I had a job in a chippie after a month and was in love after six weeks: my good yr in Poland | Poland holidays

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In the winter of 2016, a number of months earlier than the Brexit referendum, I made a decision to maneuver to Poland. I believed it finest to get on the market whereas I nonetheless might, earlier than my liberty to earn the minimal wage in 20-odd nations was irrevocably misplaced.

I can’t say it was love at first sight. It was too chilly for that. It’s not simple to fall head over heels at -4C. Once I boarded the bus outdoors Poznań airport, I shared with the motive force the one phrase I had mastered on my journey from Luton. Kocham cie. I like you. The driving force’s reply was to lift an eyebrow, shake his head and usher me on board. It was an auspicious starting.

Ben Aitken at Poznań airport.
Ben Aitken at Poznań airport. {Photograph}: Ben Aitken

The bus delivered me to Poznań’s outdated city. I used to be immediately taken by the colorful constructing fronts, the frilly gables, the engrossing essential sq.. Regardless of the chilly, I stood wanting within the home windows of retailers and bars and puzzled at their unsubtle inducements to pattern things like wódka wiśniowa (cherry vodka) and legginsy (leggings).

Inside an hour I used to be in a pub referred to as Dragon sampling śliwowica (plum brandy) and pierogi (dumplings). Inside per week, I used to be sharing a flat with an engineer referred to as Jędrzej. Inside a month, I had a job in a fish and chip store. And inside six weeks, I used to be in love.

I fell for the locations first. Over the subsequent yr, every time I wasn’t required to peel spuds or bone cod, I skipped city and hit the highway. I went north to Gdańsk and the Polish Riviera, east to Warsaw and the lakes of Masuria, and south to Wrocław, the mountains and Łódź, the Polish Hollywood.

I appreciated what Poland was made from. I appreciated what it had, what it might declare as its personal. I appreciated its cities and cities, its bricks and mortar. Szczecin. Białystok. Katowice. Even industrial Bytom in Higher Silesia. These locations aren’t high of the Polish charts. They’re the Polish equivalents of Bradford, Wrexham, East Kilbride and Carrickfergus. They might not have signature landmarks, picture-postcard districts or huge followings on Instagram, however what they do have is the benefit of being fantastically regular and totally unaffected. These locations aren’t posing; they’re simply going about their enterprise. Every one gave me one thing: pause for thought, trigger to swoon, a fraction of the entire.

Ben Aitken book cover
Cowl of Ben Aitken’s A Chip Store in Poznań

The bits in between aren’t unhealthy, both. The medieval forest. The lake district. The enchanting undulations of Decrease Silesia. The glimpses of sea, the flashes of desert, the unintentional magnificence of business hinterlands. I took enjoyment of becoming a member of the dots. By prepare. I’d sit within the restaurant carriage, take my time over a paper plate of kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet) and pickles, and watch Lesser Poland (or Małopolska) steadily slide previous.

I’d make small discuss with the employees. Ordering a second cup of black tea, or a 3rd bottle of piwo (beer), I’d deliver their consideration to the passing movement image and say, in faltering phrases, that every one that goes by is a blessing.

Plenty of Polish trains have old style compartments, accommodating six, with three on every bench, dealing with off. The ambiance may be tense, for whereas your common Pole will deal with a visitor of their dwelling like a God, they can even suppose nothing of sitting reverse an individual for six hours with out saying a phrase. However the ambiance in these old style compartments will also be mild and informal and chatty, particularly for those who’re ready to kick issues off by saying one thing silly like I like you.

Which brings me to the Polish individuals. I can’t declare to have met all of them, however of the a number of thousand I did meet, I’ve solely optimistic issues to report (with the notable exception of a bartender referred to as Ziggy, who all however throttled me for badmouthing pierogi).

There was Hubert the dairy farmer, who insisted on giving me a elevate dwelling from the ski resort of Karpacz, refused take no for a solution when it got here to stopping at his grandmother’s home for dinner, earlier than lastly providing me a job milking cows on his farm close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The dragon pub in Poznan
The dragon pub in Poznań, the place Ben warmed up on his first night time within the nation. {Photograph}: Alamy

There was Sister Stefania, a senior nun at St Adalbert Abbey close to Kraków, the place, for about £20, you may get a room for the night time, three sq. meals, and Stefania’s tackle such issues as Roman Polanski and carp farming.

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There was Jerzy, the wizened custodian of a hut excessive within the southern Beskid mountains, the place stray hikers with extra ambition than sense are liable to be greeted first with frosty suspicion then with impeccable kindness, the latter within the type of stew and tea and a hand beginning the hearth.

Then there are the Polish celebs. I fell for them, too. Like Marie Curie, who found polonium and radium and received two Nobel prizes within the course of. Like Lech Wałęsa, who found {that a} humble employee at a shipyard in Gdańsk can rise to the best workplace of the land (and in so doing precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire of satellites). Like Witold Pilecki, who found what occurs whenever you volunteer to be captured by the Nazis and interred in Auschwitz (he organised a resistance motion and secretly drew up studies in regards to the atrocities which have been later shared with the allies). And like Pope John Paul II, who found that for those who dig deep sufficient into the pockets of your character, you’ll discover sufficient decency to forgive somebody who simply shot you 4 occasions.

Gdansk old town harbour.
Gdansk outdated city harbour. {Photograph}: rangizzz/Alamy

On high of its individuals and locations, a rustic is a constellation of tiny quirks; a galaxy of shifting bits and items that, whereas neither fixed nor goal, nonetheless make a strong contribution to a nation’s impression, its aura, its romance.

It’s a thousand methods to make use of a sure swear phrase. It’s shopping for pants by the kilo. It’s the size and depth of a Polish wedding ceremony. It’s a statue of the pope on each different nook. It’s the sense of a rustic nonetheless recovering, nonetheless correcting itself, and but nonetheless flourishing. It’s a hundred variations of coleslaw. It’s the phrase “no” which means sure, and the ensuing confusion. It’s mushroom selecting in autumn. It’s a penchant for pickling. It’s a day put aside for the consumption of doughnuts – Fats Thursday. It’s 16 methods of spelling banana, relying on its temper.

I left Poland for causes that have been a contact cowardly. After a yr within the nation, I used to be smitten with the place, and I didn’t need that to vary. I didn’t need to put that fondness below an excessive amount of stress. I didn’t need to give it an opportunity to unravel or wane. You may say that I upped sticks and left within the thick of our honeymoon; that I wrapped my affection in cotton wool, stowed it rigorously in a drawer, and snuck off seeking a brand new journey.

I discovered that new journey, for the report. It concerned a collection of funds coach holidays with individuals 3 times my age. However that’s one other love story.

Ben Aitken’s books embody A Chip Store in Poznań and The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders. His newest, Right here Comes The Enjoyable: A Yr of Making Merry, shall be printed by Icon on 25 Could. They’re obtainable from guardianbookshop.com