The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

‘Nuda, cholera nuda…’Posted on 12th May, 2011.

Before any long weekend can stretch before me, I need to catch up on some morning sleep in Praga. Yes, you’ll need to store it, I am firmly told. It’s after midday and walking past the woman selling watermelons round the corner of Kępna onto the main street where the trams are on Targowa and there’s an artist waiting at a bus stop. She wears a combination of bright blue clothes and a severe haircut that that only an artist would have. Recently she was part of an exchange in Birmingham with the Polish Expatriates Association there. She had been filing her taxes, as everyone else is on this particular day. The smell from the bread shop nearby makes me feel hungry and distracted. There was no food in the flat, simply an untouched bottle of vodka in the fridge.

She had just returned from her own long weekend near Sejny where her father had a country house. I’ve been digging a piece of ground for carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radish, beet roots, she says proudly. While we’re exchanging pleasantries, a guy talking on a mobile smacks the woman with him in the face. She thumps him back and he slaps her again a few times and they struggle and all the time he carries on talking calmly on the phone. They wander off bickering. Ah, typical.. Then there are two young children, sisters I’ve often seen, begging on the tram – singing a song in shaky harmony, holding up a sign and asking for money. They don’t get much sympathy. Yes, I’m definitely in Praga, I’m not still in bed, dreaming. Beyond the block of flats, a dusty path and a line of allotments with the old harbour wharves beyond. In one of the warehouses by this port there was a Vietnamese Cultural Centre – Thang Long/Flying Dragon – it’s gone, where to I don’t know, as the new national stadium rises into the air nearby. In the news they talk about the stadium being delayed by months. No-one expresses much surprise.

Targowa Street was a thoroughfare in the Middle Ages, and is lined by early 20th century tenements, many in a poor state, some still empty, waiting to fall down and for a new swanky apartment block to go up. The central reservation where the trams rattle by was once a green space. And some new trams are appearing this side of the river. This is the part of town where ‘the habits were violent and underperfumed’ – Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane. It has its charms for sure – the old Bazar Różyckiego is mere shadow of its former self, with it’s famous chitterlings and dumplings usurped by nearby kebab counters. The nearby streets embrace their funky little bars that have become oh so fashionable. Though it’s all in a constant state of change, as the city engorges and reinvents itself. Right next to the now mostly empty bazaar some of the oldest houses are being renovated and converted into a historical museum of Praga Muzeum Warszawskiej Pragi.

A little further along is the junction with al. Solidarnosci, where the trams and buses run west across the river to the Old Town, here is Centrum Wileńska, a shopping centre with a train station at its foot. And in between the roads, stands the The Memorial of the Brotherhood of Arms, commemorating the collaboration between the Soviet and Polish soldiers. Four soldiers with their heads bowed stand on the corners of a plinth atop are which three soldiers in battle action poses. Sculpted by Stefan Momot, it was the first statue to be erected in Warsaw liberated from the Nazis after the Second World War – its opening took place on September 18, 1945, though the figures then were only made of plaster, covered with bronze sealing paint. The metal sculpture was put in place in 1947, cast from fragments of the Nazi military equipment brought from the liberated Berlin. It is commonly referred to at ‘The Four Sleepers’.

The above mentioned artist in blue proposed a project to convert this and other monuments, writing ‘The ‘dead’ memorials in Warsaw should either disappear or be re­freshed’. She put a ‘swing’ on the Berling’s Army Monument, suggested a ‘slide’ for the Monument to the Red Army and a ‘carousel’ on the Brotherhood in Arms here – which would surely wake these four sleepers. (Read about it here: CarouselSlideSwing.pdf.) The monument will be moved at some point, as here is scheduled a new metro station. The Law and Justice Party in the City Council would like to see it completely destroyed. This logic of eradicating symbols of past oppressors may well apply to the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary Magdaleine just opposite, built in 1860 when the Tsar’s army was stationed in Praga, another clear indication of Russian power and influence.

There is a documentary film from 1957 which features several recognisable shots of Praga, including the wide concrete expanses of what was then the newly built national stadium. ‘Ludzie z postego obszaru’ – People from the empty zone – was directed by Kazimierz Karabasz and Władyslaw Slesicki was one of a series of reportage films coming out of Warsaw Documentary Film Studio between 1955 and 1958. These were described as ‘The Black Series’ – Czarna Seria.

