All 7 entries tagged Warsaw
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May 14, 2012
The Brave New World club-cafe of leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, an oasis of free criticism in Warsaw's downtown I frequently pop in to (and one of the most interesting cultural cafes in Europe), is again under threat. The current rent of the historic New World's cafe is due to expire, and the association has succefully bid for another space, the former Menora restaurant on Plac Grzybowski - the centre of the former Jewish Ghetto, which is now being regenerated. It is less central than the current location, a bit further away from the University, but still a great place: actually, Brave New World is exactly what is needed to bring back to life a square that has become sleepy and neglected.
In an insult to the rule of law, the local authority have declared the tender won by Brave New World void and reopened it, with the requirement that any activity should be focussed on Jewish traditions - in the previous tender, there was no mention of them. This selective rediscovery of Jewish Warsaw is nothing more than a pretext to exclude a politically and culturally fastidious presence.
Polish cultural and political personalities, from Baumann and Holland to Mazowiecki and Kwasniewski, have signed a petition in defence of Brave New World (Wspanialy Nowy Swiat). I can't find an English version, but I guess it will appear soon on the London's virtual site of Krytyka Polityczna.
October 30, 2011
At the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes.
Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising. Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.
Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.
Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).
During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.
Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...
With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.
October 26, 2011
Football in Central Eastern Europe has some cultural specificities, rooted in a more artisan style, political subtitles under communism, lower incidence of media and sponsors, and stronger oral traditions – see the instructive ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. With westernisation, much has changed, but sometimes in unexpected directions.
When I was in Poland in the 1990s I was tempted to go watch the football, but never actually went despite the very cheap tickets. The level of the game was disappointing but especially the fans were not recommendable. Not because in Poland there were more violent hooligans than in Italy in absolute terms – if any, the opposite would be true. The problem was the ratio: in my home town's San Siro, there would be maybe 1,000 potentially violent hooligans, hidden among 80,000 totally (well, almost totally) normal people; it is enough to know some basic geography of the stadium and you don’t have anything to worry about. In a Polish stadium, there will still be just 1,000 potentially violent hooligans – but only 500 ‘normal’ spectators...
Things have moved on. Sportwise, Polish football is still in dire straits and does not remember the great team that arrived third in the World Cups of 1974 and 1982. Over the last twelve European or World Cups, Poland has qualified only three times, and even then has always gone out immediately. They did qualify for Euro 2012 – but as hosts. The clubs are even worse, given that the best Polish players have gone the same way as the plumbers - abroad. No Polish team has qualified for the Champions League in sixteen years. Add to this regular corruption scandals and there is not much to enjoy.
But in terms of attendance things have moved on, although not necessarily improved. In the last few years a few modern stadia have been built – for Euro 2012 but also for the richest clubs like Wisła Kraków and Legia Warszawa. They are very rarely full, but still attendance, and ticket prices, have increased a lot, together with the average income in the country.
More recently , football fans (kibice or in slang kibole) have also become a political actor. As in many countries, they are permeated with extreme right groups, but the novelty is that in Poland they have unanimously organised in support of one party (the rightwing Law and Justice, PiS), or, more precisely, against one party (the ruling liberal Civic Platform, PO), responsible for heavier policing in and around the stadia, but also not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. In the last election campaign, the liberal prime minister undertook a bus campaign journey throughout the country – and everywhere he would be met up by organised football fans disrupting his events and shouting ‘Tusk, ty matole, rząd obalą ci kibole!’ ('Tusk, you fool, these fans bring down the government’). The Right, on its side, started idealising football fans as an example of modern patriotism. Senator Romaszewski, a famous former dissident, even compared the football fans beaten by the police to the workers of Radom and Ursus violently repressed by communist security forces in 1976. One week before the election, when a police car killed a fan in Zielona Góra at the end of a speedway match (speedway is nearly as popular as football in Poland), the tension reached dangerous levels.
