The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

the long weekend – długi łikendPosted on 15th May, 2011.

I wasn’t able to stand up in the morning. I wasn’t the only one suffering from after effects of the long day and night before, whether sporting injuries, aching leg muscles and sore heads. It took a moment to orient myself. I could hear the patter of rain on the roof. The light bright outside, despite the clouds, the wood walls and ceiling of the attic room softly burnished. Curled up and deliciously warm and comfortable, I could smell breakfast or was it early lunch? There were bottles of vodka already on the table. People reading, tuning guitars, preparing mountainous skewers of meat and vegetables for cooking on the open fire later, some still sleeping, others breaking up wood and hauling it in a wheelbarrow. Time seeped slowly, as the sun follows the rain…

It had been an early start after a late night and onto a bus by 7am to Dworzec Zachodni on the west side of the city, where we have a lift waiting. The aim is to miss the mass exodus of Varsovians into the surrounding Mazovian countryside, but we soon get ensnarled in traffic. I’m dozing on the luggage. I hear a voice, We’ll get breakfast when we get there. Expect to have beer first. I imagine her body changing imperceptibly, the water percentage soon replaced with alcohol, as she’s not that big. Maybe even by night fall, as cranes fly over. I must be delirious. I only grabbed a few hours of sleep, watching the lights of the city across the sluggish river. Lack of sleep, emotional overload, who knows, go with the flow.

May Day weekend. There’s the beatification of John Paul II in Rome, the last stage before sainthood is bestowed. May 1st used to be International Workers Day – do you remember that? – with the necessary obligatory parades and flags and celebrations of the successes of socialism. May 2nd is National Flag of the Republic of Poland Day, Dzień Flagi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. Then May 3rd is Constitution Day, celebrating the day back in 1791 when the parliament signed what was to become Europe’s first national constitution (also only the second in the world). This is, thus, the longest weekend of the year.

The field and woods pass by. The car diverts into deeper greener countryside and lesser known roads to avoid the jams. Don’t worry, we’re going in the right direction. We’ve never been this way before, but it’s better than standing still. I’ve been to Łomża, I say. Drank vodka with a farmer, I mumble. Pah, they laugh. Patches of water appear, getting bigger, with sailing craft, speedboats, larger river cruisers, fishermen on the shoreline or out in canoes on the waterways and their tributaries. I have no idea where we’re going. You’ll see when we get there. We’ve gone past Legionowa. There’s the joining the river Bug with the river Narew, which both meander all the way from Belarus. Large signs for fried fish, a few bars and restuarants to service the tourism.

We make a stop at a roadside shop, go down some steps into a cellar like interior, an Aladdin’s Cave of provisions for the weekenders. We soon fill what little space there is in the car with crates of alcohol (beer from the Łomża brewery is the favourite) and a banana yoghurt and an apple pastry (drożdżówka) for my breakfast. We arrive soon after at the river side, where’s there’s a bus shelter made of chipboard and another shop with a lesser selection of goods. Here there is a large advert of a big red truck filling one outer wall of the shop, emblazoned with the proud letters; Wywoz Nieczystosci Plynnych – liquid waste disposal, a vital trade out here. The gang are sitting here by the reeds at the water side drinking, the empty bottles ready to be returned for small change. We head to the house down a long bumpy lane, past plots of land for sale and houses half built in amongst the trees. Some people are leaving as we arrive, yet more will arrive another day.

This particular county domek was built 15 years ago, constructed from the timbers of other older houses. Old friends gather, reminisce, discuss happiness and philosophy, play chess or football or volleyball – even if your leg is firmly strapped from a skiing accident – enjoy the air, drink beer and vodka, sit round the fireside, sing songs, some known to me, some unknown. Some Jacek Kaczmarski stuff  – ‘Sen Katarzyny II’, ‘Ambasadorowie’, ‘Obława’  – something by Maciej Maleńczuk – ‘Ach proszę pani’, ‘Święto kobiet’, ‘Uważaj na niego’, ‘Jestem sam’. And one song that is well known by the rest is ‘Jesienne wino’, it’s pretty much the Polish cover of ‘Summer Wine’. All mixed in with a daily and nightly rendition of ‘Tribute’ by Tenacious D, the Johnny Cash version of ‘Hurt’, a Cure song and some Beatles – the lyrics of which I really don’t know, guys, przepraszam. There’s no shortage of food – it seems to magically appear – as though there is a genie in the woods whose sole purpose is to provide a sumptuous feast at regular intervals. No shortage either of Lubelska Wiśniówka – oh, you know how to tempt me – Sobieski Cranberry vodka – a little sharp to my tongue – and the standard favourite Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.

