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Postcards from Poland

On hearing that I was about to pack my bags and move for good to Poland; my friends looked at me as if I was very strange. Their reactions were mainly inclined towards the negative kind.  “Why Poland?, It’s so flat, uninteresting and boring!” was echoed widely. “Poland is so not you…it’s just not exotic enough”, was another response. Well as nice as it would have been sunbathing on some tropical sun-drenched beach; Poland beckoned. Naturally I was going to stand up for my future home…defending it with a usual comeback along the lines of “well have you been there?!”  None of them had, so they were simply judging Poland by their stereotypical prior knowledge of the country.

Glenn goes rural

Sadly, my friends are not alone.  Many people wrongly dismiss Poland as being a depressing and uninteresting country.  Sure it’s had a deeply, tragic history some of which is very recent…however it’s far from being bleak and is certainly not depressing.  One has to only look past the dark surface to find the warm and welcoming heart of the country. As for being flat and uninteresting? – This is simply a common misconception brought on by tourists who travel through Poland along the mundane main route between Germany and Belarus; bypassing the majority of the country altogether.  Simply travel down south towards the Slovakian border and the sheer, spectacular scenery of the Tatra Mountains will surely change one’s perception altogether.

For people like me, who are willing to give Poland a chance; the rewards are highly beneficial and satisfying.  Poland has much to offer both the traveller and the tourist; the sightseer and the explorer.  A glance at some of the famous names associated with Poland…reveal that this is a country full of history and ingenuity. The list reads like an A-Z of world greats…Frederick Chopin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie, Jan Kiepura, Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda, Lech Wa³êsa and of course Pope John Paul II.  How can a country that has produced such a wealth of great names ever be classed as being boring?

First impressions are always right?

I arrived in Poland after a long and uncomfortable 27 hr coach journey from England, across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.   Unfortunately Poland was not looking its best; dark, grey rain clouds covered the country threatening to shed their load any moment.  The country looked gloomy, colourless and dare I say it even depressing.  I started questioning my own sanity and wondered whether I should have listened to my friends in the first place. I was understandably tired and not in the right frame of mind.  So I put most of my inner feelings down to the fact that I hadn’t slept a wink and decided to give Poland a chance!

Note the disciplined queue for a bus

My first impressions were focused mainly on the stark contrast between the rest of Europe and Poland.  As you cross the border, you notice a distinct change in the infrastructure, the facilities and even the culture.  During the Shengen States, the coach motors along fast high speed freeways stopping off at modern clean service stations with most importantly FREE toilet facilities! On passing the border…things begin to change. The main road becomes far narrower, the service stations become small outposts and rather alarmingly you have to PAY for the toilets which aren’t the cleanest in the world!

The biggest concern was the large amount of graffiti which stood out dramatically in its hideous and sometimes grotesque form.  Every street appeared to  not have escaped from the hands of the spray can.  No matter whether the buildings were over a hundred years old or a grotty council flat…their walls were nevertheless covered in the unofficial artwork.  Even historical buildings of great importance were donned with graffiti.

For the first few weeks, I rather unfairly compared Poland with Russia.  Having travelled to the latter several times previously; I had some prior Eastern European knowledge.  The similarities are obvious…two former communist countries trying to reshape themselves.  You walk along a street in Russia or Poland and you come across a relic from the Communist period…the typical wooden shack (Kiosk) that seems to be selling anything from bus passes to walkmans. 

Other similarities continue when it comes to buying goods.  On one occasion I went on a simple shopping trip to buy an electric kettle. I went into a well respected Polish chain store…their equivalent of our Dixons or Comet.   On walking in I felt like I was entering a museum…not because the state of the art goods were antique antiquities but because they were all stored neatly in little glass cabinets.  Using pigeon Polish (a mixture of my limited vocabulary and excessive arm waving) I conveyed to the shop assistant which kettle I wanted.  She acknowledged me…disappeared into a stock room and came back with the said kettle all neatly in its box.  So far so good…expecting that all I needed to do now was to pay and then leave.  I realised that things were going to be slightly different when the shop assistant started to unpack my kettle.  Off came the plastic wrapping and out came the instruction manual.  She then proceeded to plug the kettle into the mains.  No my new found friend was not about to make me a cup of tea…but she was merely proving that the kettle was in full working order before I bought it.  After a few minutes of struggling to put the kettle back into its box; the young girl started to complete a rigorous form…full of in depth information about my kettle.  This was then stamped and put into the box…naturally the guarantee of course! The shop assistant began filling in yet another form, which I then had to take across the shop floor to another woman sitting behind in a little booth. Only she would take my money! After the cashier had acknowledged my payment…she stamped the form, which I then had to take back to my shop assistant who was waiting with my kettle…to prove that I had paid for it! Phew…and all that for a simple kettle?

