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Polish Cities You Have Never Heard Of: Łódź & Katowice

February 17, 2013

I must apologize for my failure to finish reporting on my holiday travels. As a musician, with a typical musician’s brain, I live in the eternal present, with an event horizon that extends neither very far into the future, nor back into the past much. Things either get done as they happen, or else they sink into the still waters of the not-now. So I may eventually write about Budapest and Ukraine, or more likely, I may not. But while it’s on my mind, I will jot down a few notes on the cities I have most recently profaned and/or honored with my presence.


Last weekend I joined another party led by John Widdop, who Pied-Pipered us to Wrocław last fall, this time to Łódź, (pronounced Woodge) which is something like the Detroit of Poland, a former manufacturing center that is now rather empty and desolate.

John Widdop, demonstrating negative space in Łódź.

John Widdop, demonstrating negative space in Łódź. They’ve got a lot of that there.

But, as I have heard about Detroit, there are surprising pockets of vitality and culture. Widdop, who loves the city with the passion of one whose beloved is misunderstood and dismissed, was the perfect guide. He took us to the coolest bars and especially to the coolest tea room in this region of the Milky Way.

Me, demonstrating the universality of the stupid principle.

It was a whirlwind trip, made all the more whirlwindy by my genuinely Polish vodka intake on Saturday night, which resulted in me being refused entrance to the last club of the evening’s crawl, not to mention indecorous public behavior on my part with a statue of Arthur Rubinstein, about whom I know nothing and have no opinions whatsoever. The less said about that, the better.

Typical Łódź architecture.

Typical Łódź architecture.

Wandering about Łódź.

Wandering about Łódź.

Łódź means boat in Polish, which is ironic, given that it is landlocked and has no river. I could say a few other interesting things about it, but I would just be stealing conversational riffs from Widdop, so I’ll just say that if you’re in Poland, you really ought to give Boat a chance, even though Polish people will try to talk you out of it. There’s a bar with a helicopter inside it and there are far fewer 10-story Calvin Klein advertisements draped over the buildings than in say, Warszawa.


This brings me to the city from whence I actually write these words at this moment. Katowice (kah-toh-veets-uh) is only 30 kilometers from Żory and is a contender for the city I might like to live and teach in next year. Or it was… until I visited it with that in mind. See, I need to find a city where I can play music in clubs, like I’m used to doing; it’s generally been the central organizing principle of my social life. I thought maybe Katowice, having a metro area that hosts over two million souls, might have something to offer in that regard but, having shown up on a Saturday night, having done my homework, and having done my best to find a music scene, I’m pretty convinced it ain’t happening here., a reliable source, tells us that Mariacka Street is where it’s happening, so I headed over there.  Uh, like, wow. If that’s Katowice’s Bourbon Street, then we’ve got a problem, party people. It’s basically a sort of grand alley, extending a few hundred meters. Most of the buildings are vacant and boarded up. There are a couple of bars, but no live music. Looming over it all, at the eastern end, is the cathedral, which tolls the bells on the hour, in a ponderous baying of grim Catholic dominion over this sad little stab at a nightlife district

Looking up Mariacka toward the cthedral

Looking up Mariacka toward the cathedral

I kind of like the KATO bar, but it’s not what I would call a scene, just a cheap place to grab a beer and talk. The decor looks like it was scavenged from a demolition site: particle board; cinder blocks; ancient, tattered, vinyl booths. The art on the walls looks like it was photocopied and stuck up with papier-mâché.

Me, glowering in some shitty Katowice bar.

Me, glowering in some shitty Katowice bar.

A little after 8:00, which feels rather late on a Polish winter night, I went to see a Polish film at Rialto: Drogówka. Having recently learned the word drogo, (expensive), I thought the title was perhaps a form of that word, which would have made sense, since it started off with cops extorting bribes from motorists. But it actually means Highway Patrol, or Traffic Police, depending on which translation you favor. It was impressively, forcefully, grim in its portrayal of the punishingly numbing lives of boozing, whoring, Warsaw traffic cops. My Polish is still so limited that I was only able to understand numbers, very common words, and a few sentences like It’s not him, Where is it? and How much do you want? But I caught the gist of it; the language of cinema often transcends language barriers.  It was interesting to see what got laughs. Polish people apparently have a pretty dark sense of humor.

I went back to my hostel after the film, booted up the laptop, and tried to find someplace cool to go for a late night drink. I know I haven’t written about it here, but in Budapest, I met a fellow musician in a “ruin bar;” we played piano, sang, and had some wonderful conversations. I thought perhaps I could find something like that here. I’m not prepared to say it’s impossible, but I think it’s much harder to find. I finally settled on a bar that looked like it might have some personality.

I hit the street again and hoofed it a kilometer and a half eastward. As I got to what I figured was the street I was looking for, I heard a commotion, the unmistakable sound of street violence. Interesting how you know in a split second whether it’s serious or not; the inherited keen attenuation to primate troop dynamics. I saw a guy chasing another guy across the street, saw the savagely precise arm movements of the trained fighter, your Russian-security-guy type of assault. There was a crowd in the street. A woman was trying to placate the assailant. “Well,” I thought, “that is not the street I want to turn down.” I kept walking, but it became clear that the road was dead; I had passed the last outpost of friendly lights. I turned and went a block south, then headed back west, thinking I could pass by the street I was looking for from another angle, on my way back.

