The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

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.

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…

Forewarned, forlornPosted on 1st February, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe european homePosted on 23rd November, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mazovian nightsPosted on 16th August, 2009.

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Somewhere on the Mazovian plain, a small town like any other. A few thousand people live here. I would call it a village, but my host insists a village has less than nine houses. On the outskirts, fields of corn ripening, a graveyard on a small incline, strips of woodland and farmland, then a few dusty streets with a secondary school, some council offices and police station, a library, a hairdresser, with two or three shops in cabins – a bakery, a clothes shop and one selling general foodstuffs and alcohol. There is an imposing church and a small park with a new children’s playground and picnic area and a small swampy lake. There is a tributary of a river nearby, which provides some fishing. A railway line runs to one side of the town, along a raised bank, cutting through the fields and woods in a straight line as far as the eye can see. The tracks are a little overgrown, and the old station has crumbled to ruin. It’s raining and we seek refuge in the library and talk to a man who has been labouring in the west of Ireland for two years. He likes to read Stephen King books. In Ireland, he explains that they have some books in Polish language in the library, which he has read twice over, but no Salem’s Lot or Dark Tower in his own language. He complains about the food in Ireland. I’ve lost weight, he says, look, my clothes don’t fit me anymore! The contractors feed us Indian food. How can this satisfy my appetite? He is filling up on kiełbasa and sernik while he is here visiting.

Most people living here commute to work in the larger town nearby, which has a wide slow river – which could be quite an attraction, but it is unkempt and unloved. Rubbish litters the muddy water and clogs the banks and gathers under the parapet of the bridge. Some farmers supplement their income with agro-tourism, letting out rooms to holiday guests, and often providing an excellent breakfast and dinner. The meats are home cured and delicious, and with freshly picked vegetables from the garden. For the evening I buy a bottle of Sobieski, just ‘golden Dankowski rye from the fields of Mazowse’ and pure water, and ask to put it in the freezer. Mr Farmer notices this and invites me to a special meeting. This is translated to me as: We’ll meet later. At midnight. In the woods. I’ll have a treat ready for you, wait and see.

The moon is full and yellow, hanging hugely above the treeline. We follow the path through the woods as instructed. We come to a clearing, where there are some farm buildings, mostly disused, some of their roofs collapsing inwards. I’m not sure about this, says J, but what the hell. There is a light in one of the buildings, which is used as a pig abattoir. The interior, with lurid lime-green walls and a concrete floor, is bathed in a flickering fluorescent light. There are various metal tables and electric callipers, hooks and chains and pulleys along the walls. For a moment feel like we have intruded on the den from a serial killer in an American road movie.

Mr Farmer is waiting for us, makes us welcome, and eagerly explains the process of slaughtering an animal and the uses of the different implements. We pass through this first room into the white tiled cold store, then into what looks like a broom cupboard. And here is the laboratory for producing his home-made vodka. There is barely room for the three of us, to stand in between the array of pipes and condensers, pots and pans. He explains the process, and his favourite recipes. A small pipe leads to an old tin pan (green on the outside with delicate daisy patterns) into which the precious liquid drips, drop by drop by drip. I find myself thinking about the infinitely slow formation of ancient continents from the break up of Pangaea. It will take till dawn to make half a litre, but he has prepared a mug full for us to taste. He checks the alcohol content. Over 85% proof. He seems pleased. He offers us a shot. Don’t do it, says J. I throw it back in one. Mr Farmer, who is impressively built and would make a good wrestler, looks at me intently for a moment, then slaps me hard on the back and says, Bronek, You true Polish hero! J takes the second glass, and gently sips the rocket fuel.

The evening unfolds. More is drunk. We find our way home. That wasn’t so bad, says J, we can walk in a straight line. It’s dark in the woods and I can’t tell. The next morning, near to afternoon, we wake up stiffly and find bruises on our back and legs. At some point, says J, I think we fell down those steps. I agree, though I can’t remember.

Tradition getting strongerPosted on 4th July, 2009.

First in Poland museum of moonshining has just been opened in Białystok Museum of the Countryside. Among mills and traditional village houses one may find – hidden in woods – all equipment necessary for production of pure and usually high quality homemade vodka.

The only thing that troubles organisers is Polish law that doesn’t allow to make exhibition more vivid – and to treat visitors to a sip or two.

