To Know Carp

Carp is the bounty of the hunter locked by land, whose sea is a meadow that hugs a green pond, where waves are invisibly measured by time alone. The taste of carp is the opposite of a baltic breeze. 

In the 20th century, the odyssey to secure one’s fishing in a good, productive pond in Central Europe was a battle against the violence and oppression of history. From this torture the humble carp became a rarified being. As such, the eating of carp must be dealt with as a delicate matter in the service of perfection.

Since our last Polish Christmas which featured a killer whale, Janek had suffered a heart attack, and one way or another this meant that I should prepare the carp this year. It was a complicated equation with strange elements. For one, if I messed up the cooking of it, I would be forgiven in an instant for not really knowing carp. Another thing was, I was a decent cook and knew how to fry breaded fish while keeping my wits. 

The fish itself we had acquired from the fishmonger around the corner. We found it the hard way. The townspeople had overrun all their supermarkets, which had consequently sold out of carp, and the aisles had been left full of ruined boxes like a cardboard castle at a recently dispersed children’s party.

So we chanced a visit to the local fish shop and even though it was 24th December, a few of those muddy fellows remained breathing in a tank, immobile but as alert and wise as ever. Fortunately, the fishmonger did not have to pick a fresh one to kill for us in his back room. Some meat from a previous victim remained, to Ula’s relief, and she remembered the sound of death from childhood.

Back in Babcia’s apartment, first I descaled the fillets of what Ota Pavel called the golden piglet. It was essential to remove every single scale as they were as hard as nails, and I had to dig them out because he was wearing them like armour. Once I had done this, I ran the knife at an angle across the skin side to remove a scummy layer, and twisted the lemon juice on instead. 

When it came to eating, we agreed the carp was ok this year, and I thought even delicious, which I noted down as some kind of signal given my salty island heritage.

Back in Warsaw, New Year’s Eve soon came along. Ula and I watched Vampire’s Kiss, a film in which the protagonist, a young man played by Nicolas Cage and bearing some of his characteristic madness, becomes convinced that he is a vampire after spending an unusually passionate night with a strange woman. The delusions he suffers afterward send him into real blood-lust. This appetite, unbidden but all-consuming, leads him in a searching, desperate state, to eat a cockroach in his apartment, before staggering on to the streets of New York, and chasing pigeons to drain them of blood, before finally capturing human flesh.

All the while, his vampiric lunacy is propelled by a dream, of the passion of the young woman who turned him.

From Notes from a Polish Allotment 2018-20

Modernity and Warsaw

A Warsaw walk: begins at a terminus overlooked by poplars. A single track looping around to rejoin itself; a teardrop-shaped piece of infrastructure, aside the street Rakowiecka. Midsummer.

In the bay waits a tram before setting upon the return journey. Its woman driver smokes on the pavement in the meantime. On the air, cotton-like blossom swirls as a spring snow might if it only were less warm. 

All along Rakowiecka, opposite the old prison and by the Warsaw School of Economics with its socialist modernist mosaics, piles of cut grass are rotting in the sun. Compared to regular Varsovian air, the smell is divine. Maybe tomorrow the heaps will be collected by a rabble of gardeners, or the next day, or the next day.

Where Rakowiecka meets Puławska two lions give a token for the recent past, stone statues that stood before the now demolished Kino Moskwa.

From where the old cinema used to be Puławska, a long boulevard occasionally vital with commerce and queuing, heads south. Cars motor along it and, over time, certain shops and premises will succumb to the ugliness of the power of traffic. In this way, the service of Puławska to the modern notion of free circulation through the central city is typical of Warsaw’s main roads, which cut neighbourhoods like fault lines, quickened by the load they carry. 

Nearby, from Plac Unii Lubelskiej toward Plac Zbawiciela, a certain combination of craft and solidity, which the socialist modernist tendency in architecture lent to its buildings, makes the stretch of Marszałkowska street there a wistful place. Brickwork and columns, stone parapets and verdigrised balconies, all in fine dimensions, are universally stained by the fumes of years.

One arrives at Plac Zbawiciela, a space where crescent buildings spectate a centre. The concavity of the architecture presses the place to bear witness to something but the central stage of it contains only the fork of tram tracks flanked by some modest cypresses and greenery. The surrounding place, the circular mood, is caught, resisting its own fabric, the Church of the Holiest Saviour thereby seeing to this spatial chasteness, with towers erect like pompous policemen. Between 2012-215 a rainbow sculpture provided such a focal point to Plac Zbawiciela. But it dismayed critics against tolerance who, taking it as a symbol of homosexuality, destroyed it multiply, until the good will to rebuild it was exhausted. Since then, somehow, it has become preferable that such controversies are erased, and it seems the voiding of a focal point is easier for people to agree on, than a monument to the rainbow, upon which, for some, hatred ripens. 

