Sunday, January 10, 2010

Szczecin to Leszno

Szczecin is a large sea port on the Baltic Sea, very close to the German border and about half an hour by express train from Stargard. I arrive in the late afternoon, buy a ticket to Leszno for the next day, and spend the evening in my hotel room under a wave of exhaustion. I feel overwhelmed by my time in Stargard, in particular the drive to Kluczewo, which seems almost unreal. I had not felt happy about the hotel when I first arrived and almost wanted to leave - but then I met Zdzislaw. I could have missed meeting him altogether, simply by not wanting a cup of tea at a particular moment in time. But I did want a cup of tea and I went to the reception room to ask for hot water right at the moment when he was there. Would he have been there had I gone ten minutes earlier, or later? What was it that brought us together?

I also feel moved by the conversation I had with Edite, the receptionist who shared so many personal details about her life with me. There was such longing in her voice, a deep desire for a new direction, a new life, but one that seems just beyond reach. I have been in that position myself and it was humbling to hear Edite’s version of being there. I wanted to do something for her but I had no idea what that could be. Perhaps listening was enough.

The next day I explore Szczecin. It’s Sunday and almost everything is closed except for the Galaxy Shopping Centre where it seems that the whole of the city’s population has congregated. I have a coffee and a moment of shopping and then try to see the key historic sites. It’s an incredibly grey day, the whole skyline disappearing into a haze of fog. I see a number of monuments, the museum, a fantastic gateway that has become a jazz café, the palace, the opera house and the waterfront, which is a tangle of cranes emerging eerily from a misty Baltic Sea. I take everything in from an objective distance and with a sense of obligation rather than genuine interest - I guess I’m just tired and there is not enough room in my head to take in and assimilate more information. My mother would have passed through Szczecin by train - perhaps the train even stopped here for some time - but she was heading further south, deeper into the Polish countryside, to a town south of Poznan called Leszno.

The train to Leszno leaves at 17.55 and when I get on, it’s half empty. I share a compartment with a smartly dressed elderly gentleman who takes a polite but also concerned interest in me. He helps me lift my suitcase onto the storage rack and, even though he speaks no English or German, we manage to work out that I’m from Australia, that I’m travelling to Leszno and that he is getting off a few stops before me. When the ticket inspector comes, the gentleman explains something to him in Polish that I suspect goes something like, ‘This lady is from Australia and is travelling on her own to Leszno. Please let her know when the train arrives at the station and please also make sure that someone helps her with her suitcase.’ Over the next few stops the carriage becomes packed with university students, many of them standing or sitting on small fold-down seats in the aisles outside the compartments. Our compartment has also filled with students. When the second ticket inspector does his rounds, somewhere after Poznan, the elderly gentleman repeats his instructions about my arrival at Leszno, but this time he also addresses the students in the carriage. They all look in my direction, smile knowingly, and then return to their ipods and lecture notes.

My gentleman friend gets off a few stops before Leszno and we shake hands as I thank him for his kindness. He gives a final word of instruction to the young man sitting opposite me before he leaves our compartment. I feel slightly embarrassed. Outside it’s dark and I’m a little nervous about arriving at my destination in the night. I prefer to book trains that depart in the late morning or early afternoon – it gives me the chance to see the countryside and, because I arrive in the daylight, it’s easier to find my hotel and generally get my bearings in a new place. When we get to Leszno there are only two students left in the compartment and, as no doubt instructed by my gentleman friend, the young man opposite me dutifully helps me take down my suitcase. Another passenger kindly lifts the case onto the station for me. As in Latvia, you have to climb up two or three awkwardly steep steps to get into train carriages here, but in Latvia it would have been rare indeed for someone to help a stranger with their suitcase.

I find a taxi easily and we drive to the Akwawit Hotel, a type of spa village that people come to from all over Poland for a range of water cures. The complex was probably built fairly recently but it has a distinctly 1980s aesthetic. A water feature in the reception area echoes throughout an atrium that extends into the upper floors of the building. The interior décor is based on a combination of cornflower blue and palish pink and there are bulky, tubular handrails everywhere. I’m allocated a single room with a rather odd, L-shaped layout on the top floor. The bed is positioned under a steeply angled, attic-like alcove where it’s not possible to stand upright and the desk is in a small niche at the end of the L. I go straight back down to reception and ask for another room. This time I’m given one with a double bed, a normal, rectangular layout and a high ceiling.

In the morning, as I’m leaving to explore the town centre, I decide to ask about the various treatments on offer at the Akwawit, tempted by the idea of a massage, and possibly even a mud bath. I’m given a huge list, divided into various categories, but it’s written only in Polish. I can roughly guess what some of the treatments might be, but despite the fact that the receptionists can speak English, they are unable to translate the document they have given me. They look at each other, say something in Polish, and then look at me and say it is very hard to translate. After some discussion, I am booked in for a dry water massage (yes, such a thing is possible!) which was about the only treatment available.

To get to the old town, the hotel staff direct me to a narrow, grassy track that is clearly a short cut used by locals. It takes me under a highway overpass and beside a stretch of railway track to eventually emerge about 200 metres from the main station. I cross the tracks and keep going straight ahead, along what is now the main street of Leszno. I visit the tourist bureau and then wander about, getting a feel for the place. It’s not a very big town, but it is very charming. It was established in the 16th century by a group of Moravian Brethren, early Protestants who came from Bohemia. In fact, in the 17th century, Leszno had the largest group of Moravian Brethren in all of Europe. The town also boasts a number of stunning baroque and classical buildings, one of which is the town hall in the main square. Amongst its famous citizens is Jan Jonston (1603-1675), a doctor, teacher and naturalist of Scottish descent who spoke twelve languages and was the author of the Historiae Naturalis, noted for its beautiful engravings. Today, Leszno is rather sporty and promotes itself as the place to go for cycling, horse-riding, tennis and various aviation and water sports.

My mother and her family arrive in Leszno, known as Lissa under German occupation, in late October 1944. They are taken in by Elina Bönke, my mother’s cousin from Sarkandaugava, who is now a married woman with two children. They live in the downstairs apartment of Elina’s house, which is white and two storey and very close to the town centre. When they arrive, they have no idea at all how long they will be here or where the war might take them next. I can’t imagine what this would be like because it is a state of being that has never been part of my life experience. And, even though I have never been to Poland and everything is new and unknown to me, I know that I will be travelling to Berlin soon, and then on to Switzerland and Italy, and that I have a plane ticket that will take me back to Australia in about six weeks time. Of course, the unexpected may happen, but I still have some sense of security about the future. My mother’s family had no such security. But at the same time, they were very lucky because they had somewhere to stay, a roof over their heads. So many refugees were on foot, carting their belongings behind them, living in the outdoors in the depths of winter.