However, if football fans may have brought a few thousands votes to Kaczyński’s party, they lost many more to him. In the last election of the campaign, PO broadcasted a TV ad showing violent football hooligans in action and concluding ‘they go to vote – and you?’. According to surveys, the main reason why voters abandoned Law and Justice was the football fans. To stay in football talk, the fans scored an own goal of massive proportions.
On Sunday I went to see Legia Warszawa – Widzew Łódź. In the mid-nineties this was the decisive match for the title, but since then the two teams followed the economic fate of their cities: Warsaw's wealthy modernity is reflected by the new stadium in the beautiful Łazienki park, while Łódź is depressed, fighting to avoid relegation in an old stadium in decay. Still, the rivalry between the two largest Polish cities is very strong and Łódź is still often labelled as ‘Jewish’ by fans of other cities. Legia’s are particularly nationalist and anti-semitic: last month, in the Europe Cup match against Hapoel tel Aviv they exposed a large green banner ‘Jihad Legia’, and around the stadium Ku Klux Klan signs started to appear. There have been some cases of violence too. The shameful peak was reached by the Legia fans three weeks ago: they went to a match of the youngest team of Warsaw rivals Polonia, just to verbally abuse and physically threaten them: a team of nine-year old kids had to run in tears from the pitch to the changing room and be protected by the police...
This Sunday was not so bad fortunately. The specificity of Polish fans is that they shout rhythmically without any interruption, but they have an extremely limited vocabulary – which, on the positive side, means that I did not hear any racist slogan. The impression is that the large majority has absolutely no clue about politics.
Polish fans seem to have gone through a sort of specific natural evolution determined by their specific natural environment. Given that the quality of the game is so poor (a 2-0 with just three shot on goal, on a Sunday afternoon when, elsewhere, Balotelli was destroying United and Milan was recovering from 0-3 to 4-3), the fans have developed the special attitude of not caring at all about what happens on the pitch. They only care about themselves and, possibly, the opposite fans and the police. Goal opportunities, missed balls, referee decisions would not affect the level of noise in the match. They keep shouting in the same way regardless of whether the result is 0-0, 0-3 or 3-0 – a quality which actually gained them the title of best fans at Euro 2008, and has been recently admired by Manchester City fans who adopted the customs of Lech Poznań’s ones. A second natural evolution of football fans in Poland is resistance to low temperatures. On a very cold autumn Sunday, when Legia eventually scored (the only events that they seem to notice), a good number of them threw their white Legia shirt away, remaining happily topless for the rest of the match while I was freezing despite two sweaters (and in Poland they don’t sell Glühwein like in the German stadia).
There was indeed one change of attitude of the fans during the match, but not related to football. Five minutes into the game, when Legia's players first reached the opposite end of the pitch, they were met by intensive fireworks fire from Łódź fans. The match was stopped for a few minutes and security forces reacted by charging the visiting fans and forcing them further away from the pitch. At that point the Legia end, in political solidarity with their counterparts, changed the target of their insults from the visitors to the police, and the hitherto uninterrupted ‘Łódzka kurwa’ roar was replaced by the slightly more sophisticated ‘jebać policię – kurwo zostaw kibica’ (sorry, I can’t translate these ones, without violating University rules on obscene language and having this blog shut down immediately).
