder and apparently more worldly-wise brother, liked fine whiskies and – as he moved up the higher echelons of the business world – wines of managerial quality.  In the late Sixties, he sported a goatee and wore narrow cut dark polyester pants and turtlenecks, as though modelling himself on the character Illya Kuryakin, the Russian agent in the Sixties TV series ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’. By this point, my Father had lost any sartorial elegance he once might have had, recycling two grey work suits from Burton the Tailors. He always seemed to bear a grudge against his more cosmopolitan brother, falling out with him and rarely seeing him for over thirty years. He was not a beer or wine drinker and not much of a drinker at all.  His preference was for vodka, smothered in lime cordial, which seemed wrong to me, even from the earliest memories.

My Mother quoted Canon Weekes, an ecclesiastic authority from Ireland on the art of drinking, whose recommendation was that only women should drink vodka because ‘it doesn’t smell on your breath.’ She said, ‘If you’re not a whiskey drinker, then whiskey smells awful on your breath. Ivan couldn’t stand the smell of whiskey.’ His supply of vodka came primarily from his good Polish friend, George Kisiel, who used to add a little pepper to his vodka glass. ‘Whenever he had a vodka anywhere he was with us,’ said my Mother, ‘he’d always ask for the pepper pot. We’d get some funny looks.’ Funny looks were surely a minor inconvenience to a man like George who, like so many of his compatriots, had lost his home, family and country. Little Englanders have a long tradition of giving people funny looks of one kind or another. I am not sure if these are looks of apprehension or pity, utter disdain or a lack of empathy, or whether they simply express a fear of some kind.

Here is a photograph of George Kisiel, taken shortly after his arrival in Wolverhampton in 1947. This man from Poland – yet again cast as the tragic, romantic doomed country, betrayed by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta and tossed into the open arms of Stalin and his fearful minions – this man from gallant yet lost Poland arrives at the railway station and sets out in search of the Resettlement Camp at Wrottesley Park, where he will find Poles, Hungarians, Dutch and other displaced nationals living in hastily converted barracks. Freshly discharged from the army, with his navy blue demob suit and £75 in his pocket, he walks the streets of this provincial town, savouring this moment of freedom. As witness to the armageddon on the European mainland, he is a little surprised to see that the physical structure of this place is barely damaged by the war, despite a preponderance of factories supplying aircraft and motor vehicle parts and the huge Goodyear tyre plant (where so many Poles will soon find work). Food is still strictly rationed and there are sallow and gaunt looking faces on each street corner; this is the age of austerity and will be for some time to come. At first, he keeps himself to himself. Both trade unions and left wing activists, still in love with Stalin, have conducted anti-Polish campaigns; but now the Polish Resettlement Act has passed through the English parliament and offers assistance to those who wish to return to Poland, those who wish to emigrate to the Commonwealth or other countries and those who wish to stay. It offers, at least, a measure of security he and his compatriots have not known in many years. (The Act was intended as a temporary provision but remained on the statute books for the next 60 years.) And so George wanders these streets – no longer a pawn of a huge military machine – and considers his options.

He finds himself outside a motorcycle showroom near the Molineux Hotel, adjacent the Wolves football stadium. Given pride of place in the window is the latest model of a Norton-Villiers bike, produced by a local firm. This is surely the decisive moment – as he feels, rising from suppressed depths, a desire to possess this gleaming mechanism. It represents a new beginning and, more than anything else, it promises the future. As an engineer, George appreciates the fine tooling of this elegant bike and, having ridden them throughout his army years, respects the reliability of the Norton design. He goes inside and ascertains the price, which is astronomical by his standards. Still, he agrees to pay the deposit, which drains his demob pay.

You understand demand is very high, this is strictly a cash purchase, the salesman explains, and so George must return within two weeks to pay the full amount or lose both his precious deposit and the bike. He returns within the allotted time with the money and the bike is his. He never reveals how he obtains the cash – hard work, avarice, card games, favours, a little black market dealing, who knows now? To mark this moment he poses for a photograph astride the bike, in this foreign town he will come to call home, the Polish part of his life set behind him. Did he yearn for the territory of former Poland? Perhaps, but it was, increasingly, a chimera, a country that whispered its name in dreams, that existed in the recesses of his heart only, a place to flee from. He speaks in Polish less and less and his three children grow up without learning the language of their forefathers. Instead, he learns the mother tongue of business, of negotiation, of contracts, of management theory.

I knew the story behind the photograph long before I saw the actual physical object itself, and only then some years after his death. While attending a social event at the Anglo-Polish Club, George had a heart attack. He died on the dance floor, jiving. This surviving photograph remains, as solid a memorial as a stone in a forest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden AgePosted on 20th October, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it’s all mixed up for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

queuePosted on 7th August, 2011.

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

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

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

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

At Worlds EndPosted on 22nd July, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rozumiesz?Posted on 20th July, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the long weekend – długi łikendPosted on 15th May, 2011.

I wasn’t able to stand up in the morning. I wasn’t the only one suffering from after effects of the long day and night before, whether sporting injuries, aching leg muscles and sore heads. It took a moment to orient myself. I could hear the patter of rain on the roof. The light bright outside, despite the clouds, the wood walls and ceiling of the attic room softly burnished. Curled up and deliciously warm and comfortable, I could smell breakfast or was it early lunch? There were bottles of vodka already on the table. People reading, tuning guitars, preparing mountainous skewers of meat and vegetables for cooking on the open fire later, some still sleeping, others breaking up wood and hauling it in a wheelbarrow. Time seeped slowly, as the sun follows the rain…

It had been an early start after a late night and onto a bus by 7am to Dworzec Zachodni on the west side of the city, where we have a lift waiting. The aim is to miss the mass exodus of Varsovians into the surrounding Mazovian countryside, but we soon get ensnarled in traffic. I’m dozing on the luggage. I hear a voice, We’ll get breakfast when we get there. Expect to have beer first. I imagine her body changing imperceptibly, the water percentage soon replaced with alcohol, as she’s not that big. Maybe even by night fall, as cranes fly over. I must be delirious. I only grabbed a few hours of sleep, watching the lights of the city across the sluggish river. Lack of sleep, emotional overload, who knows, go with the flow.

May Day weekend. There’s the beatification of John Paul II in Rome, the last stage before sainthood is bestowed. May 1st used to be International Workers Day – do you remember that? – with the necessary obligatory parades and flags and celebrations of the successes of socialism. May 2nd is National Flag of the Republic of Poland Day, Dzień Flagi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. Then May 3rd is Constitution Day, celebrating the day back in 1791 when the parliament signed what was to become Europe’s first national constitution (also only the second in the world). This is, thus, the longest weekend of the year.

The field and woods pass by. The car diverts into deeper greener countryside and lesser known roads to avoid the jams. Don’t worry, we’re going in the right direction. We’ve never been this way before, but it’s better than standing still. I’ve been to Łomża, I say. Drank vodka with a farmer, I mumble. Pah, they laugh. Patches of water appear, getting bigger, with sailing craft, speedboats, larger river cruisers, fishermen on the shoreline or out in canoes on the waterways and their tributaries. I have no idea where we’re going. You’ll see when we get there. We’ve gone past Legionowa. There’s the joining the river Bug with the river Narew, which both meander all the way from Belarus. Large signs for fried fish, a few bars and restuarants to service the tourism.

We make a stop at a roadside shop, go down some steps into a cellar like interior, an Aladdin’s Cave of provisions for the weekenders. We soon fill what little space there is in the car with crates of alcohol (beer from the Łomża brewery is the favourite) and a banana yoghurt and an apple pastry (drożdżówka) for my breakfast. We arrive soon after at the river side, where’s there’s a bus shelter made of chipboard and another shop with a lesser selection of goods. Here there is a large advert of a big red truck filling one outer wall of the shop, emblazoned with the proud letters; Wywoz Nieczystosci Plynnych – liquid waste disposal, a vital trade out here. The gang are sitting here by the reeds at the water side drinking, the empty bottles ready to be returned for small change. We head to the house down a long bumpy lane, past plots of land for sale and houses half built in amongst the trees. Some people are leaving as we arrive, yet more will arrive another day.

