Growing up I didn’t really know much about Poland. I knew we had funny little folk costumes of garish red and green stripes, with peasant shirts and felt vests and ribbons and garlands of flowers for our heads, that there was different food at my Babcia’s (grandmother’s) house, and that my Babcia spoke a funny language – in fact even when she spoke English it still sounded funny: ‘please put in the light’ and ‘you have somesing on your mouse’ (translated to something on your mouth) always sent us into hysterics.
So I can honestly say it’s been an absolutely fascinating experience researching this trip. I have devoured movies, documentaries, magazines and book after book, coming across amazing and unbelievable pieces of information day by day – these blog posts will probably be long because there’s just so much to say about this country. But I hope you will find it as fascinating as I do.
We were never taught to speak the Polish language apart from the odd word here and there and I don’t recall hearing stories about family. The contradictions of another language and strange customs were fraught with misunderstanding and, to a degree, fear of the different and unknown.
To be honest, as a young child, I mostly looked forward to visiting Babcia’s house because we were able to swing off the clothesline in the backyard and, if we were lucky, which was most of the time – there were lollies, especially the little fruit shaped jubes, all nicely boxed with a thin layer of paper covering the crystallised treasures from prying hands, awaiting us in the ‘sitting room’.
All my research, quite unexpectedly, made me pine for things lost and I began to feel as though a part of me had been missing all these years. And slowly, as I read on, the pieces started forming a recognisable shape of my family before me and how I might have become who I am.
My grandmother’s family was from Warsaw. My grandmother herself was visiting them in the countryside when war broke out, and she never went home. From Warsaw they moved across Europe as displaced persons. My father was born in Tehran, and then spent his early years in a migrant camp in Arusha, South Africa. My Babcia and father boarded the General Langfitt bound for Fremantle and arrived in Cunderdin, to a community of Nissan huts, where they started their Australian life. Australia was one of the only countries who welcomed single mothers with open arms.
Mum and Dad made their first ever trip to Poland several years back and let’s just say – it wasn’t on Mum’s list of favourite trips ever. In Warsaw, they stayed with very kind and generous relatives who could speak only limited English (Mum speaks no Polish) and whom seemed to be apprehensive about letting them out of their sight. Relatives who very kindly showed them the sights of Poland – mostly war memorials and sad relics of Warsaw’s past – but relatives that seemed, to my mother at least, to be fearful of something. And then an angry little woman attendant in a public toilet shouted at her (in Polish) for not paying when she walked in – and I think that was it. I can only imagine that the pieces of this puzzle came together to form a bleak picture of Dad’s family homeland.
It did make me recall an incident in my childhood – the inspiration for which became the title of this blog post – which I imagine summed up exactly how she felt. At the time, my youngest sister would have been about four perhaps and, running around the house with my middle sister, collided with a wall or some other object. I remember lots of tears and a huge lump starting to form on her forehead. My Babcia was visiting at the time, and I remember her going into the kitchen in the flurry, searching through the drawers for a knife. Procured knife in hand, she proceeded towards my sister’s forehead. Hang on a minute, I thought, my nine year old eyes widening in fear – she’s going to cut the lump off her head. “Get that knife away from my sister’s head!” Panic, tears and screaming ensued as I begged my parents not to let her do this. Yelling in two different languages filled the room. After several minutes, Dad finally revealed my Babcia’s intentions. Turns out she only wanted to put the cool edge of the knife against the bump to help soothe it and make the swelling subside!
Unfortunately language and custom difficulties turned an innocent intention to a crazy situation and at our ages, it wasn’t something that we could just laugh off – it was another thing that made being Polish seem strange.
Now, from what I’ve heard, read and seen, I don’t get the picture that Poland is the cheeriest of places to visit – names such as the “Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom” and the “Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East” don’t help. But Poland has had a long history of battle to survive, having been invaded or having to fight for freedom 43 times between 1600 and 1945. And at one point, Poland didn’t even exist when between 1772 -1795 it was divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria and erased from the map!
“Cursed by its strategic location in eastern Europe, Poland had been invaded, sacked, and carved up many times, its borders ebbing and flowing; some village children learned five languages just to speak with neighbours.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman
In 1807 Poland was reborn as the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon Bonaparte, but his defeat in 1815 ended with Poland falling under Russian rule. Not to mention what happened to Poland during World War II, when 85% of Warsaw (it changes depending on what book you are reading, but 85% is the lowest figure I saw) was raised to the ground under Hitler’s orders.
