Ever since an early age I have had a sort of interest/curiosity about Poland. I knew that it was because of Poland that the UK declared war on Germany in 1939. Why Poland? What was so special about Poland that we would go to war with Germany? So from an early age, Poland was a place that I knew of, even if I did not know much about it.
War, what is it good for?
When I was a young boy, war was exciting; my friends and I would watch war films, black and white ones of course, those colour films nearly always involved the Americans winning the war. We’d play with guns made from sticks and twigs, one of our number had a Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army) assault rifle, oh god how us lesser mortals envied him. It actually fired bullets, little plastic bullets. It’s the sort of thing that would probably get you shot for real these days were you to openly carry it down the street but the 1960s were a more innocent time.
So, having gained a solid grounding in geopolitics with a special emphasis on European matters all learned first-hand from war films I thought that I had a good understanding of how things were.
There were the baddies: Hitler’s Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists, the Japanese, although they were obviously fighting a different war, mostly in Technicolor, against the Americans in the Pacific.
There were the goodies: The British, the Americans and the Soviets and caught in the middle were the French, Norwegians, Dutch etc. and the Polish.
As I learned more it became apparent that things were not so clear cut. I was brought-up on stories of how the British beat the menace of Nazi Germany – and of course grew up thinking that Britain did it all alone; something in the Island mentality maybe. Yes, we had an Empire and arguably the best navy in the world but, as I later learned, were it not for the Americans the UK would probably have been fairly well stuffed and mounted by the Third Reich.
Some of the most notorious German Nazi concentration camps, death camps were in Poland, learning the truth about such places leaves its mark on a young mind. Why Poland? I remember seeing grainy black and white footage on TV of a bulldozer pushing naked bodies into an open pit, a mass grave. I’ve never forgotten that. As a youngster I was equally fascinated and appalled by it. It made me feel almost queasy but I couldn’t look away.
I remember learning that after the Second World War the Soviets took-over Poland (and other Eastern European countries) and the Allies just let them. This was a bit confusing, why go to war with Germany over Poland and then just stand-by and do nothing as the Soviets take-over? Why Poland? Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and history you learn that there was really nothing Britain could have done and the Americans had other agendas.
There’s always a barmaid involved.
The rise of the Solidarity movement and the fall of Communism in Poland and other former Eastern Bloc countries featured in the news. When Poland joined the EU many Poles came to the UK, there were jokes in the papers about Polish Plumbers, about how the Poles were eating all the birds and fish in public parks and lakes and how the Poles were “taking all our jobs” you know, the ones that we were too lazy to do ourselves. So once again Poland was in the news.
My local pub employed a Polish girl to work behind the bar. Izabela was still learning English, obviously she had a fairly good grasp of the language, hence her being able to work in a pub but she was still learning. I started to learn a few phrases in Polish, not seriously, just to wind-up Izabela by saying “Dziękuję” or “Na zdrowie!” every now and then. I had no intention of trying to learn Polish properly, but the more I learned, the more it intrigued me.
I’ve got the music in me.
One of the things that give me great pleasure is music, listening to music. I wish I could make music but that gene seems to be missing from my chromosomic make-up and yes, I may just have made that word up but hey-ho, you never know. Since the 1970s I have been a firm adherent, nay, disciple or probably acolyte of what is variously called Art Rock or Progressive Rock. It’s difficult to adequately describe what Prog is, sometimes you listen to a piece and you just know, yep, that’s Prog. There’s a bit of a debate these days about Art Rock and Prog Rock being separate things but as far as I remember, back in the day the two were one and the same.
In 2004 I read a review of a Progressive Rock album called “Out of Myself” by a band called “Riverside”, it sounded good so I took a punt and bought the album. Riverside are a Polish band. Progressive Rock from Poland? This intrigued me, not initially mark you but I kept it on the back burner.
Some years later and after a bit of research into other Polish Prog music I bought a CD from a Polish on-line shop, and on their webpage I saw the people who “liked” this website on Facebook, all those strange names (strange to an Englishman), I clicked on a few just out of curiosity and one of them had a “cover picture” of some vinyl LPs – almost exactly the same as the records in my collection so I sent her a message, in English and Polish, Google Translate is wonderful, and we became “friends” on Facebook. Actually, Google Translate is pretty rubbish sometimes and it helps to have a bit of grounding in Polish to make sure that it is translating things correctly.
