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The romance of an unknowable country ... Poland - my story


PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #1
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 ....

Helena Wojtczak
Polson 5 | 1,771  
10 Nov 2007 /  #2
Wow, your story is so beautiful !
Now we are in 2007, have you been back there since the end of the communism ? Cause things have changed so much......
I go in Poland every year, and i must say that it's almost different each time i go there. In comparison to the Communism era, now there are big malls, shops, very nice cars (really, and sometimes better than French ones (i'm French))...

Anyway, i'm happy everytime i go there ;)
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #3
Thanks Polson.
Yes I went back many times, with my Dad, with English friends, I have much more to tell, if people are interested in reading my further adventures I might come back and add them. My last visit was 1995.
Polson 5 | 1,771  
10 Nov 2007 /  #4
I have much more to tell, if people are interested in reading my further adventures I might come back and add them

You can tell everything you want ;) LoL There are always interested people...

My last visit was 1995

Oh 12 years ago !!! If you go there now, you may not recognize Poland LoL Except if you go to small villages far from the cities, but now Poland has been developping a lot.

Do you plan to go back there soon ? ;)
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #5
I don't want my romantic memories spoiled. 1995 was bad enough: I stood in the street and wept when I saw the garish colours of a Burger King swamping everything else in Warsaw; and when I saw the queue outside the MacDonalds in Zakopane, Americans wanting to eat something that would taste exactly like at home, Poles wanting to look chic and Western, while in a traditional Polish kawiarnia along the street the black-and-white-uniformed waitresses stood idle, buffing their nails and waiting for their redundancy notices.... Oh Lordy did I hate the Yanks at that moment.
Vincent 9 | 852   Moderator
10 Nov 2007 /  #6
I have much more to tell, if people are interested in reading my further adventures I might come back and add them.

Lovely story and a nice refreshing read. Will be looking forward to the next chapter.
Wroclaw 44 | 5,386  
10 Nov 2007 /  #7
The romance of an unknowable country ...

One of the best posts I've seen on this forum.
sapphire 22 | 1,241  
10 Nov 2007 /  #8
i agree. very nice post. Perhaps you should write a book on your memoirs? what happened to Adrezej.. did you ever keep in touch with him?
miranda  
10 Nov 2007 /  #9
thank you for a great read.
Polson 5 | 1,771  
10 Nov 2007 /  #10
There are always interested people...

Hehe, it seems that i'm right...

;)
Shawn_H  
10 Nov 2007 /  #11
Interesting read. I too, am looking forward to the next post.

Welcome to the forum.
_Sofi_  
10 Nov 2007 /  #12
Have to go now, maybe another installment another time, if anyone is interested in reading it

I'm absolutely captivated :D Your experiences sound wonderful so far :)
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #13
Gosh. I'm really chuffed that people think that my off-the-cuff outpourings are interesting. I was just taking a break from my usual work and just poured it all out without thinking or editing.

Does anyone else have memories of being a Western child visiting Communist Poland? I would really love to hear if others saw it the way I did.

I cannot imagine that a book on this subject would sell. Strange you should make that suggestion, Sapphire, because I write and publish books (I write women's history) but I have never published any of my own memoirs. (Or perhaps you Googled me and knew I own a publishing company?)

Anyway, yes I will have to come back another day and add some more. Maybe I will make it into one long document and upload it as a webpage - maybe that will draw comments from people who also went there pre 1989.

Cheers everyone, I feel part of a lovely community already!

Czesc!

Helenka
Shawn_H  
10 Nov 2007 /  #14
Anyway, yes I will have to come back another day and add some more. Maybe I will make it into one long document and upload it as a webpage - maybe that will draw comments from people who also went there pre 1989

If not here on PF, you could start a blog like one of the other members, Joda (a transplanted American of PL descent and his wife Joan). He keeps a running diary of his life in Poland

david-polanddavid.blogspot.com
Michal - | 1,865  
10 Nov 2007 /  #15
the streets of the small town of Radomsko with my parents,

I know the little town of Radomsko and it is near to Czestochowa. We were there not very long ago. My wife went to school in Radomsko and we visited her former teachers whilst there. In the local cematary now lies the remains of one of the victims of the recent underground bombings in London-her remains were identified through D.N.A.
Krzysztof100 - | 20  
10 Nov 2007 /  #16
Impressive. This story is much better then ones I heard from my family (all polish and I still live in Poland). As one live all the time in one place don't know what is strange and interesting for others. I nearly don't remember comunistic and more traditional times.

