The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

‘Nuda, cholera nuda…’Posted on 12th May, 2011.

Before any long weekend can stretch before me, I need to catch up on some morning sleep in Praga. Yes, you’ll need to store it, I am firmly told. It’s after midday and walking past the woman selling watermelons round the corner of Kępna onto the main street where the trams are on Targowa and there’s an artist waiting at a bus stop. She wears a combination of bright blue clothes and a severe haircut that that only an artist would have. Recently she was part of an exchange in Birmingham with the Polish Expatriates Association there. She had been filing her taxes, as everyone else is on this particular day. The smell from the bread shop nearby makes me feel hungry and distracted. There was no food in the flat, simply an untouched bottle of vodka in the fridge.

She had just returned from her own long weekend near Sejny where her father had a country house. I’ve been digging a piece of ground for carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radish, beet roots, she says proudly. While we’re exchanging pleasantries, a guy talking on a mobile smacks the woman with him in the face. She thumps him back and he slaps her again a few times and they struggle and all the time he carries on talking calmly on the phone. They wander off bickering. Ah, typical.. Then there are two young children, sisters I’ve often seen, begging on the tram – singing a song in shaky harmony, holding up a sign and asking for money. They don’t get much sympathy. Yes, I’m definitely in Praga, I’m not still in bed, dreaming. Beyond the block of flats, a dusty path and a line of allotments with the old harbour wharves beyond. In one of the warehouses by this port there was a Vietnamese Cultural Centre – Thang Long/Flying Dragon – it’s gone, where to I don’t know, as the new national stadium rises into the air nearby. In the news they talk about the stadium being delayed by months. No-one expresses much surprise.

Targowa Street was a thoroughfare in the Middle Ages, and is lined by early 20th century tenements, many in a poor state, some still empty, waiting to fall down and for a new swanky apartment block to go up. The central reservation where the trams rattle by was once a green space. And some new trams are appearing this side of the river. This is the part of town where ‘the habits were violent and underperfumed’ – Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane. It has its charms for sure – the old Bazar Różyckiego is mere shadow of its former self, with it’s famous chitterlings and dumplings usurped by nearby kebab counters. The nearby streets embrace their funky little bars that have become oh so fashionable. Though it’s all in a constant state of change, as the city engorges and reinvents itself. Right next to the now mostly empty bazaar some of the oldest houses are being renovated and converted into a historical museum of Praga Muzeum Warszawskiej Pragi.

A little further along is the junction with al. Solidarnosci, where the trams and buses run west across the river to the Old Town, here is Centrum Wileńska, a shopping centre with a train station at its foot. And in between the roads, stands the The Memorial of the Brotherhood of Arms, commemorating the collaboration between the Soviet and Polish soldiers. Four soldiers with their heads bowed stand on the corners of a plinth atop are which three soldiers in battle action poses. Sculpted by Stefan Momot, it was the first statue to be erected in Warsaw liberated from the Nazis after the Second World War – its opening took place on September 18, 1945, though the figures then were only made of plaster, covered with bronze sealing paint. The metal sculpture was put in place in 1947, cast from fragments of the Nazi military equipment brought from the liberated Berlin. It is commonly referred to at ‘The Four Sleepers’.

The above mentioned artist in blue proposed a project to convert this and other monuments, writing ‘The ‘dead’ memorials in Warsaw should either disappear or be re­freshed’. She put a ‘swing’ on the Berling’s Army Monument, suggested a ‘slide’ for the Monument to the Red Army and a ‘carousel’ on the Brotherhood in Arms here – which would surely wake these four sleepers. (Read about it here: CarouselSlideSwing.pdf.) The monument will be moved at some point, as here is scheduled a new metro station. The Law and Justice Party in the City Council would like to see it completely destroyed. This logic of eradicating symbols of past oppressors may well apply to the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary Magdaleine just opposite, built in 1860 when the Tsar’s army was stationed in Praga, another clear indication of Russian power and influence.

There is a documentary film from 1957 which features several recognisable shots of Praga, including the wide concrete expanses of what was then the newly built national stadium. ‘Ludzie z postego obszaru’ – People from the empty zone – was directed by Kazimierz Karabasz and Władyslaw Slesicki was one of a series of reportage films coming out of Warsaw Documentary Film Studio between 1955 and 1958. These were described as ‘The Black Series’ – Czarna Seria.

After the death of Stalin, the barriers of censorship had weakened and documentaries like this began to be made looking at social problems. This film follows a group of disaffected young people, hanging out on street corners, who complain of a lack of money, flats that are hard to find, who say that noting is interesting about their lives. They hang out on the wasteland by the riverside – where they might find ‘a taste of the forbidden world’ – smoking, drinking, wandering.  ‘The same, bored faces with no expression’ says the commentary. ‘They don’t have lives of their own so they keep looking.’ A woman’s body is dragged from the river as they watch impassively. They go window shopping, looking at goods they can’t afford. Only a trip to the cinema ‘brings dreams closer’. The film follows them to a party in one of their flats, where they dance to rock’n’roll – Little Richard belting out ‘Ready Teddy‘ – and the drinks flow. This is contrasted with news headlines about young people, one of which states ‘Co dalej? Pytanie ciągle aktualne’ – What about the future? Still an open question…

One thing is certain, the future is wiping away more and more of old Praga. Once there was a bar on Targowa called ‘Oasis’ just after 1945 -  where, according to Jerzy S.Majewski, ‘herring and black Astrakhan caviar were in constant supply and secret police agent on duty kept eavesdropping the vendors and other patrons’. For some, those indeed were the glory days.

Notes:
‘Obyczaje byly gwaltowne I nieuperfumowane’ is borrowed from an article on Place Hallera in Praga, in the ‘Book of Walks – Landmarks of People’s Poland in Warsaw’ by Jerzy S. Majewski, with additional texts by Iwona Kurz, Ewy Toniak and Waldemara Baraniewskiego; it was published by Bibilioteka Gazety Wyborczej in 2010.

A useful guide to Praga in both English and Polish, first published in 2006,  is Warsaw Praga Guidebook by Michał Pilich.

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.

Monuments and MemorialsPosted on 6th July, 2010.


The sun sets over the famous shipyard in Gdańsk, mostly redundant now. Outside the gates a few pilgrims read the memorial plaques, explain their significance to their children. A few guys sit on the grass near to the three crosses monument to the shipyard workers who were killed in the strikes and demonstrations of 1970. They crack open some beers. Young kids on skateboards pass by. Across the tram tracks the faded shop lettering on the walls provides a reminder of when this was the Free City of Danzig, and before World War One, when it was part of Imperial Germany. Elsewhere graffiti proclaims ‘STOP UGODOWYM ZWIĄZKOM ZAWODOWYM’  (Stop to conciliatory worker unions). Some of the pre-war tenement blocks are boarded up, others show some faint sign of life. A girl with a dozen piercings in her face cycles round the back of a ruined building and enters a door, which is framed by anarchist symbols. Two signs are placed in the back yard: ZAKAZ SRANIA CHUJU!!! (Don’t shit here, you dick!!!) and ABSOLUTNY ZAKAZ ROBIENIA KUPY!!! (It’s absolutely forbidden to have a pooh here).

Next to the shipyard gate, where Lech Wałęsa announced the signing of the agreement on 31st August, 1980, which ended strikes and allowed the formation of free autononmous trade unions, freshly painted tenement blocks on one side and a school that looks like a church. On the other side, there is a 24 hour parking compound which abuts the fence of the yard. A watchman sits in a chair at the entrance, basking in the last rays of the sun. A caged guard dog barks incessantly.

A few minutes walk away there’s a substantial exhibition “Roads to Freedom” - housed in an underground bunker on Wały Piastowskie Street (under the offices of Solidarity headquarters). This bunker was built by the Nazis for hospital purposes and the exhibition itself was originally in the shipyard building where the 1980 Accords were signed. With films, installations, artefacts and computer screens spread over several rooms, the exhibition presents the history of the period 1956-1989 from the ‘dull and crude the dull and reality of the Polish People’s Republic’ to the vanguard of opposition in the shipyards, the forming of Solidarity, martial law and the round table talks which led to the first free elections. At the entrance, people enjoy posing for photographs in the reconstruction of a PRL shop with barely anything on the shelves – there was rationing from 1976 due to ‘temporary lack of stocks’.

