We’ve spent the last 6 days with Roman in Gorzow Wielkopolski with our friend Roman – our first taste of Polish life and one that’s yielded pleasant surprises.
As Roman laughingly put it on our arrival – goading us ever so slightly to disarm any negative stereotypes we may unintentionally harbour of his country – Poland has all mod cons, even internet!
Roman has been the perfect host, welcoming us into his new home and acting as translator, fixer, guide and friend whilst giving us a wonderfully relaxing break from all the small challenges of our new job. We couldn’t have asked for more from him.
Gorzow seems an average sized, average town, not so different from anywhere else in Europe. It’s not touristic at all which suits us fine, although causes Roman to apologise a few times. It’s outskirts are spotted with apartment blocks, many of them new – one of which we were staying in. It’s obvious that this is a growing area. And apparently the town has a mayor who is keen to spend money on keeping the people happy. During our short stay we were treated to performances from an international dance festival as well as a fete and concert on the two occasions we went into town – Roman swears to us this isn’t usual though!
One of the sights we probably wouldn’t have discovered without his knowledge were the German bunkers just outside Miedzyrzecz at the MRU Muzeum Fortyfikacji I Nietoperzy w Pniewie. Built by Hitler to protect against anticipated Polish counter-aggression under the auspices of water channel maintenance (fortification here was forbidden under the Versailles treaty), it should have been over 100 km of underground tunnels. However, after the Germans secured the agreement of mutual non-aggression with the Russians in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, construction was ceased and Hitler’s attention focused elsewhere. Still, the 30-odd km of tunnels that made it into existence make for impressive viewing. We arrived unannounced and ascertained that a private viewing in English was about to take place that we might be able to join. The pair – a Polish man and his German colleague – arrived and kindly conceded to allowing us to accompany their organised tour.
The guide explained a bit of the background history and then took us out onto the external battlements of the tunnels – a group of a few concrete domes of varying sizes which had gun slits cut into them – which served as both defence and ventilation. Down the side of the mound that these domes were situated on we found the entrance to the tunnels. One of the things that I’ve been really impressed about sightseeing in Poland is that much of the history is very well preserved and they have no qualms about letting you interact with it. Here was no exception. As the guide explained the many defences that the door had and exactly where the soldiers would be he asked us to give the door a push and take a look inside all the cubby holes. He then reminded us that they were rarely used as the Germans stationed children and the elderly here, a force that was easily overrun in the face of the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder offensive in 1945.
We headed inside and down the 10 flights of concrete stairs made slick by humidity. The air temperature is a constant 10 degrees down here and serves as home to Europe’s largest bat refuge (none sighted unfortunately!). All along the tunnels there were side tunnels shooting off, some apparently quite treacherous thanks to open portals into the underground waste water drainage tank combined with pitch black but all possible to explore with the right tour booked. We were very good and resisted the temptation to explore, although our Polish companion evidently wasn’t sure we would judging by the concerned and interested looks he gave if we fell behind to take a picture. We obviously looked a little shifty! Back up the 10 flights of stairs and my mind had managed to adjust the price we’d paid into a known currency – £5 each for a guided tour of some amazing history. Not bad!
