The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Long time no see…Posted on 18th December, 2011.

I nearly gave up on vodka project. Less opportunities and reasons to visit Poland. A year of unenthusiasm perhaps. Jobs to do to pay the rent and less time to travel at a leisurely pace. But a trip on impulse provides a necessary tonic. Therapeutic xmas shopping in Warsaw. It’s not snowing.

Tonight I am being taken to the wilder outskirts of Warsaw. I receive an offer to attend a guerrilla theatre event. I am advised to dress warm as there will be no heating and my guide suggests a small bottle of vodka in the pocket would not go amiss. We meet by the Lux/Torpedo bar, which I have passed by many times but never knew what it was called. My instructions received by txt read: Between the stairs heading to the Metro Centrum entrance and the train station. It’s a silver lorry. Indeed it is silver. I wouldn’t call it a lorry though. The figure of a footballer from the Polish national team with a stone bust of Chopin on its shoulders is printed on the side of the vending machines by the cabin.  A gigantic football is positioned in front of the Palace of Culture. Thus the city is being branded to welcome the incoming fans of the Euro football championships next summer.

The night is turning colder as we briskly walk to take an eastbound train. The train trundles over the river and passes by the glowing new stadium – which may be finished in time, which is likely to host some of the matches but no-one knows if it will be used again. Isn’t it a horror? she says. I admit that I too long for its predecessor. She expects mischief. You know the Army museum, she says, can you imagine all those football fans, what fun they’ll have climbing on the tanks and those rockets? I asked the museum what are they going to do to control this and they said they will employ a few extra security guards. Don’t you think it will be crazy? I agree with her. I need to decide whether to be here at that point with the English fans will be an experience, or whether I should avoid the city at all costs.

We leave the train at a platform that looks abandoned, in the darker recesses of the eastern peripheries. The rain is turning to sleet. Only two other people disembark and immediately climb down onto the tracks and take a short cut to the roundabout where there is a solitary bus waiting. Lights on a church steeple twinkle in the distance somewhere back towards Praga, otherwise it’s mostly dark. A few yellow lights swinging near the rail junction and freight yards. We might be In Rembertów but I’m not sure. Neither is she. We have to cross the tracks, two sets, that’s what she says. She asks directions from a guy operating the barrier over the rail tracks. He shrugs. We wander towards some warehouses. She calls a friend but they are coming by car and can’t tell us where we are. We cross the tracks, several pairs. We come to a small shop. I wouldn’t have spotted it. It’s just a blue light in the distance. The shopkeeper asks her, Are you with this gentleman? You’re not going there alone? I stare at the pastries, wondering if I’m feeling peckish. I’m a bit underfed to be a convincing bodyguard. We carry on and find a guy who tells us to go behind that large building and cross the railway tracks. More tracks. The wind is getting colder and the light sparser. This looks a great place to commit suicide, I suggest. A good place for any sort of crime, she suggests. On the other side of the tracks, large concrete blocks that seem to serve no purpose, and an outcrop of stunted trees. Between the branches a sort of path and then a line of candle lights which lead to what looks like an abandoned garage. Inside, it’s quite cosy. There is some heating. This is the base of Teatr Akt, an independent group of artists.

The audience experience a performance with no words, physical theatre, comedy, music and pantomime, which plays with the idea of sporting challenge, football specifically. The Beautiful Game, played around with, a work in progress, which will be performed on the street during the Championships. I have bad memories of the disaster of the English team against Poland in the 1970’s. I’m not sure she will understand this trauma. She is too young. After the performance a glass or two of vodka settles my nerves, then we cram into a car to go back to the city to another party, more vodka and an early night at 4.30am.

‘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.

back to the castlePosted on 20th February, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stadion XPosted on 18th February, 2011.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the site of Stadion X. I’ve passed it by in all weathers. Of course, we can see all the cranes and the new construction rising in the distance, taking shape. It grows significantly in our consciousness, if somewhat sluggishly.

As the autumn began and the air was clear and bright, looking at it from the terrace by Castle Square – above the Trasa W-Z highway, which crosses the river, where shiny new trams begin to traverse the west-east axis and the old trams are banished to outer districts – it is becoming a landmark. I cast my mind back to my first visit there, almost a decade ago, when it seemed both desolate and busy, a place of contradictions. Vietnamese stalls and food joints at its lower end, Africans selling fake branded trainers somewhere in the middle, and Russians selling all kinds of stuff at the upper levels. Some Polish there of course; they had not all left back then to open a small sklep in England. We were carrying a large sunflower, bought from one of the food markets there. Put your camera away, don’t take photographs, our companion told us. Don’t attract attention. We bought some games software for a pittance, that we didn’t expect to work, but worked perfectly well. There was a stall selling old firearms. You want some bullets, you can get those too but not here. Come back later, over there. In good working order, yes. We guarantee. I was reminded of an old bazaar in Herat. I was not sure they were joking with foreign tourist. My Polish companions were not convinced either.

The ground here on the right bank of the Vistula, between old Praga and Saska Kępa, was once marshland, some farms and horses. It became a dumping ground for rubble from the utter ruins of the city after the war. At first, the 10th Anniversary Stadium – as it was officially called – began with an architectural competition for a sports stadium between the bridges to hold 37,500 spectators, with the option of expanding to 60,000. Warsaw was selected to host the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, and needed a suitable arena for this socialist spectacle. So the stadium came into being, with seating for 71,000 and a capacity of 100,000. It was built between June 1954 and July 1955, the games starting soon after. It was named for the anniversary of the proclamation of the Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation in July 1944.*

In 1968, a 60 year old father of five, Ryszard Siwiec, set himself ablaze during a harvest festival event in the stadium attended by 100,000 people in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.   The story of his death was finally told in a 1991 documentary film ‘Hear My Cry/Usłyszcie mój krzyk’ made by Maciej Drygas.

At the beginning of the 80’s the stadium, was more or less abandoned. No longer used for sporting events, by 1989 it had become a market – over and around it grew a remarkable plethora of open air stalls. It became known as Jarmark Europa, though people the people with me referred to it as the ‘black market’ or – perhaps more eloquently – as the ‘dodgy market’. Even then, I had a feeling this temporary space would disappear. Others did too. There was a series of remarkable cultural projects here, which included ‘A Trip to Asia; An Acoustic Walk Around the Vietnamese Sector’ (2006), a collaboration between Anna Gajewska and Ngo Van Turong, where participants were invited on a staged journey to explore this aspect of Hanoi that lived within the bosom of their city; or ‘Boniek!’ which was an one man re-enactment of the Poland-Belgium match in 1982 by performance artist Massimo Furlan.

Jarmark Europa is no more. God knows where this diaspora of people have now gone to (though you can find one of the Vietnamese vendors trading in a popular eating place on Chmielna Street in the centre). The new stadium, designed to be built over the old one (the original foundations of rubble being a little bit dodgy), will be open for business for the European Football Championships of 2012, which Poland co-hosts. At least, they say so… though the wastes around seem to fuel the rumours of delay and obfuscation that dog many large scale capital projects.

I have walked past here in early mornings, over the sobering Poniatowski Bridge, after a long night of vodka which usually ended in Café Szparka on Trzech Krzyzy, with frost heavy on the ground, or with spring freshness in the air, the migratory market workers leaving the first buses and disappearing into the tunnels underneath. They have all gone and what remain now is a skeletal shape, a fine background for a late night photograph on a cold night, after some nice Italian food in Saska Kępa
and a brisk walk between bars, as the future beckons.