More in the article Jak po bimber, to do… muzeum in “Gazeta Białystok”, a local supplement to “Gazeta Wyborcza”. Text in Polish, but short video available to all.

text message from województwo podlaskiePosted on 28th June, 2009.

I receive text messages on a regular basis, updating me on what I am missing. So I reproduce one here.

Rye vodka with neighbours, talking about vodka making ingredients, including fermented strawberry syrup in cans thrown into the forest by a local factory. na zdrowie!

Later on she said, The illegally abandoned (in the forest, by a local fruit and vegetables processing plant) fermented strawberry jam barrels used by the villagers to make bimber is such a lovely and absurd image. Nothing can go unused, eh? Unfortunately, my travels have not taken me to the heart of vodka production in recent months (though they will soon enough). Instead, by way of sympathy, Polish friends bring me suitcases of Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka Korzenna z Miodem (with honey).

And sometimes I receive compensatory picture messages from my daughter, whether in Birmingham or Manchester, who seems to have forsaken wine for vodka. How time flies…

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Home-makingPosted on 29th November, 2008.

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It is particular kind of cold, seeping damp into my bones and fingers numb.
We are on a northern border near Lithuania, a mere lake away but I won’t be swimming today however tempting the clear calm inviting water looks. A house is being built on this gently rolling land, within walking distance of the old family home of the poet Czesław Miłosz, what was once the local Manor House. That particular wooden building is now ruinous, left empty during the decades of Soviet occupation, but it will be repaired and renewed over the next few years as part of an ongoing cultural project.

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This house, on the other side of the woods, is currently a plan and a large hole dug in the ground. We gather here to mark the laying of the cornerstone, facing north-east, towards Mother Russia. A coin belonging to the Grandmother of the woman of the house-to-be will be laid on the cornerstone, for luck as tradition has it, and doused for further luck with a copious helping of vodka. The vodka is the best in Poland, says the man of the house with a gentle laugh. It is Finlandia. The coin, which has an image of a long-dead Tsar, is ceremoniously put in place, the vodka is poured, the mortar slapped on top and the first stone laid by the builder. Then, each and every person present, one by one, all down a shot of vodka to celebrate this moment. Then we eat a bowl of bigos, to warm our hands and bellies on this particularly cold morning. And a chill rain comes down, but no one is miserable. The builders go back to work, turning stiff sods of mud.
A bulldozer splutters to life and trundles forward to dig up another hole,
which one day will be a small domestic lake.

It feels both a gentle pleasure and a privilege to be here and witness this moment. After, we walk up the rise and down through the woods to the Manor House, its wet boards in need of some tender loving care.

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a russian joke found in rural polandPosted on 12th October, 2008.

He said to us, Do you know this one? The Russians have made 300% proof vodka and decide to test it on the Polish. They find a guy who is stacking hay. They say, Would you like to try this vodka? They give him a bottle and a glass and of course he accepts it. Then they go behind some bushes to observe. They see that after drinking the vodka the Pole is collecting the hay with one hand, and holding the other behind him. The Russians ask him why he is doing this. The guy then says, This is because I am afraid if I fart I will set the hay on fire…

As autumn leaves fall…Posted on 20th September, 2008.

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Use milled rye. Pour hot  water over it to make it really sweet. Cool it to 27 degrees. Add yeast. Let it ferment for three or four days. Distill it. It is very easy to burn it, so distill it using steam. Get the water boiling hot and steam it through a pipe. The most important thing is what you distill and ferment it in. If you use a metal container, you can get iron particles. My Dad used glass, and stainless steel sometimes. Charcoal filters remove the impurities and carbon filters remove any smells.

This is his recipe:
1 kilo of sugar
3 litres of water
10 decagrammes of fresh yeast
26/27 degrees
7-9 days to ferment it
Cool it for a day or two
Distill it
Add fruit or jam for taste

You can use tomato puree because tomatoes have lots of potassium and yeast likes potassium.

The best one is when you just use rye, or the yeast for making wine. The wine yeast takes longer because it requires longer temperature.

don’t try this at home, kidsPosted on 19th September, 2008.

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Like to flavour your vodka? Put sugar onto a thin slice of bread skin, burn it and drip into the glass. (I have a bad memory of my daughter lighting a glass of absinthe and her friend burning her lip.)

Notes from the heart of conservative Poland: 1Posted on 18th September, 2008.