A day or two later we head to a lake at Barlinek for a bit of outdoors time and an unexpected insight into the Polish mindset. We hire a pedalo and lark about on the lake for a while, good fun and the sun is hot and oh so good after the rain of Belgium, France and Germany (plus I get off light as the boys take over the hard work – what’s not to love?). We get back to shore an hour or so later and Roman finds that the ID card he left as insurance for the pedalo is nowhere to be found. Another punter has been given Roman’s ID and that guy’s ID remains at the pedalo shack. After a bit of tense discussion and a lot of blame being ascribed (somewhat unfairly!) to the younger assistant of the pedalo guy (he reckoned it was the assistant’s fault for not filing the ID correctly – Roman gently suggests since the pedalo guy gave his ID away it’s more his fault) we have no choice but to disappear and kill some time. Now, for those of you in Britain reading this, this is a bit more of a disaster than it might seem. It’s a legal requirement here to carry your ID card, plus, Roman no longer holds a passport (why do I need one? I can go anywhere in the EU without a passport, he says when I ask, surprised) and he needs to leave for Austria in a few days time. So, let’s dial the urgency up a notch then! Long story short, the guy at the pedalo shack not only gives us an unlimited free use of the pedalo while he hunts high and low, plus a refund for the time we’ve already used, but he also spends the rest of the afternoon chasing up possible leads and when they all dry up, he uses some ingenuity to gain the bloke’s mobile number using his address. After doing this, the following day he drives the 30 odd km to hand deliver the ID to a previously fraught but now very relieved Roman. Now I know it’s the guy’s carelessness that caused the problem initially, but honestly, I can think of few business owners that I’ve come into contact with who would do this to fix the mistake. It’s kinda cool. We’ve also seen no aggression here, passive or overt, people seem largely content to just let people get on with things and everyone seems to know and respect what the boundaries are.
There are little differences which take some getting used to too. After dark many of the roads seem to turn into drag strips judging by the sounds drifting through our open window (more so in Poznan than Gorzow but evident in both cities), this hasn’t affected us much though as we’re well tucked away by then. It also seems quite unusual to stop to let someone else pass on stairs or through doors or narrow points on the street, going on either the complete dismissal or the strange looks we’ve experienced when we’ve done so (the same as in Germany). The staring here isn’t as extreme as it was in Germany by a long stretch but we still experience it and if you smile, it mostly won’t be returned which is still a bit weird to me – although not unheard of in the UK either! But on balance, that’s the whole thing about being in a different culture, things will be different (and it most definitely is a different culture despite the many visible similarities) and so long as the person to person interactions are good it’s all cool. So far, in Poland we’ve had very few negative experiences and the general feeling is one of laid back, do-your-own-thing-ness, which is easy to get on with. Oh, and the beer is great too 😉
On our leaving day, we wake early in Roman’s flat, the not-yet familiar anticipation rising as I become aware of myself and my thoughts. Today we’ll hit the road again. I prod the anticipation a little, turning it over in my mind. Nothing else. No anxiety, no worry, no unnecessary projection into the future. Only a slight buzzing energy from the knowledge that today we move. Happy day, a milestone indeed. We pack up with the same efficiency we’d developed in Germany, apparently not dented by the recent stops of the last 2 weeks. We say our goodbyes and although Roman has a training session to get off to, he donates us a final chunk of his time and kindly guides us to the city limits. We reach the designated roundabout, easily recognisable by his prior description and with a wave and a honk of our horns we’re going it alone again.
The weather is perfect for riding, and I’ve stripped my suit of all liners meaning the cool air flows through it freely serving as a delightful antidote to the hot sunshine overhead. The route is easy to navigate and picturesque, an amalgamation of roads suggested to us by Roman and by Przem from AJP Poland who we are now heading to see.
We ride through small sleepy towns filled with simple, one-storey houses with steeply pitched rooves, many of them left grey by the unpainted render applied to them. It gives an austere feel that’s not without its charm in the sunshine. Roads are deserted, as are the streets, except for a few children who stop their play to wave at us, grinning, as we ride by.
We head out onto country roads. The tarmac degrades a little – the first ‘bad’ road we’ve seen – and signs warn us that the maximum speed limit is 40 kph. It doesn’t take long to make the executive decision that that might not be a good idea. The surface is pocked but it’s nothing our bikes can’t handle and the locals pay it even less mind than we do. As one Audi passes us at what must be three times the speed limit, I decide to up the pace for safety’s sake. I’ve heard a lot made of Polish roads and driving but to be fair we’ve found both stereotypes to be largely untrue. The driving here is no worse than in Germany and these drivers get past you at the first available opportunity, quickly and efficiently, rather than sticking to your back tyre for miles before getting past you. As I find out a bit further down, they expect other drivers to be awake and will overtake with oncoming traffic if the road is approximately wide enough to take three cars. If you’re on a bike, they expect you to make room for them too it seems. The first time this happened it scared the life out of me but once you get used to these rules and console yourself with an extra exit strategy or two all is good.