After the death of Stalin, the barriers of censorship had weakened and documentaries like this began to be made looking at social problems. This film follows a group of disaffected young people, hanging out on street corners, who complain of a lack of money, flats that are hard to find, who say that noting is interesting about their lives. They hang out on the wasteland by the riverside – where they might find ‘a taste of the forbidden world’ – smoking, drinking, wandering.  ‘The same, bored faces with no expression’ says the commentary. ‘They don’t have lives of their own so they keep looking.’ A woman’s body is dragged from the river as they watch impassively. They go window shopping, looking at goods they can’t afford. Only a trip to the cinema ‘brings dreams closer’. The film follows them to a party in one of their flats, where they dance to rock’n’roll – Little Richard belting out ‘Ready Teddy‘ – and the drinks flow. This is contrasted with news headlines about young people, one of which states ‘Co dalej? Pytanie ciągle aktualne’ – What about the future? Still an open question…

One thing is certain, the future is wiping away more and more of old Praga. Once there was a bar on Targowa called ‘Oasis’ just after 1945 -  where, according to Jerzy S.Majewski, ‘herring and black Astrakhan caviar were in constant supply and secret police agent on duty kept eavesdropping the vendors and other patrons’. For some, those indeed were the glory days.

Notes:
‘Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane’ is borrowed from an article on Place Hallera in Praga, in the ‘Book of Walks – Landmarks of People’s Poland in Warsaw’ by Jerzy S. Majewski, with additional texts by Iwona Kurz, Ewy Toniak and Waldemara Baraniewskiego; it was published by Bibilioteka Gazety Wyborczej in 2010.

A useful guide to Praga in both English and Polish, first published in 2006,  is Warsaw Praga Guidebook by Michał Pilich.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

barefoot in the sandPosted on 20th July, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’.

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.

Good morning, MariensztatPosted on 30th August, 2009.

The noise was driving her slowly mad. The apartment stands within a stone’s throw of the bridge and bears silent witness to the cacophony by day and night. The Trasa W-Z highway, running out from the tunnel and over the river, is being entirely resurfaced. New tram tracks are being laid down with much drilling, hammering, scraping, humming. The workers, tattooed and glistening, nut brown from labouring throughout the heat-soaked summer, begin their work at 7am, sometimes earlier, working shifts long into the night. It seems the whole public transport infrastructure of the city is being rebuilt, as the country looks forward to hosting the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships. The road and the bridge is due to reopen on September 1st.

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She and her neighbours say to themselves, Why do they work so late into the night? Can you remember how it was better with the normal traffic? At least the noise was constant, without this intermittent screaming of vehicles reversing, Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! And these squealing and grinding noises.  They keep their windows closed, in a vain effort to keep out the sound and the dust.

Then there are the newly arrived students in the top apartment, who insist on playing death metal after dark, in a bizarre accompaniment to the bridge workers. Somewhere, someone is playing sounds from the mid-90’s, songs by Garbage (‘Stupid Girl’) and Evanescence (‘Bring Me To Life’), repeatedly. The new tram cables are being strung up between poles, the air clammy with the crackle and hiss of the arc welders. No-one is playing the old song by Lidia Korsakówna and Andrzej Stockinger – ‘Małe mieszkanko na Mariensztacie’ -where they sing of how they don’t want anything more than a small flat here in Mariensztat, and how both of them will look happily out of their window onto the Trasa W-Z.

Buses still emerge from this tunnel and turn off to the right, rumbling down the cobbled street toward the river bank, before making a loop under the reconstituted highway and back up the other side, to wait at temporary lights, engines rumbling. Only one lane is open across the bridge throughout the construction. When the sounds of work finally fade away – or on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a public holiday when all work in the city must halt – you might hear the sound of the clock tower of the Royal Castle chime the quarter hour, an old and comforting sound. For a long time, this clock lay dormant, unrepaired, like the clock at the University, where irritable Professors, for so long accustomed to a non-working mechanism, winced when the twelve chimes of midday boomed out to interrupt their glorious polemic.