*There is an detailed essay on this subject by Grzegorz Piątek: “A palimset inscribed on an ellipse on the stadium’s architecture’, published in ‘Stadium X: A place that never was.’

Photograph of a cold night courtesy of Anna Majewska.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Ania P.

Forewarned, forlornPosted on 1st February, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.

In a Warsaw bar (or three)Posted on 7th October, 2010.

Our conversation shifts to the world of bars. We talk about the old ones that are disappearing, one by one. On a chilly night in Wola, you might be waiting for a tram at the dark end of the street, and notice nearby a small window with a blue light, and a darker still doorway. Nothing to give away what might lie behind the glass. Peer closer and you might make out a few tables and chairs,  a few huddled figures, a shiny counter with a few bottles behind it. There is no sound of music, only a drift of conversational voices, the clink of glasses. It may not seem that welcoming. The basics only, with no frills. You may look into the monthly Warsaw Insider magazine – it’s a useful starting point, let’s not deny it – and not find this bar. It’s more likely you will wander along the spruced up Nowy Świat towards the Palm Tree then turn left under some arches, past some Vietnamese fast food places and find here some bars with no name on the doors, housed in the small cabins with the metal grills in front, which seem tiny and intimate but also have a larger crowded basement. Here people just say, We’re going to Pavilions.

The nouveau popular bars in Praga – on Ulica Ząbkowska (which have been there a long time for the cognoscenti and are deserving of their reputation) or around the courtyard on 11 Listopada – we can surely leave you to find those yourself.

We wander the streets, a curmudgeonly pair, bemoaning the loss of the old bars. Warsaw is a fast changing city, where you might notice some evidence of the economic downturn, but in the past decade it has been knocking itself down and building itself up again in a fury of transformation. Already I find myself saying, Where’s that one gone in old Ochota, where there was one type of vodka only and one brand of beer, that seemed like a dusty corridor piled up with beer crates and boxes of crisps and only had two small tables? It’s been swallowed up by the pizza house next door. Or it’s now a wine shop. Or an empty space. Forgotten.

On Nowy Świat there is one bar that seems to have been there since time immemorial, though it looks a little tidier these days. Amatorska, the basics with mirrors, was once the kind of place where an old guy walked in the door and by the time he reached the bar at the end his drink and choice of food was laid before him, where these customers were long standing. Here’s a glass of vodka to wash down a portion of chicken liver or French fries. You might try flaki (tripes), fasolka po bretońsku (beans a la Bretagne), sausages, sometimes pierogi. There’s rather nothing much for veggies. If you venture down the tiny spiral stairwell to the bathroom, you can, we have been assured, experience ‘the true smell of PRL’. The air freshener down there has a particular spicy quality that is both dusty and pungent, and in no way contemporary. It simply smells of the past. (For aesthetes, there is also bar Piotruś opposite, an ancient institution managing not to turn into Starbucks.)

Another bar that seems slightly out of place can be found Al. Solidarności near to Metro Ratusz Arsenał. If you stand on the tram platform (the trams going across the river to Praga), you’ll see a small building at the foot of a block of flats. Large windows, brown lace curtains usually drawn, you wouldn’t know it was a bar. Enter and you find a warm wooden interior, a little careworn perhaps, a number of round tables, people drinking tea or coffee, beer or vodka with a hot dog or wuzetka cake or apple pie. These are places that people pop into after work, or between taxi jobs or shifts. They are palpably untrendy, and all the better for it.

Finally, for an acceptable version of trendiness, or for an evocation of old good times, let’s call in at Przekąski Zakąski, the 24 hour bistro opposite Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście. This one is the original recreation of the old style bars, with a basic selection of traditional snacks and vodka and beer at a basic price. And open all hours. Magnificent and popular – it has a fans page on Facebook of course. This is the place to discuss irregular verbs with a Varsovian, whose sense of English grammar is far superior to mine.

I drink some vodka (present);

I drank some vodka (past);

I have drunk some vodka (past participle).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot spells and floodsPosted on 16th August, 2010.

The heat is tremendous. It will not dissipate all day. This weekend the city has emptied, people seeking the nearest lakes or shaded hillsides outside of the urban environment. At nearby Ossów, you will find a re-enactment of ‘The Miracle at the Vistula’ battle of August 1920, when Polish forces stopped a Bolshevik army intent on taking Berlin, then Paris.  The following day is Armed Forces Day, a celebration on August 15th to coincide with the anniversary of the victory. Preparations are underway. Near to the Presidential Palace, on either side of the street, huge images of Lenin and General Piłsudski face each other. Lenin glowers at the photographer, Piłsudski calmly smokes a cigarette. The event has proved the perfect opportunity to clear away the troublesome Defenders of the Cross. The cross remains, a little naked now that the flowers and candles and memorabilia and protest banners have gone from the pavement.

A few Defenders stand forlornly on the opposite side of the road, behind a crash barrier, right in front of a gallery that has non-stop Chopin playing out of speakers day and night. Perhaps several repeats of Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, “Funeral March” will finally put the last nail in the coffin of their catastrophe demonstration.

It only seems a short moment ago that a blistering storm unleashed itself on the capital, with roads and basements flooded like a Venetian parody, and in the south-west corner of the country – as the rivers rise and burst their banks once more – houses, cars and belongings are swept away disastrously. The news carries a story about a bride and groom who fled to higher ground when the church was flooded. The wedding party drove some considerable distance away from the rising waters to find another church to complete the ceremony.

Now the heat is unrelenting and soporific. I feel I should follow the example of Chopin’s tutor. He rarely bathed but did believe that in the swelter of a Warsaw summer you should indulge in a full body rub with vodka, that it was highly efficacious for good health. There seems some sense in this.

The lesser known warsawPosted on 15th August, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The demonstrations, it seems, will continue.

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

Symbols and incantationsPosted on 5th August, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

66th anniversary dayPosted on 3rd August, 2010.

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

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

The set list:

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

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

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

4. Rum Helka, a drinking song.

5. W Saskim Ogrodzie (In the Saxon Garden)

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

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

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

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

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

I do like to see a man in shiny armour, don’t you?Posted on 18th July, 2010.

For some years I have planned to go to Grunwald, to the site of the greatest battle in Medieval Europe. This battle took place on 15th July, 1410, five years before Agincourt when the Enlish longbowmen of Henry V devastated the French.  In the modern era, this is World of Warcraft brought to life – or a real life version of Call of Duty – where men in plate armour on horse and on foot (with a few female camp followers) lovingly recreate one of the biggest and bloodiest feudal conflicts, when 60,000 men fought each other.

Often portrayed as a Polish /German conflict, it was a little more complex, with a Polish/ Lithuanian army facing the Teutonic Knights of Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, supplemented by an assortment of Hungarians, Ruthenians, Tatars, Russians and Czechs. The Grand Master was defeated at Grunwald with huge losses, 11,000 dead and 14,000 captured. Grand Master Ulrich died in the battle. There is a famous painting of the battle (1878) by Jan Matejko which portrays this moment when the Grand Master is killed, by infantry when trying to attack Vytautus the Great (they don’t have names like that anymore, except in the circus), Grand Duke of Lithuania. The painting is substantial in size, 10 foot by 17 foot, and can be seen in the National Museum in Warsaw.

