Poland – first impression, discovering roots

Poland… this is where my journey went beyond learning about the world through travel. A new and deeper element was added: delving into the fascinating history of my ancestry and their home country – a country whose weaving path was shaped and torn by wars, occupation and a search for freedom and prosperity (a goal that the country is in some ways still trying to achieve).

I think that the word “deeper” (yeah, I’ve already used that word) really sums up the whole range of thoughts and emotions that visiting Poland invoked. It’s one thing to be a descendent of immigrants, and to grow up hearing stories of your grandparents or to read about the history of their home country. But, it’s an entirely different – entirely richer – experience to actually go and see where they’re from. To see where they grew up; the landscapes they saw. And also to see the people who still live there, and how history there has unfolded since your ancestors left. My words cannot do justice to the experience of seeing the home of your ancestry… only those who’ve done it can really get it. But the word that best sums it up is, once again, depth. I’m not even really that much of a history buff, but I would definitely say that spending time in Poland was one of the most profound experiences of my life.

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Anna and I flew from Paris to Berlin – the closest airport to where we needed to go in Poland. Anna’s mother Maryla (my mom’s cousin) lives in a small town called Chojna, only about 20km east of the German border. Transportation being what it is, though, it wasn’t just a direct trek from Berlin to Chojna. Rather, we had to take the Berlin airport shuttle across the border to the nearest major Polish city of Szczecin. From there, it was an hour-long train ride to Chojna. A round-about way of getting to our destination; however, in the course of the journey I experienced the transition into Poland.

And it truly was a very major transition between Western and Eastern Europe.

My first reaction was that this place was OLD. Not historic-beautiful European buildings/medieval castle town square old. More like industrial factory old. Here’s a comparison: The drive from Berlin to the border was punctuated by countless power windmills – Germany is more than 90% wind powered; Poland is more than 90% coal powered. Yeah.

We arrived at the train station to meet Anna’s mother Maryla… and there it felt overwhelmingly cold, industrial and very old-world. You can’t smoke on the trains, but passengers had their heads out of most of the windows puffing away (Maryla said in Poland if something’s not allowed, but you want to do it, you can). The trains are electric-powered, but the vibe is less of progressive environmental friendliness and more of big-industrial power grid. The station and the surrounding buildings were very utilitarian and gloomy. And we went to a restaurant at the station for a bite to eat: ordering coffee meant the server boiled water and stirred in the Nescafe crystals. In sum: the atmosphere of the Soviet-occupied era still wafts in the Polish air today, despite the fact that the country is advancing by leaps and bounds.

*****

Now, I don’t want to sound harsh in my first impression. Within the bleak atmosphere, there is a lot of beauty… and the amazing history you see before your eyes is beautiful and fascinating in and of itself. And the people are just plain amazing too (even counting the bias I have towards Polish people!)

It’s not that Poland is devastatingly poor – certainly I saw countries in my travels that are actuallydevastatingly poor or even oppressed (eg. Burma)… so I cannot lump Poland into that group and don’t want to be overly dramatic or trivialize the plight of the underprivileged. But through my description, my attempt is to convey the very real feeling that still lingers in Eastern Europe, which only recently emerged from the oppression of communist occupation. As well, seeing the atmosphere that’s still present in Poland today with the increasing economic prosperity… well, that lends a deeper understanding of what it must have been like when the country was occupied. I also helps me empathize a bit more with what my ancestors experienced during wartime when the life around them was absolutely turned upside-down. 

Lots to think about… and that was, above all, the greatest aspect of my 10 days in Poland: just so much to experience and learn. Best of all, I was very fortunate to have wonderfully hospitable family (Anna and Maryla) to show me an up-close view of what Poland is all about today.

*****

Attempting to speak Polish constantly with Anna and Maryla certainly improved my understanding and ability to communicate. I enjoyed watching a lot of Polish television: they even had many recent sitcoms dubbed in Polish including The Office and Arrested Development. Humourously, the dubbing is usually done by only one actor reading with the exact same monotone voice for every single character in the show.

One thing give the Polish people I met a tonne of credit for was their patience and willingness to listen to me when I tried speaking to them in Polish. Maybe I received bonus points because I am of Polish background… but unlike the reception from French people who didn’t like me trying out my French, anyone in Poland seemed completely impressed and grateful that I was trying to speak Polish.

*****

The small town of Chojna was an excellent spot from which to start learning more about Poland. Maryla and Anna live in the apartment where Maryla’s family grew up: a nice, cozy place overlooking vast country fields on the outskirts of town. 

The town has a 700-year history (hard to imagine such a history when you grow up in Canada). There are cobblestone streets and even an ancient brick wall around part of the town. Chojna is also indicative of the country whose history was so dramatically shaped by various different foreign occupations: case in point, the town wasn’t ever part of Poland until after WWII (it was mostly German territory). 

When WWII ended, Poland became its own country again but was controlled by the communists. In Chojna, the Russian military set up a massive secret air force base… one of their most Western bases closest to the border with Western Germany. From this base’s long runway, MIG fighter jets took off for patrols – Maryla described vivid memories from when she was a child of her windows shaking in the middle of the night with the sonic roar of the engines.

The abandoned air base remains on the outskirts of Chojna today. Anna’s boyfriend Tomek has actually purchased a part of the old barracks and is restoring it into a nice home. The two of them took me for a drive out onto the old runway, and we explored and walked through the eerie hidden bunkers that used to house the massive jets.

I was walking through some of the most dramatic modern history in the world. A part of my history, too. Quite the first impression… and quite a welcome to Poland.

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