Random Warsaw recommendations

Warsaw spots

Sightseeing & parks

– Palace of Culture and Science – you can take an elevator to the 33th floor to see the views, but there can be long queues for that; otherwise, visiting Cafe Kulturalna, Bar Studio (see below) or the Kinoteka cinema can be a good way to take a look at its interiors

– Park Łazienkowski / Łazienki – a beautiful, late 18th century park with original small palaces etc. scattered around it. Especially worth visiting in the summer, with free outdoor Chopin concerts every Sunday at 12.00 and 16.00

– Pole Mokotowskie – a big, varied park (used to be an airport before the war); the part west of Niepodległości Alley is more interesting

– Starówka / Old Town – rebuilt after the war, so not “original”, but still very beautiful and cute, especially in late afternoon / evening; includes the Royal Castle with guided tours

MDM – a planned district from the 1950s with sculptures on the sides of the buildings etc.

University Library (BUW) – an interesting building with a beautiful roof garden

 

Museums

– Copernicus Science Centre – an interactive centre for fans of natural sciences; sometimes long queues for the tickets

– Warsaw Uprising Museum – interesting, but the guides can be quite biased in their interpretation of the events

– POLIN History of Polish Jews Museum – very few actual artefacts, but a very interesting way to present history (includes a fun “which Jewish political party would you support” quiz in the 1918-1939 section)

– Muzeum Narodowe – an extensive art collection, sometimes cool exhibitions

– Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej (CSW) – a modern art centre close to Łazienki with a great bookshop

 

Food

For some reason, Warsaw has a huge amount of 100% vegan restaurants, all I tried very tasty

– Lokal Vegan Bistro: vegan versions of traditional Polish food & streetfood dishes; doesn’t have air conditioning, so best to avoid on hot days; mango lassi very thick; everything very tasty

– Vegan Ramen Shop: great 100% vegan ramen bowls, again no air co (at least at the Mokotów location) so best for colder days, a cute interior, Japanese music playing

– Krowarzywa vegan burgers – a bit infamous for employing people on shitty contracts; still, good burgers

– Youmiko Vegan Sushi – a rather fancy sushi place saving sushi menus

Non-vegan:

– Cafe Kulturalna – in the Palace of Culture and Science (“Stalin’s tower”), very cool interiors, affordable tasty dishes

– Cafe Mozaika – again, not exactly a cafe, but a really nice restaurant with again, cool vintage interiors and something ~different – two menus: a traditional Polish one and a modern, largely plant-based one; nice cocktails, a great beer garden outside (next to a busy street but divided from it with some trees and a weird tiny tower)

 

Cafes / bars

It should be noted that the most popular kind of place in Warsaw where you meet people for a drink (and not to dance, so not a club) is a “klubokawiarnia” – club-cafe. Unlike the Dutch cafes, which almost always close at 18.00, Warsaw club-cafes (a literal translation) or cafe-bars (a more accurate one) open quite early and don’t close in the evening, but instead become full with people ordering alcoholic drinks instead of coffee. Most of the places below are in this category. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to cafe chains like Costa Coffee or Starbucks; Green Caffe Nero is the superior cafe chain in Warsaw, with great sandwiches, of course with vegetarian and vegan options. I recommend getting your sandwiches at the Green Caffe Nero in the underground passage of the main train station if you’re waiting for the train.)

– Plan B – a place from a different, hipster era (my middle/high school years), when you could put some old furniture together in a messy, but centrally located dark venue and you had a super popular club-cafe. Many of such places closed down (RIP Powiększenie), but Plan B is still thriving – probably because of its location at the always full and architecturally pleasant Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour’s Square?). Chill and relaxed during the day, it gets busy and loud in the evenings, especially its outside tables next to the pretentious “Charlotte – bread and wine” place

– Karma – AFAIK even older than Plan B and the original “cool” cafe, it looks very traditional now, but is still very nice and has an extended seasonal drink menu. Especially nice in the winter, with a centrally located coffee mill (?) making the whole place smell like coffee

– Gemba – a relatively fancy place with a shabby old-hipster-style basement (quiet but check the furniture for bedbugs) and traditional Polish drinking snacks

– Bar Studio – opposite Cafe Kulturalna and a bit similar in its vibe, but with little to no food AFAIK; instead, it offers more of a party atmosphere, with dance events and cheap nice cocktails

– Pardon, to tu – looks like a corporate place for an older crowd, but you can find good music there, also live, and relatively cheap wine/cider

– Cafe Kafka – close to the university library; good cheap lunch deals; in the summer seats on the grassy area outside, nice views on the park below the main university campus

– Wrzenie Świata – a bit hidden behind the main touristy street, with a good non-fiction and travel book collection

– Iluzja – next to the cinema showing mostly old and classic films (Iluzjon), inside a small charming park, with artisan ice cream in the summer and a great outdoor area

– Świetlica – the interior is a bit questionable, but all drinks are of very high quality (can’t judge the coffee which I don’t drink)

– Pawilony – multiple tiny bars next to each other behind the Nowy Świat street (south to Wrzenie Świata)

 

Many people go to drink at the renovated riverbank, but it’s not what it used to be…

If you agree / disagree / have something to add, please leave a comment below 🙂

The train travelling chronicles, part 2: The actual chronicles of my train journeys this spring / summer

[Part 1]

I’m surprised how big the Rhine is, which is, of course, a bit silly. But it feels like the train is next to a beautiful lake the whole time, sun glittering in its waters. Looking through the windows on the left, I sometimes see a motorboat or a cargo ship on the river. Suddenly, on the right, a medieval-looking town (Oberwesel) appears among the hills covered with vineyards. It’s silent and sleepy in the Ruhebereich. We pass another town, its white buildings with dark wooden frames are so close that they almost touch the train. I use the on-board wifi to find out that such type of a facade can be described as half-timbered, and that such buildings are, indeed, most often found in Germany.

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This is the dreamy experience of travelling with the train, the one the NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) would like you to think of while seeing their commercials: a man relaxing in his train seat, the slogan asking: and what will you do with your 3 hours of nothing? Indeed, as a lazy introvert I can really enjoy my more than 8 hours of nothing – at 9.53 the train departed Cologne to (hopefully, I think writing these words at 11.36) reach Vienna at 18.45 – but it’s not my first connection today, and the previous one came dangerously close to a train travel nightmare.

The German train left Utrecht Centraal punctually at 7.07, bringing to mind all the cliches of synchronising my watch with it. But already in Arnhem it stopped for suspiciously long. As the friendly conductor announced in Dutch, German and English that the train had a “small technical problem”, the anxiety amplified by the lack of sleep took over my body. I couldn’t read the book I brought with me, couldn’t read the magazine I bought at the station; full of despair, I started playing the Woordboeket game on my phone. Surprised with how well the game was going, after a few long minutes I heard, with relief, that the train can go further.

Then it stopped at some tiny station already behind the German border. Another small technical problem. I started checking the distance from there to Cologne on Google maps; searched for possible alternative connections in case I missed the 9.53 train; then, when the train finally started moving, realised with a growing anxiety that it was stopping in the many big cities of the Ruhrgebiet, Cologne being the very last of them. I prepared for being late, having a minor breakdown reminiscent of the other embarrassing breakdowns I had in the past after missing trains, planes and, in one case, a long-distance bus; for having a frantic conversation with someone at the DB ticket office, trying to figure out an alternative route to Vienna where my family would be waiting for me, late in the evening, undoubtedly smiling sarcastically and joking about my affection for the trains (and silent about all the traffic jams they possibly encountered on their drive from Warsaw).