The battle has attained mythological proportions, a national symbol of heroic struggle against invaders, and the recreation is a hugely popular event.

After weeks of high temperatures and softening tarmac and no relief of rain, we don’t plan to make the pilgrimage to Grunwald this year.  (You can see some fine pictures here.) My girlfriend thinks it’s too hot to be in a car and to make this journey. Let’s just stay in Warsaw for the weekend and melt here, she says, It’s impossible to move. I think she has a point. A frostito at Coffee Heaven will be the order of the day, though I can’t help imagining sharing a shot of vodka with those knights by the campfire. A full suit of medieval armour weighed about 60 lb (27 kg) – which is lighter than the equipment carried by today’s armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing around 90 pounds. Thirsty work,  though after a day in this heat in full battle dress I suspect the contemporary knights of Grunwald might need several litres of beer rather than vodka.

Of course, there is an alternative event at this time of year, with several thousands of people taking to the streets of Warsaw for Europride 2010, calling for greater tolerance and equal rights. No body armour in evidence (unless you count fake breasts) – rather rainbow flags and a soundtrack of Madonna and the Village People. An anti-Europride demonstration, organised by the nationalist All Polish Youth Organization, also took place – called the Grunwald March. The recently failed Presidential candidate Mr Kaczynski was not seen, either in beautifully shiny armour or a pink feather boa.

On WileńskaPosted on 26th March, 2010.

These old tenements on Wileńska give some clue to life in a previous century. These are far older and in worse condition than the classically styled building opposite, which was built as premises for the Polish National Railway Company in 1928-31. These tenements were built to house 19th century railway and  factory workers, and a large Jewish community. The only addition of modernity, an electric gate at the entrance to the inner courtyard is not functional, hanging open. Some courtyards are well tended, have vegetation, flowers, small trees, a shrine to Mary. This courtyard is not like this, deserted and crumbling, devoid of any features except a blackened tree in patch of mud in the middle and a hole in the ground, which may have once been a well. The gateway to this is thoroughly graffitied. The wooden boards of the stairs (an original feature) are heavily worn, on the lowest floors shaped into a deep concave from the decades of feet passing up and down. Something has been on fire recently, a strong smell of charred wood. The stair banisters still retain an ancient varnish and green paint, as do the walls, though much discoloured with age and the cold. The electricity is not working on the stairs. We walk cautiously up and up.

A– answers the door and welcomes us. He is renovating one apartment here. It has a double door, one opening outward and one inward, set in a metal frame. We step into a small square hallway. On the right, a white tiled toilet, on the left a kitchen, which has a bath tucked into the corner, opposite the stove and sink. In front of us, two narrow high ceilinged rooms, which were once larger one with two windows overlooking the courtyard, but have been divided by a false wall at some time in the past. The apartment isn’t even 30 square metres, enough for a family in those times. His father used to live here. It’s leased from the city council, but the original ownership is unclear.  It’s a little complicated, he says, complicated enough that it is unlikely he would consider buying such a place. He is thinking of maybe moving the fake wall, to give more space at the farther end, the window there giving the most daylight. The kitchen window is overshadowed by the stairwell, in dimness all day, and the second window along partly so. He is thinking about how to make a bathroom by utilising the hallway next to the toilet, in order to make the kitchen a more convivial space, a place for gathering at a party. His family recommend that he spends little on renovation – if and when he moves the city council will require him to return it to its original layout.

He has spent days, weeks here, rubbing down the walls, laboriously removing the old flaking paint (an orange and magenta colour). He has applied the first coat of white, but perhaps a little too soon. It is not spring and the walls retain their cold and damp, so the paint has not taken in places. The apartment has no heating, other than portable electric radiators. He needed to keep one on in the kitchen to stop the pipes from freezing. He is working to a deadline – soon, a friend from the Ukraine is coming to stay for some months. He hopes to make some sense of it soon, to live there a while to get a better feel of how best to proceed, to build a wardrobe here, or make a new corridor there.

As we leave, on the ground floor, a little girl is leaning out of her kitchen window, looking at the bare courtyard, singing a song like a bird, while her mother fries something on the stove. The snow has gone. There has been a heavy downpour of rain and the dark grey sky high above holds the promise of a further storm.

finally, more snowPosted on 18th March, 2010.

The last snowfall overnight shuts the airport. For a few more days, winter is prolonged and a drop of Wiśniówka to warm you up is welcomed. By the end of the week, the snow thaws, receding to dirty drifts. The air warms slightly, enough that tables and chairs appear outside the cafes again. A few figures sit on the new Chopin benches installed near the Kino Kultura, listening to the melody that emanate from beneath them. Though people are willing the winter away some pockets of snow persist beneath the Palace under the Tin Roof. On the cobbled path that leads down from the side of St. Anne’s church to Mariensztat, the snow has receded to reveal fresh dog turds and dozens of empty half-litre bottles of Żołądkowa Gorzka. This then is the chosen tipple of the late night dog walkers. We walk down under the bridge where the tourist buses park and past the palace arcades, which have been renovated and are open to the public. We walk back up a steep lane which is named after Piotr Antoni Steinkeller, an early 19th century industrial entrepreneur. She points to one side and says, We call this Muck Hill (Gnojna Góra), because it was the first dumping site in the city. At the summit of Muck Hill, there is a viewing terrace where people gather in the sunshine, looking out over several car parks and the highway that runs along the riverside, beyond that the other side, the natural bank, cloaked with woods.  Praga behind these, the two spires of St. Florian’s Cathedral are visible. They should make more of the waterfront. They could establish a beach here, on the other side, and take care of it. Many people stay in the city in the summer and they would use it, I think. There were some attempts to open up the waterfront, with the establishment of bars along the river terraces, but they quickly became home to skinheads and marred by violence and so were closed down again. There was once a beach further down, at Saska Kempa, popular in the 1930’s, but it no longer exists. We look at the cars, the slowing flowing river, and walk up to the city walls. In the Old Town, windows are opening to let in the promise of spring and people promenade along the restored ramparts and below them, behind Mostowa Street, some residents begin to tend to their small patch of garden.

Sunday CollectionPosted on 28th February, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparkling like Christmas trees in PolandPosted on 22nd January, 2010.

After 9 pm it becomes impossible to talk. An anonymous DJ arrives with a box of cds, looking a little frustrated and agitated. She has a fight with a large coat stand, which is inconveniently placed in front of her booth. She plugs in her equipment and arranges some fairy lights. She is not only a DJ, she is a multi-tasker, taking orders for drinks. Then she turns it up loud.

One of the men nearby climbs up and turns the speaker against the wall. The effect is to bounce the bass inside our rib cages. He shrugs.

Warsaw is not like a real city, she says. The public transport is awful here. Where we live in Dollis Hill, it’s straight into the centre on the Jubilee line. The equivalent on the outskirts here is one bus every hour. Her pristine face has a particular look of shock or disgust. And the buildings have no architectural merit. She was not happy with such inconsistencies in urban planning. Her family are from Warsaw, the outskirts but still in the city boundaries, but she is now a convinced Londoner.

Further down the table, he has been in the countryside for the last three weeks, and now is back in the city, bleary eyed and unshaven, looking like a young dishevelled Bukowski. It’s not so cold here, he says. It was minus 25 where we were. No-one went out the whole time, except to milk the cows. We stayed in and drank. And filled in end of year tax forms. That was useful. Every time we thought we’d finished, her father then brings another full bottle and said, ‘It’s not a full bottle, don’t worry, look there’s a little space at the top to add juice’. So we drank. I think we used up all his supplies.

