An Athenry Family – Not Poles Apart!

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Maybe I should start by introducing myself: I am Breda McNamara, the sister of Paul McNamara, whose articles in previous editions of this journal you may have read. I am a Leaving Cert student in the Vocational School, Athenry. Last Christmas, my mother and I visited Paul in Poland. It was such a wonderful once-in-a- lifetime experience that I would like to tell you about it.

We flew from Dublin to Copenhagen and from there to Gdansk in the North of Poland. Paul lives and works a two hour bus or car journey from Gdansk. We travelled by commuter plane from Galway to Dublin. As Aer Lingus took off at 6.30 am on December 27th, we needed an early start. We arrived in Dublin Airport around 7.15 am, and had about four hours to kill before our flight to Copenhagen. Our luggage was checked in all the way through from Galway to Gdansk, which was a great help, as it saved us dragging it around with us. You should have seen the mountain of luggage my mother took! As the saying goes, she brought everything, except the kitchen sink. My father deserves some credit for trusting us sufficiently to let us loose on a strange country.

When we arrived in Copenhagen, we found to our relief that the airline officials spoke excellent English that sounded like a cross between American and English. I was glad when we left Copenhagen Airport and were on our way to Gdansk, at last! It had been incredibly hot in the terminal building, but even without that I cannot say that waiting four hours in an airport lounge is my idea of a joke. However, soon we were on our way. A beautifully stylish aircraft of LOT Polish Airlines with, what appeared to be some of the elite of Polish society, took us to our destination. When we were getting ready to land, from an altitude of about 1,500 feet, the City of Gdansk was a spectacular sight. It was fully lit up, as if to celebrate our arrival!

Paul, who was a UCG graduate and now is a teacher of the English language in Poland, met us at the airport, with some of his Polish friends. My mother and I stayed at the house of one of Paul’s friends for part of the week, and in the teacher’s house in Lebork, pronounced Lembork, for the rest of our time. The place where Paul’s friends lived was called Lebunia, pronounced Weboonia. It was wonderful to see this Polish winter wonderland, knee deep in snow. We found that the Polish people are as welcoming as the Irish. They thought that my mother, Paul and I look alot like each other. The temperature in Poland in summer is around 25-30 degrees Centigrade, and can drop to minus 25-30 in winter! This is not as bad as it may sound, as the cold was pleasantly crisp and healthy. The best way I can describe it is that it feels similar to the freshness and sharpness of the air in Ireland around dawn.

Lebork, Poland

The Poles cope well with the cold because they are well equipped for it. Their houses have double windows, which does not mean double-glazing. In winter, their cars have chains on their tyres for a safer grip on the snow. Like most of the European countries, the Poles drive on the right-hand side of the road, and their cars have left hand drive. I found it quite awesome that, as far as the eye could see, there was snow. Paul and I greatly enjoyed some snowball fights. And would you believe it, I even went skiing! My Polish friends Alina, Asha, Borzena, and Agnierska helped me to climb a mountain that seemed as steep and as high as Everest.

Well, it looked about three times the height of a three story house, but it did have a drop of an angle of 90 degrees! And to this day, I cannot recall how I plucked up the courage to do this climb. When I got to the top, I was so frightened that my whole body went rigid. It took me some time, but I did go through with it in the end.

You fly down the mountainside so fast that you do not realise the height you are covering, which is just as well! It was just as exhilarating to slide down the mountain-side on a wooden sleigh for two, that has metal blades underneath, like ice-skates.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, our sleigh spun round like a spinning top, to throw us off several feet from where we had landed. As you may imagine, I was on a ‘high’ for the rest of that evening! The Baltic Sea in the Bay of Gdansk frozen over completely was a spectacular sight. I guarantee that you will never see Galway Bay that way, unless there is another ice age.

Different layers of slabs of ice, each about a yard in diameter, covered the bay. We were told that the thinnest part of the ice cover was about six inches, and the thickest around twelve! It was almost solid enough to support a car. We saw two boats that had been grounded by the ice. One of them was a permanent waterfront restaurant for the tourist trade in the winter months.

This year is a special year for Gdansk, as it celebrates its one thousandth anniversary 997-1997. As part of the New Year celebrations, we watched some spectacular firework displays. Paul showed us many beautiful sights, like castles and museums, as well as the largest red brick church in the world, in Gdansk. He took us round the Northern province of Poland called Pommerania. He showed us Szcecin, Koszalin, Torun, Elblag, Stuprk, pronounced Swoorpk, and Gdansk. It would be a mistake to think of Poland as a forgotten country behind the iron curtain, that is forty years behind the rest of the world, as that is not the case any more. Today’s visitors find Poland not so different from any of its European neighbours. From what we saw, it almost seems as if the Poles were better off than we are. They certainly are up-to- date in clothes, music, and any other way you can think of. There even is a chain of MacDonalds in Poland!

