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.

At Worlds EndPosted on 22nd July, 2011.

You’ll find several places on the map so named, but I am thinking of a series of stories recounted in Sandman comic (51-55), about a group of travellers gathered in the middle of a storm at an old inn called Worlds’ End, a free house.

Here the house where travellers gather and share stories is the house of the Borderland, on the border with Lithuania, who are here to join in a celebration of  the centenary of Czesław Miłosz, and partake of several days of presentations, debates and events associated with his ‘autobiography as social history’ – Rodzinna Europa (Native Realm), first published in 1959. Tonight, the old synagogue (which is now a cultural centre) will host an event with readings from poets.

The phone rings. ‘Have you seen Johan? We’re starting.’ It’s nine ‘o’ clock. Johan is here, at the Lithuanian bar, getting some food and drink. We’ve been taken by bus to a roadside café on the border for days on end for breakfast, lunch and dinner and we’ve come here for a change. It’s busy and they’ve just stopped serving food. Don’t worry, I said to him much earlier, Everything will be running late, that’s the way of things here.

Our little group resembles the beginning of a joke. An Englishman, a German, an American and a Pole walk into a bar. In addition, there is our poet from Brussels, who is also a Doctor of Slavic studies. He recently wrote a novel about a taboo subject in a country deeply psychologically divided, taking as its subject the Flemish nationalists who fought on the Eastern front for Hitler, believing that a collaboration with the Nazis offered some hope of independence. Tomorrow he will swim out into the lake at night, unperturbed by mosquitoes, listening to the sound of klemzer concert floating over the water.

I tried swimming earlier but there were too many mosquitoes for my liking. The idea of swimming to Lithuania faded. The romantic vision of a graceful dive from the wooden platform into the dark waters of the lake was reduced to shinnying down the ladder and a quick pathetic splash about through the reeds.

At this gathering, we might encounter a journalist who has has travelled along all the borders of Fortress Europa, musing on the people who create and patrol the barriers and those who wish to cross, at their reasonings and their philosophies, their motivations and demons. He tells of a bizarre interview with Norman Lowell in Malta, a former banker, self described ‘Radical-Racialist-Right-Revolutionary-Reactionary’, and founder of Imperium Europa, whose aim is to unite all European natives under one flag.

There is a young American theatre director and performer from Philadelphia, who has Latvian-German roots, and a much older American we have met today, the type of American from the 20th century we’ve almost forgotten exists – big hearted, enthusiastic, generous and inquisitive – who first came to these parts thirty years ago in search of the story of his father, the village tailor who left here in 1905 and travelled to the hope of the America’s. Don’t get me started on those Tea party people, he says.

The phone call has interrupted our reveries. Tonight I am wrong. Things run like clockwork. We finish our drinks and I show Johan the way back to the old synagogue, where there will be this Café Europa event. Earlier, we’d helped lay out the tables and candles and wine and tea cups. It’s not far. Are you nervous? I ask. Yes, a little, he says, I don’t know what to expect. He plans to read his poems in three languages. He can choose from Dutch, French, Polish, English, German, Polish or Russian, as he speaks all of these. 

When we get there, we find the place is crowded. Overflowing. There is no space, barely room to breathe. It’s hot inside. Soon, the wine will run out, the tea and the water also. So many people, so many poets, so many rhythms, cadences and languages. It looks like the beginning of a long evening. He takes his place by the piano, behind the spotlights. I promise to find him a drink. I wander off to look for a shop to get some beer and vodka. Maybe I’ll see an Apteka on the way, so I can get some mosquito spray for the concert by the lakeside tomorrow night. No Apteka but a shop on the other side of town, busy with a long queue for alcohol. Six bottles of beer and a bottle of Sobieski Malinowa, please. I go back and give the poet some beer, and later a steadying glass of vodka. He seems relieved and delivers his lines. All is well. Outside, the thick air parts and it begins to rain. The overspill from the synagogue breathe deeply and the smokers smoke in little groups. I sit on a bench with some of the behind-the-scenes workers and share the vodka. Calm descends.

back to the castlePosted on 20th February, 2011.

Ujazdowski Castle was first constructed at the beginning of the 17th century on top of the escarpment, looking out over fine views of the river Vistula and used as a summer residence for the King. You can eat on the terrace here at a restaurant Qchnia Artystyczna. I’ll recommend the potato cakes with wild mushroom sauce, but there’s no time for that today – and it’s not the time for dining on the terrace. We’re here for the art.

The castle has been rebuilt many times, before being burnt to the ground in the Second World War. It lay in ruins until 1954, when the remaining walls were demolished. It was not reconstructed until the 1970’s as a two storey square castle with four towers around an internal courtyard. The six lane Łazienkowska highway runs nearby, in a deep cutting towards the river. There are plans to redevelop this with a Museum of Polish History spanning the highway, and constructing a ‘culturepark’. An architectural competition was announced and a shortlist drawn up, but no-one knows how long this vision will take to realise, with other large construction projects in the city facing delays.

It is now home to the Centre for Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski), established in 1985. It has a new Director, Fabio Cavallucci, following an open competition, the first international curator to run a Polish institution. It has a permanent collection, which has been re-interpreted by curators Grzegorz Borkowski and Marcin Krasny under the title of ‘Things Evoke Feelings’. Starting with work from Martin Creed, the exhibition presents such themes as Passion for Construction, the Trauma of Ideology, Breath, Women’s Revolt, Patience, and the Oppression of the Everyday. Here, we bump into a tutor from the University, who is walking with the aid of a stick. He explains he fell off the sofa while adjusting the Christmas lights. He insists no vodka was involved or any other kinds of shenanigans.

We are really here to see the exhibition ‘Fragment’, a gathering of the video works of Mirosław Bałka. It’s receiving a huge amount of media coverage. While I am not a fan of most video work, and I have seen some of these pieces individually in other shows, together they have a powerful effect. In a series of reconstructed rooms we enter into a huge sculptural space lit only by almost colourless projections on the walls and floors – grey wintry images of concentration camps, almost indistinct fragments of history and experience, spinning, turning, moving, blurry, all shot in a ‘muted twilight’. The inside of the building is as chilling as the snow dimmed landscape outside. In the castle bookstore, which is warm and cosy, overhearing the sensitive discussion about the unexpected danger of Christmas lights, I buy the catalogue to Balka’s Tate Turbine Hall show ‘How it is’, which provides a great review of his work if you care to investigate further.

Balka prepared a film programme to accompany the exhibition under the title ‘Sculpture film club’, presenting films by Pier Pasolini, Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Béla Tarr. He started with ‘Come and See’ by Elim Klimov, and ended with ‘The Ascent’ by Laria Shepitko, both set during the Nazi occupation of Belarus.