The long weekend is long and the inevitable return to the city tiring. Bags are packed, the last omelette and nutella spread on  remaining pieces of chleb eaten almost ceremoniously, floors swept, shutters closed, empty beer bottles deposited at the nearest store. It’s turned bitter cold in Warsaw. By the evening there’s snow. I really can’t believe it, pada śnieg. Perhaps it was all a dream…

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.

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.

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

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’.

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.

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.

goodbye, golden autumnPosted on 2nd October, 2009.

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The rain that started in the mountains has moved west. The fabled golden Polish autumn is fast disappearing into winter twilight. People move from their tables on the sidewalk. The waitress seems a little bored and sharp. Yes, what do you want!

Death of a virgin, I suggest, which I saw scrawled on a blackboard earlier in the day. That’s a mix of vodka,  peach liqueur,  lemon juice, orange juice and 7up. Originally price: 17 zlotis, but now on offer for 14.

A rickety train from Katowice brought us here, to Gliwice. “Please, the visual boards are not working so please pay attention to the announcements.” That is the only clear announcement, the others are lost in static and feedback. Is it such a problem to put in proper speakers, so you can hear what is said? I assure her that we have the same speakers on railway stations in England. The passengers ask each other if this is the correct train on the correct platform. We nod at each other nervously and get on board.

This part of Silesia has much in common with the industrial West Midlands of yesteryear, large empty red brick factories, old mines and some still working. Coal and steel, mines and mills, dirty and stained concrete train stations, overloaded with graffiti. At the station in Katowice, there are billboards which declare forthcoming improvements, and indeed the area around the rail terminal needs particular improvement. On the platform, pasted in random places are several sheets of photocopied notices for missing people with basic information and a photo: 38 year old male, 31 year old male, 19 year old male. One has no photo, and minimal information – simply the name, then Female, height 160 cm, fair hair and the date she was last seen. It seems infinitely sad and hopeless.

Elsewhere, there are new shopping malls – some with large cracks, as a taxi driver tells us, What did they expect? Everything around here subsides! They didn’t pour enough concrete, he says, they built it on the cheap. It’s always the same. There are green spaces and old plazas with Soviet war memorials surrounded by high rises in poor condition. Katowice lies in the centre of the largest conurbation in Poland and is one of the largest in the European Union, with a population of 2.7 million. So far, I have seen more drunkards here and street beggars than anywhere else in Poland.

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In 1953 Katowice was renamed Stalinogród, but this was never popular, and the historic name was restored in 1956. One building that you can’t help but notice is the Spodek concert hall, dating from 1971, built in a flying saucer shape. I have lost track of the number of times people have told me that they saw Depeche Mode here. It seems the city is re-orientating itself through festivals and events. This summer, Katowice hosted the Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival, in the grounds of a former coal mine, within walking distance of the town centre. There are blues festivals, metal festivals and beer festivals.

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In Gliwice, one of the adjacent cities, there are a lot of alcohol shops, pretty Austro-Hungarian era buildings, many large and empty, small parks and a well-kept rynek. On the pavement, a man turns cobs of sweetcorn in a frying pan on a gas stove, offering it for sale. Wander a little way from this centre and you will find unkempt but impressive buildings, old wooden doors ajar with dusty corridors with metal staircases, geometric patterns cut out of each step, casting curious shadows along the hallway. Smoky dark exteriors, leading to abandoned courtyards, but the windows and window frames are sparkling clean. This is a feature of Silesia, she tells me, because of the coal dust in the air, they keep their windows clean. It is a source of pride.