Fortunately, the train finally rolled into the Koeln Hauptbahnhof at 9.35, just 20 minutes after its planned arrival… and the conductor announced that the small technical problems got big enough to prevent the train from going further to Frankfurt (am Main), its final destination. Looking at the other passengers, annoyed that they will have to get out and continue their journey through Koeln Messe Deutz (?), I didn’t feel any Schadenfreude. Just a passing thrill as if something not that terrible, but highly upsetting was going to happen to me, like falling into a dirty Utrecht canal, and at the last moment I stepped back.

So, it was some type of an adventure, even though the whole time I was sitting down and consuming culture (my favourite type of adventure). At the moment I’m still sitting (yeah yeah yeah), in the train to Vienna, which is about to pass a number of cities the names of which I know, but that’s where my knowledge ends (Passau? Regensburg?). The views, clearly visible from the large windows, are one of the biggest advantages of the trains. Another one are the on-board meals and drinks, although in this regard the German trains are embarrassingly stingy compared to the Polish Intercity trains, with a warm drink or bottled water included in the price of the ticket and served to your seat; not to mention the magnificent Wars, with a variation of traditional Polish, but also more experimental and vegan dishes (!), cooked on the train and served either in the special, comfy restaurant carriage or to your seat (!!), where they can be ordered via an app (!!!). German train food, from what I’m able to gather, isn’t as nice as the food from Wars and serving to the seat is available only in the first class. Which probably still won’t stop me from ordering the cold rice pudding around the 9th hour of my journey.

* * *

When I heard that I have to go to Florence from Utrecht by train (which you might recall from the last post), I panicked a bit. Fortunately, it soon turned out that because the accommodation costs were covered by the department, I could still use some money from the grant my salary is paid from to pay for the travel. So the extra costs were covered. Still, what route was I supposed to take? Google maps spat out this convoluted mess (probably inspired by their promotional deal with FlixBus):

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Fortunately, the Deutsche Bahn website suggested another option: a direct train from Utrecht to Basel, then from Basel to Milan, then from Milan to Florence. It could be even done within one day, albeit with some risky train changes of 10 minutes.

I already knew I wanted to split the journey into two days because, as you might recall from the beginning of this post, train changes are my nemesis. But what was that? A direct train from Utrecht to Basel? I never knew it existed. I wondered how many direct trains from the Netherlands to cool and/or beautiful cities existed that I didn’t know of. And direct trains = <3, because no changes, duh, they offered probably the pinnacle of relaxed travel, city centre to city centre, no delay anxiety, great views on the way.

And the views on the train to Basel turned out to be great. Still, the views on the way from Basel to Milan, as you might expect, were really breathtaking. Although it’s still etched in my memory, it’s hard to describe the comfort and the beauty of that train route (also I’m terrible at taking photos). To be fair, I don’t remember (I think on purpose) its price – all I still know that both the Utrecht – Basel and Milan – Florence trains were much cheaper, and for the upcoming holiday I got the Freiburg (part of the Amsterdam – Basel route) – Utrecht ticket for 40 euros per person.

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In the last months, I travelled by train a couple more times, including the Berlin – Warsaw journey which was, completely by accident, also booked by my friend from middle school; we spent a couple of hours in the aforementioned Wars, eating great food, drinking cider and completely forgetting the fact that the journey took almost 6 hours because of the renovation-caused detour. We boarded the train around 16.30 (the last direct Berlin – Warsaw connection), so the night fell over the fields while we were travelling and by the time we reached Warsaw it was completely dark (not only because the Warsaw Central station is underground).

This post covers most of my recently travelled train routes; I don’t expect any unknown routes for the coming months except for the Berlin – Freiburg direct route, which I’m quite curious about. However, my big dream is to follow the example of Greta Thunberg, who travelled by train from Brussels (that’s almost the Netherlands, no?) to Stockholm. (I’m eagerly awaiting her journey to a climate summit in Chile next year, since I would be happy to see the comeback of transatlantic touristic ships.) Still, apparently she had the help of a Swedish travel office specialising in train journeys – something I might want to consider, especially as my contact with a normal travel office while booking the Florence journey was full of surprising complications and me trying to control my anger – because the call centre employees I was talking to weren’t directly responsible for the general tardiness of the process. Looking at the Utrecht – Stockholm journey on Google maps is deeply demotivating, but, as the Florence experience has taught me, this might be just a FlixBus-promoting deception.

To sum up: based on my, obviously very representative, experiences, train travel is not perfect – but then nobody (no mode of transportation?) is. It can be frustrating, it can be enjoyable, it might be relatively cheap, but it will still cost you some money – like every type of travelling. If you like sitting down, but still being able to walk to the toilet as often as you want, and if you don’t mind the physically inactive kind of entertainment, it might be something for you. Having the recent comparison of a car journey from Umbria in Italy to Warsaw, I appreciate the trains for the luxurious leg room and the possibility of reading without getting sick. But these are just my opinions and my choices, and I’ll be happy to hear if and why you disagree and choose other ways to travel for reasons I maybe never thought of.

 

Part 3 coming soon, with (hopefully) useful tips and tricks re: trains in Europe

 

The train travelling chronicles, part 1: the train nostalgia, or the context

The panic about the upcoming consequences of the climate change never fully leaves my mind. Hot nights, with the temperature never falling below 20 degrees Celsius, have become a new norm in Warsaw. The days range from 30 to 35 degrees. A couple of years ago such temperatures were met with enthusiasm, since they lasted a day or two, providing an opportunity for an enjoyable night out. But now they remain that high for weeks. People walk around slowly like calm zombies with a sheen of sweat, unable to get enough sleep or fend off the swarms of mosquitos. Of course, the weather isn’t the climate, but the general trend is worrying, and we don’t know how it will evolve in the coming years.

A discussion on a Polish feminist Facebook group about whether having children is responsible, considering they’ll most likely have to deal with catastrophic consequences of the climate change, made me think: is my generation the last one to fully enjoy the post-industrial comforts without, at the same time, suffering the environmental consequences of our lifestyle? For people with enough money few material luxuries are impossible to realise. But even for the poorer of us, a certain standard of existence has become selbstverständlich. We have wifi 24/7, we eat exotic fruit all year round, we fly to the other end of the world. I know what you think at this point – oh no, another text blaming me for trying to find joy in my stressful life – but as you might know from my previous posts, I don’t like the idea of personal responsibility. Instead, I prefer to blame the system.

And the system is ridiculous. But we know that and I don’t want to upset you, or myself, too much. So this is the moment where I leave the doomsday scenarios aside, remind you that collective action is infinitely more effective than lifestyle choices – please consider the list of anti-climate change actions and organisations at the bottom of this post – and change my tone from defeatist to an optimistic one. As you might guess from the title, this post is going to be about trains, and I like trains (a sentence my boyfriend keeps telling me is a well-known quote from a video game). Trains are great, and while you, personally, choosing a train instead of a car or a plane won’t save the world, I suggest you consider enjoying the guilt-free pleasure of train travel on the routes we already have and the ones we will hopefully (re-)start in the coming years thanks to our powerful climate movement. The choice might be tricky and this will be apparent from my story. But sometimes life kicks us in the butt to help us make the right choice, or, in my case – in the thin bone dividing the inside of my mouth from my sinus, and that’s what this story is about.