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In the morning, after disturbed sleep, the small details of verdant Mariensztat provide some comfort. As she leaves her apartment, she watches how the light reflects off the open windows in the hallway, casting flickering sensuous shadows down the stairwell. At the doorway to the building, there is a lingering smell of fried food from the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant next door. The best duck in Warsaw can be found here they say, and this passing thought makes her stomach rumble a little, as she has missed breakfast. She passes the solid and resilient statue on the corner. She calls it the Fish Wife, a figure of a women with a hen by Barbara Zbrożyna, but its official name is the Przekupka (the Hawker). She walks up the terraced steps past the willow trees, through a courtyard onto Bednarska Street.  She thinks of how this place has its stories, of hidden walled rooms, of collected art treasures lost, of bordellos and bare-knuckle boxing matches, of suspected drug dealers arrested, of mysterious creaking floors in the night, of the woman who helped Władysław Szpilman and who always wore lace gloves, of the cheap bar patronised by the university students, of the green window from which sounds of the 1970’s emerge, usually the Bee Gees of the Saturday Night Fever period.

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Mariensztat was founded on a love story. In the 18th century, when Eustachy Potocki married Maria Kątska, this area by the Vistula was part of her dowry. He made a village here, under the walls of the city and named this after her – Maria’s town. Potocki today is more associated with the production of vodka than with aristocrats.

So Mariensztat lay outside the old city walls, between the river and the higher ground on which stands St Anne’s church and one of the oldest streets in the city, Krakowskie Przedmieście. It was the first part of the city to be reconstructed after the Second World War, rebuilt in 1948 to a new street design as a model socialist housing project. The reconstruction was a key element of the 1954 film ‘Adventure in Mariensztat’, the first Polish feature to be shot in color.

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The film opens with scenes amidst the ruins, old walls tumbling into clouds of dust and a new city emerging, being rebuilt. Building materials by road, rail and water being transported to the ruined capital. Young people folk costume crowd onto a convoy of trucks, accompanied by accordionists. They are singing about how young hands will rebuild the city, and build young ideas – ‘Tomorrow we will be able to defend what we create today! It’s the youth coming, youth, youth, and they sing, for it’s the youth who creates the world!’

This music and dance troupe are en route to appear at a festival in the newly built square of Mariensztat. In the first part of the film they are taken on a tour of the magnificently rebuilt city. The main character Hanka, also played by the afore-mentioned Lidia Korsakówna, leaves the tour to wander by herself. She is deeply interested in the new modern monumental architecture of the new city, and not so much the rebuilding of the old town. She meets a bricklayer, Janek, and they spend a joyful evening in Mariensztat. She goes back to her village, but then decides to move to Warsaw, where one day she accidentally meets Janek again. He is a worker honored and rewarded for exceptional diligence in increasing production – ‘przodownik pracy’. Janek agrees that she can join his ‘masonry trio’ (trójka murarska). But master Ciepielewski’s aversion to working women causes conflicts between Hanka and Janek, so Hanka quits and joins a women brigade. The men and women brigades start to compete in work efficiency, increasing their productivity, and eventually Hanka and Janek make up and live happily ever after. The film shows the countryside (from whence the hard working workers come) as idealised in an anachronistic way. It is a place of the past, frozen in time like a picture by Józef Chełmoński, stuck in the 19th century and not the 20th, impossible to reform. And so, our heroine must leave behind the fields of potatoes and go to the city to join the project to physically build the pure socialist state. Here the young people are ripe for revolution, because they have the energy and, of course, because they have no memory. And the workers are building their own homes, so they will live contently in the new Mariensztat, or Muranów or Żoliborz.

You see, she tells me, to work one hundred per cent is not good enough, we must work three hundred per cent. This is the battle cry of the workers who reconstruct Mariensztat. I must have seen this film a hundred times. And now my beautiful building is falling apart.

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Today, as she walks up to the centre to her place of work near the Ministry of Culture, she passes by a film crew on Bednarska, taking advantage of the picturesque steep cobblestoned street, with its slightly ramshackle buildings, as a backdrop for some TV soap. This is not a street for high heels, she thinks. At the top of the street, there is a busy new café bar, Skwer, alongside the freshly remodeled Herberta Hoovera Square. She points out how someone has already carefully graffitied the brand new street sign so it now reads: Herberta Hookera Square.

PowiększeniePosted on 28th July, 2009.