This particular county domek was built 15 years ago, constructed from the timbers of other older houses. Old friends gather, reminisce, discuss happiness and philosophy, play chess or football or volleyball – even if your leg is firmly strapped from a skiing accident – enjoy the air, drink beer and vodka, sit round the fireside, sing songs, some known to me, some unknown. Some Jacek Kaczmarski stuff  – ‘Sen Katarzyny II’, ‘Ambasadorowie’, ‘Obława’  – something by Maciej Maleńczuk – ‘Ach proszę pani’, ‘Święto kobiet’, ‘Uważaj na niego’, ‘Jestem sam’. And one song that is well known by the rest is ‘Jesienne wino’, it’s pretty much the Polish cover of ‘Summer Wine’. All mixed in with a daily and nightly rendition of ‘Tribute’ by Tenacious D, the Johnny Cash version of ‘Hurt’, a Cure song and some Beatles – the lyrics of which I really don’t know, guys, przepraszam. There’s no shortage of food – it seems to magically appear – as though there is a genie in the woods whose sole purpose is to provide a sumptuous feast at regular intervals. No shortage either of Lubelska Wiśniówka – oh, you know how to tempt me – Sobieski Cranberry vodka – a little sharp to my tongue – and the standard favourite Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.

The long weekend is long and the inevitable return to the city tiring. Bags are packed, the last omelette and nutella spread on  remaining pieces of chleb eaten almost ceremoniously, floors swept, shutters closed, empty beer bottles deposited at the nearest store. It’s turned bitter cold in Warsaw. By the evening there’s snow. I really can’t believe it, pada śnieg. Perhaps it was all a dream…

‘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.

‘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.

Spring BreakPosted on 10th April, 2011.

Apologies for a lack of posts, but we’ve been all over the shop – going to Berlin instead of Białystok, stuff like that. Or maybe we’re in a state of shock after reading this news report in Warsaw Voice. And what’s gone wrong with our Twitter feed? Never mind, The Guardian steps into the breach with a series of articles on Poland as part of their New Europe series. You can read them here, if you need to slake your thirst…

Still, spring is appearing…

back to the castlePosted on 20th February, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stadion XPosted on 18th February, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of a cold night courtesy of Anna Majewska.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Ania P.

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, which also appears in his book ‘Fado’.

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.

Zimowy nokaut Łodzi – Winter knocks out łódźPosted on 3rd December, 2010.

My dear friend was very clear with me. She said, You don’t understand. You’re going to the most depressive city in Poland. You want me to do some research and find something interesting? I’m really busy. Look yourself. Good luck.

I met a vet from Łódź. He had been working in England for some years. He liked to go back every few weeks. He said, You’re going to Łódź! Łódź is great! But I couldn’t get a job as well paid as this is here. Good luck.

I’m told that every native of Łódź feels they have to defend it. With good reason. A native of Warsaw tells me: Łódź is like the worst parts of Warsaw put together. And November rain can make it even worse, I’m afraid. I think it will all depend on your company.

Fortunately, it’s snowing when I arrive. The bus from the airport is empty. There is hardly anyone on the bus and I don’t recognise any of the named stops.  Łódź is the third biggest city in Poland with a population of around 750,000 (similar in size to San Francisco) and straining at the seams. It has always been densely populated since it was established as a clothiers settlement in the early part of the 19th century, when a decree from the Russian Czar in 1816 offered German immigrants land to develop for factories and housing. In the 1830’s four out of five of the population were German.

The bus doesn’t exactly travel to the centre as you might expect. It passes newly constructed gated apartment blocks – which are mostly unoccupied – and plots of deserted land awaiting similar development. The bus skirts the equivalent of an outer ring road and then turns south and east towards the suburbs – the equivalent of Berkeley I assume – past the chimney of the power station with its glowing red lights, past a huge illuminated cross floating in the darkness. That is a big cross, sharply defined in the crisp winter air – but should I be surprised, with recent erection of a large plaster and fiberglass statue of Christ the King in the West of the country which itself is 33 metres tall, without counting the supporting mound. (Admittedly not as high as the 66 metre-high cross on top of Vodno mountain overlooking Skopje in the southern Balkans.) We pass by large solitary roundabouts, a football ground, wide thoroughfares with multiple tram lines, kebab houses, Mcdonalds, a club called Euphoria, a small hut in a field with a single entrance and a large red neon sign: ALARMY. There are no people on the street and there is little traffic. The night is young. I try to ask the driver where the hell we are going. Centralny? Or perhaps Dworzec Centralny? My Polish is poor enough to simply get a quizzical look and a finger pointing in the opposite direction. Instinct tells me to leave the bus now and go backwards. It’s damn cold. My girlfriend has reached the hotel and guides me via the internet back into the city, some hours late. The snow is falling. Even in the centre, the streets are deserted.

Łódź is often compared to Manchester, because of its industrial past and reliance on the textile industry. It was once the main textile production centre for the Russian Empire, attracting workers from all over Europe. It was nicknamed Ziemia Obiecana – The Promised Land.

This is also the title of a 1975 film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on a novel by Władysław Reymont. It tells the story of three friends – a Pole, a German, and a Jew – who combine their resources to build a factory in Łódź in middle of the 19th century. It follows their love affairs, their successes and disagreements and corruption as they compete in the world of the industrial revolution. It culminates in the burning down of their uninsured factory. It was filmed partly inside Karl Wilhelm Scheibler’s Palace, which itself is now the location of the Cinematographic Museum of the National Film School here, on the edge of Park Źródliska. Scheibler was known as the King of the Cotton and Linen Empires of Łódź.

One of the largest 19th Century textile factories was built by Izrael  Poznański and has been turned into a shopping complex called Manufaktura. It’s the best shopping mall in Poland, they say. (Clearly not enough to help the city progress in the bid to be Polish candidate for European Capital of Culture 2016.) On their web site it says: ‘To take a picture at Manufaktura you don’t have any special permission or previous arrangements. Our Center is the first in Poland which lifted a ban of take of photos.’

The snow is swept clear here for unimpeded shopping experiences. It is one of the few places in the city not adorned with posters and cardboard cutouts of Dariusz Joński, who is campaigning to be President of the City at the age of 31 for Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej or SLD (a coalition of left wing groups). There is something slightly strange about these posters to my eyes. He appears to be rolling back a colour image of the city to reveal underneath the old grey and dark city. I think he’s actually meant to be covering up the old decaying city with a bright new colourful vision for the future. It doesn’t work for me. Instead, you might get the impression he is papering over the cracks, a superficial make-over. And he looks more like a humanoid robot poster boy than a real person. I start thinking about Barbie and Ken dolls. The biting cold is doing something to my brain.

On his blog, Pan Joński regrets that the city did not make the shortlist for Capital of Culture and talks about the vitality of the city and its young people. He notes that the reaction of most people to their bid was simply: Łódź? what culture? He has a lot of work to do. Meanwhile over in Lublin (short-listed candidate),  François Matarasso is talking at the Faculty of Political Science, Maria Curie – Sklodowska University, about why everything depends on culture. His central premise: “These days, everybody loves democracy; and democracies, it seems, love culture. Their citizens invest more public and private funds – and more of their personal cash and time – into culture than ever. They also invest hope that doing so will make them happier or wealthier, more civilised or more secure. Lacking other remedies, they look to culture to solve the complex problems of 21st century societies.”

Here in Łódź I was recommended a photo-blog from the city to give me  feel of the place, with the accompanying message: I told you Łódź is weirdo.

I admit, at first, it didn’t look too promising. I had only spent an afternoon here in a summer past. I remembered the bicycle rickshaws going up and down Ulica Piotrkowska, the longest pedestrianised street in the country. They were mostly unoccupied. They were here today, as the snow fell, persisting. Even a local guide (In your Pocket) suggests we should not be here. It says:

‘A couple of misgivings are the norm as your train tootles into Łódź; taking you past Soviet relics and derelict factories the journey isn’t too different from peeping through the gates of hell. And that’s not to say the airport is much better – a toy town Lego thing accessed through knackered estates.’

Though we discover some charms one night - Anatewka, a Jewish restaurant in the Manufaktura complex – persuaded by the excellent duck in a cherry sauce and fine plum vodka. And along Piotrkowska another early night, walking down the street on stilts in the drifting snow flakes, a group of people dressed in white flowing robes, with angel wings and musical instruments. We watch them drift into the darkness as we sip our very necessary Grzaniec, warm within the confines of a small Italian place with a large pizza.

The snowstorm worsens. On Monday the city grinds entirely to a halt, highways jammed, trucks blocking roads and cars abandoned. Buses over three hours delayed or never arriving, plummeting temperatures, even the trams getting stuck when the switch points fail to work. Some power failures also affect the rail lines. Shopping centre lights die down. There are no taxis. People are talking about being surprised by the extreme weather. The city isn’t prepared, it’s the same each year, even though we know this weather is coming. An old man blames the traffic jams on this damn democracy as eighteen inches of pure white capitalist snow falls upon the streets. He’s argueing with another guy about the benefits of PRL. Not everyone, it seems, love democracies or even culture. We are all still in search of Ziemia Obiecana…

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).

