Published Sep 01, 2000Although it aspired to the status of debacle, my recent Polish excursion turned out to be far too absurd to be categorised as merely disastrous. There were early indications, even before I got there, that Poland may be one of those lands that time forgot, and that an international gay Polish conference might be its own punch line. Even simple travel arrangements became inordinately complex, resulting in too many long distance phone calls and extraneous trips to the Lufthansa office. More suspiciously, I couldn't seem to get a straight answer about exactly why I was being flown to Warsaw, or what would be expected of me once I got there. But as I am in no position to be turning down free trips to Europe, I was compelled to accept this strange invitation.
The first gaffe of many happens the moment I land at the Warsaw airport. The stern customs official informs me gravely that I cannot be allowed into the country without a visa, something that neither the travel agent who made all the arrangements for the conference nor the organisers deigned to enlighten me about. As I'd already been to both the Czech Republic and Slovenia without a visa, I didn't see why I would need one for Poland. Nevertheless, the customs official signals me with a severe flick of his head to follow him to what turns out to be a series of austere, sparely furnished waiting rooms.
"Tear down that barren bitch of a wall and put a window where a window ought to be!" think I, as I wait patiently in a drab room for the official to return. After a long while, his poker-faced superior, who looks like a leftover apartchik from the previous regime, marches in to interrogate me. After he consults with a couple of tough women in tight grey skirts with guns in their holsters, he informs me that I will be issued a visa for 57 Zlotys, or roughly 14 bucks. A snub-nosed, peroxided woman takes her sour time completing the forms, and when I'm finally released, the guy who seems to be in charge informs me cryptically that it is "the first and last time" that I will be extended such a courtesy, whatever that may mean.
Fortunately, Marek, the Polish conference organiser, is still waiting for me after my hour-and-a-half detention. He's an intense, business-like fellow in a grey suit under a big head. As he drives me towards my hotel, careening at breakneck speed through the boxy, elegant and simple Stalinist architecture of the city, he fills me in on the conference. It seems that the whole deal is being bankrolled by some straight porn company that has a gay division headed up by his "husband," as he refers to him. And here I though it was an academic conference. This is going to be more fun than I thought. Or so I think.
As Marek gives me a running commentary on the gay state of things in Poland ? in this 95% Catholic country, homosexuality is still far from accepted. His husband's company has just completed the first-ever gay Polish porn movie (punch line of the Polish joke based on this information: it consists exclusively of men fucking women). My mind wanders back to the book I'd devoured on the plane on the way over: The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture by Daniel Harris. I'd been meaning to read it forever, because I knew it would clarify some major issues for me, like why I dislike homosexuals. As it turns out, they're weak-willed, anti-intellectual conformists who've sacrificed the camp sensibility and artistic and aesthetic expression in order to gain acceptance through co-option and economic exploitation from the dominant heterosexual culture. Just as I thought. It's going to be depressing to be in a country where homosexual culture is just emerging, knowing that the machinery is already in place to dilute and diminish any rebellious, idiosyncratic expression in favour of the global gay capitulation to consumerism. But I'll try to have a good time anyway.
Besides, I have other, more quotidian problems to worry about, as I discover when I'm dropped off at my hotel. The severe, Stalinist building in question seems to be run by a staff with a similar demeanour to the customs officials I had the chance to get to know earlier. The woman at the desk eyes me up and down with thinly veiled contempt as she signs me in, and I'm obliged to lug my own luggage up to the third story room. I discover, much to my chagrin, that said suite, although fairly large and tastefully furnished, has no bathroom to call its own. Instead, Marek informs me, I will be expected to use the public facility down the hall. I will soon learn that Poland has somewhat of a bathroom shortage, not to mention toilet paper, witness the hordes of people running into the bushes to pee on their way to and from Auschwitz. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I begin to protest to Marek that I couldn't possibly survive a week in a room without a shower and toilet ? I can barely function in Europe without a bidet ? he tut tuts me for my petty, petit-bourgeois concerns and tells me that they are a poor conference in a poor country, and then he adds something in Polish, probably "don't bust my balls." Later I find out that I've got it relatively good ? they tried to stick the Dutch theatre troupe in a youth hostel.
Fortunately there is a sink in my suite, because I'll be peeing in it for the rest of the week. The towels that have been generously supplied for no extra charge for that treacherous walk down the hall to the communal shower could only be described, at least in the New World, as tea towels. I decide to forgo bathing for now, and instead push the two beds in my room together, take a pain killer to trick the jet lag, put on my sleep mask, and have a nap.
I'm awakened by a loud Polish voice. I forgot to turn off the TV, and my earplugs have fallen out. In Poland, every television show and movie is dubbed by the same, monotone male Polish voice, with the English just audible enough in the background to garble both languages. Deciding to brave the hall to check out the shower situation, I drape my meagre tea towel around my waist, which barely covers my ass, and tiptoe toward the toilets. As it turns out, the shower in question is a hose lying in a dirty bathtub sans curtain in a small room with a sink. I hold the nozzle above me as the lukewarm water trickles down my back.
Maybe things will pick up at the party I'm being driven to by three enthusiastic, yet oddly dour youths who volunteer for the Gay and Lesbian Association. It's a reception for the conference, held at the Association's headquarters, a cramped attic office which would have made Anne Frank's digs seem positively spacious and festive by comparison. The fete is comprised of various badly dressed international gay delegates from such far-flung regions as Canada, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and grim locals who seem to be slightly miffed by the presence of foreigners. Everyone proceeds to get drunk on cheap sangria, although even the alcohol doesn't seem to act as much of a social lubricant. It seems that the Polish either aren't used to or don't have much of a taste for the art of hosting, so I'm pretty much left to myself in a corner flipping through some indigenous pornography. At first I think it's because no one speaks English, but after a week of stand-offishness, I'm not so sure.
A few nights of strange events and performances ensue, including some drag queen's from Bellaruse so old school I'm not sure recorded history extends back that far. There's some awful Swedish lesbian chamber music, and a bizarre gay Norwegian rock singer with a fondness for vintage heavy metal that I'd rather not be forced to recall, but several of the local acts, including a Gothic chanteuse with a Diamanda Galas aspect, and a famous blond Polish folk singer with a middle-aged Nico edge, who seems to be somewhat of a national favourite, are actually quite cool.
Still, the entire conference seems to be somewhat ill-conceived and arbitrary, so I'm quite looking forward to the bus trip to Auschwitz tomorrow. In fact, visiting the notorious concentration camp was one of the reasons I wanted to come in the first place. I'd heard about various controversies surrounding the infamous death camp ? that it has become a tourist attraction, a creepy theme park of sorts, and that there had been talk of erecting a McDonald's either on or near the site. "What are they going to put on the sign," I ask one of the Polish organisers to test the local attitudes about the phenomenon, "over six million served?" (I always find such tasteless jokes are justified if used in the name of anthropological research. Plus I was a little drunk.) His laughter seems a little malevolent. Soon I will discover that almost a million people a year visit Auschwitz, making Poland the third most-visited European country, and dealing with this mass tourism has made Auschwitz into a very disturbing and politically-charged behemoth indeed.
Next month: Auschwitz