Pangs of homesickness overtake me again, and I begin to imagine just getting on a train and going straight back home. In these days, despite the new freedoms of society, the push for a young woman like me to catch her man and get married is still strong. I feel a failure. My younger sister is married, and some of my friends are heading in the same direction. Whereas I, unattached, and in this state of mind, am feeling pulled between the urge to establish a home with a man who loves me beyond all others, and the call of adventure. It had hit me in Berlin and is striking again.
But the countryside is healing, fresh and warm, and I soon cheer up. I follow little tracks between one village and another and sit by a stream for a while. While there, a Polish woman sees me. “Skąd Pani jest?” Where are you from, madam? She asks the usual question, shyly.
“Proszę Pani do mojego domu,” she says, inviting me into her farmhouse. It is easy to understand that domu means house, and I am well used to proszę for please. By now I can have a basic conversation about family and food. She gives me bread and butter and fruit and makes coffee.
Her mother, her children and the grandchildren are all together in this summertime, ages ranging from a child of about three to a teenage girl. There are three boys and five girls, all thin, brown, healthy-looking and barefoot: eight children, who surely must be required to help with the tasks of the farm and yet free to run around in-between times. It seems an enviable life.
It is corn harvest season in the hills, and as I leave them, I wander through little fields with stooks of corn in tidy rows. The people are loading them onto carts pulled by their strong, long-legged horses and wave as I go by. The hay has already been cut and is stacked to dry on picturesque cone-shaped stands among the clover.
Wooden houses, with the flowers rampaging along the garden paths, are unlike any I have seen so far in Poland. There are beehives on wooden stilts in some of the paddocks, roofed and brightly painted. The hives are among the fruit trees in the cottage gardens, sometimes with the family’s calves grazing among them, and surrounded by neat, wooded palings. I am bewitched by this lovely scenery.
There is little or no motor transport along the tiny country roads, and it is a pleasure to walk along without thinking about getting lifts. I am heading for the youth hostel at Wiśniowa, and the next day my plan is to continue to the one at Rabka.
I now begin to understand the reason for the extensive network of youth hostels in Poland. In the summer, village schools are converted for the use of group visits to the countryside. And what a sensible idea I think that is. I knock at the door of the house next to the school with the youth hostel sign in Wiśniowa. The young man, probably the school’s teacher, looks surprised but welcomes me and shows me in. Unexpected visitors seem unusual, but the rules of the International Youth Hostel Federation allow for individual travellers like me to turn up.
The bunk beds are in rows in the classroom with the children’s school desks stacked at the side. I am pleased to be given a set of pans in the school kitchen so that I can prepare myself an evening meal. It turns out that indeed he is the school’s teacher. I guess that groups of children are his usual summer clientele.
In the morning, he and his assistant teacher invite me for coffee, and their kindness helps me overcome my homesickness. We can’t have much conversation beyond the basic standard sentences, but their smiles and good manners help me overcome my faltering courage. My diary:
The products which create my happiness have come all together here. A feeling of purpose, a mileage which had to be walked, lovely scenery in which I felt at home, good weather and food and, most important, friendly people that I liked.
For two full days I follow tracks and minor roads in the rolling hills until I arrive at a more populated valley with big lorries rattling by. The weather has turned rainy. After getting lost and discouraged, I end up at my destination of Rabka where the youth hostel is once again in a school.
Next day, I take a local train to the town of Maków and, from there, a bus to a village called Zawoja. This place, everyone tells me, is a true mountain village.
I haven’t yet worked out where I will spend the night. I sit in a café in Zawoja to keep out of the rain, and I occupy myself by answering letters. I send a note to Tom and the zbereżniki. As I plan to meet them later, they provide some kind of certainty in my unfocused life. An English-speaking Polish woman and I start chatting.
“There is an Englishman staying in Zawoja,” she says. “Would you like to meet him?”
Of course, I agree. We go to a little wooden house where he is staying. I am enraptured. The house is completely made of wood, built onto a stone foundation. A porch with clambering plants extends into the roof with a dormer window. The windows are painted white, and the roof is of grey slate. The long, wooden beams of the walls meet each other in criss-cross fashion at the corners. Behind the house is a building which is much older, perhaps either a former dilapidated house or a barn, with a steeply sloping roof of wooden tiles extending almost to the ground. My Polish companion knocks on the door, and the Englishman appears.
“What are you doing here?” I ask him.
“I can say the same to you,” he says. Neither of us expected to meet someone from England in this remote village.
Frank is undertaking his PhD on the rocks here in the Polish Carpathians. “And you?”
“I am wandering around to see what I can learn. I’m going to be a geography teacher.”
“Probably you can stay here too,” he suggests and introduces me to his hostess and her aged mother.
“Tak, tak Pani,” they say. Yes, yes, of course, madam. And they show me the bedroom.
My bed has clean cotton sheets. This is better than the narrow standard sheet sleeping bag which, like all hostellers, I have been using for the last two nights. I sink into the comfy feather mattress on my first night in blissful contentment. But then I begin to feel something. Am I imagining it? I am tired enough to drop off to sleep. Next morning, the red blobs around my midriff are the evidence. I have had company during the night. When I mention my suspicions to Frank, he says blithely: “You get used to it.”
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts.