|A visit to the home front in Poland|
|by NICHOLAS LEZARD
The Independent (London)
March 22, 1992, Sunday
SECTION: THE SUNDAY REVIEW PAGE; p.62
THE FRONTIERS of travel are no longer geographical: if you can rustle up a few hundred pounds you can go almost anywhere. The problem is that as a tourist, contact with the locals means a humiliating exchange of incomprehension and distrust with receptionists, guides, bar staff and waiters. In order to combat this, Jim Haynes has compiled Poland: People to People (Canongate Press, pounds 4.95).
The book is simply a directory of 1,000 names, arranged by town, of Polish people who would like to hear from English people. They cover every age and occupation: all they have in common is that they speak English. A birth-date, a list of interests, and a sentence or two give a summing up: ''I am geologist. I work in the Geology Institute.'' Some verge on the surreal. An engineer, married with two children, sucked his pen and came up with: ''The view from the window of my flat is very interesting.''
Arranging a blind date with someone a thousand miles away is nerve-racking. I decided to concentrate on people younger than myself: they are generally more flexible than adults, and easier to boss around. My first choice was a student called Pawel. His entry bespoke an attractive fatalism: ''I was born 21 years ago and I am still alive.'' This was just the kind of daft thing I would have written when I was 21. He liked ''film and modern poetry, long conversations with friendly people, discussions about politics (esp. the end of Communist era), religion (heresies!).'' There was always the chance that he could be over-earnest, and that he would know more about film and modern poetry than I (as it turned out, he did). Calling from London, I asked if there was anything I could bring him. ''Just some literary magazines. TLS, London Review of Books, that kind of thing. Any small literary magazines.''
''No, just literary magazines.'' I shoved some in my bag and hoped he wouldn't want a long chat about their contents. I also bought a bottle of malt whisky and 400 Marlboros in case he changed his mind.
He met me at the airport, the first of a thousand things I have to thank him for. A tall man, denim jacket and jeans and a Barcelona Olympics '92 T-shirt. He wore glasses, hadn't shaved and had a habit of looking into the middle distance when he spoke. We established fairly quickly that we had enough in common that I wouldn't have to check into a hotel immediately. He had insisted on the phone that I stay with him, but I had wanted to play things by ear. He was the deputy editor of a perpetually broke magazine, Swiat Literacki (World Literature), which carried articles on and translations of A S Byatt, John Irving, and - my favourite - ''Teatr katastrofy Howarda Barkera''. He supported himself by writing articles for aspirational/lifestyle magazines, and translating Jack Higgins. (''I try to make it better in Polish.'') He said he was trying to get a Polish publisher interested in translating David Lodge. At his flat - two rooms, kitchen and bathroom - he offered me a drink. This was the question, I realised, which would determine the tenor of our relationship. If I accepted beer (choice number one), he might think I was a drunkard. If Coke - a milksop. If tea - a stereotyped Englishman. I asked for beer. This turned out to be the correct response.
Pawel was an enthusiastic beer-drinker, with a special fondness for Guinness, which, at 50,000 zloty ( pounds 2.50) a pint (when you can find it) is out of reach for most Poles. Drinking a pre-pub beer in his flat - his parents' flat, actually, but they were staying at grandma's while I was there - he gave me the lowdown on Poland. ''The economic situation is dreadful. There is no money around for publishing or the arts, libraries are closing, the government is useless, and the only thing people think about is making money while at the same time they hate people who have it.''
It all sounded strangely familiar. But a word of warning: if you go to a party in Poland and mention, as I did, the recession in England, you will notice a funny look come into the other person's eyes. A kind of glazed contempt. It means: ''We could do with some of your recession very nicely, thank you.'' Average yearly income is about pounds 1,000; there are 29 parties in the present government, the strongest commanding 15 per cent of the nation's support; inflation is fluctuating wildly between 50 and 1,000 per cent; and you can't drink the tap water. So don't complain about the recession in England.
However, at least Poland isn't in as much of a mess as Russia. When you go to Poland you will notice, even in the most blasted concrete wasteland, people standing over small pitches. These are Russians who are selling whatever they have in order to get some hard currency. Even the zloty counts as hard currency compared to the rouble. One pitch I saw was offering the following: a chess set, a pair of pliers, a pair of old shoes, a cardboard box.
''When I want to Petersburg - Leningrad - I felt like a Rockefeller,'' Pawel said. ''I was just having an ordinary meal in a restaurant, nothing special, and there were Russians outside with their noses pressed against the glass.'' Poles have hated the Russians for centuries: now they're genuinely sorry for them.