Rain expected in KrakówPosted on 30th September, 2010.

I helped him get a bilet normalny at the ticket machine. 2.50 zlotys (that’s about 50p) from the airport into the centre of town. He said he normally took a taxi, but thought he should try to save money, as times are getting harder. He was from Liverpool. His girlfriend was from Kraków. She lived in Podgórze, south of the river. He thought it was an interesting neighbourhood. Over the past year, he’s been here several times. They take their security seriously, don’t they, he said. Have you noticed all the shops and houses with the stickers saying Protected by SecurityWise or whatever? And these big guys have all these batons and sticks. You don’t want to mess with them.

It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? I couldn’t get used to the heat in the summer. The language is difficult though. I’d like to move here and do an intensive language course for a year. I’ve got enough money saved up for that. I could get work here. He was a gas fitter, domestic appliances.

I mean, the wages aren’t high, but the cost of living is comparatively low. Last time I took my girlfriend out for a slap up meal. With drinks and everything it came to about fifty quid. She thought I was crazy spending this, but it’s half the price of something similar in England. Things are cheaper here. Except electrical appliances, they’re similar in cost. In some ways, it’s about 30 years behind the rest of Europe, but it’s catching up fast. I think this country will be the business in years to come. I hope they don’t join the euro.

I’ve had a few vodka too many, he said as he left the bus, but I’ll stick with the beer this time. I know where I am with that.

In the city centre, there is a live TV broadcast from Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s basilica) on the main square. Some fireman are demonstrating how to escape from the top of the Hejnał tower, where a trumpet call blows out on the hour – it cuts off mid-note in commemoration of a 13th century trumpeter, shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. In between abseiling down the side of the tower, the firemen are being interviewed by the TV weather presenter, Dorota Gardias, who was recently featured in popular women’s magazine in a recreation of one of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings of bare breasted young women holding fruit. A former Miss Lublin and winner of the ninth edition of Dancing with the Stars, to be a prezenterka pogody is to be a multi-disciplinary practitioner in these times – though she doesn’t volunteer to heroically abseil down the tower. As for the weather, it’s getting colder. Winter has bypassed autumn. Dorota tells us to expect bright sun, sudden showers and a chill wind blowing from the east. Hot wine with plums and figs seems the order of the day…

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

small seaside town, harbour, sand, some dancersPosted on 23rd August, 2010.

The Hel peninsula is a 35 kilometre long sand bar separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea. It was once a chain of islands that formed a strip of land only during summer months, busy for countless generations with only the herring trade. A road and a railroad run along the peninsula from the mainland to the town located at the furthest easterly point, Hel, where ferries arrive from the Tri-cities. In the period between the two world wars, after Hel became part of Poland, it became a popular spot for artists, writers, politicians and the nouveau riche. During World War II, the Kreigsmarine used it as a training ground for their U-Boats crews, then the Polish Navy up until the mid-1990’s.

Posters around the town advertise a forthcoming tourist attraction – a re-enactment of the Normandy D-Day landings later in the month. It seems to be an annual event. The harbour is lined with bars and stalls with tourist bric-a-brac, seashells galore, coloured sand in jars, fluffy seal soft toys.  Fake miniature pirate ships offer short trips around the peninsula. One of them has a very convincing one-armed pirate, who is successful in good humouredly press-ganging people on board his particular vessel. The sun is shining, but storm clouds quickly bring a heavy downpour, and we rush for cover into a small café for a bowl of soup. The rain drenches the t-shirt vendors.

The main street runs parallel to the shore, with all manner of street traders, restuarants, arcades full of sea-themed trinkets, some restored fisherman’s cottages, some bed and breakfast accommodation that looks more like a prison or reformatory. There’s a summer season of theatre in the fire station – Teatr w Remizie.  Photographs from a performance by actor Marcin Kwaśny hang on a line outside a 15th century church which functions as a local museum and has boats in the churchyard. There is also the Fokarium, an aquarium with only seals, run by the Institute of Oceanography at Gdańsk University, with the aim of restoration and protection of the colony of gray seals in the Southern Baltic.  At one end of the main street is the railway station, crowded with tourists at the end of their vacation, bags piled high. At the other end, the road simply peters out into a forest trail, which soon leads to the sand dunes.

The last thing we expected to see here is a friend organising a promotional tour for a boutique whose prime target audience is 15 year old girls. There’s a big tent on the pavement, selling clothes at special discount, and a DJ and a group of dancers out front demonstrating salsa and reggaeton. The dancers have been recruited from Warsaw dance schools. A boy in a Newcastle United football shirt squats at the front and studiously watches every move. (There are a lot of Poles here wearing English football team shirts.) Later, after some dance competitions with the growing audience, they will take a bus down to the other end of the street, throwing out footballs and prancing cheerleaders to promote the boutique. Why they want to throw footballs is not clear to me, except for the obvious fact that Hel is populated by visiting fans of the beautiful game.

Inside the tent is one of the stars of a Polish primetime TV comedy series, Aleksandra (Ola) Szwed. She is signing autographs in the tent, while some dancers gyrate on tables above her, and people snap up fashion bargains. As a child actress, she starred in Foster Family/Rodzina Zastępcza, which ran for over 10 years. More recently she has starred in various TV talent shows of the singing and dancing on ice variety. She came runner up in the Polish competition to choose their last Eurovision entry and posed for the August issue of Playboy. Today, she’s an essential ingredient of this promotional tour.

Ah, here comes a classic batucada tune. Our friend keeps her large dark glasses on, as if she hopes not to be recognised. Today, Hel, tomorrow Władysławowo, she sighs.

Along the river to the seaPosted on 21st August, 2010.

The ferry to Hel pushes slowly out of the Motława into the one of the widening branches of the Vistula, which finally drains into Gdańsk Bay. We leave behind the SS Sołdek, a coal and ore freighter, the first ship built in Poland after the Second World War, which is now part of the Maritime Museum here.

We pass empty shipyards and decrepit buildings that look as if they are pasted together with tarpaper and tacks, a graveyard of great river economies. On either side there are mountains of coal, heaps of shredded crushed compacted metal, lines of elegiac and idle cranes, crumbling banks, concrete piers subsiding into the water. Two ships sit by one dockside, a Turkish tanker and a ship registered in Monrovia. A few yellow lights aft give some indication of habitation. Not a single person is to be seen, except those aboard a few outbound leisure boats and a trio of jet-skiers skipping over the water.

Shipbuilding here goes back to the days of the Teutonic Order and the Hanseatic League, who made this region rich with their maritime trade. Ostrów Island, in the middle of the channel, has some semblance of activity, a low humming sound of machinery and motors. Gdańska Stocznia Remontowa, who repair ships and build off-shore constructions, are based here. The website of the Port of Gdańsk has a Chinese language option (as well as English and Polski) which suggests where most of the shipping business originates these days. It’s possible shipbuilding may turn a profit once again and these blighted industrial zones reshaped. The EU recently approved over 350 million euros in Polish state aid to the old Lenin shipyard which birthed Solidarity (now owned by a Ukrainian company). Even in the last two months various parts of that shipyard have been demolished, signs of change and redevelopment, artistic events have been held in the wastegrounds there and there is talk of a new visitor centre at the gates.

We pass Wisłoujście, an 18th century red brick fortress with a single high central tower. The fortress is undergoing some repair, with scaffolding covering the outer walls. Small yachts are moored in a marina nearby, tug boats line the wharves, a buoy repair yard a little further on. We move into the widening channel, where on the west side lies the ferry to Sweden and on the east side stands the Westerplatte Monument. On the peninsula here once was a resort, from the 1830’s, with a beach, forested park, a seaside bath, a health spa. It became contested territory, after The Free City of Danzig was created in 1920 as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles. Previously part of the German Empire, its population lived in a strange uncertain limbo. In 1925, the League of Nations allowed Poland to keep a small contingent of soldiers on Westerplatte, one of many sore points with the National Socialists, which could only be redressed by the naval bombardment which marked the beginning of war in 1939. Today a line of umbrellas move in surreal unison, protecting visitors to the memorial from the persistent drizzle. We pass a line of black cormorants interspersed with seagulls on the last spit of shore, the red lighthouse, and out into the open sea.