The family don’t know it at the time, but they will end up staying in Lissa for about two and a half months. They also have to work for the Germans, my grandfather getting a job on the railways and my mother making uniforms in a factory called Firma Erle. There are many Polish girls working in the factory and my mother gets on well with them, quickly making new friends. They go out together and when they get the chance, particularly enjoy going to the cinema. I ask my mother what the movies were, but she can’t recall a single title.

As I walk around the town, I know I’m not going to find Elina’s house because I just don’t have enough information, not even a street name, but I see buildings every now and then that I imagine are similar to the house my mother described. I do, however, find the movie theatre and I feel confident that it is the same one my mother went to with her Polish girlfriends. It’s had a makeover, but I can see that it’s very old beneath its 1970s façade. I wonder what movies were showing in 1944 and 45 in German occupied Poland…

I have coffee and cake in the restaurant underneath the Town Hall in the centre of the square and ponder what to do next. I’ve been wandering about Leszno rather aimlessly, following my nose without any clear strategy. I study the map from the tourist bureau and mark the location of the archives – it’s too far out of town to walk there so I would have to catch a cab. Besides, I have so little information about my mother’s time here that I’m not convinced I would find anything there anyway. I decide to keep wandering and find myself drawn to the area east of the town square. There are some smaller streets here with old houses that open straight onto the footpath, and for a brief moment, I see an image of my mother, at the age of seventeen, dark haired, slender, wearing a coat because it’s winter and it’s cold, disappearing around the corner ahead of me with her Polish girlfriends. They huddle together, arm in arm, chatting to each other. What do they talk about? The war? Rationing? Work in the factory? What the future might hold? Or are they more interested in what’s showing at the movies?

A little further around the bend, I come across a church – it’s Baroque and it’s called St Nicholas’s - and while the exterior is not particularly remarkable, the interior is another thing altogether - incredibly, ornately Baroque but utterly and unpretentiously beautiful. I am stunned by the carvings, the gilding, the sculpture, the paintings. There are two women washing the floor near the altar and about three people praying in different sections of the church, but each is rapt in their own world of work or prayer and seems oblivious of their extraordinary surroundings. I let out little gasps of amazement as I pass from one chapel to another along the right hand side of the aisles, but when I reach the one on the left, near the entrance, I am stunned into silence. Gazing down at me is most beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary I have ever seen. She looks straight at me, but at the same time, beyond me - through me - and I fall in love with her there and then. I light a candle in front of her and stand there for some minutes, just gazing. I would love to take a photograph of her, but even though there are no signs that prohibit taking pictures, it just doesn’t feel right. This church is completely different from those in big cities where you have to pay an entrance fee and there is an additional charge for photography – this is simply a place of worship.

I am so taken by the Virgin in St Nicholas’- with the idea of her beauty - that I am compelled to buy a reminder of her in a nearby Catholic shop. (Although I’m also a bit disappointed in my need to do this.) I would be happy with a postcard, but there are no images of my particular Virgin. I do, however, find a statuette that is rather charming. She wears a soft grey-blue mantle trimmed with gold similar to the Virgin in St Nicholas’s and she has a very peaceful face. She is also a bit heavy and I feel rather stupid buying something that will only add to the ever-increasing weight of my suitcase, but I buy her all the same, and when I get to Berlin, post her back to Australia. On my return, I am pleased to see that my partner has given her a prominent spot on the sideboard in the living room. She is a bit kitsch, I have to admit, but very lovely all the same. Sadly, she shows the scars of travelling long distances - both her hands are broken off at the wrists.

My wanderings in Leszno also take me into the yard of St Johns’ church, where I am lured by a large tree and the promise of a peaceful garden. It is here that I find an extraordinary collection of headstones and memorials from the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of them have been embedded into the church wall, but some are also freestanding and yet others have been laid into the exterior of the church itself. They are crumbling and moss-covered with age and damp, but intricately carved and beautifully, darkly gothic. Many are decorated with skulls, and in the eye sockets of some, insects have spun their white cocoons, giving them a doubly ghostly air. I take lots of photos.

As I explore Leszno, I keep thinking about the archives and the possibility of what I might find there, so I decide to pay a visit. I catch a cab, which takes me right into the depths of a housing suburb. Like the Akwawit Hotel, the Archives building is characterised by a 1980s aesthetic. I go up the small ramp and find the receptionist, who speaks no English but does have a tiny bit of German. We have a laboured conversation in which I ask for pictures of Leszno taken in World War II and for any information about the factory my mother worked in. The receptionist is kind, but she indicates that the archives will not be able to help me because they don’t store photographs. I feel a bit despondent but just as I’m about to leave she gets up from her chair, takes me into the reading room and introduces me to an archivist. I ask again if there may be any information about the factory my mother worked in – photographs, letters, anything. The archivist takes out about three or four old handwritten ledger books that list all the businesses that operated in the town during the war. We search through them together for the name of the factory, but there is no record of its existence anywhere. The name Erle also strikes no chord with the archivist – she has never heard of it in all her time at the Archives. ‘But it was the war’, she explains, ‘and perhaps the factory was only set up temporarily and was destroyed afterwards.’ I thank her and the receptionist and wait in the oddly quiet suburban street for the bus back into town. I don’t recognise the route, because it passes behind the centre of the town, and I get off at the wrong stop, on a big highway out near the University of Agriculture. (The journey is marked by many such incidents that take me in a completely different direction to the one I had intended to follow.)

When I make it back to the centre of Leszno, I pay one more visit to St Nicholas’s church to see my beautiful Maddona, and then head back towards the hotel. The distance seems much further now than in the morning, and I also can’t remember how to get to the little track that’s a shortcut. I stand at the railway crossing for ages, trying to get my bearings and I’m surprised at just how confused I am. I know I came out here, near the large model of a glider, but from where? I wander down a path that seems to be going in the right direction, but after ten minutes, I find myself under a huge railway overpass, walking amongst weeds and big concrete bridge supports. There are some youths on bicycles way in the distance. It doesn’t feel safe here and I turn back. I’m back near the glider again. I check my map and although I can work out where I am, I can’t see the track – or any other clear road to the hotel. I ask a young woman for directions and while she doesn’t really know where the hotel is, she indicates the general direction I should take. I eventually find the track and the hotel and collapse on my bed for a while. In half an hour I’m booked in for a dry water massage.

The hotel is divided into two sections – the hotel part, and the water treatment swimming pool part – which are joined by a long passageway on the second floor with security doors in the middle and at either end to prevent the public from wandering into the hotel part. I emerge on the swimming pool level but there are two other floors of treatment rooms, and lots of people milling about – young, old, school aged, middle-aged, disabled - who are all coming or going from sessions in the pool or treatments that occur behind rows of doors down long passageways. I’m given a pass which I use to get through a turnstile where a young, sporty-looking woman greets me. She leads me through a huge tiled room where semi-naked men are washing in open showers or relaxing in tiled baths and shows me into a small, private room with a large bed-like structure in it. I lie down on the rubbery surface as instructed and my assistant tests a range of water pressure options on me. The massage consists of great jets of water that slowly move up and down the underside of my body. It’s an odd sensation - not unpleasant, but not particularly relaxing either. Oh well.

