My first visit to Poland
I’ve always wanted to visit Poland. From afar, it seemed like my kind of place: more history, culture and architecture than sun, sea and sangria. I always planned to see Krakow and Warsaw, possibly Poznan too, but anticipating the circumstances that carried me to the sequestered jewel of Europe was an impossibility.
The main purpose of my first visit to Poland was to visit my girlfriend’s family, an introduction breaking language and cultural barriers on the road to an exciting future.
Patrycja and I flew from Liverpool late on Good Friday, arriving in Tarnów, her home city, around midnight. We immersed ourselves in a thoroughly Polish Easter, returning to England three days later approximately two stone heavier and chockfull of gratitude. It was a fantastic experience that I hope to repeat many times.
The most prominent thing I discovered on my maiden voyage to Poland was the famous hospitality. Staying with Patrycja’s family, as opposed to being cooped up in a hotel, provided an authentic insight into Polish customs, traditions and cuisine. Oh yes, the never-ending cuisine!
When we arrived, close to one o’clock in the morning, a full meal awaited us. Patrycja’s sisters slept for about four hours before waking at the crack of dawn to visit the local bakery, supplying fresh bread and cooked meats for a lavish breakfast.
Across the entire weekend, if I paused to merely catch my breath or take a sip of water while eating, the whole family stopped and gazed in my direction as if to hold an inquiry into my disapproval of their food. I may have broken the world record for fried chicken consumption in a twenty-four hour period. The kotlety was amazing, the hospitality astounding.
In Poland, family comes first. The country seems to have its priorities right. It meshes nicely with my values, at least, even if problems still persist as in any society. The home has a sacred meaning in Poland, and the kitchen forms the heart of that home. There is pride and respect, unity and togetherness. Things are simpler. People actually take time to support one another, forming an active interest in the progressions of daily life rather than burying their heads ignorantly.
Familiarising myself with the streets of Patrycja’s childhood was very important to me. On Saturday, we visited the quaint city square, all cobbles and hidden history. A bust of famed poet Adam Mickiewicz, considered the greatest Polish bard of all-time, occupies one secluded corner of Tarnow, while similar tributes to artistic accomplishment are frequent and charming.
Tarnow was the first Polish city to reclaim independence in October 1918, ending 146 years of foreign occupation. The city has a strong Jewish tradition dating to the 15th century and, by 1939, nearly half of the population shared that faith. This made it a prime target of Nazi Germany, and Tarnow fell victim to a so-called false flag terrorist attack preceding World War II by six days. German terrorists detonated explosives in Tarnow’s main train station, killing twenty people and maiming dozens more. A week later, the Nazis had control of the city, leading some historians to place Tarnow at the very genesis of the Great War.
More than 40,000 Jews were crammed into Tarnow’s ghetto. Over 10,000 were executed. The first mass transportation of political prisoners by Nazi Germany to the Auschwitz concentration camp left Tarnow on 14thJune 1940. A total of 728 Tarnow residents were placed on trains that departed the city, travelling almost one hundred miles to a harrowing fate.
In modern Tarnow, a fine pillar of resilience, there’s a poignant memorial to that first transportation. We paid our respects at the monument, pausing to appreciate our freedom. This was a particularly moving experience for Patrycja and me because our meeting would have been an impossibility, not just an improbability, a few generations ago. It would have been forbidden, in fact, due to deeply conflicting ancestry.
My grandmother, Gerda, was German, and her great-grandfather was a Luftwaffe pilot shot down by British forces during World War II. My English grandfather, Eric, met Gerda during the war, in which he fought against his in-laws.
That two such disparate family trees should be brought together, all those years later, in the sweet throes of love, is remarkable.
In another twist of fate, research shows that Gerda’s mother, my great-grandmother, was born and raised in Bukowina, a village that was part of Germany until 1945. The village was later renamed Królewska Wola, which is now situated in Poland, roughly an hour from the major city of Wrocław.
Perhaps it was always meant to be.
On Monday, our football tour continued with a trip to Wisła Kraków. It was Wojtek’s first experience of Stadion Miejski, too, just as it was for Wiktor, his young son. A great time was had by all.
Wisła is one of the fallen giants of European football, a large institution that has never quite reached its full potential. The name is strong, proud, somehow viciously brutal. Wisła. Come on, if you dare.
With thirteen national titles, Wisła is one of the most decorated clubs in the history of Polish football. It has an illustrious heritage and an impressive significance among the football intelligentsia. Nevertheless, the club has lurched from one crisis to another in recent times, failing to win the Ekstraklasa since 2011. More pertinently, Wisła was ravaged by criminality, financial impropriety and philosophical chaos that placed its very existence in perilous doubt earlier this season.
Without the generosity and drive of Jakub Błaszczykowski, a returning hero, the club may have folded. The former Wisła winger - who rose to prominence with Borussia Dortmund and a talented Polish national team – loaned a vast amount of money to the club, enabling it to pay players’ wages. He then engineered a free transfer from Wolfsburg to Wisła, keen to salvage the club that kickstarted his career many years previously.
Eyeing the fiscal meltdown catalysed by hooligan involvement at the heart of Wisła management, Błaszczykowski wanted to play for free. His fortune was secured from a trophy-laden career in Germany, but it would never have been possible without Wisła, and ‘Kuba’ wanted to give something back.
Ekstraklasa rules preclude a registered player receiving no reimbursement for his services, so Błaszczykowski insisted on being paid the minimum of PLN 500 (roughly £100) per month. He donates that money to orphaned children, helping them afford match tickets.
Spurred by the returning prodigal son, Wisła fans crowdfunded vital capital, used to resurrect the battered White Star, one of the most imposing bulwarks of eastern European football. The club was saved, cleansed and repositioned. Then I arrived to infect it with that fatal Tranmere gene, my mere presence causing a monumental capitulation in the game against Wisła Płock.
The hosts raced into a 2-0 lead, playing some fantastic counter-attacking football before a vociferous crowd. Then the wheels fell off, as the visitors struck three unanswered goals to complete a most unlikely turnaround. I’ve heard so much Polish swearing since Patrycja left her carrot cake in the oven for too long awhile back. There’s nothing quite like immersion to help you learn a new language.
After the final whistle, we ventured to Krakow’s iconic city square, admiring the ancient architecture and enjoying a whistle-stop tour of historic landmarks. We enjoyed a fantastic meal for four in the city centre for just £14, an absolute revelation, while the hourly Hejnal Mariacki bugle call from St Mary’s Basilica was a memorable experience.
That church itself, dating to 1347 and defining Gothic majesty, left a tremendous impact on me. It’s the kind of place I wish everybody could see. Perhaps they’ll get the chance one day. We’ll certainly be back, and maybe you’ll come, too. You just never know in life. Or maybe you do.