The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

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.

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.

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.

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.

September 1st, 1939Posted on 1st September, 2009.

Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering a world war. From the beginning, the conflict introduced an indiscriminate form of industrialised warfare, targeting military and civilians alike. In Warsaw, a huge banner adorns the façade of the Palace of Culture facing the Gallerie Centrum shopping centre. It features a painted image of a 1939 Polish soldier in heroic profile, with one blood red word above his head – HONOR. Red drips are splattered down the image.

National flags fly from the bumpers of trams and buses as they criss-cross the city. Large red and white banners are draped from tall buildings. Flags hang limply from the corners of many buildings. Only at Filtry waterworks, at the top of a redbrick tower, can you can see a flag fully catching the wind.

Outside the entrance to the central Metro, where there was recently a temporary shrine to Michael Jackson, men have worked through the night hours to weld together a structure for a temporary exhibition, large scale photographs and text with multimedia panels that chronicle those first weeks of the ‘blitzkreig’ on Polish soil, and the bravery of the defending soldiers. A stage managed attack by Nazi troops disguised as ‘Silesian rebels’ on a German radio station at Gliwice, a few kilometres from the then existing Polish border, gave Hitler the pretext to launch his attack. The radio station in Gliwice, which became part of Poland in 1945, is something of a tourist attraction. It is the only wooden radio tower left in the world (made of larch) and at 110 metres, is also said to be the tallest remaining wooden construction in the world.

The views and prejudices of my fathers’ generation were shaped by this single event. His older brother went into the British Army and fought in North Africa. He was left behind, in a Staffordshire coal-mining village with a younger sister and infirm mother to look after. He left school and worked in a shoe shop, and joined the Air Training Corps in preparation for what may come. He didn’t like the Germans and he didn’t like the Americans, though he was enamoured with both the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the films of John Ford. On the BBC, he liked to watch Dad’s Army, a 1960’s sitcom about the Home Guard and ‘Allo ‘Allo, a 1980’s comedy parody about the French Resistance. He collected hundreds and hundreds of books about the Second World War, and admired the romanticism and gallantry of the Polish airmen who helped win the Battle of Britain. In many ways, for him life became fixed at this point. There was little of interest afterwards.

Though long associated with the Anglo-Polish Society of the West Midlands, he never visited Poland, and I doubt he would like the heat of this day, with only a dull intermittent breeze drawing breath. Though he would enjoy looking at the tanks from the time period, on display up outside the Presidential Palace, and no doubt would pose for a photograph on this spot as many other people are. Then he would walk over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, where his views of Polish heroism and stoicism in the face of impossible odds would be reinforced. And I expect he would have a vodka, which was always his drink of choice.

(More musings on Anglo-Polish connections in this short essay, We are not Polishdownloadable from this link.…)

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.

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.