* * *

I have always liked trains. In my mind, trains relate to a lot of positive memories: going on school trips to the Tatra mountains in primary school (standing at the slightly open window, wind blowing, the teacher and the other kids making fun of me not being able to distinguish oats from ordinary grass; playing Dungeons & Dragons in the restaurant car), then going on high school trips to an exhibition or a theatre play in another city, thanks to our wonderful teachers (exchanging mp3 players to listen to each other’s music collections; laughing at the „true” crime magazines bought at the station), going to Berlin (enough said, the best city in the world around 2011, a rush of happy chemicals in the brain as we see the first tall old buildings and pass the Spree; standing in the corridor because the cheap train to Szczecin is crazily overbooked and the compartment we managed to get turns out to be reserved for mothers with children), going to intellectual events in Kraków (hearing people in the compartment talk about the 2011 11th November nationalist march and the leftist blockade and understanding how powerful media framing can be), going to music festivals (trains so full tickets can’t be checked, crowds of edgy teens going for a smoke at every station; managing to convince my friends to play “film Pictionary” on the way back because we’re too tired to think, a friend trying to show “Annie Hall” by mimicking the shape of a hallway).

Now, that I live in the Netherlands, my perception of trains is less adventurous: it’s difficult to make an adventure out of your daily commute. Still, Dutch trains are wonderful in their own way: tram-like to accommodate the short distances, they come every few minutes, so you never have to plan around their leaving time, and you can pay for the travel with a universal public transport card with automatic top-ups, so you don’t have to worry about the tickets. The stations are full of sophisticated self-service convenience stores, on some routes the trains run throughout the night, there are silence areas in every train when even talking is frowned upon. I eat my dinner on the train every weekday: a sandwich bought at the station or a portion of Huel (a topic for another post), which sounds sad, but isn’t without its charms and would be much more difficult during a car commute.

Surely then, you might say, you must also travel internationally by trains all the time, if you love them so much.

Oh no. No. The first argument I use goes straight to the brutal power of numbers. I can fly from Eindhoven to Warsaw for 20 euros, if I’m lucky and book early enough. Can I go by train for so little? No, never.

Which doesn’t change the fact that I’ve almost never been that lucky (I did score a mid-week middle-January flight for 12 euros once, that’s true) and I literally never booked “early enough”. I usually procrastinated with buying the tickets and then bitterly paid the price for my procrastination, with an feeling of justice being served. I did have a theory that at some point, before Christmas, Wizzair adds extra planes and the prices go down, but that theory was based on a single experience of not paying that much despite buying the tickets in the first week of December.

So, while I usually paid around 50-80 euros per ticket, I didn’t really consider the trains as an alternative. I did take the Utrecht – Warsaw (or rather, Amsterdam – Moscow?) night train early during my Bachelor. The train needed 14 hours to reach my birthplace, stopping on its way in every big-ish German town located more or less on its route, and in each of these towns at least one noisy German family left or got on the train. Then the train waited motionlessly at Frankfurt (Oder) for around an hour, which I don’t want to criticise too much, because IIRC that used to be a norm for the Berlin – Warsaw night trains. (This description brings back a memory of another night train, from somewhere in Czech Republic to somewhere in Poland, where I freaked out because in the middle of the night someone removed the destination cards on the door and I was sure we’re going to end up in Vienna.) But I shouldn’t describe this night train for too long since a couple of years ago it was cancelled – because of the lost capitalist competition with cheap airlines, according to Deutsche Bahn.

At some point I checked the trains from the Netherlands to Berlin: the cheapest price I could see, 80 euros, scared me, poor student that I was. (The tickets can be much cheaper, but more about it later.) In the end I started taking the trains only when I was older and employed, and I saw them as an opportunity to show Berlin to my boyfriend – to stay a couple of nights, in a relaxed way. But even then, we would usually go one way with the plane, to save on the crazy expense of travelling by train internationally. (During all these years I often travelled by train from Warsaw to see my friend in Łódź, which is a ridiculously cheap – about 12 euros without discounts – and, for Polish conditions, short route of 1,5 – 2 h.)

Everything changed when I went to Warsaw last March to have my wisdom teeth removed and it turned out one of them was very deep in the bone, and removing it created the aforementioned wound between the sinus and the inside of my mouth. (I decided to remove the teeth in Warsaw since, after one try years ago, the Dutch dentistry scared me away by its prices – both of the services and the optional dental insurance – as well as by telling me that my gums are weird and that I’ll soon have 16 cavities.) The wound began its, according to the doctors, “beautiful” healing process; in fact, it’s still healing now, and it reacts badly to alcohol (what a great summer I’m going to have). Despite the whole beauty of the healing tissue, I was strongly advised to be careful with it and avoid flying, since the changing cabin air pressure (?) could make the matters worse.

That’s how I found myself planning a complicated train journey from Utrecht to attend a postgraduate course in Florence, where I already paid for an apartment booked with two other PhD students attending the course. But more about it next time. I’m sure by now can’t look at the words “trains” and “sinus” anymore, and the post became much too long to read it on an average Dutch train journey.

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This will most likely be a 3 part ~series:

Part 1: The train nostalgia, or the context

Part 2: The actual chronicles of my train journeys this spring/summer, a.k.a. me alternatively complaining about and praising the trains in many long paragraphs – already written!

Part 3: The guide, or the actually useful part where I’m trying to help you using my experience and randomly gathered information

 

 

Anti-climate change actions and organisations

Alive

A new post coming soon… Stay tuned!

BELGIUM. Bruxelles. Gare du Midi (Midi train station). 1981.

(Photo by Harry Gruyaert – Bruxelles, Gare du Midi, 1981)

Cruel Summers and Lonely Winters: A Personal Take on Ferrante vs. Knausgaard

This text includes some spoilers for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (all volumes)

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Some time ago I was talking to my mum on the phone and mentioned that I bought the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend. Her immediate reaction was to suggest I’m a bit out of touch with the literary trends, since both she and my grandma finished reading Ferrante’s cycle more than a year ago. I defended myself, saying I didn’t have time to read half a page of fiction (not too mention four books) last year because of my studies and internship, only to later realise I actually managed to consume quite a lot of another phenomenon of our times: the edgily titled My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

My mother dismissed Knausgaard’s books without reading them, claiming she’s not interested in someone’s traumatised childhood and alcoholic father (actually Ferrante’s books also feature plenty of trauma and addiction). Personally I found the first volume of My Struggle, focused on said trauma and father, a captivating masterpiece. It is in the next messily written volumes, full of clumsy male sexual experiences and (equally alien to me) fatherly dilemmas, where Karl Ove lost me to the obligations of writing my thesis. On the other hand, Elena Ferrante and her heroine, conveniently also named Elena (Greco), forced me to postpone work and socialising to follow their story, also covering topics absent from my everyday life (maternity, organised crime, earthquakes).

I don’t want to rely on my experience with these works just to claim that Ferrante is better: the ending of her cycle disappointed me and killed my hopes of seeing it as something really great, something like Father Goriot by Balzac, which I finish reading and think “wow”. Also I appreciate the somewhat gimmicky novelty of Knausgaard’s “fictional autobiography”, while Ferrante’s novels are pretty conventional (which might be why I liked reading them).