In a club named (possibly) after the 1966 Antonioni film, Blow Up, a track by Joy Division – ‘These Days’ – blares out of the speakers above my head. The song was recorded in January 1980 at Pennine Studios, Oldham, before most of these people existed. It was released as a b-side to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. These days, you can get it as a ringtone.

We should switch to vodka, she says, but I don’t know if my body would like it. Or my head. I won’t drink on my own, but if I did I’d get hammered pretty quickly. And people would laugh!

She explains how she has survived several months in Granada, avoiding the pitfalls of flamenco dancers and studying the local language with some finesse. Back in Warsaw, with a new job starting Monday, she found herself in a bar whose lower floors collected denizens of the freshly arrived in the city and trying very hard to be cool and hip variety. After a few drinks, they didn’t look so bad, or so hip. Sitting at the bar with her friend, she was approached by a man who introduced himself as a film director who has been busy in New York shooting a film. Have you heard of Faye Dunaway, by any chance? He offers to buy them drinks. They are not particularly impressed and later, after several drinks, she forgets his name, leaves the bar and gets caught up in a stag party on the loose. She evades their clutches    and congratulates herself with a few more vodkas. She was home, in Poland after all.

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She remembers Tarifa, on the beach at night, here at the southern most point in Europe, with the wind coming from Africa, with bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka – what else! – and those English people were pulling faces as they knocked back shot after shot. They said, How can you drink it like that? She wondered why they seemed so surprised. This is what Polish girls do, she said.

But upon this particular night, on safe and familiar territory, this close acquaintance indeed proves to be her downfall. On an ordinary street, she misses a step, severely sprains an ankle, and ends up in the hospital. And, as a consequence, arrives at her first day at work on crutches. Uwaga! The perils of vodka drinking.

z czasemPosted on 16th January, 2009.

In the darkness outside, snow falls. What do we talk about? We talk of yearning, of old loves, of new loves, of dead loves. It will usually start with politics, move to religion and then onto sex. This seems to be the pattern in Poland, whether in Warsaw or elsewhere. The 24 hour alcohol shop was reassuringly busy, full of shaven headed men with dogs, wrapped in big puffa jackets with only a few restrained tattoos on display. Some I recognised from previous nocturnal incursions.  We are stocked up for the long dark night ahead.

The temperature drops alarmingly low for English born blood, and I am truly grateful not to be at the Central Station at this moment, waiting for the stampede of night buses. They are now rolling out of the station en masse on the half hour, belching fumes into the air.

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These blocks of flats are solid and warm enough, even when the radiators are not on. I suppose you might say this is a typical flat, about 50 square metres in size. Through the door into a hallway, a bedroom on the right, ahead a bathroom and toilet. Second right, a small kitchen, room enough for a table where four can sit and a work surface along one wall. A long room to the left of the hallway, the largest room, mostly wooden parquet floors throughout. Very comfortable for one person.  Or a couple.  But these were constructed at the beginning of the 1950′s, as part of the so-called Nowy Praga, under the regime of President, then Prime Minister, Bolesław Bierut. This was part of the socialist paradise of post-war reconstruction for workers, and often housed families of four and more. The policy of the communist enterprise was to limit domestic and personal space.  Private space was minimised, and social spaces were outside, in the public domain. In those times this particular flat may have even housed two families. The former owner was a worker in FSO, a car factory, producing cars like ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Syrena.’  Most of the older residents worked there. The others were the builders of the Palace of Culture, a monument completed in 1955, in the middle of a city centre that was still dust and rubble in all directions for many years after.

The spaces between these blocks are lined with trees, and I remember last autumn seeing an old woman carefully sweeping up huge piles of leaves. It seemed to be her job, to keep the public space in good order, maintaining the grounds. There is a children’s playground beneath the window (we are on the top and fourth floor but it feels much higher) and most days you can hear kindergarten kids at play there. Above them, dozens of birds wheel in the air, cavorting, playing their own effortless game.

Her life is a series of wonderful mishaps. She said, I made a mistake and went on holiday to Transylvania. It was the romantic promise of enchanting ruined castles. Count Dracula and all that. We booked a tour coach from Krakow and it was full of divorced middle-aged men who drank and sang all the time. We were the only women. My companion was a friend who teaches the theory of literature, but she is particularly analytical. She discussed Freud the whole time. It was enough therapy to last a lifetime for me.