The snow is piling up in the courtyard outside. Flakes are fluttering down, sparkling. The lights on the Christmas tree in the main square have disappeared under several layers of frozen vapour.

The first time I saw snow in Poland, real snow, deep and soft, emerging from a faint memory of childhood winters, I ran around in it, scooping it up. People looked at me quizzically. I tried to explain it was so long since I had seen proper snow. I was clearly suffering from snow-deprivation. Are you mad? they said, It’s cold, let’s go inside and drink vodka.

Perhaps they are right. This cold brings a hundred pinpricks to the face, and the jaw starts to lock.

wintry photos: Alicja Rogalska, Ania Chojnacka

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnderneathPosted on 15th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrzyjaźńPosted on 5th January, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A walk around the former GhettoPosted on 28th September, 2009.

ghetto1

A little way along Sienna Street, we stop at a locked gate and with the help of a passing resident, are let through into a private courtyard. It must be accessible sometimes, as there is a tourist information office down some steps in the basement (which is closed). The stretch of ghetto wall – one of two remaining fragments – stands between the backs of two pre-war buildings. It doesn’t seem particularly high or sturdy, today just an old wall in an old courtyard, but it was a sturdy enough concept then to enclose and entrap over 400,000 Jews. The red bricks are crumbling and some have been removed to provide a shelf for candles. Above the wall, a few minutes walk away, stands the ever present Palace of Culture.

But let’s start at Plac Grzybowski…
We began our walk at Menora, a Jewish restaurant on the corner of Plac Grzybowski, with a traditional lunch, waiting for the rainstorm to pass. We also start with ‘Jankielówka’ – which is a mixture of wódka Soplica, miód, sok cytrynowy and anyż.

On one side of Plac Grzybowski is Teatr Żydowski, a Jewish theatre, and on the other, All Saints’ Church. In the cellar of the church there was, until quite recently, a bookstore which sold anti-Semitic and nationalist literature. The patch of grass between the church and the theatre was intended to be the site of a monument of the victims of the Volhynia massacres (Poles who were murdered by the Ukrainians in 1942-1944). In this space last year, an artist created a very different kind of sculpture. Joanna Rajkowska created an artificial pond here, which generated a cloud of oxygen enriched air  – literally, a breathing space. Dotleniacz (Oxygenator) was planned for one summer, and dismantled, but due to popular demand from local residents may become a permanent feature in the redevelopment of the area.

ghetto3

Nearby Próżna Street has some of the original buildings, and gives a sense of what it was like pre-war. Mostly the windows are boarded up, and images of former inhabitants have been hung on the wall. Closer to the main road, Marszałkowska, they are inhabited, and you will find popular café, Próżna.

Looking at a map, which shows the extent of the wall, we consider some of the facts. In November 1940, the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was sealed off with this barrier, constructed in a few months, using forced labour, by the firm Schmidt & Münstermann – who also helped build the Treblinka death camp. The Jewish community were then charged for its construction. The ghetto wall was 3 – 3.5 metres high, topped by glass and barbed wire.

ghetto2

The Nazis didn’t call it a ghetto, they called it the Jewish quarter – Jüdischer Wohnbezirk. To establish the quarter, around 113,000 Poles had to vacate their homes, with the first 138,000 Jews taking their place. Some 30% of the population of Warsaw was squeezed into 2.4% of the city’s area. Many thousands of other Jews were brought here, taking the Ghetto population over 400,000. Over 100,000 of these died from hunger and disease, even before the Nazis began to send them to the death camps.

The former border of the Ghetto is partly marked out by bronze strips in the ground, tracing lost enclosed streets. There is one in the pavement outside the eastern façade of the Palace of Culture, or in the grass on the edge of Krasińskich Garden, a trace of the lost enclosed streets.

Take a tram along Aleja Jana Pawła II to Stawki Street, and walk in an easterly direction…
We pass a long line of white hand painted letters on one concrete wall which says: Every weekend 3000 drunken drivers, 50 of them go to God. We come to the Umschlagplatz memorial, a stone monument resembling an open freight car. On the northern boundary of the Ghetto, it was created in 1988 by architect Hanna Szmalenberg and sculptor Władysław Klamerus, and marks the point at which Jews were sent by train to Treblinka for extermination – a quarter of a million between July and September 1942. Across the road is a building which was the headquarters of the SS in control of the deportations. It is now part of Warsaw University, housing the Psychology Faculty.

Walk beyond this, and turn right down Stanisława Dubois street, past the post-war housing blocks… You will see one or two granite blocks with plaques in Polish and Hebrew, these are part of a Path of Remembrance commemorating various individuals from the Ghetto  – soon you will come to an open patch of ground, on the corner of Miła street, with a small raised mound. This is the remains of the Żob (Jewish Combat Organisation) command bunker during the Ghetto Uprising. ‘It is the place of rest of over one hundred fighters, only some of whom are known by name. Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.’

ghetto4ghetto5

For some, this part of Warsaw has a peculiar spectral quality, with these not-quite-forgotten traces of the city lying beneath these wide streets and large apartment blocks built upon the ruins after the war. On Lewartowskiego Street, between the site of the bunker and the 1948 Ghetto Heroes monument, one friend attended primary school here in the 80’s.

I excelled in Biology, she said. On the wall, there were two cabinets full of jars of specimens and there were two skulls. One was artificially made for sure, all white and polished but the other one was beige with darkish grey stains. This one had been dug out of the school grounds long after the war. As the best pupil in Biology, I was asked to take out this skull from the cabinet and parade it to the other pupils, so they could have a closer look. I thought it was deeply wrong to keep it here, but no-one else seemed bothered.  When I told my Mom, she was not shocked. She just said, ‘Oh we used to play with such things all the time. We’d find things like that all the time round here.’ It seemed normal to her.

The Ghetto Heroes monument was built from blocks ordered by Hitler to be imported from Sweden to construct a victory monument. The work of Natan Rappaport (1911-1977), it was sculpted in Paris, where he was living at that time, on the one side shows heroic figures on the other a line of dejected deportees, an implicit criticism of those who did not resist. It was unveiled on the fifth anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, amidst the ruins. The open space here is designated for a new museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews, scheduled for completion in 2013, after more than a decade of fundraising and argument.

At the monument, she told me, there were always old people sitting enjoying the sunshine (as they are today). All the conversations seemed to be about the idea that the Jews were going to come back and take the land and we’ll all be evicted. This was always the conversation, that we are living on borrowed land, and so the idea of the construction of a Jewish Memorial Museum here was not popular. ‘If we give them the museum, then they will come back and want more,’ that’s what their view was. It is impossible to think differently if you live in Muranów. My family came from across the river, they were peasants, but rich enough as they had land where the national stadium is now. These apartments were part of a socialist construction project, built for factory workers, on the rubble of the Ghetto, quickly after the end of the war. My Grandfather worked for FSO (Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych – Factory of Passenger Cars) in Żerań, and so he got a flat here.

The old people still sit around the monument in the fading autumn sun. The open space is surrounded by building hoardings, which mark the extent of the future five-storey building. There was a ground-breaking ceremony in June, and the serious work is about to begin. A tourist bus arrives and a crowd disembark to take photographs. There is a stall selling souvenirs, books and information about the Ghetto and the history of Warsaw. There is, I notice, a snow globe which contains, in crude miniature, the ever present Palace of Culture.