Further along, where part of the docks show some semblance of work, along a crumbling outer shipyard wall is a long mural, stencilled with memories from dockers, the words and images increasingly obscured with weeds and bushes.

Later, we sit outside Brovarnia Gdańska, an 18th century granary building on Szafarnia converted into a microbrewery and hotel. There is a new marina in front of us, the island of Spichlerze which still has some crumbling walls of old Danzig dock buildings, and beyond that the river Motława, Ulica Długie Pobneże and the entrance to the old town.

For most people, Gdańsk stops right here at the river, she says. This island is the border. Where we are now, on the eastern side, is being redeveloped, with new expensive apartment blocks going up behind the brewery. Behind here is where all the pathological families lived and it’s pretty rough. Now it’s slowly being gentrified. And where these families will be moved to, no-one seems to know.

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

PurityPosted on 20th August, 2008.

There are what we might call pure vodkas, and there are others. The conflict is between purity and character. Vodka is filtered through charcoal to remove impurities and, of course, the purity increases with the number of times it is filtered. This rectification process removes those unwanted byproducts – solvents, fusil oil, methanol. They say that Żołądkowa Gorzka was ‘discovered’ by accident, that it was a sublime combination of leftover dregs in the bottom of a distillation unit with a distinct aromatic aura that drew some unknown worker to taste and think, ‘Hey, this has some possibilities…’ It was originally classed as a ‘bitter vodka digestive’ – or a flavoured vodka – made from a combination of herbal, spice and dried fruit nalewki (an infusion of herbs or plants steeped in alcohol).

Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka was first concocted in the early 1950‘s. It is possibly my favourite vodka. It’s literal translation is ‘stomach vodka’ – as it believed to be a remedy for indigestion problems after a lavish meal. It’s colour comes from an addition of caramel to the mix. There are no artificial flavours or aromas. Today, it has a slightly more sweet flavour (though you can get a special edition of the original recipe).

I have had occasion to visit Lourdes, where I was first conceived, and to go to Monserrat to kiss the feet of the Black Madonna. I have climbed with pilgrims to the top of Crough Patrick (but not barefoot) and often lit candles in memory for lost ones at the shrine of Jeanne D’Arc, but this is a different kind of homage.

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We take the long straight road from the railway station to the Polmos factory, past low walls, no high rise buildings, and a smattering of trees. Vodka has been produced here since 1906, when Lublin was part of a Kingdom of Poland under the sovereignty of the Russian Tsar.

We are met by Ireneusz Cymbala, a manager in charge of export, who takes us on a tour of the factory, which is clearly busy. Business is booming. This single factory, which has 500 employees, produced 3 million litres of vodka over the last 12 months. The production lines are running 24/7 and a new product – Czysta de Luxe Żołądkowa Gorzka, a clear vodka with six-phase distillation process and with the use of natural charcoal filters -  is selling one million a month. In terms of production, the factory is now third in the country. He tells us that Wódka źoładkwa gorska is now available in Asda. (I am particularly pleased to hear this and intend to email all my friends at the first opportunity.)

This factory, along with all the others in Poland, was nationalised in 1948 by the Communists. One big company with 25 factories, and all decisions – good or bad – made centrally in Warsaw. The Lublin factory then concentrated on spirits made from molasses. After the fall of communism, the factories became independent and it was at this time that Ireneusz worked on the shop floor for 10 years – the old assembly lines then produced 6000 bottles an hours, whereas the new ones can produce 18000 bottles an hour. If we could have done this then, he said, we would have been very happy workers. There are six bottling lines in operation, including two of the old ones.

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Business was chaotic back then – trademarks were not established, so different factories could produce their own version of wódka źoładkowa gorska, and distributors could take a shipment from one producer, default on payment, and get a shipment of the same product (more or less) from another factory. It wasn’t until 1999 that Polmos Lublin was able to purchase the ‘brand rights’ to źoładkowa gorska. The factory itself was only privatised in 2001 – a number of the distilleries are still state-owned – and in 2002 they purchased the sole rights to the name.

There are two other versions of Żołądkowa Gorzka, one made with honey, and one with mint. I confess I am not fond of the latter. I say it tastes like mouthwash. Ah, we recommend you try it with a lot of ice and apple juice, he says, this make it a very refreshing drink. I will give it a try, but not today. Tonight, I will stay with tradition. With purity of thought, you might say, though I am not sure Saint Augustine would approve.