I decide to leave for Berlin the next day. My mother can’t remember the date she left Leszno, but it would have been some time in mid January 1945, because that’s when the Red Army began to advance with great speed into Poland. Perhaps it was around the 17th, the day that Warsaw fell to the Soviets – the news would have spread quite quickly. But the departure was a little more complex than that, because it resulted in the separation of my mother’s family, who had so far managed to stay together during the whole journey from Riga. In a way, there were actually two separations – one that was totally unexpected, the other that just had to be, but both the result of war. On that particular morning - let’s say it’s the 17th of January - my mother, her parents and her brother, woke up to find that Elina and her husband and children had vanished. Presumably they had heard news of the Soviet advance during the night and had decided to flee, but without telling my mother’s family in the downstairs apartment – indeed, so quietly that they didn’t even wake them from their sleep. As my mother’s parents pieced together what had happened – it probably didn’t take long - a walk into the street, a question to a neighbour, perhaps the sight of others ready to move on too – there must have been a great sense of disappointment and abandonment. For whatever reason, Elina’s family had gone and had decided not to involve my mother’s family.

The family pack together whatever they can – some food, some clothes - I understand this happens very quickly – and get on a train that is heading for Berlin. Presumably they are on the train because my grandfather is working for the railways, otherwise they would have been on foot, as thousands of others were. The train is in extremely poor condition, with most of the windows broken. It’s January and it’s the dead of winter, the countryside covered in snow. As the train departs, my grandfather says goodbye to his wife and children – he must stay in Leszno and work on the railways as the Soviets advance westward.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Stargard Szczecin

It’s a four hour trip from Gdansk to Stargard Szczecin and although I’m in a first class carriage, there is no power for my computer and there is no dining car either. My ticket is actually booked for Szczecin, which is where I assume I will be getting off, but in fact, Szczecin and Stargard Szczecin are two different places, which at the time of travel I don’t know because the results of my internet searches were a bit unclear. Just to add to the confusion, Stargard was called Stettin under German occupation - and I was unable to find any information (in English anyway) about a transit camp for refugees in Stargard, Stettin or Szczecin. I do know, however, that there was a POW camp in Stargard during WWII.

I watch the country-side through the window, take videos on my camera and finish reading Sebald’s book on destruction and the German psyche. In my carriage are three young women, one who spends almost the whole trip in conversation on her blackberry. When she is not talking, she is sending messages and consulting a large diary. Next to me is a man who speaks a little English and is also going to Szczecin. He kindly lifts my suitcase onto the rack above the seats. ‘I think you must have gold in there’, he says, because it is so heavy. I am embarrassed about the weight of my suitcase – how could this be? especially after I sent eight large parcels back to Australia before I left Riga. I vow to reduce its contents once I get to Germany.

We are about half an hour from Szczecin when the train stops at a particular station for an extended period of time. I look out the window fairly casually – it’s a rather grotty, depressing station – and gaze blankly at a large white sign just outside my carriage window covered in Polish text. I notice it has the word Szczecin on it, but then I notice that Szczecin is preceded by the word Stargard. In a small flurry of panic, I realise that this is where I have to get off and ask the man next to me if he could help me with my suitcase. ‘But your ticket is for Szczecin’, he says. ‘I know’, I reply, ‘but this is where I am going, this is where my mother was in 1944’. ‘So it’s a special journey’, he says, ‘it’s about your family history’, and he takes my suitcase down from the rack, and like a true gentleman, carries it onto the platform for me. He also wishes me good luck.

Stargard Szczecin Station

The train vanishes into the distance and there I am, on the platform of Stargard Szczecin, in a place that looks completely different from the images on the internet sites I had been checking. I drag my suitcase up and down the stairs of a small underpass and into the main part of the station. It feels a bit daunting here because it's very run down. I look for information signs, find one, wait patiently in a queue, but when it’s my turn the woman just shakes her head – she speaks no English - and points me to the adjacent counter and another queue. I wait here and again I have no luck and am sent to yet another counter, where of course, as I now come to expect, no-one speaks a word of English. The woman at this final counter just looks at me with a stunned expression on her face. I feel a small wave of panic pass through me – what the hell am I doing here? What was I thinking? Why didn’t I go to Szczecin, as I had originally planned and then I could have done a day trip to Stargard? But then I pull myself together and go outside station to see what I can find. There is a big map on the side of the wall, and I search it for the location of the station, but I can’t see it marked anywhere and there is no ‘You Are Here’ arrow. I ask a big, rough-looking man standing next to me for help by pointing to the ground and then to the map, but he just shakes his head and points to the taxi rank.

There are two cabs. I get into one and ask for ‘touristiko informacija’ (a strange hybrid of Latvian and what I think might be Polish that I make up on the spot) and the driver takes me to a small square in the old part of town and points to an office with ‘i’ on the door. The square looks completely dead – not a soul in sight – and while the woman in the bureau is quite friendly, she speaks no English. She does, however, draw a small map for me that shows the location of a hotel. When I leave, I notice there is another bureau diagonally opposite that looks more like the official Tourist Information office and so I pay a visit there as well. The woman working here also has no English, but she asks if I speak German (why didn’t I think of this at the station?) and we manage to have a staccato conversation. I haven’t used German for years and my vocabulary is very limited, but somehow I manage to draw out and string together enough words to make myself understood. (This is a physical experience, almost painful, because I can actually feel the words squeezing out from a very dormant section of my brain.) The woman explains that there are two hotels that would be suitable for me, one in the centre of town and the other further out. I decide for the more central option, which is supposed to be the best accommodation in Stargard and was also suggested by the woman in the other bureau, collect a range of information brochures and head off with map in hand.

Stargard Szczecin Square

Stargard Szczecin is much more attractive than its railway station suggests. It’s a very old town – one of the oldest in Poland, in fact – and has many beautiful gothic buildings. I stop to take photos here and there as I make my way to the Hotel Spichlerz. I walk through a superb old gate, turn right on the main street and reach the hotel in about fifteen minutes. While the signage on the street is clear, the entrance to the hotel is not and I mysteriously find myself inside a shop that sells Stihl products. The woman behind the counter is busy talking on the phone but she points next door, so I go back outside to search for the entrance. I eventually find it and after negotiating a series of Escher-inspired stairwells, I arrive at the back of the Stihl shop. It seems that the shop and the hotel are all part of the same operation. The woman is still on the phone but she indicates she will be with me in a moment. I find the reception area down another mysterious flight of stairs and wait until she arrives and checks me in.