September 1st, 1939Posted on 1st September, 2009.

Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering a world war. From the beginning, the conflict introduced an indiscriminate form of industrialised warfare, targeting military and civilians alike. In Warsaw, a huge banner adorns the façade of the Palace of Culture facing the Gallerie Centrum shopping centre. It features a painted image of a 1939 Polish soldier in heroic profile, with one blood red word above his head – HONOR. Red drips are splattered down the image.

National flags fly from the bumpers of trams and buses as they criss-cross the city. Large red and white banners are draped from tall buildings. Flags hang limply from the corners of many buildings. Only at Filtry waterworks, at the top of a redbrick tower, can you can see a flag fully catching the wind.

Outside the entrance to the central Metro, where there was recently a temporary shrine to Michael Jackson, men have worked through the night hours to weld together a structure for a temporary exhibition, large scale photographs and text with multimedia panels that chronicle those first weeks of the ‘blitzkreig’ on Polish soil, and the bravery of the defending soldiers. A stage managed attack by Nazi troops disguised as ‘Silesian rebels’ on a German radio station at Gliwice, a few kilometres from the then existing Polish border, gave Hitler the pretext to launch his attack. The radio station in Gliwice, which became part of Poland in 1945, is something of a tourist attraction. It is the only wooden radio tower left in the world (made of larch) and at 110 metres, is also said to be the tallest remaining wooden construction in the world.

The views and prejudices of my fathers’ generation were shaped by this single event. His older brother went into the British Army and fought in North Africa. He was left behind, in a Staffordshire coal-mining village with a younger sister and infirm mother to look after. He left school and worked in a shoe shop, and joined the Air Training Corps in preparation for what may come. He didn’t like the Germans and he didn’t like the Americans, though he was enamoured with both the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the films of John Ford. On the BBC, he liked to watch Dad’s Army, a 1960’s sitcom about the Home Guard and ‘Allo ‘Allo, a 1980’s comedy parody about the French Resistance. He collected hundreds and hundreds of books about the Second World War, and admired the romanticism and gallantry of the Polish airmen who helped win the Battle of Britain. In many ways, for him life became fixed at this point. There was little of interest afterwards.

Though long associated with the Anglo-Polish Society of the West Midlands, he never visited Poland, and I doubt he would like the heat of this day, with only a dull intermittent breeze drawing breath. Though he would enjoy looking at the tanks from the time period, on display up outside the Presidential Palace, and no doubt would pose for a photograph on this spot as many other people are. Then he would walk over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, where his views of Polish heroism and stoicism in the face of impossible odds would be reinforced. And I expect he would have a vodka, which was always his drink of choice.

(More musings on Anglo-Polish connections in this short essay, We are not Polishdownloadable from this link.…)

Good morning, MariensztatPosted on 30th August, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39 Grzybowska StreetPosted on 19th August, 2009.

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These blocks were built, so close to the city centre, for some of the key workers of the state. For example, he said, I have for a neighbour a former air stewardess and a postal worker. So there are a lot of people here now in their 60’s and 70’s, not many young people.

He is one of the young ones, involved in theatre in the city. He shares his 11th floor flat with an opera choral singer, and he is fortunately a fan of opera –  Strauss’s Salome in particular, performances of which he has seen in several different cities – as well as being interested in cynology and felinology.

We look out of his window on the city skyline.

I think there was a park here, he says, before these huge buildings, and before that of course here lay the ruins of the ghetto. Now, there is a big expensive hotel there, and they plan to build three new big skyscrapers, which will completely obscure the view of the Palace of Culture – which, though partially concealed, tonight glows with an ethereal yellow light.

One of these new skyscrapers will be a 54 storey tall glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Złota 44, a luxury apartment tower in the shape of a tall thin sail, will stand 192 metres high – the third highest skyscraper in the city – with 251 luxury apartments. It now lies dormant, a skeletal fraction of its proposed size, all construction halted. The credit crunch seems to have crept upon this city, though across the river a dozen huge cranes or more encircle the site of the new national football stadium.

The view here, they like to call it Little Manhatten. I think this is exaggerating. It’s a little loud here sometimes, when the school kids are in the playground down there or there is a sports match. It was meant to be a quiet area, and a bit luxurious. They planned swimming pools on the roof. This didn’t happen. I guess the communist authorities ran out of money.

The flats are not so special. The kitchen has no window, the bathroom has no window, it is too hot here in the mornings. There isn’t even a balcony, just the impression of one, a door that opens to nowhere. There is a metal gate is across the doorway at waist height to stop you falling out. A large bottle of Smirnoff is on the table – 3 litres or more – and a bottle of home-made from Loomza, snacks and a tuna salad. This is maybe not such a good location for a wild vodka party.

I think there are too many monuments around here, he says. Yes, it’s important to have a memory of the ghetto, but even to buy a carton of milk I have to pass several monuments. There’s just no escaping it.

Another anniversaryPosted on 10th August, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReconstructionPosted on 29th July, 2009.

The city swelters. Mosquitoes infest the parks near to the river and those with any expanse of water. Rain approaches. Tremendous rainstorms by day and night do not dissipate the heat. The Metro is closed due to flooding. A single line runs from Młociny in the north to Kabaty in the south. Some people say that while Warsaw has only one Metro line it cannot be considered to be a modern city. A second line is planned, bisecting the original line at Świętokrzyska station. There will be a new station under the surrounds of the Palace of Culture, along with the construction of a new Museum of Modern Art designed by Christian Kerez, in this open space whose primary purpose in communist times was to provide a stage for state organised parades and mass rallies.

The Metro itself was originally planned in the 1920’s, but initial construction work only began in 1938. The outbreak of war put an end to that, and after the war, with the city now under Soviet control, plans were made to create an underground transport system which could easily transport troops under the Vistula river from the east of the city to the west. Hundreds of metres of tunnels were built with this strategic purpose in mind, but eventually abandoned after the death of Stalin. Work on the north-south line was renewed in 1984, and the current Metro opened in 1995. The second line is proposed to open by 2014 – though everyone expects delays. The Museum of Modern Art, proposed to be open in 2010, also faces delays. No construction work has been undertaken to date on the site.

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Here in the shadow of the Palace of Culture, was a huge indoor market (KDT), which the city decreed must close in order for these new developments to proceed. The traders were supposed to leave by the end of December, but they decided to continue trading, while attempting to take court action to dispute the directive. Various proposals for relocation made by the City Council were rejected, resulting in the forcible eviction of traders in July by riot police and security guards, using tear gas and water cannons. Now, politicians argue about the cost of this action…

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As posted on one web forum: Jul 21, 09, 23:49 Battle at Warsaw 2009
Tear gas, water cannon, hundreds of policemen and security guards against a few hundred desperate traders who don`t want to give up their work place, a giant steel hall in the city center. They used stones, fire extinguishers, barricades and live shields (their children) to defend themselves. Simply speaking, Warsavians have guts!

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.

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

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

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

She said, I guess it’s not too horrible…Posted on 24th March, 2009.

