Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Road to Warsaw: Marching

This is day three in my "report" of the trip I made to Warsaw with the London Gay Men's Chorus for Europride between 15 and 18 July 2010. The days leading to the trip, the journey itself and the first evening in the city are described here. The second day can be found here.

Pictures of the day.

Having set my phone alarm but forgotten to turn it on, it is only after about 10min to get ready that I errupted out of the hotel to see the old banger of a communist-era coach that was going to take us on another tour of Warsaw leave the curb, on that second morning. Thankfully, the tour people had a second smaller vehicle for overflows and I jumped into that.

It was just me and the young driver who rattled on in an overexited way until we joined the main group on Constitution Square, a vast ensemble of autere building dumped in the middle of the city without care for the existing street plan. This was apparently mostly a show piece where official demonstrations took place.

From there we walked to a communist monument exhaulting the workers and further on to a lovely little hotel built in 1912 in the courtyard of the appartment block that provided the money for its construction. We then got back to the coach a drove towards a street of the Jewish Ghetto eerily preserved and allowed to decay, while the guide explained how Warsaw had been distroyed mostly after the war by the communist, although the Germans had a good go at it first.

Throughout this part of the tour which was in the area where the Pride march was later going to take part an increasing police presence could be noticed, doing little to allay the worries of some of us about what was to come.

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Our group in Constitution Square and in the remains of the Jewish Ghetto.

After our stop at the remains of the Jewish Ghetto, we were soon was back on our mobile sauna (the temperature outside being over 30 degrees already) to cross the river for a taste of Vodka and Polish nibbles, that would constitute my breakfast. This was to take place in little bar in the Praga district (called Sense/NoSensu) which would find approval with the most hardened Hoxton Hipster with its decor of garish wallpaper and second-hand 70s furniture.

Praga, situated on the eastern side of the river (which is why the locals have apparently nicknamed the district "Asia"), is a mixture of communist, russian and war-surviving buildings. This is a decidedly poorer area with apparently a strong artistic community, attracted there by the low rents. Many substandard buildings are however being replace by more expensive development and things are changing.

Having been dropped off at the hotel, there was little time to get changed and prepare for the afternoon before we had to convene in the lobby and walked to Bankowy Square where the parade was to beginning.

As we entered Saski Gardens we were greeted by a small group of men holding a banner that, although it was in Polish, was clearly not a friendly welcome.

As we progressed through the park, we became aware that the people staring at us from the benches may not necessarily random pleasure-seekers enjoying the shade and cool of trees. One of them even asked a group of us if they liked "penis in bed" while another shouted the word "pedal", a good translation of "faggot" in Polish (as in French).

Members of the police (both on horses and on foot) were also enjoying the shade of the park but things were clearly soon to heat up.

We reached the square without any problem however and soon put our banner together, took a group photo and started to mingle with the rest of the 10,000 people here to take part in the parade (Pink News).

A big butch lesbian who normally does security at events in London told me that in the morning of the parade, "Pride House", a meeting and information point, had been fire-bombed (she added that she had nearly shat her pants). Later in the day several of our members felt intimidated by random hostile groups.

Despite a higly-visible police presence however (about 2000 officers), a main group of about 300 right-wingers tried to block the parade (see video below). They were quickly surrounded by the riot police.

Seeing the Polish branch of Dykes on Bikes (only half a dozen of them) finally breakthrough and kick-start the parade was an emotional moment. The protestors however started hurling insults, half-full plastic bottles, bibles, eggs and stones at the 11 floats (a member of the Chorus was indeed hurt).

Other smaller groups (also under close police surveillance. it was clear that they had been told to behave) were protesting along the route of the parade. Someone was throwing holy water at us. 8 people were arrested and the parade had to be re-routed and cut short to avoid further protests.

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Anger of the far right protestors v calm of the marchers

On the whole however, the usual party spirit pervaded the day. Interestingly, the people taking part in the parade were mostly "every-day-looking" people, rather than the more flamboyant kind we are used to in London. Even so, many onlookers seemed genuinely nonplussed by what they were seeing, a sign that LGBT visibility is probably not as high as it could and should be in the country.

The parade ended in joyous mayhem in the former communist ceremonial square of the city where one of the floats turned into a stage for a rally which included a speech by Nick Herbert (out British Minister for Police).

