DOMÓWKA — Poland’s postapocalyptic answer to Hygge


Or, how to party like it’s 1984

By the end of this terrible year of 2016, the world is fully in the embrace of Hygge-mania. Books, blogs, youtube videos, newspaper articles, all espouse the virtues of the Danish concept of frilly cosiness, pillow-hugging friendliness and cake and cocoa by candlelight. And what’s not to like about the idea of cutting yourself from the all the evils of the outside, and shielding yourself with blankets and woollen jumpers from the encroaching darkness?

Except Hygge is an illusion. An aspirational lie. It only works if everything else works — if you live in a nice, well-organized country like Denmark, surrounded by beautiful Scandinavian people, your candle-lit life supported by a generous welfare state. This isn’t how most of us live — and, the way things are going, the Hygge concept will grow further and further away from reality, another unachievable ideal, made only to stress us out and feel miserable, like being thin or feeling good about the party you voted for.

There is another way. If you want to borrow a way of life from another people used to dealing with cold, dark winters, a way of life that is easier to achieve and more suitable to how things are in this post-Brexit, post-Trump, look no further than to the Slavs — in particular, the Poles.

In the coldest nights of serfdom, Partition, Communism, and post-Communist chaos, the Poles have developed ways to cope with both the harsh weather and the harsh political climate. In the centre of this way of life stands the concept of DOMÓWKA (pron. Domoovka) — literally “House Party”, but not the kind you would imagine. Here, in a few steps, is how you can try to replicate this concept at your own home, when everything goes to hell and the nuclear winter makes global warming a distant memory.

1) SETTING

 

It’s a house party, so of course everything happens in a house — but forget a three-bedroom villa in the suburbs. The closer your house is to a council estate flat, the better (an actual estate flat is ideal). And it doesn’t matter how big or small the flat is — all that matters is that you have a kitchen and a dining room, for this is where most of your Domówka will take place.

For reasons lost in the midst of time, the kitchen is the heart of Domówka. It could be the atavistic longing to be near the fireplace — replaced here by the four-hob oven — or it could be the vicinity of the fridge, but no matter where the guests are when the party starts, eventually all the conversation gravitates towards the kitchen. It makes sense when you think about it — the kitchen is cozy, easily heated, provides access to supplies and fresh water, and often has the best acoustics in the house outside bathroom.

Lighting should be subdued — a night-light is enough. Dimmer switch is decadence. Of course, candles are best — not only because they provide coziness, but also because when the power runs out in the middle of the party, due to the crumbling infrastructure unable to deal with the freezing cold, you won’t even notice.

2) DRINK

 

You probably guessed already that the drink of choice here is vodka — Polish or Russian only, none of that fake French stuff. Only the heat of vodka can truly stir the hearts, loosen the tongues, and beat the cold of a northern winter out of one’s bones. Vodka drank straight, ice-cold — so cold, preferably, that it oozes out of the bottle like oil. This can only be achieved with enough preparation, so only applies to the first batch (see Restocking).

Any other alcohol — beer or wine — is to be used only in the form of “liquid tapas” — variously known as Zapojka or Zapitka — to cleanse the palate between vodka shots.

Soft drinks are fine — the cheaper, the better, though Coca-Cola is still a classic stalwart from the days when it represented the “evil West” and an opposition to whatever regime ruled the country. Mixing vodka with the above is fine if you’re feeling fancy, though only when used as Zapojka/Zapitka.

The only acceptable hot drink is tea — strong, black, with a slice of lemon, drunk from a glass. Have plenty of it ready. Biscuits are optional — home-made cake is obligatory.

3) FOOD

 

Speaking of cake, the food is not to be forgotten. Zakaski or Zagryzki(Zakuski in Russian), which is a Slavic variety of mezze, is a culinary art in its own right. The prevalent taste sensation is sourness, and fattiness, both helping to beat the side-effects of all that vodka. So sour-pickled gherkins, of course, and pickled herrings in oil or sour cream, and pickled mushrooms… Then lots of mayo — on eggs, in vegetable salad, on cured meats. If you want a more Eastern experience, have some salo — cured pork fat. If you’re feeling adventurous, put things in aspic, though since that requires a lot of preparation it’s becoming less and less popular.