I'm waiting for next part.
Michal - | 1,865  
10 Nov 2007 /  #17
Does anyone else have memories of being a Western child visiting Communist Poland?

Yes, I was in Poland in the Communist era.
_Sofi_  
10 Nov 2007 /  #18
I cannot imagine that a book on this subject would sell.

The thought had come to my mind too - many people could write a book about their lives. Yours sounds interesting enough :)

Michal

I enjoy your memories being posted on here too.

I wish more people wrote lovely stories on here like this - it's so nice to read :)
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #19
Whoops forgot to answer your question sorry - the utterly drop-dead gorgeous Andrzej.

He used to send me postcards from Szczecin, where he did his two years' National Service.

In the end, our cultures and our expectations were just too far apart. He was an innocent, simple, virginal, Roman Catholic country-boy; I was a tearaway, worldy teenager whose childhood playground had been the scintillating capital city of London.

The day after the big family party I sat him down somewhere in private and with the use of his dictionary told him in what was no doubt a very clumsy (and therefore inadvertently tactless) manner that while I was happy to tear off his clothes and ravish him till his eyes rolled, the domestic life of a hausfrau (don't know the Polish word) was not for me: I hated housework (still do) and did not want children (still don't). This really spelled the end of the whole relationship.

After I returned to England we exchanged a few more letters. He still begged me to marry him (in individual English words taken from his dictionary) and I still said I was sorry I could not. Suddenly his correspondence stopped. After three years, there were no more letters with Polish stamps.

The ending was inevitable and unavoidable.

So, instead of a life consisting of children, kitchen and church in a house in the Polish countryside, within twelve months I had become the very first woman to become a guard on the trains of British Rail in London, and indeed at 19 one of the youngest railway guards. In this role I was outdoors at all hours of the day and night, facing danger and dealing with emergencies.

Big difference huh?

Of course, one benefit of working for the railway was ...... FREE TRAVEL! So for the next 15 years I didn't pay for my train tickets to Poland.

But that is another story!
osiol 55 | 3,922  
10 Nov 2007 /  #20
Thanks for those stories, Pani Wojtczak. It makes fascination reading. I was captivated.
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
10 Nov 2007 /  #21
THANK YOU TO POLSON, VINCENT, OSIOL, MICHA£ KRZYSTOF, SAPPHIRE, SHAWN, SOFI, WROC£AW FOR READING MY SCRIBBLINGS AND FOR YOUR LOVELY, KIND COMMENTS.
BubbaWoo 33 | 3,510  
10 Nov 2007 /  #22
I cannot imagine that a book on this subject would sell.

i would welcome such a topical and insightful book
Michal - | 1,865  
10 Nov 2007 /  #23
I enjoy your memories being posted on here too.

To tell you the truth, my 'memories' are not so impressive or long term as the one given by Pani Wojtczak. Mine are simply visit snippits!
_Sofi_  
10 Nov 2007 /  #24
i would welcome such a topical and insightful book

Me too :)


Well, thank you for sharing :)

Quoting: Michal

To tell you the truth, my 'memories' are not so impressive or long term as the one given by Pani Wojtczak. Mine are simply visit snippits!


Michal, from the posts I have read of yours, I find you to be a very interesting man. I really enjoy anyone telling their memories , yours included [be they snippets or more ;) ]. Anyone who shares these private matters are sharing a part of themselves. Which is always impressive to me :)
polishgirltx  
10 Nov 2007 /  #25
if anyone is interested in reading it ....

very interesting story... thank you for sharing it with us....

But that is another story!

i can't wait to read that...
i am glued to the monitor....
Polanglik 11 | 303  
11 Nov 2007 /  #26
Does anyone else have memories of being a Western child visiting Communist Poland? I would really love to hear if others saw it the way I did.