I find myself thinking of Pawel Huelle’s Moving House (1996), one of a series of short stories set in the Tri-City bay area after the war, in which a young Polish boy becomes entranced by the piano music played by an elderly German neighbour, much to the annoyance of his parents. Huelle explores this notion of identity and national character, of transgression and of childhood memory of these inter-minglings. Then I think of long hours reading The Tin Drum (1959) by Günter Grass, a remarkable story of growing up (or refusing to grow in the case of the narrator, Oskar) in pre-war Danzig/Gdańsk and the advance of fascism. Or Cat and Mouse (1961) by the same author, a slim volume in comparison – about teenage boys in this place at the beginning of the war, who swim out to a wreck off the shore, a partially submerged minesweeper of the Polish Navy.

The borders move, the definitions change. It seems a common fact of life here. Everything is transient, no matter how hard we try to fix it, as if in amber, which can be found in great abundance hereabouts. The sky is as grey as the water below, the rain gathering force. In the distance, way out into the Baltic, leaden storm clouds gather and forked lightning strikes down.

off the railsPosted on 19th August, 2010.

The SKM trains run from the main station at Gdańsk all the way to Wejherowo, much further north, stopping at Sopot and Gdynia – a kind of on-the-surface Metro or U-bahn system. It’s a great way to get around the Tri-City area. Alongside the tracks, the graffiti soon begins to bloom. Every upright surface is covered, except for some rusting bridges over the tracks. The inscriptions run over grain stores, abandoned houses, railyard offices, old garages and grey buildings, corrugated tin fences, along the back walls of a kwiaciarnia/florist. At first much of the graffiti is monochromatic, off-white and worn black, with a splash of some silver and florid yellow, some of it done with paint and not spray cans. The major works seemingly half-finished – a graffito interuptus or simply boredom with the effort of the act – and abraded as if the marks were made long ago at the dawn of a democratic Poland. After Galeria Bałtycka - where there is a conspicuous absence of tagging but the litter of brand signage – and closer to Sopot, there is a better class of illustration. A pristine silver pipeline provides an opportunity for an explosion of colour and stylistic innovation, some old rail wagons offer a canvas for a comic strip. Here’s a dash of Fauvism passing by the window, and then a glimpse of German Expressionism, then some grinning bald headed creatures uncannily inspired by the Michelin Man advertisement.

Occasionally, you might find a message, with a strange resonance, but mostly it’s the calligraphy of the indecipherable.

Hot spells and floodsPosted on 16th August, 2010.

The heat is tremendous. It will not dissipate all day. This weekend the city has emptied, people seeking the nearest lakes or shaded hillsides outside of the urban environment. At nearby Ossów, you will find a re-enactment of ‘The Miracle at the Vistula’ battle of August 1920, when Polish forces stopped a Bolshevik army intent on taking Berlin, then Paris.  The following day is Armed Forces Day, a celebration on August 15th to coincide with the anniversary of the victory. Preparations are underway. Near to the Presidential Palace, on either side of the street, huge images of Lenin and General Piłsudski face each other. Lenin glowers at the photographer, Piłsudski calmly smokes a cigarette. The event has proved the perfect opportunity to clear away the troublesome Defenders of the Cross. The cross remains, a little naked now that the flowers and candles and memorabilia and protest banners have gone from the pavement.

A few Defenders stand forlornly on the opposite side of the road, behind a crash barrier, right in front of a gallery that has non-stop Chopin playing out of speakers day and night. Perhaps several repeats of Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, “Funeral March” will finally put the last nail in the coffin of their catastrophe demonstration.

It only seems a short moment ago that a blistering storm unleashed itself on the capital, with roads and basements flooded like a Venetian parody, and in the south-west corner of the country – as the rivers rise and burst their banks once more – houses, cars and belongings are swept away disastrously. The news carries a story about a bride and groom who fled to higher ground when the church was flooded. The wedding party drove some considerable distance away from the rising waters to find another church to complete the ceremony.

Now the heat is unrelenting and soporific. I feel I should follow the example of Chopin’s tutor. He rarely bathed but did believe that in the swelter of a Warsaw summer you should indulge in a full body rub with vodka, that it was highly efficacious for good health. There seems some sense in this.

The lesser known warsawPosted on 15th August, 2010.

Each Saturday throughout August, you will find a 1950’s blue bus standing near to Coffee Heaven at Plac Teatralny.  This is a Jelcz 043, manufactured in Poland in 1974 with Skoda engine – nicknamed ‘ogórek’ (cucumber) – holding  about 30 passengers, and will take you on a free tour of different districts of the city, off the beaten track.

The bus starts shakily up and after a brief introduction from one of the tour guides, we head off to a soundtrack of Sen o Warszawie, a 1966 song from Czesław Niemen, where he sings about his colourful dreams of the city. As we take the corner by Hotel Victoria, the driver’s door swings open and doesn’t want to close again. He deftly negotiates the roundabouts of central Warsaw while holding onto it. Fortunately the bus can’t manage much more than 40 kilometres an hour flat out.

Our first tour takes us to the boundary of the 19th century city and beyond Mokotów, to the fringes of Sadyba and Stegny, large residential high rise estates built in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stegny estate was designed to channel air. From the west the estate is sheathed from the cold air by long 11 storey buildings, so it’s not too warm and not too cold. Finally, we take a walk through Park Morskie Oko, built at the end of the 18th century for Princess Izabela Lubomirska.

Our second tour wanders past Plac Politechniki with a brief stop at Lwowska Street, where we pass through a gate to a rear courtyard to find Rusiecki Palace, built in 1912. The apartment block in front, which encloses it, is also an original building, surviving the war. The bus putters along through the backstreets of Śródmieście and Powiśle, culminating in a tour of the new Legia Warszawa stadium. The stadium opened with a pre-season match against Arsenal, who won (just about).

The old stadium held 14,000 and the new one has a capacity of 23,000 (though they still have to complete one side). We are allowed on the fake grass by the side of the pitch, but not the real grass. Our Legia guide tells us that not even the groundsmen are allowed much time on this hallowed turf. He says, No-one is allowed on this pitch, only the players. The only ones with unlimited access are the pigeons, as you can see.

From the top of the stands, almost a birds eye view of Warsaw. The new national stadium rising up on the other side of the river, the Palace of Culture downtown, the sports and athletica fields of Ulica Agricola, Ujazdowski Castle nearby – which houses a centre for contemporary art – but much of the city is obscured by greenery from this vantage point.

Below the stadium, towards the river, is a memory of old Warsaw. The decaying remnants of a swimming pool, a partially ruined mosaic at its former entrance. The pool has been long filled in with dirt, trees and bushes growing there. A high concrete diving platform still stands, a smudge of blue paint on the floor surface, a recollection of Socialist leisure and health. The river, smelling powerfully in the heat, is hidden from our view, the few remaining beer and vodka bars along the embankments obscured.

Note: The tour is one of several projects organised by a cultural association, Centrum Europy, aiming to give a new perspective to the city. In 2006 they published a guidebook to the right bank of Warsaw, by Michał Pilich, in English and Polish, and an accompanying web site, both of which we recommend.

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)
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.

* 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’.

Symbols and incantationsPosted on 5th August, 2010.

There’s an awful lot of people getting cross about a cross. The wooden cross in question was put up by scouts outside the Presidential Palace after the April 10th Smoleńsk plane crash which killed former President Lech Kaczyński and many others in government.

Following an agreement reached between the Church, the Presidential Chancellery and the Scouts, a deadline of 1pm, August 3rd was set for moving the cross down the street to St. Anne’s Loreto Chapel. The cross would be placed next to an already existing memorial to Katyń. A group of protesters have been resisting this, awaiting a government pledge that a proper memorial be erected. These ‘defenders of the cross’ are on vigil day and night, attracting the curious, other believers, drunks, tourists, the media and conspiracy theorists.

One of the protest posters suggests the complicity of the Polish government in the crash itself. Prayers are said, hymns are sung, arguments are lengthy and heated. One old woman who thinks that the cross should be moved to the church quickly attracts the approbation of several other women. One of these goes amongst the crowd, pointing back at her and screaming ‘She’s not a Catholic! She’s not a Catholic!’ A man complains to a police officer that the old people standing on the benches (to get a better view) should be reprimanded, because ‘they’re giving a bad example to young people’.

It’s not a big crowd, perhaps a thousand, creating a bottleneck on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. It quickly fades out a few hundred metres on either side. There is a huge media presence to document this, waiting for the inevitable highlight: a few dozen pushing forward at the crash barriers, extra police rushing forward, a few arrests, an appropriate sound bite ie: ‘This cross is a symbol of our Nation.” There are some counter demonstrators, armed with cuddly toys and a rocking horse, demanding that a memorial be erected to these symbols also.