I came back to the same street. The fight was over. I walked up towards the lights and sure enough, it had taken place in front of the bar I was looking for. It was packed, standing room only, spilling out into the street. Across the street, a guy was laying motionless on the ground, surrounded by half a dozen people crouching down around him. And what do you suppose was the music blaring out of the bar? Sweet Home Alabama. I hate that song, I hate that band, and together they’re sort of a reverse shibboleth that tells me where I’m not wanted. I have learned that it never pays to enter into an establishment where that song is playing. So I strode past.

I found a bland, overpriced, faux-Irish joint and paid 8 złoty each for a couple of Zywiecs I could have gotten for 4 in my neighborhood dive in Żory. Katowice was not winning me over. If I was really a writer, perhaps I could find inspiration in the desolation of this place, but I only write on the side; I need a music community to nurture me. I could enjoy this place for what it is, but I didn’t think it was a good place for me to live.

Sunday, around mid-day, I wandered in the other direction, away from the train station, to see if I had missed anything off that way. Not that I could tell. The streets were about as lively as Salt Lake City on a Sunday morning. A few kebab shops were open, but none of them had falafel. I was in no mood to eat one more of those Polish wegeterianski kebabs, which are basically lettuce, cabbage, onion and tomato in a tortilla.

And so I went back to the vegetarian restaurant, which is really very good, except that I could not seem to convey my order, and so got way too much food. It was all delicious and though it was hearty, it wasn’t heavy or oily, so, taking my time, I worked my way through most of it.

Too much vegetarian food.

Too much vegetarian food.

Perhaps on the heels of a good meal, my mood turned for the better and I began to feel a bit more generous toward Katowice.  I went to another bar on Mariacka, a sunlit window-fronted place that reminded me of Juarez, Mexico, except without the feeling that I could be murdered at any moment.

After that, I went to another pub, an underground place with rough-hewn wooden tables, the sort of medieval tavern vibe that makes me feel right at home.  There I worked on my novel for a couple of hours and began to feel that perhaps I could learn to love Katowice, after all.  The interior and the exterior, they are intertwined, yeah?

In any case, I caught the Bus Brothers minibus back to Żory, where I met up with friends at Czekolada, our neighborhood  spot.

Abs & Bogna. If there are two more lovable people. I’d rather not know about it.

It was nice to be home, whatever that means.  Maybe next year we’ll all be living somewhere else and dreaming of yet still somewhere else.  No telling.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2013 12:42 am

    Oy. I am thinking you actually need a town with some ex-pats. Those ones probably would not be attracted to Sweet Home Alabama. You need an audience even if its small, right? Cover music is definitely not your style. But you are getting to see the world.

    • February 18, 2013 4:47 pm

      I’ve been hearing from people that there is stuff I would like in Katowice, but you have to know people to find it, so I’m reaching out to friends of friends. Will report back.

  2. February 18, 2013 1:55 pm

    I want to hear the stories you would rather forget. Like about eating all the radish slices at the Gummi Bear Birthday party, or XXXX XX XXXXX XXXXXXX XXXXXX XX XX XXX, or all the times having to XXXX XXXX XXXXXX XXXXX in the Jack in the Box parking lot.

    Thanks in advance!

    • February 18, 2013 4:45 pm

      I don’t want to forget anything, but some stories I tell only to my closest adult friends, such as yourself.

      (This journal being open to some of the younger members of my family, I have redacted your comment slightly.)

      • February 19, 2013 12:44 pm

        I love it. Makes it even more disturbing.

      • norbertbeaver permalink
        February 23, 2013 11:27 pm

        Oh dammit, I always miss out on the good stuff. If anybody wants me I’ll be at Wikileaks waiting for the uncensored text to come out.

      • February 25, 2013 9:43 pm

        You’re a musician; trust me, it was nothing special.

  3. norbertbeaver permalink
    February 22, 2013 11:35 pm

    “Łódź means boat in Polish, which is ironic, given that it is landlocked and has no river.” – hyuk hyuk hyuk… I don’t know if you intended that to be funny but it made me chuckle.

    Also, it’s weird how the places in most of those pictures could easily pass for English towns and cities. Except for the fact that nobody is urinating in any of the pictures. But still, it’s amazing how alike our countries are.

    Also also, you’re doing pretty well with the vegetarian kebabs there. I know places here where the vegetarian options are chicken or fish. That’s not a joke.

    • February 23, 2013 10:31 am

      I once saw, in a Mexican restaurant in El Paso, a vegetarian section which included chicken.

      I’m going to have to see England at some point. I just worry that it’s too expensive.

      • norbertbeaver permalink
        February 23, 2013 11:22 pm

        As long as you don’t intend to eat or drink anything you’ll be fine.

      • February 25, 2013 5:51 pm

        My experience with England was that everything was about twice as expensive. The pound was nearly twice the dollar so you would pay about the same in pounds as you would in dollars. But the pound has been sliding lately and this might be a good time to visit there. Now the dollar is about two-thirds of a pound, and the pound may drop further in the next few months due to England’s dismal economy.

      • February 25, 2013 9:43 pm

        My Polish wages won’t go far there, I’m afraid. I can really only vacation in depressed eastern economies, not depressed western economies.

      • February 26, 2013 2:34 pm

        Prices here are ridiculous. For everything. It’d probably be cheaper to pack your own food, hire a helicopter for the day and fly to each landmark you want to see, rather than stay a week, pay English prices and travel by conventional means.

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