The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

We are not PolishPosted on 25th December, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

rozumiesz?Posted on 20th July, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

Stadion XPosted on 18th February, 2011.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of a cold night courtesy of Anna Majewska.

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot spells and floodsPosted on 16th August, 2010.

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

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

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

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

The Museum of MoonshinePosted on 30th July, 2010.

There, in the corner of the field, is a caravan with two pink plastic chairs outside and a sign which reads, Protected Object (guarded by security). It’s not referring to the caravan, which is modern and of modest proportions. It’s referring to what lies in the trees beyond. The field is at the far end of the Skansen, an open air museum outside of Białystok.

We have dutifully walked around the whole site, peered in every corner, stepped into the traditional villagers house, looked at the remarkable collection of wooden decorative carvings that adorned the gables of the roof, asked questions about beekeeping, looked carefully at the schoolbooks with Comrade Stalin promoting the joys of study and literacy, admired the windmill – all with a tingle of delayed gratification.

This is what we have really come to see, in that copse over there. We openly admit it and it’s attracted a few other curious people too. But we’re patient, and we go round everything else first. This museum has been open over 25 years. It has a range of original wooden buildings from all over the region. These are not reconstructions, they have been dismantled and brought here and carefully put back together again.

There’s a house of the gentry, then a peasant home. There’s a storeroom, a room for men, a room for women, and a communal space. In another, here Grandma slept above the oven. They house various ethnographical collections relating to farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, household appliances, folk pottery, textiles and costumes. Some of the buildings are still in pieces on the ground, awaiting better times. In other houses, people live. Elsewhere, there is a graveyard. The curator explains, The graves are reconstructed but there are no bodies here. This is the only part which is not real. They are to give the impression of what it was.

A press article has brought us here, which told a curious story of the latest addition to the museum. It may as well been entitled, If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be sure of a big surprise. In this copse, on the other side of the field, there is a reconstructed bimber factory. The curator explains to us that each of these tanks here can hold 150 litres of homemade vodka. They were uncovered in a local forest and confiscated by the county authorities. The culprits were given a 2 year suspended sentence and a huge fine, which they were able to pay off relatively quickly.  The Museum made a request to the court that they take the equipment off the court’s hands and restore it, as an example of local folk culture. The court agreed. The culprits even came by to ensure that it was reconstructed in the correct manner, adding personal touches such as the metal cup hanging on a hook for tasting. They were not too bothered by the loss of their equipment. They reportedly said,  No problem, we have new stuff, each tank can do 250 litres now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short conversation in a Gdańsk barPosted on 11th July, 2010.

I’m a bit of a Second World War buff, he said. That’s why I’ve been to Poland a few times. Here, of course, that war began on September 1st, 1939, with the dawn bombardment of Polish positions at Westerplatte by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein and the landing of German infantry on the peninsula. The Westerplatte is a promontory at the harbour entrance beyond the shipyards, and several tourist boats from the old town waterfront run there and back. On that fateful day, German forces attacked the Polish Post Office. The surviving postal workers were executed as partisans.*  In March 1945, the city fell to the Red Army. In the carnage, little of the city remained. What was left of the German population in the area were expelled, and the city repopulated with Poles from Central Poland and the eastern settlements annexed by the Soviets. The city was rebuilt, as an important maritime and industrial centre for the Communist bloc.

He was a big friendly Brummie in his fifties, with a beach boy shirt and a shock of bleached blonde spiky hair. After sharing our parochial memories of the Steve Gibbons Band and 12-bar blues joints, he told me of his Polish adventures. Warsaw, Kraków, Auschwitz - Birkenau, been to ’em all, he said. He hadn’t yet been to the Stutthoff concentration camp to the east of Gdańsk, from where bodies (mostly Poles, Russians, Uzbeks) were supplied to the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute for the manufacture of soap and leather. This gruesome work continued even as the city went up in flames. As historian Anthony Beevor put it: “The most astonishing aspects of this appalling story are that nothing was destroyed before the Red Army arrived and that Professor Spanner and his associates never faced charges after the war. The processing of corpses was not a crime.”**

He was impressed by the salt mines at Wieliczka and the square at Krakow. Big, isn’t it? Supposed to be the biggest in Europe. Went and did the Schindler’s List thing as well. Now Gdańsk and, you know, I like Gdańsk the most. It surprised me. Last time I was in Warsaw, I went with my blind cousin. That was a story. I like to stay in those hotels named after the Three Musketeers. Aramis is a big grey one, like housing estate around it. They’re alright. The public transport’s good, isn’t it, but after a few bevvies I’m lazy and I get a taxi. We were in this beer only place, me and my cousin, bit of a dive but alright. Then they brought out this vodka from the freezer. I don’t think they were supposed to sell it, but anyway we finished it off. Then the owner sent this young lad out to get another from the shop, so we had a few that night. Wyborowa it was was called. Very nice, that one. Later, my cousin kept saying, We’re in the wrong hotel, we’re in the wrong hotel. I said, No, we’re not, what are you on about? He kept saying, But we’re in the wrong hotel. All slurred like. I said, Don’t be daft, you’re blind drunk, how would you know? He said, I can tell cos there’s no carpet on the floor in this place. He was bloody right you know.

Lovely people the Poles, he said. Lovely beer. Good music. And lovely women. Even the ugly ones are beautiful here, aren’t they?

He assured me it wasn’t the drink talking. I told him he was preaching to the converted.

