Thursday, 30 May 2013

Život paneláku

On the estate: Somewhat defeats cliches about "urban decay" 

'Into the Wild'

In both our guidebooks the huge residential district of Prague 4 is described as a "wilderness of panelaks". In terms of sheer numbers, they're right. Nonetheless the coincidence of metaphor is telling. Why, when talking about a completely artificial domestic environment, is 'wilderness' thought appropriate? Echoes of the concrete jungle? Well, we're a long way from Brooklyn. 'Wilderness' suggests verdant spectacle, energy and wonder, not the anonymity and obvious architectural conformity of the socialist housing estate. We wouldn't even describe most European forests as wildernesses. It's a bit like me calling my underwear a loin cloth, which frankly it isn't. It's from Primark. 

Panelak, strictly speaking, refers to any pre-fab housing slotted together from panels of concrete. It is a phenomenon that had its genesis in the interwar republic, but the archetypal panelak dates from after the end of World War II. An image richly associated with the former socialist bloc is that of the grey fourteen storey monolith, assaulted by sleety winds in the midst of some post-feudal abyss. The enduringly popular Russian TV film Irony of Fate has some of the most magnificent, snowy footage of these beasts. Indeed, so indistinguishable are the Russian blocks that the film's central romantic conceit is premised on a man's ability to walk into a woman's flat and believe it's his own. However, the phenomenon of pre-fab housing doesn't entirely coincide with this more colossal image. It's also worth recalling, when scanning images of condemned or failing housing blocks in eastern Europe, that the West's dalliance with futurism led to similarly grand social experiments at perhaps greater social cost.

Poster for The Irony of Fate (1976)Ryazanov 
Click here to see the full movie with English subs:

To what extent is it possible, even desirable, today to disentangle eastern Europe's pre-fab housing from its web of grizzly connotations? For Eric Dluhosch, professor of architecture at MiT, the urban environment of the Czech Republic is "the exact antithesis" of the "utopia of collective dwelling" and "one of the most depressing collections of banality" ever built in the Czech lands. A familiar criticism, and not one without some justification. If their supposed redeeming grace was their very utilitarianism - that is, the elevation of the ability to 'get the job done' relative to any aesthetic considerations - many fail on even that score. Shoddy design combines with shoddy building work. Everything is at once half-mended and half-broken, stranded in a state of partly functioning limbo, the victim of an infernal cycle of ad hoc repairs. But the imagined doom of urban Czechs masks a more variegated story, which actually contains some limited successes.
Our 'hood

A Socialist Butlin's

The socialist housing estate (sídliště in Czech) has attained a certain iconic status, advertised in our own flat by a black and white image of an East German woman dwarfed by the scowling, granite-faced blocks around her. At the peculiar distance at which the photo is taken, she is rendered anonymous, while the blocks themselves acquire a mysterious, shadowy character of their own. Despite its partly nostalgic character, however, we need only look out our window to see a startlingly similar thing. In fact the East German variety is almost identical to our own. My fondness aside, it's true that the utopia of collective living remains - woefully - unrealized. We inhabit the lowest type of block, a mere four storeys, which stands on the border of a more literal wilderness of panelaks: the housing estate where we live has more trees than cars. It's dense with them: long, tall rows recede behind gently swaying evergreens. It's the first place to feel flush with spring. In places the roots of the largest and oldest trees, planted at the same time the panelaks were built, have ripped the concrete. For me it's a magical place, exuding the air of a Butlin's holiday camp: cheap housing, lush greenery, and secluded playgrounds for the kids. The occasional family wanders quietly to a car. A few dogs sniff at overgrown flower-beds. Its overriding characteristic, perhaps against its designers' intentions, is privacy. The great branches of the trees fracture irreparably the view of prying eyes. A tangle of high hedgerows and wheelie-bins provides cover for dog-walkers. In spring there is an explosion of life. The estate is dense with blossom. More fantastic, however, are the garish neon-blues and sun-yellows and deep-ochres the blocks have all been painted. They glow with a sombre energy through the foliage, garish aliens landed in some American backwater.
Blocks retreat behind greenery

All Mod Cons

Panelaks make up the larger part of the Czech housing stock, and therefore embody the idea of home for a great many. Their dismissal as aesthetic banalities and environmental and social bludgeons is rooted in two tendencies, themselves incorporated in a certain type of sympathetic western arrogance: the first emphasises the general cultural and social impoverishment of 'the East' along with its 'stunted' economic development; the second is aesthetically disdainful of any architecture besides that representing pre-modern imperial spectacle. Thus while mammoth housing estates are ugly blights, no one questions the right to existence of the endless country manors that dot the Czech and Slovak landscapes, if only for their sheer opulence. These tendencies feed the condescension of a west European audience eager to discover the eccentricities of the former socialist bloc. The same tendencies have spawned irreverent museums to Communism across the land. This phenomenon, in turn, compounds the feeling of marginalization that comes from having a globally fawned over historical city centre tucked in the embrace of a vast patchwork of prosaic residential and business districts. Many Czechs now accept without complaint that Prague's city centre is a no-go area. 

It is in fact unfair to say that the only areas of interest for visitors to Prague are the Hradčany (Castle District), Malá Strana (Little Quarter) and Staré Město (Old Town). Functionalism and Cubism, as inter-war architectural forms peculiar to Central Europe, are amply exemplified, and have been duly celebrated, outside of the tourist hub (although the most significant example of the latter is deemed to be U Černé Matky Boží in Staré Město, a number of private houses in Prague 6 are also good examples, while the best example of Czech formalism is the Veletržní Palac across the river in Holešovice). However, the "spirit of modernity" evidenced in functionalism and cubism is usually celebrated as part of an irretrievably lost world, which only briefly came up for air before the fall of the great European shadow. This heralded a "half-century of darkness," according to architect and journalist Stephan Templ: "The end of the modern era."