Still, the comparisons write themselves, and while I’m pleasantly surprised that The New Yorker implied Ferrante and Knausgaard are two titans with a “radically opposed” visions of human condition in the vein of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (because I like generalisations sweeping across the ages), their analysis doesn’t quite satisfy me. Of course, there is a deeper meaning in Ferrante and Knausgaard’s books, related to violence, growing up and mundane everyday lives. But the more superficial aspects of their work and personas deserve to be presented as the full of contrasts clickbait material which they are. Karl Ove writes about his own life in ruthless detail, Elena writes potentially autobiographical fiction. While we see photos of Karl Ove’s ruggedly handsome face on the covers of his books, we have no idea about Elena’s looks – she might even be a male author using a female pseudonym. Karl Ove lives in Norway and Sweden, the lands of grey skies, cold winters and IKEA, Elena lives in Italy, the land of loud conversations, good food and a lot of sun. These are cliches, but marketing loves them, and while Ferrante’s covers show sunny weddings, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere presented My Struggle as a twisted addition to the hygge trend.

The biggest difference, however, has to do with my favourite topic (other than random cultural consumption): politics. Largely absent from Knausgaard’s novels, politics provide most of the context and much of the plot in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle. Knausgaard writes about his personal relationships and artistic struggles, and at first the life of Ferrante’s supposed alter ego, Elena Greco, seems to be filled with exactly that. She’s a lover, a writer and a mother, more or less in that order. But Elena’s relationships, studies and publications are often just reflections of her biggest desire: to escape the poverty and violence of the place where she comes from, a working class neighbourhood in Naples. For many years she studies, extremely disciplined, at schools which almost no one from her neighbourhood attends, to finally become the only local university graduate. Among the people left behind is her best friend forever, Lila, whose family is slightly poorer than Elena’s. The twelve year old Lila has to help her parents with work and isn’t allowed to attend the middle school, despite her almost supernatural intelligence. The reader has no doubt that she’s the “brilliant friend” from the title – until at some point, when she’s sixteen and about to get married, Lila implores Elena: don’t end up like me, study to do great things: you’re my brilliant friend.

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Ferrante’s books are in fact a readable analysis of social classes shaping people’s lives. There’s the obvious layer of this analysis, in which Elena, Lila and their friends represent the working class; rich teachers and professors like the Galianis and Airotos are a sort of bourgeois intelligentsia; the factory owner Soccavo is a textbook capitalist; some people situate themselves on the borders of these distinctions, like the third most important character of the cycle, the womanising arriviste Nino Sarratore. But within these categories individual decisions lead to more complex consequences. After the initial tragedy of stopping with her education, Lila has to deal with a restless mind, symbolising all the potential unrealised because of her various struggles. Elena, who compares herself to the spoiled youth of the higher classes, discovers that she spent most of her life studying only to achieve what others have gotten as if it was their natural right. Even though at some point Lila’s uniqueness manifests itself as striking physical beauty, Elena observes that the girls from the higher classes possess charm and grace which neither she nor Lila will ever have. Nothing can replace Elena and Lila’s childhood dream of getting rich, and while both of them admire characters devoted to some other goal – be it communism or science – by the end of the last book we realise that even these characters have no influence on the violent chaos in their neighbourhood, Naples, Italy and, ultimately, the world.

In Knausgaard’s novels, the chaos is hidden within: deep in people’s minds, but also behind the curtains of their bourgeois homes. Karl Ove barely has any financial problems. Unlike Ferrante’s heroines, who work hard to survive for the majority of their lives, the reckless Norwegian is penniless only once, as a result of a spontaneous and therefore terribly planned hitchhiking trip to Greece. In the later years, he might run out of his student credit money, but he can always borrow cash from his brother or immediately find a well-paid summer job on an oil platform. Despite the unemployment of his wife, he earns enough with his writing to support her and their three small children, while still having time to do his share of the household tasks. From an economic point of view, such welfare is like a dream come true – but naturally Knausgaard progresses to the hell of post-material values.

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The huge trauma in Karl Ove’s life is caused by his father, a mysterious man who terrorises his young sons with strict rules and punishments, but ultimately succumbs to alcoholism later in his life. Ferrante’s novels are full of characters far more violent than Knausgaard’s father: rapists, terrorists and murderers. Yet the only reaction we really see from her main characters is yet more passion, yet more attempts to escape or remove oneself from the cruel reality. Knausgaard is different: he’s a self-conscious narrator, a man on a mission to describe an intimate, real version of himself. Reading about his childhood, I remembered the uneasy feeling of breaking something in the house, or not studying, and awaiting my parents’ reaction. Heartbreakingly, little Karl Ove remains in that uneasy state most of the time. During his student years, he often gets embarrassingly drunk and exposes his emotions, sometimes in an auto-destructive way. He cuts his face after romantic rejections, which at first seems shocking, but is explained in the last book of the series: Karl Ove looks just like his father. Instead of creating a panorama of the society, or at least a portrait of one social class, Knausgaard follows the remark of Gombrowicz – that one should write about oneself, since that is the only topic one really knows – and takes it to its very extreme. I almost accepted that personal focus halfway through the sixth novel, relaxed by the descriptions of Knausgaard’s summer family life, when suddenly the political subtext turned into a text in long pages of author’s musings about Adolf Hitler.

People discussing the first volumes of My Struggle were quick to dismiss the title as a meaningless provocation, unwilling to assume that an adult, respected writer would stain his life story by evoking Nazism. Yet on the more contemplative pages of these earlier novels Knausgaard already shows himself to be a particular kind of erudite, someone who didn’t stop his literary education on contemporary writers but followed the paths of their historical inspiration. That’s why we get to know his thoughts on Hoelderlin, Hamsun and a couple of less famous, mostly Scandinavian, authors. Through these references and Karl Ove’s conversations with his friends (most of them called Geir), we discover him to be a polar opposite of Ferrante’s classically trained author and mother, Elena. While Elena writes her first book, a fictionalised account of her rape-y first time, in a month before finishing an excellent humanist scholarly thesis, Karl Ove struggles for years with his studies and writing to finally debut with a fictionalised account of his 18 year old teacher self’s affection for a 13 year old pupil. His political consciousness is barely existent unless he ponders on cultural issues: the immigrants in his town, his emasculation as a caring father, the Americanised celebrations at his kids’ school. In other words, he only cares about the political which is very, very personal – to him. And that brings us back to Hitler.