With hindsight, however, this routine is certainly worth the time and effort. Consumer rights barely exist in Poland. A stern warning to all, who purchase something in a shop and attempt to return it for your money back. Many times I have been abruptly turned away or if I am lucky been given a refund, but only after a lengthy period of filling in forms after forms!

Ok…so maybe the rigid bureaucratic shackles of Communism are still somewhat in evidence.  However Poland is far more westernised than its former Soviet neighbours.  You walk down the main high street where you pass the obligatory McDonalds and the latest designer shops competing for the hottest fashion. The state owned radio station (RMF FM) plays a mix of the latest western pop tunes and the umpteen cinemas show all the latest Hollywood blockbusters (thankfully in their original form with Polish subtitles). 

However despite this sudden surge of western culture…Poland remains very much different, thanks to its strong Religious and cultural background.

My new home

Town Hall, Torun

My new lease of Polish life needed a central core, a heart so to speak…and that heart turned out to be my new found home; the wonderful city of Toruñ.  Situated on the banks of the River Vistula, approx. 200 km northwest of Warsaw, Toruñ is usually overlooked by western tourists who head south towards the gleaming spires of Krakow. Although far smaller, Toruñ is nevertheless equally beautiful, charming and historical.  It’s not difficult to work out why for hundred’s of years, Toruñ was known as ‘The Queen of the Vistula’.

Toruñ owes its origins to the Teutonic Order, which built a castle there in the mid-13th century as a base for the conquest and evangelisation of Prussia. It soon developed a commercial role as part of the Hanseatic League. In the Old and New Town, the many imposing public and private buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries (among them the house of Copernicus) are striking evidence of Toruñ’s importance.

The Old Town of Toruñ with its well preserved city walls and medieval cobbled streets is attractively situated on the banks of the River Vistula. Thankfully saved from much destruction during WWII, Toruñ retains its unique charm.

For a New Zealander who speaks little Polish, Toruñ acted as the perfect safe hold and has certainly become the home from home.  The hub of the city revolves around its medieval Old Market Square (Rynek Staromiejski) which is certainly still its vibrant heart.  The focal point of the square is the imposing three storey town hall with its Gothic tower, which at 138 ft high offers stunning views of the surrounding city. Flower sellers can be found lining the walls of the town hall.  Trust me…the sweet scent and natural colour of flowers can easily win a Polish girl’s heart! Naturally the flower stalls are always in constant demand! During the busy summer period, when thousands of German and Polish tourists descend on the city…bike taxis and horse drawn carriages offer a more unique perspective of the city.    Within the square are two monuments.  One is a tribute to Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer who was born in the city.  Built in 1853, the statue has just been painstakingly refurbished and now incorporates a small fountain.  The monument is a real landmark and often acts as a meeting point for friends, students, in fact anyone! The other monument is a fountain with the figure of a raftsman, who, according to legend, rid the citizens of Toruñ from a plague of frogs by playing his fiddle.  One wonders whether this either inspired the famous fairy tale The Pied Piper of Hamlyn or vice versa!

Other highlights in Toruñ include the Crooked Tower, one of the city’s greatest attractions due to its sheer oddity. As the name suggests, the tower (part of the town’s old fortifications) leans at a dramatic angle.  Inside there is now a pub, meaning that when you walk down the stairs…you really do feel like you’ve had one beer too many! Incidentally, Polish beer (in particular ¯ywiec) is very popular and is beginning to get a reputation as strong as its vodka (no pun intended)! The lightness and smoothness of the brew makes it extremely drinkable and likeable, however a word of warning though; at 6% Alcohol content it’s much more potent than say your average pint of Stella or Heineken. Even after one pint, your head is spinning wildly!

The jewel in Toruñ’s crown has to be the magnificent red bricked Cathedral of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.  Completed in 1500, this beautiful Gothic building forms the centerpiece of the Torun skyline, as seen from the opposite banks of the Vistula River.  The importance of Torun’s cathedral is embodied by the fact that Pope John Paul II himself, preached here in 1999.  A solitary statue of this humble man stands in the garden on the south side of the cathedral. When he died, the statue became a shrine covered in candles and flowers.

A comforting dominance

One of the main differences between say England and Poland…is that the latter is far more religious conscious.  Roman Catholicism dominates the country with an air of warm confidence and power. 