Pickled and fatty foods, cured meat and cheese, are all things that keep well, which is another plus in our dystopian future — you can even stock the leftovers from one Domówka to another.

4) CONVERSATION

 

We’ve secured the location, drink, and food — but what are we going to do at this strange party? Not dance, obviously. Talk — but what about?

The conversation topics at a Domówka are deep and tough — the deeper and tougher the better. You can’t be whimsical when you’re downing shots of vodka — this isn’t your auntie’s sherry soiree. Football scores is at light as it gets, at first — but then we’re moving on to the real stuff: politics, history, religion.

It used to be that in the West topics like politics and history were a taboo in polite company. This is a privilege the Poles, and most of their Slavic brethren, never had — and, in recent years, it’s become obvious that it’s the only conversation worth having, anywhere. What else can you talk about when Trump is president, when Putin marches through Syria, when Farage’s grin is plastered all over your TV screens? And politics is steeped in history — you have to understand the past to explain the present. Poles like to think of themselves as experts in every subject, but history is everyone’s true hobby. So as the vodka flows, the conversation will flow from recent elections, to the Communist era, to 19th century oppression, all the way to the arrival of first Christians on Polish soil who, depending on your worldview, are either to blame or to credit for everything that’s happening currently.

These conversations are such a crucial part of the Polish soul, that they are even mentioned in poetry — Poland’s chief poet, Adam Mickiewicz, coined the term “Polish Nightly Conversations” in 19th century, which had since entered the vernacular.

5) MUSIC

At any party, choice of music is important — at the Domówka, no less so. What music is best for vodka and pickles? The answer may not be obvious to you, but it’s obvious to any Pole: shanties, folk and poetry.

Here’s another old Polish term: “sung poetry”, also known as “gentle music” or “author song”. It’s a pan-slavic phenomenon, originating with Soviet Bards – a mixture of French chanson, Russian poetry, Celtic folk and scouting songs. Leonard Cohen, Vladimir Vysotski, Jacques Brel are the godfathers of this music genre. Sombre, serious, flowing, often, again, with political overtones. Born as a form of escapism back in the Communist era, the songs tell of a gentler, imaginary land, of nice, decent people, freedom and fresh, unpolluted air. Shanties and Celtic folk stem from the same need of escape — when all else around you is dreary, cold and dark, sometimes all you have left is to imagine yourself on a tallship off the coast of Ireland. (nb. the popularity of these songs goes a long way to explain why, after joining the EU, so many Poles flooded Ireland — it was as if suddenly Neverland turned out real.)

If your Domówka is going well, at some point in the proceedings, one of you might want to pick up a guitar and start making ready for a sing-along. This may be a good point to pause the party for Restocking.

6) RESTOCKING

 

A key moment in every Domówka is when the vodka runs out. It is considered bad form to have “enough” alcohol to last all night — it suggests you imagine your guests drunkards, which they most certainly are not.

This is not a moment to despair. On the contrary, a pause is necessary for the party to continue in peace. What you need to do is mount an expedition to restock the fridge. In the old days, this meant finding out a neighbour stocking a private stash of alcohol, often contraband or home-made, in a melina (private speak-easy). These days, you need to seek out a 24h off-licence or, even better, a petrol station.

The restocking expedition is an essential reset button. It’s a chance to cool heads heated up in the middle of a political argument; an opportunity to let the cold wind freeze the alcohol from your veins; a moment to appreciate the quiet of the winter night, look out to stars and realize the insignificance of our problems in comparison with the vastness of the universe. Without this pause, the guests at Domówka would soon degenerate into drunken, slurring stupor.

7) TRUST

What happens at Domówka, stays at Domówka.

Domówka is a one-night carnival, a place and time when established rules and relationships are suspended. There’s no other way. With the amounts of alcohol drunk, with the sea of existential despair that needs venting, nobody can be held responsible for their actions. Whether it’s an ideological argument gone sour, or a sneaky, desperate tryst in the bathroom, all is forgiven in the morning — or whenever the headache passes. The one thing that is not tolerated at the Domówka is violence: this is where the line is drawn. Violence is for the enemies, there’s no place for it among friends.