I remember going to Poland every summer , in the late sixties and seventies with my older brother and mother and grandmother - we spent many weeks in the Polish countryside playing with other children and getting up to mischief; my grandfather never went back to Poland because under communist rule he feared he would be kept in Poland and put in prison as he had been highly ranked in the Polish Police when war broke out.

I am lucky that I can speak both Polish and English , so getting along with other kids my age was never a problem and my brother and I were always seen as 'celebrities' who had come over from the West !

We usually went to Krzysz, a small country village in Wielkopolska (nearest main city is Poznan), Bydgoszcz, Gliwice, Krakow and Wroclaw. No matter how poor or hard-up the family in Poland was we were always treated like royalty ..... and there was always food in the fridge and beer/vodka on the table for the adults and juice for the kids. I am sure they made sacrifices in order to make our stay as hospitable as possible.

These trips to Poland as a child have moulded me into the person I am today .... and as I have written in posts elsewhere even though I have lived in England all of my life I feel more Polish than English - born in England but having Polish blood flowing through my body ! :o)

I cannot imagine that a book on this subject would sell

I think it would make interesting reading, and I for one enjoyed reading your story, and look forward to your next installment - i always found it fascinating listening to my grandmother/grandfather recalling their unbelievable experiences of WWI and WWII; how they lived through it is truly remarkable and i always felt would make a great book.

Where are you based now ? It would be interesting to share experiences of visiting Polska during the communist era .....
OP PANI WOJTCZAK 2 | 12  
11 Nov 2007 /  #27
Polanglik - you don't give your name. And where are you based?

I would love to hear more about your experiences in Poland 1960s-70s. You had an enormous advantage over me being able to speak Polish. It makes a huge difference and you must have found out far more about, well, everything, including the views, beliefs and attitudes of your counterpart children in Poland.

I know what you mean about celebrity status - even without language I was able to discern by the way people treated me that I was to them something glamorous. Once I got in with some young people in Radomsko I was taken around to all their friends' houses. I came to realise that this was because they were showing off to their friends that they knew someone from the West. Sometimes I noticed that they were, at the same time, quite possessive of me, intervening when their friends wanted to get my address and become pen-pals, or invite me without them, that sort of thing.

And it is equally interesting to me what you say about "I feel more Polish than English - born in England but having Polish blood flowing through my body". For me, it was quite different. My never heard one word of Polish until I was 15, so I didn't grow up with any identity of being Polish. And yet when I went there, suddenly it felt like this brand-new place that I was entitled to call my "homeland". It was strange and weird and sometimes disturbing, yet it belonged to me, and in an odd kind of way, I belonged to it.

I live near Hastings, Sussex. There are a lot of Poles in my town. Sometimes I overhear people speaking in Lidl or in the Post Office, and I immediately feel emotionally bonded to them, somewhere deep in my heart. I don't feel anything when I overhear any other language. And if I hear German my blood runs cold!

Have you written your memoirs? Hey, I just had a thought: people are saying I ought to write a book, but why does it have to be just my reminiscences? What about if a few of us, say up to about ten of us Anglo-Poles, wrote maybe 30 pages each of our experiences of Poland and being half Polish? I mean, I do happen to own a small publishing company (Hastings Press - google it) so no problem getting published. Failing that, we could make it into a website (cheaper!) with an option to purchase in book form via print-on-demand technology (that way I don't have to pay for hundreds of books to be printed, then store them).

Just a thought. Hmmm...

Helena
starchild 2 | 120  
11 Nov 2007 /  #28
no problem getting published

Oh, how exciting! That would be fabulous :-)
BubbaWoo 33 | 3,510  
11 Nov 2007 /  #29
i would be happy to encourage and support such a project :-)
sapphire 22 | 1,241  
11 Nov 2007 /  #30
I cannot imagine that a book on this subject would sell. Strange you should make that suggestion, Sapphire, because I write and publish books (I write women's history) but I have never published any of my own memoirs. (Or perhaps you Googled me and knew I own a publishing company?)

I didnt google you, I just admired your style of writing and thought it would make an interesting book. I really think you should do it, judging by the reaction on here it would definitely sell.

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