At the appointed time a group of priests and scouts marched up to the cross but in the end there is no commemorative ceremony and no moving to be done, a lot of shouts of ‘Defend the Cross!’ The oddest thing is to hear abuse hurled at the priests and scouts who have come to make a commemoration and relocate the cross. There are shouts of ‘Communist sympathisers!’ and ‘Satanists!’ With the apparent indecision by the authorities, the crowd scuffled about for a while, before an announcement that the cross will not be moved today.

Further down the street, towards the Old Town, nuns enjoy an ice cream on this hot afternoon. Crowds of Polish scouts from communities around the globe (here for the Uprising Anniversary celebrations) wander the periphery of the Royal Palace and listen to a bongo player at the foot of Zygmunt’s Column, which is one of the oldest secular monuments in Northern Europe – even though he holds firmly onto a cross. They all seem oblivious to the commotion just 10 minutes walk away.

The evening television news headline is Krzyż  Stał, Krzyż Stoi/ The cross stood, the cross stands still. Even later, as the vigil continues into the night, another crowd gathers, with many who are there to make fun of the defenders. There are a few indignant moments and arrests. One of the supporters of the defenders is taken away for making threat with an umbrella. He may or may not have been drinking. There’s a lot of confusion. One man here claims that after saying the rosary during a 22 hour vigil every day for a month his bad leg was miraculously healed. A woman next proclaims her cancer cured by the cross. One man asserts, to whoever wishes to listen, that because of the spontaneous nature of the demonstration it is surely the will of the people that a memorial be put exactly here. Part of his argument describes the supremacy of Latin culture over Byzantium culture, at which point we’re a little lost. Others argue that the protest is politically organised by the former President’s supporters whose brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a vocal opponent of the move. The defenders defend, the media reports, onlookers look on.

Across the street, tonight there are as many people crowding in the 24 hour bistro Przekąski Zakąski, who gaze into the bottom of the vodka glass and wonder how this is going to end.

66th anniversary dayPosted on 3rd August, 2010.

In the late evening, we stand under the yellow light of Palace of Culture and Science, tallest building in Europe for a few brief years in the mid 20th century. We are listening to a brief set of songs of Old Warsaw, re-ignited by Janek I Jego Combo (Janek and His Combo). These once were sung in sweaty basements, in bars and cabarets, as couples entwined completely, swooping around the dance floor, songs of pre-war years in the old Varsovian dialect. Songs of dreams, worries, daily life, love, despair, determination.

These days you are less likely to come home after the vodka has ceased flowing and collapse into your bed in tobacco-reeking clothes and poor  musicians are less likely to suffer from lung complaints but the songs endure.

The set list:

1. Przy kominku (By the fireplace), a tango with music composed by Artur Gold and words by Andrzej Włast – both of whom were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and did not survive the war.

2. Wspominałem ten dzień (I was recalling the day). They sing, “I mentioned that day, if it were yesterday, I mentioned that day, when the lilacs were in bloom.”

3. Czarna Mańka (Black Mańka). It is somewhat inevitable that she puts in an appearance, the story of a beautiful dark lady of the suburbs – ‘a lover of suckers who pay for her body’ – who one day falls madly in love with a thief and all round bad guy who does not care for her and uses her. One version of the story has him knifing him, in another she kills herself in despair.

4. Rum Helka, a drinking song.

5. W Saskim Ogrodzie (In the Saxon Garden)

6. Nie Ma Cwaniaka Nad Warszawiaka (There’s no-one smarter than a Warsaw guy) – these last two were both popularised by Stanisław Grzesiuk. Grzesiuk (1918-63) lived in the poor Warsaw district of Czerniaków. In 1940 he was sent to Germany as a slave worker, and somehow survived imprisonment in Dachau and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He returned to Poland with a legacy of tuberculosis which shortened his life.

He published a book in 1958 about his experiences in the camps, as well as a book of reminisces of pre-war Warsaw. As a singer he popularised many of the songs of that ‘golden age’, mostly street ballads using the slang and dialect of the working class districts eradicated by the war. In the song Nie Ma Cwaniaka Nad Warszawiaka – which tells us how no-one can suppress the spirit of a Varsovian or outsmart them, especially a little guy with a moustache – a ‘Hiszpan’ meant a dead body or corpse, a term which referred to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of the 20’s.

Janek and His Combo play these songs to a small but appreciate audience, which grows swells as people exit from the cinema in the basement and stop and smile and gently applaud.

Earlier in the day, the city commemorated the anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Most people on the street or in the shopping arcades are carrying small memorial plastic flags with the Kotwica, symbol of the Polish Secret State and Armia Krajowa  (Home Army). The P and the W merge to create an anchor shape (kotwica). The initials are an abbreviation of “Pomścimy Wawer” (“We will avenge Wawer”), one of the first large scale massacres of Polish civilians in the war. There are some re-enactment groups spread about the city, ceremonies and events in various parks organized by the Uprising Museum.  After dusk, one of the skyscrapers in the financial district left on a series of lights on different floors rooms to mark out the shape of the Kotwica.

As we walk back through the quiet streets, we lose count of the candles and flowers placed at every street corner where there is any kind of plaque commemorating the last stand of a particular individual or fighting unit. Down alleyways and behind buildings, glimpses of small dancing lights of the flames in red and yellow glass globes.

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.

barefoot in the sandPosted on 20th July, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do like to see a man in shiny armour, don’t you?Posted on 18th July, 2010.

For some years I have planned to go to Grunwald, to the site of the greatest battle in Medieval Europe. This battle took place on 15th July, 1410, five years before Agincourt when the Enlish longbowmen of Henry V devastated the French.  In the modern era, this is World of Warcraft brought to life – or a real life version of Call of Duty – where men in plate armour on horse and on foot (with a few female camp followers) lovingly recreate one of the biggest and bloodiest feudal conflicts, when 60,000 men fought each other.

Often portrayed as a Polish /German conflict, it was a little more complex, with a Polish/ Lithuanian army facing the Teutonic Knights of Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, supplemented by an assortment of Hungarians, Ruthenians, Tatars, Russians and Czechs. The Grand Master was defeated at Grunwald with huge losses, 11,000 dead and 14,000 captured. Grand Master Ulrich died in the battle. There is a famous painting of the battle (1878) by Jan Matejko which portrays this moment when the Grand Master is killed, by infantry when trying to attack Vytautus the Great (they don’t have names like that anymore, except in the circus), Grand Duke of Lithuania. The painting is substantial in size, 10 foot by 17 foot, and can be seen in the National Museum in Warsaw.

The battle has attained mythological proportions, a national symbol of heroic struggle against invaders, and the recreation is a hugely popular event.

After weeks of high temperatures and softening tarmac and no relief of rain, we don’t plan to make the pilgrimage to Grunwald this year.  (You can see some fine pictures here.) My girlfriend thinks it’s too hot to be in a car and to make this journey. Let’s just stay in Warsaw for the weekend and melt here, she says, It’s impossible to move. I think she has a point. A frostito at Coffee Heaven will be the order of the day, though I can’t help imagining sharing a shot of vodka with those knights by the campfire. A full suit of medieval armour weighed about 60 lb (27 kg) – which is lighter than the equipment carried by today’s armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing around 90 pounds. Thirsty work,  though after a day in this heat in full battle dress I suspect the contemporary knights of Grunwald might need several litres of beer rather than vodka.

Of course, there is an alternative event at this time of year, with several thousands of people taking to the streets of Warsaw for Europride 2010, calling for greater tolerance and equal rights. No body armour in evidence (unless you count fake breasts) – rather rainbow flags and a soundtrack of Madonna and the Village People. An anti-Europride demonstration, organised by the nationalist All Polish Youth Organization, also took place – called the Grunwald March. The recently failed Presidential candidate Mr Kaczynski was not seen, either in beautifully shiny armour or a pink feather boa.

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

Monuments and MemorialsPosted on 6th July, 2010.

The sun sets over the famous shipyard in Gdańsk, mostly redundant now. Outside the gates a few pilgrims read the memorial plaques, explain their significance to their children. A few guys sit on the grass near to the three crosses monument to the shipyard workers who were killed in the strikes and demonstrations of 1970. They crack open some beers. Young kids on skateboards pass by. Across the tram tracks the faded shop lettering on the walls provides a reminder of when this was the Free City of Danzig, and before World War One, when it was part of Imperial Germany. Elsewhere graffiti proclaims ‘STOP UGODOWYM ZWIĄZKOM ZAWODOWYM’  (Stop to conciliatory worker unions). Some of the pre-war tenement blocks are boarded up, others show some faint sign of life. A girl with a dozen piercings in her face cycles round the back of a ruined building and enters a door, which is framed by anarchist symbols. Two signs are placed in the back yard: ZAKAZ SRANIA CHUJU!!! (Don’t shit here, you dick!!!) and ABSOLUTNY ZAKAZ ROBIENIA KUPY!!! (It’s absolutely forbidden to have a pooh here).