I’ve read Knausgaard’s long essay on Hitler’s youth in the middle of book six with great interest, probably because I went through a period of fascination with Nazi Germany when I was 17 and reading about people like Ernst Hanfstaengl brought a lot of deeply buried knowledge back to the surface of my mind. That could be the difference between me and the numerous reviewers who criticised the essay for its length and lack of connection with the rest of the story. That critique was also voiced in Polish reviews, written by people who, just like me, grew up with the ever present shadow of the 2nd World War and Shoah hanging over our rebuilt cities. I understand that even the Polish education system won’t make everyone a Nazi history expert, but my own interest grew from the stories of terrible crimes I’ve learned at school, and the equally terrible absence of Jews in Poland, Jews who made up 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population. Knausgaard also starts with Nazi crimes, by analysing a poem by Paul Celan, and with his personal Norwegian experience of the past: finding a copy of Mein Kampf in his grandpa’s attic. Beginning with a description of the young Hitler, someone destitute and unhappy, and his times, times when people deeply respected culture and patriotic sacrifice, Knausgaard looks at himself, a relatively miserable youth, young man and a grown-up in times when sublime ideals seem to be forgotten by the general populace. He muses on the feeling of “we”, the national enthusiasm that Nazis were able to evoke, and observes with surprise his own feeling of unity with the Norwegian nation mourning after Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack. What he looks for in the past are not simple parallels between himself, Hitler and their fathers, as many reviewers seem to suggest, but some wisdom about how the yearning for unity with other people, for erasing the “I” with “we”, can lead to monstrosities once the singular “you” disappears and the plural “you” becomes a hated out-group. And that’s important to Knausgaard, since he sees that yearning in himself and suspects many people share it. That’s where the personal turns into the very political in his novels, although it might be a different, more overly emotional kind of politics than the partisan shambles we’re used to.

As a writer, Knausgaard gives up some of his rights as an individual in order to share his relatively ordinary story with the readers. And his books are most fascinating when he focuses on his relationships with other people, most of them driven by his desire to be liked and loved while he believes he isn’t worthy of such affection. He wrote the My Struggle books because he was a writer and couldn’t come up with any good fiction, sure, but sometimes they read like a long cry for attention and a justification for his shortcomings and wrongdoings. Of course, the results are problematic on the personal level, with strangers on planes inquiring about the health of Knausgaard’s children and his wife suffering from manic and depressive episodes after reading his manuscripts. But doesn’t being famous and acclaimed just mean that a whole lot of people like you?

The starkest contrast between Knausgaard and Ferrante would then be Knausgaard making himself a significant character of his novels, while Ferrante hides as an author and her main characters want to hide or escape. It’s the question of the society holding some promise in reaching out to each other and sharing our traumas or being a violent, scary structure, one that brings more and more suffering to individuals doing their best. In this comparison, Ferrante is Dostoevsky, only there’s no God waiting to save the sinners. From the very beginning her novels are a biography, written by the narrator-character Elena about her friend Lila, a brilliant heroine who puts up a fight and then realises the fight can’t be won. In her God-like role of an author, the more fortunate Elena believes she’s right to go against Lila’s deepest wish (even though she knows Lila is the wiser one): the wish to disappear. Both cycles are thus unexpected biographies of “common people” which, instead of dissolving their heroes in the anonymous “we”, form a narrative mirror reflecting the past decades of human struggles.

 

 

 

Apolitical

Sometimes I wish I was an apolitical person. This thought came to my mind once more on a Saturday two weeks ago, when I attended a local Open Day for international students with my usual goal of political agitation. This mission was somewhat complicated, as my fellow activist from a student housing action group has arranged a spot for us at one of the stands, only to get an e-mail shortly before the event from an event manager accusing us of being, I quote, political. The manager, employed by the university, was shocked and disappointed. She discovered via Facebook (typical) that our group aims to politicise the issue of student housing in Utrecht, the scarcity of which forces students to live at hostels for weeks or rent cupboard-sized rooms for €500 a month. The Open Day was supposed to be more of a party for the new students, and therefore reminding them of the harsh reality awaiting outside was uncalled for.

The manager wasn’t bothered by us being too radically left- or right-wing, but by us being political at all. Although I was as upset as my action group comrade, I wasn’t surprised. On the contrary, I was surprised when he first said that our group will have a stand at an official university Open Day, as I knew, more or less, what to expect from such an event.

I knew what to expect and yet it hit me like a brick. I entered one of the newer university buildings, all glass and Scandinavian minimalist light wood, and was immediately offered a bag, a reusable water bottle and a university hoodie for a discounted price. People speaking English with various accents surrounded me, bringing back memories of my “undergrad years” as I felt both alien and at home. There were multiple professional-looking stands of societies, charities and student clubs, with serious Dutch students in t-shirts full of logos communicating through walkie talkies. A DJ played songs from a separate DJ booth.

Suddenly a tall guy with a plastic tray attached to his body emerged in front of me.

“What’s that?” I asked, looking at the snacks on the tray.

“Ha, ha, snacks,” he answered nervously. “Do you want one?”

“Sure,” I took a tiny carrot and dipped it in what turned out to be mustard. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the guy looked around and then quickly approached a couple of Asian students.

Shortly after that, I found the student housing comrade at a stand with information on accommodation, where he explained the situation to me. He could stay there and talk to students about their housing problems, but we weren’t allowed to distribute our flyers or any other material. The flyers at the housing information stand advertised staying at a hostel and renting out your room, rather than renting one in the first place. If I remember correctly, the event manager started questioning the nature of the group after we asked her if we could bring a banner to the stand. I couldn’t blame her. The handmade banner wouldn’t look good next to all the modern and attractive stands, promoting language institutes and bike fixing workshops.

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The apolitical life is an easy one. It’s a life motivated by values which are entirely your own, formed through long years of education and self-reflection. In most cases you aren’t even conscious of these values and it isn’t a problem either. The key value is your own happiness, your comfort, both motivated by the unpleasantness of the world pushed somewhere to the periphery of your vision.

Walking across those stands, I thought about my months in LA. They were weirdly relaxing in the sense that I didn’t know almost anyone close enough to have real obligations to them; I had so little to do between classes that I even started going to the gym. I reached peak relaxation during the course “Film and Social Change”, watching non-Hollywood films from the 60s in a cinema-like room (with Americans endlessly complaining about having to read subtitles) and writing about them. (I would be proud to say that I got A+ for that course, if only it wasn’t so absolutely puzzling to me that other people managed to get lower grades.) In any case, save for one exhausting episode of flyering for my feminist friend’s party in the student elections (no election training will ever be intimidating to me after the American “close your eyes and imagine your candidate losing” nonsense), these 6 months on the other end of the world were the most apolitical time in my life since I first read Trotskyist propaganda aged 17.

And I was having a pretty great time. Literally no one knew anything about the place I was from (most local immigrants were from Mexico or Asia), barely anyone knew me as a person, I had a lot of weird and great experiences which I want to list but I will restrain myself, since this post is not really about that. This post is about the vague promise that being apolitical has for many of us: the promise of personal success, enjoyment, the assumed guarantee of a happy ending if only one is decent and hard-working, not bothering herself with frowned upon activities such as getting a burnout, doing unproductive and unhealthy stuff or questioning the liberal consensus.

Some people say that those who are apolitical can only be so thanks to their economically privileged position. I’m a humble person, so in regards to myself I think the opposite is true: I can be political only because I’m relatively privileged, or in any case not afraid of becoming homeless and hungry if I lose my job. I also never had to choose between politics and career, assuming (sometimes wrongly) that I can be politically active and do all my work and studies at the same time. But I imagine that people who fight for their apoliticalness (?) are not only happy about their comfortable lives and unwilling to change them: they’re also afraid of losing what they have now and what they might have in the future.