If a central concern of central European intellectuals has been the region's premature withdrawal from the progress of modern, liberal Europe (the 'Great March' as Milan Kundera calls it), another focus has been a more amorphous dread of the "iron cage" of total bureaucratic administration. Both are grounded in an anxiety about the modern, even if they contradict one another in the direction of their fears. The former mourns the absence of 'sophisticated', modern consciousness (a la the West); the latter despairs at the encroachment of a very modern, rationalised mode of administration. Recall Kafka's The Castle: an ignorant, staid Bohemian village is cowed by a Hapsburgian monolithic state, at once mystical and bureaucratically domineering. Meanwhile, the fear of a transformation of artistic production into a mere technical practice pervades attitudes to panelak suburbia. For the central European intellectual, modernity threatened to extinguish the creativity and independence of the artist (a trope uniting such diverse thinkers and writers as Kafka, Max Weber, Heidegger, and Adorno). Immediately after the war, the utopia of socialist housing wasn't feared for its grotesque inefficiencies and failings, but precisely for its (potentially) extraordinary success.

Karel Teige, Collage no.26, 1936: surrealism meets functionalism

Karel Tiege: Surrealism Meets Functionalism on the Estate

Karel Tiege, the star of Czech functionalism, can be seen as a bridge between pre- and postwar ideas about the social function of architecture. For Tiege the monumentalism of Le Corbusier merely reproduced old bourgeois values in different forms. Tiege started out advocating a synthesis of everyday pleasures and architectural utilitarianism - a functionalism of desires. The scale would be modest, human and, therefore, the project itself attentive to real needs. Yet he was simultaneously an articulate proponent of modernist innovation, particularly of the "metaphysics of space" of formalism. He was at home with both conctructivism and le Corbusier, thus attaining a rare status: a politically radical, left wing modernist whose ideological and aesthetic commitments were at once materialist and experimental; utilitarian and sublime. Such were the contradictory tendencies at play in the central European intellectual world of the time. What perhaps marks Tiege out from his peers is the way he reversed the cultural tendency towards social pessimism. It is hard to imagine, say, Weber or Adorno basing a utopia of collective housing on the notion of "poetism" - a slightly hippyish expression of the desire to connect "love and evil" to everyday living spaces. Tiege's optimism was expressed in the hope for a dialectical fusion, or at least transplant, of the antagonistic relationship between art and technology so dreaded by the pessimistic central European intellect:

Constructivism wanted to overcome the dualism between art and technology and simplified its task by reducing art to a new technical craft... Architecture remains a sphere that belongs both to material and spiritual culture.1

Surely, then, it was architecture that possessed the unique facility to overcome this separation, and to celebrate technical production as a free cultural practice, no longer governed by the blighting laws imposed on it by the logics of capitalist accumulation and surplus realisation? Architecture, in a new social order, would be the expression of a "synthesis" of "technological, sociological and psychological factors of life."2 Such attempts to dodge technical rationality through abstraction, through recourse to a marvelous vision implemented by enlightened artists, are profoundly vulnerable to distortion. Tiege did not live to see the imposition of the pre-fab phenomenon on the Czech lands, but the irony of a centralized, bureaucratic state embarking on massive building projects; a brutalized, authoritarian version of his own humanist vision, might not have escaped him. Socialist utilitarianism in fact expresses a vapid metaphysical formalism - identical blocks designed to be infinitely reproducible anywhere, any time. Tiege's grand synthesis of a materialism of desires and an experimental metaphysics of design would be supplanted, once the Communists gained power, by the bare utility of needs and an infinitely reproducible, one-size-fits-all design (Tiege, despite being a vocal supporter of the Communist Party, was silenced following the establishment of a Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia). While the West went on to produce doomed monuments to the future in the sky, it was the socialist Bloc that ventured down the road of pure, plastic consumption. The result was a depressingly monotonous landscape. But one hardly devoid of its own, peculiar resonances.

Suburbs of Fear by Karel Koplimet

Invisible Threats

Suburbs of Fear (exhibited in Tallinn in 2012) by Estonian artist Karel Koplimet captures perfectly the hidden malice of a typical housing estate. First, the viewer is met with a scale model of a typical estate, which sits on a platform in the centre of a darkened room. It is lit by model street lamps. An uninhabited park sits at the rear of two housing blocks. Videoed cars fly by in silhouette, intermittently lighting up the whole set. A series of tiny cameras records images from the estate, which are then projected in black and white onto a screen in an adjacent room. Somehow the partial reality of the model estate is transformed on screen into a sinister nocturnal world. As the projector cuts between images from different cameras, the play of shadows created by the street lights causes irregular, angular blind-spots to emerge: places where nameless, unidentifiable enemies lurk. Our eyes are drawn to flashes of light, the occasional flicker of a passing car, the distorted shadows of tree branches. Though no people are strictly visible, there are hidden presences everywhere. We imbue the shadows with life. Even the so-called "rational environment"of the contemporary housing estate accrues nightmarish libidinal fixations on the part of its inhabitants.

O slušnosti, Sibrt, 2012

Compounded Exclusion

Of course, not all these 'threats' are fantasised. While Prague 4 houses a largely professional (overwhelmingly white) class untroubled by inequality, some Czech estates are outright ghettos. Chanov, an estate just outside the city of Most, represents a catastrophic failure not only of socialist attempts to house Roma people, but of the post-Communist governments' failures at supporting them. Stemming from Communist attempts to 'integrate' and 'normalise' Roma communities, the Chanov sídliště has become a typical poverty trap, isolated from the rest of the city and abandoned by wealthier denizens. The strategy of governments since the fall of Communism has been to keep the place just liveable while doing nothing to change deepening patterns of social segregation of the entire Roma population. A report by a 'community-building' NGO stated that in 2000 the 1600 inhabitants of Chanov were left without hot water and legal electricity, which had been cut off by private suppliers due to indebtedness. In the documentary 'On Decency' (O slušnosti, Sibrt, 2012) 'respectable' white families in Litvinov's Janov neighbourhood bemoan the 'antisocial' Roma 'menace' to a backdrop of far-right street marches. reported a (largely unsuccessful) far-right march through Chanov. Local Roma and anti-fascist activists turned out in greater numbers, peacefully protesting the presence of the far-right in their neighbourhood. This apparent 'social decomposition', actually the systematic alienation and ghettoisation of Roma people, is partly a perverse result of the rational planning of the socialist era. Rational planning's historical legacy has not been the creation of model dwellings, but a laying of the foundations of a social system of segregation in which whole built environments can be judged successes or failures. While my estate prospers, proof that 'decent' modern housing needn't fortify or unconditionally privatise itself in gated communities, others, neglected by the new middle classes, flounder, the real victims of a combination of socialist planning, capitalist inequality and gross exploitation.