Next to the shipyard gate, where Lech Wałęsa announced the signing of the agreement on 31st August, 1980, which ended strikes and allowed the formation of free autononmous trade unions, freshly painted tenement blocks on one side and a school that looks like a church. On the other side, there is a 24 hour parking compound which abuts the fence of the yard. A watchman sits in a chair at the entrance, basking in the last rays of the sun. A caged guard dog barks incessantly.

A few minutes walk away there’s a substantial exhibition “Roads to Freedom” - housed in an underground bunker on Wały Piastowskie Street (under the offices of Solidarity headquarters). This bunker was built by the Nazis for hospital purposes and the exhibition itself was originally in the shipyard building where the 1980 Accords were signed. With films, installations, artefacts and computer screens spread over several rooms, the exhibition presents the history of the period 1956-1989 from the ‘dull and crude the dull and reality of the Polish People’s Republic’ to the vanguard of opposition in the shipyards, the forming of Solidarity, martial law and the round table talks which led to the first free elections. At the entrance, people enjoy posing for photographs in the reconstruction of a PRL shop with barely anything on the shelves – there was rationing from 1976 due to ‘temporary lack of stocks’.

Further along, where part of the docks show some semblance of work, along a crumbling outer shipyard wall is a long mural, stencilled with memories from dockers, the words and images increasingly obscured with weeds and bushes.

Later, we sit outside Brovarnia Gdańska, an 18th century granary building on Szafarnia converted into a microbrewery and hotel. There is a new marina in front of us, the island of Spichlerze which still has some crumbling walls of old Danzig dock buildings, and beyond that the river Motława, Ulica Długie Pobneże and the entrance to the old town.

For most people, Gdańsk stops right here at the river, she says. This island is the border. Where we are now, on the eastern side, is being redeveloped, with new expensive apartment blocks going up behind the brewery. Behind here is where all the pathological families lived and it’s pretty rough. Now it’s slowly being gentrified. And where these families will be moved to, no-one seems to know.

Carefree holidays in the Polish CountrysidePosted on 30th June, 2010.

Smoke rises lazily from the village houses in the distance. Across the fields, on this side of the river Pilica, which feeds the lake, a young deer strolls through the long grasses. We are standing on the perimeter wall that once provided one measure of protection to the Cistercian Abbey of Sulejów. Founded in the 11th century, it has been restored as a hotel, as romantic a building as you might wish to find for an assignation. The lake to the north is artificial. Constructed in the 1970’s, it made this a popular tourist spot for water sports and angling. Our huge room overlooks the Romanesque-Gothic church, which still functions, and in the grounds there is a corporate party underway, with much vodka drinking and singing. Apart from that there seem to be no other guests in this cavernous and curvaceous building.

We try to find our way on foot to the lake. An old guy at the car park says, Yes, yes, it’s that way, and we follow his outstretched arm down an old track. We pass through a small wood, expecting to see the lake soon as the way declines and becomes muddy and waterlogged, but the path then continues across an open field. Mosquitoes are everywhere. Ahead is a raised embankment, with no lake on the far side. More fields and copses, paths in several directions. We’re lost and getting bitten. The heat is draining and we decide to turn back. In the distance, a black BMW draws up in the middle of a field where four horses are grazing. The driver pulls out several bales of hay from the boot. There must be a road somewhere over there, maybe it leads to the lake? We eventually find the road and follow it. There are a few houses, though they become more and more spread out, some empty and half built. Some kids are playing in the abandoned constructions, and a weatherbeaten guy on a bike veers past us in a staggeringly drunken way. There are some bed and breakfast places here, and signs for hiking and watersports. A couple of holidaymakers sit on an upper balcony, sunning themselves, glistening with oil.

The road ends in a pine forest, and a track which finally leads us to the lakeside. Here we find some more people – cyclists, campers, picnics, kayaks. No sight of anglers seeking to catch pike, perch, bream, eel or carp. The lakes around here have suffered some poison, we are told, and the fish is no good. The sun has gone in and it’s turning a little cold. Too grey to swim. We return to the village and look for some food. No small shops are open. There is a pizza takeaway and down a side street we find a small Tesco – but surely a PRL version, as the shelves are unexplicably half-stocked. (And there is no hope of any cream to treat insect bites.) We settle for some fruit, bread and tomatoes. It’s enough.

I can’t help thinking that much of rural Poland is like this, small, depressed, lonely – even desperate – villages and townships, in between places with a fainter and fainter echo of history. As a young man, Chopin enjoyed carefree holidays in the Polish countryside with the peasant girls singing their songs of love and sorrow, old women chanting in the fields as harvest was gathered, drinking songs sung late into the night as barrels of vodka were rolled out of village taverns – all of which were said to inspire his polonaises and mazurkas. There is little of that to be found here today, just a lot of mosquitoes and the corporate karaoke.

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’.

On WileńskaPosted on 26th March, 2010.

These old tenements on Wileńska give some clue to life in a previous century. These are far older and in worse condition than the classically styled building opposite, which was built as premises for the Polish National Railway Company in 1928-31. These tenements were built to house 19th century railway and  factory workers, and a large Jewish community. The only addition of modernity, an electric gate at the entrance to the inner courtyard is not functional, hanging open. Some courtyards are well tended, have vegetation, flowers, small trees, a shrine to Mary. This courtyard is not like this, deserted and crumbling, devoid of any features except a blackened tree in patch of mud in the middle and a hole in the ground, which may have once been a well. The gateway to this is thoroughly graffitied. The wooden boards of the stairs (an original feature) are heavily worn, on the lowest floors shaped into a deep concave from the decades of feet passing up and down. Something has been on fire recently, a strong smell of charred wood. The stair banisters still retain an ancient varnish and green paint, as do the walls, though much discoloured with age and the cold. The electricity is not working on the stairs. We walk cautiously up and up.

A– answers the door and welcomes us. He is renovating one apartment here. It has a double door, one opening outward and one inward, set in a metal frame. We step into a small square hallway. On the right, a white tiled toilet, on the left a kitchen, which has a bath tucked into the corner, opposite the stove and sink. In front of us, two narrow high ceilinged rooms, which were once larger one with two windows overlooking the courtyard, but have been divided by a false wall at some time in the past. The apartment isn’t even 30 square metres, enough for a family in those times. His father used to live here. It’s leased from the city council, but the original ownership is unclear.  It’s a little complicated, he says, complicated enough that it is unlikely he would consider buying such a place. He is thinking of maybe moving the fake wall, to give more space at the farther end, the window there giving the most daylight. The kitchen window is overshadowed by the stairwell, in dimness all day, and the second window along partly so. He is thinking about how to make a bathroom by utilising the hallway next to the toilet, in order to make the kitchen a more convivial space, a place for gathering at a party. His family recommend that he spends little on renovation – if and when he moves the city council will require him to return it to its original layout.

He has spent days, weeks here, rubbing down the walls, laboriously removing the old flaking paint (an orange and magenta colour). He has applied the first coat of white, but perhaps a little too soon. It is not spring and the walls retain their cold and damp, so the paint has not taken in places. The apartment has no heating, other than portable electric radiators. He needed to keep one on in the kitchen to stop the pipes from freezing. He is working to a deadline – soon, a friend from the Ukraine is coming to stay for some months. He hopes to make some sense of it soon, to live there a while to get a better feel of how best to proceed, to build a wardrobe here, or make a new corridor there.

As we leave, on the ground floor, a little girl is leaning out of her kitchen window, looking at the bare courtyard, singing a song like a bird, while her mother fries something on the stove. The snow has gone. There has been a heavy downpour of rain and the dark grey sky high above holds the promise of a further storm.

finally, more snowPosted on 18th March, 2010.