Sauna NightsPosted on 28th July, 2008.

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As all the plumbing in her apartment block in Powiśle is being renewed,  Dr. Kurz reasons that it is a good thing to keep an eye on in case of some dreadful mishap (the majority of plumbers having relocated to England and France), so we convene here in for an impromptu vodka project meeting to eat a Chinese takeaway and watch a movie or two and listen to workmen bashing things, removing doors and showers. (Some flats seem to have had their entire contents stripped out and piled up in the corridors). After some PRL propaganda film shorts about the danger of drinking – which are legion and will be the subject of a future posting – she pulls out the main feature from her vast collection. Perfect for a warm summer day in Warsaw, it is a film set on New Year’s Eve in Russia, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath’. Forget watching Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, and enjoy this film which was a great blockbuster in Russia, released on December 31st 1975 and shown traditionally every New Year’s Eve thereafter. I try to remember what I was doing in this past time – I have a strong suspicion I was drinking Southern Comfort with a strawberry blonde girlfriend on the ramparts of some Iron Age fort in woods near Cheslyn Hay and debating the merits of the latest Roxy Music album with her friends… I am reminded of this because of the Polish actress cast in the role of Nadya, Barbara Brylska, was also a blonde. Iwona tells me she was a huge star in USSR and talks about this interesting historical phenomenon – the enormous popularity of Polish actors in Soviet Union. In 1976, Brylska was elected the most popular actress in Russia and she also won the State Prize of the USSR (1977). As a result she was not so popular back in Poland. She also appeared in an early episode of Zero Seven – as a mysterious blonde, what else?

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In the Russian film, a comedy of errors, a group of male friends traditionally meet at a sauna on New Years Eve. The consumption of much vodka and beer makes two of them unconscious. Sasha has to leave that night for Leningrad but in the drunken confusion instead they put Zhenya on the plane. Zhenya wakes up at Leningrad airport, still utterly drunk, and thinks he is still in Moscow. He takes a taxi to what he thinks is his home. The joke here is that the street name is the same, the apartment block of flats is exactly the same, even his key fits because the locks are the same) -  an example of typical Soviet-type ‘economy’ architecture. He climbs into bed to be soon woken up by the return of the women who actually lives here, Nadya, whose fiancé is about to come round for a romantic New Year’s Eve… Last year a sequel to it was released, following what happened to the characters….

International Women’s DayPosted on 16th March, 2008.

March 8th for many years used to be an important holiday in Poland. The day was not free from job (as it was in Soviet Union – and still is in Russia). Yet, as a matter of fact, no gross income would be make for Poland on this date. All men in the country wanted to celebrate their female colleagues – usually with a carnation (beautiful flower, just now coming back from the hell of official overpopularity in People’s Poland), sometimes – formally, from the head of factory or office – with pair of stockings, and/or towel, and/or bar of soap, and/or bar of chocolate. All necessary goods, all hard to get goods. There were also greetings from the first secretary of Party to all hardworking women building socialist family and country (lazy ones were excluded).

And – of course with a glass of vodka (it is and of course it was illegal to drink in work place, but…). These celebrations could be so long and loud (and liquid) that actually men lost their wish and ability to celebrate their home women: wives, partners, sisters, mothers and daughters. It’s hard to stop when you start. As Wiesław Gołas sung: “Before the first large shot will go to our head / we take the second glass”. The title of the song was Into Poland we go, fellow men [W Polskę idziemy, panowie] ­– and was supposed to be ironic, as the song itself. Another proof that participation in culture is unpredictable – people (men) just sang it, and – went into bars and streets of the country, holding a broken carnation for the lady.

Now the holiday has been regained by women who on the day in some Polish cities organise manifestations (“manifas”) in call for their rights. For 8 years now this day belongs to us. In the evening organisers usually have a party in a chosen club. Not much vodka is being drunk there, though. And the song sounds now more like Into Poland we go, fellow women…

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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.

AlcoholometerPosted on 11th January, 2008.

