Mon 12 March 2012

citybooks authors interviewed in Lublin.

witold szablowksi © maciej rukasz

In the Polish city Lublin, the citybooks project is in full swing. TEK, our local partner there, has already organized a variety of events with participating authors, including a discussion with Witold Szabłowski at the Spółdzielnia Coffeehouse and Bookshop. The citybooks photographer Maciej Rukasz was also on hand to document the event. Szabłowski, as well as Andrzej Stasiuk, have taken part in a host of other interviews about their work with citybooks, too. You’ll find a whole collection of Polish-language media covering these events and others besides at the TEK website.

A selection of fragments from these interviews has been translated into English. In the first fragment below you can read an interview with Witold Szabłowski, who – with his family – spent 6 months living exactly as it was in Poland during the communist regime. In the second, Andrzej Stasiuk explains why he’s so fond of Lublin. Soon to follow is the translation of an interview with Arnon Grunberg, in which he speaks about Lublin’s particular sense of melancholy. You can already read the original Polish article here.

This spring, Maud Vanhauwaert and Mauro Pawlowski will each spend two weeks in the city. You can stay up-to-date with the activities in Lublin and other participating cities via the news page at www.city-books.eu. Via Facebook and Twitter you can find out when the first citybooks from Poland will appear online. As ever, you’ll be able to read, listen to and download them as webtexts, podcasts and e-books in Dutch, English, French, as well as Polish.

witold szablowksi © maciej rukasz
Witold Szabłowski at the Spółdzielnia Coffeehouse and Bookshop © Maciej Rukasz

My Own Private People’s Republic of Poland: Interview with Witold Szabłowski  (fragments)

witold szablowskiOn 22 January, after living in the People’s Republic of Poland for six months, Witold Szabłowski went online and saw an e-mail in which someone threatened to denounce him and his wife for child abuse. There were no bananas in the communist times, so we explained our daughter, that we would not eat bananas, recalls Szabłowski. How was it to go back and live in those times? Here is the interview with Witold Szabłowski, a writer and journalist who stayed in Lublin as part of the citybooks project.

How did you come up with the idea to live in the People’s Republic of Poland for six months?

– I wanted to try the assumed identity journalism that is so popular in the USA or Germany but not really known in Poland. I had tried it before, working for Tesco in Great Britain for two weeks, but I had a feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the matter. (…)

How did you prepare for this time travel?

– We had to gather clothes, toys, pots from those times. We got them from our friends. It appeared that a lot of people still have stuff accumulated in their attics. The shops were empty, so when there was a delivery people bought more that they needed just in case. One of my friends from the university’s parents inherited their parents’ house filled with stuff from the communist times. We looked through them and I found some great stuff, like a razor made in the German Democratic Republic. It took us one year to gather all things we needed. And we were quite meticulous. Even all of our underwear was from those times.

The experiment commenced on the 22 July?

– We moved into a rented flat on 15 July, but it took us a while to unpack, redecorate the kitchen, disconnect the Internet. That’s why we commenced our life in the People’s Republic of Poland on this important, also for Lublin day.

How did your neighbours react to your experiment?

– We rented a flat in Ursynów, the part called the Falklands by the people who live there. We decided not to inform the neighbours that it is a deliberate thing. I grew my moustache, my wife got a perm and we commenced with our new life. When we went into a shop they automatically treated us as potential shoplifters. I often noticed I was being observed by security people. It had never happened to me when I was dressed in “capitalistic” clothes. My wife had similar experiences.

Did you get any positive reactions?

– People reacted enthusiastically to my yellow Fiat 126 from 1985. We heard lots of sentimental stories from our neighbours. “Oh, you have the Fiat, I met my wife when I was driving the same one.” I discovered that lots of people have a strong need to talk about the communist times. For many of them those were the times of their youth, after all.

Did it take a lot of effort to cook a dinner?

– All questions concerning food and eating we consulted with an expert, Błażej Brzostek, who wrote a book about food and eating habits in the People’s Republic of Poland. He made us a list of products that were similar in quality to those available at that time. It appears that you can still buy products imitating chocolate today. We bought cheap kinds of sausage, fried it for dinner instead of preparing real meat. We organized some regular deliveries from the farms, what was common practice in those times. After a while it seemed we were eating better food than in in capitalism. (…)

Was it difficult to live without the Interned for half a year?

– It was difficult workwise, but I think that all the things I wrote at that time were of better quality because, instead of relying on what I could google, I had to call an expert, find a book in a library, visit the archives. (...) Was it just fun or something more?

– Our project was some sort of fun. It’s obvious a family of three cannot reconstruct the life in the communist regime when everyone around us is living in capitalism. The aim of the project was to describe capitalism. We went 30 years back in time to get a new perspective.

Instead of what?

– Instead of the vision of brave people from Solidarność fighting bad communists. Or the perspective present in Polish absurd comedies from that time; those were fun times, everyone was having a lough all the time. None of those perspectives wee look at our history from is really true.

What do we ignore?

– 35 million of people who lived their lives differently then. But they were no heroes, they had nothing to laugh about. They lived, went shopping, had kids, went to work. (…)

The original Polish text was published in the Magazine of Dziennik Wschodni.

 

 

I Love this Dragon. An Interview with Andrzej Stasiuk (fragments)

Andrzej StasiukAndrzej Stasiuk, the author of “On the Road to Babadag” will write about Lublin for the citybooks project. His piece will be then translated into four languages and published online. What will Stasiuk write? We don’t know that yet. He talks to Sylwia Hejno about strolling along Zamoyska Street, a sense of affection he has for eastern cities and why not winning the title of the European Capital of Culture was a good thing.

 

You’ve stayed in Lublin for almost two weeks now, what do you see from your window?

– Faces from my childhood. I was brought up in a poor neighbourhood in Warsaw. I see poor worn out men in their 50s. I even helped one of them. He looked so bad that I went up to him myself and asked: “Well, do you need some…?” Him: “Fucking badly!” I gave him some cash and he was amazed that some angel visited him standing in this gate. And when I was on my way to Warsaw a couple of days ago, three quiet and discreet beggars asked me for help.

(…) You’ve said some strong words about other cities.

– And I’m happy to do that now and again. Lets take Krakow as an example. It’s a city filled with self-love and self-admiration as if no one ever travelled anywhere to notice that the world is full of similar cities. When I see that attitude, I stick a spike right in the middle of this backwater’s ass with great delight. Krakow is just another Central European town, just as dirty with pigeon shit as many others. Lublin hasn’t got a huge ego, it’s easier to get to the essence of it, easier to touch it.

(…) Lublin lost the competition for the title of the European Capital of Culture. Is it good or bad?

– Jesus, it’s great. What do you need this whole circus for? For a moment you would notice more money coming in, because you would be the Capital of Culture, but what does this tittle really mean? The year passes, all the artists and experts leave and you are left with the same burnt out bulbs, the same old merchants on the Jewish market, the same old man with a limp. Those titles and events they never last long or matter too much. It’s all about some officials organizing a claque for themselves. This is what I think, that in the end we always end up alone where we were, not European enough, overpowered by our relationship with in the East. It’s something we hate, but also something that defines our identity. Let Wrocław be the Capital of Culture. I used to like this city a lot for its lack of pretentiousness. It was a melting pot of the West and the East. But five or six years ago it went nuts, just like Krakow. They started to believe that Wrocław is the best, that it’s almost Berlin. They even built themselves a lookalike fountain. It started to affect people who live there, it’s hard to talk to anyone in the streets now.

From the original Polish interview by Sylwia Hejno, Kurier Lubelski, 03.12.2011

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