Dear readers! As you might noticed, I am lagging behind with news from Absurdistan. This is because I went to investigate things on the ground… Ok, I won’t lie to you. To be perfectly frank I was on holidays and while some of it I spent camping around Scottish Highlands and Islands, for the other half I went to Poland. When there, I used every opportunity to speak with people and gauge their thoughts, as while by living in Glasgow I got an unique perspective of the outsider, I am sometimes afraid that I could be loosing touch with reality when it comes to what is going on in my home country. Perhaps, I think to myself, my picture of Poland filtered by the news, my social media bubble and reporting from my friends is not accurate? Well, it turns out, that I am giving you pretty good insight into what is going on in my country, if we remember, that there are two Polands now and I am describing to you that one influenced by the changes in recent Politics.
On the surface, there is Poland as normal, European country. Everytime I am going back to visit, I am always amazed how much has changed. New shiny buildings popping up everywhere, well dressed happy people enjoying their time in the beer gardens of the fancy restaurants. My home town of Wrocław is bursting with tourists from all over the world (I even saw a South-Korean registered car with the family calling up to my city on their overland trip to Paris).
Many black or Asian faces met at the suburban bus line, jogging in my local park or walking dogs in the less known parts of the city centre suggest, that not all foreigners are tourists. Apparently many people from different countries decided to settle here at least for the time being. This gives the town that multicultural vibe, that along with several brand new shiny office buildings, modern trams, newest models of cars stuck in horrendous traffic and people using city’s cycle hire scheme make cities like Wrocław or Poznań no different at first glance to the buzzing European metropolies such as London, from where I am writing those words. I even failed to get a journey down the memory line – about 15 years ago I was a regular traveller between Poznań and Wrocław by the means of hitchhiking, so I’ve decided to recreate that journey on my way to see some of my Poznań friends. I wanted to see all those smaller towns and villages on the way had changed… And I haven’t seen a single one of them – the road carries you all around them thanks to the newly built EU founded by-passes and expressways…
But all this is on the surface. When you scratch deeper, you can see that Poland is buzzing under it’s skin.
It has begun in the plane already. I’ve noticed that passenger next to me is in such desperate need of something to read that he has read Ryanair’s leaflet from cover to cover twice. As I had a book and a magazine, I offered to share it with him. He was grateful, but apparently „Polityka”, the biggest Polish weekly was not exactly his cup of tea. I’ve been lurking over to see, that while some of the pieces (mostly reportages and news from Latin America) caught his interest, he simply browsed the bits about current Polish politics shaking his head in disgust and disbelief – Polityka is often portrayed by the government propaganda as extreme-leftist anti-Polish medium and the tube of the opposition.
After the flight, I was offered a lift by some friends. Two elderly gentlemen agreed to drop me off at the Katowice main station. There was some radio playing – I could not see the display on the dashboard, but from the fact that it was playing some religious music interrupted by priest’s lectures about some issues from the Old Testament, I assumed, that it is infamous Radio Maryja run by the catholic priest and political grey eminence Tadeusz Rydzyk. But then it came the news time, and they played a jingle. To my surprise it was not any of the Catholic radio stations: it was Jedynka, first channel of the Polish Radio. The news were shortly followed by the disco polo music…
Church seems to be dominating Polish landscape more and more. All moral choices seems now to be only discussed in the context of sin. Later during my holidays I saw in a spa city of Cieplice a kind of water nymph statue covered with a crochetted bra to cover her naked breasts:
But that was nothing compared to the shock I encountered right on my arrival. After two elderly guys dropped me off in Katowice train station, I boarded the night train to Wrocław. I found a seat where there were already some people in the compartment. A nice lady soon started a conversation and when I told her I am from Scotland, she wanted to know everything about living in that part of the world. One of the other passengers was listening to our conversation and interrupting every time something sounded not right with the message he was getting, apparently, from the right wing media:
„Haven’t you seen all those blackies that just milk the benefit system there?”
„Your friends are probably very afraid that anti-Polish social services will take away their children and give it to some couple of fags?”
„I don’t believe when you say you are not afraid of terrorist. You are just probably already brainwashed by the leftist propaganda”.