* A fictionalised account of these days can be found in ‘The Tin Drum’ by Günter Grass, first published in 1959, with a new English translation published for the 50th anniversary.
**Anthony Beevor, ‘Berlin – the Downfall’, 2008

Monuments and MemorialsPosted on 6th July, 2010.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

finally, more snowPosted on 18th March, 2010.

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

Sparkling like Christmas trees in PolandPosted on 22nd January, 2010.

After 9 pm it becomes impossible to talk. An anonymous DJ arrives with a box of cds, looking a little frustrated and agitated. She has a fight with a large coat stand, which is inconveniently placed in front of her booth. She plugs in her equipment and arranges some fairy lights. She is not only a DJ, she is a multi-tasker, taking orders for drinks. Then she turns it up loud.

One of the men nearby climbs up and turns the speaker against the wall. The effect is to bounce the bass inside our rib cages. He shrugs.

Warsaw is not like a real city, she says. The public transport is awful here. Where we live in Dollis Hill, it’s straight into the centre on the Jubilee line. The equivalent on the outskirts here is one bus every hour. Her pristine face has a particular look of shock or disgust. And the buildings have no architectural merit. She was not happy with such inconsistencies in urban planning. Her family are from Warsaw, the outskirts but still in the city boundaries, but she is now a convinced Londoner.

Further down the table, he has been in the countryside for the last three weeks, and now is back in the city, bleary eyed and unshaven, looking like a young dishevelled Bukowski. It’s not so cold here, he says. It was minus 25 where we were. No-one went out the whole time, except to milk the cows. We stayed in and drank. And filled in end of year tax forms. That was useful. Every time we thought we’d finished, her father then brings another full bottle and said, ‘It’s not a full bottle, don’t worry, look there’s a little space at the top to add juice’. So we drank. I think we used up all his supplies.

The snow is piling up in the courtyard outside. Flakes are fluttering down, sparkling. The lights on the Christmas tree in the main square have disappeared under several layers of frozen vapour.

The first time I saw snow in Poland, real snow, deep and soft, emerging from a faint memory of childhood winters, I ran around in it, scooping it up. People looked at me quizzically. I tried to explain it was so long since I had seen proper snow. I was clearly suffering from snow-deprivation. Are you mad? they said, It’s cold, let’s go inside and drink vodka.

Perhaps they are right. This cold brings a hundred pinpricks to the face, and the jaw starts to lock.

wintry photos: Alicja Rogalska, Ania Chojnacka

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday in Nowa HutaPosted on 11th September, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Another anniversaryPosted on 10th August, 2009.

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On August 1st, the city was in a holiday mood, ready to commemorate the 65th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. 1944 is the year that defines this city. Not 1980, that belongs to the Gdansk shipyards and the strike that gave birth to the Solidarity trade union, or 1569, that belongs to Lublin and the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Veterans of the Polish Home Army are welcomed at official ceremonies. Concerts and events are happening all across the city – across the city a mass bike ride was organised by the Warsaw Uprising Museum and Warsaw Critical Mass, a group of bicycle enthusiasts.

A few thousand Home army veterans are still alive today, spread across the world, and many of them are here today. Most of these old, proud survivors would have been about 20 years old at the time of the Uprising. You can see them slowly wandering the streets, in navy blue jackets, neatly pressed trousers or skirts, usually wearing a beret and an Armia Krajowa armband, and a few unostentatious metal pin badges. They carry, as do many of the people on the street, little plastic Polish flags.

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At the University on Krakowskie Przedmieście, there is a concert. There are stalls with memorabilia on display, and some food vendors. At 5pm, sirens wail and the city falls silent for one minute at the exact time the Uprising began. At one of the food stalls, one man continues to make waffles, noisily enough that he is politely asked to stop and to pay attention. The minute silence in the hot sun passes. The band on the stage do not strike up. It appears there will be a delay. Electric guitars, keyboards, drums and bass continue the silence. Roadies with cables and leads shrug their shoulders and organisers run about the stage in heated discussion. Eventually, they decide to hand out free cds, featuring the bands who are supposed to play. These feature a series of patriotic songs that we used to sing in primary school, she says – now bizarrely married to reggae or Eighties style hard rock. Sample lyric: children of Warsaw we’re going to fight, for every stone we will spill blood.  Or every lad wants to be wounded because the nurses are such great girls….

Sorry, it’s a bad and very fast translation, she says, but I think you get
the idea.

Education in Polish under Nazi rule was banned and punishable by death. The University was turned into a fortification and despite heavy fighting, the Home Army never managed to break through and occupy it. By the end of the war, 63 of the university’s professors were dead, either in the Uprising or as a victim of Nazi policy of exterminating the Polish intelligentsia.

With this sober thought in mind, we retired across the road to the 24-hour bistro, Przekaski Zakaski – popular with university staff and students today – for a vodka and a beer. It is very crowded. Commemoration is a thirsty business.

There are some 1944 trams running, with young people dressed in period costume, also singing patriotic songs. Other young people are running about in various military apparel, with re-enactments happening in parts of the city. They like dressing up. I’m not sure if they think about it deeply. These days Germans are welcome. And indeed, there are many German tourists, young and old. For many, it was always the Russians who were to be feared the most.

ReconstructionPosted on 29th July, 2009.