Before that, she told me she had attended a writers retreat in the mountains of southern Poland, a dramatic enough scene which does not need much embellishment. The writers were of a particular persuasion called New Neurotics. As a literary critic, it was her job to facilitate the ensuing discussion about pessimism in Polish literature. Alienation and the crisis of modernity were no doubt touched upon.

Can you imagine such great fun? she said. Imagine a cottage in mountains, foggy landscape and 12 people talking about sadness and a lack of sense. Yes, I came back with running nose, but inspired.

These are writers such as Agnieszka Drotkiewicz, writers who wear their hearts on their sleeves, making lists of their favourite songs such as: Myslovitz ‘Długość Dżwięku Samotnósci’ or Joy Division ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ or Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow.’ And who note the little pleasures of life (Twoje ulubione małe przyjmności) as being:

Telewizja/TV
Kupowanie ubrań/Buying clothes
Brutalny ostry seks bez milości/ Brutal hard sex without love
Być nieprzytomnym/Being unsconscious
Siedzieć samenu (samej w domu)/Sitting alone at home

We decided to leave the New Neurotics alone and watch ‘Views of a Retired Night Porter,’ a 2005 documentary film by Andreas Horvath, which has some wintry scenes of Warsaw. In her work, my friend enjoys writing about those ‘despotic and paranoid individuals who persist in improving the world in their own mould,’ so this short film is particularly apt.

The film revisits the subject of a 1977 documentary short, ‘Night Porter’s Point of View,’ by Krzysztof Kieslowski. The porter had firm views about how things should be, how the system should run and how people should behave. A minor official in a uniform, he is rigorous in his checks on workers clocking in and out of work, making sure they stamp their cards correctly. He enjoys training dogs and in his spare time, binocular in hand, patrols the banks of the river checking that anglers had the necessary permits. He disapproves of boys and girls meeting in parks and is more than willing to put a stop to it. Thinking they have “too much freedom” and “the leash should be shortened,” he chases them off. The film acted as a ‘metaphor of totalitarian rule.’ Now, 30 years later, the world has changed, the regime of which he was an accomplice has vanished, but his views remain locked in this past place.

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An English writer, writing in a book set in Poland, wrote: if you can’t travel with love and faith in your heart then why travel at all. The snow falls, much the same as it did in 1977, and my mind gently slips back to that frozen time, sitting in front of of a two-bar electric fire in a dull suburb of Birmingham, listening to the Pistols and The Clash and dreaming of some other place.

Conversation in a Krakow barPosted on 24th August, 2008.

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He told me it was supposed to be a great trip but it clearly didn’t turn out as he planned.

He said: Don’t ever mention the word ‘trip’ to me. We drove down all the way here from Wolverhampton, 24 hours overnight. A lot of interesting places caught my eye on the way but we didn’t stop. I didn’t get much sleep in the van and we got here by lunch time Friday. We’d got an apartment in the centre of town. Krakow looked all right to me. We had a walk round and found a pizza place. They didn’t seem to want to serve us so we found another one where it was sort of Middle-Eastern themed. The barmaids were dressed as belly dancers and they had vodka and apple flavoured hookah pipes. In the town square there were some naked English guys on a stag night. I didn’t want to look too closely. They soon got arrested. There’s a lot of English here, getting drunk on the cheap beer and vodka. So were we.

Yes, I understand, I said, it’s to be expected. Don’t mention piołunówka to me. It’s a killer.

Have you noticed, he said, how there’s a lot of bars in basements here? In this particular one, I think the barmaids were in hot pants. I’d lost my friends by this point. No, I don’t know how I ended up there. Anyway, I tripped up the stairs on the way out and impaled myself somehow right under my chin. Fortunately, there was an ambulance in the square dealing with more drunk tourists in football shirts. Some paramedics patched me up and put a big plaster around my head. I was covered in blood. I was bleeding like a stuck pig. It’s looks pretty bad doesn’t it? I probably look like that medieval trumpeter up in the church tower, that one who got shot through the neck with an arrow by the Tatar hordes. Or maybe the Scorpio killer in the first Dirty Harry movie? What do you think? A policeman kept asking me if I knew where I was going, very polite, not at all like a Clint Eastwood cop. I did know where I was going. It was the only thing I could remember, where we were staying. I staggered back there. My new clothes are ruined. The blood stains will never come out. Sunday was a blur. I need to drink less. If I come to Krakow again, I would refrain from alcohol.