The Hotel Spichlerz

I settle into my room, which is in a corridor between two flights of stairs that you can’t take the lift to. I either have to drag my suitcase up a small flight of stairs, or catch the lift to the first floor and then drag it down a small flight of stairs. It’s all quite confusing and I am beginning to wonder whether I should have opted for the slightly cheaper hotel that is further out of the centre of town. But even though it’s a bit monastic, my room is quite comfortable and I feel a little more relaxed now that I have a base in Stargard, although I do have the odd feeling that I’m the only person staying in the hotel. I unpack my computer and toiletries and I look out the window. The view is across the front courtyard, a big sloping expanse of pale gravel. The curtain is quite thin and just covers the window. I feel a bit strange, being here, in Stargard. Perhaps Valters Nolledorfs is wrong and my mother never came here at all.

My room in the Hotel Spichlerz

It’s starting to get dark and I’m quite hungry because I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I go in search of food. The receptionist, who only speaks Polish, recommends the restaurant Faroun, which is just a short stroll down the road. It’s actually a large fluoro lit café with about eight melamine dining tables lined up in two rows of four. With the exception of the lighting and the starkness of the décor, it’s a little reminiscent of dining rooms in Riga, where the food is home-cooked and priced by weight. I have a meat pancake, salad and coffee. The other guests observe me with interest – I’m clearly not local.

After dinner, my capitalist radar steers me around the corner into the main shopping street. I buy a few supplies in the supermarket and find myself feeling really settled – I’ve made transactions for accommodation, food and supplies so I know I can survive here. Of course, when my mother arrived here in 1944, the process of settling in, if you could call it that, was a completely different experience – delousing with giant hoses in public showers, being ill with dysentery, sleeping in vast barracks on wooden tiered bunks where thousands of others had slept…

I make my way back to the hotel through a park that follows the original walls of the old part of town – it’s very beautiful in the dusk - and I wonder how on earth I’m going to find the location of the transit camp in Stargard Szczecin.

Back at the hotel, I ask for the internet password but it fails to work – I try everything possible, but the system just won’t let me in. I have another moment of Western panic – no global communication possible from Stargard Szczecin. I’m now cursing and wish I had stayed at the other hotel. I’m in the wrong place, I say to myself in my little room, I’m in the wrong place. Why didn’t I go to the other hotel that’s a bit further out? It wouldn’t have taken that long to walk there.

I go up and down the series of stairs to get to reception to ask for hot water so I can make a cup of tea. There are some other people there – a man in his forties, a woman and a young child. They’re quite chatty with the receptionist who plugs in an electric kettle behind the counter for my hot water. The man, who I assume to be another guest, starts talking to me. I tell him I don’t speak Polish but we quickly establish that we can both speak a little German and, as we begin our rather stilted conversation, I realise he is actually the owner of the hotel. His name is Zdzislaw Kosikowski and he’s very friendly. Zdzislaw asks me what I’m doing in Stargard and I explain that I’m looking for the site of the refugee camp where my mother stayed in 1944. He immediately goes behind the counter, looks up something on the hotel computer and says that he knows where the camp was. I’m a little aghast – this was not meant to be so easy. He shows me a website and says, ‘Here, it must have been here, at Kluczewo’. He prints out the pages and points to a precise location on my map of Stargard. He tells me there was a huge German airbase there with military barracks and a labour camp for prisoners of war. We both use the word ‘lager’ as a way of describing the camp, but I also try to explain, in my very pathetic German, that my mother was a refugee and was here only for a week or so while in transit to Leszno. Zdzislaw says he is one hundred percent sure that Kluczewo is the place I am looking for. I ask if I can get there by taxi, and he says yes, sure, it’s about ten minutes drive away. He shows me books about Stargard published by the local government and finds one in which there is information about the airbase and the lager. He also presents me with a golden Stargard Szczecin commemorative coin in its own plastic case and asks me to sit down at the big table and write in the visitors’ book. ‘You must write why you are here – write everything you have told me – you can write in English.’ I sit at the table and do as I’m told, now drinking my cup of tea. Of course I know now that I am staying in the right hotel.

Zdzislaw Kosikowski, owner of the Hotel Spichlerz

The next morning I have breakfast with five other guests in a huge dining room that reveals the hotel is surprisingly bigger than I had originally imagined. Large glass doors open onto a wide tiled deck that in turn overlooks a park-like garden at the back of the hotel. The décor of the room itself combines timber surfaces with ornate floral wallpaper. A big flat-screen television on the end wall broadcasts the news -  in Polish, of course. After breakfast, I ask the receptionist to call me a cab to take me to Kluczewo, but Zdzislaw, the hotel owner arrives, and says if I wait for him he will take me there himself! I am completely overcome by the kindness of this man.

Zdzislaw drives a shiny blue Peugot. On the dashboard, there are three books on the history of Stargard and as he drives, he uses one hand to flip through the pages to find snippets of information that might be useful to me. While he doesn’t drive fast, the car wavers all over the road as he simultaneously steers, searches through the books and talks to me in German. I watch for oncoming traffic with a certain level of anxiety but I also repeat the word ‘ja’, nod my head and make other exclamations that suggest I am following the conversation. Of course, I can only grasp a fraction of what Zdzislaw is saying, but I have found that in such situations it is more productive to smile and say yes and hang on to every word that possibly makes sense, rather than to look puzzled and say that you don’t understand.

It takes about ten minutes to get to Kluczewo, a small village on the outskirts of Stargard proper. The tree-lined streets shade pre-war renovated apartment blocks that housed the German Luftwaffe as well as newer, Soviet built housing blocks. It’s the height of autumn, the leaves are golden and Kluczewo looks quite romantic. I comment that Kluczewo 'ist sehr shön', and Zdzislaw retorts that that’s only because of the trees. We drive through the town and down a desolate road dotted with a few old buildings and eventually arrive at an abandoned railway station. The whole place is overgrown with weeds and the windows on the lower floor of the red brick building are boarded over, but those on the upper storey still have glass. We get out of the car and Zdzislaw tells me this is the station my mother would have arrived at in 1944. So not at Stargard Szczecin where I got off, but here… Zdzislaw takes a photo of me and I photograph him. The place feels ghostly. I try to imagine the thousands of people who must have arrived here during the war - was my mother’s family amongst them?

The abandoned Kluczewo Railway Station

We get back into the car and keep driving down a long curvy road. The land on either side is flat and mostly bare. It feels like lost land, land that no-one knows what to do with. In the distance, on my left, there is a long line of semi-circular grass-covered bunkers – lots and lots of them. These were for the airfield workers, explains Zdzislaw, and I can see that this must have been a huge airbase.

