How the Vistula Separates two Worlds
Mia Raben

The curious come by night. They creep in as they search for Central Europe, this iridescent zone encompassed by Russia, the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas, and by Western Europe. The trail leads to Warsaw, to a place beyond the sandy beaches of the Vistula where the sounds of Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade meet in a secluded cellar. Whichever style you prefer, understated and underground or with the right visiting card in your expensive jacket, at last you have made it. It is not explained in the wine list if the money being handed over the counter is clean or not. The city planners yearn to connect the old district of Praga with the newly developed city centre, but between the two lies a world of difference. Without doubt, it is an exciting time.

“We even installed the pipes with our own hands. We never sit still. In a month’s time you won’t recognise the place”, says Marcin Brzuska, thirty-four years old and co-founder of Saturator. “It’s not a club, rather a meeting place,” he says. Saturator is the new star in Praga’s cultural firmament. In the district of Praga, in old cobblers’ and tailors’ workshops, ghosts from the pre-war years abound. More recently, the ruins of brick-built houses and factories have been turned into artists’ studios. Ulica 11 Listopada - 11th November Street - is named after Poland’s Independence Day. At Number 22 a right turn leads into a courtyard. It is dark, without lighting, but there at the back is the small Teatr Academia, which has been here since 1992. We pass an iron door behind which is Sklad Butelek. This was founded over a year ago now by the sisters Magda and Olga - alias the Boss and the Queen. Like Saturator, it is also “not a pub and not a club, but a meeting place”. The sisters’ place offers music, literature and beer in a setting of raw brickwork and candlelight.

Moving further into the courtyard, there in the farthest corner on the right, at last, we see a sign for Saturator. Everything here is just temporary; there are other new places also planned to open. You need official permission to open a club, but not for a “meeting place”. The door to Saturator is open. Behind it, a dark stairwell leads either upstairs or down. From the upper storey come voices, smoke and a faint light. In a large living room with a bar, three young men are sitting at one of several coffee tables. Most of the furniture has been collected from the local tip, or it was bought through an internet auction. Beer and cigarettes are also available. Saturator’s style encompasses raw, rendered walls with a generous mixture of kitsch: here a pink wall, there a golden mirror.

Self-consciously Underground

Marcin Brzusak is from Praga. Until recently he and his troupe, Extraordinara, organised dance festivals in clubs such as Aurora on the western side of the river. Now he has returned to his own quarter and has brought his group with him. Marcin serves Lomza, a beer from north-eastern Poland, close to the Byelorussian border. It is cool and tastes good. “We are trying to escape the image of a night club.” says Marcin. “We want to avoid the snobs, the trance music and Ronald McDonald. Here you get good music, art, interesting people and an atmosphere like at home.”

Alongside Marcin, Saturator also involves twenty-nine year-old Mikolaj Biberstein-Starowiejski, Tomasz Walewski (24) and his sister Aneta (29). Marcin is the oldest, Tomasz studied music and Aneta is a designer. And, as Marcin points out, Aneta gives the whole place a “feminine touch” - she is the only one who ever cleans up. Unfortunately Aneta is too busy to join us. She is dashing around because the first guests are about to start arriving. And what of Mikolaj, the fourth member of the quartet? The resident aesthete and art expert, Mikolaj Biberstein-Starowiejski looks like a 19th Century prince. He crosses his legs and draws on his cigarette. “The places here in Praga are different to those over there,” he says, pointing west. “There is a special climate here. Perhaps one could compare it to Kreuzberg in the 1980s or Soho in New York.” Saturator should be a place for so far unknown artists to exhibit. It models itself on the Galerie Raster, an important part of the Warsaw art scene, which has helped several Polish artists find success in Basel and New York. Raster’s trademark is an old, undecorated apartment, which has none of the sterility of post-modern, white, cuboid galleries.

As the three young men chat about their concept, the room slowly fills. “We attract students and older people too. A lot of foreigners come here, including Byelorussian dissidents and visitors from Berlin, Asia and America. We want everybody to feel at home here,” says Marcin. An older couple enters the room and looks around with undisguised curiosity. Downstairs in the stuffy cellar, cushions are strewn around the dance floor and there are ducts hanging next to the disco ball on the ceiling. Mikolaj announces, “Today we have Balkan-beat! Six different DJs playing Chalga, Turbofolk and Manera. That’s Romanian disco music. It’s like Hip-Hop - it always goes on about the same thing - in their case it’s just Gypsies, love and cocaine. And to finish off, we’ll play some Heino!” he says, winking. Today he has a visitor from Vienna: his friend Simon Mullan, a multimedia artist. Mullan has his video camera at hand, always ready to film. He is thinking of moving permanently to Praga himself. “My Polish friends pay 100 Euros a month for a huge studio,” he observes. “The situation is great and the atmosphere is really special.” It is a playing field for experimentation.

High Heels, or the Necessity of Design

“Us? No, we don’t experiment, we’re professional,” says a black-haired beauty. It is later in the evening, on the western side of the river. Kinga Dyakowski is the PR manager of Foksal 19, a luxury night club in the centre of Warsaw. Here there are no open doors; instead the entrance is marked by two mountains of muscle wearing dinner jackets. Their bull necks are constricted by neckties and wires hang from their ears. The door opens and closes quickly in its illuminated niche in the building’s opulent neo-gothic façade. The opulence continues in the foyer, with its high ceilings and many columns. Beyond that is the bar in shining marble, where men in their thirties are busy relaxing with younger women in short skirts and dangerously high heels.

In the first floor, the night is still waiting for these bright stars as they drink up the courage to start dancing. The DJ plays commercial house music, accompanied by a tame bongo player. Kinga Dyakowski’s made-up eyes shine in the ultra-violet light, a giant photo depicts models enjoying the high-life on a yacht in the sun. “We want to adapt the club scene of Paris or London.” says Kinga, the “Managerka”. Her own stilettos are sharp as a needle; in tight jeans and a black polo-neck sweater she seems like a mixture between Snow White and a Sphinx. “I studied psychology,” she says and smiles. “Playboy Magazine held its office party here once already”. Then one of the owners arrives. Mariusz Grabowski makes a shy impression when facing the press. He cannot hold the gaze of inquisitive eyes. What is most important to him? “A very good question,” he says, thinking, his smile freezing slowly. “But you should ask our Kinga here,” he adds and then disappears. On Sundays, Kinga takes Troll, her French Bulldog, for a walk in her local park, Pole Mokotowskie. “Mariusz and Dariusz Lolek run a grill bar there as well.” She says. “Their empire also includes Hades, a student disco, and Dekada, a dance bar that plays oldies.”

The City should Become more Attractive

Someone else who prefers the western side of the city to Praga is Jaroslaw Krajewski. Krajewski has a vision for his home town. The twenty-four year old with a political science degree works at the freshly renovated palace on Plac Bankowy, seat of the mayor of Warsaw. Mayor Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz used to be the county’s prime minister. When he changed jobs, he took his complete staff with him, including the young Krajewski. Krajewski looks to the great metropolises of Europe as role models for Warsaw.

One wall is covered by an aerial view of the city, with the Vistula as a great dividing line down the middle. Krajewski dreams of a connection: “the sociology of this city cries out for a pedestrian bridge. I want to join the city centre with Praga.” Then he smoothes his tie and adds: “Warsaw should become the centre of Central Europe. That is a new adventure.”

Mia Raben works as a freelance journalist. She lives in Berlin and Warsaw, writing mainly for Spiegel Online, Berliner Zeitung, and tazzwei.
The daughter of a Polish mother, she is particularly impressed by Poland’s awakening in the new Europe.
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