The city swelters. Mosquitoes infest the parks near to the river and those with any expanse of water. Rain approaches. Tremendous rainstorms by day and night do not dissipate the heat. The Metro is closed due to flooding. A single line runs from Młociny in the north to Kabaty in the south. Some people say that while Warsaw has only one Metro line it cannot be considered to be a modern city. A second line is planned, bisecting the original line at Świętokrzyska station. There will be a new station under the surrounds of the Palace of Culture, along with the construction of a new Museum of Modern Art designed by Christian Kerez, in this open space whose primary purpose in communist times was to provide a stage for state organised parades and mass rallies.

The Metro itself was originally planned in the 1920’s, but initial construction work only began in 1938. The outbreak of war put an end to that, and after the war, with the city now under Soviet control, plans were made to create an underground transport system which could easily transport troops under the Vistula river from the east of the city to the west. Hundreds of metres of tunnels were built with this strategic purpose in mind, but eventually abandoned after the death of Stalin. Work on the north-south line was renewed in 1984, and the current Metro opened in 1995. The second line is proposed to open by 2014 – though everyone expects delays. The Museum of Modern Art, proposed to be open in 2010, also faces delays. No construction work has been undertaken to date on the site.

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Here in the shadow of the Palace of Culture, was a huge indoor market (KDT), which the city decreed must close in order for these new developments to proceed. The traders were supposed to leave by the end of December, but they decided to continue trading, while attempting to take court action to dispute the directive. Various proposals for relocation made by the City Council were rejected, resulting in the forcible eviction of traders in July by riot police and security guards, using tear gas and water cannons. Now, politicians argue about the cost of this action…

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As posted on one web forum: Jul 21, 09, 23:49 Battle at Warsaw 2009
Tear gas, water cannon, hundreds of policemen and security guards against a few hundred desperate traders who don`t want to give up their work place, a giant steel hall in the city center. They used stones, fire extinguishers, barricades and live shields (their children) to defend themselves. Simply speaking, Warsavians have guts!

Something’s changingPosted on 2nd March, 2009.

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Walk from Park Szczęsliwice along Opaczewska to the crossroads of Banacha and Grójecka and you will experience two sides of the city, passing from the modern world of free enterprise to the older remnants of PRL and earlier. From one end of the street, you can see the park with the ski slope and the artificial lakes, and the gated housing complexes, some still under construction, and behind them the nearby dome of Blue City shopping mall. Beyond the park lies the ruin of a 19th century Russian fort, one of several that circle the city. Opaczewska itself is a wide avenue, the traffic separated by a central reservation of grass verges, flowerbeds, trees and a pathway for walkers. Within minutes, the newer fresher Ochota gives way to the older Ochota, the development of tall blocks and modern ‘designer’ apartments along the edge of the park in sharp contrast to the post-war communist blocks. Behind these older ‘brutalist’ blocks, in the courtyards, you may find a shrine to Maria, Mother of God, a few swings for children, a bench or two. And at the bottom of these predominantly grey and worn concrete blocks (some have recently been repainted in bright colours) are the traditional shops – a bakery, a shoe-repairer, a vegetable shop, a good butcher, a seamstress.

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The inhabitants of one of these tower blocks are the subject of a new novel, by Sylwia Chutnik, Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet (Pocket Female Atlas) which tells of some of their lives. It is, I am told, neurotical fun, brave and well written. On one corner, a circular concrete and metal platform protrudes from the earth, all that remains of a post-war bomb shelter. In amongst these blocks, some of the older pre-war housing survives, though not much – as this was the scene of vicious fighting and devastation in 1939 and 1944.

On another corner, we pass a church with a façade of pebbledash and glass, with a rectangular tower at one end. Inset, running up the length of the tower is a thin cross of glass, which glows at night from the interior illumination. One wall of the church is an entire wall of dark glass, slabs of brick thick glass, hundreds of them making up a huge panoramic mosaic. So here is a beautiful church I never go to, she says, Well maybe not so beautiful. I admire this for a while, as my Grandfather and his Father before him made their living in Ireland making such vitreous tableaux and lovingly restoring dilapidated churches. A little further and we arrive at the junction with Grójecka, where there is an Empik store and a Vietnamese café-restaurant. We wait for the trams and cars to halt, and cross to the market on the opposite side.

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Concrete memorials stand on either side of the road. One reads:
At this site soldiers of Polish Army and inhabitants of Warsaw fighting on the barricade stopped attacking Hitler units and in uneven battle heroically were defending access to Warsaw on days 8 –27 Sept 1939.

Barricades built here at the crossing of Opaczewska and Grójecka were vigorously defended by 4th company of the 40th ‘Children of Lwów’ Regiment. Over the first two days of the attack, the German army suffered heavy casualties, the 4th Panzer Division alone losing ‘approximately 80 tanks out of approximately 220 that took part in the assault.’ There are plaques with this poem by Jan Janiczek (1898-1944):

I am an angry street! Do not approach me,
Invader, you who bring a plane death…
My town I defend firmly and steadfastly
For a battle always eager and ready…

I am an angry street! I erect barricades
And spit with armadas, blaze with a rifle.
Your hail of bombs will not horrify me
And your reptile tanks I still seize impudently.

I am an angry street! But I love my children,
Of which more die every day on my bosom,
Whilst the gromnicę* of tenement houses shine brightly.

I am an angry street! But although the hunger importunes,
I will not let you into the city, you bloodthirsty violator!

Myself, Mrs Opaczewska, defends Warsaw today!

(* Gromnicę is a candle kept at the bedside of the dying. It is also lit at the time of baptism and first communion.)

