09 February 2012

I went to Woodstock

I went to Woodstock.

No, not that one. No, not that one either. That one.

The festival was based in a field outside of a town called Kostrzyn in southwestern Poland. Pronounced kos-chin, most of the year it has a population of a few thousand poor farmers and old alcoholics on the dole. The weekend I visited, there were over 600,000 people there. The festival itself was seen as simultaneously a point of pride and source of shame for my Polish friends and family. They would happily point out that people were coming from all over Europe to go to a show in their country, but they would also note that several people were dying of alcohol poisoning and being maimed by trains on their way there on a daily basis. This contradictory pride and shame is pretty common and is there almost every time a Pole or group of Poles does something noteworthy, usually justifiably.

I arrived by a train dating back from the communist era absolutely stuffed with drunk kids. I was hung over and operating on 3 hours of sleep so I put in my headphones and tried to sleep as kids screamed about drinking too much/not enough brandy. A few people had already died from falling off trains or being run over by them, but at every stop the train would clear out and drunk Poles would run into the red brick rubble that is most of the train stations in the Polish countryside and piss wherever they could regardless of gender or hygiene. It was basically a shit-show rolling along 40 year old train tracks on a train just as old. I eventually managed to doze off, but an hour outside of Kostrzyn, I was woken up by gasps and shouts when we passed by this. Yes, Poland has the world’s largest statue of Jesus in the world. Again, you could see in the youth’s eyes, past the dull drunk glossiness, that simultaneous shame and pride in their nation. “We did it,” they thought, “it might be the worst thing ever, but fuck it, we did it.” It’s surprising the Polish language doesn’t have a word for this shame-pride. Maybe they experience it so often they don’t even notice it. Like fish in water.

I arrived in the Kostrzyn station and people poured out onto the platform, onto the tracks, and into the bushes to piss. The sun was downright oppressive and it was about 90 degrees. I found my cousin and her fiancé (he proposed just a few days ago during a show by an Ukranian ska band) under an overhang searching the crowd for me. They told me it was easy to spot me as I am about half a foot above the average height in Poland. The town itself was overrun with European party kids and no one was in the streets except for drunks and people selling beer, cigarettes and grilled meats. We bought meat, beer and cigarettes and headed down the long road to the festival. Grown men were passed out along the road, roasting their flesh red after drinking themselves unconscious. Old men who lived in the town took out their hoses and offered to spray whoever wanted it. When a girl would walk up, their perverse old faces lit up and the water flowed.

It was hot and we didn’t talk much, but eventually we had to comment on the couple that looks like they were attacked by wolves singing the few lines from a techno song that was popular in Poland at the time. They sang “All day, all night… What the fuck!” in heavy Polish accents while begging people for cash in their top hat from people with just as much money as them. I had a grip of cash on me, as the exchange rate was pretty favorable, but I acted like I was broke the entire festival to try to blend in. A number of priests were stationed along the way to the grounds, attempting to save souls. We passed a confrontation between a half-naked girl and several priests and as we passed she screamed the dirtiest things I’ve ever heard in Polish right at the group of priests. I even had to ask my cousin what some of the words meant after we passed. One of the priests quietly said “Jesus loves you” and they tried to back away. The Hari Krishnas were out in force, and as I learned from my cousin, they actually have a large following in Poland. They’re seen as relatively benign and feed the crowds at discounted prices. “Cheap plastic bowls of rice for everyone!” is their motto, right after “Hari hari hari hari Krishna!” I don’t trust the singing and the dancing and the chanting, but the directionless Poles in the cult seem to enjoy it.

We walked further down the path and Spaniards poured beer into each other’s mouths from several feet away, while Germans carried their neat backpacks and sleeping bags and attempted to avoid eye contact. We got closer to the field and the closer we got, the smell of shit in the air grew stronger. We turned a corner and about a hundred portable toilets lined the walkway creating an unimaginable stink in the heat. Poles call them “toi-tois” which I think is incredibly cute. Despite being emptied several times daily, they were filling up with shit and people were turning the surrounding forest into an open septic tank. As we arrived on the field, which was only dirt with sad little patches of grass, a giant cloud of dust passed by and all I could think was that I just arrived in a refugee camp in Africa. Well, except for the crane with a bungee jump platform and the massive stage at the other end of the field.

We got to our campsite made up of a tarp connected to two tents and a car. My cousin, her friend and her fiancĂ© were exhausted and didn’t want to walk around too much. They had already been there for three days and were completely sunburnt. I was happy to just lean against a car for a little while and so were they. We sat around smoking cigarettes and drinking Fanta and beer until the sun started going down and everyone got hungry. The number of people at the festival was triple what they expected so getting food was like waiting in a bread line during the depression except we had to pay for out plates of sausage and cabbage when we got to the head of the line.

I was prepared to get drunk and I realized that not bringing a bottle of vodka was a huge mistake. The only available alcohol within a twenty minute walk was a beer called Carlsberg. If you haven’t heard of it, Carlsberg is about as exciting and alcoholic as a Bud Light mixed with a glass of water. The lines were again horrendous and we stood in line, complaining to pass the time. If having a negative outlook were an Olympic event, Poles would take all three medals every four years. And they would throw up the black power fist on the podium just to get in a fight after the event. After getting a 24 pack of Carlsberg, we got drunk in a small copse behind a dj playing dubstep. Miraculously, no one had shit in this hidden grove and we drank deeply from the cans of watery beer.

Eventually, Prodigy was scheduled to play and although I’m not a huge fan, I definitely thought it was worth seeing. And apparently everyone else in Eastern Europe felt it was worth seeing as well. We stumbled out from behind the chain link fence and waded into the sea of people that was surrounding the stage. We drank more and waited around the edge of the crowd, Prodigy was over an hour late but no music was playing. I could hear the hum of the crowd, getting excited over nothing, screaming, the wave of excitement reaching the fringes and dissipating into nothing when it reached us. We tried to move to a better vantage point and the only way not to lose each other was to hold hands in a human train and trample anyone who tried to come between us. We wound up at our campsite with a few Carlsbergs and half a pack of cigarettes left.

We wound up sitting on the hood of my cousin’s car when they started playing. We watched 600,000+ people try to dance while hoses pumped massive arcs of water into the air and across the crowd to keep them cool and attempt to extinguish the multiple road flares that some people lit off in the middle of the crowd. Every now and then the black guy in Prodigy would yell at the crowd to step back with what seemed to be actual concern for the well-being of the people being crushed near the stage. People waved massive flags of countries, towns and other groups that they felt needed to be represented by a bed sheet with spray paint on it. Prodigy did a quick hour and were probably air lifted out of Poland as soon as their set was done. The party raged on for hours, but we just hung out under the tarp drinking beer and smoking until it was quiet enough to fall asleep. The next morning janitors with face masks were raking piles of garbage into larger piles of garbage while bald, white power Poles drank their third morning beer. I opened the last Carlsberg and decided that I had an appointment with a toi-toi.

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