1Tiege, The Minimum Dwelling, 27
2ibid., 28

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Czech Specialities 1: Smažený sýr

Veggie's delight: Smažený sýr

In a country enamoured with pork, smažený sýr (literally, fried cheese) is a rare and radical departure. Even the most fiercely carnivorous of eateries (and in the Cezch Rep they come fierce enough to make you worry for your own hide) boast, in their bezmasova jídla (food sans meat) sections, a smažený sýr special for vegetarians to glut themselves on. Bear in mind, however, that the bezmasova jídla section usually contains just two to three entries, and that even its name suggests a pitiable lack of completion, a food stuff defined solely by the absence of meat rather than any positive characteristics of its own.

It would be fair to say that smažený sýr is a dish that lacks independently enticing features. In a way, the rough Czech categorisation (lumping it in with gnocchi and omelettes) has a ring of truth: it is a peculiarly anonymous food. Its appearance on a menu is less a surprise than a relief - at least, the meat marauded veggie sighs (ever plaintive, of course), there's this. Amid the deathly hacking noises that float out of the average Czech kitchen, such obviously lifeless, artificial bulk is weirdly comforting. Two yellow-brown (I hesitate to say golden) slabs are plunked unceremoniously before the ambitious herbivore. On closer inspection said slabs reveal themselves as two family-sized bricks of Czech Eidam (note, please, the misspelling: here is something even blander than actual Edam, a mere impersonation of that more familiar disappointment), coated in breadcrumb emulsion and thrown at a deep fat fryer. Crack its brittle shell and a pale plastic ooze bubbles forth. This molten treacle, a sort of culinary ectoplasm (the residue of something that might once have been food), springs from its cocoon with surprising vigour. Here is the secret (I hypothesise) of its success: the ooze and its cracked shell provide the only hint of contrast to proceedings.

My favourite smažený sýr is served (lucky me) just downstairs at the local pub. So local is the pub, in fact, that I can smell it from my window on a warm day (decades of frying oil lifted on the spring breeze!). Despite bearing the excellent, 'ideologically correct' moniker Restaurace Pokrok (Restaurant Progress), this dimly illuminated little shack is perhaps consciously unremarkable. You might be given to wonder what, precisely, progress meant to mid-70s Czechoslovakian publicans, and thanks to the unaltered decor of Pokrok, you can now find out. Progress was apparently commensurate with foliage, or more specifically with a dense collection of indoor plants. This chimes with so many attempts to turn Prague's suburbs into overgrown garden cities. Even the innards of the local watering hole are swollen with dark green leaves, actual vinery winding its way around glossily varnished woodwork. Outside the walls are an innocuous peach. A strange vessel for the hopes of socialist future, but not without a certain cosy charm.

Promotional photo of Pokrok

Siobhan and I arrive one Saturday afternoon, me still locked in combat with a titanic hangover. On entering we're struck - if that's the word for turning to one another, noses wrinkled - by the heavy, sultry air. Entering Pokrok is a bit like sinking into a tepid, oily bath, ringlets of pollution slopping about on the water's surface. It leaves a film of grease on your skin long after you've left. One advantage to all that plant life, however, is that privacy comes easy. The quiet motion of cigarettes being lifted to mouths and pulled on; the distant murmur of drinkers; the brittle clinking of glass; all of this is easily concealed. One thing Pokrok has perfected - ironically, given its name - is utter predictability. Socialist progress always meant, after all, that things should remain indefinitely the same. The daily menu only changes when something runs out. They always sell the same two watery soups. A third of the bar menu is taken up with cigarettes. Another with chocolate bars.

Pokrok interior, foliage visible at rear

Our waiter is a harried looking man of indeterminate age. Two weeks ago he was naively fresh on the job. Sometime before today's visit, however, a profound evolutionary leap has been made. In adapting to the exhausting working conditions - he's the only person on the job throughout our entire visit - his face has assumed the expressive composure of sheet metal. As he takes our orders he refuses even to make eye contact, although - rather sweetly, I think - he finishes our sentences for us. With grim predictability (not disliked here, of course) I order the cheese slabs with chips and...

'Tartarka?' he says, assuming (accurately) that I want a separate accompaniment of Tartar sauce.

Siobhan opts for smažený řízek (that is, a pork schnitzel). Both our meals amount to the kind of thing we might feel either a little queasy or slightly embarrassed about ordering were we in Britain, which itself is hardly a gastronomic bastion. What must Italians think when they come to Prague, which they do in considerable numbers? Do they gaze in wonder at the very fact that people's hearts aren't everywhere giving out at the dinner table?

I should admit here that I'm no longer a proper vegetarian (Poland beat that affectation out of me). Today I'm just an unnecessarily fussy eater. I'll eat sausages, but never pork. Minced beef, but never steak. I realise this is not only irrational but quite annoying, especially if you have to eat with me a lot. My only justification is the life-long vegetarian's dread of gristle, and of toughness and chewiness more generally. Siobhan's schnitzel arrives like a malformed boulder, all jagged protrusions and and rocky outcrops. Scorched a light brown and utterly parched, it vaguely resembles Australia from space. The only sign of vegetation on either landmass is a wilted sprinkling of some anonymous leaf. Somehow the melted rubber of my fried cheese has fewer reminders of its disturbing animal progeny. Its texture resembles nothing natural. Chewing this glutinous, cud-like morsel I am infinitely reassured. My rebellious, booze-addled stomach revolts at the sight of the schnitzel. I'll stick with the plastic.

By the time we've finished my hangover is cured. The trade-off is a severe bout of indigestion. As we stand up I feel my diaphragm coil like a spring. As a keen observer of my own digestive activity, I can sometimes appear a bit of a hypochondriac. But this time - 200g of melted cheese gently solidifying inside of me - I have reason to complain. I walk the hundred metres home with my arm on Siobhan's shoulders, hunched over and huffing heavily.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Stray dogs of Europe, Unite!

