Poland , 2017
I’ve never been a Eurythmics fan. Yeah, I know, Annie Lennox has an extraordinary voice and Dave Stewart is a pop genius and together they’ve sold 75 million albums worldwide but, well, I just don’t like them. Never have, never will.
Well, except for one cold night, a long way from home …
I’m in Poland on a book tour in the medieval town of Poznan, where I am having dinner with my publishers, but the evening is not going well. Their English isn’t great and my Polish is non-existent. In a desperate effort to liven things up I say, ‘‘You know, I’ve been in Poland for two days now and nobody has offered me any vodka.”
‘Vodka?’ says Bartek, excited.
‘Vodka!’ says Micha, even more excited.
A waiter is duly summoned and returns with a bottle and five glasses. He pours with great ceremony and we are each given a glass. (And when I say ‘glass’, I don’t mean a shot glass, I mean a glass—full to the brim.)
‘How do we do this?’ I ask. ‘Do we sip?’
Maria shakes her head sadly at my ignorance. ‘Scol,’ she says.
‘Na Zdrowie (nah zdrov-e-yay)!’ they all say and scol their drinks.
And so do I.
To my surprise it goes down as easily as chilled water. Only to become a depth charge that detonates almost instantly and changes everything.
The pale yellow light of the restaurant is now a golden glow.
Where has vodka been all my life?
Why have I never drunk vodka before?
There’s a tiny voice deep inside my brain saying, ‘You HAVE drunk vodka before—you idiot—when you were a teenager and it didn’t go well, remember?.’
But the voice is drowned out by the next round of drinks. And the next. And the next.
We’re all old friends now. I’m no longer a foreigner—I’m practically Polish and like my fellow country men and women, I drink vodka!
After the meal they invite me out to drink some more vodka. ‘But of course!’ I say. I float along the romantic cobblestone streets, my breath turned into great white plumes by the freezing air. I imagine they are taking me to some cosy dark tavern where my initiation into Polish culture will be completed.
But instead we end up in a large brightly lit bar, crowded with hundreds of young people drinking, laughing and singing.
Grazyna explains—somewhat apologetically—that this is a ‘Disko Polo’: a karaoke bar where they play bad polish disco.
Karaoke? Disco? I hate karaoke and disco about as much I hate, well, the Eurythmics. (Did I mention that I hate the Eurythmics?)
But it’s not like there’s any danger that I’m going to be coerced into joining in because there’s no stage. The microphone is just being passed around amongst the roaring crowd and, besides, all the song lyrics are in Polish anyway.
A round of drinks appear. We toast each other and scol. This round is quickly followed by another. And another.
Normally when I’m on a book tour I try to act—and drink—responsibly. After all, I am a professional . But just like that little voice of warning in my brain about vodka, any professional restraint has by now been completely washed away. I have no sense of place or time let alone occupation. It’s like a dream. A sweet dream. Sweet dreams are made of this.
That’s when I hear it.
A synthesiser. English words.
I recognise this language! I know this song!
Somehow the microphone ends up in my hands and before I know it I am serenading the room…
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world
And the seven seas
Everybody’s looking for something…
Okay. I am now officially out of control.
I don’t know who I am anymore.
I’m drinking Vodka.
I’m doing Karaoke.
And I’m enjoying the Eurythmics.
I’ve travelled the world, crossed the seven seas… and finally found that something that everybody was looking for: vodka.
The song ends all too soon and after a few more drinks the clock strikes midnight. Maria organises a taxi to take me back to my hotel.
I ride the elevator up to my floor, still humming Sweet Dreams, but as I open the door of my room I am woken from my sweet dream by a strangely uncomfortable feeling. My brain may have temporarily forgotten who I am, but my stomach hasn’t. I am not Polish. I can’t—and never could—handle vodka. I rush into the bathroom and spend the next few hours, bent over the bath, emptying myself of what feels like seven seas’ worth of vodka.
That night there are no sweet dreams. Just a black unconscious void.
I wake the next morning, fully clothed, on top of the bed right where I crashed.
My mouth is so dry I can’t swallow and my head hasn’t hurt this much since the time I drank vodka as a teenager … and I have to do a talk for 300 Polish children in less than an hour but—weirdly—I regret nothing.
Not even enjoying a Eurythmics’ song.
Backed by The Stereo Stories Band, Andy performed this story at the 2019 Williamstown Literary Festival, with more than 400 people singing along.