I recall meeting Balka on a warm July day some years ago in Wrocław, at an event organised by the Borderland Foundation, where he is watching his concept unfold from a drawing on a sheet of A4 paper into physical reality.  A tightrope was set across the path that led to the door of the White Stork Synagogue, a building in the process of restoration after decades of ruination. Sitting in a courtyard behind Włodkowica, in the District of Good Neighbourhood, this was a neo-classical building that dated back to 1829. Participants at the ‘New Agora’ event gathered here one evening to learn to walk the line, guided gently yet firmly by circus artist Ante Ursic. Eyes focused on the end of the rope, balancing on one foot, then changing to the other. Ante said, Let your toes guide the way, grip the line – this is a line that vibrated with a particular intensity. Ante coaxes the participants across. If you fall off, don’t worry, it’s not so far to fall. Get straight back on the line and continue; again and again until you reach the end of the rope. You have to get back on the line and finish, even if you are only 10 cm away from the end. Sorry, Ante says, but I’m traditional. Find your balance and walk – or no supper in the Rynek, they joke (or perhaps not). You then assist the next person, walking alongside the apprentice rope walker, hands barely touching in the air – as Ante insists, you do not hold on or grip.

This particular activity takes place for two hours, so all participants can walk the line once, twice, and then back again. Mirosław seems happy with the way his concept is realised. There is a café and a bar here, in this courtyard, and these onlookers watch the proceedings pensively. Some join in with the conference participants. Here they sit and drink hot chocolate with cherries to celebrate this ‘action’, but what might this ‘action’ represent? To be persistent, to try again, to not try for one moment and then give up.  Or perhaps the crossing of a border, in between a physical space and a cultural divide, between the precarious balance and the effect of gravity, along the thin line between right and wrong, between competing ideas or groups.

Now looking out over the darkness of the bleak snow covered landscape, much the same monochrome as his videos, following the line of the river to distant Otwock where he lives, thinking of him sitting in the studio in the house that he grew up in, the stone mason’s yard outside, I read one description of Balka’s work – it has ‘a bare and elegiac quality that is underlined by the careful, minimalist placement of objects, as well as the gaps and pauses between them…’ Perfect for this kind of tired and slow day.

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.

The wheels just keep on turningPosted on 15th February, 2011.

She reminded me that the pedestrian subway near the contemporary art centre at Ujazdowski Castle hasn’t changed too much over the years. It still has those wonderful evergreens – a news kiosk, a 24/7 alcohol shop, a shop selling knickers and socks, another one with bags and two-parts, working supposedly under a slogan “be elegant even if you’re forty”. There’s a pastry counter and a book stall, a smell of damp and doughnuts – and a guard booth too, though I don’t remember that from other times. She told me, Sometimes think that the shops exist only thanks to the artists-in-residence that I work with, since it’s quite an empty zone here. There’s even no night bus going through. Two identical groceries – tiny, you’re buying your kefir from the window only – which have exactly same assortment and seem to be competing.

Elsewhere in the city, some of these subways are filled in and in other subways shops pop up and then disappear. Marking a current entrepreneurship which goes with the wind quite quickly usually, she said. Like the bar which was based on the idea that after you buy pierogi’s it’s so cool if you can microwave them on your own – in the shop there was a wall built up from the microwave ovens. Or Warsaw’s phenomena: grilled sandwiches that taste like Styrofoam. The boom was somehow connected with the fact that you could feel like a real conscious customer: choosing sauces (all mayo based), pickles or so called “fresh” greens, with onion or without. A shop with darkened windows – slot-machines and shisha’s. Right now it’s closed and sealed by police stamp. Those “service points” grew like mushrooms in warm rain last summer in Poland, when somebody found a gap in regulations regarding taxing the income from gambling – not applicable to one-armed bandits and similar stuff. Soon after that these became also shops where you could buy “dopalacze” – designer drugs that caused several deaths and the campaign against the shops that were selling them followed. And the last shop from this series: not so fashionable handmade jewelery of stones.

In this particular subway, out of the dull rain, the whole of one wall is still an elongated vitrine, stuffed full of paintings for sale. Or at least reproductions of paintings in vivid expressionist colours with strong brushstrokes, or the softening afterglow of Romanticism. They are less Stanisław Wyspiański and perhaps more like Apoloniusz Kędzierski.  Here you’ll see an abundance of Polish Hussars, along with Orthodox Jews, winter scenes and dreamy sun drenched landscapes, churches in the mountains, Stary Ryneks, a Łazienki Palace or two. Well, you know, she said, the memorable idea of art: what to hang over the mantle piece or rather on the wainscot. Landscapes which are the hundreth copy of Cossacks and Turner mixed together. A horse should be there for sure anyways. The portraits of Orthodox Jews – Poles keep them at home since there is a superstition saying that they bring financial success.

Where there is now an infestation of these portraits, patriotic themes of regional nature and historical scenes, back at the end of the 20th century, at odd times you could find a man selling posters from film and theatre productions from the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s. Here I first encountered poster artwork by Stasys or Jan Lenica, amidst a pile weighing down an old picnic table. They were ridiculously cheap by any standards. An artist colleague J- knew him then. He told me that this fellow used to work at the Castle (which also housed a cinema) as a kind of caretaker-technician and this selling on of posters was his sideline for many years, like all the sellers in the streets of Warsaw’s early capitalism. As time went by, he became more successful  and there was no longer a dodgy table, but his display of posters took over the display cabinets, one by one. Maybe he’s retired, or moved into the ornately framed painting business, or simply gone upmarket.

At the top of the steps of the subway, past the guard, a huge crowd of birds, what kind I can’t tell, wheel above in the darkening evening. They scatter amongst the trees of the park, not waiting for a suitable painter to mark their progress. We hurry through the drizzle. Time to find some other art within the walls of the castle.

Thanks to Ania P.

Forewarned, forlornPosted on 1st February, 2011.

The snow lies on the rooftops of the old town. There are still Christmas lights strung along the narrow streets there and the length of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat. They will be gone by the end of the week, dismantled by argumentative workers with fork lift trucks. There is an exhibition of Polish Actresses standing on the pavement outside the Film Institute. Many of the panels have been vandalised, kicked apart or stolen, within plain of the guards by the Presidential Palace. The faces of Gabriela Kownacka and Hanka Ordonówna have been smashed in. Karolina Gruszka, Elżbieta Czyżewska and Lucyna Winnicka have gone and perhaps now adorn a kitchen wall in Gocław. Wrapped around the display, fluttering reams of red and white tape warn pedestrians of danger.