Strays in the square: Sarajevo

It was nearly Christmas in Palermo, Sicily, and all along the city's major thoroughfare shoppers thronged, dominating and dissecting the lines of honking traffic. Via Maqueda, a howlingly intense tantrum-fest of a boulevard, serves almost every imaginable municipal function: home to cafes on tumble-down piazzas; grubby, cluttered markets; crumbling residences decked in tangled washing strings; and glossy, anonymous shopping centres - rare, sterile oases poking out of the simmering congestion. In the chilly evening a stranger appeared, slipping lazily out of the shadows of some half-forgotten piazza, winding his way, contra-flow, past the noisy tat-hawkers on Principio di Belmonte. He walked slowly, not limping, but with unnatural deliberation. His head hung low as if counting his steps. He weaved between shuffling pedestrians with what appeared at first as a graceful remove from the throng, an impression only defeated when he stumbled carelessly off the pavement and into oncoming traffic. This was one of the city's stray dogs, disoriented and possibly starving. Cars panicked around him; drivers bawling - weeping! - with rage over the sound of their screeching tyres. A few shoppers paused and looked on nervously, hoping not to see an accident.

While 95% of rabies incidents occur in Africa and Asia, with more than 15 million people worldwide annually receiving post-exposure vaccines,1 the consensus is that Europe's own stray population is increasing.2 Estimates, however, give a foggy impression. Some internet sources claim the Mafia is extensively and profitably involved in the kennelling and maltreatment of Italy's vast stray population, yet owing to a dearth of research on the subject these reports are difficult to corroborate.3 One oft-cited reason for the boom in strays is long-term domestic economic problems. According to, many Bulgarians can no longer afford to feed their pets and instead turn them loose. A prominent former Columbia, NY, lecturer, returned to Sofia for his retirement, was recently mauled to death by a pack of dogs. Sofia's "growing population of dogs... is believed to number 10,000."4 Who cooked up that number? According to Wikipedia there are "roughly" 17,000 stray dogs in Belgrade alone.5 These journalistic distanciations testify to a deep uncertainty within Europe about strays, which stretches right up to legislative levels. There is no comprehensive approach to the problem because we have no coherent picture either of their numbers or where they are coming from. In fact, numbers are floated - after interviews with vets and shelter-workers - which then bounce around and end up being cited by people like me who have no real clue as to their reliability.

Of course, regardless of reliable information, you could, like Ukraine, forge brazenly ahead and embark on a year-long killing spree in the build-up to a major sports tournament. With the world's eyes on Kiev for the 2012 European Cup, it was apparently decided that a massive stray population was unsightly and not very European at all, so the obvious response was to kill them off as quickly as possible. Needless to say, in terms of actions that might endear you to, say, the average gentle natured Swede, making a mass dog sacrifice ahead of their visit probably ranks quite low. In the event it was a British pressure group called Naturewatch who made the government back down, not anyone in an official diplomatic position or with, say, actual legal clout.6 Romania passed a law to similar effect in 2011 following the mauling of a woman in June of that year. In a continent without rabies, in which the stray population is likely the result of neglect and abandonment on the part of pet-owners, such reactions look like the thoughtless attempts of an elite to shoo away a problem they would otherwise like to ignore entirely.

In my mental global map I had always consigned the presence of stray dogs to dusty Indian hinterlands, never anticipating the sight of them trotting merrily around European cities. This mental consignment had them operating in skinny, feral gangs, their leanness a bodily metaphor for cunning and finesse rather than starvation. Yet stray populations are also a dominant presence on the streets of Belgrade and Sarajevo. The Czech Republic apparently has a huge stray population, though they don't hang around in the centres of cities. Those in Belgrade are only nominally street dogs, their fur plush and trimmed, chests puffed out as they parade in formation down grand boulevards, some even verging on paunchy. In fact, it is often the most popular domestic breeds that are dumped.

As Siobhan and Robin argue over a swing, a group of strays plays in the distance

In Sarajevo the strays were in such rude health they looked to be in charge. In the main square of the old town they scrapped and played with each other, drawing in the occasional errant street kid (of which, we should recall here, the Balkans also has plenty). Every now and then a heavy-coated, headscarfed shop owner would scold them, but mostly they were left to their own devices. It's strange to watch these usually domestic, isolated animals form complex, hierarchical communities of their own, largely free of direct human input. Most would normally never meet so many other dogs without quickly being dragged away. The trepidation and playful curiosity that characterize the occasions when most dogs meet are absent. On our first morning in Sarajevo the city's pockmarked valley was bathed in brilliant sun. The winter ice had begun thawing over the warm cobbles, a mass of winding tributaries fanning out from the rooftop's glacial decomposition. Amid the iridescent shimmers of this sudden spring the dogs splashed gamely with each other, oblivious to the daily workings of the city around them.

The reason for their bullishness probably has something to do with a law, passed in 2008, that banned outright the slaughter of strays. This sudden attack of moral feeling was not, however, accompanied by the requisite cash. As Sarajevo is the only place in the country where the ban is rigorously enforced, activists and volunteers have taken to gathering up dogs from around the country and whisking them away to relative safety in the dead of night. Vast numbers of Bosnia's strays are now emigrating to the city. The choice facing governments, charities, and social organisations is usually presented in stark terms: either slaughter or neuter. Both consume resources; both imply a certain amount of suffering. The only clear answer lies in formalising the ad-hoc system which presently, though ineffectually, prevails: that is, by offering aid and resources to communities willing to take some responsibility for the well-being of the dogs, providing food, shelter and basic healthcare for the animals. Until the majority of citizens and governments reach that epiphanic realisation, the great Bosnian dog migration will presumably continue apace.

1statistics available at:
3see: occupy for animals
4see:, 'Solving stray dog problem proves difficult in the Balkans,' Svetla Dimitrova and Maria Paravantes
5see: Wikipedia,org, article on 'Free-roaming urban dogs'
6see:, 'Ukraine to stop killing of stray dogs ahead of Euro 2012'

Monday, 20 May 2013

Warsaw: Stranded

Warsaw's Palace of Culture, around dawn

What to do in a city when you've nowhere to go? This question, with its whiff of the flâneur, has preoccupied many a modern titan, from Virginia Woolf to Julie Delpy, sun-kissed in the 1990s. The answer, offered freely enough, amounts to the injunction: wander (or more tepidly: wander and daydream). It helps, of course, if you're in Paris, where you might feel less of a burk craning your neck at the perceived poetic dimensions of some ragged washing line. Elsewhere, the lack of Second Empire uniformity (which gives Paris that endlessly reproducible fantasy charm) necessitates a certain selectiveness. This is perhaps why in Prague, Paris's jumbled, motley cousin, most flâneurs prefer the cover of night: better to soften the city's ragged inconsistencies beneath plumes of darkness and mist. While, for Baudelaire, the flâneur represented a uniquely modern self-erasure, a oneness with the crowd and the life of the city, the noční chodec (night walker) of Prague is a faceless silhouette banished to suburban anonymity. Warsaw, on the other hand, has no firm tradition of either, so the question posed here is more prosaic, more poetically deflating: What to do in a city when you don't really want to be there? If, for Walter Benjamin, Paris was the city of the 19th century, then Warsaw is either the city of some dimly distant future not yet worth registering, or the city of some missed historic opportunity.