Grass-covered bunkers

As we keep driving, the road turns to concrete and suddenly we’re right in the middle of a huge abandoned runway that stretches in all directions for miles and miles. We get out of the car and Zdzislaw stands near the blue Peugot while I take photos. It’s vast and windy and a little bit spooky and I’m rather overwhelmed about being here. It’s not really what I had expected to see and it all feels rather unreal.

The abandoned Kluczewo airfield

We get back into the car and drive along another road and Zdzislaw points out where the camps were. 'Here', he says, 'was the lager'. There are some trees and shrubs lining the road and just beyond I see some rubble and the remnants of walls in amongst the grass and weeds. Further on, the land is flat and desolate. This is Anselm Kiefer territory. I see his open, muddy fields, thick with a dark history that is churned into the very soil. I take photos of the camp site. Zdzislaw also points to a field on the right and I think he says that this is where many people died, but I’m not sure if I understand properly and I’m too overwhelmed to be logical and ask him to repeat himself. It is enough just being here – and it doesn’t actually matter whether my mother was here or not.

The sites of what I assume was the POW camp

Later, when I get back to Australia, I find a website that documents the memoirs of a Jewish woman, Lieb Lurie, who hid her real identity by paying for the papers of a Polish farm girl. Lieb writes about arriving in a transit camp in Stargard in 1942 where she stayed until the end of the war, working on the telephone system. When she arrived at the camp, she washed and received a haircut and also records that over time, the camp grew to 2,000 people - Ukrainians, Czechs, Frenchmen, Italians and Poles. It would be safe to assume then, that this is the camp Valters Nollendorfs was referring to and which my mother most likely passed through. However, I remain confused about the POW camp in Stargard – was it the same as the transit camp and the lager? Or were these different camps in different locations?

Zdzislaw heads back to town. We drive past the huge new Bridgestone factory, one of the largest outside Japan. It covers 100 hectares, an area as vast as the airfield we just visited, and has created hundred of new jobs in the area. There is also a sugar refinery here and a Dutch factory of some sort. Stargard Szczecin has gone from one type of labour camp to another.

Back in Stargard, the traffic is getting thick. It’s All Souls Day, remembrance day for the dead, and everyone is heading for church or the cemetery. People on the street carry wreaths or red glass candles holders that they will place at the graves of family and friends. Zdzislaw drops me off at the hotel and I thank him, wishing I could also give him a Tasmanian souvenir or some other token of my appreciation. He says I can check out of the hotel any time I like.

Everything in Stargard is closed except for the churches, and I so decide sit in on a service in a big Cathedral near the town square. Even though I’m neither Christian nor Catholic, it seems the right thing to do, given that it’s All Saints Day. Of course, I come from a Christian background and the stillness of the church and the rituals of prayer and hymn singing have a calming effect on my sense of being. I once toyed with the idea of Catholicism – just as an idea, nothing more - because I liked the concept of confession and being absolved of sin on a regular basis, a sort of fresh start whenever you needed it. But it was only ever an idea, and a very naïve one at that.

After church, I’m not sure what to do. I need to get to Leszno next, but I don’t really want to spend more time here. Stargard is a beautiful old Pomeranian town, but I also feel a bit trapped within its historic walls. It was a transit place for my mother and I feel it is a transit place for me too.

I do a final circuit around the old town's historic buildings and make my way back to the hotel. There is a different receptionist on duty and she has my godmother’s name - Edite – and she speaks English! I ask her if she knows what time the trains depart for Szczecin and she checks on the internet. It's about an hour before the next train and so we both go into the big dining room and pass the time over a cup of tea. Edite looks very young and I am surprised when she tells me she is forty years old. We chat easily and she tells me a lot about her life and the various difficulties she has faced. She is determined, however, to remain positive and has a dream that one day things will get better for her. I suggest that she may be able to use her English skills as a means to a better job and we agree that one day I will return and we will have coffee together in a café in Szczecin, where she sees a possible future for herself. We say goodbye and I head for the railway station.


Friday, January 2, 2009

From Warsaw to Gdansk

The trip from Warsaw to Gdansk takes about four hours by train. I’m traveling first class in a cabin that seats eight people. I make some notes on my computer and start reading WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, a reflection on Germany’s silence in response to the utter devastation of so many of its cities during WWII. Occasionally I look up and check the woman sitting directly opposite me. She’s probably in her late fifties and is dressed from head to foot in various shades of purple. She spends almost the entire journey with her eyes closed, praying quietly to herself while counting rosary beads. Every now and then I also look out the window and take small videos of the passing countryside. Poland is not too different from Latvia but the forests seem a little scrubbier and the trees a bit shorter. I particularly notice this with the birch trees. I also get a strong sense that I’m traversing a very small stretch of a very vast country. We pass through forests, farms, big open fields and acre after acre of the now familiar community gardens. Of course, for me, none of them compare with the magnificence of Biruta’s and Aturs’ garden, with its large summer house, five beehives and well-trained chickens that forage in the woods during the day and return to roost in the coop every evening.

The train passes through some railways stations and stops at others. As it comes closer to a station, more buildings appear, and on the buildings, a seemingly endless band of graffiti that looks as though it has simply continued on from Latvia and Russia. The graffiti is indiscriminate and snakes across everything in its path - ugly soviet housing blocks, beautiful historic buildings, private houses, brand new office blocks. And while the text may be different because it is in a different language, the formal elements of the graffiti - its style, scale and range of colours – are virtually the same as in Riga, Moscow, Warsaw – and later in Szczecin, Leszno, Berlin, Hannover, Geneva, Milan, Naples, Pompei... As the trip progresses, my disdain for its persistence and its complete lack of discrimination, in particular when it smears the base of stunning historic buildings, grows stronger and stronger.

I arrive at Gdansk and catch a cab to the Hanza hotel, which is where Michael Pallin stayed when he was filming his series on Europe. It’s not a very big hotel but it’s right on the Motlawa Canal in the centre of the old town. I’m sure Pallin’s room would have had a view across the water – mine, however, looks over the street. I am also convinced I have been given the wheelchair accessible room because it is the only room in the hotel with a giant sized door (I know this because one morning I walk down all the corridors on all the floors in the hotel and check the size of all the doors to the rooms – mine is the only one of such large proportions). My bathroom is also huge and has convenient handrails next to the toilet and in the shower.

The view from the Hanza Hotel across the Motlawa Canal

On my first evening I take a walk along the picturesque waterfront which is lined with amber shops and restaurants. Right next door to the hotel is the famous Zuras crane, a giant Medieval wonder of engineering that was originally built in the 14th century. For centuries it was used to load and unload cargo from ships but now it is part of Gdansk’s maritime museum. I stop to admire the amber shops every now and then. There are so many here that I can barely believe it – shop after shop after shop, all selling every type of amber jewel imaginable. I thought there was a lot of amber in Riga, but here, there are entire streets that are just amber stores, like the beautiful Mariacka Street.

