I got an interview with a bloke who ran a language school in Ljubljana, and was accepted for a job, but there was something about the set-up I didn’t like. From the guy's somewhat evasive answers to questions I asked about the working conditions, hours and pay, he seemed like one of those workaholic types who expected the same from his staff, on little pay, and, in addition, other things he said suggested that he was recruiting for his social life. I may have been wrong about that. I kind of regret not going to Ljubljana: it was a happening place, it seemed, after the ten-day war it fought to become independent from Yugoslavia, and times were surely exciting there.** I saw another ad in the Education supplement of the Guardian newspaper for a school in Gliwice. I answered it, had an interview in an empty room in the then empty-all-over Canary Wharf, and decided I’d take the job, and set off for Poland two days later. That was one cool thing about EFL teaching: see an ad on Tuesday, have an interview on Thursday, fly somewhere else on Saturday and, after a day or two to settle in, you’re living a different life by the following Monday.
It started snowing in Gliwice the week I got there in early January. It didn’t stop till April. When people here in London say, “I love the snow,” I don’t reply, as it would be a sort of snotty-sounding, “You weren’t in Gliwice that winter.”
The school was a bit crap, run, as is often the case in EFL, by idiots, but the students were okay, and I mostly managed to put on a good front and get on with it for them. I’m pretty good at getting on with work and pretending I love it, then switching off and forgetting it for the more important things in life. After a bit of messing about from the idiots, I was finally given a small flat overlooking what turned out, when the snow finally melted, a graveyard. It’s great to have quiet neighbours.
All of us teachers at the school griped about Gliwice at times. We changed the opening lines of Crowded House’s tune Whispers and Moans*** to Dull, dull grey, the colours of Gliwice… and sang it with some gusto. But in fact that was mean of us. Gliwice is a magical little town, with a mysterious vibe. There is an old rynek, or market place, at its centre, its buildings not exactly graceful, but intriguing all the same. There is a gothic-looking post office, there are sturdy fortress-like churches in black and brown brick, a lively railway station full of the usual shady characters, and babushkas**** in the ticket offices who were awkward with us if we got the grammar case wrong when buying tickets, especially if we were in a hurry. There were cafés and bars that looked as if they’d been designed by architects who really hated people having any leisure time, but were all the same friendly, and cheap. There were shops selling only red plastic kitchen equipment. There were tall communist-era housing blocks with Wendy houses painted on them, and you made sure to walk equidistant between them, as balconies and other bits were said to fall off them regularly. (A few people assured us that this story was a wind-up, and yet there were worryingly matching chunks of masonry on the ground by some of the blocks.) There were shrines in glass cases that led to the small industrial areas that ring the town, water towers that looked like Byzantine domes, and the brown brick of classic pre-war German Silesian housing, known as familoki or familie lokat, and the forlorn-looking ground of the Piast football club – the season takes a break for the snow – whose fans were certainly, er, dedicated. There is the Kłodnice, a black, polluted river, a market full of Eastern Bloc goods and characters, soot-faced miners with horses and carts selling excess coal, Gypsy women and babies routinely dumped on the town from a lorry on regular days of the week to get out there and make a living, grannies in formal clothes but with moonboots, and middle-aged housewives who insisted on wearing stiletto heels, even in the snow. There is also the tallest wooden structure in the world, the tower at the radio station. This is where the Nazis attempted to start the Second World War in August, 1939: for Gliwice was once Gleiwitz, and was once in Germany, and the Nazis came up with a ridiculous fight-starting ruse, the concoction of a ludicrous story about the Polish army attacking the radio station. It didn’t work, though that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who unfortunately didn’t let such a thing set them back for long.
I missed my wife – of course I did. She came over to spend a couple of weeks with me at Easter. She was on holiday from her course, but had plenty of work to get on with for it when I was at work. Along with the rest of the country, we finally had the long Easter weekend off together.
Poland is, of course, a Catholic country, and Easter is much more important there than it is in secular countries. Lots of businesses close, as people either go to see relatives, or have them staying. What many of them do is visit churches with small baskets of eggs, to have them blessed by priests. It looks slightly comic, seeing all kinds of people, but mainly old women or younger women with children, walk through the streets towards the churches with their eggs. Some carried tiny, plain basket, others larger, flasher, beribboned ones, maybe with an elaborately-patterned szmata,***** or cloth, lining it. Some people have their baskets packed with stuff, and we joked that they were bringing their entirely weekly shop to be blessed. This scene was part of the backdrop of Easter in Poland, and we saw a lot of it, partly because that weekend we set off on a journey that took us to a few smallish, quiet towns whose churches were the main focus.