Well, why wouldn't you want to be in the city? Exasperated, the flâneur assumes the lure of the city is universal. The question remains: which city? In this sense Benjamin was right: in the imagination of the 19th century the city was always Paris. The special relationship between Napoleon and Polish Republicanism (the result: the Duchy of Warsaw and a Polish mistress) ended with the General's hasty retreat (from both). No doubt the French Revolution lived on in the minds of subject Poles. In even their fantasies of national liberation, the point of reference was Paris. The Polish question even won the heart of Karl Marx, otherwise pretty chauvinist on the question of 'unhistorical peoples', swiftly binding the matter of Polish democracy to his youthful sympathies with Republican Jacobinism and its battle with the ancien régimes of Europe. While Polish liberation became the unifying glue - "a matter of honor for all the democrats of Europe"1 in Marx's words - of left-national and revolutionary democratic movements, it is not entirely clear how many of Europe's democrats fancied the actual journey there.

Warsaw, after all, is not a capital in the sense that Paris is. Few places are, of course. It's not even the most famous city in Poland, nor really the seat of culture (though it did become the inheritor of the legacy of the collapsed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Warsaw is not so much a destination as a passing-place between East and West. This is not intended as an insult: for all its oddness, it still has the power to fascinate. It has also become, by remarkable historical accident, Poland's most fun city. Quite an achievement for a city that literally stood in ruins after the Second World War.

Nonetheless, Warsaw's first post-revolutionary role, in the years immediately after 1989, was as a stopping point for eastern European Roma on their way to Germany. As dictators fell all across the continent the mood of the so called 'persecuted majorities' in countries from Romania to Yugoslavia turned decidedly sour. Slightly later, the American writer Isabel Fonseca wrote:

Thousands of Gypsies occupied the station that winter and into the summer of 1990; the waiting room was still a waiting room - one with laundry-festooned radiators. (In recent years Warsaw has only ever been a stopover on the journey west. You are still likely to see washing in any public toilet - tiny tights and long, graying tube socks: whole families pegged on a moveable line).2

Poland has all too often been the setting for and a participant in forced human migration on massive scales: the deportation of intellectuals and nationalist Poles during the first Soviet occupation; the utter destruction of Polish Jewry by the Nazis; the organised deportation and murder of another two million non-Jewish Poles; the flight and expulsion of 12 million Germans from restored Polish territory following the War.3 Poland remains home to one of Europe's most rabid far right street movements, which manages to mobilize thousands for violent marches every year on Independence Day.4 Can it be helped, then, that a modern capital capable of representing not only the homogeneous state that Poland became under the Communists, but one capable of supporting new arrivals, new diversifications, is only just emerging?

Being in Warsaw and not really wanting to be: not, perhaps, so uncommon. And for many, the circumstances have been less auspicious. Foolishly we'd embarked on a train journey which included that most delicate of operations: a closely-timed transfer. In this case our train from Kraków arrived at Warsaw Zachodnia five minutes before the departure of the last train back to Bydgoszcz. Travelling by train in Poland is in itself a risky undertaking. The tickets, which in my memory are almost A4-sized, are criss-crossed with endless indecipherable codes, the secret language of a vast regulatory bureaucracy, communicating quietly and contradictorily with itself. One code, even if properly understood, might, in the eyes of some particularly truculent inspector, be undermined by some other baffling string of numbers and letters. Polish rail combines this obsessive pedantry with a vaguely superstitious attitude to the trains themselves. While petty officialdom frets endlessly over the precise structure of passenger codes, trains are treated like wild things, free to come and go as they please. I imagine them roaming the vast Polish flats, directing themselves towards stations only out of boredom or hunger. Their actual presence is somehow magical, baffling even, for the hapless staff, who treat them rather like clumsy but dangerous animals, huffing breathlessly at the garden gate.

All bags and confusion we bundled off the train-beast, scrambling along the cracked platform in search of a sign of our next ride. The last light of day was slipping rapidly behind a distant high-rise. Most Polish train stations don't bother with platform signs, preferring instead indecipherable loudspeaker announcements. As we surveyed the other platforms, marching pointlessly up and down the length of the station like some frantic version of boot camp, one such announcement began. My girlfriend made out the time (which we knew) and the destination (equally unhelpful). Neither of us caught the platform number. Confusion turned to panic. Could it be that the train would arrive on time? Early, even? On one of the distant platforms on the other side of the station? Several trains were now visible - one clearly local (municipal colours; modern; small), the others less distinguishable in the gloom.

We ran under a corrugated iron shelter and down into the station underpass. Lurid yellow; the smell of old piss. An office at the far end. A woman in uniform was, just barely, visible inside. We ran up to her window and managed, between breaths, to ask where we could find our train. She, heavy-set and rouged, looked lazily up. One eye half closed, presenting a stale looking blotch of mascara, haughtily unimpressed. She took a defensive breath - less than a sigh, but indicating that she hadn't planned on speaking this evening. Certainly not to anyone less than fluent in Polish. Repeating the question, however, seemed to provoke her interest. She shouted some numbers, voice smudged by the old, scuffed plastic window which was her defence from the outside world.

We ran to the appropriate spot. No, both trains were approaching different platforms. We ran back and asked again. This, predictably, flummoxed her. She - this was unprecedented - stepped out of her office. Hand steadying her hat, she jogged heavily to the stairs, went up, came back. The train was now late. Maybe it would be there soon, she reported. The two suspect trains pulled into the station and hissed noisily. Next, a throng of people. I started shouting, frantically, 'To Bydgoszcz?' A few shaking heads. Even the station steward was now panicking, if only because of our evident excitement. We separated, running desperately up to the platforms. The trains had closed their doors. No guards to be seen. And then, as I dropped my bag, about to start banging on windows, they left, in opposite directions.