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Tonight, I feel I should be listening to Pola Negri (who was born with the equally wonderful name of Apolonia Chałupiec) singing Ich Hab an Dich Gedacht, but instead in this bar they play Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo, followed by Pink Floyd. Ah, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, she tells me, My Dad played them all the time. He had a wooden ruler from school that he’d kept with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin inked into it. A generation later, she went to see Roger Waters solo concert in Warsaw, but in her opinion he murdered his own songs. She also went to see Madonna, whose first Polish concert was in August – on the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. She was unperturbed by the protests from conservative Catholics, some of whom claimed the singer was a ‘crypto-Satanist’ while others held prayers to stop the concert. But God help anyone who inks her name into a ruler.

Good morning, MariensztatPosted on 30th August, 2009.

The noise was driving her slowly mad. The apartment stands within a stone’s throw of the bridge and bears silent witness to the cacophony by day and night. The Trasa W-Z highway, running out from the tunnel and over the river, is being entirely resurfaced. New tram tracks are being laid down with much drilling, hammering, scraping, humming. The workers, tattooed and glistening, nut brown from labouring throughout the heat-soaked summer, begin their work at 7am, sometimes earlier, working shifts long into the night. It seems the whole public transport infrastructure of the city is being rebuilt, as the country looks forward to hosting the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships. The road and the bridge is due to reopen on September 1st.

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She and her neighbours say to themselves, Why do they work so late into the night? Can you remember how it was better with the normal traffic? At least the noise was constant, without this intermittent screaming of vehicles reversing, Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! And these squealing and grinding noises.  They keep their windows closed, in a vain effort to keep out the sound and the dust.

Then there are the newly arrived students in the top apartment, who insist on playing death metal after dark, in a bizarre accompaniment to the bridge workers. Somewhere, someone is playing sounds from the mid-90’s, songs by Garbage (‘Stupid Girl’) and Evanescence (‘Bring Me To Life’), repeatedly. The new tram cables are being strung up between poles, the air clammy with the crackle and hiss of the arc welders. No-one is playing the old song by Lidia Korsakówna and Andrzej Stockinger – ‘Małe mieszkanko na Mariensztacie’ -where they sing of how they don’t want anything more than a small flat here in Mariensztat, and how both of them will look happily out of their window onto the Trasa W-Z.

Buses still emerge from this tunnel and turn off to the right, rumbling down the cobbled street toward the river bank, before making a loop under the reconstituted highway and back up the other side, to wait at temporary lights, engines rumbling. Only one lane is open across the bridge throughout the construction. When the sounds of work finally fade away – or on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a public holiday when all work in the city must halt – you might hear the sound of the clock tower of the Royal Castle chime the quarter hour, an old and comforting sound. For a long time, this clock lay dormant, unrepaired, like the clock at the University, where irritable Professors, for so long accustomed to a non-working mechanism, winced when the twelve chimes of midday boomed out to interrupt their glorious polemic.

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In the morning, after disturbed sleep, the small details of verdant Mariensztat provide some comfort. As she leaves her apartment, she watches how the light reflects off the open windows in the hallway, casting flickering sensuous shadows down the stairwell. At the doorway to the building, there is a lingering smell of fried food from the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant next door. The best duck in Warsaw can be found here they say, and this passing thought makes her stomach rumble a little, as she has missed breakfast. She passes the solid and resilient statue on the corner. She calls it the Fish Wife, a figure of a women with a hen by Barbara Zbrożyna, but its official name is the Przekupka (the Hawker). She walks up the terraced steps past the willow trees, through a courtyard onto Bednarska Street.  She thinks of how this place has its stories, of hidden walled rooms, of collected art treasures lost, of bordellos and bare-knuckle boxing matches, of suspected drug dealers arrested, of mysterious creaking floors in the night, of the woman who helped Władysław Szpilman and who always wore lace gloves, of the cheap bar patronised by the university students, of the green window from which sounds of the 1970’s emerge, usually the Bee Gees of the Saturday Night Fever period.

