Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Poland Whee, Krakow's Heaven

Friday morning, Jaecek and Kasia came round in the taxi to the train station where we met up with Greg and caught the 09:00 for Krakow, a two and a half hour journey pretty much equally divided, on my part, between gazing, dozing and chatting. We had one of those proper six-seater, sliding-door compartments that you just don't seem to see in the UK anymore, so that was cool, although I always thought those types of trains came with evil spies for one to best in fisticuffs, or border guards suspicious of your forged documentation, or stuff like that. There weren't even any snakes. Hey ho.

From the station, another taxi took us all a winding way through Krakow and down to the south of the city, to the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Here we found our hotel (the Serszeca, I think, or something like that) along a quiet side-street, squeezed in among all the sandstone tenement-style residential buildings so typical of Northern Europe, a little more baroque in style to Glasgow's West End but really not that different. Inside, the foyer had an Art Nouveau vibe to it, posters reminiscent of Klimt, speaking of Krakow's heritage as a cultural centre. Friendly staff checked us in, and we all agreed to meet back down in the foyer in fifteen minutes to head straight to the book fair.

I nearly didn't make it, having been floored when I opened the door of my room to find it was the penthouse suite, with it's own mini-hallway, wardrobe to the right as you walk in and, to the left, the door to the marble-tiled, twin-sinked bathroom (and when I say bathroom, I mean it had a proper bath and all). A third door directly ahead lay open to reveal the main room, with its desk and sofa, TV and minibar. Off of this, through double sliding-doors to the left, was the bedroom, with its twin single beds pulled together to make a double; and in front of me, past the table at the far end with a fruit basket waiting to be munched, were the french windows leading out onto the balcony. I've been lucky once in the past to get put up in a suite while travelling for work (ah, wonderful Mexico! I shall return to you one day), so it's not a first. But wastrel and scruff that I am, I can't imagine myself ever gettng used to all that high-class shit, don't think I'll ever stop responding with a squee of childlike glee. Man, I had a toilet you had to flush with a bucket for five years in my house; squalor is my natural habitat. So, imagine a puppy in a flat it doesn't know, exuberant and exciteable, sniffing every nook and cranny of this wonderful, strange, new place. Apart for the piddling on the floor, that was me. I had to drag myself away to meet the guys downstairs.

The book fair was on the eastern edge of town, not far, but a wee taxi-ride away, so we all piled into the car, Jacek carting his ton-weight suitcase of MAG catalogues, Kasia with a roller-blind style banner for WELIN (i.e. VELLUM) which I forgot to mention was in use at that first Q&A in Warsaw and which the Puck in me would happily have tried (ineffectually) to stuff down his trousers. It's just lucky I'm not too schizoid or I can see the conversation between Self and Superego...

"Are you trying to steal the banner for your home, Puck?" says me.

Puck shuffles feet, blinks innocently.

"Noooooo." says Puck.

"What's that in your trousers, then?"

"Ummm... lewd thoughts?"

"Riiiiiight. Put the banner back where it belongs."

"Awwww, but Jack said - "

"I don't care what Jack said. Jack's ethical judgments are based on which option will result in the prettiest explosion."

"Explosions are cool," says Jack.

"You stay out of it," says me. "And you put the neato, seven-foot, flame-bright book-cover roller-blind-stylee banner back where you found it."

"Aw. You're no fun."

Anyhoo, yes, we got into the huge and busy Krakow Book Fair, found our stall and started setting-up. Or rather Jacek and Kasia started setting-up while I started on the first of many interviews. I can't remember the who or when of all these interviews, some in English, some with Greg translating. I can't even remember if I was introduced to Adam, a mate of the MAG folks and a charming fellow, on the Friday or the Saturday. I do remember breaking for a lunch of beer and bigos (a tasty stew of sorts, made of sausage and sauerkraut, of which I heartily approved). I remember also discovering that the stall just round the corner from us had the sodding prime minister himself at one point, making some sort of public appearance that gathered quite a crowd. I was, I admit, tempted to go heckle the homophobe, or "frag the fucking fag-ragger" as the Jack in me would have it. Luckily sanity prevailed and I realised this might well be a somewhat reckless course of action. The Jack in me did also surface, I confess, when Greg pointed out the lack of security checks on entering the fair and the fact that the carry-case for the banner might easily conceal a rifle, say.

"Hmmmm," says Jack.

"Don't even think it," says me.