Bearing east toward the river, one arrives at the crest of the hill on which central Warsaw lies. Here black wooden Domki finskie (Finnish houses) are scattered among trees and, beyond them, various embassies sit behind speared fences. Prefabricated houses that arrived from Finland in 1945, Domki finskie were received as reparation for war damages, and their good quality has been proved by longevity. In them projects like the
Municipal Beekeeping Workshop, Workshop of Common Goods, and the Embassy of Traditional Music, now attempt to re-energise the buildings and their green gardens in order to save the lot from the appetite of developers.

Across Plac Trzech Krzyży and arriving at Aleja Jerozolimskie, one is presented to a wide crossing with a palm tree in its midst. This item, whose bark and leaves are supposedly real but inner trunk metal, is an installation which, unlike the aforementioned rainbow, has stayed the course. In general, its countenance for 5 warm months of the year recommends the Polish summer, and, during the cold that remains, becomes a tropical vision, a beacon of hope to something warm, strange and distant.

Just along from here, heading roughly east, at Smolna 6 stands Młotek (the Hammer).  Looking out from the top of the park that leads down to Powiśle train station, Młotek is a postwar high-rise block of flats, the upper story of which extends over its precipice. Its shape resembles a diving board, but its pool is Warsaw, and any thought passing over a jump or fall from Młotek would be a splash made in concrete oblivion.

Besides the park, over a high, steep wall with razor wire, sits the reflective white stone of the convent of St. Vincent de Paul. The building overlooks a large acreage on the escarpment running down toward the Wisła where, in their free time, sisters tend the gardens and orchards under the watchful eye of Mary (from her glass cabinet).

Headed to the centre, away from the slope and back in a western direction, here music escapes the bindings of the Frederyk Chopin University of Music. A melody travels above and across the footpaths of the park, from birch to acacia, to elder to keck, sounding like the hope of a human bird.

Unconsciously channeled along Chmielna now, and drifting on the built-in flow of Warsaw, one observes the competition between Pawłowicz hot doughnuts, Caffé Nero, Kebab King and TGI Friday. Since the first Macdonald’s opened in Poland in 1992, the country has been increasingly quick to gather urban development and exploit investment in Polish central cities, introducing ersatz centres for commerce and the garish, all too familiar signs of multinational companies that go with them. The precinct at the end of Chmielna coming to face the Pałac Kultury typifies this, and is covered in the stains of discarded gum and pigeon shit, in the most banal and generic way imaginable.

Wanting to continue from here, to reach the Pałac, the subway will have to be negotiated. Most roads around Centrum have no crossings above ground; the primacy of automotive traffic obliges one to enter underground. The subway here may be the jewel in the crown of Warsaw’s modernity.

By its entrance, a woman is loitering with cut white lilacs, and she holds them out gingerly to passersby. She is not a tremendous saleswoman, but then, perhaps she is not really selling them, or is not sure if she is selling them: a portent of confusion yet to come.

Downstairs in the semi-dark, one joins quickly the movement in the corridors. Structurally, the place is a basic loop, but extensive, and it takes many circuits or indeed distinct visits here to be able to map it out, as the loop contains several connecting corridors from one side to the other, and a large number of exits from its circulation extend like limbs, eventually meeting steps that climb out into the light. 

On each side of the tunnels are shops, some boarded up, but mostly open: bakeries, money transfer booths, cheap boutiques and nail bars. Queues form here and there, especially at rush hour, and those who leave the human traffic must hug the wall to pick up their sandwich, lest they be shovelled further along to some unknown part against their will. 

Because the subway was built for a modern, communist mass, little other than its proper function was taken into account. But since the crowd imploded, individual sparks flew in every direction. The competitive nature and desires of the 21st century human defy prescriptive architecture which can not acknowledge its whim. A serious effort in concentration is required to escape from those tunnels, while fellow travellers bounce around from one pillar to the next short-sightedly, in a world of dark, sporadic purchases, devoid of landmarks. Eventually the exit for the steps to Plac Defilad can be found and confusion is left behind, dim-lit in the subway, where it jumps onto the next person, as if it lived.

In the shade by the metro, behind the strawberry sellers in the sun, riff-raff-type men splash their faces with water, forming dark patches on their grey T-shirts.

Once on ground level, the Pałac Kultury comes into view, demanding an audience for itself. The ornate Palace sits solidly by the no-person’s land of Plac Defilad, while glass and steel skyscrapers close in sharply around it.

Crossing the breadth of the square at the feet of the Pałac, from Centrum Metro to Warszawa Śródmieście and finally to the concourse in front of Warszawa Centralna, can take several minutes. There is no connection between each train station; yet between them is ample space for unplanned meadows to grow to the hip, and drunks to meander from sleeping place to sleeping place.

Over the road from the station, two young men from Central Asia wait for a phone call outside a bank. This is likely a glimpse of a moment of a process on the path to opportunity, which Warsaw represents to a new generation of citizens arrived from former Soviet Republics.

At the junction on the corner there, a north-south overpass flies above Aleja Jerozolimskie, hemming in the Central Station. Driving across the overpass, drawing nearer to the advertising hoardings hung high on facades and pylons, one feels to be on board a flying car. But to see the concrete from down here which underpins this ascent brings one back down to earth. The flying car’s puppeteer is exposed.