Mariacka Street, lined with amber stores

The Zuras Crane

I reach the Dlugi Targ, the main ‘square’ of the old town which was once the ‘Royal Road’ and is entered at either end through ancient gateways. Like Warsaw, Gdansk was reduced to rubble during WWII and was completely rebuilt, brick by brick. I have a friend who dislikes the rebuilding of cities destroyed as the result of war and sees it as a type of Disneyefication of place, but I don’t agree. I am stunned at the sheer amount of work, the extraordinary attention to detail and the almost defiant dedication that must have been required to reconstruct what I see now, as I walk through the square. I am entranced by the buildings – I can’t imagine them scarred by war – they feel like they have been here, settling and weathering, since they were first erected. Most of them have steps that lead to their entrances, flanked by fabulous gargoyle drains. I stroll from one end of the square to the other and I feel really happy to be here – it’s much easier and friendlier in terms of scale than Warsaw. I have a friend back in Hobart who is half Polish and I wish I could beam her down to enjoy Gdansk with me - I am convinced she would just love it. I have coffee in a smart café that also offers mouth-watering cakes and ice-cream before heading back to the hotel in the dark.

The old town, Gdansk

A doorway in the old town

One of the many gargoyle drains in the old town

The next day I walk to the Roads to Freedom, or Solidarity Museum, which tracks Polish resistance to Soviet occupation from the end of WWII. I am very moved by the exhibits and find myself spontaneously crying as I walk through the rooms. The crying response started back in Riga and has been with me ever since. It starts without any conscious invitation and makes me weep with embarrassing profusion at the slightest trigger. But I can’t pin down the nature of the trigger – sometimes I go somewhere and fully expect the crying response to kick in – a cemetery, for example, where a relative is buried - but no, not a single tear. At others, I just have to glance at a small object or a stranger’s face and the weeping starts instantaneously. In this museum, it’s all bound up with the focus on the 1980 dockworkers’ strikes - I am overwhelmed by the images, objects, soundtracks and reconstructions that represent the fight for civil rights, the determination of everyday individuals to resist oppression. I even weep at the giant plastic souvenir Pope pen that was used to sign the strike conditions, even though it looks almost comical displayed in its own glass case.

The entrance to the underground Solidarity Museum

Inside the Solidarity Museum

The Pope pen and the conditions of the strike

* * *

I need to find the port where my mother’s ship would have landed in 1944 and I ask the receptionist at the hotel if she knows where it is. She gives me instructions to catch tram number 8 and tells me that will take me there – she is quite specific and even marks the direction of the tram on my map. She actually sends me on a wild goose chase – I take tram number 8, excited at the prospect of arriving at the old port, but the tram just goes deeper and deeper into Soviet housing block areas. It’s all very interesting, but after about 45 minutes, I get out, cross the tram tracks and go back to where I came from. I stop at the Solidarity memorial where the 1980s dockworkers’ strikes took place (here there is no weeping) and then head back into town.

Gdansk railway station from the tram stop

Just opposite the railway station is a Holiday Inn and I ask the staff here for the location of the old port. This time I get good information – I have to go to Westerplatte, where WWII started, which is on a peninsula opposite the new wharf. There is no easy way to get there at this time of year because the tourist season is over. During the summer, there is a boat that takes you there (how perfect that would have been) but now the choices are limited and I decide to hire a cab. I go back to my hotel and they arrange for a driver to take me on a round trip to Westerplatte.

My cab driver, Roman Zagorski, arrives in his Mercedes. He speaks English well and also has a great sense of humour. He’s a bit round and jolly and when he laughs, reveals a great row of small, dolphin-like teeth. But he also takes the journey seriously and assumes the role of personal tour guide. He knows Westerplatte intimately and shows me all the significant sites, including the spot where WWII started, of course.

Roman Zagorski with his Mercedes

We drive around small roads where there are many old factories. We stop so I can take photographs. I get out and walk on the sandy beach and watch the waves roll in from the Baltic Sea. Roman has worked out a little itinerary for me that would take me on a ferry to the other side of Westerplatte peninsula but unfortunately, the ferry is not operating today. We are both a bit disappointed. He shows me where the ships would have come in during the war and I try to imagine what it was like for my mother and her family to arrive here, in a strange land, on a ship that had been bombed carrying a cargo of wounded soldiers and refugees. Did they know they were going to Gdansk? Or did they just get on the ship and hope that it would take them away from the encroaching Soviet advance? They would have known, of course. My mother tells me later that my grandfather’s cousin, who was the one who had arranged for them to go by train to Liepaja, was looking after the wounded soldiers and had to accompany them to Gdansk. He was allowed to take his family with him, but as he was single, and my grandfather was his closest relative in Riga, he asked my mother’s family if they wanted to go. They did. They made the decision to leave instead of staying.

The Baltic Sea from Westerplatte

The wharf where my mother's family would have landed in 1944

I wonder what my mother’s life would have been had they stayed – how would communism have treated her and what opportunities would it have offered? Would she be living now in a Soviet housing block in the outer suburbs of Riga, in a tiny flat with paper thins walls, growing all her own vegetables and flowers in a community garden? It seems futile to think about this, because had she stayed, I would undoubtedly not exist and nor would the questions. The fact is, my mother left her homeland and went to Australia and she now lives in the Latvian Retirement Village in a small but sunny unit with Mr Chips, the most beautiful dog that could possibly be, and a very lovely garden that she takes great pride in tending.

Nevertheless, I feel a desire to spend more time here, to sit here on the sandy beach, look out over the Baltic and just take in where I am and how far away it is from little Hobart on the other side of the earth. But it’s also cold and windy and I’m with Roman, and the meter in his Mercedes is ticking away as he smiles at me with his dolphin teeth and suggests some further extensions to our trip. I thank him and say I have seen enough and he drops me off near the main street of the old town.

The Baltic Sea from the beach at Westerplatte

On my final night in Gdansk, I catch a cab to the Szydlowski Hotel, which is where Gunter Grass, the Nobel-Prize winning author of Tin Drum stays whenever he is in town. Gdansk, of course, is his home and in this hotel he has a table permanently booked in the restaurant. I decide I should eat a meal there – who knows, perhaps Grass himself may turn up. The hotel is about fifteen minutes drive from the old town and it’s a smart but fairly modest 3 star establishment. I ask at reception if this is where Gunter Grass stays and they tell me yes, there is a picture of him in the café, where he sometimes dines. I take a seat and order Polish sour soup, which is served in a hollowed-out loaf of rye bread. It’s just delicious – very similar to Latvian sour soup, but Latvians don’t serve it inside a loaf of bread. It’s made from sorrel, boiled eggs and chunks of bacon and has a distinctive sour flavour. I take photos of my dinner, ask the waitress to take a photo of me sitting in the Gunter Grass cafe and then take a cab back to the old town. The next day I catch another train and head deeper into the Polish coutryside in search of the camp in Stargard Szczecin.