Like most of Warsaw's population, Pawel lived in one of the ugly, box-like blocks that surround the city like a ring of concrete. From the outside, they remind you of 1984. The blocks extend as far as the eye can see. They make our inner-city estates look like model villages. On the inside, however, Pawel's flat was considerably neater, brighter and pleasanter than mine. I reflected, with the wisdom of half an hour's acquaintance with a country, that the English prefer the exteriors to look nice and leave the interiors to chaos, whereas in Poland it is the other way round.
I asked Pawel how he came to be listed in the book. ''I don't remember this,'' he said. ''Maybe two years ago my English teacher asked us to put something down about ourselves. I had rather a surprise when you called me up.''
''I'm sorry,'' I said. ''How do you feel about lots of English people calling you up and asking to crash out on your sofa?''
''I'm looking forward to it,'' he said.
English is becoming one of Poland's key imports. Radio Z - Warsaw's most popular station - employs an American to read out useful English phrases like: ''Hello! Could you give me a quote on mandatory car insurance?'' On my first night a young man in a bar fell off his stool in a perfect backward arc, pouring an entire pint-mug of beer over his head. He was as drunk as you can get while still being able to talk. He sat at our table, mopped his head and said, after an inner struggle: ''I want to sprach with you.'' He was studying journalism.
Earlier on Pawel and I had drunk ruinously expensive but delicious Guinness in a bar near the University, where he was sure he would meet some of his friends.
''Anyone you recognise?'' I asked.
''No,'' he said. ''It seems to be full of young crooks.''
A few minutes later, one of the young crooks challenged me to a game of pool. In any country, the fine details of the rules of pool vary from bar to bar, and Pawel didn't know any of them. The people I was playing pool with didn't know any English, so Pawel was translating terms he didn't even know in Polish. We played two bizarre games until the young crooks started beating each other up.
''Does this happen often?'' I asked Pawel later on. ''I mean, do Polish people often talk to strangers in bars?''
Pawel shrugged and looked off into the middle distance. ''This is the first time in my life this has ever happened to me.'' I felt slightly guilty, as if I had brought a curse with me.
The next night, which was Shrove Tuesday, Pawel took me to a party. It is a popular night for parties in Poland, but I got the impression that Poles will throw parties at the drop of a hat. It was identical to the student parties I used to go to: the music was an eclectic trawl through rock and dance music history, the kitchen was packed, no one touched the food until a mass attack of the munchies at about midnight and the most beautiful girl in the room didn't even look at me. I also complained a lot about the recession in England.
The next day I had to go to Krakow to meet my next assignment. I'd picked Elizabeth, art historian, born in 1960. ''I am single and I have a lot of free time,'' she said. As she firmly advised me to stay in a hotel, rather than stay at her place, I guessed that she wasn't using the book as a Lonely Hearts column. The express train to Krakow takes only two and half hours, but leaves at 6.50am. The taxi Pawel had ordered never showed up, but there were plenty at the rank near his flat. (A word about Polish taxis. You will first meet them at the airport, where you will be surrounded by about a hundred men all saying ''Taxi, taxi'' at you until you're actually on the bus. Drivers have to learn the Knowledge the way London cabbies do, but a million zlotys - about pounds 50 - is, for most examiners, a respectable substitute for experience. They are pricey, even for Westerners, and, as most of Warsaw's suburbs look identical, a trip from one flat to another by taxi needs patience, money, and someone who knows the way. You learn to try and do without taxis whenever possible.)
Polish trains - or, at least, the ones I took - set off on the dot. There were six people in my compartment, five of them British. One was an economist turned environmentalist. Krakow is in the international super-league of polluted cities. There is a hole in the ozone layer right above it, thanks to Stalin's massive Nova Huta steelworks. Residents are advised to wear hats and sunglasses when they go out.
Krakow defied the environmentalists and remained crisp and sunny all the time I was there. Elizabeth met me, as arranged, at the station. Since Poland: People to People came out, she has lost her job due to cutbacks and now makes money as a guide. Academics in Poland live on mystifyingly small salaries and Elizabeth is scorned by her former colleagues, who think she has sold out and ought to be living on nothing, like them.
''In Poland, wages are very low. But there is a lot in the shops; there are also a lot of cars.'' Like the bumblebee, theoretically incapable of flight, Poles are theoretically incapable of owning cars. But they do. How do they stretch their incomes to roughly twice their salaries? ''There is a good word in Poland,'' Elizabeth said. ''It translates as 'organising'. You need some paper or some pens or a typewriter, so you go to your office and you 'organise' them back to your home. Everyone does it.''