The Poles are highly imaginative when it comes to eating and drinking. They drink coffee and tea, but we were also introduced to herbal teas, like lemon, red-berry, and mint. Let me tell you about a couple of their special customs! When they put sugar into a cup of tea, they stir gently in the middle of the cup only. This avoids making a noise with the spoon, as that is considered to be rude.

The second example has to do with their spotlessly clean houses. The Polish are so house-proud that, on entering a house, one is expected to take off one’s shoes and to wear slippers. This is the polite thing to do and the reason for it must be that it helps to keep the houses clean.

Polish food is rich, as it contains a lot of fat. We were told that fat generates heat and energy in our bodies, which is helpful during the winter months. It keeps the body warm and helps it to cope with the severe climate. The fat is mostly contained in rich cream gateaux and desserts. The Poles eat meat at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but they also consume plenty of fruit and vegetables. They seem to be a healthy people and most of them are very slim, in spite of their diet. We were also told that, to eat a good breakfast every morning, means that one’s metabolism will be perfect for the whole day.

All the people we stayed with were extremely kind and generous towards us. Their hospitality knew no bounds and we were quite overwhelmed by it all. By partaking heartily in all the rich and luscious food that was being offered to us, we both put on some weight. As we soon picked up a few Polish words, communication was not as difficult as you might have expected.

The part of Poland that we visited, once was part of Germany. Gdansk was then called Danzig and Pommerania was known as Pommem. The German influence can still be felt, as many people speak German.

This was fortunate, as we could communicate in that language, too. In case you are wondering what Poles look like, I can tell you that they are not dark-haired and sallow skinned with Slavonic eyes, as I had imagined. I was a bit surprised that Poles people do not look any different from the Irish. As matter of fact, the majority look more Irish than we do!

Ninety percent of the Polish people are devout Catholics. To prove it, their churches are always packed to capacity. On 6th January, Epiphany, three little boys in full make-up and dressed as the Three Kings, went from house to house to sing carols. They looked really cute and we thoroughly enjoyed their visit. You can get the BBC TV World Service in Poland, which I found brilliant. From its weather chart, we could see that back home you had only a slight dusting of snow, poor you!

We watched some surprisingly good movies in English on Polish TV. To my annoyance, a deep gravelly Vincent Price-like Polish speaking voice was constantly drowning out the English. Because of it, I could not concentrate on the English sufficiently to follow the films. I could have torn my hair out in sheer frustration!

When we went sightseeing and shopping in the Russian quarter of Gdansk, Paul, who speaks Polish fluently by now, warned us not to speak English. He said that, if we did, we could be in danger of being over-charged for our purchases. Apparently, the Russians think that all tourists, especially the ones who speak English, are immensely wealthy! Paul also showed us an easy way to spot ex-prisoners. They carry a bright green tattoo on the outside of their right eye, which remains prominent for the rest of their life. Small wonder that the Polish crime rate is low!

Thanks to strong deflationary measures, taken by the Polish Government during the post-communist era, the purchasing power of the country’s currency, the Sloty, pronounced zwoty, is good. My rich (!) brother Paul bought my mother a full length black fur coat that makes her look like someone from the movies; he gave me a suede leather jacket. Did you see us swanking through town in them? To tease my mother when she is sporting her fur coat, sometimes we call her Krushchev or Nikita, or both!

Poland is such a beautiful country that I would love to visit it again, in the near future. I would say that, to really appreciate it, you must go and see it for yourself. I can especially recommend a visit at Christmas when Poland tums into the magical winter wonderland that we experienced. It is no exaggeration when I say that, for us, it was the experience of a lifetime. What a pity it is that the only two things the Poles seemed to know about Irlandia, as they call our country, is the IRA and the famous music group, the Kelly Family who ironically, live in Germany and are of American-Irish descent. In spite of this, the Poles really love the Irish. I feel that we, the McNamara family, are doing a good job as ambassadors to Poland. When we are showing the Poles that there are other aspects to our country, we must be helping them to change their preconceived ideas about us.

It was wonderful to see Paul again. Having visited him in Poland, we have seen with our own eyes where he lives, and we got to know his friends. We are happy to have found out so much about life in Poland, and are grateful for the a wonderful time he and his friends gave us between them.

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About this record

Written by Breda McNamara

Published here 13 Feb 2023 and originally published May 1997

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