Polish sour soup served in a loaf of rye bread

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Goodbye Riga

My mother has very little memory of her arrival in Gdansk from Liepaja but does recall arriving some time in the morning and being taken by train almost immediately to a huge camp where there were thousands of other refugees, all sleeping in giant barracks on tiered wooden bunk beds, about fifty people per room. She had thought the camp was not too far from Gdansk, but Valters Nollendorfs, the director of the Occupation Museum in Riga, is almost one hundred percent sure that the camp is the same one he passed through one month before my mother’s family arrived there. He says the camp was in Stargard Szczecin, a satellite town of the larger port of Szczecin (Stettin under German occupation). While I can’t absolutely confirm that this was the place my mother went to, his description and my mother’s are so very very similar that I am convinced he is right and so I change my itinerary to include a stop in Szczecin.

Before my mother’s family can enter the camp, they are deloused along with all the other refugees because almost everyone has become infested during their long journeys from various Eastern European locations. They take off their clothes and hang them on racks to be fumigated and then go into large open showers where men with hoses wash them down with some type of disinfectant. I ask my mother what this experience was like and she says that because everyone was standing together, in a long row, and they were all being hosed down as a group, it was not so bad – it was something you had to accept, in a matter of fact way, as part of the new and unknown rules of life as a refugee.

The camp itself is a type of transit station where people get dispersed to other places. My mother’s family are on their way to stay with relatives who live in Leszno, a small town south of Posnan, but they are unable to leave the camp for a week or so because my mother becomes ill with dysentery. This may also explain why her memories of the camp and its location are so vague. There is no medical centre, but she is given some medication. When my mother has recovered sufficiently from her illness, they head for Leszno, where Elina Bonke, my mother’s cousin lives. Elina is my grandmother’s brother’s daughter, and she lived in Sarkandaugava until she married and moved to Poland. The photograph, which I also included in the posting on Sarkandaugava, is of her confirmation, with my mother seated on the floor in front of her parents. Gunars, her brother, is second from the left in the front. (As a child, I was always a little disturbed by the shaved heads of young boys in these old family photographs. It was the 1960s when I first viewed them with any real understanding of their content, a time when everyone was growing their hair long. For some reason I associated the shaved heads with something a little sinister - a type of undisclosed punishment.)

Elina Bonke's confirmation in Sarkandaugava. When the family escape
Latvia, they go to stay with Elina and her husband in Leszno, Poland.

I can’t follow my mother’s journey from Liepaja to Gdansk by ship as there are no ferries or boats running the route. I could make a longish digression by catching a ferry to Sweden, then a train to a specific city on the Swedish coast where a ferry does leave for Gdansk, but such a trip would take quite a number of days and while I would like to do it, my time is limited and I am presented with an alternative option. A friend in Hobart, the artist Liz Woods, introduces me to Jarek Lustych, also an artist and based in Warsaw who would be happy to show me around the city’s contemporary art scene. I had not originally planned to go to Warsaw, but this seems like too interesting an opportunity to miss, so I decide to fly there to meet with Jarek, and then catch a train to get to Gdansk.

* * *

I leave Riga on the 25th October. During the week before I go, I make several trips to the post office by taxi and send about eight parcels back to Australia. I have accumulated a lot of stuff – books, catalogues, old magazines from the 1920s and 30s, maps, art work trials and various other things that have become a burden because of their bulk and weight. The apartment looks spare and minimal again, as it was when I first arrived, and I feel a pang of sadness about leaving it. I have become accustomed to living here, in this huge space – it feels like home – and I am also a little scared about heading off into Poland to a series of places I have only ever visited on the internet.

My home in Riga for two months

The night before I go I have dinner with Anda Klavina in Osiris Café. It is hard to say goodbye because I have grown very fond of her over the last seven weeks. She has been more than just a very helpful project officer for the residency, she has become a good friend. I will miss our talks about art, life, relationships and what it is to be Latvian.

Anda Klavina, the et+t residency project office, and me. Behind us are some
of my works in progress, digital images printed on a canvas-like material.

My cousin Mara and her husband Viktors take me to the airport. They truly feel like family to me now and have been incredibly supportive during my stay. They have had me over for dinner, collected my mail from Australia and have helped me find materials for art works. Mara also phoned me almost every day to check that I was ok and, of course, we both travelled to Moscow together, which was a great adventure that still seems like dream.

I fly to Warsaw with Lot, the Polish airline, on a very small plane that only takes about 30 passengers. It’s a very smooth and uneventful flight, despite my initial concern about the size of the plane. As I’m waiting for my luggage, I ask two of the other passengers if they would like to share a cab into the city. Jarek has warned me that taxi drivers in Warsaw can charge outrageous sums for short distances, and I’m glad that the two women, Canadians who have been working in Latvia on a social justice program, are happy to join me. When we emerge from customs, we are almost immediately accosted by a private driver who wants to charge us 10 euros each for a 10 minute trip. I barter with him but he declines my offer of 5 euros each. We eventually find a cab driver who charges 10 euros for all three of us. The Canadians get off at the Hilton and I am dropped off at the Bristol, a commanding old art nouveau hotel on the famous King’s Way, right next door to the Palace and very close to the old town. I’m staying here because I succumbed to a fantastic internet deal and I feel a bit guilty. My room is plush and spacious, with antique furniture, a marble bathroom and views over the Palace courtyard. As I luxuriate on the bed, testing out the range of pillows and flicking through the channels on the big flat screen television, the guilt magically vanishes and I feel like a princess.

The Bristol Hotel, right next to the Palace

My first afternoon is spent exploring the very beautiful old town. I find it hard to believe that most of what I see has been reconstructed, brick by brick, after almost complete destruction during WWII. The buildings are richly decorated and I fall in love with the use of colour, floral patterns and touches of gilding. A restaurant in the main square of the old town is covered in vines and autumn leaves and looks like it belongs in a fairytale. In one of the smaller streets, I come across a busker dressed as the grim reaper. When I give him a coin he comes to life and rings a bell. Closer to my hotel is the university, large bookshops, some private galleries and a number of churches. I feel relaxed and happy, and also very safe here in Warsaw, and the anxiety I felt about going to Poland vanishes completely.