Late at night, the sound of Polish rappers engaged in a street battle drifted over the Barbican. Early in the frozen morning, a crashing sound of empty bottles being collected. We walk to Kafka for breakfast. A snowboarder speeds down the slope behind the university wall, leaping through the air to grind sideways along a large concrete pipe. He does this again and again. In the dreamy warmth of the café, we talk about the writer Andrzej Stasiuk. Last night, we watched a film based on his stories of rural Galicia* – Wino Truskawkowe/Strawberry Wine, for which he co-wrote the screenplay. These rural summer landscapes seem a distant fantasy – the sky here is a constant leaden grey, the visual representation of a gnawing headache, the daylight fading quickly. There is little magic realism to be found within the city boundaries. We find more of a resonance with the sad streets of Warsaw described in his 1995 book, Biały Kruk/White Raven.

This tells the story of a group of men in their mid-thirties, who embark on a foolhardy winter trip into the mountains of the south, near the Czech-Slovak border. Bored with their lives in a city slowly grappling with the conflicts of the free market, their journey becomes increasingly desperate as one of them gratuitously murders a militia policeman. On the run, they forage like imaginary and forgotten partisans, marching with closed eyes through snowstorm where all directions look the same. In the bitter cold, they seek refuge in the ruins of an old kolholz or in a youth hostel in the middle of nowhere. They find shelter in a shepherds hut or with an old farmer who asks no questions. They sleep under the remnants of a ruined church dome. Cigarettes are smoked, vodka is drunk, memories consumed, along with pig fat fried with onions, bread and some garlic. The snow keeps coming and they move higher and further into the mountains. The landscape is described with tenderness and beauty, while their lives are depicted without sentiment, almost brutally. Communism has fallen apart, and the bright new future is viewed through a dim light.

This is an enclosed world of bruised masculinity. The story flips between their present dilemma and past memories of growing up together, living in the ‘shitty suburbs’, learning how to match up to the men who worked in the Żerań car plan. Dispossessed nights spent drinking, boasting, dreaming. “Live or die. If you want to die, die” – is the philosophy of one of the characters, who has the idea to make this trip into the mountains. He suggests this in a bar called Crossroads, on one of their nights of heavy drinking. Outside, the city is pitiless. “Down the concrete gutter of Lazienkowska thoroughfare foamed a colourful sewage of cars, a stream of glistening vomit flowing from east to west and from west to east, while we sat in what felt like a terrarium, among people with dead faces and slow-motion gestures.”

Outside, midst the silence of black trees of the city parks, it’s easy to imagine no surrounding metropolis, no Palace of Culture lit by an eerie purple light, and to be wandering in those mountain ranges. “It was a strange mountain,” wrote Stasiuk, though I feel that the angst of masculinity is more likely to be rediscovered these days in salsa classes, hip-hop rhymes or even car sledging.

* You’ll find a nice essay by Stasiuk on the First World War battlefields and burial grounds of Galicia (where he lives) at signandsight.com, which also appears in his book ‘Fado’.

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those were the days, my friendPosted on 6th September, 2010.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: I don’t know how well this expression translates into Polish, but we are finding versions of the 24 hour bistro Przekąski Zakąski springing up in various sidestreets in Warsaw and it’s tempting to travel from one to another in between the September rainstorms and dark skies as summer has abruptly ended. There’s one in Foksal Street for example, first visited some months ago. Small, homely, with the basic selection of traditional dishes (sausages, herring, hams, pickles) to go with your vodka at a reasonable price. Mirrors also. There you might decide not to take a clear vodka but instead choose the sweet honey-flavored krupnik. The décor was pure fake PRL, but inoffensive. That was the evening when we wondered whether or not to wander along to the Empik superstore on Marszałkowska, where via a tweet we knew that favourite author Neil Gaiman would be doing a signing. His partner, Amanda Palmer sang a song by Radiohead and later they were going to a club whose manager we knew, where she might do a little performance, but we decided that – let’s face it – there are a lot of Gaiman fans here in the city and it would all be faithfully recorded and put online. Sometimes it’s sensible to keep your heroes at a distance to avoid disappointment.
And so it came to pass…

Mr Gaiman then went on to Moscow where he reported faithfully in his comprehensive online journal: I did more Vodka shots in the last three days than in the previous lifetime. Mostly because my Russian hosts were convinced that it was the cure for the flu-cold-thing I arrived with from Poland. I suspect that they would also have pitched Vodka as a cure for anything else I had arrived with, including broken limbs, heartbreak or psoriasis.

I finally got around to reading his award winning ‘The Graveyard Book’ this last month. No mention of Poland within its pages. This was straight after devouring ‘Fado’ by Andrzej Stasiuk, bought in the American Bookstore in Arkadia shopping centre, which has a marvelous selection of English language books. Stasiuk’s book is a travelogue of impressions of Central and Eastern Europe, and of his home in the Carpathian Mountains. There was one essay there about the visit of John Paul II to Warsaw in 1979, which I wanted to immediately take to any remaining Defenders of the Faith sleeping overnight on the chairs outside the Polish Film Institute and say, Please worship this instead of the theories about the deliberate murder of the President by Putin and Tusk and other shadowy figures complicit within the New World Order. Stasiuk speaks of humanity and communality and freedom and connection, and not of paranoia and suspicion. But somehow I feel they would be more likely to believe the remarkable fantasy worlds conjured up by Mr Gaiman – even though his Gods are usually Norse.

On that evening, not so long ago, not as warm but not cold, we headed to a quieter location, an old railway ticket office built over 50 years ago – Warszawa Powiśle - now restored as a bar come cultural centre. It was fairly empty (Mr. G obviously drawing the hip crowds of well-wishers) and a little off the beaten track. You can get breakfast here or a substantial cappuccino or find some small concert. It’s not a big place, a lovely little circular building with the original lettering standing intact on the flat roof – a space age modernist environment as imagined in the Sixties – here by the railway and under the darkness of the arches of the road bridge than spans the river. A large collage photo-mural wraps itself around behind the bar, constructed by the young artist Jan Dziackowoski, who makes small scale collages of tourist postcards images of Western Europe combined with PRL era socialist propaganda imagery to great effect.

That night, only several young people busy with their laptops updating their Facebook profiles, and some cyclists, one of whom worked there. There was an animated discussion amongst the latter about how to fix her pedals. They stood around an up-ended mountain bike and an old drunk guy added his commentary. Beer was his choice of poison. I don’t think he had a page on Facebook and what would it say anyway? Pissed again, life is good.

My fascination with Warsaw bars delayed me longer than intended, and this being an out of the way place in terms of public transport, it meant a long walk home – but not unpleasant, through green terraces all the way back to Mariensztat. Maybe I should get a bike. But not now that winter seems to have bypassed autumn.

You and me, us and themPosted on 3rd September, 2010.