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The old manor house is crumbling into the earth. No-one has seen the owners, who are believed to live in America if they exist at all. The aristocrats sold up in the 1920’s, fled, left behind their debts. We climb through the brambles and overgrown foliage, like in a fairy tale. There is a chill in the air. There is hardly a sound. A carpet of plums lies undisturbed at our feet. There used to be an orchard here with apple, pear and cherry trees. Edible berries on the bushes remain untouched. You can still make out the shape of the grounds,  planted with Canadian redwood, spruce and pine, linden and czarny bez (black elder). The roof is collapsing, the once solid floors cracking apart. I hesitate to descend to the basement. Bits of wooden furniture are strewn about, some rusting keys, parts of a spinning loom. There are hardly any white tiles left in place on the floor to ceiling stove at the centre of the house. As a child she was scared to come here, thinking it was haunted. It is beyond repair, but must have been a fine home once upon a time.

Once upon a time, war came to these parts. There was a wooden house, built by her Grandfather. This was occupied by the Polish army, then the German Army, then the Red Army. Why, no-one knows. It does not seem a strategically important place. It is not like the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte at the battle of Waterloo.  It is not even the highest point, this being some ways away and despite being called the Big Hill, it looks like a small mound with a scattering of trees. Woods obscure some of the views. Perhaps it was just comfortable, this farmhouse of shaved logs, and that may have been sufficient reason for weary soldiers far from their own hearth. 

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We drank vodka, his home made recipe. The Germans shot people like dogs, he said, they had no mercy. Not all Germans, you understand, to be more specific, I mean the SS troops. For a time we had to run away into the woods and we ate boiled flour with water, and boiled swede. The Russians were more friendly. They weren’t so bad. You know, they were sad to leave, singing an old song, “Why did we have to get to know each other, oh why did we part…?” They went back to Moscow and sent letters to the family, but this was a time when partisans were still active in the countryside and it was best not to reply. My Mother was killed in the yard in 1944 during an artillery bombardment, Russian shells or German shells, no-one really knew. I was ten years old. Two years prevously, I saw vodka being made for the first time by my Father and Uncle. I didn’t touch a drop until I was eighteen. Or smoke a cigarette.

This current house dates from 1972. You can still see the old foundation stones in a corner of the basement, alongside a store of local wine, coal, potatoes and the ancient accoutrements to make bimber. The essential equipment came from a man near Gdansk. They look like parts of a rusted car to me. These are dairy farms, producing milk for one of the biggest producers in Poland, and in particular for serek wiejski, a local cottage cheese. (I am not a fan of cottage cheese, but this is delicious at breakfast.) And, as is tradition, they produce their own vodka for home consumption.

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She is drinking crème źołądkowa gorzka. Children’s vodka, her Father says quietly, though later she proves to be quite capable of matching him, homemade glass for glass. There is a bottle of Orzechówka Lubelska on the table at the beginning of the evening. I have to say this walnut vodka is one of my least favourite drinks, a little too smoky and like cough medicine for my palate.

We talk about how to make vodka. I feel like I am falling into the past, of my childhood visits to family in Ireland, to the bars in the back rooms and the potcheen stills. And something about the landscape reminds me of this too.

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He tells me he used to make vodka without yeast, just with rye and some herbs and honey, and how it tasted just like cognac. But it was hard to make he said, it often failed.

In communist times there were great efforts made to stamp out home production.
I have seen numerous propaganda films about the evils of bimber.  I ask, What’s the situation like now?

He shrugs: It is not illegal to make it for your own consumption at home. It is not advertised that you make your own vodka, but since 1989 I don’t think people pay attention. There was a guy in the next village that died. Police came and investigated and asked, What were you drinking? Home-made of course. They took away a sample to the lab to test and the alcohol was fine. He was 27 years old and had a heart attack and cracked his head open on the ground, but it was not the quality of the alcohol that caused the problem. He concludes that alcohol is good for your heart. He says that most heart medicines are based on alcohol. (I resolve to invite Dr. Middleton for a drink to discuss this matter in further detail).

I text Iwona and ask her what are the rules about making home-made vodka. She replies, enigmatic as usual: Only one rule, when it is proposed one should not refuse.

What else did I learn from my evening? In these parts, the definition of an alcoholic is a man who drinks alone. And though he tells me that sleep is the best cure for a hangover, he rises every day at 5 am to milk the cows. I will try to milk the cows, but later in the day.

As I drift off to sleep, all I can hear is a gentle wind, rain and cows, cows, cows.