An easter basket to be blessed

It doesn’t take long to notice how much the locals respect their religion.  Shrines to the Virgin Mary are dotted around the countryside baring a resemblance to the old English May Day poles (due to the multi-coloured ribbons that adorn them).  The church is the centrepiece in any community be it a village, town or city.  Come Sunday the majority of the local population pay a visit to the hour long service.  Thus the church acts as a bond uniting a close knit community.

On Easter Sunday, every year, I get up at the crack of dawn to attend a special service at the local village church.  Hundreds of people from all walks of life arrive…too many to fill the tiny space of the church, so many stay outside in the cemetery observing the ceremony patiently in the cold morning mist.  Incidentally at the beginning of the service, the entire congregation have to walk around the church clockwise three times.  So there we are; grandparents, parents, children, cousins, friends walking slowly and quietly around the solitary church at 7 am!  This unusual custom is done out of respect and tradition; not even the local people know exactly why they do it! However it has something to do with proclaiming the resurrection.

With religion being such strength, the country benefits from a huge number of public holidays.  On each of these days, the entire country shuts down very much like it does on a Sunday. I always make a joke of it that the Poles enjoy their holidays so much more than work!  However with at least ten days a year officially declared as public holidays you can see why! Along with the usual western holidays such as Christmas, Easter, New Year and May Day; Poland has a few more additions.  On the 3rd May is Constitution Day, the most important public holiday, marking the adoption of the first Polish constitution of 1791.  In June, there is Corpus Christi, when solemn processions are held throughout the country.  On the 15th August is The Feast of the Assumption, although a religious holiday it is also the day on which Poles commemorate their victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920.  In every town, soldiers pay tribute in a public ceremony.  November sees not one but two holidays; the 1st November being All Saints Day when people visit the graves of their loved ones to light candles and the 11th November being Poland’s Independence Day; with the biggest celebrations taking place in Warsaw.

The two main festivities in Poland are of course Easter and Christmas.  However both holidays are celebrated far differently than they are in England.  Gone are the artificial and commercial overtones of what has sadly tarnished recent English celebrations.  In their place stand beautiful religious holidays, where the local people celebrate the true significance of the birth and resurrection of Jesus.

Easter in Poland naturally revolves around the church.  On Easter Saturday, children bring specially prepared baskets of food and decorated eggs to get blessed with Holy Water.  Chocolate Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny are nowhere to be seen!

Christmas is all about the family. Preparations usually begin weeks in advance with the ladies of the household busy beavering away in the kitchen. The end result is well worth it with a seemingly endless array of cakes and pastries waiting you. The commercial exploits of the British Christmas are thankfully still a long way off in Poland (though since joining the EU, things are changing). The Church is by the far the most important symbol during the season with the true meaning of Christmas being reflected throughout.

Culture Shock!

One thing that I do find quite infuriating about Poland, are old Polish ladies!  Now don’t get me wrong…there are many pleasant elderly women but they are unfortunately in the minority.  The problem is that probably as a result of communism, elderly women in general expect privileges. Of course as the perfect gentleman you naturally respect the older generation…however with damn right rudeness from their end it’s very difficult! For example you would be waiting at a bus stop, the bus comes and then suddenly out of nowhere an old lady would run to the front and push you out of the way as if you didn’t exist. There is an unusual urge to race to bag the front seat, even though the bus and the front seat are going to the same destination! Similarly you would be waiting your turn to be served at a shop when just when you thought you were going to be served some old lady appears from nowhere!  The problem also lies in the fact that in Poland, queues are unheard of.  In fact Poles think English people are extremely odd queuing for their place.  So in Poland, it’s literally every man for themselves when it comes to getting on a bus or a train!

No, Poland is NOT flat

Of course, these absurd cultural differences are not just confined to elderly women. Recently, I encountered a very strange yet comic experience. I had just left my house to go shopping and had completely forgotten that the pair of trousers that I had rather hastily put on had a small hole in one of the pockets. So no sooner, had I left my flat then the calamity happened…a whole pocket full of coins landed on the street. Much to my embarrassment, I bent down and began to pick up my change, which had scattered along the street. Suddenly, an old Polish man appeared. He was dressed well and was certainly no tramp. He joined in and started to help me pick up my coins. I appreciated his help and thought how kind he was. I even thanked him verbally for his troubles. You can then, imagine my surprise, when he muttered something in Polish, then promptly put my freshly picked up coins into HIS pocket and then casually walked off down the street. I didn’t know whether to laugh or chase him down the street. I safely chose the former option…putting it down to another case of Polish culture shock (or a simple case of misunderstanding!).

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