Twilight has descended and the temperature dropped. For a moment you could taste spring in the air, despite the piles of dirty snow lying piled up on the roadsides. She notices it and says, I like this moment between winter and spring. People are tired of the winter and longing for spring. There is a change in the air. Her voice is so low, almost as if she is speaking to herself. We pass into Hala Banacha, penetrating a maze of market stalls. On the periphery, the clothes market is all but closed up for the day, though the shoe stalls are still piled high. The snow has turned to a light rain. Here there are a multitude of small metal sheds, alleyways covered with tarpaulins and layers of perspex sheeting. Plastic containers of all sizes lie on the ground, collecting drips from leaking roofs. The pavement is broken and uneven. We go deeper into the market, past the one-zloti shop and out onto the other side, where vans are parked, unloaded and loaded, and detritus of the days trading lies alongside a larger newer market hall. A few more paces and you are surrounded by a jumble of food stalls, still busy. The sky has completely darkened and naked light bulbs hang from the awnings, giving off a yellow light. Here it is likely you will find all you need; red peppers, purple beetroots, cauliflowers, potatoes, cheeses (including oscypek, a smoked cheese from the Tatra mountains, made with salted sheep’s milk, which makes an excellent breakfast when sliced and fried and served with a fresh baguette, garlic dip and zurawina, a cranberry preserve). You carry the bags, she says, Look how Polish men always carry the bags for the women. No matter if they beat them or sit and watch football while waiting for the meal to be put on the table, they always carry the bags… Back towards the road, through lines of small cabins packed with tinned goods, cakes, smoked fish and fresh fish (some still swimming around in a small glass tank), we pause to buy cat food. As we come out again on to the street, looming above these cabins is a huge illuminated billboard advertising an impossibly juicy Mcdonalds burger.

I know you like it, she says finally, but I don’t really see the fascination with Warsaw. It’s becoming Western without the standards of quality. And magical places like this are disappearing. It’s a cruel city. Everyone is too busy…

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.

At the turn of the year, in PomeraniaPosted on 28th December, 2008.

In the damp English winter, I find myself thinking back to New Year celebrations spent with friends in the north-western part of Poland. The biggest city in the region, Szczecin, was built on the banks of the river Oder and is the largest seaport in the country – even though it is some 60 kilometres inland, connected to the Baltic through a series of lakes and waterways. It is a city of contrasts. Heavily industrial, with many green spaces,  and surprisingly wide avenues lined with trees. Our hosts proudly tell us that the city was rebuilt in the 1880’s (when it was Stettin, a part of Germany) using an uban design by George-Eugene Haussemann, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of Paris in the 1860’s.

The centre of the city, docks and factories were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and by fighting between the German and Soviet armies in 1945. As the city became part of the new Poland after the war, former inhabitants were expelled and the area resettled by Poles, many brought from the eastern areas annexed by the Soviet Union. The Old Town itself was only rebuilt in the 1990’s, and you can still see empty, ruined sections awaiting reconstruction.  

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Arriving at the railway station in the middle of winter, at the end of the line and near to the river, the city has a weary look to it.  The station, unheated it seems, must have been in its prime in the 1930’s. The wooden roof used to be painted duck egg blue, but most of the paint has flaked off. There is a large post-war mosaic which mostly glorifies the march of electrication across the region and other industries. There are some military police, apparently on the look out for deserters from the army, though they seem to be more interested in looking at an exhibition of photographs of strikes and protests from the 70’s which hang a little forlornly on black boards by the ticket office. Compare this to a new shopping mall nearby, much like any other shopping mall, all bright colours and futuristic curves and a glass dome above. Here you can order a latte to go with your pasztecik. 

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We drive off across Most Dlugi and onto the Gdansk highway and over one of the many waterways, Przekop Parnicki. Here the other side of the carriageway is cordoned off by police cars and puzzled policeman are standing about. An unknown driver has managed to catapult his or her car several metres into the air and land on top of the crash barriers, perfectly balanced over the water, facing the opposite way. The policeman keep a respectful distance, as if any sudden movement might topple the car. We marvel at the stunt driving and carry on to Zdroje, to the east of the river.

Do you have snow tires? I ask.
No, says Michał, Why?
Everyone seems to be to driving quite quickly…
He shrugs and floors the pedal, It’s no problem. 

We turn off Batalionów Chłopskich up a  steep hill road to Park Leśny Zdroje to walk round the Emerald Lake. The landscape here is shaped by decades of quarrying and mining for marls and limestones to supply a cement factory, established nearby in 1862, along with several hundred thousand cubic metres of spoil which help mould the hills and steep escarpments. Eventually, the mining reached down to the water-bearing sands, causing ‘an abrupt, catastrophic water outflow’ which buried workers and equipment. The mine flooded and the open pit  finally became the Emerald Lake - Jezioro Szmaragdowe. It is frozen today.

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As we trudge up and down the snowy paths, Michał tells us that this was an excellent place to play truant from school. No-one would find you here. It’s good for mountain biking and in winter, the steep hills make good sledging. I haven’t seen snow like this in England for such a long time, snow that stays on the ground for more than two days. There is a viewpoint at the height of the park. A line of electricity pylons march through the woods, a railways line stretches before us, and beyond that the mass of the city in a grey twilight, barely visible in the mist.

I AmsterdamPosted on 13th November, 2008.