The fans are not just a problem for Kaczyński – they also are for the football clubs, who unsuccessfully attempt to attract the middle classes in the new stadia (especially through prices, already higher than in Germany and Italy although much lower than in the UK and Spain). There is an intrinsic contradiction, though, between the methods used to control the hooligans and the aim at attracting new fans and their families, willing to spend more money and cause less trouble. As in Italy, Polish authorities have had the bad idea of enforcing compulsory ‘team fan cards’ to control who enters the stadion. This segregates fans from the beginning into ‘tribes’, and constitutes a barrier to the occasional neutral fan. I had to get this card in Italy for AC Milan, and I was a bit annoyed to be forced to get one also for Legia Warsaw, a team I do not support (I prefer Polonia Warsaw, and the KKK signs are at odds with my life promise that I would only support Inter Milan the day they play against the Ku Klux Klan). At least, the Polish card is made instantly by just showing an ID card, unlike the Italian one that, like everything in that country, needs a mountain of paperwork and a long wait. Most of all, however, I miss the informal, Volksfest style of German stadia, and the less tribal setting of Italian stadia in the 1980s. I remember seeing a few Milan – Napoli back then (how do I remember? you don’t forget Diego Armando Maradona), and the fun of bartering with the numerous Napoli fans sitting around, given the large population of immigrants from Naples in Milan. Variety is lost, homogeneity has been enforced – in Poland, even politically.
October 23, 2011
I am spending a month in Warsaw, staying on the 14th floor of one o the 19 identical huge blocks of the city’s most famous communist council estate in the capital, Za Zielazną Bramą ('Behind the Iron Gate'). It is like living on an open contemporary history book, in continuous updating.
The estate was built in the early 1970s on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, where in 1940-1943 over one million Jews were packed and then sent to Treblinka. Just as Krakow’s Ghetto of Kazimierz has been put on the tourist map by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Warsaw Ghetto has been shown to the world’s public by Polanski’s The Pianist. The difference is, however, that Kazimierz still exist and Schindler’s List was filmed there, while there is virtually no building left of the Warsaw Ghetto: The Pianist was filmed in Potsdam, Eastern Germany (it is nonetheless a superior film to Schindler’s List, although not entirely faithful to Szpilman’s own book). The Ghetto was destroyed during the revolt of 1943, possibly the greatest expression of human dignity ever: more than Szpilman’s book (who was hiding and did not take part in the revolt himself), I recommend the account by the surviving revolt’s leader Marek Edelman, a protagonist of Warsaw history for the following sixty-six years (he died two years ago), whom I had the honour to have a coffee with in 2005.
Before the war, three points of this area were possibly the liveliest of the whole Warsaw: Chłodna Street with its shops and nightlife, Plac Grzybowski with its craftsmen shops, and the market halls of Hala Mirowska. The little that survived of them went into decay after the war, and only over the last year Chłodna Street and Plac Grzybowski have been revamped. It is now the round of the only Ghetto street which had not been destroyed, but was now in total decay, Ulica Prożna. In some points, the place of the former Ghetto wall has been marked in the pavement, in the same way as it has been done in Berlin for ‘their’ wall. On Ulica Chłodna, which with its tramways in 1940-43 cut the Ghetto into two halves but remained non-Jewish, a monument marks the position of the outrageous bridge which in 1940-43 allowed Jews to move between the two parts of the Ghetto without entering in contact with the non Jewish population in the street below them. Moreover, the Jewish centre, the Synagogue and the Jewish theatre are increasingly important presences not only for Israeli visitors, but for the city.
The estate Za Zielazną Bramą that was built in 1965-72 on the ruins of the ‘small Ghetto’ is quite unfamous, just like with all low-income estates (e.g. mine in Coventry). To many, it represents brutalist communist architecture at its worst, and its flats are notoriously small. People do not want to live in such places anymore, despite the excellent central locations, and those who managed to leave were replaced during the 1980s and 1990s by many Vietnamese, in what may become the first ethnic inner city in Poland. However, such fame is not entirely deserved. As architect Jarosław Trybuś writes in his ‘Guide to Warsaw blocs’ (Przewodnik po warszawskich blokowiskach, 2011), this estate was the most ambitious attempt in the whole of Europe to realise Le Corbusier's utopian ideas on council houses (think his famous buildings in Marseille). The nineteen blocs are put in geometric order so that they do never look cramped. In fact, they were immersed in large green space, which back under communism was filled by parks, playgrounds, communal services. The entrance halls are spacious and bright, each bloc with its little internal shop (I like buying the newspaper for breakfast without having to go out).