What explains excluding something better than fear? Of course, that assumption is ridiculous if one considers just our small example: an activist student group being a threat to the atmosphere of an event with dozens other organisations. But the manager’s response to us was a part of more general, slightly paranoid thought patterns which automatically relegate any actually subversive actions to the category of nuisance. Interestingly, there were a couple of environmental organisations at the event – for example De Groente Tas, an initiative set up at the university’s Green Office aiming to sell local, “biological” vegetables to students at a low price. Fighting against climate change and for a sustainable society is, as most people would agree, political. Why was De Groente Tas allowed at the event, then, despite its apolitical nature?

The answer to that question lies in the effectiveness of various sustainable actions. As nice as they are, individual enterprises such as De Groente Tas won’t change much; or more crucially, they won’t change things fast enough. The consequences of the climate change are a real threat not only to humans, but to entire ecosystems, and people should unite in finding effective ways to mitigate these consequences. But it’s more convenient for the liberal parties to put this burden on the individual rather than push for solutions on the state and global levels, which would require antagonising the supporters, if not employers, of many a liberal politician: international corporations. The big polluters. Call them as you wish, apparently they can get massive tax cuts while average citizens are expected to buy more expensive sustainable vegetables, pay higher energy bills and engage themselves in countless initiatives which will never be effective enough.

The individual, facing his or her endless individual problems – finding a job, finding a room, now apparently also fighting the climate change – is overwhelmed and confused. No wonder that in this confusion we try to cope as well as we can, hopefully finding a room through connections and then hiding from the world with Netflix and a blanket, and avoiding any additional difficulties – especially as time-consuming and seemingly futile as political activism in 2018. I was reading an article yesterday written by someone quite far away from me on the political spectrum and even confronting myself with unknown arguments was difficult; I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to form a political opinion for people who have been advised to avoid politics their whole lives. And at this point, who can blame the event manager for rejecting politics? She wanted to organise a party-like event. She probably just wanted to do her job well and then go home, get some rest, maybe run around the park and buy “biological” milk if she’s a bit more socially conscious. I know many people like that, who only study and/or work, and sometimes I envy them.

“You have cheese now,” I remarked, passing the snacks guy on my way out.

“Yes, ha, ha. An upgrade.”

I sunk in a soft white Ikea chair, eating my free piece of cheese. If I can understand why these people are demotivated, I mused, and it leads me to the realisation that my activism is pointless, maybe I should approach being (a)political from a different angle: what motivates me?

Probably anger. Based on values I also don’t understand that consciously, but they are still there. Most of all, the discrepancy: there is some basic minimum of logic and decency the world should adhere to, and even that minimum isn’t reached. Who knows if we will achieve anything – I have to do something, because otherwise I won’t be at piece with myself; because I don’t believe that it’s right that the university invites more and more international students without taking responsibility for the dramatic housing situation, choosing instead to advertise hostels which offer a bed in a shared room for €565.00 a month:

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I wish I could just chill and enjoy the cheese.

It’s Not You, It’s the System; Or How Competition Brings Us Down

(Sort of a rant today – I tried to edit it, but in the end I decided to leave it as it is)

 

When I was about fourteen, us girls were separated from boys during PE classes since my school only had one proper outdoor field. Our male classmates had biology while we played football outside. After an hour we switched. I’m not entirely aware of all the planning behind it, but one day this separation inspired our biology teacher to conduct a funny experiment.

‘I’m dividing you into groups,’ she said. ‘You need to prepare questions for the other groups, based on the chapters you had to read for today, and your answers will be graded.’

When the teacher left us alone for a moment, we quickly agreed to make the questions as easy as possible without turning the whole thing into a farce. Predictably, all groups answered correctly and got the highest possible grade.

‘Okay, now tell me,’ said the teacher at the end of the class, ‘did you make the questions so easy on purpose?’ We nodded nervously. ‘No, your grades are valid, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just interesting, because each of the boys’ groups assumed they had to be better than other groups. They prepared difficult questions and most of them got low grades.’

That, apparently, was the famous male competitiveness. We were more or less aware of it; at least I was grateful for being female during PE classes, since while sucking at almost all sports was embarrassing for a girl, it could lead to serious bullying and a low social status for a boy. Fortunately, we were entering the age when most of the girls “forgot their sport clothes” or claimed to suffer from 3-weeks-long periods just to avoid physical activity. We also regularly escaped from the swimming pool trips. Many of us were lazy or just not very enthusiastic about the prospect of cold chlorinated water during the freezing Warsaw winters. Some, however, were ashamed of how they looked in a swimming suit: they thought they were fat. Even though, logically, exercise can help with losing weight, the shame outweighted that logic.

Most of the theory I consciously support now is just explaining stuff I experienced semi-consciously in my life. Thus when many years later I read some radical feminist piece about beauty standards acting as a sort of “divide and rule” tool applied by men on women, I didn’t need much convincing. Of course, there’s no secret conspiracy involving all male people; but the feeling of inferiority most women experience looking at their objectively healthy bodies remains very real. Often it’s not a man who makes a woman feel like shit, but another woman – I know a girl who, after hearing someone complimenting another woman’s looks, will inevitably reply with something like “Oh, but she must be very stupid.” We might not be socialised to compete in class or on the field as much as men, but we are not free from always wanting to be better than others according to arbitrary criteria we rarely question.

I was shocked when a friend told me, with a disillusioned tone implying she’d heard too many secrets, that half of the girls in my high school year had bulimia. I was shocked when one after one of my friends told me they felt stupid, that they were never good enough, that they were depressed because of many reasons, many of them relating to their academic performance, precarious careers, failures of their love lives. But the biggest shock came when I realised I was constantly comparing myself to others – and I was doing stuff I hated, applying for jobs I didn’t want and considering partners I couldn’t connect to just because I didn’t want to be worse than them, in this or another frankly absurd way. I was stressed, sleep deprived and irritated, hating the products of my frantic work and ashamed to celebrate any success, be it learning a new language or graduation, because I didn’t see these successes as successful enough: there were always people speaking the language more fluently or graduating with a higher GPA.

As much as I want to get rid of it, I’m still too competitive and ambitious, which invariably leads to harmful perfectionism and procrastination. Many of my problems stem from the fact that while I consider myself an interesting person according to my own criteria, I have this nagging feeling that I’m boring compared to others, in other people’s eyes. I’m not even sure when, where and why I began being anxious about it. Most importantly, I don’t get why that scale of being interesting, or the scales of being beautiful or successful are ingrained so deeply in my head. Surely I should be able to say ‘I’m done’ when I’m actually done, and start a new life on a sustainable goat squat-farm writing poetry. But I can’t, and my ‘drive’, instead of motivating me to write amazing poetry here and now, just brings this anxiety of not doing well enough which I, and probably many of you, try to silence using the drug of trashy culture as well as actual drugs.

Maybe the pervasiveness of toxic competition can be explained by our individualistic economy and its cultural manifestations. There can’t be one national healthcare system when multiple companies will do better, hundreds of people within these companies taking extra hours to get promoted. At the same time, the popular superhero movies (a trashy cultural distraction I often enjoy) rehash the fantasies about a group of special individuals who can save the world. Despite these illusions, it’s precisely the people with most power standing in the way of world-saving: people who will rather keep their bonuses high than stop polluting the earth or feeding the weapon industry. At least you can make yourself feel better by spending a percentage of these ridiculous sums on charity. But the power will stay in your hands, if you succeed. Whether it’s the power to buy a private jet or afford health insurance doesn’t matter that much, since the same rules apply: you need to perform better than others in order to obtain but a tiniest fracture of power.