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hint of first frost…Posted on 13th September, 2008.

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The last summer day had now passed. It was getting colder. A frost was promised for the morning but has not yet materialised. Maybe tomorrow. We walk to the fields to dig up red-skinned potatoes in a chill wind. The land is flat and open. Later, we go back to the house with a basket full of mushrooms from the woods. She tells me she doesn’t often get a cold, maybe once a year, and she never takes vitamins but today she isn’t feeling so well.

She speaks to her Mother, who has peeled the potatoes and is now carefully trimming the mushrooms for drying. She asks, Mamo, when is Dad putting on the central heating? Her Mother replies: Are you mad? It’s still only September! Drink vodka and you’ll feel warmer. Vodka is cheaper than central heating!

Can you stop time?Posted on 10th September, 2008.

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Travel a few hundred kilometres out of Warsaw in any direction and the landscape of the Mazovian plain seems much the same. At the end of the summer, it has something of the American mid-west about it, small towns sitting astride railway tracks and road junctions, flatlands with scrub-like trees, seemingly deserted, a sense of quiet rural impoverishment as the nearby capital grows in power and wealth.  I half expect to see Gary Cooper striding down the dusty Polish street (as he once did, when the character he played in High Noon, Marshall Will Kane, was featured on an emblematic 1989 Solidarność election poster). Big and bigger new roads are being constructed for the 2012 European Football Championships, slicing through these hamlets in the straightest line possible from city to city. Large flyovers rise out of mountains of dirt, elaborate pedestrian bridges span solitary unused carriageways, on the one side an unkempt field and on the other an overgrown field. They lay plans for some possible future when these half a dozen old farm houses are razed and an another estate of apartment blocks will rise up on the fringe of the ravening megapolis.

Today, on the east bank of the Vistula, the bus station at Stadium is crowded as usual, hemmed in by hundreds of market stalls under their plastic canvases, a muddy haven in the heavy rain, a bazaar to easily get lost within. Buses, coaches and VW vans compete for space between the cramped avenues. Exhaust fumes fill the air. I search for the buses whose final destination is Suwałki, as I am heading towards a region with leisure-strewn Mazurian lakes to the North and industrial city of Białystok due East.

As the bus works its way out of the city, along waterlogged Radzyminkska and Piłsudskiego, past a huge retail park with Ikea, I notice a whole series of billboards inviting the inhabitants of Warsaw to visit other exciting parts of the country. Like Gdańsk , where you will find a lot of things to surprise you, involving gargoyles and pitchforks. Or Lublin, which is bidding to be a European City of Culture and has some scary face-painted folk on their poster which makes me think of New Zealand.  And there is even a poster promoting poor Kielce, which apparently no-one ever wanted to go to.

There is a poem by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz that Iwona directs me to,  called ‘To my snotty-nosed friends/Do przyjaciół gówniarzy‘, in which he writes:

Przeglądam w myśli wszystkich mych przyjaciół twarze
I myślę sobie, och, psiakrew! czyż wszyscy są gówniarze?
Ach, nie! Jest kilku wiernych, z tymi pojechałbym nawet do Kielc.

I looked through all my friends faces in my thoughts
And think to myself, Oh, sod it! Can they all be snots?
Yet no! Some of them are faithful, with those I would even go to Kielce.

As the journey progresses, I receive a text from Iwona: Welcome to the heart of conservative Poland, welcome to the heart of darkness. No billboard can be seem promoting this particular region, enticing me to visit the Heart of Darkness.

The woman next to me on the bus lived in New York from the early 80’s and only returned to Warsaw a few years ago, before 9/11, to be nearer her Grandchildren, whom she is going to visit today. We talk about how it was in America for her – hard work is the only way to sum up her life experience. She has only one recommendation for this region we are travelling towards – the gothic cathedral in Łomźa, which itself barely finds a mention in most guidebooks. That‘s about it, she says, it’s not like Brooklyn. She nods sadly as we pass through the pine woods near Brok, where the road is lined with lonely prostitutes with orange skin colour, smoking cigarettes under umbrellas. On the other side, teenagers and old people huddle around baskets piled high with freshly picked mushrooms. A spluttering camp fire gives off blue smoke, and bicycles are propped against tree trunks. The people of the woods. Capitalism or communism, what’s changed here, eh? We can’t stop time, she says.

A couple of hours later, I find myself in a village of less than a dozen houses. The sun is shining here. There seem to be more cows than people. No sign of any flyovers here though, only thin unpaved roads.  We are really off the map.