Then there was the fact that our stall was situated right next to the Catholic publishers section, which seemed at first sight to be the same size as everything else put together. Krakow is a little bit of a religious city, you could say, to put it mildly; one of the reasons the "tolerance march" was banned, I understand, was it was felt it would be "inappropriate" in such a holy city. All I know is I've never seen so many nuns in my life; man, it was like falling into THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. And since the previous Pope, John Paul II, was Cardinal of Krakow, well, how much more "made good" can a "local boy" get. Revered? As one comment had it, in a tourist guide I flicked through in Warsaw, you'd think he'd won the Second World War all by himself to listen to some Krakowians talk about him. Walk into the Catholic section and every other book seemed to be by or about him. Either way it had his big papal visage on the cover.

Well, I thought, at least it's not our current Hitlerjungengruppenfuhrer, Ratzennegger, with his kiddy-diddling mates.

Funny enough, in the section around us, you couldn't walk five feet without seeing a copy of THE DA VINCI CODE, which made for something of an ironic contrast.

So, anyway, as the fair closed for the evening we tried and failed to get a taxi back to the hotel, had to go for a tram in the end. Nothing wrong with that though -- good way to see the city as the locals do. We freshened up and then went out for a wander through the old Jewish Quarter, found ourselves a wee restaurant serving Jewish specialities. The food was good; I forget what I had for a starter (soup, I think) but the chicken liver in goose necks for a main course were great. The restaurant itself was... well... an interesting experience. They didn't have a table in the main restaurant, so they put us at a table in the front room which, as I looked around, I gradually realised sort of doubled as a souvenir shop. Think guidebooks, maps and postcards. Think walls covered in cases and shelves of minorahs and little "rabbi" figurines. Think "Fiddler On The Roof" as the music playing while you dine. Then there was the barmaid at the bar at the back of the restaurant, who looked like she belonged more in a spit-and-sawdust social club than in a restaurant, a beefy battle-axe dolled up in black and bling. The place had some gorgeous stained-glass panels featuring the Star of David on the windows, clearly original, but they simply made me question whether some gentile restauranteur hadn't just looked at them and thought, hey, we're in the right area, we got the windows, let's make the place Jewish. And then shovelled in "Jewishness" by the truckload. The food was great, as I say, but it was one of the most bizarre places I've ever dined. Whether it was even remotely kosher, in any sense of the word, I have no idea.

Kasia and Jacek headed home tired after that, but there was a publisher's party in the Old Town, for all those involved in the Book Fair, and with Kasia and Jacek's invites added to our own, Greg and I had twelve free drinks tokens between us. And free drink is something you just can't let go to waste, isn't it? Well, sometimes, as we discovered, maybe it is. We found our way up through the Old Town, through the central square at the heart of Krakow, which is pretty fucking impressive all lit up at night, and up to the club Midgard. We went in past the bouncers with their rope (Never trust a night club with a rope; that's one of my cardinal rules) and found ourselves in what I can only describe by comparing it to a gay club hosting a 25th Wedding Anniversary with music selected for your "cool" aunts and uncles. I can't begin to describe the horrors being perpetrated by the DJ's, their insistent attempts to incite a conga line, or the, um, "dancing" of the patrons who -- despite clearly being the offspring and younger relatives that the publisher folks had passed on their tickets to -- managed to make your dad's elbow-jiggle and hip-shoogle look like The Moves Of The Groove. There was an occassional hint of really strong cheese to the music, almost raising (or lowering, rather) the quality to the so-bad-it's-good point, the purity, the genius, of the liquid treacle which is Easy Listening or Loungcore. As I said to Greg at one point, I'm not averse to cheesy shite but, man, it's got to be really cheesy shite -- a Moog version of "Hey Jude", a salsa version of "Chim Chiminee", that sorta balls-out disregard for any sense of taste and decency. Boney M's "Rasputin" I'll forgive, cause who can deny the genius of a big-ass black guy with an afro singing a disco classic about the 19th Century Russian "Mad Monk". But Abba? Fuck that shit. As Terence Stamp so concisely put it:

No. Fucking. Abba.

We tried. We really did. We downed as many of the free beers as we could. We explored the club and found an area where the music was quieter. We tried to get seats, with me asking a crowd of girls in my most gruffly charming Scots accent (sadly, the exotic card didn't play for them). We stuck it out as long as possible, but when the conga line kicked in, man, it was time to get the fuck out of Texas. We slugged back our beers and made a run for it.

The Old Town in Krakow is positively hoaching on a Friday night, I can tell you. A popular tourist spot now that the cheap flights from the UK and elsewhere are available, competing for lad's weekends, stag nights and the like with Amsterdam and Prague, Krakow's one of those cities that never really sleeps, the downside being perhaps that a lot of the places are geared towards that young and trendy tourist crowd. Add to this the fact that all the bars are hidden away in the cavernous cellars of the buildings and we ended up wandering for a while through the busy streets of night-life looking for a place that fitted the bill -- free seats, decent music, no entry fee if possible.