Young girls know very well that they’re judged on their appearance, and most of us assume that without certain – what? – qualifications an uncertain future of ‘flexible’ jobs and overpriced necessities awaits us. Of course, many mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but our environment and activities trigger difficult episodes. Even though our brains have remained largely unchanged for centuries, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Looking around me, I see many people being happy despite rather than because of their studies or work – the main focus of their lives. That biology class was the only time I remember when I was rewarded not for my individual knowledge or achievements, but rather for collaborating with others for the gain of all. Later, I encountered more and more difficult questions and challenges I had to answer alone, knowing very well that if I can’t face them, the next ones will only become more daunting due to the previous failures.

I’m not surprised that I’m happiest doing voluntary work, be it advising people on plant care or political activism. I know people failing their studies who amass a lot of extra (thus, ’useless’) knowledge in their free time, as well as those who anonymously contribute to impressive online projects. A lot of motivation appears once someone isn’t forced to perform in a certain way, and other people are there as collaborators rather than competitors. But these situations are rare exceptions, cool class projects rather than stressful exams. Without changing the way our work and livelihood are determined, we can’t free ourselves from the stress and anxieties of modern life.

BRAK WENY

Today a short note in Polish. The title means “a lack of inspiration”, so you’re not missing much.

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Jakim cudem byłam kiedykolwiek w stanie cokolwiek napisać? Chyba naprawdę zawdzięczam swoją nastoletnią, fragmentaryczną twórczość czasom bez smartfonów i Google Doc. Serio nie wierzę, że przychodziłam do domu, czytałam książkę (!), oglądałam film na DVD (!! – kupiony w jednym ze “sklepów z dodatkami do gazet” w dawnych, brudnych przejściach pod Centralnym) i wreszcie zasiadałam do kawałka literatury, co prawda konsultując go ze znajomymi na FB czacie, ale jednak, całkiem często, pisząc (!!!). Czyżby udzielało mi się warszawskie, tanie, pretensjonalne kulturalne powietrze? Pamiętam te dwa czy trzy miesiące, gdy po obejrzeniu Dogs in Space na WFF odkryłam, poprzez Nicka Cave’a, industrial. (Do dzisiaj przy codziennej toalecie myślę o moim pierwszym razie z lakierem do włosów – kiedy to “””natapirowałam””” je szerokim grzebieniem i pokryłam grubą warstwą produktu, próbując osiągnąć casualowy odpowiednik heroine chic Blixy Bargelda.) Każdy dzień przynosił nowe teksty, nową muzykę, nowe próby czytania szczęśliwie niepopularnego szajsu typu Althusser. Może to nie Warszawa – może to moje liceum, nauka w którym sprowadzała się do czytania w kącie klasy i bycia powoli urabianym do palenia papierosów przez większość ludzi, z którymi chciałam rozmawiać na przerwach. Dopiero znacznie późniejszy idiotyczny wybryk, tj. zapisanie się na skostniałe intelektualnie studia magisterskie oparte na teorii gier i statystyce, pozwolił mi zrozumieć stres moich licealnych przyjaciół przejmujących się ocenami. Sama pamiętam głównie okresy “przygotowywania się do olimpiady”, tj. czytania Trockiego i Byrona po kawiarniach, spotykania się ze znajomymi i chodzenia do kina, plus od czasu do czasu pisania. Im dłużej o tym myślę, tym mniej dziwi mnie fakt, że pisałam, bo te lata były tak naprawdę przypadkowymi, lecz wybitnymi warsztatami artystycznymi w środku życia, z rzadka przerywanymi ściąganiem na poprawkach z chemii.

Nie wiedząc, na co się piszę (!), opuściłam ten ~płodny kontekst i przez pierwszy rok za granicą łagodziłam różnego pochodzenia nerwowe nastroje popkulturową papką typu Big Bang Theory. Praktycznie pięć lat, różnego rodzaju wzloty  i upadki były mi potrzebne do odtworzenia względnego poczucia bezpieczeństwa znanego z rodzinnego domu. Wszystko pięknie, poza tym, że teraz całe to bezpieczeństwo – od finansów po pleśń w łazience – spoczywa w moich własnych rękach. I w tym momencie siadam przed pustym ekranem, z wątłym pomysłem na historię (bo ta część mojego mózgu jeszcze nie zginęła), i nie mogę napisać ani słowa. Możliwe, że zapomniałam, jak to się robi – możliwe, że jedyna forma pisania nadal mi dostępna to bezkształtna autobiograficzna notka. Może powinnam zostać vlogerką, wypromować zespół, programować aplikacje. Nie przeczytałam porządnej książki od tak dawna, że doprawdy mam większe rozeznanie w recenzjach kosmetyków na youtubie.

Kiedy wyjeżdżałam na Zachód, wzięłam ze sobą “Dialektykę oświecenia” (i wybór poezji Czechowicza, który to jednak z właściwą intuicją zwróciłam do Polski następnego lata). Byłam przekonana, że poprzez studia i dalszy rozwój kulturowy będę w stanie zrozumieć tego typu teksty w głębszy sposób. (Pomińmy mój obecny osąd nt. “głębi” “Dialektyki oświecenia”.) Tymczasem prawdopodobnie rozumiem je dużo gorzej niż pięć lat temu; prawdopodobnie nie byłabym w stanie przeczytać więcej niż dwóch stron. Nie zrozumcie mnie źle, nauczyłam się bardzo dużo. Ale była to innego rodzaju edukacja. Mam nadzieję, że wkrótce uda mi się to wszystko opisać.

 

How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety

So you’ve read some stuff and one day you realise that the word must become flesh (or however you say that in English). You become active in a movement or organisation. You’re probably not ~officially diagnosed~ with social anxiety, you just know that you hate meeting new people and picking up the phone. That, of course, is what activists do most of the time, and if you sense a contradiction here, you’re right. As I’ve made many stupid decisions in my life (although most of them, as shitty defence as it is, unaware of the consequences), I will be your helping hand: I will tell you what to expect, and then you can make your decisions as someone close to the rational human being economists would like us to be.

