Poland the Land of Promise Dec. 1996

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Although Poland used to be a country where you had to queue all day for a bottle of vinegar, everything seems to have radically changed in the past seven years. Today, I can walk to the local shop and buy everything that is available in Athenry (except a St. Mary’s GAA Club lottery ticket and of course The Athenry Journal). The only catch is if one has the money to buy what’s on offer.

Undoubtedly, this country is stunningly beautiful most of the time and one doesn’t have to go very far to see sweeping landscapes, extensive deciduous and coniferous forests and the amber strewn Baltic coast with it’s huge sand dunes. However, you only have to scratch the surface to see the dreary immediate past. The people here will readily tell you how difficult things were ten or fifteen years ago during the period after the military coup in 1981 which lasted for almost two years. In their ration books (which have now become souvenirs of Communism) they will show you how much butter they were allowed to have and tell you how they traded their cigarette and chocolate coupons to buy more meat or bread.

It is difficult for us to understand standing in line for hours only to find that all the state shops are only stocked with vinegar and mustard. Even today, the taste of unsalted butter is literally the taste of freedom from the salted varieties of the Communist era. Ironically, some shops had everything but only if you had the hard cash to pay for it. I know families who queued all night with their life savings outside any type of department store. Once inside, they bought three or four vacuum cleaners, ovens, washing machines, televisions or anything they could get their hands on with the express purpose of bartering them for food later on. Gradually, most people learned how to work the system or got to know someone who could help then get what they wanted.

Although today there is a sense of relief that the bad old days of Communism are gone, it is understandable how some people think they have swapped one set of problems for another. With mass unemployment (around 30-40% where I live), a huge rise in the cost of living and a widening gap between rich and poor, the breakneck pace of change is too fast for many. It is sad to see so many of Poland’s young men staggering the streets drunk out of their minds to forget the lack of work.

The average pay cheque in the north of Poland is about £100 per month. That’s right – per month. Having said that, the cost of living has recently settled down somewhat to about one third of Ireland’s even though inflation is still 17%. For many years, unemployment was hidden in Poland by dividing a job that one person could do among three or four people. This meant that while the Communist ideal of “everyone has a job” was realised, many people just sat about talking, playing cards or reading the paper. There is an old Polish joke about a worker who comes to his foreman to tell him that his shovel is broken. “Don’t worry” says the foreman, “go and lean on the cement mixer instead”.

Today, the visitor to Poland will notice a huge difference from western Europe. There is a lot of building and renovation rapidly taking place to take the “worn at the elbows” look away. Poland is home to some of the most beautiful cities in Europe and is crammed with interesting places to see. This is my second year teaching English and living in Lebork, a town of approximately 38,00 people situated about 50 miles west of Gdansk (formerly Danzig).

The region around the Baltic is called Pomerania and it is primarily a rural area with the Tri-city of Gdansk, Gdyia, and Sopot as its main centre of population. Gdansk is one of the best examples of a medieval merchant city one could ever see and retains its beauty in the depths of the Polish winter. Unfortunately, its famous shipyards are in deep financial trouble at the moment although it is there that Lech Walesa (pronounced “Vawensa”) has returned to work as an electrician after being voted out of his job as president of Poland. Up to the Second World War, Gdansk was a free city of Danzig while Lebork was just a few kilometres inside the German border. Therefore, Pomerania has a strong German flavour both in its history and architecture.

Quite often you see elderly Germans visiting their childhood homes from which they had to flee in order to escape the advancing Russians at the end of the war. (World War 11) When shop assistants discover that I am a foreigner they start speaking to me in German. The trouble is that although I know some Polish, my linguistic skills in German are just non-existent.

As regards the Polish landscape, there are two things that an Irish person must get used to. Firstly, there is the vastness of the land which is something you realise when you stand in a field that goes from one horizon to another. Secondly, this vastness is accentuated by the lack of stone walls, fences or any kind of boundary (presumably from collectivisation). The rolling country-side yields crops such as potatoes, wheat, beet, strawberries, etc. and there is also some dairying. Unlike, the west of Ireland, there aren’t many sheep and the Poles think that killing and eating a lamb, as opposed to a grown sheep, is uneconomical and even cruel. The continental climate here swings from one extreme to another. During the winter, which lasts from November to March, there are two or three feet of snow on the ground, literally six inches of ice on the roads and last February the temperature plummeted to -28 degrees Centigrade. lt’s not as bad as it sounds as the air is also quite dry and it can be refreshing to go to work in -10 degrees, although anything below -15 degrees is uncomfortably cold. Fortunately, houses are well heated here with lots of Polish coal. However, the worst thing about the Polish winter for me is when it starts getting dark at 3 p.m. The best thing is when all the lakes and rivers, and even some of the waves at the beach, freeze over to a depth of about six or seven inches. The huge amounts of powdery snow here turns everyone into a child again. Summer is the opposite, with temperatures of up to 37 degrees last summer and cloudless blue skies.