Elizabeth was an efficient, knowledgeable guide. We had a whirlwind tour of the sights. At the Mariacki church I sat down on the pew opposite her, but facing away from the altar. She got me to turn around before I caused a scene. Sitting with your back to the altar is a big no-no. The altarpiece is a stunning, floridly Gothic representation of Mary's Ascension, carved from 1477 to 1489 by the Nuremberg craftsman Veit Stoss. People in Krakow are proud of their history: for a while in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was one of the few places in Poland where you were actually allowed to speak Polish.
I asked Elizabeth why she had decided to be listed in Haynes's book. ''I don't remember being asked,'' she said. ''Maybe a lecturer or a friend asked me to put my name down for something..." I was beginning to wonder if any of the people listed knew they were there.
Later, we got on to the subject of anti-Semitism. She knew only one declared anti-Semite, she said; besides, Krakow had one of the oldest and largest Jewish communities in the world. Until the Second World War, that is; those that were left were kicked out of Poland by the communists in 1968.
The Jewish district of Krakow is haunted by absences: ''After the war, no one wanted to live there. Even now it is not safe. It is very cheap to live there, but do not go there on your own at night.'' That night I walked around the Jewish quarter on my own. Nothing happened, except for a car turning right banging into a car turning left, but it felt pretty scary. Street lighting is optional in many parts of Poland: in the Jewish quarter you can see down the road if you hold a glowing cigarette in your hand.
After about an hour of getting scared and bored in equal measures, I went back to the Old Town Square. The city was empty. I returned to my hotel room to do what I believe all travel writers must do in order to experience the mystery and grandeur of travel: that is, sit in my hotel room and drink whisky out of the tooth-mug. (I recommend the Hotel Pollera, by the way. Tall ceilings, seedy charm and long, dark corridors.) Later on I checked out the Laser Boy Disco Night Club. It was deserted.
Next morning I had arranged to meet Iwona Krzewinska, born 1970, student. (''Likes: literature, dance, theatre, skating, walking, travelling, speaking English.'') She was astonished to hear from me; when I called her up I think she suspected I was some kind of weirdo.
''Well, your name's in this book, Poland: People to People...''
''A book? I don't understand.''
''It's a list of people in Poland who want to meet people from England...''
''You're writing this book?''
''No, it's already been published. And I saw your name in it...''
''I don't remember being in such a book. Oh, maybe a teacher asked us to write something but that was years ago . . .''
I wanted to explain that I had reasoned that 21-year-old female students who like dancing are, in my book, better company than 42- year-old engineers with interesting views from their flats. But I didn't want to make her nervous. I told her I was a journalist, that I'd been told to meet three people from this book and then write about them. That, apparently, settled it. We arranged to meet outside St Adalbert's in the main square. ''When I told my parents that I was meeting an English journalist, their eyes were as wide as plates! They could not believe I had been so fortunate.''
She was at Krakow's Jagiellonian University in 1989, when students barricaded themselves in protest at martial law. A week after the police charged in people were still weeping from the tear gas. She talked about her prospects, which in Poland are usually related to your proficiency in English. She was appearing in an amateur English-language production of Albee's An American Dream. I went along to an open rehearsal, held in the cafe of the English school in International House. The director, Steve Greber, was a Jewish New York playwright who had got fed up with New York and had suddenly, to his surprise, ended up teaching English in Krakow.
''When I first got here it was provincial hell,'' he said. ''There are more theatres in this town than anywhere else I know, and none of the plays being performed had been written later than 1750.'' I asked if this had been because of political considerations, and if the productions had been given certain political twists, like having everyone wear combat gear. ''Until 1989 you couldn't strike a match without it being a political act. Everything had political significance. Except maybe the plays.''
After the play the cast took me to the Piwnica Pod Baranami, a cellar-bar off the main square. They asked what England was like, and I told them there was a terrible recession there. One or two of them sniggered.
''What have you been doing in Krakow?'' Iwona asked me.
''I went walking round the Jewish district late at night,'' I said.
''You're mad,'' said everyone.
''I went to a nightclub, but it was empty.''
''That's because Lent has started. It is a bad time to go to nightclubs in Poland.'' So now I had found out what Poles give up during Lent.
I had only been to Eastern Europe once before, to Hungary in 1987; capitalism was being tried on guiltily, like a boy trying on his mother's shoes. Now, in Poland, Western influences are springing up among the concrete blocks, not quite like flowers between paving- stones, more like strange, precarious vegetables. The free market means being unable to afford a wide range of consumer goods, whereas communism meant being unable to afford a laughably narrow range of consumer goods.