How to be an activist with social anxiety

  • If you’re similar to me, the most difficult part won’t be canvassing or starting a conversation with randoms on the street. The real plague are the many events during which you have to discuss and plan actions with people from your organisation – you’d much rather write comments in an online thread (reminiscent of safe spaces such as Revleft or the mailing list of the failed Occupy protest in your city), but these meetings are held in real life. Before the group decides to do something you totally disagree with and designates you to do something you hate, you should force yourself to speak. Raise your hand, if needed, or wait for a moment of silence. Even if other people begin to talk over you, there’s a chance that the shocking experience of hearing your voice for the first time in ages shuts them up quickly.
  • It’s true that most political activities depend on contacting people and networking *nauseous emoji*, but there are many which need to be done individually. Someone has to design, print and distribute the flyers; someone has to write texts (“copy”), translate them, manage the website and social media, do research etc. You shouldn’t avoid the social activities forever (more on that below), but doing these individual tasks is a good way to be useful in a less challenging way.
  • You have to accept that you’ll see activists less dedicated and competent than you (or, what often hurts more, than your friends) attaining high positions in organisations simply because they are good with people. You can’t deny that this is the key competence, and therefore you’ll ask yourself why the fuck are you even bothering with this. You could be doing something productive instead, for example sweating at raves waiting for a publisher to pick up your yet unwritten novel (something that worked for Zadie Smith, IIRC; I swear that review I promised months ago is in the works).
  • More sadly, you’ll realise you’re not connecting with people that seem likeable and worth your while, because there’s a limit to meaningful relationships you can maintain and social interactions are difficult. That’s quite frustrating as everyone else will appear to be BFFs working on their cool secret projects. But in this regard activism isn’t that different from everything else in your life, so really, you should get used to it by now.
  • Sooner or later, you’ll be valued for your contributions, or just for making an effort, since political groups are the most welcoming environments you’ll ever experience. Of course they are: they depend on your, most likely entirely voluntary, work and one of their main goals is to attract and keep as many activists as possible. If you’re not getting any recognition at the moment, just keep believing in yourself and your assets. (If you can’t, I must refer you to the yet unwritten guide ‘How to Be an Activist with Low Self Esteem and/or Depression”, hopefully produced by one of my comrades in the future.)
  • An even more difficult case is becoming an activist with social anxiety in a country where you barely speak the language, but as I don’t expect most people to reach this level of self sabotage, I won’t go deeper into it. (I would like to meet you, though, to share tips on setting realistic goals and loving oneself.) At least you’re rewarded with learning the language, if you persist.
  • The whole enterprise does have its advantages. As much as I hated the idea for the most of my life, exposure actually helps to deal with your fears, and if you’re presenting a campaign ten times to ten new people within an hour, by the end you may be exhausted, but also less scared than you were in the beginning. One of the biggest surprises is discovering how nice people are. We hear about varieties of the bystander effect and heinous crimes on daily basis, but these are the exceptions: most of us behave decently (while sober). For me, the absolute pinnacle of this experience was hearing Polish conservatives politely refusing to sign our pro-choice petition, and after that I’m afraid my fear levels are dangerously low. Of course, these people probably still write terrible things online, but they are simply not socialised to start screaming expletives in your face. Rare moments of actual rudeness disappear among the hundreds acceptable encounters.

Next to managing your social anxiety better and better thanks to exposure, advantages include feeling like you have a purpose in life, spending a lot of time outside, developing organisational skills and meeting a partner (happened to me and many, many others).

Still, there are moments when you are overwhelmed by work which keeps bringing disappointing results *cough*everyelectioninthelasttwoyears*cough*, when you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious around people you’ve seen a million times, when you hear that only 1.5% of Dutch citizens are members of a political party and you suspect there might be a reason for that. There are moments when you’re frustrated by ineffective organisations and dying out movements; by the media which frame your actions so aggressively they’re essentially lying (or, even worse, ignore them); by your fellow activists who, just like you, often fail at balancing their work, politics and whatever remains of their social lives. There are moments when anxiety and tiredness kill your motivation; in short, moments when your personal ‘How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety” guide could be summarised in a single bullet point:

  • Don’t.

Work for yourself, your future and your own little family. Plan your career carefully, and refrain from any activities that do not contribute to this career in a tangible way. Become a responsible adult.

But why would I want to do a thing like that?

 

Going Out: Utrecht

Bars

Cafe Belgie – one of my Polish friends was extremely impressed by this bar, describing it as “movie-like”, but he was stoned when we went there. Good, relatively affordable food. Extremely crowded at any time when people are actually likely to go out. An impressive choice of Belgian beers (I like Blanche de Namur).

blanche

Olivier – a bar in a former church building, with the acoustics of a football game. Even more crowded than Cafe Belgie, despite being ten times bigger. Also a large choice of beers.

Cafe de Bastaard – the usual beers, a pool table, no food except for tosti’s. Nice music and a hidden back garden. Beloved by leftist activist groups for no apparent reason (and therefore the closest thing I’ll ever get to a “stamkroeg”). However, the Kritische Studenten Utrecht stopped gathering there since they realised none of them is still a student. There’s a gender studies borrel* every week.

Cafe Willem Slok – a cosy small bar. I watched the 2017 election results here with SP Utrecht so I have memories of disappointment associated with the place. There’s a cheap hairdresser next door.

Cafe Averechts – a cute bar slightly outside of the city centre (if we see the big canal – the official name of which escapes me – as a border). Couch surfing meet ups from time to time.

Cafe Tilt – a nice place. Warmed up seats outside in the colder months. They serve fancy food, judging by the menu, but I’ve never ordered any.

Which brings us to…

Restaurants

Gys – affordable compared to other Utrecht restaurants (~€11 for a main dish). Some vegan options. 90% of their customers are young women.

Meneer Smakkers – fancy burgers, several locations in Utrecht. They ask for your name so they can shout it out once your burger is ready.

Hema Oudegracht – €3.50 for a stampot (mushy vegetables with a sausage or meatballs on top), great rookworst (sausage). If you order the biefstuk, prepare for “medium” being “seriously rare” 90% of the time (you probably get a piece of raw meat after ordering “rare”, but I never tried because honestly “medium” gets quite close to this).

Kimmade – a tiny Vietnamese restaurant, Utrecht’s best kept secret which is not that well kept, since it’s often difficult to get a table. The tofu in tomato sauce is the best tofu I have ever tried.

Puschkin – the owners of Puschkin are crazy – despite being Dutch (?), they opened an East German breakfast cafe in Utrecht!

Clubs and concert venues

ACU – a former squat. Another place where you always bump into someone you know if you did any kind of leftist activism in Utrecht, ever. Cheap or free concerts, a disco evening called Vitamine Disco every two weeks (look for the DJs/genre on Facebook). Every second day or so the Kitchen Punx serve creative vegan dishes. Dirtiest toilets I’ve encountered in Utrecht but still usually pretty clean.

EKKO – a more expensive, although rather small, concert venue. They also have club nights. Located next to a really beautiful sluice** on the canal.

Tivoli Vredenburg – a weird big building with several concert halls and multiple events going on at the same time. Terrifying aquaria for smokers, where your hardcore smoker friends disappear for a few minutes and return mumbling about Stoptober:

stoptoberbanner

Derrick – a discotheque in the basement almost opposite ACU. Look at their website to get an idea of what the place is like. Just to be clear, it’s not ironic – first time I’ve been there they had a Baywatch theme (in late September), which also didn’t come across as ironic. They play songs you heard last time dancing in a rainbow coloured top and low rise cargo pants in 2003. Entrance is free (although 21+), but the drinks can be surprisingly expensive.

Chupitos – went there looking for a friend’s lost jacket on a Tuesday, 10pm, and immediately a crowd of people dancing to a remix of Adele’s “Hello” started convincing me to buy tequila shots.

Tivoli de Helling – never been there but it seems cool.

Filemon  & Baucis – you go inside thinking you will dance to “so bad it’s good” electropop, but the music they play sounds as if they couldn’t afford that and settled for “bad”. You have to pay for the bathroom.*** Sweaty people will hit on you.

 

That’s all I can think of right now. Is this list missing any amazing places crucial for Utrecht’s nightlife? (Most likely, yes) Describe them in the comments!

 

 

* A confusingly English-like Dutch word for a gathering with alcohol

** “Śluza” for my Polish readers who also didn’t know that word

*** I should create a separate list of places that make you pay for the bathroom after you paid for the entrance – encountered this also in Amsterdam