The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

The Golden AgePosted on 20th October, 2011.

In Poland it’s been the Year of Miłosz, the centenary of his birth. The events have come thick and fast. I heard a story about the American poet Brenda Hillman, who recalled Miłosz appearing at the door, always with the salutation “Vodka, Brenda!”  They kept a bottle in the freezer for such visits. She once asked him, “What is heaven? What is it like?”  To which he replied: “Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”

The Belgian poet in Brussels told a different story to me. It was a hot day in May when he met Miłosz in Krakow, where he was living because – the famous poet said – it reminded him of Vilnius. He was doing an interview for Belgian radio. The offer of three days in Poland and one hour to interview the author of ‘A Poem For the End of the Century’ was too good an offer to resist. It was, he recalled, a very special hour. He asked me what language did we wish to conduct the interview in – Russian, Polish, French, Lithuanian or English? It had to be in English, for it was to be broadcast on a Dutch radio station. I remember he talked a lot about the eroticism of language and as I was learning Russian I understood what he meant. I fell in love with the language, that’s the only way to put it.

Rain expected in KrakówPosted on 30th September, 2010.

I helped him get a bilet normalny at the ticket machine. 2.50 zlotys (that’s about 50p) from the airport into the centre of town. He said he normally took a taxi, but thought he should try to save money, as times are getting harder. He was from Liverpool. His girlfriend was from Kraków. She lived in Podgórze, south of the river. He thought it was an interesting neighbourhood. Over the past year, he’s been here several times. They take their security seriously, don’t they, he said. Have you noticed all the shops and houses with the stickers saying Protected by SecurityWise or whatever? And these big guys have all these batons and sticks. You don’t want to mess with them.

It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? I couldn’t get used to the heat in the summer. The language is difficult though. I’d like to move here and do an intensive language course for a year. I’ve got enough money saved up for that. I could get work here. He was a gas fitter, domestic appliances.

I mean, the wages aren’t high, but the cost of living is comparatively low. Last time I took my girlfriend out for a slap up meal. With drinks and everything it came to about fifty quid. She thought I was crazy spending this, but it’s half the price of something similar in England. Things are cheaper here. Except electrical appliances, they’re similar in cost. In some ways, it’s about 30 years behind the rest of Europe, but it’s catching up fast. I think this country will be the business in years to come. I hope they don’t join the euro.

I’ve had a few vodka too many, he said as he left the bus, but I’ll stick with the beer this time. I know where I am with that.

In the city centre, there is a live TV broadcast from Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s basilica) on the main square. Some fireman are demonstrating how to escape from the top of the Hejnał tower, where a trumpet call blows out on the hour – it cuts off mid-note in commemoration of a 13th century trumpeter, shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. In between abseiling down the side of the tower, the firemen are being interviewed by the TV weather presenter, Dorota Gardias, who was recently featured in popular women’s magazine in a recreation of one of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings of bare breasted young women holding fruit. A former Miss Lublin and winner of the ninth edition of Dancing with the Stars, to be a prezenterka pogody is to be a multi-disciplinary practitioner in these times – though she doesn’t volunteer to heroically abseil down the tower. As for the weather, it’s getting colder. Winter has bypassed autumn. Dorota tells us to expect bright sun, sudden showers and a chill wind blowing from the east. Hot wine with plums and figs seems the order of the day…

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Vodka RegretsPosted on 27th April, 2008.

I agree with Paolo Coehlo’s simple travel advice: Frequent bars. It’s where you’ll find city life. Always in a Warsaw bar, many times I have been asked about which parts of Poland I have visited. The truthful answer – Szczecin, Warsaw, Białystok, Sejny and so on – seems to be an unexpected and wholly unsatisfactorily reply. “You have not been to Kraków? Or Zakopane?” Sorry, no, I haven’t. Usually this is followed by a look of disdain or sorrow or just confusion, a sad shake of the head and a look that asks Why? or What is wrong with you?  (Though one person did tell me, rather forcefully, ‘Forget about Warsaw and all the other places! Leave Poland! My advice is go to Prague!’) I finally hit on the perfect answer. “I’m visiting vodka factories…” This seems to make some kind of perfect sense to the questioner. “Ah, rozumien… I understand.” This is where this project started of course.

Fortunately, I have now been to both Kraków and Zakopane and very nice they are too.  But this weekend, in Kraków, there was a small but disturbing march of the ONR – a Polish nationalist political party from the 1930’s, which was recreated in the 1990’s.  Deriving its philosophy from fascist models, they are wearing Brownshirts and use Nazi salutes, and carry a banner that reads Niesiemy Polsce Odrozenie. My Nowe Pokolenie. We bring Poland revival. We, the New Generation.

There is also a very vocal anti-fascist demonstration, and a lot of riot police, all in amidst the tourists taking in the picturesque views of Wawel Castle and taking photographs of the balcony where Pope John Paul II once stood. Photographs of the riot police seemed less popular.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration/death camp complex organised by the Nazis in the Second World War, lies some 70 kilometres west of Kraków. This particular weekend is also when the March of the Living occurs, with Jewish teenagers from all over the world coming to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Speilberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’, filmed locally, is the Saturday movie playing on Polish television. The definite book on the subject, for me, is  ‘Auschwitz – The Nazis and the Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees (BBC Books, 2005) and there’s some sobering thoughts on Auschwitz logic in contemporary Middle East politics at

Meanwhile, we sit in Alchemia, a bar in the Kasimierz district, formerly one of the main cultural centres of Polish Jewry, discussing a new law passed by the country’s ruling conservatives. The anti-communist lustration law, which previously affected only lawmakers, government ministers and judges, was extended recently to include academics, journalists (or anyone who had anything published), managers of state-owned firms, school principals, diplomats and lawyers, potentially affecting nearly three-quarters of a million Poles. The law allows the Institute of National Remembrance, which holds the communist security-service files, to identify collaborators – however that might be defined. Individuals have to submit their declarations to this Institute or risk losing their jobs. They also face a ban if they are considered to be economical with the truth. Lustration, from Latin, means purification through ceremony or sacrifice but the words purge and witch-hunt also come to mind, with uncomfortable resonances from the not-so-distant past in Central and Eastern Europe. The issue of what consists of collaboration is a thorny and diffuse one for many people – in future, might I be considered a collaborator in the war in Iraq if I vote for the Labour Party in the forthcoming local authority elections on May 3rd?

A group of journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, which is one of Poland’s most influential newspapers – originally created by anti-communist dissidents – has announced they are boycotting the law. Warsaw University also has called for the suspension of the new law. Many critics of the law feel it is a specific attempt to stifle critics of the government and control an independent and free media. Miss Vodka Regrets, we may be culling the intelligensia today… All in all, a very peculiar weekend indeed.