/ The romance of an unknowable country ... Poland - my story
I just want to share with everyone some of my history relating to Poland, a country about which I feel strangely emotional and nostalgic.
Growing up in London with a strange foreign name, I knew my Dad was some kind of foreign person. My schoolfriends told me they could hardly understand him, his accent was so strong. And yet I had never noticed he had an accent.
My Dad was an alcoholic and all the time he was not at work (as a chef) he was in the pub, coming home very late and always drunk every night of my entire childhood till I walked out aged 17.
When I was 15 my parents suddenly decided to go to Poland for the first time. My Dad had not been back since 1944 when he was taken to a German work-camp where he almost died of starvation, having lost half his body weight while imprisoned there.
We arrived in Poland by train in August 1973 and my life completely changed. From taking no interest in where my Dad was from, suddenly I was there, and just overwhelmed by everything. Life was so different from London. I remember so many little things that astounded and fascinated me, from the churches overflowing with people, who had to be accomodated on the pavement outside, to being sent to the milk-seller's shop with an empty aluminium can and 50 groszy. As I walked down the streets of the small town of Radomsko with my parents, people stared at us (I suppose our clothes were so different?) and young people were fascinated by my portable cassette-recorder, as they had never seen one before.
My mother and I could not speak a single word of Polish. My Aunt Wanda taught her to say "GIN-QUEER" which my mother and I giggled at.
I remember that my mother was told only to smoke inside a park (where there were ashtrays next to the benches!) because only prostitutes smoked in the street.
I remember being taken to so many people's houses, and the strange, very shiny green tinted furniture that I had never seen before. Everyone slept on "kanapki" - sofa-beds. Every grown man I met was drunk every day. Every woman went to church a lot, and also on pilgrimages to Czestochowa.
I was taken there, and having been raised as an atheist I was overwhelmed by the whole thing. On the coach journey sixty women and girls sang all the way, a song I can still hear in my head though it is 34 years later "... Pani Nasze, Czestochowa ...."
Four weeks that changed me, opened my eyes to a world I did not know existed. A Victorian world, where a young man, Andrzej Weyman, bowed to my Aunt Wanda (who, as telephone exchange boss was a Big Cheese in little Radomsko) and asked to be introduced to me. This was very funny for my Mum and me, so old-fashioned. Anyway, my Aunt knew his family so she introduced us and he kissed my hand.
Of course, all the men I was introduced to kissed my hand, while I cringed with embarrassment because, at the age of 15, this had never happened to me before. I remember everyone kissing me on both cheeks, while I stood, helpless, not knowing what to do in return or where to put my hands!
What else was amazing: the transport, the cars - nearly all Fiats, the trains, the trolleybuses, seeing WOMEN, yes women, driving trolleybuses, and having often to stop the bus on the corner of Krakowskie Przedmiescie in Lublin because the pantograph had lost contact with the wire. These women drivers, often wearing pinnies, put on oversized suede gauntlets and walked to the back of the bus, working some wires to re-connect the pantograph. I'd never seen women do work like that in London.
Andrzej was 21 (I was 15) but I seemed much older than him. He was innocent; I was worldly. He took me to his parents' big house in the country. He had several sisters-in-law who all lived with the parents and all had small babies, and several brothers who were all engaged in manufacturing highly-polished furniture, especially sideboards, in cherry and green and blue-stained wood.
In Lublin I was shown the village of Helenow, where my father was brought up. His father was the brickyard master, yet the four of them lived in two rented rooms without runing water, electricity or gas. He told me I was named after Helenow, and I began to cry. The emotion of it all made me break down.
For most of my time in Poland I did not understand what was happening. My mother and I got very frustrated and bored during long dinner parties because my father was always either too drunk or too lazy to translate what anyone was saying. I was pretty lost in Poland: could not read notices, newspapers, books, or have any conversations with anybody at all about anything. In 4 weeks, we did not meet one Pole who spoke more than a few words of English. So I learned nothing about the country except what I could see about me. Nevertheless, I fell hopelessly in love with it.
When our four weeks was up, I didn't want to go home. From having no interest in Poland whatsoever, I became obsessed with it. When I had to choose a history project, I chose the history of Poland. I bought Teach-Yourself Polish books, and found a small handful of others (it was very hard to find them in London in 1973!)
For three years I saved all my money so that I could return to Poland. I tried to learn the language from books. My father could/would not help me as he was always in the pub. My French teacher banned me from learning Polish because Polish words started to creep in to my French homework and my verbal answers in class and she was afraid I would fail my exams. At 16 I started learning Polish again, but by this time I was working, so I had less time. Andrzej and I corresponded in broken English and my few words of Polish.
At the age of 18 I caught a train to Dover and went to Poland for six weeks, by myself. My London friends and family were astounded at a girl of my age travelling alone by train into a Communist country. Thirty-one hours later I arrived at Warsaw and just cried because I was so happy to be back. By this time I had a phrase book, and so I could speak to ask directions, order food, buy a train ticket. Polish people were very, very surprised to meet an English teenage girl all alone in Poland and unable to speak the language. I somehow managed to find my way onto the correct train for Lublin, where I stayed with my Aunt Krystyna. She was a highly-strung woman and I think my lack of language was frustrating for her.
I went back to my Aunt Wanda in Radomsko. She chattered away to me and I could not understand a word of what she was saying. I gazed out of her window above the Post Office watching the people in the streets.
Andrzej came for me and talked excitedly to my aunt. I didn't understand anything. At his parents' house a banquet was put on in my honour. Again lots of double-kissing, hand-kissing etc. I was totally lost again, not knowing how to respond to all this physical stuff. Andrzej had managed somehow to buy a Polish-English dictionary and with great excitement started pointing to certain words and making me look at the English translation. The words were SLUB and POKOJ and ZONA. It took me a few minutes to put all these concepts together but when I did, and connected them with the physical gestures he was making, and the big room he was showing me in his parents' house, it slowly began to dawn on me that he was proposing that I marry him and live in that house with all his extended family. His sisters-in-law gathered around me, babies in their arms and toddlers at their feet, and suddenly I saw the future that was being mapped out for me: 'Kinder, Kurche, Kuchen', and my blood ran cold.
For those of you who don't know what 'Kinder, Kurche, Kuchen' means, it is children, the church and the kitchen. That was the future being proposed with great glee by my handsome Polish boyfriend and his excited, grinning relations.
See what kind of trouble not knowing a language can get you into?
I didn't have the language tools to explain that the life offered me was to me a suffocating one. I was an international traveller, a street-wise London girl, totally unsuited to the life on offer. I just kept smiling an empty smile, ate a lot of kielbasa and drank a lot of cherry-vodka.
Have to go now, maybe another installment another time, if anyone is interested in reading it ....