Anyway, she suggested that I listen to the weekly ROCKnPROG program on an internet radio station from Poland. I did, I enjoyed it. I wrote to the presenter and suggested a list of bands that I thought he may not have heard of from the British Isles (The Geographical entity – England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not the Political entity). I think he was quite impressed and for a while there was “Tony Steel’s Brit-Prog Corner” on his show. I recorded my voice saying, in Polish, “Good evening everyone, welcome to Brit-Prog Corner”. The presenter would play that and then play this week’s BPC musical selection. Each weekly edition of the program had its own Facebook page and the audience and presenter would “chat” to each other via this medium. I got to recognise and learn bite-sized pieces of the Polish language. I even started trying to learn Polish in earnest by doing audio courses.
It’s only Facebook; the real world is out there somewhere.
Through Facebook I made a lot of “Friends” in Poland due to this internet radio lark (even one in California), only Facebook friends though, I hadn’t actually met any of them. Then one day the radio presenter invited me to go to a concert, in Poland. A lot of these Facebook friends would be going; would I like to go too? I gave it about 30 seconds thought and said, “Yes!” I must admit to being a little, anxious about the whole thing but then again I thought, why not? Time to put the small amount (and I mean small amount) of Polish that I had learned to some use.
I decided to make a little tour out of the journey. I flew into Warsaw and went around a lot of touristy places, the Old Town, The Royal Castle, The Palace of Culture and Science etc. During my first few days in Warsaw I tried to ask for things in Polish and people would smile and talk to me in almost perfect English. I caught sight of myself reflected in a shop window; my hair was all over the place so I decided to get it cut. I had seen a hairdressing establishment the previous day so I went there. It was quite funny, the woman in the hairdressers didn’t know much English and of course I knew even less Polish but between us the job was done.
And after three days in Warsaw I got the train to Konin, this was where the concert was. I had gone from being fairly relaxed to being quite nervous. Up until now I had been a lone tourist, now I was going to meet a whole bunch of people who I “knew” but didn’t know. I don’t know what I was worried about; I was taken-in as a friend, a real friend, by a crazy, wonderful group of people. The concert was good, I was really impressed by the quality and clarity of the sound system, something that seems to be lacking at gigs in the UK. Afterwards a large group gathered for post-concert party, I was invited, the band came and joined us. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. I must admit that I left early though, it was nice but when nearly everyone is speaking in a language that you only know half a dozen words of it gets a little daunting.
The next day I spent in Konin, it was a sunny summer’s day and I went exploring. The day after that I left Konin and went to Gdańsk for a few days then returned to Warsaw and flew back to the UK. Since then I have been back to Poland several times, more than several times; to other concerts and music festivals and every time a selection of the same faces appear. People who I now know, people who I am on first name terms with, people who I pop along to the local bar and have a few pre-gig beers with. People who have invited me into their homes, poured vodka into me, fed me and put me up for the night. Friends.
Kocham Cię Polsko
Something happened. I had had a vague impression of Poland as being a little grim, the long shadow of Soviet administration falling over bleak concrete buildings. Permafrost. A people reserved and unwelcoming. It’s just the stereotypical image that had been handed down. How different I am glad to say was the reality. Almost from my first footsteps in Poland I have fallen in love with the place. Yes, well, there’s always a certain element of the grass being greener a thousand kilometres away but I’m not looking at things through rose tinted spectacles, I may be overdoing the idioms a bit but I’m not using rose tinted spectacles.
Walking the streets of Warsaw, and other Polish towns and cities, I felt… at home, at ease. I can’t really explain it. I was in North Wales once and I felt like a foreigner, I felt out-of-place but slipping into the crowds circulating underneath Rondo Romana Dmowskiego in Warsaw, ducking and diving into the narrow lanes around to the old market place in Poznań, fending-off the crowds in tourist-town of Kraków I feel strangely at home.
I like Warsaw but it seems a lot of Poles don’t like Warsaw, the inhabitants of Warsaw are seen as aloof and arrogant apparently but I like Warsaw. I’m a town guy. I like the countryside and twee villages but at heart I’m a townie so of course I like Warsaw. Sure, some parts of it smell of piss, just like any big town in the UK but I kind of hanker after an apartment in Warsaw. Just a dream of course but we have to have dreams, don’t we? I am very well aware that were I to live in Poland my life would be very different to the one I enjoy in the UK. I would have to learn a whole lot more of the language for one thing and I’m sure my take-home wage would be somewhat reduced, then there’s the question of actually finding a job that I could do. Still…