Introduction – Chapter 1: “Into the Slavic Unknown”, by Philip Attwood.
In the Spring of 2003 I had just gained my CELTA qualification to teach English as a foreign language, from International House, in London. After we had been told that we had passed our exams and assessments, there was one final lecture tabled, before we could celebrate in the bar below. It was held in a fine eighteenth century room, with a beautiful and intricate ceiling displaying all the gods and goddesses from classical mythology. I sat there, gazing upward, as the talk commenced. The subject, was how to survive living and teaching abroad. First and foremost in my mind, was not how, but where. I should point out, that the majority of those who wish to teach abroad, aren’t necessarily doing so for altruistic reasons – with magnanimous desires to spread the ‘gospel’ of the English language across the globe. Some do, but they are unique. Most, seek new experiences, ideally in some sun-washed coastline off the Mediterranean, or the sandy islands in farthest Asia, or even the leafy wooded canopies of south America. Few consider countries that had up until 1989, remained firmly under the watchful gaze of Moscow, behind the corroding ‘Iron Curtain’.
Having no great desire to follow my fellow countrymen, and women to Greece, Spain, Thailand or some such destination, I wanted to remain in Europe, somewhere with history, culture and, if at all possible, as few British people as possible. Nothing irritates me more that the British abroad, so it was suggested to me that I consider Poland, as it ticked all those boxes. I was instrumental in dismantling the communist regime in the country, and that that had precipitated the general collapse of communism in Europe. I was aware of Poland’s tumultuous history over the last seventy years. I knew that it was hemmed in by Germany on one side, and the former Soviet Union on the other. I knew of Auschwitz and Treblinka. I had heard of Copernicus, but thought that he was a Roman, and Marie Curie, but thought she was French, like Chopin. That was the limit of my knowledge, as to the general history of the place.
Now, my preconceived views as to the general appearance of Poland, and its people were more absolute. I understood it to be a very cold place, covered for most of the year in snow, with heavy grey skies. The buildings were ALL communistic monoliths, cold, impersonal and inhuman. There were no castles, palaces or cathedrals, and those that had not been destroyed during WW2, had been deliberately annihilated on the orders of Stalin, or his dependents. I expected few supermarkets, and what supermarkets there were, would be empty, with long queues of people (mostly older women) waiting stoically outside for some bread, cheese, and maybe ham. Those that drove, drove only Skoda’s, or Ladas. Those that braved the elements, did so only with the help of copious amounts of vodka. The people were tough, resilient and somewhat humourless. I did not imagine Poland to be a country of young people, of the Internet, or of colour. However, these ignorant and stereotypical preconceptions were soon to be proven wrong. Totally wrong.
The summer of 2003 gave me time to do some homework, as to where in Poland I should go. I was advised to investigate the possibilities of the small city of Torun (actually, it isn’t that small – it has the same population as Belfast). I had never heard of Torun, but soon discovered that it was an attractive, medieval city, famous for gingerbread, and Copernicus, who turned out not to a Roman after all. It was a World Heritage Site, putting it on a level with the Palace of Versailles, the City of Rome, Stonehenge, The Pyramids of Giza etc. Perfect. Indeed the photographs showed a warm looking place, with terracotta roofs, city walls, towers (one of them leaning), and a large sweeping river. So I chose Torun, however, fully expecting it to be an exception, so that all my negative stereotypes remained intact.
I arrived in Poland, later that October. My first task was to find my way from the airport to the bus depot, where I would board my bus for Torun. Success. I then got a taxi from the airport to the centre of Warsaw, more precisely, to a spot auspiciously named the ‘Palace of Culture’. I got out of the taxi to find myself standing at the foot of one of the most amazing buildings I had ever seen. It was a vast communistic ‘pharos’, an obelisk of totalitarianism. It affirmed what I had suspected. The surrounding area was indeed a blend of Soviet era architecture, with modern capitalist advertisements. Delighted at such a juxtaposition, I now needed to find my way to the correct bus for Torun. I was informed by all the guidebooks, that no-one spoke English (after all, that’s why I was here), so, I had a small sign saying ‘Bus for Torun?’, and stood where I thought was the best (and safest) place, hoping not to get robbed. Eventually, a young man stopped and spoke to me, IN ENGLISH! He asked me if I needed any help. Astonished, I told him that I needed to find the correct bus to take me to Torun. His name was Jarek, and he very kindly offered to walk me there, through all the underground passages that perforate the foundations of the Palace of Culture. He told me that Torun was a very beautiful city, but that one day I should pay Warsaw a visit, and that he and his wife would show me around. I promised Jarek that I would, though a bit surprised that he was married at such a young age. We exchanged email addresses, and then he helped me onto the coach, and also helped me with my ticket. Very contentedly, I settled myself in my seat. I had survived Warsaw, and had made my first Polish friend.