Poles mostly prefer the free market. I saw a Warsaw tram painted in shocking pink, advertising Barbie dolls. Along the streets there are mini-markets selling virtually anything. Shop displays are so eclectic as to suggest a horror vacui, a hangover from the bad old days of communism, when you displayed anything you had to sell. In Krakow I saw a shop window with (next to each other) a pair of braces, a bottle of two-stroke oil and a doctor's stethoscope, all of them apparently brand-new.
Meanwhile, Camel and Marlboro slug it out for the soul of Poland. Everything is covered in their livery: trams, newsagents, shop-fronts, billboards. Western companies are interested in Poland, but sometimes it seems as if it is only the companies selling rubbish who are really interested. And if you have been living off undercover received images of the West for half a century, you become more vulnerable to the most easily assimilated, decadent and virulent form of Western culture there is: kitsch.
Maybe you can tell how at ease a country is with itself by the tenacity of its cuisine; a Martian in Warsaw or Krakow could conclude that the Polish national dish is pizza. I spent what seemed like hours in Krakow trying to find kazsa - a delicious black pudding - and kaszanka - buckwheat - and had to give up. For good authentic Polish cuisine you will have to find a family that will cook it for you or go to the Daquise in London.
Back in Warsaw, Pawel decided to give a party. It was his name-day - the anniversary of his christening - which is as important a day in your calendar as your birthday. He invited only about eight or nine of his friends, but they were the kind of friends who make you think that there are, in fact, about 30 people there instead. I invited everyone back to England so they could see how terrible the recession was. The next day, Pawel took me to see the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger than Paradise. Jarmusch is popular in Poland. Poles are industrious ironists - the ground for irony, is, after all, fertile - and they like the idea of films which make America look like what most Westerners think Poland looks like - grainy, monochrome and sad. Pawel's friend Malgorzata, a beautiful girl, had just returned from nine months away and seemed to be in shock.
''This city. Warsaw. It looks horrible. Everything is grey-green. What is that word that means earth mixed with water?'' ''Mud,'' I offered. ''Yes,'' she said, ''that's it. Everything looks like mud.'' She had been in England and had inadvertently overstayed her visa by a month. She was almost in tears as she said how this meant she would probably never be able to go to England again. Of course, she suggested, I could always marry her. I showed her Poland: People to People. ''I think I should put my name in the next edition,'' she said.
Jim Haynes 's book is, I had to conclude, a little work of inspiration. In Europe, Europe Hans Magnus Enzensburger spent three baffling days in Warsaw before he admitted the need for a guardian angel, and you will need one, too, as you stumble against the Polish language's sloshed phonetics (a little German might help if you're ever marooned). Whenever I showed people the book in Poland, I asked if they'd have minded being in it themselves. No, they said. These people are nicer than us.
The only miserable thing that happened to me in Poland was my departure. I wondered if there was some way of swapping the Polish and British populations. Imagine if Britain was full of people who would walk a mile in tight shoes to do you a favour. (It's not simply economics: several times I had to argue tiresomely with them just to buy them a drink.) Maybe I should take up Malgorzata's proposal after all.
GETTING THERE: British Airways (081- 897 4000, or 0345 222111 linkline charged at local call rate) return flights to Warsaw start at pounds 289 (book at least 14 days in advance, stay must include a Saturday night). Trailfinders (071-937 5400) return flights start at pounds 166 for a short break (minimum stay one Saturday night, maximum five days) or pounds 195 for a stay of up to a month.
GETTING AROUND: The Polish Tourist Office (details below) can supply information on trains and car-hire. Train journeys can be pre-booked by the office, but cost around half as much if you pay on the spot. Sample fare: first-class journey from Warsaw to Krakow is around pounds 7- pounds 8 on the spot, pounds 15- pounds 16 pre-booked. Sample car-hire price: from around pounds 35 a day in Warsaw, booked in advance through the Tourist Office.
STAYING THERE: The Polish Tourist Board publishes a list of hotels. Nicholas Lezard stayed at Hotel Pollera, ul Szpitalna, Krakow (010 48 12 221044/221128).
FURTHER INFORMATION: Orbis (The Polish Tourist Office), 82 Mortimer Street, London W1N 7DE (071-580 8028).
Poland: People to People is published by Canongate Press at pounds 4.95.
The firm is publishing similar books for Czechoslovakia and Hungary in May, and further titles in the autumn.
©The Independent, 1992
1992, The Independent : A visit to the home front in Poland