Needless to say, it’s been said that “Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”
But you know I’ve always thought that it’s the things a country goes through that make it what it is. So my goal for this trip is to take Poland for what she is, given her history (and most importantly my history), and insert some humour for good measure.
I arrive into Krakow from Budapest late, but I can see Mum standing at the arrival gate. The airport is being remodelled, so it’s a bit of a tin shed, but seeing as I am travelling on the Schengen Visa, it’s awesome, cause I can just chat to Mum over the fence while I wait for my luggage. I haven’t seen Mum and Dad for about three weeks now, because as I mentioned at the beginning of my trip, they have been making their way around other parts of Europe.
Our home for our stay in Krakow is a little place just off the old square, in the old town of Krakow (Stare Miasto), the Hotel Polski Pod Bialym Orlem, with a bit of character and surrounded by the old town’s defensive walls, next to St Florian’s gate. The Florian gate is one of the best known Polish gothic towers. First mentioned in 1307, it was built as part of a protective rampart around Krakow after the Tatar attack of 1241 which destroyed most of the city. At the height of its existence the wall featured 47 watchtowers and 8 gates.
Opposite the hotel is the enchanting Czartoryski Dukes lane, with a statue of Mercury. The hotel looks across to the medieval fortified city walls against which the artists of Krakow present their works.
My room – yes we have separate rooms, because I like to sleep at night time and my parents like to snore (plus what if I run into that rich, young handsome Polish prince my Babcia was talking about me marrying!) – is very quaint. Traditional folk rug on the floor, floral curtains which match my bedspread, carved wooden furniture and big windows you can open up to let in the fresh air.
An interesting fact to note is that the first floor in a building in Poland is regarded as zero. So you need to press ‘1’ to go the 2nd floor when getting in an elevator. Somewhat confusing – I hope the streets are easier to navigate!
Our hotel is right in the mix of Krakow’s old town. There’s so much to see and do here, apart from just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. So we meander along the streets and make our first stop at the Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice. Originally built in the 13th century, expanded in the 14th century and re-modelled in the 16th century, it features food stalls, small shops, terrace cafes and flower stands – all surrounding a statue of Poland’s beloved writer/poet Adam Mickiewicz. From its very beginning in medieval times, it was a market hall and it is considered to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.
Here you can buy Kracovian folk costumes, jewellery and other crafted objects and it’s apparently one of the places to pick up some amber. Most everyone returning from Poland brings back a piece of amber jewellery because that’s what Poland is, along with vodka and pierogis, known for. This famous amber, which is fossilized tree resin, has been transported along the amber route from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Coast for over 1,000 years.
Moving along to fit in one last spot of sightseeing before the Polish night sky descends on us, we arrive at St Mary’s Basilica. From the tallest of its two towers, on the hour every hour, the bugle player plays the “Hejnal” (hey now). According to legend, in 1241 as the Mongol invasion of Poland approached Krakow, a guard on the church tower sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnal and the city gates were closed before the city could be taken. The bugler however was shot in the throat and did not complete the tune, which is why it now ends abruptly before completion.
We couldn’t actually see the trumpeter, the sound of his tune seemed to change with the wind, and we were running from one side of the church to the other trying to catch a glimpse without fail. Thankfully we have a few more days to try and track down where the elusive trumpeter is hiding.
The square itself, is a lively place. Young breakdancers, painted human statues, horse and carriages lining one side of the square and masses of pigeons. As the sun goes down, hundred of candles illuminate the square, where diners tuck into their mostly oversized meals and relax with a glass of pivo (beer), blankets in lap to keep the cold at bay.
I’m going to let the craziness continue by forcing my parents to dine at the Hard Rock Café tonight, which coincidentally sits right next door to St Mary’s. This Hard Rock is home to the microphone Robert Plant used during an awards show in 1980, Billy Duffy’s (The Cult) 1960 Supro Val Trol guitar, Brian May’s butterfly shirt and Roy Obison’s blue and grey patent leather shoes. But tonight I’ve got to say I’m here for the broccoli. It’s been quite hard to find normal steamed vegetables on this trip and I now that I’ll find it here, accompanied by a good steak. I know it’s not Polish, but sometimes you just got to do it.
After dinner, we pick ourselves a nicely plumaged horse and jump aboard the beautiful white carriage for a ride around the city. It’s all very grand, listening to the clip clop of the horses hooves over the cobblestones, looking at the grand architecture of the streets and letting the excitement of being here soak in.
I can’t believe I’ve finally arrived in Poland. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the next week. I hope you enjoy my journey too.