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Note from Iwona:

If one – just by accident – is taken as a Quality Inspector, his/her liver is in highest possible danger. Mr Kowalski (= Mr Pole), after being fired from his job in a laboratory, decided to have ‘a one’ (one vodka shot that is never one). He had an Alcoholmeter with him so he was mistaken for an Inspector and thus kindly offered meal, drink and money. Especially drink. First done by accident, the action was then repeated many times.

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Until Mr Kowalski was arrested. Eventually he was found innocent but he had to pay taxes out of all bribes (defined as donations).

Everybody here seems nervous. All waiters, cooks, restaurant’s managers. And even Mr Kowalski who prefers to drink than to tell his wife the truth about losing his job. She is nervous too – and prefers his husband drunk than jobless.

And you may see what happens to a man who must drink as a part of his duties.

Crooks and Philanthropists or Mobs and Philanthropists (dir. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1963), part Alcoholometer

Pięknie dziś wyglądaszPosted on 17th December, 2007.

I met her in the plaza outside the Centrum Metro station. I was standing by the mural of Beuys and Kantor, trying to keep out of the bitter wind. She came out of the underground, a little flustered I thought. She looked like death warmed up, but pretty nonetheless. I kept this thought to myself. I feel like death warmed up, she said. She needed coffee, immediately – she insisted on nothing more than 10 minutes away. We walked past a military vehicle parked on the corner of Marszałkowska and Jerozolimskie. Militia and soldiers stood around a coal brazier, in a re-enactment of the imposition of Martial Law in Poland, 26 years ago today. The phrase in Polish is more direct – stan wojenny - which translates as “the state of war”. They posed for photographs, looking quite unthreatening and cheerful, with a soundtrack of rock music and folk song against a video screen with footage from the time. I had seen them earlier in the day outside the Church of the Visitation, saying things like, Shall we put him in the back of the suka? This is the blue van, nicknamed ‘the bitch’ where suspects were stashed, to await beating, interrogation or worse. Some old guys were arguing vehemently with the young actors-renactors about the merits or not of General Jaruzelski and his decision. Did it save Poland from a Soviet military invasion? Did it hasten the demise of communist rule?

On the number 25 tram from Praga, I talked to a man who used to work for The Department of Monitoring National Statistics – or so it translated. He saw a bright future for Poland. You can’t imagine what it was like in those times, he said, now we are a part of the European Union and we have freedom of movement. You take this liberty for granted. Freedom of movement, who could imagine such a thing in those times… He believed in the young people of this country. He said some of his friends disagreed, but none of them had ever travelled beyond the confines of their communist borders. He said, Once even I have been to New York!

There was a different kind of re-enactment earlier, outside Arkadia shopping mall, with bearded serious old men carrying Imperial Polish standards, and pulling a pine coffin on a small cart with the Polish flag laid over it. No-one took their photograph but they marched up and down resolutely demanding some kind of sacrifice to the Nation. No-one could explain it to me. They shrugged their shoulders, suggesting these marching people were a little crazy perhaps. They wanted to go backwards to old times, why weren’t they shopping?

Making our way through the crowds of frenetic shoppers, we went to the top floor of Empik, where we could see the vista of central Warsaw laid out before us, the past and the present layered over each other. Leaden grey earlier in the day, the sky and ground the colour of concrete, the city came to life with the lurid colours of huge advertisements and billboards and festive bulbs. I recalled a friend saying, You know, in the Seventies it was always this grey colour of concrete, even in summer. Not unlike Birmingham, I thought. Now a sea of yellow-orange light – from the Christmas decorations strung up over the façade of the Palace of Culture – washes over the crowds coming and going and over the incessant traffic, making it look like a scene constructed in Photoshop. Now the city after dark is imbued with the bright avarice of commerce.

Looking down on the busy streets, we drank cappuccino and talked. She had flown in from Stockholm to walk in her beloved childhood woods in Swider, and I had travelled from Kaunas, an eight hour journey by train. There was a guy trying to pick up women in the busy coffee shop, pretending to speak French. Do you always attract such company? she asked. I am afraid so… She talked about the conjunction of the stars and the astrological significance of this particular week, of this particular day, and this particular time. I listened carefully, of course. (Me, Aries, Year of the Monkey, she Virgo, year of the Dragon.) She has told me that one day I will wake and realise this will be the perfect day, and this perfect day will end with us drinking vodka together. The stars say so. The auspices are good.