I was asked with great curiosity if Catholicism is as fervent now as it was before and whether or not Polonia siempre fidelis? I said that today’s Poland is a piece of stale bread which breaks into two halves with a snap; the believing and the nonbelieving.*
- Witold Gombromicz

Now that the Defenders of the Cross appear to have been swept off the pavement by the celebrations surrounding the Miracle of the Vistula, I wonder if they might have missed an opportunity to walk along the street to the end of Nowy Świat to Muzeum Narodowe/National Museum and mount a vigil of protest there. In this huge building, next to the Stock Exchange, you will find a huge collection of ancient, Christian and medieval art, Polish and foreign paintings. The largest permanent is the Polish Art Gallery, which has over 430 paintings created either by Polish painters or by artists of other nationalities working in Poland.  The great painting of the Battle of Grunwald is absent, taken away for cleaning and restoration work. This is how Gombromicz described such places: ‘Large, empty rooms hung with canvases are repugnant and capable of casting one into pits of depression’.*

In some ways it may conform this view – ‘Darling, now here’s a striking example of tenebrism, don’t you think?’ - but around the building there was also a temporary exhibition (from June to September), Ars Homo Erotica – a survey of homoerotic imagery from antiquity to the present. It features classical works from the collection alongside contemporary art. It features work made in response to the suppression of gay rights groups in Eastern Europe.

Though he lies far away under Wawel Hill, the spirit of the dead president may be a little restive. When he was Mayor he had, of course, banned gay pride parades in the capital in 2004 and 2005.  The exhibition opened just prior to the closely contested Presidential elections in June (which twin brother Jarosław lost). And in July, Europride 2010 was held in Warsaw. One MP from the Law and Justice Party, upon hearing that such an exhibition was planned, declared that there was no such thing as homosexual art. His remarks compared homosexuality to necrophilia, bestiality and pedophilia, and prompted a letter from the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights. (View the letter here.)

The curator of the show, Paweł Leszkowicz, was quoted as saying: “There will be nudity and male genitals on display, but no pornography. We just want to please the audience.” Still, it seems highly unlikely that the MP concerned will frame his letter or be pleased to give pride of place in his dining room to an image of soldiers kissing, or any drawing that includes a penis, however bearded and manly and 19th century the owners are.

So, at two ends of the street, two different aspects of Poland, oil and water you might say.

* Note: Witold Gombromicz was a novelist and dramatist who went into exile in South America in 1939. Quotes from Diary Volume One: 1953-56, originally published in France in 1957, under the title Dziennik.

small seaside town, harbour, sand, some dancersPosted on 23rd August, 2010.

The Hel peninsula is a 35 kilometre long sand bar separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea. It was once a chain of islands that formed a strip of land only during summer months, busy for countless generations with only the herring trade. A road and a railroad run along the peninsula from the mainland to the town located at the furthest easterly point, Hel, where ferries arrive from the Tri-cities. In the period between the two world wars, after Hel became part of Poland, it became a popular spot for artists, writers, politicians and the nouveau riche. During World War II, the Kreigsmarine used it as a training ground for their U-Boats crews, then the Polish Navy up until the mid-1990’s.

Posters around the town advertise a forthcoming tourist attraction – a re-enactment of the Normandy D-Day landings later in the month. It seems to be an annual event. The harbour is lined with bars and stalls with tourist bric-a-brac, seashells galore, coloured sand in jars, fluffy seal soft toys.  Fake miniature pirate ships offer short trips around the peninsula. One of them has a very convincing one-armed pirate, who is successful in good humouredly press-ganging people on board his particular vessel. The sun is shining, but storm clouds quickly bring a heavy downpour, and we rush for cover into a small café for a bowl of soup. The rain drenches the t-shirt vendors.

The main street runs parallel to the shore, with all manner of street traders, restuarants, arcades full of sea-themed trinkets, some restored fisherman’s cottages, some bed and breakfast accommodation that looks more like a prison or reformatory. There’s a summer season of theatre in the fire station – Teatr w Remizie.  Photographs from a performance by actor Marcin Kwaśny hang on a line outside a 15th century church which functions as a local museum and has boats in the churchyard. There is also the Fokarium, an aquarium with only seals, run by the Institute of Oceanography at Gdańsk University, with the aim of restoration and protection of the colony of gray seals in the Southern Baltic.  At one end of the main street is the railway station, crowded with tourists at the end of their vacation, bags piled high. At the other end, the road simply peters out into a forest trail, which soon leads to the sand dunes.

The last thing we expected to see here is a friend organising a promotional tour for a boutique whose prime target audience is 15 year old girls. There’s a big tent on the pavement, selling clothes at special discount, and a DJ and a group of dancers out front demonstrating salsa and reggaeton. The dancers have been recruited from Warsaw dance schools. A boy in a Newcastle United football shirt squats at the front and studiously watches every move. (There are a lot of Poles here wearing English football team shirts.) Later, after some dance competitions with the growing audience, they will take a bus down to the other end of the street, throwing out footballs and prancing cheerleaders to promote the boutique. Why they want to throw footballs is not clear to me, except for the obvious fact that Hel is populated by visiting fans of the beautiful game.

Inside the tent is one of the stars of a Polish primetime TV comedy series, Aleksandra (Ola) Szwed. She is signing autographs in the tent, while some dancers gyrate on tables above her, and people snap up fashion bargains. As a child actress, she starred in Foster Family/Rodzina Zastępcza, which ran for over 10 years. More recently she has starred in various TV talent shows of the singing and dancing on ice variety. She came runner up in the Polish competition to choose their last Eurovision entry and posed for the August issue of Playboy. Today, she’s an essential ingredient of this promotional tour.

Ah, here comes a classic batucada tune. Our friend keeps her large dark glasses on, as if she hopes not to be recognised. Today, Hel, tomorrow Władysławowo, she sighs.

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 lesser known warsawPosted on 15th August, 2010.

Each Saturday throughout August, you will find a 1950’s blue bus standing near to Coffee Heaven at Plac Teatralny.  This is a Jelcz 043, manufactured in Poland in 1974 with Skoda engine – nicknamed ‘ogórek’ (cucumber) – holding  about 30 passengers, and will take you on a free tour of different districts of the city, off the beaten track.

The bus starts shakily up and after a brief introduction from one of the tour guides, we head off to a soundtrack of Sen o Warszawie, a 1966 song from Czesław Niemen, where he sings about his colourful dreams of the city. As we take the corner by Hotel Victoria, the driver’s door swings open and doesn’t want to close again. He deftly negotiates the roundabouts of central Warsaw while holding onto it. Fortunately the bus can’t manage much more than 40 kilometres an hour flat out.