Comments from marchers about our performance the night before and our presence on the parade show how our Polish brothers and sisters welcomed and needed our support in this long struggle they have to fight. We all got home elated and proud to have been part of this event. For some of us it was also a wake up call to the fact that things are probably not as rosy as they thougth they were.


All my pictures from the trip are available on my flickr account here.

See also SDPL leader Marek Borowski promises to open Warsaw Pride if elected mayor on PinkNews.

Part Four is available here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Road to Warsaw: Performing

This is day two in my "report" of the trip I made to Warsaw with the London Gay Men's Chorus for Europride between 15 and 18 July 2010. The days leading to the trip, the journey itself and the first evening in the city are described here.

Pictures of the day.

The first night in Warsaw, in the luxurious room I had all to myself (it's about the size of my flat!), felt unfortunately quite short, after the previous night's extended meal and meanderings in the unknown city. It was at a time not unlike that of a usual working day that I got up, got ready and went down to breakfast before joining a walking tour of the old town (the area where we were the night before). Meanwhile, others in the Chorus were being packed into an old-fashioned bus for a different sort of tour. More about that later.

Warsaw has, of course, a long history but one mostly marked by conquest, destruction and domination by a foreign power. This is particularly true of the last 200 hundred years. And, as one would expect, this is reflected in the fabric of the city. The second world war and then the soviet domination in particular have been the causes of much destruction and redevelopment.

The central Śródmieście district, which comprises two very distinct areas: the old and the new town, and where we spent most of our time, is probably the part of the city that has seen most of the effects of this.

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Zamkowy Square in the old town and the Intercontinental in the new town.

The old town, which dates back to the 13th century, is picture-postcard pretty, with its old citadel walls, its iggle-piggledy houses of various colours and awkward shapes, and its churches. This is also where the palaces of the former nobility are located.

Many of the buildings are however "fakes". Badly damaged by the Luftwaffe in 1939, who remained of them was systematically blown off by the German army following the Uprising in 1944. After World War II, the Old Town was meticulously rebuilt using original matrials and images, with the last elements of the reconstruction (on the Royal Castle) being finished only in 1974.

The new town has known a totally different fate however. The major part of it is the former location of what was to become the Jewish ghetto. Again most of it was destroyed by the Nazis but this time the freed-up space was used by the new communist masters of the country to express their architectural domination.

Large avenues were carved up through what was left of the old buildings, new squares (such as Constitution Square (Plac Konstytucji) were built in total disregard of the existing street plan and Joseph Stalin planted his controversal Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki or PKiN, a "gift" to Poland and a very conspicuous building in the Warsaw skyline)

On the whole, I can't say I was particularly taken by the city. The fact that it felt pretty empty of people, not at all like a capital city was also a turn off for me. I learned later that it was indeed shockingly empty (even for a local) due to people being on holiday or fleeing the heat (over 30 degrees C) in the countryside.

Warsaw is quite flat and apart from the Town Centre, which boasts a few towers, it is rather low rise and doesn't seem to offer the dramatic views one can find in London.

The two abiding elements of the city for me however will be the birds flying around (particularly swallows which I used to see as a child in my parents' village but seem to have otherwise disappeared) and the lime trees that seem to be the favoured tree to plant along streets. Strangely the locals do not collect their flowers to use as herbal tea.

After the walk that there was time for a visit to the sports area of the hotel, where I had a 10min run before joining the others in the pool area for a swim and a steam.

Soon however, we had to be on our feet again to make our way to the Congress Hall at PKiN for our technical rehearsal. The venue, with its 2500 red seats, used to be the meeting place of the Polish Communist Party and it there that on 29 January 1990, the Party was dissolved. Marlene Dietrich, Louis Armstrong, Jacques Brel, Dalida, The Rolling Stones, Luciano Pavarotti and Eric Clapton, amongst many others, all performed in this space. It is however unlikely that Stalin himself, ever made an appearance on the site, since construction started only a few months before his death in 1953. Other communist leaders, such as Ho Chi Min, did.

The Congress Hall from the back of the stage in the Palace of Culture and Science.

I and I think a few other chorines felt truly privileged and humbled to be invited to sing in such a venue. This was also probably a historic moment in its own little way: I can't imagine many gay choirs have performed in there before.

