Travelling without a Man
Poland, August 1966
A few uniformed soldiers approach quickly. Are they looking for enemies? Am I officially acceptable in this land of Poland? “Dzien dobry,” they say. “Dzien dobry,” I reply. Good day – among the few words of Polish I’ve learned.
I surely can’t look much of a threat to the great socialist world I am entering in August 1966. But they are unsure. Speaking to me in Polish, they indicate to me that I must get back on the train, gesticulating towards the carriage door. People like me don’t get off here. But I know I am in the right place. I’d looked out of the window as we crossed the Oder river, and Kunowice was the first stop over the border. I show them my pink cardboard ticket, partly in Russian, partly in German, with the word Kunowice stamped on as the destination. The train waits while they discuss my ticket and look at the visa in my passport. I am holding up the Moscow express. Eventually, they decide everything was probably in order and hand me back my ticket and passport.
I turn round to look at Therese and Margaret. We wave to each other as the engine slowly pulls away, leaving me behind. The passengers are heading for the cities of Poland, first Poznań, then Warsaw, after that across the eastern boundary into the Soviet Union, through Brest, Minsk, Smolensk and finally to Moscow, to cities and lands which to me are shadowy and unknown, a constant presence and threat.
The soldiers go back to their hut. I’ve made a small diversion in their day. They leave me to myself with £30 worth of vouchers and a rucksack on my back. The river Oder and the Communist-ruled Deutsche Demokratische Republik are behind me, separating me from the familiar Western world. I am all alone in Poland. I turn to look eastwards, my eyes following the great lumbering train from which I’ve just climbed. It steams on towards Warsaw and, ultimately, Moscow. I am going in that direction too but more slowly, and on foot.
I walk into the land which has borne invading armies marching east, and retreating in devastation in their turn, where refugees in their thousands have trudged, in carts, on foot or in whatever vehicle they could find. This is a land where unloved rulers oppressed the population, putting dissenters into prison, or worse. These are vague, unclearly formulated ideas in my mind.
My ignorance of the land into which I am walking is profound. Should I be afraid? I am not sure, but I am optimistic. I check the direction of the sun. I know if I keep it on my right, I’ll be heading towards the first main city of Poznań, in the direction of Warsaw. There is only one road and no evidence of road signs. A road mender sees me with my Union Jack flag. “Why are you travelling without a man?” he says in English. Where did he learn English? Perhaps he’d lived in Canada or the USA before coming back to Poland.
I laugh and reply jokingly and go on my way. But that is a significant question. What on earth am I doing, entering a closed land, with no Polish money, £30 worth of vouchers in my pocket and a visa for a month? No one knows where I am, or where I’d be found if I should be trapped in a Communist gaol. I haven’t got round to informing the British consulate in West Germany about my travels. I have no contacts in Poland, no one to meet me or look after me and very little of the language.
The fields smell of hay, and the countryside is quiet. I walk past unfenced open fields, separated by ditches with purple flowers. Horses are grazing in a field next to a farmhouse. A woman wearing a headscarf is in the farmyard where hens peck and a dog is tied by a rope to its kennel. It is delightfully warm.
Not a car is going either way along this quiet road. A few kilometres later, I reach a small raggedy town called Rzepin where people stare at me politely. The houses and main street look unkempt and poor. I pass by a Soviet army tank and war memorial and gaze at the indecipherable Russian writing. This marks the route of the Red Army as it passed on its way to Berlin through a defeated Germany.
With my shoulder-length fair hair, I know I can be mistaken for a German girl which, in these years, in this place, is not helpful. Thus, I make sure my Union Jack flag is conspicuous as I need to focus on getting a lift. Sooner or later, a vehicle will come. This, I remind myself, is the main route between Berlin and Warsaw, two of Europe’s capital cities.
Eventually, a car with a French registration comes along. That’s hopeful.
“Bonjour. Vous allez où?” I ask. Where are you going? I haven’t yet needed to try my Polish.
The French couple take me to Poznań, the first major city and my destination for the day. “Au revoir. Bon courage!” they say, as I leave them. Goodbye. Good luck.
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts – published today!