Our first tour takes us to the boundary of the 19th century city and beyond Mokotów, to the fringes of Sadyba and Stegny, large residential high rise estates built in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stegny estate was designed to channel air. From the west the estate is sheathed from the cold air by long 11 storey buildings, so it’s not too warm and not too cold. Finally, we take a walk through Park Morskie Oko, built at the end of the 18th century for Princess Izabela Lubomirska.

Our second tour wanders past Plac Politechniki with a brief stop at Lwowska Street, where we pass through a gate to a rear courtyard to find Rusiecki Palace, built in 1912. The apartment block in front, which encloses it, is also an original building, surviving the war. The bus putters along through the backstreets of Śródmieście and Powiśle, culminating in a tour of the new Legia Warszawa stadium. The stadium opened with a pre-season match against Arsenal, who won (just about).

The old stadium held 14,000 and the new one has a capacity of 23,000 (though they still have to complete one side). We are allowed on the fake grass by the side of the pitch, but not the real grass. Our Legia guide tells us that not even the groundsmen are allowed much time on this hallowed turf. He says, No-one is allowed on this pitch, only the players. The only ones with unlimited access are the pigeons, as you can see.

From the top of the stands, almost a birds eye view of Warsaw. The new national stadium rising up on the other side of the river, the Palace of Culture downtown, the sports and athletica fields of Ulica Agricola, Ujazdowski Castle nearby – which houses a centre for contemporary art – but much of the city is obscured by greenery from this vantage point.

Below the stadium, towards the river, is a memory of old Warsaw. The decaying remnants of a swimming pool, a partially ruined mosaic at its former entrance. The pool has been long filled in with dirt, trees and bushes growing there. A high concrete diving platform still stands, a smudge of blue paint on the floor surface, a recollection of Socialist leisure and health. The river, smelling powerfully in the heat, is hidden from our view, the few remaining beer and vodka bars along the embankments obscured.

Note: The tour is one of several projects organised by a cultural association, Centrum Europy, aiming to give a new perspective to the city. In 2006 they published a guidebook to the right bank of Warsaw, by Michał Pilich, in English and Polish, and an accompanying web site, both of which we recommend.

To the church, to the churchPosted on 10th August, 2010.

‘To the church, to the church!’ This is one of the chants of the counter-demonstrators, a protest organised via Facebook – demanding an end to this fiasco and the removal of the cross to the church. There are many thousands more here tonight by 11pm. Most of it is good-humoured, many in costume, with cuddly toys as well as banners. Others call for the demolition of the Presidential Palace, so you can get a better view of the cross. At times it is impossible to pass along the street in front of the Presidential Palace, and past Hotel Bristol. The 24 hour bistro is doing good business, though it’s a little difficult to get in or out.

On the wall of the nearby Ministry of Culture hangs a piece of cardboard which reads:

I voted for Lech K!!!
He was my president (unfortunately weak in my opinion)
NO!!!
To cross in front of the palace
No to the radicals
No to Polish-Polish war
No to Rydzyk (sect)*
No for the politics of Jarosław K.
Yes to a memorial plaque
No for DuckFascism!**

After the ‘manifestation’ there is a journalist on the radio who says that the left wing demonstrators are simply, to borrow the words of Lenin, ‘useful idiots’. On the other hand, there is an article by a once controversial film-maker describing the site of the cross as a place where there is an ‘abundance of schizophrenic stupidity’.

The demonstrations, it seems, will continue.

Note:
* this refers to the founder director of Radio Maryja, a conservative Catholic radio station who have called on people to demonstrate in defence of the cross.
**The surname (of the twin brothers, leaders of the conservative PiS party) is Kaczyński -  in Polish this is a variation on the word ‘duck’.

Symbols and incantationsPosted on 5th August, 2010.

There’s an awful lot of people getting cross about a cross. The wooden cross in question was put up by scouts outside the Presidential Palace after the April 10th Smoleńsk plane crash which killed former President Lech Kaczyński and many others in government.

Following an agreement reached between the Church, the Presidential Chancellery and the Scouts, a deadline of 1pm, August 3rd was set for moving the cross down the street to St. Anne’s Loreto Chapel. The cross would be placed next to an already existing memorial to Katyń. A group of protesters have been resisting this, awaiting a government pledge that a proper memorial be erected. These ‘defenders of the cross’ are on vigil day and night, attracting the curious, other believers, drunks, tourists, the media and conspiracy theorists.

One of the protest posters suggests the complicity of the Polish government in the crash itself. Prayers are said, hymns are sung, arguments are lengthy and heated. One old woman who thinks that the cross should be moved to the church quickly attracts the approbation of several other women. One of these goes amongst the crowd, pointing back at her and screaming ‘She’s not a Catholic! She’s not a Catholic!’ A man complains to a police officer that the old people standing on the benches (to get a better view) should be reprimanded, because ‘they’re giving a bad example to young people’.

It’s not a big crowd, perhaps a thousand, creating a bottleneck on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. It quickly fades out a few hundred metres on either side. There is a huge media presence to document this, waiting for the inevitable highlight: a few dozen pushing forward at the crash barriers, extra police rushing forward, a few arrests, an appropriate sound bite ie: ‘This cross is a symbol of our Nation.” There are some counter demonstrators, armed with cuddly toys and a rocking horse, demanding that a memorial be erected to these symbols also.

At the appointed time a group of priests and scouts marched up to the cross but in the end there is no commemorative ceremony and no moving to be done, a lot of shouts of ‘Defend the Cross!’ The oddest thing is to hear abuse hurled at the priests and scouts who have come to make a commemoration and relocate the cross. There are shouts of ‘Communist sympathisers!’ and ‘Satanists!’ With the apparent indecision by the authorities, the crowd scuffled about for a while, before an announcement that the cross will not be moved today.

Further down the street, towards the Old Town, nuns enjoy an ice cream on this hot afternoon. Crowds of Polish scouts from communities around the globe (here for the Uprising Anniversary celebrations) wander the periphery of the Royal Palace and listen to a bongo player at the foot of Zygmunt’s Column, which is one of the oldest secular monuments in Northern Europe – even though he holds firmly onto a cross. They all seem oblivious to the commotion just 10 minutes walk away.

The evening television news headline is Krzyż  Stał, Krzyż Stoi/ The cross stood, the cross stands still. Even later, as the vigil continues into the night, another crowd gathers, with many who are there to make fun of the defenders. There are a few indignant moments and arrests. One of the supporters of the defenders is taken away for making threat with an umbrella. He may or may not have been drinking. There’s a lot of confusion. One man here claims that after saying the rosary during a 22 hour vigil every day for a month his bad leg was miraculously healed. A woman next proclaims her cancer cured by the cross. One man asserts, to whoever wishes to listen, that because of the spontaneous nature of the demonstration it is surely the will of the people that a memorial be put exactly here. Part of his argument describes the supremacy of Latin culture over Byzantium culture, at which point we’re a little lost. Others argue that the protest is politically organised by the former President’s supporters whose brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a vocal opponent of the move. The defenders defend, the media reports, onlookers look on.