The problem is that history moved on and we now have a third life for this area: the financial district. Skyscrapers and luxury hotels grow like mushrooms, in between the old communist blocs. In the remaining space, playgrounds become private kindergarten and parks become car parks: the effect is an increasingly cramped unique architectural and urban mess: 5-star hotels and financial institutions headquarters looking directly into poor flats. One may wonder why developers do not take the blocs down and, given the very prime locations, replace them with much priceier buildings. But the blocs are built in cast concrete and would be the only buildings in Warsaw to resist a nuclear attack: they are going to stay. At the moment there are mostly old residents who can’t afford anything better and Vietnamese immigrants, but over time, with some modernisation, they could become ideal one-bedroom flats for the emerging young cosmopolitan ‘professionals’ (like my neighbour: a Greek chef).
Something which is changing very slowly, fortunately, is the Hala Mirowska market. The XIX century halls, after war destructions and communist-time defacement, host some old stalls and two old-fashioned supermarkets. All around, there is a vibrant market with great fresh vegetables, cakes, cooked and fresh meats, flowers, some fish. It is not as spectacular as the Spanish markets, but it is more lively. It was here that Margaret Thatcher, on her official visit in 1988, ostentatiously went to buy some grocery surrounded by photographs, to show that the market was the way. But over two decades of market reforms later, Hala Mirowska suffers from British presence: that of Tesco. A proper market needs regulations, not Margaret Thatcher...
October 10, 2011
Warsaw wakes up this morning and nothing has changed. Just like every 10th day of each month, there is a religious commemoration of the Smolensk disaster of the 10th April 2010, and Jarosław Kaczyński lays a crown of flowers in front of the presidential palace, in memory of his brother Lech. He would have liked to wake up this morning as winner of the elections, but it does not matter: for him, his brother is still the moral president (because he would have been re-elected, had he not been killed by some sort of liberal conspiracy with Russian involvement), and himself will eventually win the elections in four years: yesterday night, he promised that he will ‘do Budapest in Warsaw’, a reference to the landslide victory of the Hungarian nationalist Right last year, after two terms of socialist government.
The parliamentary elections have confirmed the ruling coalition between liberals (PO) and peasants (PSL), which, according to still unofficial results, should keep a narrow majority. This is undoubtedly a major achievement for Prime Minister Tusk. It is the first time since the fall of communism that a ruling coalition is confirmed after the first term – until now, Poles had constantly expressed their disappointment with governments of whatever colour by voting them out of office at the first opportunity. In the 1990sk, it was the same in all post-communist countries, but Hungarians and Czechs already in the 2000s started to confirm their governments, in an indication of democratic consolidation. Tusk’s victory is all the more remarkable that it comes in the middle of a global crisis, when all governments find it extremely difficult to maintain their support. It may not be all Tusk’s merit, but Poland has been the only European country not to have interrupted its economic growth during the last three years, and it is starting to be referred to as a ‘second Germany’.
Tusk himself has changed and, also because of the need to ally with PSL, has moderated its radical neoliberal orientations of the 1990s. Over the last four years, it has avoided the radical anti-social reforms that he had advocated when he was in opposition. He now he declares that ‘to rule you need a heart’ and even admits that in 1990, in his dispute with Mazowiecki on the pace of economic reforms, it was Mazowiecki who (‘as always’) was right, when saying that the social consequences should be taken into consideration.
However, Tusk’s is not a triumph. His party has lost little ground since 2007 (down from 41% to 39%), but turn-out has gone down from 53% to 48%: the Polish majority did not care to go to vote. The next four years will be difficult, with the preparation to EMU (if such a thing survives!) and increasing internal tensions between radical neoliberals and more moderate sides. Until now, the strongest force for PO was its adversary, Kaczyński’s PiS, whose paranoid government of 2006-07 is remembered with fear by a large majority of the Polish population. But this fear may water down over time, while other, more convincing opposition parties may emerge.