As it was, down one side-street my eyes lit on a Guinness sign (from a distance that Greg found impressive; imprinted in the racial memory, I explained). Downstairs was an Irish pub, replete with darts, U2, yer requisite over-friendly drunk, and a clientele made up of way more Brits than Poles, naturally. There were seats at the bar, so it made a good place to kick back for a few beers, top up the mineral sustenance with a few pints of the black gold. There's only so much of that British-abroad shite you can take though, so we eventually decided to head back to the Plac Novy, this being a) nearer the hotel and b) where the locals tend to drink. There we found ourselves a great wee place with good sounds -- dance but laid-back, not quite chill-out stuff but not yer hideously commercial crap. One day, you know, I'll find someone who can tell me what the fuck that stuff -- the stuff that sorta uses dub and downbeat and lounge and world and crunches them all together then smooths out the edges -- is supposed to be called, cause I'm fucked if I know. Like, Thievery Corporation, United Future Organisation, US3, Black Star Liner -- there's gotta be a name for all that stuff, right? Right? Ah well. Anyway, we found ourselves a nice wee place and ended the night with beer and a blether.

Saturday saw more interviews at the book fair. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: man, Kasia must have been working like a fucking Trojan behind the scenes getting all of this stuff set up. It was incredible. And the coolest result of it was I had a signing session where people actually came. I mean, at one point there was a queue! OK, so it was a queue of two or three people, like, but it was a goddamn motherfucking queue, and I honestly hadn't been sure that anyone would turn up at all. Maybe a few, I thought, a handful. As it was, it was well into double figures, one every couple of minutes or so, certainly enough to keep me from falling into that staring-at-the-ceiling, thumb-twiddling, tumbleweed-rolling fusion of boredom and self-pity you have to go into these things expecting. I even had a couple of wee lassies come up as autograph hunters to ask for me mark in their autograph books, which was kinda sweet. Managed to hand sell one copy of WELIN, actually, to a customer who was dithering. Trust me, you'll love it, says me, offering my most sparkly smile and wide doe-eyes. Hmm... well.... OK, says she. Result! Directly after that was a Q&A thing in a conference room, then back out to the stand for more interviews, if I remember right.

Just before 4, I think, we headed off in Adam's car to Imladris, an SF con held in a wee school building, um, somewhere in Krakow. Sadly, it was just a flying visit. I really only had fifteen minutes to chat to a couple of the guys who were organising it, Paweł (who invited me over when the Poland trip first came up) and Marcin (it was Marcin, wasn't it? Sorry, I'm utter kack with names). It was interesting to note just how young a lot of the Polish fans seemed to be in comparison with the graying ranks of UK fandom; it seems like Polish fandom is in a pretty healthy state. A tad weird for me -- dissolute sot that I am -- it turned out to be an alcohol-free con. They'd had trouble in the past, Paweł explained, with people getting guttered. So they're trying to clean up the image. And it being held in a school and all, well, it wouldn't do to leave them with vomit-filled sinks and some Dead Dog asleep behind the blackboard on Monday morning when the kids arrive.

I forgot to ask how many folk were at the con in all, to get a sense of the size, but the corridors were pretty busy and I had a fuckin good crowd for my Q&A -- which went well. A big shout out, in particular, to the chap who asked about New Weird and upcoming projects, and hence gave me a chance to prattle on about two of my favourite subjects -- strange fiction and the crazy-ass idea which is my treatment of Gilgamesh. Poor old Greg was really having to work here because some of the questions (like those) came in English, and the questioner and meself would get into a little back-and-forth, and then Greg would have to translate it all at the end. How he does it, I have no idea. But he was making a sterling effort with one particularly long answer when -- ten minutes or so before the end of the slot -- the door of the room opens and in walks a stunning lass in full traditional Polish dress with a huge birthday cake, candles and all. The whole room stands up and sings a song -- the Polish equivalent of "Happy Birthday", I guess -- and I blow the candles out and, fuck me, but they'd only gone and got me a present as well.

