Monday, 19 July 2010

Warsaw Disconcerto

I'm back from Europride in Warsaw. In one piece, but with mixed and fractured feelings.

In short, I led a group of 125 members of the London Gay Men's Chorus to Poland to sing in the concert hall Joseph Stalin had given to the People of Warsaw (despite the fact they voted for an Underground railway) and to march in the Pride parade in which some of us were assaulted in the name of freedom. By turns, I've felt proud, angry, frightened, relieved, and ashamed.

I've also felt indigestion from the mammoth meals we arranged including one gargantuan pork-fest at which I calculated fifteen pigs gave their lives, or at least their knuckles, in the name of homosexual satiety, and at which for the first time ever the LGMC was defeated by the quantities of available food.

Idly Googling the subject of satiation, I find there is a 'Satiety Index' invented by a researcher with my surname at the University of Sydney. According to "Holt's tool" is "what really satisfies" and "tells you when you're full".

I couldn't have put it better myself.


We flew, it feels a long time ago, and the first day passed in a whirl of e-tickets and counting heads and room keys and on-board gin and tonic. My BA flight had about half our singers on board and not only did it run out of gin, the crew had to raid the bar carts reserved for the return flight, and those ran out of gin too. Thanks to airmiles for upgrades, I'm not hugely familiar with economy class and thought the free alcohol only partly made up for the disgusting pre-digested chicken sandwich which was the only food offered for a two and a half hour flight.

We landed in something like 35 degrees, and the plane doors opened to a wall of torrid heat. I've felt cooler in Singapore.

In the evening, though, we bussed to the amazing restaurant 'Kompania Piwna' in the old town of Warsaw. Coaches can't go right into the centre so we had a lovely stroll through the picturesque squares, to what was essentially a pissup in a very attractive and hospitable brewery.

First courses of salads, pickles, pates and sausages were on the tables and we literally fell on them after a long day thinking perhaps this was a substantial part of our meal. No need, because after a soup course it then started to rain meat.

Delicious, meltingly tender spare ribs in smoky glaze were followed by duck, chickens, peirogi - the curious half-moon dumplings filled with minced meat or with cheese, then fish (dressed in bacon, just in case you thought it might be lighter pork-free option), and huge inverted chandeliers of deep golden crackling.

When the waitress shoved aside dishes of potatoes, sauerkraut and red cabbage to make way for the wooden trencher of massive pork knuckle at my end of the table, I thought she might bring two for the twelve of us.


She brought six.

Now I have seen the LGMC hoover its way through a finger buffet like locusts in a wheatfield, but not even they could cope. A few die-hards gave up eating in favour of more beer, in 1.5 litre steins, and only the hardiest 20 made it through to the strudel. Nobody stayed for coffee.

I've just checked my credit card. The bill for 92 of us was £1962.33 - including two hundred and sixty beers.


My best day. The tour of the Communist parts of Warsaw I'd organised in vintage vehicles was a big hit with all who took it - as well as his little yellow Soviet-era minivan, Rafal Patla had chartered an old school bus for us from the museum and although it felt occasionally like a metal sauna, when it was moving there was a breeze through the open windows and we trundled around Constitution Square, in and out of social housing blocks, and over the river into the still-unrenovated Praga district where in a funky pub and watched from upstairs windows by bemused Polish proletariat, we consumed vodka, pickle, sausage and jellied chicken before singing slightly raggedly in the street.

I loved the contrasts in the architecture, and even felt that the clean lines and 'heroic' Socialist-realist statuary on the buildings had its own kind of beauty which is still not dated, and the proportions of 7 story facades flanking wide streets reminded me of Rome. We stopped by the Palace of Culture where the concert would be held later, and although despised by Poles because of its association with Stalin, it's a great composition by Lev Rudnev the architect of my favourite building in Moscow, Lomonosov University.

Not many people know it was partly inspired by the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.

Quite a lot of the boys were as much captivated by Rafal as with his itinerary. It was hard to break to them that the beautiful female guide for our walking tours was his lovely girlfriend Marta.

We also walked through the one street preserved from the Warsaw Ghetto and I was surprised how affecting I found it. The buildings seem decayed on the outside, with large-scale sepia photo banners showing faces of the typical families who once lived there, but nowadays the apartments are expensive and occupied by wealthy Varsovians. However, one of my contacts - the otherwise helpful Marcin Pienczuk from Mazurkas Travel who organised our airport transfers - later said to me somewhat sneeringly that 'only the Jews can find the money for these apartments' in a shocking indication that such prejudice still exists in modern Polish society.

Lunch, and an air-conditioned rest before going to help Front-of-House for the concert. I couldn't sing in it because I'd been trapped in the US by the volcanic ash cloud and missed too many rehearsal to catch up with the repertoire, but I was hugely proud of the boys. In many ways this concert showed up the musical arrangements, and the quality of the singing better than we had in the Roundhouse where the 20-piece band drowned some of the subtleties.

There were five standing ovations, and I was first on my feet for most of them. Afterwards, we almost could not put the CDs into people's outstretched hands and take their money quickly enough. I've never seen them go so fast.

We then walked to yet another meaty dinner, although this time I had perhaps foolishly delegated the organising to Polish friends of one of our second tenors and it was a bit of a disaster. Although seated in a cool cellar of refectory tables, the kitchen simply couldn't cope with dinner for 80, the staff varied between bored and hostile, and despite the fact we waited nearly two hours for our main course, there wasn't enough food to go round.

