The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

On New Years DayPosted on 1st January, 2009.

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Some hours after midnight, we walk down to the sea. The only illumination is a series of small blueish lights on the cliff above, and an occasional random rocket fired out over the water. The sand is remarkably soft and the sea calm.  When I first came to England, says Ania, and people said ‘We’re going to beach’ and all I could see were these little stones, I was asking myself, ‘What are they talking about? This is not a beach!’

This is a beach, stretching a far as the eye can see. To the west is Woliński National Park, noted for bird-watching opportunities,  and to the east is Kołobrzeg, a resort and health spa which attracts over a million visitors each year. In between are these smaller holiday villages amid pine forests and golden sands. We walk for miles and miles along the beach, past the abandoned water slide, along with many other bleary eyed revellers of the night before.  It is a time to be a little melancholic, in an out-of-season resort, a time when you think about things ending and of new beginnings. Finally, as dusk falls, we return to look for a fish restuarant for plaice, fries, źywiec and a vodka chaser. 

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One Sylvester in RewalPosted on 31st December, 2008.

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

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

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

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At the turn of the year, in PomeraniaPosted on 28th December, 2008.

In the damp English winter, I find myself thinking back to New Year celebrations spent with friends in the north-western part of Poland. The biggest city in the region, Szczecin, was built on the banks of the river Oder and is the largest seaport in the country – even though it is some 60 kilometres inland, connected to the Baltic through a series of lakes and waterways. It is a city of contrasts. Heavily industrial, with many green spaces,  and surprisingly wide avenues lined with trees. Our hosts proudly tell us that the city was rebuilt in the 1880’s (when it was Stettin, a part of Germany) using an uban design by George-Eugene Haussemann, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of Paris in the 1860’s.

The centre of the city, docks and factories were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and by fighting between the German and Soviet armies in 1945. As the city became part of the new Poland after the war, former inhabitants were expelled and the area resettled by Poles, many brought from the eastern areas annexed by the Soviet Union. The Old Town itself was only rebuilt in the 1990’s, and you can still see empty, ruined sections awaiting reconstruction.  

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Arriving at the railway station in the middle of winter, at the end of the line and near to the river, the city has a weary look to it.  The station, unheated it seems, must have been in its prime in the 1930’s. The wooden roof used to be painted duck egg blue, but most of the paint has flaked off. There is a large post-war mosaic which mostly glorifies the march of electrication across the region and other industries. There are some military police, apparently on the look out for deserters from the army, though they seem to be more interested in looking at an exhibition of photographs of strikes and protests from the 70’s which hang a little forlornly on black boards by the ticket office. Compare this to a new shopping mall nearby, much like any other shopping mall, all bright colours and futuristic curves and a glass dome above. Here you can order a latte to go with your pasztecik. 

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We drive off across Most Dlugi and onto the Gdansk highway and over one of the many waterways, Przekop Parnicki. Here the other side of the carriageway is cordoned off by police cars and puzzled policeman are standing about. An unknown driver has managed to catapult his or her car several metres into the air and land on top of the crash barriers, perfectly balanced over the water, facing the opposite way. The policeman keep a respectful distance, as if any sudden movement might topple the car. We marvel at the stunt driving and carry on to Zdroje, to the east of the river.

Do you have snow tires? I ask.
No, says Michał, Why?
Everyone seems to be to driving quite quickly…
He shrugs and floors the pedal, It’s no problem. 

We turn off Batalionów Chłopskich up a  steep hill road to Park Leśny Zdroje to walk round the Emerald Lake. The landscape here is shaped by decades of quarrying and mining for marls and limestones to supply a cement factory, established nearby in 1862, along with several hundred thousand cubic metres of spoil which help mould the hills and steep escarpments. Eventually, the mining reached down to the water-bearing sands, causing ‘an abrupt, catastrophic water outflow’ which buried workers and equipment. The mine flooded and the open pit  finally became the Emerald Lake - Jezioro Szmaragdowe. It is frozen today.

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As we trudge up and down the snowy paths, Michał tells us that this was an excellent place to play truant from school. No-one would find you here. It’s good for mountain biking and in winter, the steep hills make good sledging. I haven’t seen snow like this in England for such a long time, snow that stays on the ground for more than two days. There is a viewpoint at the height of the park. A line of electricity pylons march through the woods, a railways line stretches before us, and beyond that the mass of the city in a grey twilight, barely visible in the mist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation in Szczecin: 2Posted on 14th December, 2008.

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Each time we see Marcin, he has a gift of some kind. Which usually involves alcohol, though the early morning apple cake from the bakery is also most welcome. Today he has a bottle of ‘special alcohol’ from Greece, where he recently visited. Greek vodka, he laughs, if you can believe in such a thing! This is in a mineral water bottle. Don’t leave it by the bedside at night, he says, in case you get very confused. He explains that it is some special kind of spirit made by young children as part of a festival. You know, it smells like the glue that I used to put together my Airfix plastic model kits. It is an acquired taste. We agree to stick to Patryk’s homemade, which may or may not be classified as vodka but has the taste of oranges and reminds me more of the Peloponnese than Pomerania. I ask if this is perhaps Nalewki? They raise their glasses and laugh and toast our health one more time. Drink, this is good for the legs. He is a fan of salsa and after sushi we will later go through empty streets  and icy fog to a rehearsal at Klub Contrasty. Sunday night was for pleasure, he says, Tonight is lesson.

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

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

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

At the airportPosted on 9th January, 2008.

The plane to Poland is delayed by an hour and a half. Plenty of time to join the festive crowds indulging in a little post-Christmas airport shopping, drinking egg-nogs or gingerbread latte. Security check my bag.

Where are you going, nice little break, Sir?
To Szczecin.
Szczecin, I see, Sir. Where’s that? Is it colder than here?

They want to know a lot of details about my travel arrangements. Maybe it’s because I don’t look the skiing type and I’m not wearing a sombrero or Hawaiian shorts, which a disturbing number of people are, and I don’t have on a football team shirt. And, of course, I speak an unrecognisable form of non-estuary English.

Szczecin, do you have business there, Sir?
Yes, I have an important meeting with a large bottle of vodka in the world famous Starka brewery.

Would that be the same as in Starka and Hutch, Sir?
Starka, I say knowledgably, that most noble and the most mysterious of all Polish vodkas.

The plane is delayed by two hours. When we finally land with a bump or three in snow-bound Szczecin after midnight, the passengers applaud loudly. Two Englishmen in front of us wave their arms in the air. They have spent most of the journey drinking and swopping anecdotes about footballers from the 1970’s, Rodney Marsh and George Best in particular.

- They liked their cars fast and women to match.
- George never drank pints, did he?
- He drank vodka and lemonade.
- Well, it doesn’t smell and there’s no real taste, is there?
- He was a one, eh?
- Brilliant ball players, never see their like again…

The wife of one says to him, You’ve been drinking since 6’o’clock. How much have you spent? £70?

We’re enjoying ourselves, love, he replies quite sweetly, silver hair and ruddy complexion aglow.

They continue to drink whisky, then gin and tonic, served from a plastic packet. They have vodka available too, but it looks like it should be attached to an IV drip. The woman asks for her husband’s credit card and immediately buys a MPEG player from the gift shop on board.

Only £49.98, she says with some satisfaction.
Are you really going to buy that? asks the man.
Enjoy your drinks, boys, she says, a gentle reproof.