Across the street, tonight there are as many people crowding in the 24 hour bistro Przekąski Zakąski, who gaze into the bottom of the vodka glass and wonder how this is going to end.

66th anniversary dayPosted on 3rd August, 2010.

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

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

The set list:

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

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

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

4. Rum Helka, a drinking song.

5. W Saskim Ogrodzie (In the Saxon Garden)

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

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

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

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

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

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.

WeselePosted on 28th June, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some highlights I remember:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: a reader, a writer himself, writes:

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

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

Vodka NewsPosted on 1st March, 2010.

Alcoholic Russian Chimpanzee (named Zhora) Off to Rehab.

Sunday CollectionPosted on 28th February, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrzyjaźńPosted on 5th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posnania elegans Poloniae civitasPosted on 10th December, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kraków, in rainPosted on 15th September, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.…)

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.

Mazovian nightsPosted on 16th August, 2009.

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Somewhere on the Mazovian plain, a small town like any other. A few thousand people live here. I would call it a village, but my host insists a village has less than nine houses. On the outskirts, fields of corn ripening, a graveyard on a small incline, strips of woodland and farmland, then a few dusty streets with a secondary school, some council offices and police station, a library, a hairdresser, with two or three shops in cabins – a bakery, a clothes shop and one selling general foodstuffs and alcohol. There is an imposing church and a small park with a new children’s playground and picnic area and a small swampy lake. There is a tributary of a river nearby, which provides some fishing. A railway line runs to one side of the town, along a raised bank, cutting through the fields and woods in a straight line as far as the eye can see. The tracks are a little overgrown, and the old station has crumbled to ruin. It’s raining and we seek refuge in the library and talk to a man who has been labouring in the west of Ireland for two years. He likes to read Stephen King books. In Ireland, he explains that they have some books in Polish language in the library, which he has read twice over, but no Salem’s Lot or Dark Tower in his own language. He complains about the food in Ireland. I’ve lost weight, he says, look, my clothes don’t fit me anymore! The contractors feed us Indian food. How can this satisfy my appetite? He is filling up on kiełbasa and sernik while he is here visiting.

Most people living here commute to work in the larger town nearby, which has a wide slow river – which could be quite an attraction, but it is unkempt and unloved. Rubbish litters the muddy water and clogs the banks and gathers under the parapet of the bridge. Some farmers supplement their income with agro-tourism, letting out rooms to holiday guests, and often providing an excellent breakfast and dinner. The meats are home cured and delicious, and with freshly picked vegetables from the garden. For the evening I buy a bottle of Sobieski, just ‘golden Dankowski rye from the fields of Mazowse’ and pure water, and ask to put it in the freezer. Mr Farmer notices this and invites me to a special meeting. This is translated to me as: We’ll meet later. At midnight. In the woods. I’ll have a treat ready for you, wait and see.

The moon is full and yellow, hanging hugely above the treeline. We follow the path through the woods as instructed. We come to a clearing, where there are some farm buildings, mostly disused, some of their roofs collapsing inwards. I’m not sure about this, says J, but what the hell. There is a light in one of the buildings, which is used as a pig abattoir. The interior, with lurid lime-green walls and a concrete floor, is bathed in a flickering fluorescent light. There are various metal tables and electric callipers, hooks and chains and pulleys along the walls. For a moment feel like we have intruded on the den from a serial killer in an American road movie.

Mr Farmer is waiting for us, makes us welcome, and eagerly explains the process of slaughtering an animal and the uses of the different implements. We pass through this first room into the white tiled cold store, then into what looks like a broom cupboard. And here is the laboratory for producing his home-made vodka. There is barely room for the three of us, to stand in between the array of pipes and condensers, pots and pans. He explains the process, and his favourite recipes. A small pipe leads to an old tin pan (green on the outside with delicate daisy patterns) into which the precious liquid drips, drop by drop by drip. I find myself thinking about the infinitely slow formation of ancient continents from the break up of Pangaea. It will take till dawn to make half a litre, but he has prepared a mug full for us to taste. He checks the alcohol content. Over 85% proof. He seems pleased. He offers us a shot. Don’t do it, says J. I throw it back in one. Mr Farmer, who is impressively built and would make a good wrestler, looks at me intently for a moment, then slaps me hard on the back and says, Bronek, You true Polish hero! J takes the second glass, and gently sips the rocket fuel.

The evening unfolds. More is drunk. We find our way home. That wasn’t so bad, says J, we can walk in a straight line. It’s dark in the woods and I can’t tell. The next morning, near to afternoon, we wake up stiffly and find bruises on our back and legs. At some point, says J, I think we fell down those steps. I agree, though I can’t remember.

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!

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

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

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

Tradition getting strongerPosted on 4th July, 2009.

First in Poland museum of moonshining has just been opened in Białystok Museum of the Countryside. Among mills and traditional village houses one may find – hidden in woods – all equipment necessary for production of pure and usually high quality homemade vodka.

The only thing that troubles organisers is Polish law that doesn’t allow to make exhibition more vivid – and to treat visitors to a sip or two.

More in the article Jak po bimber, to do… muzeum in “Gazeta Białystok”, a local supplement to “Gazeta Wyborcza”. Text in Polish, but short video available to all.

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…

Not only vodkaPosted on 1st March, 2009.

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

Strzemiennego!Posted on 28th February, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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.

One Sylvester in RewalPosted on 31st December, 2008.

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The Szczecin salsa dancers, along with members of an amateur football team called United Vampires, with a miscellaneous assortment of guests rented an apartment complex for New Year in Rewal, on the Baltic coast. And it was a splendid New Years Eve, with mountains of food and much vodka. Here it is commonly called Sylvester, as the last day of the year in the name day of this saint. It’s not exactly a hotel, as we all have small apartments, but there is a dining room on the ground floor where supper and breakfast is served.