We head for miles through what feels like ancient pine forest. Alive with its spice, there is a wild and vast quality to it that makes it feel different from those we passed in Germany. At one point, we think it’s on fire, a substantial flame billowing out of the sun-dried tree tops only to find that it’s a foundry situated in the heart of the forest. A bit further down the road, at the next town we stop to refuel both ourselves and the bikes and as we snack on kabanos in the garage forecourt we once again receive interested looks. Every car that passes takes a good look, most giving smiles and returning a wave. We arrive in Poznań in good time and locate the hotel after a bit of last minute lane changing. We’re let in, people smiling quizzically at us. It’s a strange counterpoint to the seeming aggression of the driving out on open roads, leading me to believe that it’s not aggression at all but just a merciless efficiency applied to the task of getting from A to B.
We check in easily, I have always enjoyed discovering a new hotel room for some reason (I’m a novelty seeker, and I’ll take it in whatever form it comes!) and we’re pleasantly surprised that the £20 per night price tag has yielded a good, clean comfortable room. We settle in, then head out into town to hunt for food. It’s a Sunday and we’re a few km away from the town centre so we just wander through the suburbs until we happen on something promising. Promising in that people are sat outside eating and drinking so it’s clearly open. But the menu up on a wall means I have to stand up, next to the counter and gaze in blissful ignorance at the strange words, desperately willing some fragment of meaning to enter my currently void brain. Ah screw it I think, resolving to order randomly. I think I’ve separated the starts and mains from the deserts at least…I think. OK, deep breath and prep to make a total fool of myself. To be honest I’m losing my shame now, which is no bad thing, it’s a stupid, pointless feeling anyway. Not knowing and not being able to do anything about it is not a feeling I’m comfortable with but I’m beginning to lighten up. I shut my eyes and jump (metaphorically of course, literally may well give me cause for embarrassment!) and as always, that tiny buzz appears, almost unheeded through the apprehension of recent weeks, but growing stronger each time as the apprehension becomes familiar and recedes. The excitement of the unknown, what will happen next? As usual, there’s no cause for worry. I order two beers in Polish, this I can manage. Then I speaking to myself, I mutter something about not reading Polish. The guy behind the counter serving me hears me and replies in what sounds like perfect English. “I only speak a little English, but perhaps I can help and together we can make it”. I grin at him gratefully and answer his next question of where we’re from. “Ah, so you’re native speakers then” he says looking worried and mirroring my apprehension of moments ago. We proceed through the formalities of ordering. In the end I order blind from the menu with my new ally confirming that I’ve chosen a delicious duck salad and slow cooked ribs.
Later he comes over to the table to chat and tells us that English people are always so polite and kind, telling him his English is good when he knows it is not. I’m in awe of his English, particularly when juxtaposed to my Polish – I know enough about this alien language to understand how different the mouth shapes and pronunciation of letters are between our two languages and yet he pronounces near perfectly. Funny how perspective shapes everything. I look past his words and realise that behind the literal meaning, he’s expressing exactly the same feelings as I was experiencing not moments ago. He feels inadequate, out of his depth, vulnerable. But, he’s done it anyway. He’s put himself into that vulnerable place merely to help me out, a stranger, to make my life a bit easier without being obliged to or asking anything in return. I’m not sure he fully grasps the value of his actions. And so rather than arguing with him about the facts of the matter and repeating what others have said to him, I pause, wondering how best to convey this to him and honour his effort. And so, I tell him I’m grateful for his English, for his willingness to use it to help me in his own country. And he smiles and seems to understand.