The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

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.

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.

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.

On New Years DayPosted on 1st January, 2009.

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Some hours after midnight, we walk down to the sea. The only illumination is a series of small blueish lights on the cliff above, and an occasional random rocket fired out over the water. The sand is remarkably soft and the sea calm.  When I first came to England, says Ania, and people said ‘We’re going to beach’ and all I could see were these little stones, I was asking myself, ‘What are they talking about? This is not a beach!’

This is a beach, stretching a far as the eye can see. To the west is Woliński National Park, noted for bird-watching opportunities,  and to the east is Kołobrzeg, a resort and health spa which attracts over a million visitors each year. In between are these smaller holiday villages amid pine forests and golden sands. We walk for miles and miles along the beach, past the abandoned water slide, along with many other bleary eyed revellers of the night before.  It is a time to be a little melancholic, in an out-of-season resort, a time when you think about things ending and of new beginnings. Finally, as dusk falls, we return to look for a fish restuarant for plaice, fries, źywiec and a vodka chaser. 

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One Sylvester in RewalPosted on 31st December, 2008.

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The Szczecin salsa dancers, along with members of an amateur football team called United Vampires, with a miscellaneous assortment of guests rented an apartment complex for New Year in Rewal, on the Baltic coast. And it was a splendid New Years Eve, with mountains of food and much vodka. Here it is commonly called Sylvester, as the last day of the year in the name day of this saint. It’s not exactly a hotel, as we all have small apartments, but there is a dining room on the ground floor where supper and breakfast is served.

It is not enough to have 12 dishes for Christmas Eve supper (representing the 12 apostles) but there seem to be an equal amount of courses for our New Years Eve supper. By course number 6, I’m feeling a little full and now set before me is a plate entirely covered by a large dumpling full of meat. I manage half of it. The owner of the establishment proudly explains how much work, love and devotion, has gone into the preparation of each particular instalment, and generally tells us to eat up everything. Nothing must be wasted! Most plates, I notice, are returned wiped clean. Empty plates are returned to a serving hatch in an annexe off the dining room. Any plate returned to the kitchen in any other state will receive a sustained spurt of vitriol from our hostess. The guests sprint into the annex with their plates pretty quickly and back to their places before they are noticed. I wait for the right moment to return my half-full plate. I slide my plate amongst several others, so I can pretend I placed the really empty one right there at the front. I turn to return to the table. Mission accomplished. Then a curtain is whipped back and she leaps out, fixes her eye on the offending plate and pinches my ear hard and marches me back into the dining room, gesticulating with her other hand and eloquently lambasting my lack of appetite and appreciation. (I am having a flashback to nuns and primary school.) The room falls silent. I don’t know exactly what she is saying but it goes on for what seems far too long. A summary is given me later: I can’t believe this guy hasn’t finished every scrap of the beautiful food I have prepared. And look, he’s such a skinny guy! What kind of mother brought him up? What did she feed him? he has no meat on him and yet he refuses to finish his food! What kind of man did you bring here? I’m surprised she didn’t say, ‘Sausage is not for dogs,’ a Polish way of saying ‘it’s too good for the likes of you.’

More glasses of vodka quickly anaesthetises any lingering embarrassment, before the fireworks, the compulsory discotheque, the lithe salsa dancing in corridors and the traditional drinking songs.

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