The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

queuePosted on 7th August, 2011.

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

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

You can download an English version of the game from here:  http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/en/2/512/Download_English_printandplay_version_of_Kolejka_game.html

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

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.

66th anniversary dayPosted on 3rd August, 2010.

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

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

The set list:

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

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

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

4. Rum Helka, a drinking song.

5. W Saskim Ogrodzie (In the Saxon Garden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WeselePosted on 28th June, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some highlights I remember:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: a reader, a writer himself, writes:

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

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

Vodka NewsPosted on 1st March, 2010.

Alcoholic Russian Chimpanzee (named Zhora) Off to Rehab.

Sunday CollectionPosted on 28th February, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrzyjaźńPosted on 5th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posnania elegans Poloniae civitasPosted on 10th December, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

goodbye, golden autumnPosted on 2nd October, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

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

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I was also there on the memorable night of the Champions League final in Istanbul, when Liverpool played Milan, though finding a bar with live coverage was surprisingly difficult. In Warsaw this would not be a problem. Undoubtably there are fans in Kraków, supporters of Wisła or their arch rivals Cracovia, yet this city’s inhabitants perhaps see themselves as more urbane and sophisticated. By half time we found a bar with coverage of the match, but the exodus of English told us to not bother. It’s all over mate, they said, Forget it, they’re dead in the water. Milan are 3 up. So we went to a different bar and drank more vodka and forgot about it. Back at the hotel I switched on the TV to see how many goals Liverpool actually lost by, to find they had actually won the Cup on penalties after extra time. It was a Polish Match of the Day programme, and on the studio couch were a range of guests including Jerzy Dudek’s Mom (or maybe his Aunt), proudly wearing a Liverpool shirt, and they spent the next hour talking about how great Jerzy was. I hoped to see a replay of the goals, but all I saw were various images of our hero smiling, grimacing, sweating, shouting instructions, waving his hands, making a drop kick, throwing the ball, wobbling his knees, making the vital penalty saves – but never actually picking the ball out of his own net five times. The programme ended with a montage of these images to the soundtrack of the Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’.

I resisted the charms of Kraków for a long time. Everyone said, Yes, yes, you must go to beautiful Kraków, all the English do! I really try to avoid those notorious English binge drinkers but this weekend there are surprisingly few in evidence. I can now say I have taken in the views from Wawel Hill, and stood under the Pope’s window, and looked at the art nouveau murals and stained glass windows by Stanisław Wyspiański in the Franciszkanów Church, watched live re-enactments medieval knighthood in the Barbican fortification, ate passable tourist food on the Rynek, whiled a pleasant hour or two away at Cafe Camelot on ul. św. Tomasza (which has its own photo-gallery). I even considered taken a Crazy Communist Tour. I have also got lost in Galeria Krakowska, the huge new shopping complex (123,000-sq-metres) by the railway station.

The new shopping centre, seemingly open all hours, is a popular attraction, as some random comments posted on the Kraków Life web site reveal:

Conor, Ireland: I travelled to Poland recently and stay in the beautiful city of Krakow. Myself and my Polish girlfriend, Ilona, decided to shop in the Galeria and it was an amazing experience. Everything imaginable was there and even when I got tired (as men do) and Ilona had the energy to keep on shopping, I could relax in one of its bars, chill out and have a drink. This is a must for every shopping centre, specially for the guys.

Mariamii, Georgia: “I’m lovinnn it!!! it was great,everyone can find his/her Eldorado at Krakowskaaaa:x:x:x:x”

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

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

39 Grzybowska StreetPosted on 19th August, 2009.

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These blocks were built, so close to the city centre, for some of the key workers of the state. For example, he said, I have for a neighbour a former air stewardess and a postal worker. So there are a lot of people here now in their 60’s and 70’s, not many young people.

He is one of the young ones, involved in theatre in the city. He shares his 11th floor flat with an opera choral singer, and he is fortunately a fan of opera –  Strauss’s Salome in particular, performances of which he has seen in several different cities – as well as being interested in cynology and felinology.

We look out of his window on the city skyline.

I think there was a park here, he says, before these huge buildings, and before that of course here lay the ruins of the ghetto. Now, there is a big expensive hotel there, and they plan to build three new big skyscrapers, which will completely obscure the view of the Palace of Culture – which, though partially concealed, tonight glows with an ethereal yellow light.

One of these new skyscrapers will be a 54 storey tall glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Złota 44, a luxury apartment tower in the shape of a tall thin sail, will stand 192 metres high – the third highest skyscraper in the city – with 251 luxury apartments. It now lies dormant, a skeletal fraction of its proposed size, all construction halted. The credit crunch seems to have crept upon this city, though across the river a dozen huge cranes or more encircle the site of the new national football stadium.

The view here, they like to call it Little Manhatten. I think this is exaggerating. It’s a little loud here sometimes, when the school kids are in the playground down there or there is a sports match. It was meant to be a quiet area, and a bit luxurious. They planned swimming pools on the roof. This didn’t happen. I guess the communist authorities ran out of money.

The flats are not so special. The kitchen has no window, the bathroom has no window, it is too hot here in the mornings. There isn’t even a balcony, just the impression of one, a door that opens to nowhere. There is a metal gate is across the doorway at waist height to stop you falling out. A large bottle of Smirnoff is on the table – 3 litres or more – and a bottle of home-made from Loomza, snacks and a tuna salad. This is maybe not such a good location for a wild vodka party.

I think there are too many monuments around here, he says. Yes, it’s important to have a memory of the ghetto, but even to buy a carton of milk I have to pass several monuments. There’s just no escaping it.

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

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

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

Not only vodkaPosted on 1st March, 2009.

Remember Sideways by Alexander Payne?
There is always appropriate time for opening the bottle – like, let’s say, right now

Strzemiennego!Posted on 28th February, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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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boxes and labelsPosted on 15th November, 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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