We had a difficult start, Poland and me. No love at first sight. I entered the country on a sunny day in June, in the North-East coming from Lithuania. I was told to visit ‘one of Polands gems’, the Masurian Lake area. Well, on this first afternoon I felt myself caught in a touristic mouse trap. Worst part: I was the only mouse around. Dirty and expensive accommodations, empty restaurants and scary dressed up creatures trying to sell me things seemed to line up along Road 16. Now and then I saw a flash of a lake. Bright red poppy fields.
At the hotel that seemed most acceptable, I bumped into a group of Dutch Harley Davidson bikers. They had spent the weekend at the Harley rally in Tallinn and were on their way back home. Nice people, great storytellers. Even my research topic was not strange to them: the Harley club has an aging problem too. A shortage of new bikers blood. ‘The young generation has other interests. Money and things.’ I thought it possibly has to do with an image problem too. I also thought it would be best to keep my mouth shut : )
Well, many stories, beers and a good night of sleep later, the hotel was empty. So was my Couch Surfing inbox. Alright. Where to go? What to do? How could I get to know Poland? Meet its people?
A friend told me to go to Lódz (pronounced as Woodzj). So I did and found myself in an old phenomenon of textile industry and city full of contrasts. Streets full of bulldozers and beautiful buildings crossing old and dirty communist building blocks decorated with fantastic graffiti scenes. In the streets ancient ‘babkas’ were shuffling past hipsters in their converted electric Trabant cars. I shared a dorm with the 60-something year old Martha and her punk rock son, who were in Lódz for a Black Sabbath concert. Unfortunately, Martha somehow lost her ticket, so she spent the evening on her bed knitting socks.
It’s a little hard to explain, but there has been no other country so far where I could so vividly feel the touch of past and the future. The rich, complicated and often painful history of Poland became most explicit when visiting Lódz, Krakow and ultimately Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, I was grateful to have the company of my love for a few days. To share the silence and trying to process the horrifying details of human mass destruction.
Next Monday morning in the cheerful city of Katowice, I met up with Grzegorz, a young researcher at Katowice University. I stumbled upon his name while doing some online research about ageing in Poland, and since my couch requests remained quite unanswered, I contacted him for a coffee. He happily suggested to meet at the Silesian City Centre, a place that oddly reminded me most of shopping malls in Panama. He wanted me to see how the city of Katowice thought about fortune and prosperity. Capitalism for all, I suppose.
Grzegorz spent a full afternoon talking me through Polish society. The lack of jobs, low salaries and working pensioners that cause the brain drain to England and other West European countries. The return of the money that buys people homes but also breaks into the fragile balance of post-communism society. Corruption, growing inequality and other struggles of this young democracy. Though, Grzegorz was optimistic. “It’s been a struggle, the last 25 years of independence. But I feel we are winning this battle.”
The feeling of optimism was strengthened in my last few days in Poland, that I spent with Aga, Borys and their 2 sons in a small town near Wroçlaw (finally, a couch to surf!). Borys and Aga founded the company Pizca del Mundo, the first self producing fair trade brand in Poland. Aga and I spent our days shopping, cooking, eating and talking. It was nice to learn more about their life, the company, and the state of CSR in Poland. In the end, true love never dies. Right? When Aga’s friend Aneta visited on the last evening, I made nasi and we had a good conversation about how to grow older. Or how to grow up. Or not.
And that is how I left Poland: impressed, with the wish to return and learn more about this fascinating country. Large, full of contrasts, old fashioned and modernizing rapidly.