Poland Too, Warsaw Forever
We drive into downtown Warsaw, passing the giant plastic palm tree in the centre of a roundabout -- which is kinda surreal -- and parking round the corner from the big EMPiK store (kinda the Polish equivalent of Virgin-meets-Borders, I'd say) with a great view of the Palace of Culture. A "gift from our Soviet brothers," I'll be told over the course of the stay, with more than a little irony, this mad monstrosity plunked down in the middle of the city is like the bastard offspring of the Empire State Building and a rocketship made of bricks. There was talk of flattening it after the collapse of the Soviet Union but it's clung onto existence as a sort of grandiose monument to folly, I guess.
Anyway, I don't have much time to find out more, because this is where the interviews start. First off there's the one upstairs, on a stage with sofa and armchairs, my interpretor Grzegorz on the left, Kasia on the right and the interviewer beyond her. It's a weird feeling, what with the questions being asked in Polish, translated for me, me rambing on for way too long, then Grzegorz having to translate my convoluted witterings into coherent Polish. This wasn't quite as weird though as -- after adjourning to a quieter corner for another interview (or two?) for Polish radio -- returning to the sofa, only this time with the editor (if I remember right) of Poland's big SF mag, Fantastyka, asking the questions and this all being done, with microphones and all, to an audience of SF press. This is really my first bona fide "appearance", ye see, outside of the saftey of a con, so while I wasn't quite shitting bricks I'm not exactly an old hand at this game. I've gotta say that Grzeg was a fucking star here. How the man can sit and listen to a five-minute (or fucking longer!) answer, making only a few notes, and then translate it from beginning to end was a total amazement to me. Man, I couldn't remember my own answer after I'd said it; I have no idea how he does it.
From there it was off for lunch with Kasia in a great wee Thai place, then a wander up to the Stary Miasto, or Old Town which, well, isn't really that old, most of Warsaw having been flattened during WW2. On the way it's strange to see the mix of buildings old and new, beuatiful and ugly, renovated and derelict; with the seizure of private property under Communism, the thing is, many of the most beautiful old buildings have untraceable owners or disputes over who they should be returned to, so they can't be restored. And many of the newer buildings are of that god-awful 60s/70s modernist style. At the same time there seems to be a lot of rebuilding going on, roads being torn up here and there, as in the University area. There's a really cool new building beside the train station, all curves and angles, that's going to be quite stunning when it's complete -- the best of contemporary architecture. So you get a weird sense of a city in transition, a city that's been shattered and is only slowly putting itself back together.
Many of the Warsawians I talked to were quite self-deprecating about the city, I found; with the down town so aesthetically fragmented and the Old Town not really the hub of pubs and clubs, it's like the place is still trying to knit itself together, find its true centre. I have a lot of hope for it though, I have to say. It might take a decade or two, maybe more, but Warsaw sort of reminds me of Glasgow in a lot of ways, in that mix of old and new, tatty and true. It's just that where our city centre has a simple grid system and the central thread of Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle Street, the self-coherent villages of the West End and the South Side, Warsaw's shopping and business district is sprawling, uncentred and unbalanced, while it's Old Town seems to not quite have been accepted. And maybe that, along with the hulking monolith of the Palace of Culture is why Warsaw is yet to find its feet; I understand a lot of Warsawians think the building broke the natural balance of the city. But there are scattered streets and places that, it seems to me, only need to be... joined up.
Fuck, it reminds me of the way I write, in some ways. Slowly, gradually, over the coming years, I could see it ripping out the 60s and 70s shite (like the stinky train station that's due to be torn down), replacing them with something more in keeping, or in a more dramatic contrast, wiring itself together. I sort of wonder what it would be like if they did tear that Palace of Culture down and build something grand and beatiful in its place, or paint the fucker in brilliant multicolour, I'd say, build more skyscrapers around it, anything that might take away that sense of a solitary sentinel of totalitarianism, make it more of a new centre-point. There's so much that's great in Warsaw and so much that feels like it's in flux, I'd love to go back in ten years time and see if the city has refound its balance.
Anyway, after an afternoon's walk through the picturesque-but-not-quite-claimed Old Town, up to the Barbican and Walls (all also restored), we headed back downtown for another interview, originally intended to be held in the Traffic Club, in a cafe bar on the top floor of a huge book shop, but relocated to the Thai restaurantof earlier due to background noise issues. Maybe it was that I got on really well with the interviewer, Trashka, and maybe it was the presence of beer, and maybe it was me relaxing a little into the whole translation thing, but the conversation started to flow so naturally there was a lot of digressions into Poland's political scene and other such tangential topics. I learned that Poland's president and prime minister are twins and not the most well-loved among the more tolerant folks I was hanging with. Both have come out with nationalist, anti-semitic and homophobic rhetoric. Though a gay pride march went ahead in Warsaw, another was banned in Krakow. And so on. Much of the rhetoric was the old, tired shite I know so well: the equation of homosexuality with paedophilia; the threat of gay teachers; you know the score. None of the people I talked to were, shall we say, over-enthusiastic about Poland's political climate. The word "cabaret" cropped up quite often.