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If you ever are in Amsterdam with less than an hour to spend and find yourself at the central train station and it’s raining, and you are in the company of a Polish national, here’s something you can do. (You don’t have to have a Polish national with you, but in truth she encouraged me. I was in a lazy mood and would have just hung around the station waiting for the train to the airport, looking glum.)     In the five days previous, we did not visit the Van Gogh collection or the Heineken Museum or the “collection of coffins and funeral heirlooms” in the Dutch Funerary Museum to be found in the centre of Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats cemetery (though I was keen). We did not seek out a Dutch equivalant  of Les Egouts de Paris (quite a treat really) but we had seen a sign on the tram for a Vodka Museum, which is near the Sex Museum on Damrak, but we were never quite near enough, except for today, with nearly an hour to kill. One sign at the station tells us it’s just 500 metres away. I’m unusually reticent and need jollying along to go out again into the torrential bitter cold rain. But I am carried on a wave of Alicja’s enthusiasm across the tram tracks and traffic lights and construction sites to find the museum.

It is housed above a tourist shop, and indeed it is really an extension of this shop really, though you have to pay several euros for entrance. A sign outside says, Russian Spoken.  We ask for a ticket and the woman looks a bit perturbed. You want a ticket? Yes please. Ah, the guide isn’t here. Can you come back later? Sorry, no we can’t, our time is limited.  She calls someone on her mobile, speaking in Russian. She’s asking some guy to get down here now, explains Alicja, who has command of several languages.  Can you wait just five minutes, just five minutes? says the woman. A guy in a smart suit turns up to take our money but he finds the cash register doesn’t work. He climbs under the desk for a while, unplugging and plugging wires. We have a problem, he says with a shrug. The ticket machine doesn’t work. He handwrites a ticket for us and takes us upstairs for a whistlestop tour. We’re joined shortly by two other curious tourists from the United States. The museum seems like a personal collection of vodka memorabilia, beautifully housed in proper museum cases, along with a few hundred (empty) bottles.

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Here the history of vodka is almost exclusively Russian, patriotically so. I’m a little disappointed,  I say, No Polish vodka in your Top Ten. Yes I know, he says, but we have some Swedish. He then agrees that Polish vodka is also good, particularly the one with bison grass.  I ask him if he has a personal favourite and he tells us a story about his father’s home made vodka, made with pears, in his childhood in Armenia.  We go through to the final part of the museum which has a neon lit mock bar, with interactive screens set in the bar top – here you can send a video message via email. Then our guide invites us to scroll through a series of vodka cocktail options. As part of the visit, you get a free cocktail! he explains excitedly. Please choose now! We both settle for the one called Russian Love. The Americans deliberate for a long time over which cocktail they want. They avoid Russian Love. We expect our guide will actually make the cocktail, but instead he reaches under the bar and pulls out a small miniature bottle of liquid. We don’t have a licence, he says, but please take this as a small memento of your visit. With a flourish, he then opens a large mirrored wall by the bar to reveal a secret room. He invites us to relax for a moment in the oval perspex chairs hanging from the ceiling – it’s like a scene from a 1960’s spy movie spoofed in the Austin Powers films. Is that really a glitterball?

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Was it worth it? I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says: we can learn from every experience.  Some experiences should definitely be avoided. Yes, for kitsch entertainment value, it was worth it, but I need to find a real vodka museum. Any suggestions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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….

To LublinPosted on 18th July, 2008.

The train from Warsawa Centralna first crosses the Vistula river through Praga district and then swings south past the village suburbs of Swider and Srodborow, slowly moving across the flat plain of Mazovia that surrounds the capital. ‘Not the most attractive of landscapes’ is how many guide books describe it. A few hours later, on the other side of the Kampinoska forest, after dark we arrive in Lublin. A city of over 350,000 inhabitants, centuries old, site of the Union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, which many contemporary observers cite as the medieval model of the contemporary European Economic Union, proposing as it did a ‘cooperation based on respecting the identity of those peoples and nations and preserving their ethic, cultural and religious features.’

The pungent smell in the air outside the station comes from the beet factory nearby. Further along the road is the Polmos vodka factory, which we will visit. We stay in a block of flats near the Avenue of the Legionnaires, not far from the Catholic University. These blocks are four or five stories tall, constructed during the post-war communist building programmes, laid out in rectangles with large inner courtyards, an oasis of flowers and trees, with a playground and sandpit. This is a typical family flat of the time, two rooms, with a kitchen and small bathroom. Personal social space was limited in Soviet times. It seems rather cosy now. The floors are parquet, the walls are plain, decorated with small reproductions of popular pastoral and romantic paintings. The kitchen overlooks the inner courtyard and outside the window is a chestnut tree, planted by her Grandfather and her Father, some fifty years ago. Imagine what it is like to be in one place for such a long time, and see something grow, she says. We are so transient and fluid now, moving on, dissatisfied, restless.

The living room (which also doubles as bedroom) looks out onto the road and newer higher curvaceous apartment blocks. There is a small balcony, usually bedecked with flower pots. Here Grandmother grew parsley in the summer and in winter she moved the plants into the warmth of the kitchen. Here Grandfather came home from work in the car factory. Here there used to be an orchard, now built upon, an orchard of yellow fruit the name of which she cannot say in English, too bitter to eat from the tree but which made good jam. Grandmother used to say, “Let’s go visit the drunkards…” because this is where you would find people drinking all day long. And here her Aunt would take her for secret ice creams, because Grandmother said ice cream gave her a sore throat. It is the funeral of this Aunt today, an actress of some note who visited the capitals of Europe. Tears are shed, memories are shared. She is not forgotten.