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Mariensztat was founded on a love story. In the 18th century, when Eustachy Potocki married Maria Kątska, this area by the Vistula was part of her dowry. He made a village here, under the walls of the city and named this after her – Maria’s town. Potocki today is more associated with the production of vodka than with aristocrats.

So Mariensztat lay outside the old city walls, between the river and the higher ground on which stands St Anne’s church and one of the oldest streets in the city, Krakowskie Przedmieście. It was the first part of the city to be reconstructed after the Second World War, rebuilt in 1948 to a new street design as a model socialist housing project. The reconstruction was a key element of the 1954 film ‘Adventure in Mariensztat’, the first Polish feature to be shot in color.

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The film opens with scenes amidst the ruins, old walls tumbling into clouds of dust and a new city emerging, being rebuilt. Building materials by road, rail and water being transported to the ruined capital. Young people folk costume crowd onto a convoy of trucks, accompanied by accordionists. They are singing about how young hands will rebuild the city, and build young ideas – ‘Tomorrow we will be able to defend what we create today! It’s the youth coming, youth, youth, and they sing, for it’s the youth who creates the world!’

This music and dance troupe are en route to appear at a festival in the newly built square of Mariensztat. In the first part of the film they are taken on a tour of the magnificently rebuilt city. The main character Hanka, also played by the afore-mentioned Lidia Korsakówna, leaves the tour to wander by herself. She is deeply interested in the new modern monumental architecture of the new city, and not so much the rebuilding of the old town. She meets a bricklayer, Janek, and they spend a joyful evening in Mariensztat. She goes back to her village, but then decides to move to Warsaw, where one day she accidentally meets Janek again. He is a worker honored and rewarded for exceptional diligence in increasing production – ‘przodownik pracy’. Janek agrees that she can join his ‘masonry trio’ (trójka murarska). But master Ciepielewski’s aversion to working women causes conflicts between Hanka and Janek, so Hanka quits and joins a women brigade. The men and women brigades start to compete in work efficiency, increasing their productivity, and eventually Hanka and Janek make up and live happily ever after. The film shows the countryside (from whence the hard working workers come) as idealised in an anachronistic way. It is a place of the past, frozen in time like a picture by Józef Chełmoński, stuck in the 19th century and not the 20th, impossible to reform. And so, our heroine must leave behind the fields of potatoes and go to the city to join the project to physically build the pure socialist state. Here the young people are ripe for revolution, because they have the energy and, of course, because they have no memory. And the workers are building their own homes, so they will live contently in the new Mariensztat, or Muranów or Żoliborz.

You see, she tells me, to work one hundred per cent is not good enough, we must work three hundred per cent. This is the battle cry of the workers who reconstruct Mariensztat. I must have seen this film a hundred times. And now my beautiful building is falling apart.

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Today, as she walks up to the centre to her place of work near the Ministry of Culture, she passes by a film crew on Bednarska, taking advantage of the picturesque steep cobblestoned street, with its slightly ramshackle buildings, as a backdrop for some TV soap. This is not a street for high heels, she thinks. At the top of the street, there is a busy new café bar, Skwer, alongside the freshly remodeled Herberta Hoovera Square. She points out how someone has already carefully graffitied the brand new street sign so it now reads: Herberta Hookera Square.

Another anniversaryPosted on 10th August, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PowiększeniePosted on 28th July, 2009.

In a club named (possibly) after the 1966 Antonioni film, Blow Up, a track by Joy Division – ‘These Days’ – blares out of the speakers above my head. The song was recorded in January 1980 at Pennine Studios, Oldham, before most of these people existed. It was released as a b-side to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. These days, you can get it as a ringtone.

We should switch to vodka, she says, but I don’t know if my body would like it. Or my head. I won’t drink on my own, but if I did I’d get hammered pretty quickly. And people would laugh!