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It’s still snowing in Warsaw and Lublin. It seems the spring has forgotten to arrive. Take a few steps outside into the cold, the alcohol still warming your bloodstream and breathe in the night. The city is quiet, though it is not that late. There are a few forlorn tracks in the snow. No-one is out and about, intent on violence or lunacy. I have learned that the last trams, while having a destination, may not be the destination I have in mind. They can deviate, swing away to the left when in the day they surely veer to the right. They can proceed north to Park Kaskada when I expect them to proceed east across Most Gdanski to Nowa Praga. Regardless, the tram rattles along with its drunkards and would be lovers locked in a late-night embrace, taking them somewhere. They look as confused as I am. Brows furrowed, we depart unsteadily at the next available stop and stand on the platform in the whirling snow, trying to make out a familiar landmark. Here are two skinny latte American women, dressed in business suits and not prepared for this weather, wavering on the platform and discussing whether to go to a club or find a taxi home to Żoliborz. Tonight, I distrust the direction of trams and trust to an inner compass.

Leaving the outskirts of Wola behind, a complex of railway junctions below me and in the shadow of a vast flyover, I pass by an old-fashioned vodka bar at the foot of a block of flats, still open for business, smoky and dark, a floodlight church opposite. Further on, old crumbling walls coloured by a yellow light, a splash of illegible graffiti here and there and bizarrely, a crude picture of a washing machine spray-painted onto the plaster.

I trudge on through the snow. The trees are black, patches of open derelict ground are fenced in with advertising hoardings promising new apartments. There are fragments of the older city here and there, a machine shop, a faded sign for a car repair yard, below it a brama, a stygian tunnel leading to a darker back yard. Huge illuminated billboards hang like guiding stars above me. The only human presence now, a lonely security guard one floor up, sealed in a glass box, in silhouette against a bank of computer monitors, surveying empty corridors, closed doorways and underground car parks. Or perhaps asleep – as the figure is unmoving, captured in a frozen chairbound pose. And so I head to the centre of the city. Tonight I drink to the mirror.

Something’s changingPosted on 2nd March, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself, Mrs Opaczewska, defends Warsaw today!

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

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

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

Conversation in a Warsaw bar: 5Posted on 30th November, 2008.

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At last, the first snowfall of winter. There was a small flurry the day before, but by the time we finished our Indian meal (at a place called Mandala) it was melting in the darkness.

Plan A was to go to an art opening in Praga. Plan B was to find a warm and cosy bar. I have to be up early in the morning to go to Sejny, but this Saturday night seems to stretch out leisurely before us as we finally end up in a bar near Pl. Zbawiciela. Later, I find out this is described on one web site as follows: ‘Drunkenness is rife and encouraged, and it’s only fair to note this place has become a bit of a magnet for expat lads looking to tap up impressionable Polish girls.’

Tonight, I can only hear Polish speakers and my city-by-night guide is not so impressionable. She orders a particular vodka mix – żubrówka and wiśniówka, with pepper added.  She explains the name of this drink is ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’ – which is intended as an insult against a particular politician.  I fail to pronounce effectively in Polish.

She explains: So the story of the President and drink… in 2002 during the campaign for the President of Warsaw, Kaczynski got involved in the short argument with some old git. The press was around because it was right after some public meeting. This guy accused Kaczyński that ‘You, politicians, change parties as rats, chasing from one to another, if you have some business in any’, and the response from Kaczyński was ‘spieprzaj dziadu’. This can be translated as: ‘Sod off, you old wanker’ or ‘Sod off, you old git’ or even ‘Bugger off, you old git.’ But none of these versions carries the meaning that can be connected to the drink. Why? Because the word ‘pieprzyć’ in Polish, from which derives an imperative form ‘spieprzaj’, means both ‘to add pepper’ and ‘to fuck’. You can ‘pieprzyć coś’ (add pepper to something) or ‘pieprzyć kogoś’ (‘fuck someone’, meaning to have sex or to aggressively offend). Then this story of swearing was picked up during the Presidential campaign in 2005 and somehow reversed, as it has become a key sentence for all that and for all those who were and are against Kaczyński, his way of conducting political affairs, his political allies and the so called Fourth RP (the projected ‘better’ Polish Republic in the vision of Kaczysnki, with new constitution etc., now we have Third RP).
 
This drink is very Polish, she finally says, Polish liquors with pepper added, I love the idea.
 
There is no equivalent to this drink in England, or no politician that merits such emotions. Normally my city-by-night guide might be sitting at home, listening to Satyricon (black metal Norwegian band). But we have several toasts with a glass of ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’, and watch the snow fall. We walk back to the central station and miss the night buses, and go into the station to wait for the dawn ones. There is a big crowd in front of a TV monitor, watching the sports news. They disperse when the next programme comes on, which is about buying a flat in Ochota, in a newly built gated community. There isn’t much about the quality of the flat itself – the big selling feature appears to be the amount of CCTV and security guards. Is Ochota this dangerous? I look around me at the sleepers and the all night drinkers. There is a guy having an argument with a soft drinks machine. He kicks it until it disgorges its contents.  I have often seen an old guy here on the concourse, who has a small portable chess set, who sits next to you and asks you to play. As the game progresses, he suggests politely you put some money down on the outcome. It’s a gentle hustle. He’s not here tonight, or this morning as it surely now is.

My city-by-night guide, who might or might not also be a poet, concludes the conversation: But tonight if we haven’t missed the buses we wouldn’t have a chance to feel the snowflakes melting on our cheeks. I love the sound of snow cracking under my feet and the way the spinning snowflakes shine in the city lights. If we weren’t putting vodka into our projects or projecting vodka on to our lives we would be just unproductively asleep and the first snow would just pass unrecognised.

But sometimes I need some sleep.

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boxes and labelsPosted on 15th November, 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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….

some bar, somewherePosted on 17th July, 2008.

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Dr. Kurz politely suggested to Mr Jackowski that despite a large intake of alcohol during any evening it was quite reasonable and entirely possible to arise at 5 am in a positive and productive frame of mind. Mr Jackowski remained unconvinced and ordered another two towers – large beers with a vodka chaser. This evening, in an unusually liberal frame of mind, Dr Kurz went on to explain her utter opposition to the recently toughened Law of Lustration. This Law – originally intended to keep people who collaborated with the communist-era secret services out of positions of power (MPs, ministers, directors who pursue national interests) had been widely extended to people born before August 1st, 1972, and requiring hundreds of thousands of citizens in positions of authority such as academics, journalists, teachers, and state company executives, to declare in writing whether they cooperated with the communist secret services or risk losing their jobs. The revised law was being described as ‘Stalinist’.

More info on the topic can be found on this blog - beatroot.blogspot

The Taste CommitteePosted on 1st April, 2008.

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Once upon  time, but not that long ago, I took a taxi to the Koneser vodka factory in the old district of Praga. Koneser? Zabrowska? asked the driver.

Yes, tak, Koneser. Proproszę.

Koneser vodka? The driver clearly expressed this as a question, as if I didn’t really want to go there at all. Or perhaps he knew something I didn’t. My request was surely not so peculiar.

He shrugged, seeming a little mystified by my choice of destination. Maybe he was thinking, It’s a nice sunny morning, why go across to Praga when there is the Royal Route to explore? We headed to the east side, in a steady stream of traffic across Most Lazsienkowski, one of the eight bridges over the river Wisła. Downstream I could see one of the water purification towers which squatted in the slow moving water. I had been told they were nicknamed ‘Fat Kasia’. These conical compact green and yellow metal structures look like the abandoned nose cone of a space rocket, formerly used in an episode of Dr. Who, beached there till the end of time.

