(PL) Warsaw and Mazovia – Participant Research: Role of cafes in cultural life of Warsaw

During our study trip Localise, we had many meetings, most of which took place not at the offices of the organisers or rented halls but at cafés. It was very natural to do so. In Poland, cafés are not merely places to have something to eat and drink, and then move on, but also places to relax, have a long and friendly chat and exchange thoughts: to create something new. It seems so natural to have a conversation while savouring a cup/glass of something tasty with friends/colleagues. A conversation starts with something like: ‘How we eat it at home,’ ‘I have a different recipe’ or ‘Do you know what they call this in  Spanish/Chinese/Lithuanian?’ Atmosphere of a café is just meant to be perfect for both sides: the one who invites to the meeting and the one who accepts the invitation. The former does not have to worry what others will think of his/her place, spend the whole day on preparations or get stressed about everything. The latter feels more relaxed. There are the same rules for both sides concerning the standard behaviour and payments afterwards in neutral territory. In this case, both sides are equal and at the same level. There are no walls of awkwardness. For example, during our study trip there was a difference between the meeting at Bratnia Szatnia in the Palace of Culture and Science and the discussion at Tarczyńska 11. In the Palace, CAL made a presentation plus a workshop: there was a distance between the organiser and the participants. In Tarczyńska 11, the organiser and our group were at the same level and talked like old friends.

The first Polish café was founded in Warsaw near the Saxon Garden in 1724, but it was not successful because Varsovians did not want to drink coffee in public places at first. The next café opened in 1763 on the Market Square of the Old Town and was well-liked.

Cafés became very popular in modern times. Since then, the tradition of spending time outside home was gradually becoming stronger. Cafés played an important role during the Warsaw Uprising, an event significant for both Warsaw and Poland. As evidence of aspiration to normal life, cafés were opened in the territory regained by insurgents. The menu was modest: tea, cereal coffee, black bread with marmalade, rarely wine and hot dishes. Feeling a moment of normal life between battles, insurgents had time to rest, share the joy of coming from military operations, spread news from the battleground and listen to music.

Nowadays, café owners play the role of invisible hosts, who are always open for guests and try to propose something special, so that customers choose this particular place. Customers come not only for served dishes and drinks, but also for the atmosphere, interior design and programme. Today, cafés in Warsaw play an important cultural role.

In Warsaw, as in every bigger city, there is a large number of cafés with different concepts behind them. Some cafés are part of international chains, which in my opinion do not have ‘this special element’ that makes you want to stay longer. There are also other cafés with a unique character, where employees and the owner are like a family and you feel at home from the very first minute. These cafés express their chosen concepts through carefully selected antique furniture, drawings on the walls, one-of-a-kind designers’ accessories for sale and other items, which have a strong cultural resonance. A regular and potent example of this phenomenon is the inclusion of bookshelves in almost every café. By browsing the titles, you can discover what ideas the café owner was working with during the designing stage. It is quite common for places like this to have more functions than being just a coffee shop. For example, the alternative style café Grawitacja at Browarna street promotes itself as a club, café, cinema and gallery in one. It is situated close to the Old Town, the university and the library, so many student groups come there to discuss lectures, get ready for studies and have brainstorming sessions. The floor downstairs is perfect for discussions during the day. It is a very large space with different areas to accommodate many groups. The objective of creativity is clear in this workshop-like interior. In the evenings, it is a great place for having fun at a concert, the space responding well to the enjoyment as well as the production of creative processes.

Cafés do not only give space and create atmosphere suitable for discussions and activities of clients, but become pro-active as well. They organize different meetings to stimulate clients’ creativity, open new possibilities, broaden horizons, arrange workshops and bring creativity to fruition.

There are some interesting places in the city centre and the Old Town with clearly determined functions. Grawitacja offers poetry meetings, concerts, exhibition opening nights, presentations of travel photographs and meetings with famous people. The Kulturalna café, situated in the very heart of Warsaw, has a programme of concerts, plays and shows on their stage and paintings on their walls. The slogan of the Leniviec café (a ten-minute walk from the centre) is ‘coffee and culture’, which means they have an interesting schedule of concerts and meetings.

There is a number of cafés which are two-in-one: a coffee-shop and a bookshop such as Kafka, Tarabuk and Czuły Barbarzyńca, which have a perfect atmosphere for reading. In Kafka, there are also a gallery with hand-made accessories and a well-known big lawn with summer deckchairs.

The Praga district is a unique place; cafés there also try to conform to this style. Opary Absurdu was one of the first cafés, which began to change the image of a criminal and negative stereotype the Praga district was labelled with. The music programme and dishes follow the old Praga style. Every last Thursday of each month, Opary Absurdu organises a dancing session.

4 pokoje (Polish: ‘Four Rooms’) is a place for discussions and reading. Every room has its own theme: the first one is ideal for chats and observation what is going on outside the window, the second one is romantic and dark, the third one is for travellers because the owners love to travel, and the fourth one is virtual to underline the character of times we are living in.

Two old factories in the Praga district can be also interesting: Fabryka Wódek Koneser (the vodka factory) and Fabryka Trzciny. Fabryka Wódek is a complex of several buildings of a former factory, in which a theatre, a cinema, art galleries and the Miotła café are situated. Miotła is made in the style of a bric-a-brac room for ‘soul and stomach’, where menu does not exist: the customer can order whatever s/he wants and will get it. In this place, the owners show films, organize concerts and offer space for exhibitions.

Fabryka Trzciny is an art centre with the slogan for all those who feel the need to participate in cultural life. The factory building, erected in 1916, is one of the oldest post-industrial objects on the right bank of Warsaw. The building was previously used for production of marmalade and canned products, and finally as the seat of the Polish Rubber Industry. The interiors still show the old architecture: raw walls, spider nets of cables, machinery and objects from the old factory underline the uniqueness of this venue. It took almost two years to adapt the old factory buildings to the needs of the Art Centre. The Fabryka Trzciny Art Center is a comprehensive cultural and educational facility offering a variety of artistic activities, including theatrical plays, exhibitions, music festivals, concerts, lectures and of course cuisine.

Almost every district has ‘their’ place, where inhabitants gather and discuss their problems. The Kolonia café, the centre of Ochota district local community activity, has meetings called ‘Interesting Fridays’ for people from different fields like culture, science, politics and business. They also have a special programme for kids, for instance a children’s ball. The space of this cosy café easily turns into a conference hall with drinks and snacks by making a long table out of the available ones.

In Saska Kępa, a part of Southern Praga, the garden city movement embodied their idea. This is a very green section of Warsaw with two- or three-storey houses with backyards, embassies and parks. Kępa café looks like a summerhouse and has a summer atmosphere. Many meetings and workshops take place there. This café is the seat of the Cultural and Public Actions Foundation, which works with the local community.

  Chryscina Siuchykava

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