We never did figure out where the train was supposed to be. By the time we got back to the underpass the station steward had returned to her office. Any sign that she had been flustered by the turn of events was gone. Impassive, she directed us to the coach station, stating baldly there were no more trains tonight. But we knew already that there were no buses left either. So in desperation we walked back up to the platforms and waited, squatting on our bags (there were no seats), attempting to come up with a plan.

There was one train left to arrive, heading into Warsaw Central (Warszawa Centralna), which, with its indoor hall, was at least slightly more hospitable than our present location. As we waited, it started raining. Never the world's happiest traveller, I despaired. Siobhan managed to laugh off this final insult. This struck me, in my misery, as a kind of warped gallows humour. Though I can blow some mishaps out of proportion, my misery seemed entirely appropriate. Not so for her. I ranted about the terrifying contingency of travel; about our dependence on vast forces beyond our control. Suddenly a train journey had become a metaphor for existential powerlessness. Ten minutes of this (in retrospect, understandably) annoyed her. Quietly, we boarded the last train.

Alighting at the main station, where crowds of weary travellers passed us on their way home, we were left to face the grim reality alone: What to do in a city when you don't want to be there? What, specifically, to do in this city? There was no train to Bydgoszcz until eight in the morning. So, since there wasn't much else to do, we went and sat with the other late arrivals, baffled foreigners, and homeless people, in the grand hall. We bought sandwiches and bottles of Coke in the hope this would pass a decent amount of time. I planned to take one bite of sandwich every five minutes and see if it would last forty-five. Only when finished would I open the Coke. Siobhan, more comfortable with the idea of the empty time ahead, sat on her bag and read. In imitation I opened my book, but failed actually to read a word. The dead hours stretched out before me in a terrifying, flood-lit eternity. Sleep was impossible.

Eventually I decided to interrupt Siobhan. We had probably waited half an hour. Between us we decided to walk to an all-night bar. There was one near Warsaw's colossal Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), a gift (hard to refuse, as others have observed) from Stalin himself. This squatting imitation of the Empire State Building now contained actually no Science and no Culture, just a very long elevator ride to the top. We slipped past its enormous feet, the only wanderers in a vast, deserted panorama. The trees stood as still as the grim statues of sturdy soldiers that surrounded the palace. The surrounding mishmash of department stores, hotels and modern skyscrapers, all ululating surfaces and shimmering glass, retreated into the darkness. There are parts of Warsaw that heave with people, even late at night, but this evidently was not one. A figure shuffling in the dark felt ominous.

Turning off the main square we found a sanctuary of sorts: in the bar the only requirement was that you stayed awake and continued drinking, which was ultimately cheaper than finding a hotel room. As the night progressed, those arriving got at first drunker, then more sober. As it was getting light the first few revellers to order breakfast arrived, sitting lazily alongside those who were on their next cocktail. Outside the bouncer - our guardian - warded off any danger with a sternly upheld palm.

We walked back to the station at dawn, an orangey hue just filling the sky, visible between forking towers. Buses packed with morning commuters slid past, juddering at traffic lights. (The average Polish working day still starts at seven.) The peculiar, alien landscape of nocturnal Warsaw had been replaced by the familiar bustle of any awakening capital city. Walking to the central station, amid all this calming anonymity, swallowed up by the vast flood of the city, you could - if you squinted your eyes, perhaps - almost imagine it was Paris. Finally having somewhere to go, it seemed I didn't mind being in Warsaw after all.

1Marx, 'Communism, Revolution, and a Free Poland, available here:
2Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, 198
3For an honest account of all of these, see: Snyder, Bloodlands
4A decent account of the re-emergence of Polish far right activism can be found here:

Friday, 17 May 2013


The Old Town on the flanks of the hill

On arrival Tábor looks a lot like a worn-out seaside town: the echo of quaintness buried under red brick and cheap shop fronts. The main square of the new town is peopled by ruffled pensioners, gamely dragging their baskets behind them, as they walk to the local supermarket. This being the Czech Republic, however, a gang of drunks mill around benches in the memorial park. Four boys, BMXs parked on the floor with their front wheels yanked carelessly skyward, chat and loudly scold each other over cheap lemonade. An elderly couple, heckled by the autumn breeze, point out the clutter and disorder of the boys' bikes. You get the sense this is not the first time they've had to point this out to each other. Another English trait: it will take them forever to share their complaints with the boys directly. The weather has that damp, interminable feel of the English seaside in autumn. It's wet without really being wet. Soggy without anything so dramatic as rain. How, you wonder, could anything remarkable ever have happened here? But it did. Once upon a time the military strategy of a whole civil war was drawn up here.    

Tábor, home of the radical wing of the reformist Hussites, lies about 90 km south of Prague. The Hussites are acknowledged as one of Europe's earliest Christian social reform groups. The huge, ugly monument to the Hussites in Prague's Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) nonetheless celebrates them as martyrs to the Czech national cause. Co-opted by nationalist propagandists, the Hussites present an easy collective symbol of national suffering, repressed by Rome and Vienna alike. In fact, almost from the movement's inception, the Hussites were divided into two camps: the Utraquists (moderate proponents of communion under both kinds) and the more socially radical Táborites. Clichés about the Spartan militarism of such movements do not ring entirely false here. After relocating to Tábor, the radical general Jan Žižka presided over a fiercely democratic and militaristic regime. The Táborites inherited a legacy of Bohemian challenge to both Papal tyranny in Rome and corruption in Prague. Yet in Táborites hands, reform and attempted accommodation with Rome (which had got Jan Hus burned alive in 1415) became something much closer to radical utopianism, an intense (in some accounts, cultish) community of true believers. Indeed, while the Prague-bound Utraquists espoused a limited, reformed Bohemian synod, which would be unified with the traditional Catholic powers, the Táborites were brazenly storming the Vyšehrad castle, just down the river from Hradčany, the seat of Bohemian power. It was the Táborites who eventually brought the wrath of a united Catholic Europe down upon Bohemia.