If they'd just kept us supplied with drinks it might have been more bearable, but clearly 'something was up' as when I went into the kitchen I found the waiters screaming and gesticulating at the cooks, so it certainly wasn't a happy ship.

Such was the level of bonhomie in the Chorus, whilst people were disappointed with the food and service, they treated it largely as a joke and I'm very grateful to Mike and Bob who poured expensive red wine down my throat until three in the morning to help me get over the stress.


Because of the problem with last night's restaurant, I ditched my own sightseeing plans this morning and went to check out the second restaurant recommended by those Polish 'friends'. When I got there, 'Green Patio' had no idea about our booking, certainly weren't prepared, had no English-speaking staff and the formica-topped tables and fluorescent lighting confirmed my impression that it was actually a juice bar - with a sideline in bicycle hire - rather than the sort of place the LGMC would enjoy spending its Saturday evening.

I cancelled and hastily rebooked for '99' an excellent place with modern fusion cooking close to the hotel.

And so to Pride.

Because he doesn't walk so well, Feroze and I took a taxi to the meeting point in Bank Square, and had a quick (soft) drink before joining the rest of the choir on the march. We had just walked out into the crossroads at the starting point when I saw riot police running to support their colleagues just across the road from us. They were holding back a shouting mob of all-male all-young(ish) skinheads, and we instinctively veered away.

As we were heading for the opposite pavement, I saw another group who had been holding large placards with 'pro-peace' and 'pro-equality' messages carefully peel off the posters to reveal anti-gay slogans beneath. Then the eggs started flying, about forty of them over our heads, one glancing off my shoulder to break on the tarmac. Feroze shouted 'whatever happens, let's not lose each other' and we hustled between one of the floats and a police car until the noise, and the eggs, subsided. There was an explosion of firecrackers and I was suddenly nervous.

In that moment, I thought 'you know who your friends are'. I also learned something about myself. I was angry but not fearful for my own safety and if I could have commandeered a stick or a baton I would have thrown myself at a bunch of fascist skinheads to save my disabled mate.

I know, I'm not even sure of it now that I've written it. But in that nanosecond it's how I felt.

Fortunately the well-drilled police, who had been drafted in from forces all over Poland and received special training, did the job for me and I saw more than one thug dragged in handcuffs and with a bloodied nose that certainly wasn't administered by gay hands, to the police wagon.

As we found the rest of our friends, learned other stories of trouble including one who was hit by a rock, eventually the relentless heat of the day became more of a hazard than the rioters, and I began to think about the heritage of oppression to which we are all heirs: the obvious model being the Warsaw ghetto where fascism penned in the Jews. At least this time it was the fascists who were being corralled by the security forces.

These thoughts don't leave you, especially in the night, and I've since wondered what would I stand up for, and why? Initially, it's obvious that we want to show solidarity with Polish gays, lesbians, bi- and tran- sexuals and to campaign for their equality. But as far as statutes are concerned, Poland is quite a progressive country: homosexuality was decriminalised in 1932, discrimination on grounds of sexuality is banned in Polish employment law, and gays may serve in the military.

So what you're fighting is bigotry, neo-nazism and - how often it's true - Catholic fear and ignorance. I have two illustrations of the complex equation most Poles must deal with in a country where conservatism and Catholicism run in such deep and parallel seams: one of our members picked up a nice young guy in a bar and slept with him overnight. When they were leaving the hotel, I asked if the Polish lad would be at the march - his response was that it was all right for us to swoop into town, parade and perform, and go back to the safety and tolerance of London, but he was reluctant to be 'seen' supporting his own sexuality.

The other was Wojciech, another of our Polish entourage, who was as gay as a goose during Pride but left immediately afterwards on a pilgrimage to Częstochowa, home of the Black Madonna painting and a shrine for devotees of the Virgin Mary.

It then began to bother me just how far we should be campaigning for the freedom of Polish gays. What is it we want them to have? Freedom from persecution, of course. The right to marriage or civil partnership. Naturally. A commercial gay scene to compare with London's with all its associations with organised crime, prostitution, drugs and disease? Maybe not. The 'rights' exploited by one of our more venal Chorus members to suck off mahogany-tanned old men in the steam room of the Radisson Hotel?

I'm not taking a rock or an egg in the face for that.


Picking my way among the semi-comatose in the lobby of the Radisson, I felt like Florence Nightingale at a casualty dressing station in the Crimea. It had clearly been a heavy night for many, and who can blame them after such a traumatic day, so our numbers for the 'posh lunch' were severely depleted.

Eventually eleven stalwarts made it to the remarkably named restaurant 'U Fukiera' where in a bordello atmosphere of swagged curtains, caged birds, silk flowers and lace trimmings which I dubbed 'Never Knowingly Undecorated' we had a convivial and mostly delicious meal.

The borscht was a super-concentrated clear rubine distillation of beetroot, in its sweetest and purest form, it could have passed for Ribena. However it ran through Chris P and myself like an instant purgative and by the time we got to the airport we both thought we'd had internal bleeding. I also loved the desserts including 'Soup of Nothing' which allegedly is what your Polish grandma makes when there's little in the fridge. Evidently cream, meringue, hazelnuts, strawberries, vanilla and liqueur are considered basic staples in a Polish kitchen.

The group were subdued on the plane home, but generally content with their weekend.

I think it's one of the most significant thing the Chorus has done, and a fitting climax to my ten years with the LGMC.

I'm not sure where else we could go, metaphorically or geographically, from here.

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