The taxi swung north along Wal Miedzesznski, a wide dual carriageway which passes the old national football stadium – soon to be redeveloped for the 2012 European Championships.  The broad Wiłsa to one side, the embankment masked by trees and bushes, on the other side we drive past large apartment blocks and open spaces with huge figurative sculptures which commemorate some fallen hero. Why is it that in most cities, the east side is the older, the less developed, the more run down, more earthy or less glamorous and later subject to elaborate regeneration schemes? What is it that makes us gravitate to the west?

Koneser is – or was -  a vodka factory on ul. Ząbkowska, first established here in 1897. It’s a short walk from the main street, Targowa, where the tram lines run, and near to the Carrefour shopping centre and neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral at Place Wilenski. There are several opportunities to get drunk along the way, particularly if this were at night of course – though I notice that the bar with the huge spider outside is open. There used to be a sign near here with a large bat motif, offering GOTHIC DOOM, THRASH DEATH, HEAVY, BLACK. It is has gone, and another new bar has opened.

I meet Dominik and Iwona outside the gates of the factory. We are shown round by Pani Halina – let us call her that. Immediately she announces, I warmly welcome you on behalf of our chief and myself! The chief does not appear at any point during our tour of the site – which occupies about 5 hectares (50,000 square metres). As our bags are checked by security, our guide stresses that it goes without saying that you can’t bring alcohol onto the site as contamination is a big concern. And no smoking anywhere, she says, looking at Dominik. She has met him before and clearly knows his habits. 500 zloti immediate on the spot fine! she admonishes him.

This was, purportedly, the first factory in Warsaw to have electricity. On their website they proudly describe their industrial heritage as follows: ‘Our buildings are classified as the best types of relicts. Cast iron roses, which survived, make the buildings look more attractive. Very important element, which can be called a work of art, is the chimney.’ The blocks of flats on the edge of the site were built by the factory owners to house their workers. They remind me of old Glasgow tenements. Most of these have been sold off and turned into private apartments. Other parts of the site have been leased to other organisations or businesses. There is, for example, a photo-gallery in one of the buildings.

Pani Halina told us some curious stories about this place. After the Second World War, with most of the city lying in ruin, workers were paid only with vodka, which they then sold on to neighbours and friends or used as barter for goods. Further back, in the winter of 1914, when the Imperial Russian army occupied the city, the military governor ordered a prohibition on alcohol. He demanded that all liquids at this factory ‘be disposed of” and a deadline for this action to take place was announced. When the fateful day arrived, crates of vodka were carried out into the street to be poured down the drains, a public display of the ruthless enactment of the Tsarist edict. The gutters soon overflowed with the vital spirit. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, no-one knows how many, gathered in the cold air with all manner of containers, buckets and receptacles to scoop up the vodka as it was decanted. It became a kind of crazy festival of waste and reclamation. The factory workers, obeying the dictum of the occupying army to dispose of the alcohol, pouring it away for hour upon hour. Then people rushing around in a frenzy to gather it up in a mad act of either communal desperation or uninhibited liberation. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of litres turned to a frozen sludge that bitter day or how many were recouped, some precious nourishment for hard times to come?

The factory produced pure vodkas: Metropolis, Warszawska, Legenda, Zagłoba, Planet, Koneser, Bycza, Targowa, Winiak Klubowy, Oleńka, Kniejówka and spirits. They produced two types: potato spirits and corn spirits, but mostly making products based on corn spirits. Only Metropolis vodka is made of both kinds of spirits. She explained to us, the European Union prefers using corn spirits in production process, so this why we use them too.  She tells us how potato spirits are delicate and have a slightly sweet taste and how corn spirits are spicier.

The factory had its own water supply of high quality demineralised Oligocene water pumped up from a from a well 270 metres underground. It also had its own railway station until the 1960’s, where the raw ingredients of alcohol – spiritus – arrived, shipped here from all over the country. It first arrived at a weighing station, as did the later road transports, where each container was meticulously checked to ensure that the cargo that arrived was the same weight that was shipped. There were, it seems, many bands of spiritus thieves roaming the countryside. The shipments were also tested for taste.

This led us into a long conversation about one of the more intriguing jobs in the vodka factory.  If there is any doubt about the quality of the vodka, the Taste Committee is convened. This may be the most important job in the factory.  It isn’t easy to be selected for this role. The staff are subjected to a rigorous vetting process. Statistically, it may be easier to be selected for the Polish version of Big Brother or Pop Idol. Firstly, you cannot be a smoker. Secondly, you can’t use perfumes of any kind. Thirdly, you have to be healthy, you cannot have a cold – “no sniffing of the nose” as she put it. Fourthly, you have to prove that you are capable of important task that has been entrusted to you; you have to be able to distinguish between subtly different tastes and the degrees of taste.

The taste test is described to us by Bożena, the Head of the Laboratory. Her laboratory is housed in the oldest building, the original site of the rectification process from one hundred years ago. Potential members of the Taste Committee are tested for their ability to recognise different tastes -  sour, sweet, bitter, salt, or just plain water. Several samples for testing are given to the individuals with a specific flavour at different levels of dilution. In the laboratory they are looking for the precise point at which the candidates will stop distinguishing the taste. Some specific flavours are introduced. Can an individual distinguish an orange taste or a nutty taste? Testing is undertaken between 11am and 1pm. The individual cannot have anything to drink for several hours before the test. Should you pass through the initial maze of tests and join the elite corps of the Taste Committee, then you and your companions, no more than three or four at any one time, may be called upon at any time to pass judgement on a particular batch of spirits. At the height of production, it was possible for the Taste Committee to meet every single day. Their verdict must always be unanimous. Anything less than this means that the vodka is rejected. There are, of course, also a range of chemical checks on the spiritus being received and the level of alcohol in the vodka in production, ensuring no contaminants have crept into the process.

Ninety five per cent of production here was pure vodka, though Konesar also produced some flavoured vodka – cranberry, honey, forest fruit. The ‘small’ production line – miniatwka – could produce 15,000 bottles a day, the ‘medium’ line 80,000 half litre bottles a day. All is quiet this particular afternoon. There appeared to be no production. We were told that 103 people worked here, with 50 dedicated to the production lines. We saw less than a dozen people while walking round. We will soon discover why. The following week an announcement appears in the press. The factory has been sold to a property developer, who will convert the buildings into luxury apartments. This industrial heritage will soon be devoured and disappear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation in a Warsaw bar (or three or four)Posted on 7th February, 2008.

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We went to see ‘Rezerwat’ (Reservoir) at the Kinoteca. This cinema is in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science, much loved and much hated building. Gifted by Stalin to the people or Warsaw (or imposed, whichever your preference), it is a landmark indeed. The film is set in Praga, where I am living, and it was enjoyable to spot the locations. It tells the story of a photographer, down on his luck, who is forced to move to a flat in an old tenement block on the east side of the river (purportedly the rougher part, this ‘dark Praga’ – described to me by Jacek, himself a Praga resident, as a cross between Gotham City and Montmartre). The film follows his encounters with residents there. It plays on working class stereotypes, the ruffians, the drinkers, the blonde hairdresser with a heart of gold.

As is the tradition, we drink beer in the cinema, two cans in her handbag. She was amused to see her former drama teacher from Krakow on screen. The film felt like two different films in one, and reminded me of the gentle French comedies of Eric Rohmer and of Ealing comedies.