But with the chat so rich and flowing, it didn't seem long before we were late for dinner in a traditional Polish place, so we said goodbye to Trashka, jumped into the car and immediately got stuck in traffic. The solution was to be my first experience of Warsaw's underground system, Greg and I leaving Kasia to make her way home (having two young sons to look after) and heading along the one track of ten stations. Coming from Glasgow though, as I explained, we're hardly in a position to boast much better, what with our fifteen-station Clockwork Orange. At least Warsaw has trains that don't look like toys. OK, so there was a wee moment of disorganisation as we got one stop along before being taken off the train and having to wait for another, with no explanation whatsoever. But again I can't exactly say that Scottish public transport is any better at times. Besides, we made it with not too much delay and I found myself in the restaurant where I met Jacek and Andrzej for the first time. Great craic and great food was had by all. I'm afraid I didn't have much appetite, suffering from what I've come to call routine-lag (like, me being basically nocturnal and being thrown completely by actually living in the daylight like everyone else, eating at this strange time when everyone else does), and the main course was, well, a fucking huge ham bone thingy which tasted nice but was just too damn big. I did however utterly relish the żurek. A soup made with sausages and boiled egg in it... now that's my kind of soup. In fact, every single soup I had in Poland was simply yummy. It's a speciality, probably the food you have to try if you don't taste anything else.
With the end of our long meal, and with more than a few beers in me, the night came to an end. Jacek dropped me off at the hotel, and I got out the car remembering, oh, that's right, I've got to get my bag out of the boot. So we open the boot and that's when I remember that, no, um, actually, I got the bag out of the boot when Kasia dropped off Greg and meself. Which means, of course, I must've left it in the restaurant, being a dozy twat and all. A few phone calls later, it's sorted though. Andrzej and Greg have checked and the restaurant have it. Greg'll bring it when we meet up tomorrow morning. Sweet!
On Wednesday morning then, Kasia picks me up and drops me off with Greg (who returns my bag and shrugs off my embarrassed thanks) and the two of us grab a taxi along the old Royal Road, past embassies and ex-Russian diplomatic burbclaves to the Wilanów, the Polish Versailles, smaller but no less baroque and beautiful and, rather nicely, built as a token of love. I'm not even going to begin to recount the complex history imparted to me by both Greg and the private tour guide Kasia had arranged for us, star that she is. All I'll say is that in Poland you had: a huge aristocracy that made up 10% of the populace and were quite often no more wealthy than the next man; an elected monarch; a legendary heritage traced back to the Romans; constant war with and influence by the Ottoman Empire which rendered them respectful enemies but also left its mark in the Polish aristo's style of dress, all Turkish robes and scimitars; and, best of all, armour with great feathered wings on the back to make the warriors look like angels -- how cool is that?
I found myself beginning to have a sense of... another version of Warsaw, an alternative and fabulous city, with touches of Ambergris and its Caliphate enemy, of Viriconium with its host of warriors, of Provan with its grey 60s bleakness, even touches of my own imagined city at the end of time, inhabited by armoured angel warriors with wings of steel. I can see so much to use of Warsaw, am already thinking of how easily it could become one model of the fantastic city that weaves through my fiction -- ancient but fractured by the Modern Era, destroyed and rebuilt, baroque broken up by concrete blocks. Just outside the Wilanów we visited the poster museum, full of some of the most brilliant posters of the 20th Century (though for the life of me I can't find the name of the artist that they're running a tribute to right now... Tomasienski, maybe... something like that but not that... bollocks). I think of my own invented totalitarianism, Futurism as a blend and defeater of Fascism and Communism. I think of a poster museum in a fictive city. Fuck, there's so much of Warsaw that would fit so well.
Where was it next? Now my memory starts coming apart, I'm afraid, starts sliding pieces of the puzzle into the wrong place, scattering times and places in a way that seems kind of in keeping with the experience of Warsaw. I know it was lunch downtown but the area, the road, the bar cafe... I think it was near the University and I know it was veal liver and tasty, but whereabouts exactly I'm not sure. I do know they served Murphy's, which made me a happy puppy. Then? The Traffic Club again, I think, for Youth TV and various portals and web sites, meeting up with Kasia again, a whirl of stuff, in fact, upstairs and down, then off to the Paradox Club.