The last snowfall overnight shuts the airport. For a few more days, winter is prolonged and a drop of Wiśniówka to warm you up is welcomed. By the end of the week, the snow thaws, receding to dirty drifts. The air warms slightly, enough that tables and chairs appear outside the cafes again. A few figures sit on the new Chopin benches installed near the Kino Kultura, listening to the melody that emanate from beneath them. Though people are willing the winter away some pockets of snow persist beneath the Palace under the Tin Roof. On the cobbled path that leads down from the side of St. Anne’s church to Mariensztat, the snow has receded to reveal fresh dog turds and dozens of empty half-litre bottles of Żołądkowa Gorzka. This then is the chosen tipple of the late night dog walkers. We walk down under the bridge where the tourist buses park and past the palace arcades, which have been renovated and are open to the public. We walk back up a steep lane which is named after Piotr Antoni Steinkeller, an early 19th century industrial entrepreneur. She points to one side and says, We call this Muck Hill (Gnojna Góra), because it was the first dumping site in the city. At the summit of Muck Hill, there is a viewing terrace where people gather in the sunshine, looking out over several car parks and the highway that runs along the riverside, beyond that the other side, the natural bank, cloaked with woods.  Praga behind these, the two spires of St. Florian’s Cathedral are visible. They should make more of the waterfront. They could establish a beach here, on the other side, and take care of it. Many people stay in the city in the summer and they would use it, I think. There were some attempts to open up the waterfront, with the establishment of bars along the river terraces, but they quickly became home to skinheads and marred by violence and so were closed down again. There was once a beach further down, at Saska Kempa, popular in the 1930’s, but it no longer exists. We look at the cars, the slowing flowing river, and walk up to the city walls. In the Old Town, windows are opening to let in the promise of spring and people promenade along the restored ramparts and below them, behind Mostowa Street, some residents begin to tend to their small patch of garden.

Vodka NewsPosted on 1st March, 2010.

Alcoholic Russian Chimpanzee (named Zhora) Off to Rehab.

Sunday CollectionPosted on 28th February, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

How quickly the tram empties and the flow of people descend into the tunnels beneath Dmowskiego roundabout. Workmen are at the bottom of these steps, waiting for the crowds to pass, for a moment between passing feet to shovel the slush and ice away with a large flat wooden shovel. The cold carries down into the tunnels and mixes with the warm aromas from the baked goods and sliced pizza place. You could get lost under here, and you would not be alone. Everything you need to sustain you can be found here, in small cabins with barely room to swing a cat, if you had one to hand.

There is a parallel complex under the Central Station, a few hundred metres to the west. The passages were constructed together with the station itself.  Construction of the station began in 1972 and the job was completed in a rush to coincide with the visit of Leonid Breznev in 1975. There is a scene in the very first episode of ‘Zero Siedem’ (o7, often called the Polski James Bond, though the character is in fact a cop.) Aired in November 1976, the lead character is shown leaving prison and walking through the station, where he plays bemusedly with the automatic doors – an innovation at the time.

I am convinced there is a direct way through, that they are linked by a subterranean umbilical cord, but my friends insist, No, you have to come out by the Metro entrance and walk on the surface before descending again.

Here’s a random selection of what’s available down here: kebab turecki, sweets and wine gums, toy cars and trucks, large red lollipops which say ‘I Love You’, mobile phones, dvds and cds, cigarettes, shoes, newspapers and magazines, needle and thread, sewing machines, herbata, pastries and breads, fruit, juice and water, items of clothing, souvenirs, chocolates. There is an Afro shop, a kantor, and I pass by a rubber mask of Bin Laden. There are ticket offices related to various forms of travel and even, closer to the train station, a bookstore.

There is always a yellow, watery light below ground and a multitude of glowing signs, directions for various trams and buses that spread out across the entire city. There are games arcades, internet stations, bars – piwo and wódka, the basics, with some guys with shaven heads, wearing trackies and white trainers, smoking, looking a little unwelcoming. It used to be that, in PRL days, a shaved head indicated someone recently released from an institution, whether psychiatric care, prison or compulsory military service. Somehow the associations remain in such places, below the surface.

I am not sure if a map exists of this place under Dmowskiego Rondo. It dates from the 90’s and the beginning of the recommercialisation of the city centre. The cabins are small, mostly occupied by a solitary person and their stock. It can be stifling down here in the summer, warm and sticky, a little bit closer to the earth’s molten core. I wonder, where do these people go to the toilet? There is no indication of any such facilities. It seems unlikely these cramped cabins have such a private facility. But perhaps there is, some secret recreational area behind the walls, a hidden world of service tunnels with their storerooms, rest areas, tv monitors, bathrooms and deeper, camouflaged PRL nuclear bunkers.

Above ground, there are plans for a new museum of modern art, and a new city park. The 24 hour kebaberies and sex shops nearby the corner of Marszałkowska and Królewska will disappear, though this development scheme has been delayed. Perhaps when the cabins underground have also gone, filled in, like the ones in the old underpass outside the gates of the University on Krakowskie Przedmieście, the city will finally have moved from Central Europe to the West, lock, stock and barrel.

PrzyjaźńPosted on 5th January, 2010.

For the last two years there hasn’t been much snow in Warsaw, and I don’t like the snow in the city. They put down salt and the snow ends up in big dirty piles, and the salt ruins your shoes. On the hill nearby, we went sledging, always.

The snow is fluttering down again tonight, and sledging is possible. Before venturing out into the cold, we are listening to the Top 100 songs of all time, as voted for by the listeners of Radio Trójka, the annual end of the year rundown of their favourite tracks. In the UK, John Peel used to have a Festive Fifty on Radio One, a selection from the passing year, but this is a compilation of the listener’s all time favourites, for the fifteenth year running.

Led Zeppelin top the poll with Stairway to Heaven, and have another four songs in the chart. Deep Purple are at number 3 with Child In Time and King Crimson at 4 with Epitaph, from their first album in 1969. Black Sabbath are number 43 with Paranoid. Pink Floyd register 8 songs, with Comfortably Numb at 19. Monty Python make an appearance at 35 with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. Budgie, a 70’s band from Wales, have a song at number 95. They were the first heavy rock band to perform behind the Iron Curtain in 1982, and are well loved still. The full 12 minute version of The End by The Doors is played (at 56), a song which is now mostly associated with Apocalypse Now. This film had just started a run in Warsaw in December 1981, when martial law was imposed. I think of the famous photograph by Chris Niedenthal, taken on the morning of December 13th, which shows an armoured personnel carrier in front of Cinema Moskwa (Moscow) and the banner advertising the movie Czas Apokalipsy.

These are not only songs of longing, of an imagined freedom broadcast from the West – there are some Polish desires represented. Czesław Niemen – with Dziwny jest ten świat (Strange is this World) – is at number 9. A protest song from 1967, by an musician fond of long hair and psychedelia (and thus disapproved of by the authorities), his song is number 1 in the Polish Top Songs of All Time.

More contemporaneous, Dżem have 5 songs also including one called Whisky at number 67. Kult have 5 songs in the top 100, with Kazik also in at number 40 with 12 groszy.

They don’t seem to be played in any particular order, and other songs make an appearance. Anarchy in the UK is playing as we leave and make our way to Bemowo, one of the western districts of Warsaw. We leave the bus and overhear some guys walking in the same direction. I hope its gonna be a good Sylwester, they are saying, I hope they’ll be some fights. We are walking through an estate of old barracks, wooden dormitories and cottages. These first housed Russian builders and engineers who were involved in the construction of the Palace of Culture. The estate was called Przyjaźń – Friendship – and had all its own facilities, clubs, sports areas, libraries. The wooden cottages were Finnish, exchanged for coal. After 1955, the estate was given to the Ministry of Higher Education and today it is mostly still occupied by professors, researchers and students.

My grandfather used to live near here, at the next junction over, she said, when it was the end of the city. The end was clearly demarcated. There were all these blocks of flats. And then cabbage fields as far as you could see. Now the city is spreading and now apartment blocks are being built on the cabbage fields.

The only instructions for the New Year festivities are: It’s 20 metres from Klub Karuzela. Here, behind a metal grill opening, down some steep stairs, behind a curtain, is a pub in a basement, usually occupied by fans of the football club Legia. The club is, in fact, just called ‘Basement’. The black walls are adorned with a Polish flag, a Legia flag, a Jamaican flag, a poster of Bob Marley, and various football memorabilia. There’s plenty of food laid out, and Wyborowa, Smirnoff and Żołądkowa Gorzka are the drinks of choice.

Very few of the songs from the Trójka Top 100 are being played in the basement tonight – though perhaps Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode (at 44), an ever popular song in Warsaw, would go down well. Or one of my own favourites, Polska by Kult (at 51) would get everyone singing along. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson is a crowd pleaser with several outings (though only at 98 on the radio). His sister LaToya is in the city tonight for the festivities in Plac Konstytucji, enjoying the performance of a rather muscular Michael Jackson impersonator and many moonwalkers, at a tribute event costing 3.6 million zloty. Here, in the basement, we enjoy a more modest celebration. Behind the bar, a TV plays a programme about windsurfing and other beach activities far far away, the sound turned down.

