Archive | July, 2011

drink in poland

21 Jul

Since alcohol and beverages make up part and parcel of a Tefl teacher/ writer’s life, there’s room to discuss drink in Poland. Some people labour under the illusion that it’s all vodka. It’s true they have Chopin Vodka and Pan Tadeusz vodka. They also have a Bison-grass vodka called Zubrowka, which they often mix with apple juice. (Zubr is the Polish name for the water bison which they have saved from extinction by turning a swathe of the Eastern Part beyond Bialystok into a national park. Let’s face it, these water bison are not exactly cuddly furry animals. They’re hairy and quite ugly, but they’re still precious.) Enough of vodka, the beer they have in Poland is good, though not as good as Czech beer. Here are some good ones: Zywiec, Warka, Lech and Tyskie. Not to mention the ‘real’ stuff such as Zloty Lwy and Zycie. They’re all very strong compared to the fizzy stuff they call lager in Britain. But I love the new microbrewery they have opened in my part of Poland. This place overlooking the canal district produce very nice beer. When I was last there a member of the local football team (very bad – and worse fans than the players) was there surrounded by a coterie of stunning supermodels, only they weren’t supermodels, they were  local girls-next-door. Nothing happened, as celebrities, even fifth-rate ones, are notoriously boring people, unless you’re interested in them. I think a) water bison and b) those girls-next-door are more interesting.

Where was I? Oh yes, drinking in Poland. Well now, the expanding middle class in Poland has only recently really discovered wine, unless you’re a tramp, in which case the wine you like is not real wine, it’s cheap wine which is actually made in Poland and tastes like nothing on earth except the earth itself. Back to everybody else. They like their wine ‘medium dry’ (sweet in my terms), medium sweet (very sweet), or sweet (very, very, very sweet). There are  thankfully  enough people who like dry wine in Poland for this now to be on the increase, though still only very widely available in the supermarkets Piotr and Pawel,  Alma, and assorted quality offies. Guess what is also on the increase in Poland. Puff pastry. So now you can make steak and ale pies, what’s more with British bitter (which you can, amazingly, get here).

I remember when I was living in Prague how tiny things used to amaze me, how one day your local supermarket would have only rapeseed oil, and then next week, suddenly a plethora of new oils, including olive oil on the shelves. Poland has been much the same but now what often happens is they run out of some zippy new product and then they take months to replace it. Puff Pastry has not yet suffered this fate.

The only Polish cocktail I care to know is called Mad Dog, and it’s lethal. They do a very nice blackberry/blueberry wine too, and it’s not stuff the winos on the streets drink.

The thriller and Poland

17 Jul

Someone had a rather trashy idea the other day: someone trapped in a building, he can’t escape, there’s a killer also lurking in the building.  There’s only him and the killer. Thrilling though this sounds, it is the worst kind of cliche. I’m not talking about linguistic cliches, such as ‘the lone wolf, silhouetted against the evening sky, rummaged around in the bin at the end of the day’ (rather tautologous) or pop lyric cliches such as:  ‘I love you baby, you’re the only one’. I’m talking about situations in fiction which are sometimes hard to avoid – the car nearly runs the protagonist over but he jumps out of the way just before he’s going to be killed – well, you could put a James Bond twist to it and have him swimming along and then he’s nearly slapped to death by a shoal of flying fish released by the evil hack who plans to steal his girlfriend, instead of being nearly run over by the car, but that’s not the point.

 In Poland, we don’t have evil hacks trying to steal girlfriends (or, in my case, my wife) by luring the unsupecting victim into a salt water swimming pool full of small Box jellyfish. However, there are  some  dark thriller writers, such as Marek Krajewski, whose writing I admire without necessarily enjoying the reading of it- there are too many street names, and his main character is too grossly decadent. But I had a look at some Polish thrillers to see if I could hack out a detective here in Kujawsko-Pomorskie. I have to admit I have yet to read one (in translation) that I’ve really found unputdownable.

The biggest problem is that my Polish isn’t really good enough to interview the police to ask about police procedure in certain situations, and besides, I have been told by the one Polish policeman that I know that they are always reluctant to discuss things such as this, especially in the case of it appearing in a novel, in case it gives ideas to the criminals. This did actually happen, but in reverse. A Wroclaw killer wrote a novel about someone commiting a murder in exactly the same way as the murder was actually committed – it was bizarre enough a story when it was true and not ‘faction’.

I had a go at making it all up – but I kept on writing a detective who was a Polish Inspector Morse. You’ve got it – he likes classical music, but less Wagner, more Chopin. He has a gruff manner, loves women but usually blows it on the date, his sidekick is less ‘cultured’ but a more likeable person, and so on and so forth. So I abandoned, while carefully squirelling away some of the set-pieces which I thought would do nicely elsewhere.

One set-piece I have kept for another novel but set in England – there are several scenes set in Poland, and I’m still in two minds as to  whether to keep them in.

But I have  another idea for a detective which I hope will be neither derivative nor too outlandish.

Disco Polo: a real social phenomenon?

16 Jul

Disco Polo: a Polish phenomenon?

Can a common goat with a beard

become a prostitute?

But yes, of course, why not?

The goat deserves it, too.


Sha la la la la (three times)

the soap named Fa



Yeti, yeti, has a house in the mountain.

Yeti, yeti, what is he doing?

Yeti, yeti, he’s singing and dancing too

Yeti, yeti, what a funny creature!

Chorus: boom, boom!  Tsik, tsik!