He paused, looked me in the eye, then said: I could be lying…

I had to agree with him – he did look like a stuck pig. (I have worked in a hospital and my Mother was a nurse and I never actually seen a stuck pig, but this is how I imagine it to be.)

We talked about how the English love to drink in excess. They are binge drinkers par excellence. And of course, the government wants to intervene – with new surveys suggesting that the UK now has one of the highest rates of youth drunkenness across Europe, with 24% of 15-year-olds saying they have been drunk 10 times or more in the past year. Per-capita consumption of alcohol in the UK has doubled since the late 1950s, while in other European countries it has halved. (A non-British friend thinks this is because other countries don’t bother to actually spend time and energy on surveys – she believes that the British, along with Americans, are obsessed with surveying themselves.) Add to this health department figures which tell us that around 70% of attendances at Accident and Emergency departments between midnight and 5 am on weekends are alcohol-related. The Reverend Peter Swales from the British National Temperance League compares it with “the dark Victorian times where you could get drunk for a penny and dead for tuppence.” Or before… in the mid-18th century, thanks to an influx of cheap gin, London had 17,000 ‘gin-houses’ in the 1750’s. During the Napoleonic Wars, British soldiers were issued half a pint of rum or two pints of wine a day as basic rations. The Duke of Wellington called his troops “the scum of the earth… men who have enlisted for drink.” Cultural commentator Jeremy Clarkson is against any kind of state meddling. In one of his columns for the Sunday Times he wrote: “The BBC says that if you drink too much your brain stem will break and you will die. The British government tells us that if a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine a day he will catch chlamydia from the barmaid in the pub garden after closing time. Rubbish. If a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine every day it’s the barman he needs to worry about.” His concern was not “the people who drink for fun, but the people who drink to live.”

With the increasing cost of wheat and barley products, we can expect to see an increase in the basic price of food and drink. Consumers appear to be fighting back. The Sunday Times also reports that Italians are threatening a pasta protest, the French government fearing baguette rage, while Mexicans take to the streets over the price of tortillas. We can surely expect an outbreak of alcohol anger in the UK. And more English tourists on a drink related weekend in cheap and cheerful Krakow. Then a Polish Clint Eastwood will suggest a zero tolerance clampdown. Na zdrovie!

Sauna NightsPosted on 28th July, 2008.

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As all the plumbing in her apartment block in Powiśle is being renewed,  Dr. Kurz reasons that it is a good thing to keep an eye on in case of some dreadful mishap (the majority of plumbers having relocated to England and France), so we convene here in for an impromptu vodka project meeting to eat a Chinese takeaway and watch a movie or two and listen to workmen bashing things, removing doors and showers. (Some flats seem to have had their entire contents stripped out and piled up in the corridors). After some PRL propaganda film shorts about the danger of drinking – which are legion and will be the subject of a future posting – she pulls out the main feature from her vast collection. Perfect for a warm summer day in Warsaw, it is a film set on New Year’s Eve in Russia, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath’. Forget watching Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, and enjoy this film which was a great blockbuster in Russia, released on December 31st 1975 and shown traditionally every New Year’s Eve thereafter. I try to remember what I was doing in this past time – I have a strong suspicion I was drinking Southern Comfort with a strawberry blonde girlfriend on the ramparts of some Iron Age fort in woods near Cheslyn Hay and debating the merits of the latest Roxy Music album with her friends… I am reminded of this because of the Polish actress cast in the role of Nadya, Barbara Brylska, was also a blonde. Iwona tells me she was a huge star in USSR and talks about this interesting historical phenomenon – the enormous popularity of Polish actors in Soviet Union. In 1976, Brylska was elected the most popular actress in Russia and she also won the State Prize of the USSR (1977). As a result she was not so popular back in Poland. She also appeared in an early episode of Zero Seven – as a mysterious blonde, what else?