At midnight, upstairs in the frozen air, splendid fireworks, here and across the city in every direction. This is shortly followed by an unfortunate collision of three heads with each other and the dancefloor, which may or may not have been caused by vodka, or quite possibly by the DJ playing a Britney Spears remix. An ambulance takes one person to hospital for a check up – she will recover. The face of Bob Marley looks on impassively. The snowflakes flutter down. The night buses move remorselessly across the city.

Posnania elegans Poloniae civitasPosted on 10th December, 2009.


We walked from the centre of the old market square to the river, heading for Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Earlier, we went down into the basement of the Franciscan church to see a diorama of Poznań, a scale model at 1:150, based on its boundaries in 1618. You are invited to sit in the dark for twenty seven minutes and learn about the history of the city, told with flickering lights and a recorded multi-lingual soundtrack. My impression was that this was an unfortunate location for a city; compacted into those one thousand, six hundred and twenty seconds were several centuries of construction and destruction, building up and burning down. It was under siege, it was invaded, it was leveled, it was rebuilt, it burned down again, it was invaded again, this church and that church was destroyed then raised up to the heavens again, and no sooner as one church burnt down and was rebuilt than the tallest tower collapsed. And so on and on.

I asked if Poznań was German in origin. No, No, No, I am told, This is the holy place of the birth of the Polish nation – or at least, nearby in Gniezno and in Ostrów Lednicki – this is where the first Polish Bishopric was, shortly after Poland converted to Christianity, with Gniezno the capital until the King moved to Kraków.

After the impressive diorama, in the main square we passed a man dressed as an American Indian handing out leaflets for a restuarant bar called Sioux. On the other side, a large exhibition of photographs from 1919, when after the armistice on the Western Front,  Polish militia units were still fighting remnants of the German army.


We passed by several tempting cafés serving hot chocolate, to the ever-greying outskirts, where the pavements become more cracked and overgrown, along a back street named after Venetians. The diorama had given us a useful mental map of the city, as we headed towards the eastern edge, at least as it was at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Warta moved sluggishly under the bridge, coming from its source in Silesia in swerves and curls from the south-east, flowing towards the Oder on the border with Germany. A lone fisherman cast his line into the waters on this cold desultory day. He walked down the concrete bank into the water, stumbled, the river bank shelving sharply, then he decided better and retreated. Behind him, the remains of old Prussian fortifications, built into the embankments. The island has the river on one side and a tributary, the Cybina, to the other. Here is the the Arch-cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, one of the oldest churches in Poland and the oldest Polish cathedral, with its Golden Chapel for Polish Sovereigns. We pass over the red iron bridge to Śródka, an ancient market quarter. The tarmac turns to cobbles and sand in places.

There are few people to be seen, a young girl with a sausage dog walking towards a football field, two men smoking outside of Kino Malta, an art house cinema in the old workers cultural institution, opposite the church. There have been film screenings here for over 50 years, except for two years in the 80’s when it was closed down. David Lynch’s Lost Highway, following its release in 1997, was screened every friday night for five years. The building itself once housed a disco and provided storage for fire-fighting equipment.

On the next street, there is a plaque which commemorates Zygmunt Radtke who, upon the German invasion in 1939, took the standard of his scouts unit and hid it in the basement. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and the flag was found, providing conclusive evidence of his subversive activities. He died in Mauthausen concentration camp.

As we wander, we talk about a book I recently read, Winter Under Water (sub-titled Or, Conversation with the Elements) by James Hopkin, a relatively contemporary fictional account of a love affair between an English man and a Polish woman. He follows her to Poland in winter to resume their affair, even though she has a husband and child. The narrative moves between the perspective of the two protagonists, her letters to him and stories of her research project into forgotten histories of women, and his impressions of a foreign place and a language he does not know. The city she lives in is unnamed, a ‘zone of crumbling tenements and tin kiosks’ with a frozen river, wholly infused with winter sadness. Waiting for the next opportunity to meet her, he sits in a bar mleczny with the smell of anorak, steamed cabbage, detergent and despair, nursing his own deepening sense of melancholy. Here ‘the windows are held in place by condensation’ and the radio plays those ‘big-haired ballads from the eighties’. There is a little of this to be found here, by this riverside. Here is the shuttered office of a lung specialist, a music shop with a mural of huge flames coming out of a guitar and a keyboard, old garages coated in graffiti, an abandoned fairground, a newly refurbished music college opposite a low wooden house and a block of empty tenements – through the broken windows, we see the piec kaflowy (ceramic tile stove) lying dormant. The smell of coal smoke in the air comes from somewhere else.

We walk back into the centre, finally succumbing to the allure of a quiet café and its hot chocolate with nuts oranges and raisins. And later, some Wyborowa – which has been produced here in Poznań since 1823. The name itself derives from the comment made when the new vodka was entered into a competition and won the title of best vodka in Poland. “Exquisite!” said the president of the judging panel, literally “Wyborowa!” So we raise a glass or two to melancholy.

Safe european homePosted on 23rd November, 2009.


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’.

goodbye, golden autumnPosted on 2nd October, 2009.


The rain that started in the mountains has moved west. The fabled golden Polish autumn is fast disappearing into winter twilight. People move from their tables on the sidewalk. The waitress seems a little bored and sharp. Yes, what do you want!

Death of a virgin, I suggest, which I saw scrawled on a blackboard earlier in the day. That’s a mix of vodka,  peach liqueur,  lemon juice, orange juice and 7up. Originally price: 17 zlotis, but now on offer for 14.

A rickety train from Katowice brought us here, to Gliwice. “Please, the visual boards are not working so please pay attention to the announcements.” That is the only clear announcement, the others are lost in static and feedback. Is it such a problem to put in proper speakers, so you can hear what is said? I assure her that we have the same speakers on railway stations in England. The passengers ask each other if this is the correct train on the correct platform. We nod at each other nervously and get on board.

This part of Silesia has much in common with the industrial West Midlands of yesteryear, large empty red brick factories, old mines and some still working. Coal and steel, mines and mills, dirty and stained concrete train stations, overloaded with graffiti. At the station in Katowice, there are billboards which declare forthcoming improvements, and indeed the area around the rail terminal needs particular improvement. On the platform, pasted in random places are several sheets of photocopied notices for missing people with basic information and a photo: 38 year old male, 31 year old male, 19 year old male. One has no photo, and minimal information – simply the name, then Female, height 160 cm, fair hair and the date she was last seen. It seems infinitely sad and hopeless.

Elsewhere, there are new shopping malls – some with large cracks, as a taxi driver tells us, What did they expect? Everything around here subsides! They didn’t pour enough concrete, he says, they built it on the cheap. It’s always the same. There are green spaces and old plazas with Soviet war memorials surrounded by high rises in poor condition. Katowice lies in the centre of the largest conurbation in Poland and is one of the largest in the European Union, with a population of 2.7 million. So far, I have seen more drunkards here and street beggars than anywhere else in Poland.


In 1953 Katowice was renamed Stalinogród, but this was never popular, and the historic name was restored in 1956. One building that you can’t help but notice is the Spodek concert hall, dating from 1971, built in a flying saucer shape. I have lost track of the number of times people have told me that they saw Depeche Mode here. It seems the city is re-orientating itself through festivals and events. This summer, Katowice hosted the Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival, in the grounds of a former coal mine, within walking distance of the town centre. There are blues festivals, metal festivals and beer festivals.


In Gliwice, one of the adjacent cities, there are a lot of alcohol shops, pretty Austro-Hungarian era buildings, many large and empty, small parks and a well-kept rynek. On the pavement, a man turns cobs of sweetcorn in a frying pan on a gas stove, offering it for sale. Wander a little way from this centre and you will find unkempt but impressive buildings, old wooden doors ajar with dusty corridors with metal staircases, geometric patterns cut out of each step, casting curious shadows along the hallway. Smoky dark exteriors, leading to abandoned courtyards, but the windows and window frames are sparkling clean. This is a feature of Silesia, she tells me, because of the coal dust in the air, they keep their windows clean. It is a source of pride.


Tonight, I feel I should be listening to Pola Negri (who was born with the equally wonderful name of Apolonia Chałupiec) singing Ich Hab an Dich Gedacht, but instead in this bar they play Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo, followed by Pink Floyd. Ah, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, she tells me, My Dad played them all the time. He had a wooden ruler from school that he’d kept with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin inked into it. A generation later, she went to see Roger Waters solo concert in Warsaw, but in her opinion he murdered his own songs. She also went to see Madonna, whose first Polish concert was in August – on the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. She was unperturbed by the protests from conservative Catholics, some of whom claimed the singer was a ‘crypto-Satanist’ while others held prayers to stop the concert. But God help anyone who inks her name into a ruler.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

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


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”


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

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

Sunday in Nowa HutaPosted on 11th September, 2009.

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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