Conversation in Warsaw Bar: 4Posted on 14th August, 2008.

We drank wódka źoładkowa gorska mixed with Sprite and ice. She said, You know, I can’t ski now without a drink. I had a bad skiing accident and I was a little nervous after this but a small shot of Krupnik and then I am able to ski really well. Not while skiing you understand, but in between the stopping. She told me she liked to go skiing in the Czech Republic, on the far side of the Tatras, where she said the cavalier attitude of the coach drivers in these mountains made her more than a little nervous. She recommended a summer trip to ‘the land of a thousand lakes’ in the north eastern region. She told me of her sailing expedition on the Mazurian lakes, giving me the impression that the very waters of these lakes were in the process of fermentation. She said, This is the recipe for a successful sailing trip: in the morning, it was banana liquor with cornflakes. If it was cold it would be Amaretto in tea, and coffee with advocaat. In the afternoon, it was vodka all round.

In Poland I believe it is illegal to ride a bicycle while under the influence of alcohol.  I am not clear how the law stands with regard to piloting a boat. I make a mental note to explore these intoxicated waterways.

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Ludwig’s Nalewki RecipePosted on 3rd August, 2008.

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Go to the woods and pick one hundred flowers of lilac. Add eight or nine lemons and boil in four litres of water. Let the mixture settle for 48 hours, then squeeze it through a sieve. Add three and a half litres of sugar, 20 decagrammes of lemon acid, spiritus and leave for 10 days. The mix should be 40% spiritus and 60% essence. For stronger you put more, but I prefer this perfect mix.

When I was younger, my Mother made a syrup which could be used for a sore throat, but if you added alcohol it made a very fine drink. It was made from the upper branches of a fir tree, the Christmas tree.

The trees are not now in blossom, but we collect some leaves…

More on nalewki here…

heat, thunder, lightning… all we need is fireworksPosted on 22nd July, 2008.

We take a bus from Lublin to Nałęczów, when a bus finally arrives (three of four or maybe five don’t bother to stop at our particular bus stop). We are standing in the heat on the side of a dual carriageway named after General Sikorski for a very long time and I think I am hallucinating and imagining I am in Kabul again. I didn’t bring a hat and she is ready to faint and getting more and more angry at the non-stopping buses (which are clearly not full). Finally, we are on the bus and she is feeling unwell and asks me to stop talking. Last night, after the visit to Polmos, we wandered towards the Old Town, stopping to eat grilled vegetables, bruschetta and chicken salad in a quiet café on ul. Kościuszki that had a large plasma screen of Jamie Oliver running around London buying vegetables and hugging people (sound turned off). Then the drinking began in earnest under the parasols that ring the market square and the town hall that squats in the centre. The square is small and compact, lit by various coloured floodlights. There is a stage in one corner, with a trio of accordionists, who are followed by a ubiquitous reggae band. If you ever wondered what happened to Shaggy or Black Uhuru, you are likely to find them performing on a summer stage in the rynek of one Polish town or other. Old friends are meeting here. Excuse me, but I will speak English to you after two beers. I have not spoken English for two years, so it will be better then. And far better than my Polish.

A fine powerpoint presentation at the Polmos factory informed me that Poles actually prefer beer to vodka. 88% of the total alcohol consumed here is beer, with vodka at only 7.5% and wine with a 3.2% share. Whiskey, liqueurs and brandy account for the rest. So first, the traditional beers, then a tour of the old town down alleyways and through ancient courtyards up to the castle overlooking Plac Zamkowy.

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Then via a small shop to buy bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka to rest awhile on an unlit wooded terrace behind the cathedral. This was the tradition of my youth, we had the small bottles and we walked around the town taking small sips and talking about life. Wiśniówka is another local brand, made from cherries, which I am also quite fond of. She then says, I was not drinking Wiśniówka because of local patriotism. I drank it only after I left Lublin and it was long after this I had this raised consciousness about it being locally produced. I just liked the taste. Then we go to another late night drinking place (and another 24 hour alcohol shop) in a square near the Catholic University. I have to lie down in the bushes for a while. I can’t keep up with the others. There was some staggering home at dawn after that, but I can’t quite recall how.