This Aunt is buried in the wooded cemetery on Ulica Lipowa. Here is also the resting place of both her Grandmother and Father. The names of her Grandfather and her Mother and their birth dates are already inscribed on the tomb, awaiting final reckoning. The cemetery offers a particular historical portrait. Some gravestones have Cyrillic lettering dating from Tsarist times and there is an Orthodox section with a Byzantine chapel undergoing restoration (as are many parts of the graveyard). There are wartime graves from the First World War, of unknown Polish and Austrian soldiers, and Polish and Russian soldiers from 1939-45. I notice that many of the Russian ‘liberators’ were not so young, many on their late thirties and early forties. To one side is a section of plain headstones, those of Party members who wanted an atheist burial. There is a modern shopping centre by the graveyard, the air conditioning units breaking our contemplative silence.

The Taste CommitteePosted on 1st April, 2008.

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Once upon  time, but not that long ago, I took a taxi to the Koneser vodka factory in the old district of Praga. Koneser? Zabrowska? asked the driver.

Yes, tak, Koneser. Proproszę.

Koneser vodka? The driver clearly expressed this as a question, as if I didn’t really want to go there at all. Or perhaps he knew something I didn’t. My request was surely not so peculiar.

He shrugged, seeming a little mystified by my choice of destination. Maybe he was thinking, It’s a nice sunny morning, why go across to Praga when there is the Royal Route to explore? We headed to the east side, in a steady stream of traffic across Most Lazsienkowski, one of the eight bridges over the river Wisła. Downstream I could see one of the water purification towers which squatted in the slow moving water. I had been told they were nicknamed ‘Fat Kasia’. These conical compact green and yellow metal structures look like the abandoned nose cone of a space rocket, formerly used in an episode of Dr. Who, beached there till the end of time.

The taxi swung north along Wal Miedzesznski, a wide dual carriageway which passes the old national football stadium – soon to be redeveloped for the 2012 European Championships.  The broad Wiłsa to one side, the embankment masked by trees and bushes, on the other side we drive past large apartment blocks and open spaces with huge figurative sculptures which commemorate some fallen hero. Why is it that in most cities, the east side is the older, the less developed, the more run down, more earthy or less glamorous and later subject to elaborate regeneration schemes? What is it that makes us gravitate to the west?

Koneser is – or was -  a vodka factory on ul. Ząbkowska, first established here in 1897. It’s a short walk from the main street, Targowa, where the tram lines run, and near to the Carrefour shopping centre and neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral at Place Wilenski. There are several opportunities to get drunk along the way, particularly if this were at night of course – though I notice that the bar with the huge spider outside is open. There used to be a sign near here with a large bat motif, offering GOTHIC DOOM, THRASH DEATH, HEAVY, BLACK. It is has gone, and another new bar has opened.

I meet Dominik and Iwona outside the gates of the factory. We are shown round by Pani Halina – let us call her that. Immediately she announces, I warmly welcome you on behalf of our chief and myself! The chief does not appear at any point during our tour of the site – which occupies about 5 hectares (50,000 square metres). As our bags are checked by security, our guide stresses that it goes without saying that you can’t bring alcohol onto the site as contamination is a big concern. And no smoking anywhere, she says, looking at Dominik. She has met him before and clearly knows his habits. 500 zloti immediate on the spot fine! she admonishes him.

This was, purportedly, the first factory in Warsaw to have electricity. On their website they proudly describe their industrial heritage as follows: ‘Our buildings are classified as the best types of relicts. Cast iron roses, which survived, make the buildings look more attractive. Very important element, which can be called a work of art, is the chimney.’ The blocks of flats on the edge of the site were built by the factory owners to house their workers. They remind me of old Glasgow tenements. Most of these have been sold off and turned into private apartments. Other parts of the site have been leased to other organisations or businesses. There is, for example, a photo-gallery in one of the buildings.

Pani Halina told us some curious stories about this place. After the Second World War, with most of the city lying in ruin, workers were paid only with vodka, which they then sold on to neighbours and friends or used as barter for goods. Further back, in the winter of 1914, when the Imperial Russian army occupied the city, the military governor ordered a prohibition on alcohol. He demanded that all liquids at this factory ‘be disposed of” and a deadline for this action to take place was announced. When the fateful day arrived, crates of vodka were carried out into the street to be poured down the drains, a public display of the ruthless enactment of the Tsarist edict. The gutters soon overflowed with the vital spirit. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, no-one knows how many, gathered in the cold air with all manner of containers, buckets and receptacles to scoop up the vodka as it was decanted. It became a kind of crazy festival of waste and reclamation. The factory workers, obeying the dictum of the occupying army to dispose of the alcohol, pouring it away for hour upon hour. Then people rushing around in a frenzy to gather it up in a mad act of either communal desperation or uninhibited liberation. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of litres turned to a frozen sludge that bitter day or how many were recouped, some precious nourishment for hard times to come?

The factory produced pure vodkas: Metropolis, Warszawska, Legenda, Zagłoba, Planet, Koneser, Bycza, Targowa, Winiak Klubowy, Oleńka, Kniejówka and spirits. They produced two types: potato spirits and corn spirits, but mostly making products based on corn spirits. Only Metropolis vodka is made of both kinds of spirits. She explained to us, the European Union prefers using corn spirits in production process, so this why we use them too.  She tells us how potato spirits are delicate and have a slightly sweet taste and how corn spirits are spicier.