This concept of trust makes Domówka what it truly is — a way to survive the unsurvivable, to escape the unescapable.

8) ŁAPU-CAPU

 

(pron. Wapu-Tzapu) This is another important Polish concept, one that requires a whole separate article, or a book, and one which stands at the heart of Polish aesthetics, much as wabi-sabi stands at the heart of the Japanese one. Another similar word is “prowizorka”, or doing something as a shoddy, makeshift, temporary one-off: a concept crucial in a land through which foreign armies have marched for centuries, burning and pillaging everything in their path. Like the Japanese wood and paper houses, everything in Poland is made not to withstand the pressures of history, but to yield to them, and be easily replaced. The less attention to detail, the more make-shift the solution, the better. As the old Polish saying goes, “prowizorka holds out the longest”.

In Domówka terms, this means — don’t sweat it. Don’t prepare too hard. In the end, it’s the mood that matters, not how nice the mayo is spread on your eggs. As long as you have enough alcohol, and enough friends to drink it with, all else will come on its own. Life in our incoming dystopia will be hard enough without having to worry about things like precision and sturdiness. Embrace the Łapu-capu — it may be the only way to survive what’s coming.

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Vignettes from Shimogyo-ku


A Different Green

1.

Picture this:
The end of a narrow alleyway, one of a hundred identical ones criss-crossing this part of town like threads on a plaid cloth. On one side, a small Buddhist temple, a uniform wooden gate in an ancient stone wall, that would look bizarrely out of place in any other neighbourhood; on the other, a dilapidated, run-down wooden house, too poor to count as a proper machiya, with dusty windows and plastic paneling on the walls (some Japanese like the outsides of their homes to look like the insides of their bathrooms).

In between, a small cube of raw concrete, shot through with garages hiding behind folding doors of corrugated steel. Amidst those, a plastic marquee hides the tiniest of shops, consisting of a single glass cupboard. On the shelves lay what I take for plastic imitations of tea ceremony sweets, tiny, colourful baubles that look more…

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New Year’s Resolutions For Everyone


I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. Mostly because they weren’t a tradition when and where I was growing up, but also because they’ve always seemed a bit silly. You’re supposed to make plans, not resolutions. A plan means you’re being serious about something. A resolution is just a throwaway sentence you put at the end of the calendar. Maybe that’s why, according to a study posted on Wikipedia (and we all know Wikipedia doesn’t lie), 88% of resolutions fail.

So these are not my resolutions. These are proposed resolutions for anyone out there struggling to come up with something on the last day of the year.

4. See that place you’ve always wanted to visit.

Seriously. Stop posting pictures of exotic places captioned “I wish I could go there”. It’s 2013, and travel has never been that easy. The only thing possibly stopping you from seeing that place you’ve always wanted to see is in your head.

With no-frills airlines, the tickets are cheaper than they’ve ever been. The accommodation can be free: you can couch-surf, hire yourself out on a farm or volunteer for aid work. There are very few wars compared to any other point in history. Even places like North Korea and Burma accept tourists these days, if that’s where you want to go. If you really want to go somewhere, all you need to do is plan ahead. Save up. Make contacts. Research. And just go.

3. Think about what you eat.

This is the most universal and accurate advice I can give about eating. Whether you’re too fat or too thin, bloated or dehydrated; pay attention to your food.

Eating is one of the three most important things a living being does in its life. It always amazes me how little time people spend thinking about what they put in their stomachs.  If only we cared about food as much as we care about sex or entertainment, the world would be a far better place. And no, counting calories does not count.

Eat seasonal. Eat fresh, and as unprocessed as possible. Have a varied diet. Understand your food: where it comes from, what it does, how is one potato different from another potato, what meat is in your hot dog. If you can, convince your local shop to stock better produce. It may seem at first more expensive and time-consuming than your normal diet – but the investment will eventually recoup itself on time and money saved on doctor visits 🙂

2. Create something of your own.

There are 365 days in 2013. Put away one of those days to create something that you can call your own. Write a poem; learn a song; carve an abstract sculpture out of a block of lime wood. Make it yours, make it unique – something you can put your name on.

Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching a post-scarcity economy. In a few decades the only things of value will be the ones created by human hands – everything else will be replicated by machines. Start preparing for that future. Make the year 2013 the year of creation.

1. Hold the whine.

We’re in the middle of a global crisis. There’s recession looming, and the year will likely start with US falling off a fiscal cliff and Japan failing its recovery.

But, to quote Harold MacMillan, “we’ve never had it so good”. Maybe not compared to the year before… but compared to everyone else in history. There hasn’t been a proper war in the West in almost 70 years. Even the Cold War is over. Despite all the bad economic news, we are still better off, on average, than our parents and grandparents. Progress in all ways of life, from gadgets to medicine, is astounding. Just think of all the new technology that’s just around the corner: 3D printers! Star Trek tricorders! A slightly thinner iPad!

So do the world a favour and stop whining. There are very few things about your current life that you can’t change. Move home. Change the job. Sort out the family problems. Do something crazy. Don’t get stuck in a rut, like a broken ox-cart. And if you’re absolutely, positively certain you can’t change anything in your life for the better – well whining won’t help, will it.

So there you are. I had a few more of these prepared, but didn’t want to sound too preachy. Take care y’all, and hope you all have a good 2013. I certainly plan to.

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Yaldā Advent Calendar 2012 – Day 20 – summary


XX

Mithras10’twas the day before Yalda, and all through the night
there were sacred bonfires burning happy and bright
watermelons were sliced, and persimmons hung high
out of joy that lord Mithras will come to save light.

😉

 

It’s time to summarize the 20 days of the Advent Calendar before tomorrow: the last day of the long Mayan cycle.

Here’s what you have missed, or still have one last chance to take part in:

Day 1 – Dragonbone Chest novella free (expired)
Day 2 – Transmission short stories free (expired)
Day 3 – Shadow of Black Wings free on Kobo (expired)
Day 4 – Half-price Bundle (expired)
Day 5 – Lands of Orient Map and Royal Marines
Day 6 – Born in Flames GIVEAWAY
Day 7 – Islands in the Mist Paperback
(weekend break)
Day 10- Written GIVEAWAY
Day 11- Gallery: A Visit to Kiyo
Day 12- Excerpt from Volume 4: The Rising Tide
Day 13- The Hobbit GIVEAWAY
Day 14- Shadow of Black Wings Free on Amazon (expired)
(weekend break)
Day 17- The Shadows of the Apt GIVEAWAY
Day 18- Gallery: A Visit to Chinzei
Day 19- Something Nice GIVEAWAY

One day left, tomorrow. I’ll have one last something for you then, too – if there IS a tomorrow 🙂

Oh, and here’s the last chance form to take part in any of the still-ongoing giveaways:

Adventures in Cheese


Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring the frontiers of really strong cheese. I’m talking things that make a Limburger smell of roses. Things that turn your gums inside out. Things that punch you in the face and leave you crying in the corner.

It’s an acquired taste – mostly a note of brevibacterium linens with hints of debaryomyces and a whiff of geotrichum candidum 😉 – but I have managed to acquire it surprisingly fast. It’s really no more disturbing to your palate than strong chilli or old whiskey; one of those foodstuffs your nose and tongue scream in alarm at first, but then submit in subdued whimper. Eventually, they can – and do – become an obsession. To my wife’s relief, I’m still far from the obsessive part (they really smell! and the stench lingers like a bad memory) but I did grow fond of a few tastes. Here are some of the things I’ve tried recently:

1. Camembert Au Lait Cru

The cheesemonger on Maltby was very specific that I eat it within a day. I managed to do it in three, motivated by the increasing difficulty we had opening the fridge door where the cheese lay like a ticking chemical warhead.

