***This is sort of an experiment in second person form. Not sure why I did it that way. Maybe it was a school assignment? Anyway, decisions, decision. I'll decide something by Monday.***
You’re expecting a nation of idiots with sloping brows. Or, if your prejudices are of a more European bent, you might be expecting a country full of thieves. What you find, though, confounds all of your pre-conceived notions. You are traveling through Poland by rail, and it is nothing like you expected.
You’ll probably board your train in Germany. It’s difficult for you to get flights into Poland proper, because of the expense, so it’s easier to fly to Poland’s wealthier neighbor and take a train. The weather doesn’t turn from warm to cold as soon as you cross the border, but you’ll soon become aware of the climate you have entered.
The climate is different here. The people are different. The people are warmer in some ways, just as the air is colder. You ride trains that are a little haggard, a little rusty, but still functional. Each time you board a train you share your cabin with a different person or people. You never know who your cabin-mates will be. Sometimes they are elegant Polish ladies wearing the latest fashions that are (to your tastes) straight out of two decades ago, sometimes they are young English teachers who are overjoyed to practice their craft with you, and sometimes they are old men who know as much about your culture as you do about theirs, but they still strike up a conversation with you.
You are amazed by the friendliness and generosity of these people who you have been taught since an early age to treat as mental patients. They talk to you where your fellow Americans would turn and walk away. They welcome you into their homes. They are overjoyed to meet you, and welcome you to their country. They are Poles, full of good cheer and good manners.
There are dishonest Poles, too, of course. You meet them sometimes in the subway stations and the back alleyways of Warsaw and the small towns. They recognize you as a foreigner and ask you for money. Sometimes they try to sell you drugs. You hadn’t known that there were drug dealers in Poland, but there are, and they surprise you with their friendliness and openness. The dregs of society exist here, as they do back home and everywhere, but here they have a surprisingly Polish attitude.
What surprises you most is that, contrary to all of your prejudices, the Poles are a hardworking and decent people who want to make their country a fine place. You can see it everywhere. Even the criminals seem to want to bring the questionable benefits of Western-style crime into their country. You see the effort that has been put into transforming Poland from a backwards Soviet satellite into an affluent Western-style nation. The job is nowhere near complete, but you can see that they're hungry for it, like an underdog athlete struggling to triumph. You can see the people clamoring for work, not seeking handouts, proud of their country and its traditions. They gorged themselves to death on handouts under the Soviet system. Now they want to get back to the Polish system: working their fingers to the bone until something good happens.
You travel to Warsaw. You’re not quite sure why you go there, except that it’s the capitol, and capitols deserve to be observed. As you look at Warsaw, though, you get a bad feeling. You get the feeling that this city has been Sovietized beyond hope of redemption. You can see how capitalism is trying to break through, trying to change the dull landscape into something scenic and commercial, but it just doesn’t quite work. There are short, stocky gray buildings which can only be told apart by neon signs and colorful balconies. You wonder what it must have been like here before the capitalistic fungus began to eat away at the Communist edifice. It must have been Hell. Warsaw is a relic.
You board the train for Krakow in an underground station after passing by the dozens of subterranean kiosks where Poles seem to obtain all their goods. The conductor, who is garbed in a uniform that seems to be a throwback to fascism, asks for your passport and train ticket. These conductors, full of themselves, are on every train from Szecezin to Terespol. They don’t understand your language and they disrespect you, but you have to feel a grudging respect for them. They are working Poles. They could be on the street, trying to ask you for handouts or trying to press a joint into your hands. Instead, they are goose-stepping through a not-quite-modern train, checking boarding passes and earning their zlotys for the week.
Krakow. As the train pulls into the station, you are amazed by the city spread out before you. Up on the hills you see towering mounds dedicated to the grand Polish heroes of old. You walk through the old city and see the cathedral where the Pope once presided as a priest. For lunch you sit at one of the open-air cafes on the streets where you drink alongside of pigeons. Krakow's history is as much a part of the city as its future. This is the consummate Polish city.
The heart of Krakow is the great castle of Wawel on the banks of the Vistula. Wawel is both a fortress and a tomb. You can delve into the catacombs beneath the fort and see the tombs of Polish kings and heroes. Here lies Jan III Sobieski, who defended all Europe from the Turkish scourge. Here lies Pilsudski, the half-dictator, half pillar of the Polish nation who ruled between the world wars. Here lies Kosciusko, the Pole who every American school child should know, the Pole who fought in the American Revolution and then returned to his homeland to try to defend it against the Russians.
If you don’t burrow into the bowels of Wawel, you can climb upward. You can climb its lofty towers and look upon a bell that only rang of old when the Polish kings were coronated, and today only rings on occasions of triumph for the Polish nation, like the return of the Pope to his homeland. The Poles are a religious people, if not necessarily a spiritual people, and they have the utmost respect for the vagaries and ceremonies of Roman Catholicism, the faith which some 90% of them subscribe to. Someday soon, the Poles hope, the great bell in Wawel will ring to welcome their nation into the EU, and Poland will finally be accepted as a nation among nations, and no longer considered the former whipping boy of Europe. But that day has not yet come.
And then there’s the dragon. Beneath Wawel is a cave which was supposedly once the lair of Smok Wawelski, the Wawel dragon, whose slayer Krak was a tailor and the namesake for the town of Krakow. The Wawel dragon probably never existed, but the Poles are just superstitious enough of a people to erect a monument in his honor anyway. The statue ought to breathe fire, but it doesn’t, because the propane pump is broken. You find it to be a strangely fitting metaphor for the whole of Poland: it ought to breathe fire, but it doesn’t.
You shiver as you walk through the gloomy gas chambers of Oswieciem, better known to the West as Auschwitz. You gape in awe and kneel to the holy shrine of Czestechowa, where the Black Madonna was cut by the Ottomans. You might even seek out your hometown if you are Polish by extraction, and be amazed by its banality, and feel strangely at home.
Can you feel it? Can you feel the winds of Poland as they permeate your soul, like no other country has ever done? Do you feel like you, too, once suffered under the yoke of Russian imperialism, grew grain and brewed vodka, sailed in Gdansk and danced a polonaise to Chopin’s haunting music?
There are no flags in Poland except outside the presidential palace. The people are prideful and patriotic, but their patriotism is expressed by more than just waving a simple banner. For them, Poland lives, or as they would say, “Polska żyje.” The flag doesn’t matter because they can not help but be patriotic, they are patriotic by nature, the flag is in their blood. The “flag patriotism” of the U.S. is impossible here. Still, you look up at the symbol of all that is Poland, the royal Polish flag.
You see a white stripe that represents the sky of Poland, bled white from years of suffering. Underneath the white stripe is a red stripe that represents the blood of the Poles, who toiled, suffered, and died for their country. In between the two stripes is a majestic eagle wearing a crown to symbolize its royal permanence and strength. That eagle represents Poland itself, forever and eternal, sometimes bent but never broken, strong, soaring into the sky.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
Enter your e-mail address in the box below and click "Subscribe" to join Stephen Kozeniewski's Mailing List for Fun and Sexy People. (Why the hell would anyone ever want to join a mailing list?)