She explains how she has survived several months in Granada, avoiding the pitfalls of flamenco dancers and studying the local language with some finesse. Back in Warsaw, with a new job starting Monday, she found herself in a bar whose lower floors collected denizens of the freshly arrived in the city and trying very hard to be cool and hip variety. After a few drinks, they didn’t look so bad, or so hip. Sitting at the bar with her friend, she was approached by a man who introduced himself as a film director who has been busy in New York shooting a film. Have you heard of Faye Dunaway, by any chance? He offers to buy them drinks. They are not particularly impressed and later, after several drinks, she forgets his name, leaves the bar and gets caught up in a stag party on the loose. She evades their clutches    and congratulates herself with a few more vodkas. She was home, in Poland after all.

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She remembers Tarifa, on the beach at night, here at the southern most point in Europe, with the wind coming from Africa, with bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka – what else! – and those English people were pulling faces as they knocked back shot after shot. They said, How can you drink it like that? She wondered why they seemed so surprised. This is what Polish girls do, she said.

But upon this particular night, on safe and familiar territory, this close acquaintance indeed proves to be her downfall. On an ordinary street, she misses a step, severely sprains an ankle, and ends up in the hospital. And, as a consequence, arrives at her first day at work on crutches. Uwaga! The perils of vodka drinking.

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.

In a banya, near LithuaniaPosted on 3rd February, 2008.

Michal drove us confidently through the rain and sleet, into the empty countryside, down muddy lanes, trees branches scratching the roof of the minibus, towards the promise of the banya (in Russian, bania in Polish) and a dip into the frozen lake.  This is the kind of thing that could give us a heart attack, said Alex from Crete. I was also thinking this, but I breathed deeply and slowly and felt at peace. We arrived at an old farmhouse building in an almost deserted village called Czarna Buchta. The electricity is out. There are only storm lanterns, the glow of the wood fire, and the light of a dozen candles. Our host Czesław greets us with his homemade honey and nut vodka, which is indeed a delicious treat, with that thick quality that honey has, leaving a coating of the taste on the tongue.

The men drink a toast and then are led out into the darkness towards the woods and the banya by the lake. This is a traditional Russian steam bath, housed in a small wooden building that reminds me of a beach hut sitting on the pebbles at Lyme Regis, looking forlornly out at the sea. We leave our clothes in the outer room and enter the steam bath. There is a huge wood burning stove in the corner, with  heated stones on top, and a big oil can full of water. We sit on the wooden benches, which are almost searingly hot to the touch. There are two levels of benches, the cooler air (if you can describe it as that, at least comparatively so) on the lower level. After a while sweating in the heat, we go outside and run around in a circle in the chill rain, waving our arms. We go back inside and are each given buckets of cold water to douse ourselves with. Czesław throws cupfuls of water onto the hot stones. We sweat more. We go out again, this time to the lake, where there is a large rectangle cut through the ice. Our host thinks the water is too warm and so we retire to the steam room again. There is particular ritual to this, leaving the heat and plunging into the cold water. The ice underneath my feet feels so cold it is a relief to go into the lake. My testicles are gratifyingly tight. We go in and out two or three times. We bring back buckets of ice water to splash over ourselves. After the second or third sweat, we are given branches of  dried leaves (of white birch, I think) to soak in the bucket of water. We then use these to beat upon our skin, to improve circulation and help open the pores.

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One of my companions asks, Would you like me to beat you? Yes, why not. (Alex is still a little unconvinced). The fragrance of leaves seems particularly strong. And the whole experience, the extreme of temperatures, induces a kind of natural high. Finally, we wash our hair and pour buckets of ice cold water over each other. I have no sense of how long we are in here, but eventually our host decides it is time to leave. He tells us that we would normally, at this point, dress and sit in the outer room and drink a few beers, but it is the women’s turn for the banya so we go back to the house.

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As we return, the women sing a beautiful song that the Bulgarian visitors have taught them while we were in the banya. We drink more vodka and the toast is ‘To a New Life’. And indeed, I feel invigorated and renewed. Later we feast on the home cured meats of venison and wild boar that our host has hunted in the forest, followed by bigos. More vodka is drunk. Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish and Bulgarian songs are sung. Czesław knows many of them. Bev sings Marley. I attempt a poor rendition of ‘Carrickfergus’.  I can only remember half of the song, but I explain the Irish context to the table.