I mean, I know I was shamelessly dropping hints heavy enough to break an elephant's back, but I was thinking that there'd be a bar there and, hey, if ye can't cadge a few free drinks on your birthday when can you? I really didn't expect them to give me a proper bona fide god's honest serious present. But -- bless them, it was so fucking sweet! -- they only went out and got us, gift-wrapped and all, a sodding litre bottle of Dubrowska vodka -- which, flavoured with buffalo-grass, is absolutely gorgeous stuff, I have to say. Went out to the pub last night and the night before and ended up back at the flat with some mates afterwards, so I've had a chance to taste it (well, rather more than taste it, I have to say) and it's fucking great stuff. Hard to describe, but it's a really high quality vodka and the spicy, herby buffalo-grass flavour makes it something you can easily quaff... and quaff... and quaff. Hell, it's dangerously tasty.

So, from the bottom of me big gay heart, a shuge big DZIEKUJE!!! to everyone at Imladris! You guys are total fucking stars! I mean, the cake was home-made and everything, I forgot to say! And utterly scrumptious! The whole trip I was blown away constantly by how friendly the Poles are, and at the Paradox Club in Warsaw and at Imladris in Krakow, I was made to feel so much at home, so welcome, that I can't wait to go back. Hell, I just hope I can return the hospitality at some point in the future, if any of you guys are ever in Glasgow or at a UK con where I'm propping up the bar. Leaving aside all the wonders of Warsaw and Krakow and the culture and the history and the PR and everything, just meeting the people was a total fucking pleasure. It was a pity I couldn't stay longer at Imladris actually. My flying visit was over all too quickly and I barely had the time to change into the con t-shirt (which they'd also given me as another present), before I was being whisked out the door and into a waiting taxi. I felt a bit of a cad, in truth, to leave so quickly afterwards, after everyone had been so kind, so I'm looking forward to spending more time hanging out with yez next time I'm over.

Anyhoo, what else? What else? Ah yes! I finally got a chance to try proper... um... how the fuck is it spelled again? barszc? Is there another "s" and/or "z" in there somewhere? Well, however it's spelled, I had the traditional Polish beetroot soup, followed by pierogi (meat-filled dumplings) at a wee Italian-style place that night, before meeting up with Adam and his wife, with whom I had a wee conversation about British crime dramas (I recommended CRACKER as probably the best ever) before discovering that she was studying English philology. I've always been fascinated with language and over the course of the week Greg and meself had spent a lot of time, well, geeking out over the joys of phonetics, accents and dialects, the historical layering of sound shifts that leaves English with umpteen different pronunciations for '-ough', the multiplicity of 'z's in Polish. Now with three of us, I rather fear we must have bored Adam to tears with all our talk of velar fricatives and bilabial approximants. Sorry, man, but I just love all that shit. As I was saying, one day I'd love to put together an (utterly unsellable) anthology called VOICES with stories all written in the first person, all with distinct dialect/accent identities central to the story, and all transcribed into the IPA so that you could accurately render the real phonetics. None of that fonee fonetiks shite ye huv tae use whin yer tryin tae dae accent in English. There's nae fuckin schwa in the Roman alfabet so ye cannae ever really be akyirit, ye ken? But the beauty of the IPA is it's utterly systematic. So you can transcribe any utterance you can make. And it's not that hard to read once you know what letters map to what sounds. I know nobody would be crazy enough to publish an anthology you needed to learn a new aphabet to read... but I think it would be cool as fuck. Yes, I also know I'm very sad for thinking that.

The night ended with Greg and I making our way back to hotel and encountering a group of mad buskers of sorts on the way. I say "of sorts" cause they were wandering down the streets playing as they went just for the fucking joy of it, one of them at one point rolling on the ground with one of those wee keyboard organ things ye blow through (I have no idea what they're called). Like a rat in Hamlin, I very nearly ended up following them on their travels into the night, because that sort of mad shit is just gloriously demented. There's nothing truer than a song sung for the sheer fucking relish of it on a city street late at night. Fuck it, I know it might be a pain in the ass for the neighbours but life's too short not to fucking frolic once in a while and these guys weren't yer fucking drunken yowling yobs. This was a lunatic cabaret band escaped from the club and roaming free as Dionysian revellers. I actually was going to go off to follow them, said good night to Greg and went with them a short way... but then realised I wasn't exactly sure of where I was in relation to the hotel and I might well end up even less sure if I followed this rambling quintet to God knows where. So I decided to be sensible and, alas, left them to go their merry way, and found my way back to the hotel with only a brief moment of panic, phoning Greg (he was only five minutes ahead me after all) to say, um, I'm not sure where I am, do you have any idea where Ulica Paulinska is from -- oh, no here it is.

Sunday. My last full day in Poland. Bollocks, is all I can say. I would have stayed for another week if I could, or longer. But as it was all I could do was say my fond farewells to Kasia and Jacek after breakfast, try to convey to them just how wonderful they'd been as hosts, how much I appreciated everything they've done both professionally and personally. There was talk of me coming back over for Polcon in August next year (and we've chatted since by email so it looks to be as settled as such things can be, all unforeseeable curcumstances aside).