The factory had its own water supply of high quality demineralised Oligocene water pumped up from a from a well 270 metres underground. It also had its own railway station until the 1960’s, where the raw ingredients of alcohol – spiritus – arrived, shipped here from all over the country. It first arrived at a weighing station, as did the later road transports, where each container was meticulously checked to ensure that the cargo that arrived was the same weight that was shipped. There were, it seems, many bands of spiritus thieves roaming the countryside. The shipments were also tested for taste.

This led us into a long conversation about one of the more intriguing jobs in the vodka factory.  If there is any doubt about the quality of the vodka, the Taste Committee is convened. This may be the most important job in the factory.  It isn’t easy to be selected for this role. The staff are subjected to a rigorous vetting process. Statistically, it may be easier to be selected for the Polish version of Big Brother or Pop Idol. Firstly, you cannot be a smoker. Secondly, you can’t use perfumes of any kind. Thirdly, you have to be healthy, you cannot have a cold – “no sniffing of the nose” as she put it. Fourthly, you have to prove that you are capable of important task that has been entrusted to you; you have to be able to distinguish between subtly different tastes and the degrees of taste.

The taste test is described to us by Bożena, the Head of the Laboratory. Her laboratory is housed in the oldest building, the original site of the rectification process from one hundred years ago. Potential members of the Taste Committee are tested for their ability to recognise different tastes -  sour, sweet, bitter, salt, or just plain water. Several samples for testing are given to the individuals with a specific flavour at different levels of dilution. In the laboratory they are looking for the precise point at which the candidates will stop distinguishing the taste. Some specific flavours are introduced. Can an individual distinguish an orange taste or a nutty taste? Testing is undertaken between 11am and 1pm. The individual cannot have anything to drink for several hours before the test. Should you pass through the initial maze of tests and join the elite corps of the Taste Committee, then you and your companions, no more than three or four at any one time, may be called upon at any time to pass judgement on a particular batch of spirits. At the height of production, it was possible for the Taste Committee to meet every single day. Their verdict must always be unanimous. Anything less than this means that the vodka is rejected. There are, of course, also a range of chemical checks on the spiritus being received and the level of alcohol in the vodka in production, ensuring no contaminants have crept into the process.

Ninety five per cent of production here was pure vodka, though Konesar also produced some flavoured vodka – cranberry, honey, forest fruit. The ‘small’ production line – miniatwka – could produce 15,000 bottles a day, the ‘medium’ line 80,000 half litre bottles a day. All is quiet this particular afternoon. There appeared to be no production. We were told that 103 people worked here, with 50 dedicated to the production lines. We saw less than a dozen people while walking round. We will soon discover why. The following week an announcement appears in the press. The factory has been sold to a property developer, who will convert the buildings into luxury apartments. This industrial heritage will soon be devoured and disappear.

International Women’s DayPosted on 16th March, 2008.

March 8th for many years used to be an important holiday in Poland. The day was not free from job (as it was in Soviet Union – and still is in Russia). Yet, as a matter of fact, no gross income would be make for Poland on this date. All men in the country wanted to celebrate their female colleagues – usually with a carnation (beautiful flower, just now coming back from the hell of official overpopularity in People’s Poland), sometimes – formally, from the head of factory or office – with pair of stockings, and/or towel, and/or bar of soap, and/or bar of chocolate. All necessary goods, all hard to get goods. There were also greetings from the first secretary of Party to all hardworking women building socialist family and country (lazy ones were excluded).

And – of course with a glass of vodka (it is and of course it was illegal to drink in work place, but…). These celebrations could be so long and loud (and liquid) that actually men lost their wish and ability to celebrate their home women: wives, partners, sisters, mothers and daughters. It’s hard to stop when you start. As Wiesław Gołas sung: “Before the first large shot will go to our head / we take the second glass”. The title of the song was Into Poland we go, fellow men [W Polskę idziemy, panowie] ­– and was supposed to be ironic, as the song itself. Another proof that participation in culture is unpredictable – people (men) just sang it, and – went into bars and streets of the country, holding a broken carnation for the lady.

Now the holiday has been regained by women who on the day in some Polish cities organise manifestations (“manifas”) in call for their rights. For 8 years now this day belongs to us. In the evening organisers usually have a party in a chosen club. Not much vodka is being drunk there, though. And the song sounds now more like Into Poland we go, fellow women…

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piękni polacy – beautiful polesPosted on 2nd March, 2008.

Guidebooks sometimes provide us with a guide to what we already know. They invite us to admire, but not to be curious. They lead us down certain (well-worn) tracks and perhaps confirm some existing prejudices. “The railway station was not among Poland’s finest” is a polite invitation to visit somewhere other than this particular town with the unremarkable railway station.

You may spend your entire journey reading the guidebook from beginning to end and no longer have any need to experience the real city, to go to the streets, museums and churches that have been described to you in great detail. In Warsaw,  I have never been to Museum Narodowe and stood in front of The Battle of Grunwald by Matejko, but I feel as if I know this painting intimately.

I consider one of the more interesting guidebooks to be by the travel writer Jan Morris. ‘Fifty Years of Europe: An Album’ is a both a personal map and contemplative portrait, as the writer reflects on his/her experiences of the continent since 1946, with overlapping geographical and historical references and memories. Poland does not feature very much in this book, a still unknowable and rarely visited place of which Morris writes: “At first I thought the country infinitely dispiriting, because nobody seemed to have much hope of changing things.”