It is not enough to have 12 dishes for Christmas Eve supper (representing the 12 apostles) but there seem to be an equal amount of courses for our New Years Eve supper. By course number 6, I’m feeling a little full and now set before me is a plate entirely covered by a large dumpling full of meat. I manage half of it. The owner of the establishment proudly explains how much work, love and devotion, has gone into the preparation of each particular instalment, and generally tells us to eat up everything. Nothing must be wasted! Most plates, I notice, are returned wiped clean. Empty plates are returned to a serving hatch in an annexe off the dining room. Any plate returned to the kitchen in any other state will receive a sustained spurt of vitriol from our hostess. The guests sprint into the annex with their plates pretty quickly and back to their places before they are noticed. I wait for the right moment to return my half-full plate. I slide my plate amongst several others, so I can pretend I placed the really empty one right there at the front. I turn to return to the table. Mission accomplished. Then a curtain is whipped back and she leaps out, fixes her eye on the offending plate and pinches my ear hard and marches me back into the dining room, gesticulating with her other hand and eloquently lambasting my lack of appetite and appreciation. (I am having a flashback to nuns and primary school.) The room falls silent. I don’t know exactly what she is saying but it goes on for what seems far too long. A summary is given me later: I can’t believe this guy hasn’t finished every scrap of the beautiful food I have prepared. And look, he’s such a skinny guy! What kind of mother brought him up? What did she feed him? he has no meat on him and yet he refuses to finish his food! What kind of man did you bring here? I’m surprised she didn’t say, ‘Sausage is not for dogs,’ a Polish way of saying ‘it’s too good for the likes of you.’

More glasses of vodka quickly anaesthetises any lingering embarrassment, before the fireworks, the compulsory discotheque, the lithe salsa dancing in corridors and the traditional drinking songs.

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WigiliaPosted on 24th December, 2008.

Recipe for Zupa Migdalowa
Soak at least 150 g of almonds in boiling water, blanch and dry. Ground them up. Pour 1.5 litres of boiling milk over the almonds and cook gently on low heat for 15 minutes, adding 2 cups of previously cooked rice and some raisins or currants a little sugar. You can add almond extract if you wish,  then a raw egg yolk just before serving. Open a bottle of Wyborowa straight from the freezer.

Conversation in Szczecin: 3Posted on 15th December, 2008.

It turns out she is an old school friend of Marcin. She trained as a nurse but now lives in Malta, working at a scuba diving school, and is visiting with her boyfriend for Christmas. Over the last three years, she says, we’ve seen the size of fish get smaller and smaller. The Mediterranean is being over-fished. I won’t eat fish anymore. I’ll eat meat, we can breed cows and pigs and chickens easily, but we’re raping the oeans. It’s the only way I can put it.

Her boyfriend, also a diver, says, We have been diving in the tuna pens, to see all these huge beautiful fish penned in, caught somewhere off the coast of Tunisia, using spotter planes and then they’re hemmed in with ships, penned and then moved to Malta, so the fish is fresh to send by 747 to Japan, driven by the demand for sushi and sashimi.

That reminds me, says Marcin, there is a nice sushi restuarant open nearby, over the tram tracks. We must go.

The diver continues his story, It’s amazing to dive into this vortex of tuna. You have to be a little careful, as they become blind on one side, swimming round and round in the same direction. they have sharp fins which can cut you. They don’t get spooked too easily, but you still have to be careful.

The  nurse turned diver smiles, Of course, I ate carp at Christmas Eve, as this is traditional.

We toast the carp and the tuna. We are now tasting Starka, which is a locally produced rye vodka aged for a minimum of 10 years in old barrels. In this sense it is compared with whisky, though it seemed more like a brandy than any other vodka I have tasted. But I also get confused between the sushi and sashimi situation.

Conversation in Szczecin: 1Posted on 10th December, 2008.

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Angela recommended we collect blackberries, and soak them in spiritus and sugar for a minimum of three weeks. She calls it, Woman’s Vodka, because it is sweet and syrupy. I asked her why she drank her vodka down in one. She said, I cannot explain but I know English people are wimps and can only sip at things. Stanyck then said, It dulls the taste if you don’t drink it down in one. He had a Pepsi chaser with each shot of vodka. I asked him if this didn’t also kill the taste? He shook his head and said, Have you heard how Russian people drink vodka? They take a shot and then smell bread. In Poland we take a little juice or Pepsi, this is the way we do it.

I ask them why always clink the glasses? They reply, almost in unison: You can see the vodka, you can smell the vodka, you can taste it, but you can’t hear it…

Home-makingPosted on 29th November, 2008.

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It is particular kind of cold, seeping damp into my bones and fingers numb.
We are on a northern border near Lithuania, a mere lake away but I won’t be swimming today however tempting the clear calm inviting water looks. A house is being built on this gently rolling land, within walking distance of the old family home of the poet Czesław Miłosz, what was once the local Manor House. That particular wooden building is now ruinous, left empty during the decades of Soviet occupation, but it will be repaired and renewed over the next few years as part of an ongoing cultural project.

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This house, on the other side of the woods, is currently a plan and a large hole dug in the ground. We gather here to mark the laying of the cornerstone, facing north-east, towards Mother Russia. A coin belonging to the Grandmother of the woman of the house-to-be will be laid on the cornerstone, for luck as tradition has it, and doused for further luck with a copious helping of vodka. The vodka is the best in Poland, says the man of the house with a gentle laugh. It is Finlandia. The coin, which has an image of a long-dead Tsar, is ceremoniously put in place, the vodka is poured, the mortar slapped on top and the first stone laid by the builder. Then, each and every person present, one by one, all down a shot of vodka to celebrate this moment. Then we eat a bowl of bigos, to warm our hands and bellies on this particularly cold morning. And a chill rain comes down, but no one is miserable. The builders go back to work, turning stiff sods of mud.
A bulldozer splutters to life and trundles forward to dig up another hole,
which one day will be a small domestic lake.

It feels both a gentle pleasure and a privilege to be here and witness this moment. After, we walk up the rise and down through the woods to the Manor House, its wet boards in need of some tender loving care.

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boxes and labelsPosted on 15th November, 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Can you stop time?Posted on 10th September, 2008.

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Travel a few hundred kilometres out of Warsaw in any direction and the landscape of the Mazovian plain seems much the same. At the end of the summer, it has something of the American mid-west about it, small towns sitting astride railway tracks and road junctions, flatlands with scrub-like trees, seemingly deserted, a sense of quiet rural impoverishment as the nearby capital grows in power and wealth.  I half expect to see Gary Cooper striding down the dusty Polish street (as he once did, when the character he played in High Noon, Marshall Will Kane, was featured on an emblematic 1989 Solidarność election poster). Big and bigger new roads are being constructed for the 2012 European Football Championships, slicing through these hamlets in the straightest line possible from city to city. Large flyovers rise out of mountains of dirt, elaborate pedestrian bridges span solitary unused carriageways, on the one side an unkempt field and on the other an overgrown field. They lay plans for some possible future when these half a dozen old farm houses are razed and an another estate of apartment blocks will rise up on the fringe of the ravening megapolis.