Kasia had organised a personal tour of Krakow with a professional guide, and she led me on a leisurely stroll through a gorgeous sunny day, more like summer than autumn, up to the castle and through the side-streets up and around the Old Town. If I tried to describe everything I saw, fuck, I'd never get this blog entry finished, so all I'll say is go to Krakow. If you ever get the chance, go. It's a beautiful city with too much to take in during the brief time I had. I spent a morning walking round the old town and I could have spent a week.

Just after midday Greg met up with us for a few drinks in a "secret" bar (advertised by a person standing on a street corner with a big sign saying "SECRET BAR"). We chatted and sipped beer for a while, talking about language, religion, brothers and all sorts, before it came time to say goodbye. I got on with Greg like a house on fire, as they say. For the whole trip he wasn't just a translator but a friend, a mate. So, Greg, man, if yer ever over in Glasgow let me know cause the drinks are on me. Slainje, dude.

After we parted I spent the day wandering, round park that circles the Old Town where the city walls used to be, back past the Wawel to the hotel then through Kazimierz to the Jewish Cemetary at the edge of it, back into Kazimierz for a few beers in a bar that offered free internet but which turned out to mean wifi connectivity for yer laptop, which I hadn't brought with me. I ended up just sttting there in its beer garden, making the notes from which much of this is reconstructed, going over in my head all the people and places, smiling to myself, already beginning to miss Poland without having even left it yet.

I ate in a restaurant on Ulica Jozef that night, had a wee half-carafe of red wine to go along with beef carpaccio and a roe deer steak (which was what sold me on the place, I confess; I can never pass up venison). A melon sorbet brought the meal to a good end, and it seems fitting that this was where and when I finished Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT. I enjoyed it nearly as much as I enjoyed Poland, after all -- and good things having to come to an end and that -- and that slight sadness at having to leave the next day being matched by that wee touch of disappointment in the book's complete lack of exploding airships. ;-)

I spent the evening in the market square of the Plac Novy again, sitting at a table outside Alchemie, belching gas from me Żywiec, listening to jazz play inside, watching people walk the streets with those tomato-cheese-bread pizza things whose name I can't recall. Stalls closed for the night. Those big pillars with posters. Taxis waiting for business. Strangers at the table next to me switching languages -- Polish, English, French -- to find a common tongue. What else is there to tell? I'm not sure. I think maybe that I'll leave it there. I hope I've at least given an impression of how much I enjoyed my time there, given a taste of all there is to relish about the country. I rather think that Poland might well pop up in my fiction in the future, perhaps in some fantastic city of this story or that, a Warsawian Palace of Culture or a Krakowian Wawel, a pub in a vaulted cellar, a few more 'sz's and such in the faux-European "lingsicht" I sometimes throw in. I hope I can sneak in a few wee things here and there that a Warsawian or a Krakowian will read and think, hey, I recognise that. I hope I can bring a smile to their face the way Poland did for me.

All the best, mis amigos. And I'll say it again though it's still not enough:



Blogger paul f cockburn said...

An SF convention without a bar? Sheesh. The only time that ever happened to me was back in 1986, in South Kensington, London. And that was a Doctor Who convention, so it served me bloody right.

Then again, if it meant Cons would start attracting lots more fit young men...

7:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, my name was - and is ;) - Marcin.

Good to hear that yuu liked our present ;). In fact that vodka is called Zubrowka (Bison Grass Vodka) - but it's not so important ;).

And as to "a stunning lass in full traditional Polish dress" - her name is Gosia. And her dress.. er.. how to say that... She is a dancer, she knows Irish and Scottish dancec, she gives perfomrances and so on. And she told us that was a "Scottish dress" the entire dance team wear. Well, maybe it wasn't Scottish enough ;) but it wasn't Polish also ;).

7:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hmmm, too much of the Zubrowka before writing that entry; where I got the word "Dubrovska" from I have no idea. I seem to have cross-wired the vodka with a Croatian city and thrown an extra "s" in for good measure. I thought *every* Polish word had an "s", a "z"or both. :-)

But, yes... Gosia -- I remember the name now! Funny enough, yes, it would be right for a traditional Scottish dance team. I just didn't make the connection (being too busy thinking about the cake, I suspect).

1:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I wasn't bored to tears, just a little bit... well I didn't understand a fucking word :)

I hope we can meet again in Poland or maybe in Scotland. Oh, on my blog ther's a photo of us two talking during book fair.

8:50 pm  

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