Snow on the beach of Leba, a costal resort on the Baltic Sea. The mansion, now a hotel, was used as a summer residence by the infamous Nazi propagandist  Josef Goebbels.

One question you might ask is how do people drive a car on six inches of snow. The answer is I don’t know, but they do it anyway and the extensive bus and rail networks never seem to cease operating, no matter what the weather. By far the most common type of car in Poland is the Fiat 126 Bambino which can barely fit four people and you can forget about luggage. Nevertheless, they’re everywhere. The rich, of which there is small but growing number, in Poland like to show off their Mercedes Benz, BMW and some sort of sports car which may or may not have been stolen in Germany. There is a Mafia here which is dominated by the Russians. At our local market the Russians can get you anything from a Kalashnikov with ammunition to an angle grinder.

Organised crime here does not put you in personal danger as it concentrates on stealing high value goods in Germany and then trying to sell them here or in Russia. They are also involved in prostitution. The only place that I have been warned about is the capital city, Warsaw, where I have been told that it is best to keep a low profile.

Polish are remarkably similar to the Irish. They have many of the same attributes about living and working and their hospitality knows no bounds (once you break the ice that is, which is very thin). They are quite religious and more especially so in the countryside. The churches are always packed and they have a lot more ritual attached to the Mass than we do in Ireland. Both our countries have had sad and troublesome histories and even though Poland was wiped off the map for 123 years, they have had the tenacity to hold on to their native language. Poles are very proud of their country and are trying very hard to bring Poland up to western standards although sometimes I feel as if they are throwing a lot away just to have the material benefits of democracy.

At the moment, I have a comfortable, stress free life in Poland and although the money I earn is not a lot in Irish terms (£65 per week), it affords me a middle class lifestyle here. The school, I work for also, provides me with free accommodation (which is great), satellite TV, a cleaning lady, a 50% reduction for train travel and I only work I8 hours per week. They also pay my gas and electricity bills and I have no income tax. Most of this I didn’t have at home although my mother would disagree about the free accommodation, no bills and definitely about the cleaning lady?

The food here takes some getting used to. It is richer and contains more fat but this is a great help during the winter. Apart from Advent and Lent, the Polish diet is centred around meat and lots of it. Many have meat, in some form, for breakfast. dinner and tea.

Once, I was invited to dinner at a student’s house where I was given a choice of fish or chicken suspended in a mould of pure animal gelatine or the dish, I unwittingly chose, which was a big plate of raw mince-meat garnished with onion and raw egg. And yes! I ate every last bit. However. most Polish food is great. Dishes such as Bigos (cabbage and sausage). Barszez (red cabbage soup: and Kielbasa (enormous sausages) are the stable diet of many.

All of the ingredients are found in Ireland but they really know how to use and combine them here. Poland’s top culinary achievements are in breads, biscuits and pastries which can be found in its many bakeries. Therefore, Poland is neither a country for vegetarians or weight watchers, I’m afraid.

Slavic languages have a reputation for being difficult and while Polish looks and sounds intimidating, it’s not as bad as it first seems. That’s not to say that it is easy – far from it! For example. the name of the first person I met in Poland was Grzegorz and it took me over a week to learn how to pronounce his name correctly. Polish people are not used to hearing foreigners speak their language and find my accent difficult to understand sometimes although they are very encouraging when they hear you attempt to use it.

As a holiday destination, Poland is certainly different and has as much to offer as any country in Europe. Cities such as Krakow, Gdansk and Posnan and their castle and cathedrals are equal to Paris, Vienna, or Prague in my mind. There is so much here that nobody in the west even knows about and the great thing is that even though tourist facilities have really improved in the last few years, Poland still offers great value for money. In the south there are spectacular mountains and in the east virgin forest and the wildlife that goes with it. The only area to avoid would be the Katowice industrial belt in the south west. If you think of the money you could spend on a belt tightening two week holiday to France or Germany, you could have an amazing time in Poland for almost half the money. As well as that, there is a lot of high quality but inexpensive jewellery to be had in the north but here we also have reminders of the horrors of war at the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek.

The Gas Chamber and Concentration Camp Crematorium at Stutthof, northern Poland

I suppose I’m a bit biased at this stage but in all sincerity, Poland does not deserve its image in the west as a cold, poor, deprived backwater. It’s a very exciting and interesting time here at the moment and I’m very glad I came when I did. If you ever have the desire to see something different you could do a lot worse than to visit Poland. To paraphrase a famous nineteenth century American quote, my advice is “Go East, young man!”

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About this record

Written by Paul McNamara

Published here 13 Jan 2023 and originally published December 1996

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