Kaczyński will probably remain leader of PiS despite this sixth consecutive defeat: the party is of a charismatic kind, with all power in the hands of the leader. As usual, during the campaign he showed a more moderate face, but he had a major slip in his book, when insinuating that Angela Merkel’s election may have been the product of ‘dark forces’ – and refusing to clarify what he meant.. ‘Dark forces’ in Poland may mean only two things: Jews – but Merkel is not Jewish and just about the only obsession Kaczyński does not have is anti-semitism; or secret services. Anybody can read that he meant that Merkel is a product of the Stasi – not bad as an international relations start for a candidate Prime Minister.
But PiS is fragmenting: its best representative, Joanna Kluzik-Rutkowska who helped Kaczyński reach a honourable result in the presidential elections last year, defected to PO, and others have split creating another conservative party, PJN (only 2% yesterday). The PiS electorate is largely old demographically, so that time plays against them. Kaczyński’s book, ‘The Poland of Our Dreams’, despite some clumsy Obama/Luther King resonance, betrays how unrealistic his plans are: it even contains a chapter ‘The Polish History of Our Dreams’ – an involuntary confession of how unfounded the romantic vision of Polish history is. It is surprising that the Solidarity union, despite, electing a less political leader last year, decided again to support PiS despite the foreseeable defeat – in four years, it is unlikely that they will repeat the mistake.
The other opposition with a strong negative electorate is also disappearing: the post-communist Left (SLD), which has obtained the worst result since 1989 (8%). Its young leader Napieralski has not managed to give the party a new image, and even less, something like a distinctive leftwing program. He has resigned today, and the depressing thing is that nobody wants the job.
Poland has been waiting for a new left since 1989, with only one temporarily effective experiment (the Labour Union of the mid-1990s). The surprise of this election is the success of a new fringe party, Palikot’s Movement, which obtained 10% and a stunning 23% among young voters. Palikot is an entrepreneur and a former MP of PO, who made its name through anticlericalism. His party stands for the liberalisation of abortion, same-sex civic unions, end of Catholic education in state schools. In a European perspective, this is hardly radical stuff: most Tories would subscribe to them. What is new is the provocative form of communication, which makes it similar to the Italian radicals, and possibly to the German Pirates who just won in Berlin. But Palikot’s movement is made largely of entrepreneurs and socio-economically it actually sounds individualistic and possibly even more neoliberal than PO (it supports flat income tax and a minimal state). It is likely that as with any maverick party, this one will split and collapse soon – some of it will end back with PO, but some New Left seeds may go into a social terrain which is now fertile for leftwing ideas, on both civil and social rights. For the moment, Poland is a bit more pink, but no more red.
May 26, 2011
A very short trip to Budapest and Warsaw. In Budapest, not enough time for the best things, music and the Turkish baths - but the whole city was a sort of Turkish bath of humid heat. Just the time to check that the food and wine are as good as they used to be in 2004, when I spent two months in the city – but not enough time, fortunately, to suffer from what was arguably also the unhealthiest of world cuisines until McDonald’s was founded. I am not sure how many other countries have recipes including fat cuts of meat, oil, butter and lard – and then accompany the dish with generous helpings of cream.
Unhealthy and spicy are also Hungarian politics, with prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in 2002 had modelled his electoral campaign on Berlusconi’s, outdoing his model and achieving unprecedented peaks of authoritarian populism. Thanks to a 2/3 majority in Parliament he could steamroll a new Constitution and new laws allowing the government to control the media and the other state’s institutions, and awarding citizenship to millions Hungarians abroad – at risk of destabilising Romania and Slovakia. Now, he abandoned his social populism (in the past he conceded 50% wage increases and contested healthcare privatisation) to start with tough austerity measures (the country is nearly bankrupt after years of right- and leftwing populism). There are some protests, in particular by police and firefighters against the removal of their early retirement, but the political orientation of them is at least ambiguous (a Israeli flag was burnt in the last demo). Interestingly, among Orbán's targets there are multinational companies. The Hungarian love story with foreign investors may be reaching the end: the 1990s’ nickname of ‘GE-Country’ has been replaced by ‘Orbanistan’.
