I’ve got fond memories of the Polish boozer around the corner from my house. The music is always appalling, ear-splittingly loud Euro Pop shat out of the darkest pits of an Eastern European Simon Cowell’s bowels, and the clientèle seem to be a mixture of lost souls and dangerous looking little men in oversized coats, either scowling into their beers or feeding a constant stream of notes into the fruit machines that were the only thing that could be heard above the ever present din of the speakers. To say it is a bit rough around the edges would do a disservice to drunkenly tatty and frayed corners the world over, but even the darkest looking faces were friendly enough, and it was always there for me when I worked late nights and needed a beer to round off the evening.
In the Polish bar they all wear tight trousers not because they were being ironically cool, but because they simply have no style at all. It’s wonderful. It’s Berlin. I would get a beer and sit in the corner and watch the evening play out. Sometimes there would be dancing as the music was notched ever further up, and a couple of times fighting. Neither really seemed out of place too much. Once it was utterly silent, as solemn faces with tears running down their cheeks watched rolling news on the big screen reporting the deaths of the prime minister and half of his parliament in a plane crash. I left pretty early that time. I would normally just sit in a corner with my book, but it was just too heartbreakingly sad, and I was intruding.
But it was the obvious place to watch Poland against England in the World Cup qualifiers. It made perfect sense. In England the build up to the game was dominated by the news that the guests would have an extended number of tickets, swelling the away-end at Wembley with a raucous mass of red clad local Poles. This, of course, tapped into the malignant mindset of many that see simple, legal, economic migration as an invasion, as the selling out of what made Britain great, and was summed up by one well known TV pundit’s “joke”, worrying that England would win and the effect it would have on his Polish builders.
What Adrian Chiles said, in all honesty, wasn’t racist, but it was cackhanded and unhelpful. And he is, after all, paid large sums of cash to knock out a few sentences with the one proviso being that he doesn’t offend a large swathe of the population.
But I still cling to Polish stereotypes too. Sat in the boozer I started chatting away with two guys next to me. They lamented the lack of a few decent players to bring the best out of Robert Lewandowski, and groaned heavily with the rest of the place as I tried to stifle my grinning as Wayne Rooney put England a goal up. They were stereotypes, but of a different kind. One of them had a red neck scarf, the other a flat cap. Their conversation never ended, but in the incoherent babble of noise I’m sure I could pick out bohemian snippets: they were talking about culture and music and politics. They were the stereotypes of the Poland that I caught a glimpse of once, listening to the peerless radio Krakow in a boxy hostel room with some great smoked sausage and a bottle of Żubrówka. That station would play everything from 1940s bluegrass seguing seamlessly into screaming hard-bop jazz.
I thought of a country dominated by culture immediately, and that vision has always stayed. The country where the death metal band Vader are taken as seriously as when Picasso’s friend Tadeusz Makowski redefined cubism. Poland and her people seemed to fit perfectly into my view of Berlin, too, and the Polish bar in all of its roughness still didn’t detract too much from that. After all, everybody needs a drink sometimes, and how better to have one than watching football, whilst talking about art and politics.
We chatted away about the game and England scored a second, which was taken on the chin, without any of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have been elicited out of England fans had things been the other way around. Then Jakub Błaszczykowski broke away into a bit of space on the left hand side. He is a beautiful player for Dortmund, but had been neutered throughout the qualifying campaign. Rooney saw the danger and legged it back, charging like the bull he closely resembles, over 40 yards to chase down the winger. He caught up and lunged at him, raking his studs down the back of Kuba’s ankles. I heard a “Yeah” from next to me, not the howl of derision I expected. “Yeah, that is real English football. He is a strong man, Rooney. A proper English fighter.” And this wasn’t irony, it wasn’t delivered with the pang of a man stung by a brutish lunge on a beautiful player. Rooney’s attack had summed up, for him, everything that is beautiful about the English and the game that they invented, but are still held back by.
Briefly then, I too revelled in this image, of dominant England and our anthropomorphism into those fictional lions that used to stomp around the south downs to the sound of Elgar and the words of Keats.
But we were just guys in a pub watching a bunch of men kicking a ball around. Stereotypes are unhelpful at the best of times. I have never chased a man down to kick at his ankles to make up for a lack of technical ability, and these guys could never have plumbed in my toilet in a million years. So I just walked back out into the night of Berlin to the sound of the single word that I could muster in their favoured language. Nastrovje, indeed. I love Berlin.