Jan Žižka at Vitkov
Tábor was named after Mount Tabor in Palestine, a biblical site of strategic importance for warring tribes, which it resembles only in the loose geological sense of being a lone-standing hill. However, its name leant a certain weight to the radical's self-image: the biblical Mount Tabor had, for a time, been home to the Israelites, who had used it to prepare their victory against the Canaanites. Its other claim to fame was as a site of Christ's transfiguration. All very scripturally apposite, of course, but the hill-top's real advantage came in the form of its height and seclusion (stemming from the nearby Lužnice river). Tábor's old town is said to be planned in ways that both minimize the enclosure of private property and enable the mobilization of the citizenry to the city's defence. Its tangle of alleyways allowed easy cover and ample opportunity for locals to mount hit-and-run attacks on invaders. Although very small, Tábor's historic centre still disorients. From the old town square a jumble of criss-crossing streets descends part-way down the hill's rolling flanks, encasing it in a thick mesh of still inhabited houses-cum-fortifications. In a sense the two primary social functions become a single, inseparable aspect of the lived environment: self-defence and the construction of a way of living decently together are embodied in the architecture. It wouldn't last: four years after Žižka's death from plague in 1427 the radicals had been utterly defeated by their moderate Utraquist rivals.

What remains of this utopian mode of social organisation today is at once marginal and ironic: following the national pattern of heroic alcohol consumption, the locals gang together in one of the pubs on the main square and drink as much booze as possible between the hours of five and twelve (or whenever they are forced to leave). The pubs, like most Czech pubs, are either unremarkable halls of the German variety, or belong to that dingy, quiet tradition where more cigarettes are smoked of an evening than words said. While the aesthetics of the particular establishment border on negligible - anonymity being a bonus - the point is really the solidarity of the undertaking. There is one lager on tap (one dark beer also but nobody drinks it) and all pursue inebriation with the same commitment. No bad thing, but what elevates Tábor above the Czech standard is the challenge that arises when it's time to get home.

The old town square at night

Owing to the darkness and a disorientation compounded by the shifting nocturnal lattice of lanes and alleys, a physical solidarity must be sought. In negotiation with a bafflement once intended for outsiders, today's drunk Táborites must mimic the old ways of communal solidarity just in order to make it home. This latter-day solidarity probably issues as much from the beer and the bumpy roads as the awkward town-planning, but all are important ingredients in the stew: normally restrained Czechs drop their guard and comfily embrace, stepping carefully over the cobbles in teams of three or four. They call instructions and thank each other gratuitously, all the while arm in arm. On our last night in Tábor we saw two men, wives descending the hill some way ahead (and it must be said with greater alacrity, despite their vast heels), walking together towards home, hands falling purposefully into each other's grasp. Then, like swinging Parisian lovers, these two burly, sleepy men leapt off into the night. Who would've guessed such fierce radicalism would result in such a tipsy legacy?        

Sunday, 12 May 2013

On a Visit to the Stasi Prison, Berlin

Mauerpark, Berlin

The graffitied remains of the Berlin wall look sternly out at the aptly named Mauerpark, today the sight of a heaving flea-market; then the sight of the so-called 'death-strip'. On a balmy Sunday in June we sit below it and watch increasingly drunk karaoke singers belt out Queen as people pick from an inexhaustible supply of bargains in the nearby market. This lazy comfort in the presence of old wounds feels particularly representative of contemporary Berlin: at ease not only with itself but also with the living remainders of its tumultuous history.

Berlin, not far from the sight of the wall, taken by my girlfriend

A fact seldom recalled about the Berlin Wall is that it didn't so much divide East from West but rather encircled the West. Although this fact changes nothing about the brutality of the separation, it is a reminder that, at least in a formal sense, dissidents from East Berlin weren't so much crossing a line but hopping inside a ringed camp, a mysterious, secluded compound. This alters my 'cognitive mapping' of the Cold War, in which the very symbol of the Iron Curtain is a jagged lightning-bolt scorching the face of Europe and dividing it from itself. To envision the 'Anti-Fascist Protective Measure' not as a zig-zag but as a circle is to cease envisioning an iron curtain and to see instead a great wrap-around shawl, there to hide this outlying capitalist suburb from prying Eastern eyes. There remain some, however, for whom forgetting is not an option.

Hohenschönhausen Prison

The day before we had paid a visit to the Stasi prison memorial in Hohenschönhausen. Unlike Stasi HQ the prison was never stormed and most of its disastrous treasure-trove was hastily destroyed. I remember it like this: On the short walk from the tram stop we pass retired dog-walkers and an extensive-looking branch of Lidl. A lazy, leafy housing estate leads up to an innocuous looking entrance gate. A dull hollow rectangle with a grey frame and poky grey door next to it suggests the entrance to a small library. That was perhaps the point. While everybody would have known it was there, such things weren't to be advertised. A blue sign for coaches stands adjacent to the gate. A single, rectangular security light peers down from above the eight-foot entrance, curiously expectant, as if, come night, anybody might walk out. Size, as the Wall's peculiarly modest stature itself attests, was by no means everything in the DDR.

A Stasi agent played by the late Ulrich Muhe The Lives of Others
In its heyday the Stasi was one of the biggest employers in East Germany. "At the end," Anna Funder explains in her book Stasiland, "the Stasi had 97 000 employees... But it also had over 173 000 informers among the population."1 This vast machinery utterly dominated East German life. By operating control over many of the unofficial levers of power, it formed a kind of sub-state institution capable of bypassing the state itself. It didn't so much enforce the law as usurp it. According to a memo quoted by Victor Sebestyn, agents were directed to seek the "systematic organisation of professional and social failure" of any perceived enemy.2 Though basically a form of institutional sadism, the Stasi's work was most often given expression in the prosaic tones of everyday, petty officialdom. On occasions this 'postal department speak' could be cranked up to a pitch of absurd pathos:

W.B had sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards he asked her if she was hungry... she replied that she would like a drink of cognac. She is Eva Hagen. Then it was quiet inside.3

This bizarre Pinteresque understatement is captured perfectly in the film 'The Lives of Others' (Das Leben der Anderen, Donnersmarck, 2006). As the beautiful, bohemian couple placed under surveillance are swept up in passionate reconciliation, the agent listening types: "She returns. They make love passionately." While one corpulent agent makes cheap jokes to pass the time, the other, on the surface more devoted to his work, becomes deeply involved in the lovers' story. The film suggests more than just the consonance of erotic attachment and surveillance. In fact, the intensity of the agent's attachment derives from his very ruthlessness. Commitment to the task, at a certain extreme, turns into devotion to the object. You are left wondering how many voyeurs fell in love with those they watched.

