Polish Portrait













Winning entry for the 2014 Hunter Writers Centre travel writing competition

The town is called Plock, but it’s not pronounced the way it’s spelt, as in clock.

A little accent on the ‘l’ turns it into a ‘wh’ and the ‘c’ is not as in cat, it’s like an ‘s’ as in cist. Pwosk.

This was the first of many mispronunciations; a source of great amusement to the Poles, unused as they were to English-speaking foreigners attempting to wind their Germanic tongues around a Slavic language.

I’d arrived nine months into the twenty-first century, but the birth of Poland on the mainstream tourist trail was yet to happen. Warsaw and Krakow saw their fair share of international travellers, but further afield there was a dearth of outside visitors.

Leaving the bustle of Warsaw, the two-hour drive to Plock saw the comforts of modernity peeled off as the car swerved to avoid hay-laden carts pulled by sluggish draft horses. The land revealed women in long floral skirts tending the fields, their heads wrapped in scarfs that said peasant-practicality, rather than hipster-chic.

Arriving in Plock, the grey blanket of Communism was still tucked firmly over this small city. While the old town with its cathedral, cobbled streets and cellar bars hinted at the glamour of more fashionable European destinations, the residential areas saw concrete towers loom over sparse playgrounds whose metal equipment was jollied up with a lick of primary colours.

Once the seat of kings, Plock now reigned in black gold, as home to the country’s largest oil refinery. Not that this grimy claim to fame defined the landscape. Located on the outskirts of town, its chimneys, pipes and pollution formed a backdrop, a place of employment, providing money to play.

Entertainment centred around the home, with family at the heart and vodka on the lips. This left visitors with slim pickings on the eating-out scene. A strange oversupply of pizza restaurants and kebab windows from which there was a giant leap up to fine dining, Polish-style. Fermented cabbage soup served by tuxedoed waiters was eaten with silver spoons and any dribbles politely dabbed with linen napkins.

Eating in meant negotiating the local supermarket. While self-service was firmly established, the Communist hangover of the formidable shop attendant still applied. Negotiation of the deli counter saw a sliced ham mime routine met with a dour expression of apparent incomprehension.

But these remnants of a bygone era were soon expunged by the spread of foreign investment. In three short years, the French had arrived with their hyper-market so huge that the employees traversed the aisles on rollerskates. Sightings of the Fiat 126, or the “Maluch”, meaning “little kid”, became rarer as the streets filled with shiny imported cars. Cable tv became more common and the option of English-speaking movies put an end to the strain of listening through the local dubbing.

The imposition of nostalgic ideals would deem this new Plock hectic, greedy, materialistic. On the flipside, it was brighter, livelier, more accessible. Not worse, not better, but perhaps an inevitable evolution.

2 Responses

  1. A beautiful insight into a bygone time. I love your turns of phrase too, in particular ‘…their heads wrapped in scarfs that said peasant-practicality, rather than hipster-chic.’ and ‘…with family at the heart and vodka on the lips.’ Looking forward to reading more of your short stories!

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