Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Ballad of Heniek and Ziutek

These guys are a) the backbone of Poland, b) Poland's biggest problem. Pan Heniek (below, left) and Pan Ziutek (below, right) - or indeed the other way round. The background has been heavily pixelated a) to hide the Polish village in which this was taken and b) to give the impression of level of inebriation that our protagonists are experiencing...

Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek can be found in any Polish village (their presence in Polish cities is thankfully on the wane). Decent, ordinary, straightforward guys with one problem - alcohol.

This pair staggered into the sklep spożywczy ahead of me and went straight to the alcohol counter. They pooled their resources - eight or nine zlotys - and converted it into małpki - 100ml or 200ml bottles of vodka. But not just any małpki - these guys wanted their małpki chilled. From the chiller. It's hot outside.

Poland's spirits manufacturers have a lot on their conscience. In particular the chiller cabinet of małpki. These bottles were never intended for domestic consumption, Lord no. This is feldalkohol, something to be bought and swigged back in the fields. Strong alcohol to be drunk in the open air.

Pani ekspedientka asks her customers what they'd like. They name their preferred brands and engage in easy-going banter with the shop assistant, who's in her early 20s and probably finishing her Master's degree in philosophy. They manage to string entire sentences together without the use of a single expletive. She tells them, politely, that their order is not going to be good for their health. They laugh. It is evident from their gait (above) that these bottles are not their first of the day. They merrily shrug off this well-meant advice, count their grosze and arrive at the right amount of loose change to pay for the małpki. The transaction is complete. And off they go, the two sages of the willow grove.

But for their comedic value, Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's alcohol problem leaves human tragedy in its wake - mothers, wives, children. Employers, social security, the health service.

The answer is clearly genetic; some of us can handle alcohol and some can't. A variant of one gene means that we are either prone to addiction to C2H5OH or not. In time, genetic testing will be able to identify those with the wrong variant - and innovative medicines will fix it. But in the meanwhile, we shall have to endure the sight - and the costs (social and economic) of Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's unending quest for booze.

This time last year:
Yorkshire's yellow bicycles

This time six years ago:
Horse-drawn in the Tatras

This time seven years ago:
Rain, wind and fire

This time eight years ago:
The Road beckons


student SGH said...

For a local the place (DB) looks familiar, despite being blurred...

These people are just a tip of the iceberg, most vivid example of alcohol addiction. Jobless, often forsaken by families (women more and more often have courage to walk away with children, what in turn plunges them deeper into the crutches of addiction). They can't even afford to sit behind the wheel after alcohol...

Middle class is also affected by the alcohol, only in a different way, less visible. Heard some stories of reputable, seemingly decent people who had families, pursued carrers (and thus had more money for up-market beverages) and drowned their sorrows lonely every evening.

Michael Dembinski said...

Whatever class, the genetic propensity to addiction is there, though more intelligent people can see the warning signs and take action... willpower plays a role too. Determination is all.

Anonymous said...

Read an interesting book recently:
Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State Hardcover – Jan 21 2014


MJN said...

I mostly agree with what you write, but here I must disagree: The genetic link to alcoholism is not as strong as you imply. First of all, there will never be a gene for alcoholism. Complex traits are never determined by only one or a handful of genes. An alcoholism gene is as elusive as a homosexualism gene or an intelligence gene, just to mention some that are often claimed to have been found.

Genetics surely plays a role in the risk for alcoholism, but it is not like your faith is written solely in your genes. Research indicates that about half of the risk for alcoholism is genetic, whereas the other half depends on the environment or genes and environment in combination.

It's a too easy explanation to blame Pan Heniek's and Pan Ziutek's predicament on their result in the genetic lottery. Growing up in an environment were spending the days drinking without jobs, careers or hope would be hard for anyone.

I am also not sure that there will ever be a medical solution to Pan Heniek's and Pan Ziutek's problems. One reason is that since alcoholism is a very complex condition, it will be very hard to medicate. But even more, I am not sure that every Heniek and Ziutek would want to take the medicin. Not having the alcohol would mean having to face the problems that put them into the position in the first place. Forgetting is a powerful motivation

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Basia

Yes - the communist system has a lot to answer for. The systematic numbing of a captive nation's senses through cheap booze.


Thank you - a brilliant comment. It is, of course, nature and nature. It is, of course, a number of gene variants at play. Look at the innate inability of Native Americans and many native Siberian tribes to metabolise alcohol. Classic 'Ziutek' syndrome cases in Poland look as wasted as heroin addicts, but many other problem drinkers are of regular body mass. I'd use this as a rough-and-ready measure of nature or nurture when it comes to assessing the cause of the problem drinking.

It is clear that the problem is also age related; there are far fewer young people troubled to this extent by alcohol; compared to their middle-aged compatriots, young Poles can emigrate, move to the city, escape the hopelessness - should they, as you rightly point out - choose to.

Alcohol abuse is very much determined by climate too. Compare alcoholism rates in Scotland and southern England, or Scandinavia and Italy, or Russia and India. The further north, the bigger the problem. A hangover is not a heap of laughs at 35C.

I don't have the stats to hand, but anecdotally, I do think that things are getting better. There are fewer drunks staggering around Polish towns in the middle of the day than there were when I moved to Poland 18 years ago. It is not a problem that will entirely disappear - the remaining hard core will be the genetically determined cases, rather than those drinking out of socio-economic despair.