Despite the glaring, almost comically despicable villainy, the DDR developed a reputation as a great source of schlocky, noirish menace. West Germany officially described it as the "most perfect surveillance state there ever was" - although arguably, such shrillness only credited the enemy with an omnipotence it wasn't entirely able to summon. Western hysteria did nothing to dampen the East's ego. After the abduction of Dr Walter Linse, a prominent civil rights campaigner, by Stasi thugs, a translation of a press statement made by the West Berlin police commissioner verges on pulpy, paperback horror:

Every move, every plan, every step, every report, every observation made by the four principal kidnappers and their 13 accomplices... constituted a major crime in themselves.

Whatever the tone of the western response, the sheer brazenness of the scheme merits a certain grudging awe. Dr Linse emerged from his house at 7:30 one morning to begin his daily commute to work. As he walked onto the pavement he was set upon, punched in the face, bundled headfirst into a car and rushed swiftly across the border, to what was still at that time known as the "Soviet-occupied zone". He died in a Moscow prison one year later. Evidence links him with the Hohenschönhausen prison. One inadvertent advantage of the wall was that outright abduction from the West became significantly harder to pull off.

It's quiet in the baking grey prison courtyard. A middle-aged woman approaches, looking at us with a mixture of scepticism and curiosity. My girlfriend tells her we are here for the three o'clock tour. We don't have a group. We'll have to wait. She gestures at a café. There's no shade around. In the mid-afternoon heat, a chubby American boy occupies the only outdoor chair, swinging his legs as he finishes off a runny ice lolly, its remains plastered like snail trails down his arms. Looking at him, I begin to feel grumpy. We have no choice but to stand in the sun, waiting. I fidget and shift my bag straps, feeling the damp collecting underneath them and becoming increasingly impatient. Dimly, I remember to chide myself for my pettiness. Others suffered here.

When our guide for the afternoon arrives he looks like he got dressed for safari. His socks are pulled very high, partially concealing two thick, pale calves. He's tall with the broadness that comes from playing a lot of rugby but not being naturally good at it. He wears combat shorts and his hands are glued to his hips. The t-shirt he's wearing is purplish and emblazoned with a faded yellow slogan. He's wearing a slightly oversized sun hat to shield a pale, still awkwardly adolescent face. His glasses are thick rimmed rectangles with an overgrowth of black eyebrows. His eyes appraise us coolly.

"Now then, listen up..."

At this we jump to attention, the murmur of complaints suddenly hushed. In the mid-afternoon quiet I see a cat drop down from the barrier wall and stretch itself lazily on the warm concrete. The American boy points at it and goes to speak but his mum hurriedly silences him. As I watch the guide come towards us I wonder about his connection to the place. Many of the guides here are motivated by a certain vocational attachment, but he seems far too young to have direct experience - a failed academic perhaps?

"English language tour?"

There is something ever so slightly affected about his army corporal English. Siobhan and I exchange glances which mean - "privately-educated". Or at least "would like to have been". But he's not British. It takes us some time to establish this, so immaculate is his English. But that's just the problem: like a starched, pressed shirt there's no give. It's wound too tight, too clipped.

He introduces himself as Alex and marches us hastily through the courtyard. I imagine he's done this a lot. But that's not the cause of his impatience. The first thing he sees fit to tell us, as we finally reach some much-appreciated shade, is this: "Now, the first thing you should know is that these were absolutely serious guys, OK. You know, it's tempting to view them all as a bunch of mafioso types, but no..." (He talks as if dispensing with lazy preconceptions, not seeming to realise that most of those in the party haven't come equipped with intimate knowledge of Communist ideology) "...they really believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat. They really thought Marx was correct. They were a hundred percent Communist. Don't be mistaken..." (He is admonishing us for our perceived errors with a wagging finger) "...they took that theory of Marx's about capitalists exploiting labourers and thought they were making a worker's state where all the capitalists could just be got rid of. Now you can have your debates about whether they really felt they achieved all that, but nevertheless that's what they all really wanted and what they tried to do."

We obediently, even gratefully, accept this and cautiously follow him through a heavy iron door and into a vast cellar. Inside the place is barren. The walls are stripped and cracked. Sheer concrete peeks through the crumbling plaster. The place reeks of old fear.

Alex shows us an unkempt cell which, in a kind of tribute, has been sparsely refurbished. A cold rock of a mattress on a creaky wooden frame has had two tatty slippers placed delicately next to it. A complex series of levers and pulleys is revealed as a permanent water torture cell. An alcove buried in the foundations, which looks more like a design flaw than a room in its own right, turns out to be a standing torture cell which was filled with ice in winter. Some prisoners had to stay inside for over a week. The cells used by the Communists (and the Arrow Cross) in Budapest look remarkably similar. Yet this is a far more sombre experience than Budapest's polished 'House of Terror'. Here there are no immersive special effects or 'soundscapes of fear'. Instead there is largely bare stone and a lone voice elaborating how it was manipulated to inflict pain.

As our guide, who has told us nothing about himself besides his name, shuttles us swiftly from the basement to the well-preserved offices above - from the grotesque to the banal - it becomes apparent that the very unadorned appearance of the building is crucial for its preservation. It is as if the place's conversion into a 'House of Terror'-style attraction would signify its reduction to the level of mere history. But for him, of course, it remains a contested site, the meaning of which is still to be secured. As we wander through rows of identical Stasi offices he tells us about other tours he's done when, like some prodigal son (they're all men), some former Stasi agent or bureaucrat steps forward into his own office, happily confessing his former association and openly regretting his long leave of absence. Some bark gruffly about "the lies" being told by the new government. I imagine outraged little men, faces red and puffy, jabbing their fingers at Alex the tour guide and all the other invisible "snobs". In this picture bemused tourists stand awkwardly in their summer sandals watching the scene play out. It is for this reason, and the fact that supporters of the prison memorial must constantly fight for funding (he doesn't name names, but implies the local PDS is none too keen on the place), that Alex - whose connection to it I will never understand - will continue to keep the prison empty of everything but the recollection of what happened there.

(Thank you to Siobhan for editing/re-writing bits of this!)

1Funder, Stasiland, 57
2Sebestyn, Revolution 1989, 122
3ibid., 127