The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

The Golden AgePosted on 20th October, 2011.

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

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

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.

rozumiesz?Posted on 20th July, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

barefoot in the sandPosted on 20th July, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Something’s changingPosted on 2nd March, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself, Mrs Opaczewska, defends Warsaw today!

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

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

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

z czasemPosted on 16th January, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the classics 1: TuwimPosted on 3rd January, 2009.

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Just for Christmas – the best possible gift – we’ve got another edition of (in)famous book by great Polish poet Julian Tuwim: Polish dictionary of the drink (Polski słownik pijacki) – with modern supplement by Piotr Bikont.

Just in a case it was published in the series entitled For Fun of Writers (Zabawy literackie) – nobody should take it seriously. Nevertheless author believes that when someone loves something even mentioning the name of beloved thing/issue may be revitalizing – thus the dictionary containing 2000 entries naming people, liquors, practices, anything that could be associated with drinking.

Just to show Tuwim is a great – and serious poet:

The Dancing Socrates

I roast in the sun, old wretch… I lie, and yawn, I stretch.
Old am I, but full of pep:
When I take a slug from the cup
I sing.
My ancient bones bask in the sun’s glow,
And my curly, wise, grey head.
In that wise head, like woods in spring
Hums and hums a wiser wine.
Eternal thoughts flow and flow,
Like time.

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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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, definitely.

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

i.