We can rest in peaceful Nałęczów, a spa town and health resort due to its micro-climate, set amongst gently rolling hills and woods. Only 25 kilometres away from Lublin, the intense heat we felt earlier in the day has disappeared. We sit in the garden and eat pierogi and borsch, the perfect antidote. A rain storm passes quickly over, throwing down a heavy burst of rain, but the air remains pleasantly warm and fragrant. After dinner, she says with a sigh, Life is so short, so here is a taste of life. A pause, and then: Of course, forbidden fruit tastes the best… (I am finding that most Polish have a certain poetic flair with our English words. I must ask my colleague, the good Doctor, to extrapolate on the tradition of romanticism in Central Europe…)

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We take a long walk in the splendid park at the heart of Nałęczów, with the restored sanatorium, a lake and river, and a palm house where you can taste different types of mineral water, variations on the Nałęczówianka brand which is produced here. Next to the palm house is a Wedel, if a hot chocolate is more your cup of tea (as this cafe specialises in divinely flavoured hot chocolate…) It is a fine place to recover the wits one lost the night before. From within one of the neo-classical buildings a pianist with the light touch of Debussy accompanies a woman singing an old Ukrainian melody. Another storm approaches with dramatic lightning and we scurry to hide under an arch, escaping a soaking. Later, there is another terrific thunderstorm in the night, drowning the flowers on the balcony and drumming hard on the roof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a banya, near LithuaniaPosted on 3rd February, 2008.

Michal drove us confidently through the rain and sleet, into the empty countryside, down muddy lanes, trees branches scratching the roof of the minibus, towards the promise of the banya (in Russian, bania in Polish) and a dip into the frozen lake.  This is the kind of thing that could give us a heart attack, said Alex from Crete. I was also thinking this, but I breathed deeply and slowly and felt at peace. We arrived at an old farmhouse building in an almost deserted village called Czarna Buchta. The electricity is out. There are only storm lanterns, the glow of the wood fire, and the light of a dozen candles. Our host Czesław greets us with his homemade honey and nut vodka, which is indeed a delicious treat, with that thick quality that honey has, leaving a coating of the taste on the tongue.

The men drink a toast and then are led out into the darkness towards the woods and the banya by the lake. This is a traditional Russian steam bath, housed in a small wooden building that reminds me of a beach hut sitting on the pebbles at Lyme Regis, looking forlornly out at the sea. We leave our clothes in the outer room and enter the steam bath. There is a huge wood burning stove in the corner, with  heated stones on top, and a big oil can full of water. We sit on the wooden benches, which are almost searingly hot to the touch. There are two levels of benches, the cooler air (if you can describe it as that, at least comparatively so) on the lower level. After a while sweating in the heat, we go outside and run around in a circle in the chill rain, waving our arms. We go back inside and are each given buckets of cold water to douse ourselves with. Czesław throws cupfuls of water onto the hot stones. We sweat more. We go out again, this time to the lake, where there is a large rectangle cut through the ice. Our host thinks the water is too warm and so we retire to the steam room again. There is particular ritual to this, leaving the heat and plunging into the cold water. The ice underneath my feet feels so cold it is a relief to go into the lake. My testicles are gratifyingly tight. We go in and out two or three times. We bring back buckets of ice water to splash over ourselves. After the second or third sweat, we are given branches of  dried leaves (of white birch, I think) to soak in the bucket of water. We then use these to beat upon our skin, to improve circulation and help open the pores.

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One of my companions asks, Would you like me to beat you? Yes, why not. (Alex is still a little unconvinced). The fragrance of leaves seems particularly strong. And the whole experience, the extreme of temperatures, induces a kind of natural high. Finally, we wash our hair and pour buckets of ice cold water over each other. I have no sense of how long we are in here, but eventually our host decides it is time to leave. He tells us that we would normally, at this point, dress and sit in the outer room and drink a few beers, but it is the women’s turn for the banya so we go back to the house.

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As we return, the women sing a beautiful song that the Bulgarian visitors have taught them while we were in the banya. We drink more vodka and the toast is ‘To a New Life’. And indeed, I feel invigorated and renewed. Later we feast on the home cured meats of venison and wild boar that our host has hunted in the forest, followed by bigos. More vodka is drunk. Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish and Bulgarian songs are sung. Czesław knows many of them. Bev sings Marley. I attempt a poor rendition of ‘Carrickfergus’.  I can only remember half of the song, but I explain the Irish context to the table.

You were not in tune, says Bev, But at least you tried. For this project I am going to have to learn to sing well as well as drink.