Last week there was a meeting at the Institute of Polish Culture to discuss the future of cultural animation. There was concern from the older generation that the heroes of yesteryear, the heroes of our youth, our influences and inspirations, are no longer an influence on – or even of any interest to – the new generation. I ask, does this really matter? The counter-culture moves into the mainstream. The mainstream adapts and changes.

Perhaps it is the role of the older generation to preserve rather than pontificate – to act as librarians and archivists. (I know, it doesn’t sound so very exciting to someone whose youth was full of revolutionary vim and vigour!) I do not mean ‘to preserve’ as in to contain something in permanent stasis, or like an insect caught in amber 200 million years ago, but ‘to preserve’ as in terms of both maintenance and advocacy. To create the conditions for curiosity and exploration. To open a door and invite someone in, rather than simply stand behind a closed door.

For me, I find it interesting that my daughter (who is now 18) is plundering my punk rock record collection and discovering this for herself. As she explores this period of social upheaval in the UK (1976-1980 I would say) she asks me questions and she wonders why so many of her own friends are unquestioning and uncritical of the status quo in this late-Blair period. Though they have the opportunity and freedom to travel far more extensively than their parents did, taking a casual cheap flight to weekends in Prague or Barcelona – or even Montreal – their curiosity does not appear to extend beyond the bar and club. (The words quoted above that Morris used to describe Poland may now be applicable to the UK.) I can see a little anger in her eyes and attitude, a little revolution stirring – it is not something that is taught or prescribed but a natural irrepressible energy about to burst forth.

It is wonderful to inadvertently find someone such as the author of ‘Conversations when cutting down a forest’ (Stanisław Tym) or the gothic tales of Stefan Grabinski. This is not to say that I believe we should be complacent and make no effort – our stories need to be told, our voices need to be heard – but we need to find a role as a guide, as a mentor, as a sharer,  as a guardian of culture rather than as some kind of cultural policeman.

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.

Pięknie dziś wyglądaszPosted on 17th December, 2007.

I met her in the plaza outside the Centrum Metro station. I was standing by the mural of Beuys and Kantor, trying to keep out of the bitter wind. She came out of the underground, a little flustered I thought. She looked like death warmed up, but pretty nonetheless. I kept this thought to myself. I feel like death warmed up, she said. She needed coffee, immediately – she insisted on nothing more than 10 minutes away. We walked past a military vehicle parked on the corner of Marszałkowska and Jerozolimskie. Militia and soldiers stood around a coal brazier, in a re-enactment of the imposition of Martial Law in Poland, 26 years ago today. The phrase in Polish is more direct – stan wojenny - which translates as “the state of war”. They posed for photographs, looking quite unthreatening and cheerful, with a soundtrack of rock music and folk song against a video screen with footage from the time. I had seen them earlier in the day outside the Church of the Visitation, saying things like, Shall we put him in the back of the suka? This is the blue van, nicknamed ‘the bitch’ where suspects were stashed, to await beating, interrogation or worse. Some old guys were arguing vehemently with the young actors-renactors about the merits or not of General Jaruzelski and his decision. Did it save Poland from a Soviet military invasion? Did it hasten the demise of communist rule?

On the number 25 tram from Praga, I talked to a man who used to work for The Department of Monitoring National Statistics – or so it translated. He saw a bright future for Poland. You can’t imagine what it was like in those times, he said, now we are a part of the European Union and we have freedom of movement. You take this liberty for granted. Freedom of movement, who could imagine such a thing in those times… He believed in the young people of this country. He said some of his friends disagreed, but none of them had ever travelled beyond the confines of their communist borders. He said, Once even I have been to New York!

There was a different kind of re-enactment earlier, outside Arkadia shopping mall, with bearded serious old men carrying Imperial Polish standards, and pulling a pine coffin on a small cart with the Polish flag laid over it. No-one took their photograph but they marched up and down resolutely demanding some kind of sacrifice to the Nation. No-one could explain it to me. They shrugged their shoulders, suggesting these marching people were a little crazy perhaps. They wanted to go backwards to old times, why weren’t they shopping?

Making our way through the crowds of frenetic shoppers, we went to the top floor of Empik, where we could see the vista of central Warsaw laid out before us, the past and the present layered over each other. Leaden grey earlier in the day, the sky and ground the colour of concrete, the city came to life with the lurid colours of huge advertisements and billboards and festive bulbs. I recalled a friend saying, You know, in the Seventies it was always this grey colour of concrete, even in summer. Not unlike Birmingham, I thought. Now a sea of yellow-orange light – from the Christmas decorations strung up over the façade of the Palace of Culture – washes over the crowds coming and going and over the incessant traffic, making it look like a scene constructed in Photoshop. Now the city after dark is imbued with the bright avarice of commerce.

Looking down on the busy streets, we drank cappuccino and talked. She had flown in from Stockholm to walk in her beloved childhood woods in Swider, and I had travelled from Kaunas, an eight hour journey by train. There was a guy trying to pick up women in the busy coffee shop, pretending to speak French. Do you always attract such company? she asked. I am afraid so… She talked about the conjunction of the stars and the astrological significance of this particular week, of this particular day, and this particular time. I listened carefully, of course. (Me, Aries, Year of the Monkey, she Virgo, year of the Dragon.) She has told me that one day I will wake and realise this will be the perfect day, and this perfect day will end with us drinking vodka together. The stars say so. The auspices are good.