Today, on the east bank of the Vistula, the bus station at Stadium is crowded as usual, hemmed in by hundreds of market stalls under their plastic canvases, a muddy haven in the heavy rain, a bazaar to easily get lost within. Buses, coaches and VW vans compete for space between the cramped avenues. Exhaust fumes fill the air. I search for the buses whose final destination is Suwałki, as I am heading towards a region with leisure-strewn Mazurian lakes to the North and industrial city of Białystok due East.

As the bus works its way out of the city, along waterlogged Radzyminkska and Piłsudskiego, past a huge retail park with Ikea, I notice a whole series of billboards inviting the inhabitants of Warsaw to visit other exciting parts of the country. Like Gdańsk , where you will find a lot of things to surprise you, involving gargoyles and pitchforks. Or Lublin, which is bidding to be a European City of Culture and has some scary face-painted folk on their poster which makes me think of New Zealand.  And there is even a poster promoting poor Kielce, which apparently no-one ever wanted to go to.

There is a poem by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz that Iwona directs me to,  called ‘To my snotty-nosed friends/Do przyjaciół gówniarzy‘, in which he writes:

Przeglądam w myśli wszystkich mych przyjaciół twarze
I myślę sobie, och, psiakrew! czyż wszyscy są gówniarze?
Ach, nie! Jest kilku wiernych, z tymi pojechałbym nawet do Kielc.

I looked through all my friends faces in my thoughts
And think to myself, Oh, sod it! Can they all be snots?
Yet no! Some of them are faithful, with those I would even go to Kielce.

As the journey progresses, I receive a text from Iwona: Welcome to the heart of conservative Poland, welcome to the heart of darkness. No billboard can be seem promoting this particular region, enticing me to visit the Heart of Darkness.

The woman next to me on the bus lived in New York from the early 80’s and only returned to Warsaw a few years ago, before 9/11, to be nearer her Grandchildren, whom she is going to visit today. We talk about how it was in America for her – hard work is the only way to sum up her life experience. She has only one recommendation for this region we are travelling towards – the gothic cathedral in Łomźa, which itself barely finds a mention in most guidebooks. That‘s about it, she says, it’s not like Brooklyn. She nods sadly as we pass through the pine woods near Brok, where the road is lined with lonely prostitutes with orange skin colour, smoking cigarettes under umbrellas. On the other side, teenagers and old people huddle around baskets piled high with freshly picked mushrooms. A spluttering camp fire gives off blue smoke, and bicycles are propped against tree trunks. The people of the woods. Capitalism or communism, what’s changed here, eh? We can’t stop time, she says.

A couple of hours later, I find myself in a village of less than a dozen houses. The sun is shining here. There seem to be more cows than people. No sign of any flyovers here though, only thin unpaved roads.  We are really off the map.

statistics, damned statisticsPosted on 26th August, 2008.

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Where is Poland? asks Iwona, in response to reading an article at Forbes.com about European alcohol consumption. Perhaps all the heavy drinkers have moved abroad, suggested Brendan. Though it is unlikely they have moved to Croatia, Slovenia and Estonia – who occupy the top three places. The UK, surprisingly, only charted at number 15. Read the article and view results here.

One way to spend saturday in Poland…Posted on 20th July, 2008.

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Some days you regret waking up. It is the day of the Holy Hangover. We are late for breakfast with Babcia, two hours late at the very least. We stand on the balcony, to catch our breath in the hot morning air, drinking water. It will be a stifling 32 degrees today. We look down at the foot of the tree where her Aunt’s favourite cat is buried. It died in the middle of winter and the ground was too hard to dig, so she had to hide the body in the basement of the flats until the thaw, when she finally snuck out into the middle of the night to bury the body. Red flowers grow on the grave.

We arrive suitably apologetic. I am in a daze. Her Grandmother greeting: You stink of vodka! Why must you drink so much? Who is this strange man with you? Is he responsible? I am reminded of what Mike Summerbee, a player on the wing for Manchester City, once said when recalling his late nights drinking with George Best, of rival team Manchester United: We flitted from club to club. They tended to become more downmarket as the night wore on. George didn’t drink pints, he drank vodka and lemonade. It doesn’t smell and there’s no real taste, but it’s a dangerous drink.

I doubt he ever met a formidable Polish Grandmother and therefore had his vodka habit outed. George – one of the most exquisite football players ever, a handsome Irish rover – was often quoted as saying: I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted.

We sit down to eat porridge. I ask for a small portion. Small is large in Babcia land. I hate porridge since a regrettable incident with nuns in primary school. Eat it all, she says, or Babcia will be offended. Somehow I manage to politely eat most of it, with an awful lot of sugar and jam to kill the taste. This is followed by a selection of home cured meat and bread. Grandmother says, See, I told you porridge is not enough for a man!

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Eat it all, she says again, more sternly, please! I say nothing and thoroughly stuff my face. The meat is delicious and I remove none of the fat. There are also fresh gooseberries and a raspberry compote. I wonder when I will faint. I quietly eat, while she is interrogated about her life and loves. We are given a package of food to take with us. We walk out into the heat. I am proud of you, she says. The wrath of Grandmother was avoided. You know, after all last nights drinking I really want to puke but I will not. Instead of this I will show you my old school and where I used to live. This is on the other side of the dual carriageway and an impressively large concrete Catholic church. The heat is oppressive and I feel unusually faint.

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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conversation in a warsaw bar: 3Posted on 28th February, 2008.

I am a drinker with a writing problem.
- Brendan Behan

It seems that each time I meet her, whether in a bar or not, she has some precious nugget of information to share with me. There is a huge electrical storm passing over the city tonight. Late into the night, we sit under huge parasols that threaten to collapse with the weight of the downpour. I listen carefully and record her pronouncements.

She says:
You may be a heavy drinker or an artist because Praga has this black legend. A little unsafe, a place of thieves, of the working class… The market I go to has three types of social typology:  old people – quite old – then there are the young girls, quite young, pregnant for the first time, maybe accompanied with her boyfriend, usually shaven head and tracksuited… dresiarz is the word in Polish. Then there is, after 11’o’clock in the morning, you understand – when most people are working – the people with dreadlocks and India t-shirts, the bohemians, those artist types, musicians and so on, buying yoghurt for breakfast at noon.

There is a word I’ve invented for ‘dresiara’, a girl from Praga: Prazynka. It’s a joke. Prazanka is a girl from Praga, Czech and Warsaw as well, and prazynka is a potato chip. They tan a lot, so they get dark and crispy.

You know, when I drink vodka, there is deeper, more proper, more serious conversation. You know, at a party, people getting drunk on wine, vodka or beer, the boys are in the kitchen. The Polish kitchen is the centre of Polish drinking. When they get the vodka from the fridge, they prepare for the ‘long night of Polish conversations’. Mickiewicz speaks of this in a poem. Do you know this?

No, I say, I don’t know this poem but I must find it.

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