Ever since the rules for Camembert AOC had been relaxed, “au lait cru” has become a rarity, with some even going as far as claiming “it’s dead”. It’s certainly moribund: a cheese from unpasteurised milk, difficult to produce correctly and even more difficult to transport and store. The smell is bad, though not as terrible as some of the competition. But the taste…  A mature ALC is comparable only to the strongest Cheddars – but in a finer, springy texture. It’s a bit like running razors along the roof of your mouth. Tasty razors.

2. Ogleshield

Ogleshield is a washed rind. “Washed rind” means the cheese is smeared in brine, mixture of alcohols, bacterium cocktail or even bits of older cheese. Many famous “stinky” cheeses are washed rind: stinky bishop, pont l’eveque, epoisses etc. But Ogleshield is a bit different. It’s got a certain very specific aroma which the Neil’s Yard website compares to “a farmyard”. You can probably guess what that is an euphemism for. To me, Ogleshield smells of my grandma’s cellar, and this is, somehow, a good thing. I suppose it brings positive memories of a cellar filled with jams and home-made wine. It is a really nice cheese, and the taste is surprisingly delicate and full of fruity and floral notes. This is a no-nonsense cheese that knows what it wants.

3. Milleens

Another washed rind, from Ireland. This one I have only tasted so far, not yet daring to buy – maybe next time. It’s got the same “cellar” aroma like Ogleshield, but much, much stronger: like a cellar that’s been abandoned and not visited for a generation. The taste is also very strong, like a summer field that a herd of cows just went through.

4. Boulette d’Avesnes

The same cheesemonger who sold us Camembert warned me: “This is a crazy cheese for crazy people!”

He was right, of course. One of the local names for the Boulette is “Devil’s Suppository”. It is made from Maroilles curd, mixed with spices and covered in paprika. Sold in a hermetic plastic container, this is not so much cheese as a little ball of hell and turd. It is awesome. A single slice of it left me feeling the taste and smell for half a day. In the end, I had to wash it out with whisky.

I can’t even begin to describe the taste; there’s herbs and paprika, of course, but the rest avoids definition. The texture is worth an essay in itself – not quite mozarella-gooey, not quite fromage-soft, it cuts through nicely and then melts in your mouth, covering it with several layers of different flavours.

I’m hoping to continue the experiments. I always was a fan of cheese, but this is a whole new world for me, and so far, I’m loving it. Stay tuned! 🙂

Top 8 Ice Cream


I’m in between releases (Transmission is done. “The Shadow…” is coming soon) and my mind is exhausted by the work and the heat, so here’s, as they say, something completely different: a list of my favourite ice cream.

These are not the best ice cream in the world (although some claim they are) but for one reason or another these are the ones I either remember most fondly or like to eat most often.

8. Amorino (Europe)

Ubiquitous in the cities of Western Europe, this is a refuge of an ice-cream lover who is lost, tired and in dire need of frozen desert. Be it Strassbourg, Grenoble or Soho, Amorino delivers quality and low price to the hungry masses.

Continue reading “Top 8 Ice Cream”

Maltby Street Christmas


As every week, we went to do some weekend shopping at Maltby Street. Today we bought some more provisions, due to it being Christmas holiday period.

Monmouth Mistletoe
First stop – Monmouth Coffee, of course 🙂
Smooth Nicaraguan brew today, with tiny mince pies!
Nice surprise! Fern Verrow was supposed to not have any veg today, but still they came in force.
Lots of biodynamic beetroot for traditional borscht 🙂
Mons Cheese. Alps and Pyrenees cheeses from individual mountain farms. Fantastic Jura cheese, as strong as Gruyere, as soft as butter.
Poilane bread – the usual 🙂
Long queue for Christmas Stilton at Neil’s Yard
Neal’s Yard Christmas Lights
Bea’s cakes
The fantastic, awesome, terrific, best in the world, cold-smoked salmon from Hansen&Lydersen. We bought half of one for 20 quid.
Live shrimps from Dorset – jumping out of the basket
This had been the best oyster I have ever tasted. Plump, fresh, briny, the taste of the Brownsea Island
Lots of Panettones
Lovely miss La Grotta (Kitty) came after a long break, bringing Choc Ices with hazelnut chunks.
The Shard looming over the Arches

Random London is random


Things like this only happen in London: you go out to buy some organic veg, you end up in the first ever tube tunnel.