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In the Russian film, a comedy of errors, a group of male friends traditionally meet at a sauna on New Years Eve. The consumption of much vodka and beer makes two of them unconscious. Sasha has to leave that night for Leningrad but in the drunken confusion instead they put Zhenya on the plane. Zhenya wakes up at Leningrad airport, still utterly drunk, and thinks he is still in Moscow. He takes a taxi to what he thinks is his home. The joke here is that the street name is the same, the apartment block of flats is exactly the same, even his key fits because the locks are the same) -  an example of typical Soviet-type ‘economy’ architecture. He climbs into bed to be soon woken up by the return of the women who actually lives here, Nadya, whose fiancé is about to come round for a romantic New Year’s Eve… Last year a sequel to it was released, following what happened to the characters….

Correspondence: Strike!Posted on 19th February, 2008.

Of course, we have sequel to discussion on complicated relation of Polish vodka and Polish spirit. As you perhaps know, last year a new film of Schlöndorff was released – ‘Strike’ is based on story of Anna Walentynowicz, one of the most important leaders of August ’80 events – a lot of details were changed, esp. considering bio of Walentynowicz, but anyway we have (or rather had, as I think that film didn’t appeal to many viewers) discussion in our current debate (or rather fight) about the past – who was an agent and who was an angel, about revision of last 15 years and last 50 years, and new thread appeared.  Namely “we didn’t drink vodka” (not so much, anyway ;-)

And it’s funny – there’s a sort of truth in it -  I think that during normal underground meeting probably there was vodka, but during the strike workers proclaimed prohibition – it was an act of self-awareness of workers class, considered (or rather performed) the first step to real emancipation (precise reason was to avoid any accusations of chaos and criminal events, easy going with alcohol). In famous ‘Man of Iron’ by Wajda (made just after that August ’80. Did you see it? We may have film evening again :-) the journalist who is to gather bad materials on strike’s leader is also an alcoholic; during some talks he manages to get some vodka (last hidden bottle), but the most dramatic moment (in alcohol context) is in the beginning when he comes to the hotel, and wants to drink. But there is prohibition, and everybody serves the rules of Strike’s Committee (no way, no alcohol); our brave journalist has a bottle of his own, but suddenly oops – it crashed on the floor in bathroom; then with a towel he gets last drops of precious liquid…
Iwona

dear i,
I found this on the letters page of Ireland’s Eye, Issue 313, a magazine my Mother receives from a relative.

Ireland Sober
Ireland Free
Sir -
I would like to thank you for your faithfulness
to Ireland and its heritage.
I attended a Pro-Life conference some months
ago and I heard a lady saying Ireland Sober,
Ireland Free. It struck me like a ton of bricks, so
I decided to do something with it. I would also like
to know who would be able to, or want to promote it?
It might help people to think Irish. Our country has
become a keg of beer nearly, with drink being sold
everywhere. I firmly believe that there are some Irish
people out there and if they were to sober up that they
would have so much to offer our language, heritage,
freedom etc.
John Donohoe, Inchicore, Dublin

With reference to the workers and alcohol…. I think that this could also be changed to
Poland Sober, Poland Free
(what do you think? will all this influence our vodka project and give us some extraordinary material?)
bj

b,
There are some importants events of this kind in Polish culture. (I don’t mean me drinking ;-) . As Marek Hlasko, a writer, who was carrying his friend, Krzysztof Komeda (composer of Rosemary’s Baby) after heavy drinking together and they fell down. Komeda struck his head and died in coma several days later. And it happened in Hollywood.

Yes, definitely.

Polish literature, esp. Pilch, Stasiuk, Varga – all three drinking men :-)
See http://www.polishwriting.net/

i.

Conversation in a Warsaw bar (or three or four)Posted on 7th February, 2008.

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We went to see ‘Rezerwat’ (Reservoir) at the Kinoteca. This cinema is in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science, much loved and much hated building. Gifted by Stalin to the people or Warsaw (or imposed, whichever your preference), it is a landmark indeed. The film is set in Praga, where I am living, and it was enjoyable to spot the locations. It tells the story of a photographer, down on his luck, who is forced to move to a flat in an old tenement block on the east side of the river (purportedly the rougher part, this ‘dark Praga’ – described to me by Jacek, himself a Praga resident, as a cross between Gotham City and Montmartre). The film follows his encounters with residents there. It plays on working class stereotypes, the ruffians, the drinkers, the blonde hairdresser with a heart of gold.

As is the tradition, we drink beer in the cinema, two cans in her handbag. She was amused to see her former drama teacher from Krakow on screen. The film felt like two different films in one, and reminded me of the gentle French comedies of Eric Rohmer and of Ealing comedies.