You were not in tune, says Bev, But at least you tried. For this project I am going to have to learn to sing well as well as drink.

England, one dark winter nightPosted on 5th January, 2008.

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We’re sitting in a vodka bar in Walsall, one of many that have sprung up in every town and city centre. That’s Walsall, England, not Warsaw, Poland, though the way I pronounce it a lot of people may easily confuse the two. It’s my Black Country accent. A sensitive ear from the south of England might mistake it for somewhere north of the border, those syllables forged in West Bromwich confused with those of West Kilbride.

In my old Hammond’s World Atlas of 1961, Walsall is a town 27 entries distance from Warsaw – conceptually and alphabetically separated by places such as Wangaratta, Australia, and Warri, Nigeria. It’s Tuesday in Walsall, it’s raining and miserable outside – snow is a forgotten phenomena in these parts and if it does snow then the country will come to an entire standstill for a minimum of 48 hours. But don’t worry about the weather, there’s live music in the vodka bar to cheer us all up. The promoter rang me up, encouraging me to come along, so three of us did. There’s maybe thirteen other people in the bar, including the staff and the band, which turns out to be one person with his guitar, microphone and small crackly PA. The band of one resolutely play on regardless, doing covers. An over-enthusiastic bartender (an Asian lad who reminds me of my dear friend Peter Singh in his youthful exuberance) does the rounds with a tray of shot glasses and demonstration tasters.

New flavours! Special promotion! Two shots for the price of one! he offers.

He means half-price, says Martin. Or the stuff they can’t get rid of. Or maybe just half-vodka?

Two shots for the price of one! he repeats hopefully. A bargain! Down them in one! he encourages. This is possibly because of the vile taste of these concoctions and not a cultural custom. His hair is gelled in impossible configurations which recall crystalline formations last seen under a microscope. He seems unable to speak without exclamation marks!

The vodka flavours on offer tonight might be described as variations on chewing gum, mixed with caramel or mint. They are sweet and sickly and – in the absence of any other taste – they certainly taste diluted.

So this is supposed to be a vodka bar? This is the question on the lips of the young Pole who has accompanied us. She isn’t much of a drinker and is clearly not impressed. She wears a perplexed look on her face for most of the evening. Taking a Pole to a vodka bar in Walsall never seemed a good idea. She said she would rather visit a Welsh castle or a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. She looks out the window at the rain and the rubbish trickling along in the gutters.

I am told it helps if you get pissed in England a lot, she says to no-one in particular. She sighs and turns her attention to the music instead.

The one man band does songs by Oasis, The Beatles, Bob Marley. Then he gets a pint glass thrown at him, still full of lager. One of his friends and the promoter chase the glass thrower out into the street. The singer is disheartened and says he will only do one more song. I’m only getting paid in beer, he mutters, but I think he means lager.  He stares disconsolately at the array of flavoured vodkas behind the bar, carefully lit. He is performing in a dark corner to the side of the bar, where only five of the audience can actually see him. He offers to do requests but there are no requests.

This dark, dark night it seems to rain endlessly.

Short Vodka Stories No: 1
Walsall Council trading standards officers are warning people across the borough to watch out for counterfeit vodka. Following a Food Standards Agency raid on an illicit distillery in the north of England, council officers caution that bottles of the fake spirits may have found their way to Walsall.

Formal samples of the counterfeit vodka show methanol contamination is not an issue, but the percentage levels of alcohol found in each product were inaccurate and not that declared on the genuine products. Trading standards manager John Beavon said: “Walsall Council is committed to ensuring the safety of all our citizens and we would urge residents to watch out for these products. It may be tempting for people to purchase counterfeit vodka, especially if it is cheap, but it is likely to be of poor quality and may be much weaker – or stronger – than the real product.”

Anyone finding vodka they believe to be fake should contact Walsall Council trading standards officers immediately. Food Standards Agency officers have received reports indicating that these products are available on sale in pubs and off licences nationwide. Walsall trading standards officers will be on the lookout for such products during the course of their routine inspections and they will take appropriate enforcement action if they find them.

found on Walsall MBC website, Tuesday, October 25, 2005