After Budapest, a short stop in Warsaw was a relief not just because the heat was milder and drier. Poland has avoided the worst of financiarisation and skipped the recession and already moved on from the worst of national populism (the Kaczynski brothers’ rule of 2005-07). Politics is bland but getting ‘normal’: on Wednesday Solidarity organised a national protest against the anti-social policy of the liberal government. Tens of thousands took parts. Not so many in comparison with the West, but at least no Israeli flag was burnt.
Now I am back to Madrid. The #spanishrevolution, which after the end of the ban has no immediate goal left, is nearly over, and it is now the Right to make its voice heard, after a clear victory in the local elections (it reminds of De Gaulle's electoral victory after May 1968, and Fanfani's after the Italian autunno caldo). But the #spanishrevolution has spread a lot of seeds over the internet – even in Budapest and Warsaw they were talking about it, with a bit of envy.
November 01, 2010
Nowy Świat (New World) is the most representative shopping street of Warsaw’s (rebuilt) city centre. The most famous outlet is still probably the Blika patisserie, one of the very few private family shops under communism, famous for its doughnuts. At the corner with Świętokrzyska there used to be a historic café with the same name Nowy Świat. Opened in 1883, it was for over a century a favourite meeting place for artists, intellectuals and, increasingly, dignitaries and agents. I was there often in the early-mid 1990s. As a western student I could easily afford its inflated prices, and wait for the hyper-slow state-sector service. Even without liking its decadent stuccoes & decor, nor the occasional fraudsters trying to lure foreigners into the most improbable ventures, at a stone's throw from the University it was then one of the very few quiet places one could use for meetings and interviews, as well as to catch up with the western press. But like many other state-owned addresses, it shut down. For a decade or so, the landlord, i.e. the city council, did not know what to do with it.
Finally, last year, the council called a contest for opening a non-profit cultural centre in it. Out of 15 competitors, this was won by the leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, for its proposal of a multi-function bar + cultural centre focusing on photography, cinema, literature, music and politics. The café-cum-cultural centre is called “Nowy Wspaniały Świat” (Brave New World), in a double-edged irony of the previous place and of Huxley’s dystopia, and it has been a successful bet. Its varied program is very attractive and the place has become very popular and crowded. To the point of annoying part of the establishment. No less than Jarosław Kaczyński, the former prime minister and narrowly-defeated presidential candidate, complained recently that Warsaw’s mayor could offer such a prestigious address to a leftist group who can use it to corrupt the Polish youth attending the nearby university. Warsaw’s mayor is the liberal-conservative Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz, herself very traditional, but not as much as her predecessor, Jarosław’s twin Lech, who must be turning in his grave. A good share of Nowy Wspaniały Świat’s program is taken by LGBT initiatives – Lech used to ban gay events, and now these are not just tolerated but even indirectly sponsored by the city (to complicate things, according to the twins’ former friend and now enemy Lech Wałesa, the ever-bachelor Jarosław used to hang around with a ‘husband’).
On the 21st of November Poles will vote in the local elections and Warsaw’s citizens will probably confirm Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz. Nowy Wspaniały Świat will then survive as a brilliant exception in the otherwise hyper-consumerist Warsaw’s City Centre flooded with bars’ and restaurants’ chains, and the populist right will endure a severe fourth consecutive electoral defeat. Kaczyński may not be helped by his candid admission that during the presidential campaign he was under the effect of strong painkillers to cope with his brother’s loss, and did not really know what he was saying – the reason why he had actually seemed quite human to my blog, but imagine a US presidential candidate admitting that he was on drugs during the campaign.