Also singing, was the Stockholm Gaykor. We were performing at as part of an award ceremony for local activists (although UK campaigner Clare Dimyon, who tours eastern European Prides every year and received an MBE this year for her work, was also honoured).

As is often the case, most of the afternoon (and a good part of the evening) was spent waiting. When we arrived to the venue the piano was still being tuned. During the show itself, the speeches and awards elements seem to go on for ever. Although the audience was rather small for such a big venue, they were very appreciative and enthusiastic and our 40min set received a standing ovation.

To conclude the show, the Swedish choir joined us on stage for a rendition of Hej Hej Hej, a very popular Polish song.

After the concert, part of the Chorus went to a pre-organised group meal while others went to (probably gay owned) restaurant near our hotel. I was part of that second group and very much enjoyed the experience and the food.

It seems the other group's evening was a little more eventful, with long delays to be served and fighting in the kitchen...

The piano in the room and our accompanist found themselves united after desert and we sang (mostly to ourselves and the staff) Seasons of Love and Hej Hej Hej.

While some wne to a nearby club, I want to bed.

View YouTube videos of parts of our performance that evening:
Confide in Me (opening of the set)
All I Care About is Love
Boys Will Be Boys with Stockholm Gaykor

All my pictures from the trip are available on my flickr account here.

Part Three is available here.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Road to Warsaw: Travelling

What an eventful and varied time, the past week has been! So much so, that the oldest details are already fading into a mist of oblivion while the present doesn't feel quite real either.

Most of Saturday was spent vainly trawling south London in search of floor varnish to protect the wooden floor of my new flat. It's not until Monday that I was finally able to find (Ironically in the shopping centre across the road!) the require products in the required shade and start the process of staining and varnishing the floor.

On Sunday I attended a meeting of my reading group to discuss Gypsy Boy. We were lucky to be joined by the author himself and had a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon.

Tuesday saw a trip to Ikea (where I bought a sofa), more floor activities and a final dash at packing my stuff (mostly books, of course) in preparation for the move itself on Wednesday. The effective ministrations of Rocket Van meant that the all business was over and done with in 1h30. Sadly the hot Polish mover didn't agree to let me take picture of him and his colleague in action.

After a not altogether satisfactory first night in the flat (in a sleeping bag, on my folded duvet laid on the thick carpet), I turned my sights towards the east and Warsaw where the Chorus had been invited to perform and attend Europride.

While the morning seemed to start very smoothly and I left early enough to be able to stop in Waterstone's on Piccadilly to buy guide, it seems about to seriously derail when, as the tube I was on to Heathrow was leaving Knightsbridge station, I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to pack my Chorus shirt, without which I wouldn't be able to perform. After some agonising I decided that would just about have time to go back and get it. I did and I had. The rest of the trip was totally uneventful. The flight was slightly delayed, the members of the Chorus on board drank the plane dry of gin and I slept through most of it.

The view of Warsaw from room 1055 of the Radisson Blue.

Getting off the plane, we were hit by a wall of heat (over 30 degrees) which would stay with us all week-end. We got on a coach that delivered us to our hotel in the centre of Warsaw.

Pictures of the day.

A collective meal had been booked at a "traditional" restaurant (Podwale 25); there was therefore little time to settle down in our rooms before we had to get back on the coach to cross the city.

And what an experience that restaurant turned out to be. The members of the Chorus are not renowned for the temperance of their ways but even they seems to find a match in the almost obscene avalanche of food that was presented to them and consisting mostly of various forms of cabbage (including some gorgeous sauerkraut) and all kinds of meats.

When there is food (and quite a bit of beer) involved, the chorines have a tendancy to resort to song after a while and this was no exception, other perhaps than in the fact that it seemed more tuneful than in similar past circumstances.

A group of three musicians (part of the experience) walked into the room at one point and soon we were singing Hej Hej Hej with them, a popular Polish song we had learned for the trip, according to our tradition. In return, they performed the end theme tune of Benny Hill (!). Later one of our soloists lead us into a rendition of La Traviatta's drinking song (part of the current repertoire) in apt celebration of gluttony.

The walk "home", late in the hot Polish night, was a little confused and certainly more scenic than intended...

All my pictures from the trip are available on my flickr account here.

Part 2: The Road to Warsaw: Performing.