Yeti: What does this mean?

Chorus: we’re playing cards for fun

Yeti: Oi,oi,oi, oi!

Chorus: Do you want to be your friend?

Yeti: Who wouldn’t like to be your friend?

Chorus: So cover your hands with glue.




    If the first set of lyrics is just plain weird, the others are the least banal lyrics I could find (roughly translated from the Polish) from songs that are the successors to what was once, amazingly, the anthems of an ‘underground’ movement, in the sense that that Communist authorities in old Poland did not officially approve of the songs or their practitioners. This is Disco Polo, these days a byword amongst urban Poles for astonishingly bad lyrics and equally empty music. So why is Disco Polo, a poppified folk music with platitudinous tunes and lyrics, of any interest at all?

   It’s not so much the music or lyrics as the social phenomenon and transformation of society that accompanied it that makes Disco Polo a subject of worthy of study. Disco Polo, with its roots in (more original) folk music,  has been around in this country  at least since the ‘seventies. Weddings and parties in the countryside then, as now, featured  Disco Polo musicians brought in for the occasion. The Communists in the seventies were aware of its existence, and the secret police disapproved of it as ‘rural kitsch’, too indulgent. So, in a sense, it was one of many types of music that represented freedom. The iron curtain was dismantled, and in the ’90s Poland enjoyed an unprecedented boom of freedom, political, personal and economic, and in the mid-nineties most town and city centres had large open-air markets. The stall owners brought Disco Polo in from the countryside, played it and sold it on tapes. At the same time,  clever well-connected business people saw its commercial potential in the anything-goes period of Poland. So the people who marketed it, and sometimes the performers of it as well, were from well-educated and intelligent families who emigrated earlier from the villages to the cities and brought the music with them.

    The ’90s was also a time when the music was played on TV and became a trend. Every music billboard and radio station had disco polo in their programmes. Even sophisticated urbanites who thought it was terrible, listened to it.  The texts and music were so light that, to translate a Polish expression literally, it “jumped into your ears very easily.”

    After two to three years in the mid-nineties, the trend in the cities was over and TV and radio were not running Disco Polo as much as they used to. I first came to Bydgoszcz, a large town in Western Poland,  in 1998, and Disco Polo was fading from the urban music scene, though it was still played on Polsat TV station. A typical video clip would  show the usual string of rural/fringe urban cliches: youngsters dancing in what was obviously a village hall souped up into a disco for the keyboard-led bands to play in; men and women danced in standard movements, like kitsch rhythmic gymnastics, on beaches; members of a band went down a river in a boat with a pretty girl at one end sitting in it and smiling.

    In Bydgoszcz’s bars, they rarely played Disco Polo even then, and the 10.5’s talent night, where drunk crooners attempted to do parodies of the latest rock stars and didn’t succeed in being bad enough to be funny or good enough to be impressive, only very occasionally did a Disco Polo song. This was unusual enough an event to provoke discussion about the style, and its videos were dissected by the talent show punters like a drunk surgeon putting the knife into its passive body.

    At the same time as the heyday of the Talent Night in the 10.5 bar,  the urban planners and civic-minded town hall politicians decided to move in on to the open-air markets and turn them into something more legal. The markets had become symbols of the black economy, and so the local authorities laid down certain areas where they could still run their market stalls, but now they started to build halls and overhead roofs. This meant that the market stall owners had to pay rent, register and pay taxes.   Most of the open-air market stalls were thus forced out of the centre and onto the margins of the cities. Because of its very strong connection with the people of the markets, Disco Polo did much the same; it, too moved from the heart of the cities to the outskirts and ultimately back to the place it had come from: the countryside.

   Villages in Poland generally have two important buildings; first the church and second, the fire station. The Fire Brigade in those parts is a voluntary organisation. The Fire station for about fifty years has been the main organiser in these villages of parties, and often they organise the musicians who come and play in parties in the stations. Discos in the countryside are very popular and people come in to them from miles around. They often play Disco Polo – especially in the Eastern side of Poland, where there is high unemployment and the people are poor and not well-educated.

  Disco Polo was both a marketing ploy and an attempt to bridge the gap between ‘rural backwardness’ and ‘urban sophistication’, hence its appeal to rural peoples, and those clever or ambitious enough to get away from the countryside and move into the cities. Unfortunately for Disco Polo, the music ended up being neither earthily rustic nor sophisticated enough to appeal to the urbanites, so in the cities and towns it was like so much pop music, here today, gone tomorrow.


The intention of all this

16 Jul

The aim is to tell the story of a TEFL teacher in Poland who has settled there and his attempts to write a novel, short stories and poems.

There are myths and stereotypes of Poland that have largely disappeared since the country opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has come a long way since grey queues formed  round the block for a pineapple, not to mention martial law and rationing, and the sweat that clung to coats in church congregations was more due to the fear of the secret police than the heat. It always was the least Communist country of all the Eastern bloc countries – collectivisation of agriculture never really took hold, many Polish people had private plots of land where they grew vegetables, and the powerful Catholic church was part of the opposition.  In fact, it could be said that the church perhaps provided a dash of theatrical colour against which the May Day Parades with red bandanas, the pretty girls in which Poland abounds, and military music held far less sway. But for my first introduction to the new Poland I will put in my take on something that many people might find trivial, but I think nevertheless illustrates an aspect of the Poland of the 1990’s when all the changes gathered steam. Disco Polo.

Hello world!

16 Jul

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