Views in the old town, Warsaw

I arrange to meet Jarek in the foyer of the hotel at 11.30 the next day and we spend all afternoon together, visiting two contemporary art galleries and the Palace gardens. As we walk, I ask Jarek about his art practice and he tells me he is working on a project I incorrectly interpret as being about ‘The Laugh’. I have trouble following the logic of what he is saying and eventually realize his project is not about ‘The Laugh’ at all. I confess that I have misunderstood and Jarek repeats that the theme of his work is ‘The Luff, The Luff’. And then it clicks and I get it - Jarek’s project is about ‘The Love’. We laugh about my misinterpretation.

I get to see one of Jarek’s recent projects on our way to the first gallery. It’s a site-specific work in an abandoned street display cabinet in front of some shops. Jarek has covered the cabinet with silver leaf and from its little ceiling hang the two rounded but separated halves of a silver heart. It’s a delicate and subtle work that transforms a small part of the street into something magical. Jarek likes to work outside the gallery system, surprising the public with his projects which he sets up in unexpected places - he has been using the heart shape – a universal symbol of ‘the luff’ - in a number of recent works.

Jarek Lustych and his art work

As we move on, trying to find a contemporary art space that has only recently been opened in the city, I get to see some of Warsaw beyond the old part of town. There is a very different aesthetic operating here – one that aims for grandeur, scale and monumentalism. We walk past the Palace of Science and Culture, a massive Soviet building that was completed in 1955 as a gift to the people of Poland. It is the tallest building in the country and seems impossibly huge and incredibly, bleakly Soviet in its design. There is a similar building in Riga – the Latvian Academy of Sciences - but it’s not nearly as big. It towers behind the central markets but is dwarfed by the truly massive radio and television tower, the highest structure in the Baltic states. I go back to Wasaw's Palace the next day, explore a little of the interior and take the lift to the 30th floor where there are great views over the city from an observation deck.

The Palace of Science and Culture, Warsaw

Riga's Academy of Sciences, with the radio and television tower in the background

Getting around Warsaw is quite hard work because all of the streets and boulevards are huge – so huge that it is daunting to stand on one side of the road and contemplate getting to the other side. In some cases, there is no pedestrian access on the surface and you have to look for specially constructed underground walkways that get you from one side of the road to the other. Jarek doesn’t like the grandeur of the streets – he thinks they are too big and too wide, and as a result, it’s difficult to feel a sense of intimacy with the city or with the people. By the time I get to day three in Warsaw, I agree with him.

We eventually finally find the new gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which is tucked in an alleyway and appears to be in what was once an old office building. The floors and walls have been purposefully left ‘unfinished’, creating a look and feel that’s clearly been inspired by the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. (I’ve never been really convinced by this style of gallery because unless the work is site-specific, it often ends up competing with the space itself.) The exhibition is called Nie Ma Sorry, which is translated as Ain't no sorry. There are quite a few video works and we move from one to another together, discussing each before moving to the next. My favourite is a compelling video projection by Agnieszka Polska of a series of old black and white photographs of people undertaking rehabilitation exercises. Polska has animated individual body parts at a very slow and meditative pace – an arm gradually moves upwards, a hand strokes a neck, two legs are raised and lowered alternately. While the actions themselves are rather insignificant, there is something about these minimal movements that is utterly mesmerising. Jarek says its because the pace of the animation matches the pace of normal breathing but I think it is also the nature of the images themselves, which seem to bring to life subjects from a long gone past. The work is also accompanied by a series of small, still images that have been pasted to the wall.

Inside the Museum of Modern Art, with Wojciech Kosma's Cross pulse counting, 2008

A still from Agnieszka Polska's Correction exercises, 2008

Afterwards, we have coffee in a restaurant close by and then catch a tram to the Royal Baths Park, a vast 76 hectares of Baroque gardens and buildings established in the 16th century and acquired by Stanisław Poniatowski in 1764 after he became King of Poland. The gardens are stunning and we stroll through the grounds with hundreds of other people - the trees are golden, the buildings ornate, there are ducks and swans in the lake and everything looks like a postcard.

A view in the Royal Baths Park, Warsaw

In the same grounds, up a steep slope, is the Ujazdowski Castle, which houses Warsaw’s major contemporary art gallery. It’s currently showing a retrospective of sculptor Marek Kijewski (1955-2007) who sadly died at the height of his career. I ask Jarek what he died of and he replies, ‘Too much hard living’. The exhibition, titled I'm All A-tremble When I Can Shower You with Gold, is a wild and highly individual mix of Pop art and contemporary kitsch. There’s lots of bright colour, gold leaf, neon light and fantastic creatures and objects that are partially constructed from children’s sweets.

Marek Kijewski (1955-2007) and an installation view of his retrospective

What strikes me about this gallery and the work in it, is that Poland doesn’t appear to have been left behind during Soviet occupation in terms of contemporary art developments in the West. There is a small survey of 1960s and 70s Conceptual art and it looks typical of what you would see in any Western gallery. The situation is quite different in Latvia, where contemporary art has had to go through a process of ‘catching up’ and still seems to be finding its own voice. Here, in Poland, the work appears to have developed without restriction and with a great sense of confidence. I discuss this with Jarek and he tells me that each Soviet republic was allowed to develop something specific to itself. ‘And Poland’, he states, ‘was given the licence to think.’ Again, I can’t help making comparisons with Latvia, which seems to have been so much more oppressed than Poland during Soviet occupation.

Jarek asks me if I want to walk the three or four kilometres back to the hotel and I say no, let’s catch the tram please! We spend an hour or so in a casual but groovy bar just across the road from the Bristol where you can have cheap meals with your drinks. We have white Polish sausages and mustard. Jarek has to work the next day, and is tired from being up all night playing a part in a Polish television sitcom, otherwise he would show me more of the sites around Warsaw. I too, am exhausted and look forward to relaxing in my swish hotel room.

In the groovy bar across the road from the Bristol. Jarek is below the
drawing of the whistling teapot on the wall

The next day I take to the streets of Warsaw on my own and walk to the railway station to book my ticket to Gdansk, negotiating huge people-unfriendly boulevards to get there. The Palace of Science and Culture is right behind the station, and I spend about half an hour trying to find my way into the building. It is so massive and contains so many different museums and offices that it is not easy to find the right entrance for the viewing platform. Inside, it’s a bit like a railway station – lots of pinkish granite and marble, high ceilings and stairwells. I buy a ticket, go downstairs to the lifts and then catch the express to the 30th floor. Here too, it feels impersonal and cold, but there is an impressive chandelier in the entrance and the views of the city are superb.

A view of Warsaw from the 30th floor of the Palace of Science and Culture

Later in the day I catch the tram to the zoo on the other side of the river to see the bears, which I find rather sad, then further out to the giant markets where I get a bit lost, and then back to King’s Way for a stroll around the university as it begins to get dark. In the morning, as I head for the railway station, I get my final glimpse of the giant Palace of Science and Culture before I vanish into the underground and settle into the first of many train trips that take me through Poland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.