From there we went to her favourite café, which now has a smoking ban – which is not the norm in Warsaw. Do you have a secret corner for smokers? she asked the waitress. No, said the waitress sternly, we have a duty to care for our customers. Then I won’t be able to recommend this place any more, she said, quite exasperated. She is from Lublin and has high expectations of the capital city. She went outside looking for a light. There was a man visiting from Białystok there, a smoker also. He said, It’s strange, no-one in Warsaw looks you direct in the eye.

We wandered from bar to bar, intending to go home after eleven. But it was not to be. Wódka Zołądkowa  Gorzka and orange juice carry us through the hours long after midnight. (But not mixed in the same glass.) We ended up in a street with bars and cafés which never seem to close, by Three Crosses Square (I have had breakfast here before 7 am another time). I was not planning to get drunk with you, she said, but it has happened. It was a fine and beautiful evening of invigorating conversations. With someone half my age or maybe ancient and twice as wise – it’s hard to know which. We covered all possibilities, I think. Life expectancies, the nature of relationships – including the parental variety – chance encounters, personal and professional boundaries, and accidents that are meant to happen; all were felled by our alcohol sharpened words. It was after 5 am before we knew it. The night buses had finished and the morning buses began. The city streets were already busy, with many people walking purposefully.

I walked over the bridge Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego across the river towards Stadion Dziesięciolecia, the old national sports stadium built with the rubble from the ruins of the Warsaw Uprising. Literally ‘the 10th Anniversary Stadium’, it opened in 1955, the anniversary being commemorated was the first manifesto of the Communist Government of Poland. (On July 22, 1944, in Chełm, the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation issued the July Manifesto, which established a communist system, with the government then seated in Lublin.) I watched the young Vietnamese making their way to work at the famously popular black markets that traded around the tunnels and long abandoned football terraces. I wondered how long I could survive without sleep.

dry your eyesPosted on 31st January, 2008.

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All my life it seems I have been pursued by visions of vodka drinkers. I am speaking of Polish vodka in particular. There have been vodka drinkers in my family, lined up alongside the legendary whisky drinkers. The Polacks and the Paddies side by side, drowning their sorrows in some down at heel bar in the back alley of the West Midlands. Of course, we now drink wine, as all good Europeans must. From Belarus to Bilston. Even in Poland…

I admit that I recently went to a wine bar here in Warsaw. Somewhere near Rondo Babka, considered by many inhabitants to be one of the worst traffic islands in the city, we searched for this particular wine bar. It was not so easy to find in the twilight, set back a little way from a deserted road in an area where the old and new jostle for position. Behind us, on the far side of the traffic circle, you cannot fail to see a modern shopping mall, a huge neon monolith which would not disgrace the centre of Birmingham or Manchester. (Inside, they are piping ‘Eleanor Rigby’ through the speakers, shoppers ironically mouthing the words ‘All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?’) On another side, beyond the towering 24 Hour McDrive sign, a vast cemetery, whose consumers are quieter by far. Spreading to the north and west, there is expanse of mostly abandoned manufacturing complexes cut through with a railway track and sidings. This is also near to the former site of an anarchist squat, Skład Artystyczny, found amidst the ruined buildings of forgotten five year plans; where we once waited in vain for a punk band from Germany to play some very loud music. Well, they did eventually turn up, several hours later than anticipated and missing a drum kit – it reminded me of the good old days on the road with The Prefects – but by then we had moved on to another party in Praga, on the other side of the river.

Tonight we convene in a large warehouse, full of wine crates alongside a small area for serving food and drink, with just a few tables, a bar counter and several stools. Pretty good food too, if the goulash was anything to go by. You walk around, choose a bottle or two of wine from the hundreds on display and it’s brought to your table and uncorked or decanted. It’s not cheap, but the wine is indeed good. Many people wander in, buy some bottles and go home. Our host, our wine concierge, is a Canadian by birth, married to a Pole. He appears to be always on hand to advise a customer, with genuine bonhomie, uncorked and oxygenated. I wonder if he is a secret vodka drinker, or if this might irrevocably corrupt his palate.

Telephone numbers and the name of wines escape my memory, so I cannot tell you what we drank this night.  I shall not go into the circumstances that brought me here, to this Aladdin’s Cave of Winery. Suffice to say it revolved around the search for alcohol and good company – or perhaps bad company, as we drinkers so often prefer to choose. Sitting amongst the wine cognoscenti in Warsaw might seem, to some, in poor taste – but dear reader, do not despair! We intend to search high and low in the Great Polish Nation to deconstruct the joys and sorrows of the dedicated vodka drinker.

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.

email exchanges…Posted on 16th December, 2007.

dear iwona,
Went to Carrefour to buy wine for Saturday party and not the wine store on Wierzbowa. It was crazy Xmas busy. I was browsing shelves and thinking, What is that wine? Looking close, it was not very good Romanian. And two women were doing the same and we all sort of collided and then one bottle fell, then a whole line, then the shelf collapsed and I was surrounded by a sea of red wine, like the scene in The Shining (blood then, not wine). Miraculously I was untouched.

This is God’s way of telling me to drink vodka. So i took vodka to party and was the last one standing – or maybe sitting. The birthday girl has some drinking stamina. Great food, and good vodka project research. Came home to sleep at 9am. The light was beautiful. Ah… see you soon,
bj

b,
Lucky you. Did they photograph you to put the photo among people for whom entrance is not permitted?

Stay with vodka, then. I was drinking wine. A lot, as a matter of fact and came home around noon – when good light has already disappeared…
Best,
i.

No photos, they just said, corva! or something like that. I ran off, blushing. We are obviously getting in good training for new year…! :)
bj

Year that will be longer – at least one vodka more.
i.

But not tonight, my dear, I really had too much. Nearly drunk under the table by a woman half my age.
bj

So you asked her? I mean – about age?
i.

Of course. One needs to be sensitive to age.

I will make the vodka project blog live at beginning of January. In preparation i have written 3 short posts to start the ball rolling. Attached. I would like to post the piece you originally wrote to me. I don’t have it except as a hard copy. you know the piece I mean? Please tender my apologies to Dorota and Robert.

Writing furiously, which is great!!! better write something for short guide eh!
bj

dear bj
Holidays, holidays, and we are after holidays – as they say in my favourite country at last at home – but with my sister and her toddler (listening to singing snail she got from Santa Claus); there is a chance I’ll survive. Party of Robert and Dorota was great – they had a good time, so guests didn’t have any other choice; still it lasted from 1 pm till 1 am, even longer than my sister’s wedding (let me know if you would like to get a DVD from the wedding ;-) Files you asked – please find attached. my best
i.

iwona,
Glad to hear the festivities are in order. With regard to document number 1. it wouldn’t open – said it was corrupted… (that’s a nice way to end the year!) If it contains images, maybe just send doc with text only and send images seperately please.

Please find attached suggested headers for vodka blog. Do you like any of them? they’re ok and we’ll change them as we go along I think. choose one for a starter please.

Thank you.
bj

I guess I like vodkabanner and/or Poland5. The best picture is here. Txt pls find attached – it seems that our computers don’t cooperate eagerly (pls, improve my English!)
best
i.

Here’s another two options. Any preference?
bj

No, too metaphorical – and the edited one too blurred, I think.
i.

Ok, we’re ready. Let’s start.
bj