There was a Christmas Market at the Finnish church in Rotherhithe last Saturday. I’m not big on Christmassy stuff, but the Finns always sell the best stuff during the market – rye breads, Fazer sweets, frozen bilberries – so we decided to make a short walk from our usual Maltby St shopping (and coffeeing 🙂

(by the way: recession? what recession? judging by the way all of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are being built up with new developments, one would be excused to think we’re in the middle of the greatest real estate boom in history)

As I have a recent obsession with the Brunels, we’ve decided to drop by the Brunel Museum nearby. It’s a very tiny place, in an old pump house for the Thames Tunnel – a few photos, a souvenir stall, a tv with Brunel’s bio and some artefacts from the digging of the tunnel. And they don’t charge much, just £2 for a walkaround.

But this time was different. The man selling tickets asked us – ‘are you here for the Christmas Special?’
Eh?
Three pounds extra. It starts at 2.
Okay, why not.

Five minutes before 2pm, a crowd of some 50 people gathered outside the museum. Obviously, something big was going to happen. We were led down a tiny, tiny entrance (had to crawl for a few feet) down a rickety, scaffolding stairway, into a vast, empty, circular underground chamber.

The grand entrance hall to the Thames Tunnel.

Looking rather less grand now. The railway company tore down the wooden staircase and all the decorations for fear of fire.

‘You are among the first people to have entered this place – after 145 years!’ announced our host, and began to tell us the story of the tunnel. Its many firsts. The first ever to be born under water. The first ever use of a tunnelling shield. The first ever underwater shopping arcade – after it turned out the tunnel entrance was too  narrow to carry cargo, the only way for the passageway to pay for itself was to sell souvenirs. The first ever underwater dining hall, ballroom, amusement fair. The story went on. All the while we heard trains running under our feet – if the floor was glass, we would see them, speeding between Rotherhithe and Wapping through the still used part of the tunnel. The pumps still pumping water out.

It was, for all purposes, just a big brick tank with some trains running through. But it was the basis for all underground railway systems in the world. Paris, Tokyo, Channel Tunnel – all built based on the same purposes.

And we found it on a random walk.
This is why London is the best.

(because this was such a random occurence, I had no camera with me – just managed these two snaps with my phone. it has a rubbish camera, and it was rather dark inside.)

This site has much better photos of the tunnel itself – still in use, after all these years.

Observer Food Awards


Observer Food Awards have been given away, and two of the winners are two of my favourite places in London.

Maltby Street, Best Newcomer 2011

We’ve discovered Maltby Street much like, I assume, most people have: by visiting Borough Market after a few months’ break and not finding the Booths’ Mushrooms stall – the best greengrocers in London. Them having been the main reason for visiting Borough, I did a quick google check on where the hell have they gone and why they have been replaced by the garish supermarket-style fruit&veg ‘vending space’ – and discovered their new location was some 15 min away on foot along the railway tracks from London Bridge.

There was much more than Booths on Maltby Street, however. Almost all my favourite Borough places have moved to the quirky row of railway arcades – Kappacasein, Mons Cheese, Topolski… the hub of it all is the Monmouth Coffee roastery, with throngs of hip-and-not-so-hip forming a long, orderly queue beside a lady selling home-made ice-cream from a piaggio scooter. Further along, beyond a warehouse full of old radiators and antique theatre equipment, fans of basque ham sit on wooden benches, drinking Kennel beer and organic wine from Auvergne.

What is the main draw of the place is the atmosphere, the community. This is guerilla gourmet war, fought among council estates, youth centres and disused railway tracks. The railway arches create a climate somehow reminiscent of 1950’s Akihabara or Shibuya, except with food instead of electronics.
If this is the future of London’s food scene, I’m all in.

Koya, Best Cheap Eat 2011

What can be said about this place that hasn’t been said yet? Everyone who needs to know, already knows about Koya Udon. One of the only two Japanese restaurants I know of in London which could seriously with the best Kyoto and Tokyo have to offer.

Congratulations to all the winners!