“Bless my eggs!” we said, did it as Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, made it into an expression from a Carry On film that had never been made – Carry On Easter, Carry On Poland, Carry On Catholics.
We’d got the train across the country to Lublin in the south east, and were staying in its Dom Asystencki, or student hostel, which, it being the Easter hols, was absolutely empty. It was kind of dull and kind of cold, kind of dimly lit, and kind of grim, but we didn’t care. We weren’t there to lie around in the hotel. With Lublin as a base, we ventured to some of the smaller towns in the area. I achieved a tiny and ridiculous ambition to send postcards to my relatives in Dublin that said, somewhere on them, ‘from Lublin to Dublin’, and wondered, as ever, if the two cities had been twinned, resolving to find out. (I looked it up today, 21 years later: they’re not.)
On Easter Sunday we had a three-hour coach journey along the eastern border to a town called Siemiatycze. Some of my wife’s family had come from there. Most of them had been murdered in the Treblinka death camp during the Second World War, but there were a few traces of them: her great great uncle had built the synagogue there, and the street his doomed descendants had lived in, ulica Szkolna, or School Street, was still there, though we weren’t sure whether their houses were still standing. There were also apparently the remnants of a small Jewish graveyard.
The journey was grindingly slow. Coach journeys could be up to 45 minutes slower than the advertised journey time, depending on whether the driver was a smoker or not; if he was, then there were plenty of stops for indulging in the noxious weed. This was one of those, with people shuffling out into a misty day to inhale either fresh air or tobacco. Most of the people on the bus were visiting relatives for Easter, and had luggage full of pungent salamis, cheese and children – it wasn’t quite steerage class peasants with chickens from a Kusturica film, but seemed surreally close to it at times. Many of the men on the journey were pissed as farts – this was at nine in the morning – starting off the celebrations early, and their breath was alarmingly toxic from a few feet away. And yet, this is not a moan. It was eastern Poland, and full of the old habits of a country that was, for a few years after 1989, divided to all intents and purposes, the east not getting the much talked-about economic trickle-over effect of the new capitalism: we’d chosen to go there, after all. Once we were moving again, the motion began to hypnotise me a little, and maybe I just imagined seeing the towers built on the eastern border, and a giant statue of a soldier, or was it an astronaut, left over from communist times. I didn’t imagine the fumes, the excited high-pitched conversation and pisshead laughter, or the tinny music on the driver’s radio, the people getting on and off at various spots along the way, the goodbyes, promises to be friends for life with other drinking strangers, waves full of affection that was genuine, if only for those drunken holiday moments that had all the possibilities of freedom and celebration in them.
Siemiatycze was a compact little town under a layer of fine mist. The crows made noises in the bare trees above us, their cawing rhythmic and insistent. I always imagine crows having Cockney accents and actually saying something including an insult that starts with c and ends in t – as if they were berating us for coming all that way to a town in which very few places except the churches were open. The people headed in and out of them with their baskets and their eggs, and that part of it was all as it had been in Warsaw, Lublin, Częstochowa. We watched them for a while, and made a search for a bar or café – we were hungry by then, having got up at sevenish – but none were open. We had to go back to the decrepit bus station, even more forlorn looking than these places usually are, to grab a coffee and a sandwich, and then resume our quest in the increasingly deserted streets of the town. We found the onetime shul, or synagogue, a building that was solid and functional, rather than elegant, painted yellow and, these days, serving time as a community centre; as with most towns in Poland, there was no Jewish community left to use it as a synagogue. Ulica Szkolna was similarly unremarkable, but we weren’t disappointed, as we hadn’t come to see great architecture or anything of great beauty or intrinsic interest. It was my ex’s commune and connection with a part of her past, that was all, and it was important to us, and to nobody else. We didn’t find the graveyard. Siemiatycze, though small, was bigger than we’d thought, and there was one bus back to Lublin that day – we really had to be on it.