The journey from Warsaw to Torun took just over three hours. I sat gazing out of the window, at the curiousness of the landscape. Once you get far enough away from Warsaw, the first thing you will notice, are the size of the fields. They are colossal, compared to the size of fields in Ireland. The next thing, the forests. Just over thirty percent of Poland is covered in forests, making it one of the most wooded countries in Europe. Ireland, to be more precise, Northern Ireland, is the least wooded part of the European Union. The roads were different also. Leaving Warsaw, the roads were similar to our motorways, but these soon became similar to our duel-carriageways, and then became much like our A roads – but with the same volume of traffic, as if they had just left Warsaw!!! Huge lorries, carrying felled trees, in competition with tiny cars, which would simply not pass the MOT back in the UK or Ireland. However, I was safe enough in the coach. I should add, that as this was 2003, smartphones had not yet appeared on the market, so I could not use GPS to locate where I was. I had no idea where I was, however, I passed the time trying to pronounce the place names on the road signs, for example, Grodzisk Mazowiecki and Bratoszewice – easy for me now, but impossible then.
By late afternoon, the coach was arriving at Torun. As the coach cleared, yet another forest, we approached the mighty River Vistula (Wisla in Polish), and there I caught my first glimpse of Torun, in all her gothic majesty. In the late afternoon sunshine, the warm redbrick coloured city appears to float on the river. It is a walled city, and beyond those walls, there are a number of towers, mostly church towers – most tiled in cheerful terracotta, the others sheathed in pale green copper. One of the city-wall towers visibly leans inward. This is the famous leaning-tower of Torun (Krzywa Wieza), which, I was happy to discover, had a pub inside!
The bus trundled its way across the bridge, over the river, and snaked past the historic centre of the city, before arriving at its destination. It was here that I was to disembark, where it had been arranged that I was to be collected by the manager of the language school, called Robert. In spite of his very British name, Robert was very much a Polish man, but not depressed or strabilious, but large and jolly. He instantly recognised me, probably because of my red hair, which is a fairly unusual hair colour in Poland. He chatted away to me, as he drove me to my new home for the year. He told me, that there was to be a welcome dinner, at seven that evening, when I would get to meet the other English teachers, from there we would go to one of Torun’s best known clubs – ‘Under the Angel’(Pod Aniolem). A taxi would pick me up at half past six. As we left the environs of the old town, I noticed that the character of the buildings changed considerably. Now I saw the communistic style blocks of apartments, in large regimented rows. All very neat and well kept. My apartment was number 26/50 ul. Dluga. Robert escorted me inside, and up the stairs, and into my apartment. It was neat, clean, tidy and warm. There was a welcome pack of some food for me – coffee, tea, bread, cheese, yoghurt etc. He left me, and I was now on my own. The first thing I did, was to turn on the television. “What is Polish TV like?”, I wondered. My first experience of Polish television was to see lots of old women reciting the Rosary, along with a number of priests and nuns. Little did I realise that I had tuned into TRWAM – a very Polish institution. What I also did not know at the time, was that only five minute’s walk away from my apartment was the headquarters of the notorious Radio Maryja, with its controversial director Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. I was to learn more about TRWAM, Radio Maryja, and Rydzyk later that year. I had shower, change of clothes, and waited for the taxi.
by Philip Attwood*
*Philip Nicholas Attwood. LL.B (Hons), MA, CELTA (RSA). Born 1974 (Bristol, England).
Educated at the University of Durham. Philip has lived and worked all over the UK, and Europe, mainly teaching English, History, Law and Latin. He has a keen interest in other cultures, and when he gets time, enjoys travelling, oil painting and reading. He is currently a Civil Servant, living in South Belfast.