My self-imposed focus when it comes to travel and thus, to writing (since most of the time one means the other for me) is Eastern Europe. How that came about is a long story. But one part in it is certain: that it all starts – and possibly ends – with Poland.
I would be lying if I said I had always had a fascination for that part of the world. When asked on a study trip in high school, I distinctly remember saying: „What in the WORLD would I want to see in POLAND?!?!?“ I went to Greece instead, which was nice. But it is no Poland.
Pasym, a beautiful small town in the Mazury Lake District
How did my love affair with Poland come about then? In college I needed a second major adding to the one I had always known I wanted to get – German literature. I chose Polish. One of the questions I must have been asked most in my life is certainly: „Why Polish???“ – usually asked with an undertone of utter disbelief. Well, it was a mixture of random reasons, but really, most of it was gut feeling. And the older I get, the more I believe that this is a better reason for decisions than most others.
From then on, it all just added up. Poland and I are, in a way, meant to be. I’ve come to love it more and more. And here is why.
1. The Cities
Poland’s cities are special. They are different from the cities I have seen elsewhere – they are beautiful and ugly, and full of atmosphere and history. And they are very different from one another. That is best displayed in contrasting Warsaw and Cracow – without feeding on the rivalry between the two. They compliment each other in the best possible way – Warsaw is grey, progressive, and full of hipster culture and modern art. Cracow is traditional, conservative, and insanely pretty.
Warsaw’s Palace of Culture – a gift from Stalin to the country and an impressive example of socialist architecture
Cracow’s main market square, the largest medieval square of its kind in Europe, with the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
Travelling in Poland, one should obviously not neglect the other urban gems, though. Wrocław might be the most accessible city for foreigners, and it somewhat combines the best of the two previously mentioned cities. Gdańsk has the added selling point that it is right by the Baltic Sea and, as an old hanseatic port city, has a tradition of being very open-minded and down-to-earth. Poznań may have the prettiest market square I have ever been to. And I haven’t even been to Łódź or Lublin. Indulge!
Poznan’s beautiful market square
2. The Sense of History
When travelling in Poland, it is impossible to miss the active memory culture that the country has. Memorials are all around. For a history freak like me, that is just plainly wonderful. Poles generally know their country’s history much better than Germans from my experience. They are aware of their country’s proud past as a mighty kingdom in the middle ages, and their painful loss of territory which forced them to exist as a nation without a country between 1795 and 1918. They have been in an unfortunate geographical position in the 20th century, wedged between the Germans and the Russians, and it has shaped their identity. They have fought for their culture time and time again, and they are proud of it while still being critical of it. And they know that it is important to remember the past.
Memorial to the victims of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in 1970. Most of the fight against the socialist regime was yet to come. The memorial was one of the early achievements of the Solidarnosc movement that contributed significantly to the downfall of socialism in Europe.
3. The Hospitality
None of the above would mean a lot if it wasn’t brought to me by the most hospitable, caring, genuinely kind and wonderful people. If for a woman the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, for a country the way to my heart is through its people. Hospitality in Poland is of dimensions that were unknown to me before I came there. They are so much less distrustful than Germans are. Don’t be surprised if you ask someone for directions and they walk you to your destinations. Don’t be surprised either if they invite you to their home for dinner – and don’t say no. I’m getting to the food in the follow-up post! In short, it is easy to make friends in Poland – and you will want to make friends there if you want to truly see through the more complicated dimensions of the country’s history and culture and get to taste the truly amazing vodka.
My friends Agnieszka and Karol are among my favourite people in the world. I met them in Gdansk, but this was when Karol took us on a roadtrip to visit his hometown Grudziadz.
4. The Language
Ah, that singsong sound of the Polish language with all the freaky consonants and a few nasal vowels. That grammar that drove me up the wall when I learned it, but is capable of expressing things so precisely, so uniquely, most of all so differently from German. The germanisms like wihajster, literally whatshisname and used for any random thing you can’t find a name for; and the anglicisms with their weird spelling that turns manager into menedżer.
I have been learning Polish for ten years, I cursed it and loved it, and was always pretty sure I’d never actually be able to speak it. But I’m getting there, one tongue twisting hell at a time, and loving every step of the way.
German – Polish – English. How I love it when translations come out all weird and funny as they do in this German sign outside a ramshackle building. It sounds as though the building was a person, verbally threatening to cripple or kill the visitor.
5. The Music
When learning a language as twisted as Polish, music is of huge help. I know about half my Polish vocabulary from song lyrics – singing along, trying to understand what’s going on, sometimes actually translating the lyrics at home at my desk. Over the years I have been in touch with Polish pop, rock, rap, reggae, folk, and basically everything in between. I will just give you a few examples here. The Polish equivalent of the Rolling Stones is the rock band Dżem. Their song „List do M“ was the first Polish song I knew by heart, and it is a beautful and sad rock ballad.
A specific kinf of music I got to know in Poland is Klezmer. It is a Jewish musical tradition, not so big on lyrics, but mainly instrumental, using different instruments to make beautiful, yearning, sighing, swinging music played often at celebrations of any kind. The band Kroke may be the most famous Polish Klezmer band.
My personal favourite is the Polish singer / songwriter tradition that brought forth many wonderful artists I listen to almost every day. It is quite folksy, and if we translated the lyrics, most would run away screaming for they drip with Kitsch – but in Polish, they somehow work. There is a tradition called Poezja śpiewana, Sung Poetry, that is especially well known for its poetic song lyrics. Jacek Kaczmarski, whose most famous song „Mury“ I put here for you, is a bit of a special case. His songs are much more political, and he is often referred top as the Barde of the Solidarność, the trade union and political movement that brought down socialism in Poland.
If you find I am missing things, rest assured that I will probably mention them in my follow up post on more things I love about Poland. It will discuss the landscapes, the food (and the vodka…), the literature, the beauty of Polish swearwords, and the incomparable Polish sense of humour.
Have you been to Poland? What do you love about the country? Or was there anything you didn’t like at all?