We were back at the bus station early, then. Another drecky kawa turecka – the Polish version of Turkish coffee, which was, er, a work in progress – from the station café, and between us a rock-hard roll with sweaty cheese, the only one left.
My ex went to the loo, and took ages. A man and his two small sons came into the waiting room, and settled down on the bench near me, and near the tiny heater. We caught each other’s eyes, and he gave me a rather down-sounding greeting, let out a big sigh, held his hand palm up as if to say look at this place – what? Huh? Though in fact I was glad of it; it had turned very nippy outside.
He didn’t speak much English, and my Polish was pretty basic. He pointed to my wedding ring, worn on the third finger of my left hand, and then pointed to his own, as if in commiseration. I thought he was being a long-suffering comic henpecked husband from Carry On Poland, and was prepared to be uncritical but non-committal. In fact, it was genuine commiseration. He said to me, “Your wife is dead?” I frowned, and said, “She seemed quite chipper a few minutes ago.” Despite the jokey tone, I was a bit puzzled, and quite relieved when I saw her come back into the interior from the loo, swinging its key to hand it back to the babushka in charge of it. I introduced my wife when she got back, and the man nodded and grinned. He too was relieved, and anxious to explain to me that in eastern Poland the wedding ring was worn on the right hand, unless you’d been widowed, in which case you put it, like his, on the left hand. It was my turn to make commiserations, though it pained me and pissed me off that I couldn’t understand how his wife had died – that none of the words he used in explanation were familiar to me, none of the gestures – only that it had been the year before, and that he was taking the children to stay with his sister for the remainder of the Easter break.
The coach back to Lublin was near-enough empty. We chatted and gestured to the man and his two well-behaved boys, about nothing much, until he got off at some roadside in the middle of nowhere. The driver wasn’t a smoker, and the journey passed quickly enough. I forget exactly where we went that Easter Sunday night in Lublin. We were knackered, and past hunger. We went for a drink at a place that chucked us out as it was closing early, and then may have had an early night.
Easter Monday morning we woke early. We were starving by then. We went out in search of breakfast. Not one single place was open. We covered a lot of Lublin in our search. We got it: most places were shut because it was Easter Monday, okay, so we just had to find the places that were open. We’d appreciate our breakfast even more, then. We found nowhere. Even the lowliest burger shack was shut, the tiniest kiosk. We spotted people a long long way up a road making a small queue at a kiosk, and yelled with joy, but then it turned out to be a flower stall. Flower stalls were the only things open. You couldn't eat flowers, I was fairly sure, though I was hungry enough to do so by then. All the cafés, all the bars, all the restaurants, all the hotels, shut for the day. What about the cinema? We’d been there on the Saturday night to see, I think, Of Mice and Men. At least we could buy a bag of crisps or something – but no, shut. We finally went back to the grim room we’d decided we weren’t going to spend much time in, and read our books, listened to music from my Walkman through its little speakers, dozed, looked out the window. My ex found a Mars Bar in her bag. She’d bought it the week before, for a train journey, but had forgotten about it. That was what we ate, used a little penknife to slice it. It filled a gap. It wasn’t a three-course meal, nor even a hard sandwich with sweaty cheese – I’d have killed for another of them – nor an Easter egg, but it did its best. We had an early night, got up the next day to begin our trip back to Gliwice, but not before we went out and had the biggest breakfast we’d ever had.
*Silesia is the English name for this region, incorporating 'industrial Poland', but also the Czech border town of Ostrava. The Polish name is Śląsk, pronounced /shlonsk/
**I didn’t get to Ljubljana until 2009.
***The band's 1991 album. One of us had bought a cassette of it in the station, which had a fine selection of dodgy goods.
****Babushka is not a Polish word - the Polish word for little ole lady, or granny, is babcia, pronounced /bahb-cha/ I'm using babushka as it's more familiar to most readers.
*****The British and/or Yiddish spelling of this is schmatter or schmutter. My ex-wife and her family would use the word to mean anything from a wedding dress to a head scarf to a tablecloth to a tea towel to a dishcloth. In Polish it means only a dishcloth or rag of some kind, and is also the slang for bitch and slut. The North London Jewish use of it was in the manner of a put-down, which could be friendly or catty, depending on how proud people, usually women, were of their tea towels or tablecloths.
Thanks to "the two Joannas", Głuszczyszyn and Podhajska, for gently pointing out my various misuses of their fine language.