Now this was one of the highlights of the trip. I mean, you have a group of fans, right, and they basically have a hangout which is a pub with a fucking lending library inside it. I mean walls with bookshelves all over the place, in a snug back-room where you can drink and smoke, including from a huge-ass hookah of apple tobacco. After the Q&A and the signing of a few books, with everyone being so friendly -- Trashka and her husband Lucas, Mikhael and others whose names I didn't catch -- wild horses wouldn't drag me from the place. We talked of books and bread and beer and a strange non-alcoholic bread-beer. I had a fucking whale of a time, until the long day caught up with me and people started heading off and it was, well, really time for us to go too... though not before I planted a wee copy of the UK edition on the shelves since I had brought a couple over to give away.
It seemed like a good home for it, with good people, people I think of as new friends.
The next day I finally got to have a wee look around inside the Palace of Culture with Jacek, who picked me up in the morning and drove downtown, chatting all the time about Polish SF, cosmolgical theories and whatnot. We caught a Japanese exhibition about time, with all sorts of weird shit, took the elevator up to the umpty-umpth floor and looked out over the city, bought some sheep's cheese (a "highlander" staple) from a stall and ate it over a few beers before my interview with TVP, only the Polish equivalent of BBC for crying out loud, in another branch of EMPiK. I mean, I can't really do justice to how impressed I was with the way Kasia had gone to town in organising all of this PR. I only wish my interviewee skills were more developed, that I could have given them the quality of interviews they deserved in return. Maybe I wasn't too bad. I hope I wasn't. I just wish I could have been as great as MAG were.
I have to confess that by this point I was a little toured-out so, from the cafe in EMPiK Greg and I ust made our way to a wee Irish bar and relaxed, chatting over a few Guinness. Yeah, I know it's a bit sad, sitting in an Irish pub drinking Guinness with so much left to explore of Warsaw, but I needed the vitamins, honest, and it wasn't a cheesy Irish touristy theme pub, more of scruffy rock bar for the locals. And, you know, to see a city, to be in it properly, you have to make like you're at home, do what you'd be doing if you lived there, with someone who does actually live there. Just as a local of Glasgow might be well-advised to look up once in a while, to see the city around them as a tourist might, so when you're a visitor to another city sometimes it pays to stop looking up, to look not at the dramatic differences of towers and palaces, but at the correspondances of scruffy rock bars and the like. It's then that you see the subtle differences, then that you start saying "Dziekuje" instead of "Thank you".
I'm thinking we might have had another beer in another pub, but all I can remember here is a sorty round the statuary at the base of the Culture Palace, wryly "appreciating" the grandiose and heroic Architect with his rippling muscles and bare chest, the Writer with his dungarees and -- again -- bare chest, the Brothers and Sisters from around the world. Soviet Realism is not exactly subtle in its allegory; let's put it that way. There was an expedition to the market to buy tobacco and then we headed for a Thai restaurant to be joined by Andrzej and a mate whose name -- I'm sorry -- I've entirely forgotten, me being completely shit in that respect.
I was chuffed that I got to return to the Paradox Club after that, to meet up again with Trashka and Lukasz (who'd brought me some of the fizzy bread-beer stuff we were chatting about the previous night, bless them), Mikhael and some more folks I hadn't got the chance to chat to the previous night, none of whose names have, I hate to say it, been stored in my now frizzed and overfull memory. I remember the chap who asked me some cool questions the previous night, coming up to me and saying he was two hundred odd pages into the book now and loving it, and apologising for his last questions about what I thought of Polish girls, not realising I was more interested in the boys and all. It was no problem, of course, just a brief moment of embarassment and paranoia on my part in the face of a crowd who blatantly, obviously were not at all prejudiced. You just never know what the cultural situation is in another country, so having travelled a little for my previous work, I've sort of got in the habit of easing it into the chat when the time is right. And I remember Jacek's mate and the fluent English speaker he introduced me to, garnering a certain amusement and mock-outrage from her by the faux-pas of suggesting she would be able to "entertain" me, then putting his foot further in his mouth by explaining that pretty girls are better to talk to even if they're not so smart. It was all taken in good spirits though and, in fact, we did have a great conversation about Auschwitz and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the way people sometimes treat these places as tourist attractions.
Eventually though it was time to leave again, with much exchanges of emails, hugs and handshakes, and promised reunions. Eventually they managed to drag me away and Jacek dropped me off at the hotel, though not before a quick wee tour of MAG's offices, a look at their website and their range of titles, and a browse to the first Polish review (10/10, no less!). I arrived back and dumped my stuff, headed down to the bar to finish my experience of Warsaw with a Żywiec, a few fags and a few chapters of Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, a good way to unwind after it all, for all the lack of exploding airships, that is.
So that was Warsaw, and fucking great it was. Great city, great people, great food, and, well, with Polcon there in August of next year, a good time for the release of INK, I dare say, well, I think, I hope, I'm going back real soon.
Next up Krakow, the city of book fairs, priests and nuns, the prime minister and Pope John Paul II, and all manner of other relished experiences. In the meantime, here's a few links to the first of the interviews, for any Polish readers out there.