From there we went to her favourite café, which now has a smoking ban – which is not the norm in Warsaw. Do you have a secret corner for smokers? she asked the waitress. No, said the waitress sternly, we have a duty to care for our customers. Then I won’t be able to recommend this place any more, she said, quite exasperated. She is from Lublin and has high expectations of the capital city. She went outside looking for a light. There was a man visiting from Białystok there, a smoker also. He said, It’s strange, no-one in Warsaw looks you direct in the eye.

We wandered from bar to bar, intending to go home after eleven. But it was not to be. Wódka Zołądkowa  Gorzka and orange juice carry us through the hours long after midnight. (But not mixed in the same glass.) We ended up in a street with bars and cafés which never seem to close, by Three Crosses Square (I have had breakfast here before 7 am another time). I was not planning to get drunk with you, she said, but it has happened. It was a fine and beautiful evening of invigorating conversations. With someone half my age or maybe ancient and twice as wise – it’s hard to know which. We covered all possibilities, I think. Life expectancies, the nature of relationships – including the parental variety – chance encounters, personal and professional boundaries, and accidents that are meant to happen; all were felled by our alcohol sharpened words. It was after 5 am before we knew it. The night buses had finished and the morning buses began. The city streets were already busy, with many people walking purposefully.

I walked over the bridge Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego across the river towards Stadion Dziesięciolecia, the old national sports stadium built with the rubble from the ruins of the Warsaw Uprising. Literally ‘the 10th Anniversary Stadium’, it opened in 1955, the anniversary being commemorated was the first manifesto of the Communist Government of Poland. (On July 22, 1944, in Chełm, the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation issued the July Manifesto, which established a communist system, with the government then seated in Lublin.) I watched the young Vietnamese making their way to work at the famously popular black markets that traded around the tunnels and long abandoned football terraces. I wondered how long I could survive without sleep.

AlcoholometerPosted on 11th January, 2008.

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Note from Iwona:

If one – just by accident – is taken as a Quality Inspector, his/her liver is in highest possible danger. Mr Kowalski (= Mr Pole), after being fired from his job in a laboratory, decided to have ‘a one’ (one vodka shot that is never one). He had an Alcoholmeter with him so he was mistaken for an Inspector and thus kindly offered meal, drink and money. Especially drink. First done by accident, the action was then repeated many times.

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Until Mr Kowalski was arrested. Eventually he was found innocent but he had to pay taxes out of all bribes (defined as donations).

Everybody here seems nervous. All waiters, cooks, restaurant’s managers. And even Mr Kowalski who prefers to drink than to tell his wife the truth about losing his job. She is nervous too – and prefers his husband drunk than jobless.

And you may see what happens to a man who must drink as a part of his duties.

Crooks and Philanthropists or Mobs and Philanthropists (dir. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1963), part Alcoholometer

a short guide…Posted on 7th January, 2008.

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Note from Iwona:

I have just discovered that I am probably allergic to alcohol. Deeply ambivalent conclusion taking into account the fact that I like it. Taste? Genes? Custom? Re-vision? Many reasons, I guess.

I have some photos of my father at an airplane during his army service (regular one, not “country in need” so called). Nevertheless I am not sure if he really flied it as most of his army photos are in navy uniform. It gave a pretext to him and his friends/family to sing a song: “Let’s drink some wine, we sailors” and to drink vodka with it. (Not surprisingly it was not wine being drunk).

As one of our famous directors said: there is only the gloom in Poland as Poles drink liquid made of bulbs grown underground (potatoes) when other, more lucky nations (mostly Italians, in the perspective of the famous man) have their drink prepared in full sun.

In full sun tragedy may happen, a real crime – Oedipus and Medea were acting in full sun. Our landscape is rather swampy – someone may be lost, a knife may be used, but it is rather Pagliacci than Makbeth. It is not THE fate – just fatal swamp.

This makes a real problem for our touristic agencies: how to sell the country, not selling only vodka. In ad-folders the reality of vodka-sellers and vodka-reality is hyper-real. You never know if it is Douglas Sirk’s melodrama (they don’t mention any tears made out of alcohol) or the look you get after drinking (one drinks “red” cherry vodka – one gets reddish). A new version of “Red Rooster” is born – out of white-red glass (see above).