To the left and heading south now toward the starting place. Traffic roars past and, in parking bays in the shade of trees, men smoke by vans in between making deliveries. From time to time the whir of electric scooters is heard as young girls and boys pass by upon them.

Still travelling southward and back on Aleja Niepodległości, the journey shortly to be completed. Old ladies are sitting in central reservations, waiting in overcoats and hats at tram stops in the baking sun, while traffic passes briskly by on either side of them beneath historic tenements.

At the corner of Pole Mokotowskie (Mokotów Fields), a path named after Ryszard Kapuściński diverts from the aleja and into the expanse of the park, where stretched out above open fields is the enormity of Polish skies. 

Much deeper in the park, among overgrown sidings and bicycle paths, is an abandoned stadium. It bears a moment of consideration: the concrete terraces of seats, populated by weeds, grasses, elder and a few ambitious saplings, have ruptured as if the earth had quaked, but an impossibly slow quake, over years- and no sudden jerk. Metal railings are folded over and leaning, such that they could not do their job even if they wanted to.

For some reason the grass field inside the running track is fresh cut, even though the arena is not viable. It is totally deserted, except for some object covered in a tarpaulin. On the north-west side stands a tower and gantry covered in graffiti and rust. The pinkish clay track itself looks usable but nobody runs on it now, and, with sport forsaken here, and local attendance thus dead, the old stadium ripples an emptiness through this part of town.

Now crossing the last stretch to the terminus and arriving where the chapter began, one returns to the heavy bulb of the tramway teardrop, and as luck has it, the same woman tram driver is smoking the same cigarette, and the sun is in the identical position in the sky, and only the breeze is down, the spring snow still falling.

From Notes from a Polish Allotment 2018-20

Allotment Archaeology

I wanted it to be the kind of place where people could get lost like children behind cinnamon shops. But in the lack of formality, the pretty ruins, and the worship of nature in our garden, there was something of ogród angielski (English garden) about it too. The imperfect beds and rockery containing broken crockery, and the wild roses and the meadow growing up, were things that helped us in our aims, as loose as they were. 

There was a patch in the back too for growing vegetables, and a square on the other side that I called ‘the office’, made private by a higgledy-piggledy fence made of junk. The office was squared off at the back from neighbours by a rampant ivy sculpture that had grown up around a tree stump, branches of a walnut, a wild cherry, a pine and a fingery clematis, all of which were congregating around some bamboo canes I had introduced. 

It was early spring again, and there was one final corner that I wanted to deal with. We had inherited from Pani B two old plastic bins for compost, and I decided to build two pens instead, which would allow me to turn the stuff over and get to the bottom of it.

I removed the plastic houses like moulds, revealing two prisms of half-cooked compost. The cake looked dry and cruddy on the outside and I cursed the old plastic bins.

Then I spent a day or two collecting discarded pallets and pieces of wood, making local rounds of our śmietniki (bin rooms). At this activity it was important not to step on anyone’s toes. Other local fellows were occupied in the work too, and I sensed there was some territoriality to the game that had not been explained to me. In any case, I quickly gathered the materials and constructed the new zone for composting, only receiving a few vicious glares from men with trolleys.

Once built, I turned the half-baked cakes over and into their new places. Happily, I found that the compost which we had added most of our top quality peelings and tailings to, was a deep brown colour and moist and alive after all.

I tossed the dirt around to aerate and remix it, and as I did, all kinds of memories came back to me, directly from souvenirs that I could interpret in the muck.

The top winter layer was not the richest of all, as mostly tea bags and the breath of the cold had been added, but the autumn was full of character. From it I recognised the twigs and clippings of summer’s overgrowth, and how sad and relieved I was to carry my paints home on 1st November, when I packed up my studio and the water was turned off at the allotments for the frozen winter. 

In the summer compost I knew the sunflower that we ate the seeds of for weeks, and the cobs of the corn which we had grilled on a dying barbecue after showing paintings to visitors. I also unearthed a few corks, which was the wine they drank while we sat on the blanket on the midnight lawn.

At the bottom was an avocado stone from last spring, the fruit of which we had eaten, just after we had acquired the allotment, with basil, tomato and mozzarella.

In my new compost arrangement, after a bit more time cooking, soon all this would be a layer of dirt.

And I thought of how the earth spoke in a language everyone was able to understand, how it was almost like communicating with animals- who lack nationality- and like music, a real universal language, a companion without boundary.

In layers of dirt most everything I could tell could be told, perhaps better than in a human story told by an individual by means of text, like this. How ironic is the compost bin, for the concern of form!

I thought of the words of Wisława Szymborska, through her impersonation of (so-called) Archeology: 

“Oh no, you’ve got me wrong. 

Keep your funny little piece of paper

with its scribbles.

All I need for my ends

is your layer of dirt 

and the long gone 

smell of burning.”

From Notes from a Polish Allotment 2018-20

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