At the beginning I tried to politely explain the facts to him, but he was not interested, and he just piled more and more subject on the top of it. Therefore I’ve decided to just ask him where he gets all those rubbish facts from, TVP or one of the PiS run web portals? He was offended by such accusation: he is not some lemming, that just swallows propaganda fed to him by media. His sister lived in Birmingham for a year and he even visited her twice, this is how he really knows how life in UK looks like.
In Wrocław, my home town, the dust was just settling down after massive protests agains the changes in judicial laws. Wrocław was a stage of one of the biggest protests in Poland, although marches and manifestation took places in several cities and towns, even the small ones in the East that usually are strongholds of PiS voters. Nearly all of my friends could talk about nothing else, but the politics. Even those, that I would never suspect of any interest in that field. „I would be most happy to be not interested in politics as I always was” – explained one of them – „but it’s politics that came to me, to take away my rights and I can’t just stand and watch what is goin on”. Even bus and tram drivers were listening to some talking radio instead of the dance music stations that were so often heard in the public transport just a year ago…
At least it’s quiet at the home front. My aunt, who is a strong PiS supporter apparently gave up on trying to convince my family to come „to the light side”. This, despite the fact that it meant that she ceased nearly all contacts altogether, was a kind of a relief. Nobody likes to listen lectures of how braiwashed he is or how they are just to stupid to understand that Kaczyński is the true statesman this country really needed.
Here as well everything is about the politics, and many conversation refers to the stories of „how we participated in the protests and whom we met there”.
But it is not only politics that worries people. There are some other concerns as well. Even people with kids and well established businesses are talking about emigrating if the things turns to be even worse than now. Ok, jokes like „keep the couch in your living room ready for us” might be not a serious analysis of emigration perspectives, but if I was given 50 pounds every time I heard that one, I would probably be able to retire already…
My friends who are teachers are seriously worried about their perspectives. Despite governments promises that their reshuffling of the school system popularly called „educational deform” will not amount to any job losses, it is obvious by now, that this is not the case. Also the new regulation means that teachers, who would struggle to fill their pensum from just one school would have to be granted permission from a head teacher to get another part time job elsewhere – which, if we remember, how politicized the school system is, gives yet another way to discipline people who happen to have political views different to the official party line.
The doctors are not happy as well. They say that work gets harder and harder, as they are heavily understaffed and that many doctors and nurses are considering migration. All ambulances are displaying a flag as the protest of first responders continues: not only are they paid about 12 zł (approx. 3.30 GBP) per hour, but they have been recently made responsible for paying the cost of repair if the ambulance gets involved in a bump or the accident when responding to the emergency call. I heard an anecdote about a doctor at the A&E department, who with tears in her eyes approached an elderly lady after she’ve been waiting for several hours and said „I know you should not be made to wait for so long, but I am all alone here and this is my 30th hour on duty”.
No industry seems to be free from political influence. A well established professional musician told me that they were playing some gig for one of the state controlled energy company with one of the well known Polish singer. They were approached by „some lady” who told them: „boys, the minister is here, so you cannot play that big hit that was sung in a duo with Kayah”. Apparently Kayah is still on the blacklist for all that things that led to cancellation of the Opole festival – see more on that here.
But some people seem to be happy with how the things are going. A lorry driver, one of the people who gave me a lift, was complaining about French authorities doing everything in their power to block the competition that Polish transport companies are bringing to local French hauliers. ‘They say we dominated the market” – he explained – „and that it is not a healthy balance. But look at the Polish retail market – the biggest chains of supermarkets are all French – Auchan, Carrefour, Leroy Merlin… They don’t seem to be concerned about the balanced market here. And imagine, what would they do if the Polish government treated those French companies in a similar way to how the French treat us… If you believe that European Union is the partnership of equals, you have to be really naive”. But he is no longer concerned about troubles that Polish drivers might encounter in France. After he chased some migrants, who slashed his lorry’s curtain in order to get inside in Calais, with a baseball bat, he became some kind of internet celebrity as his actions were caught on dashcams of some other drivers. He is afraid to go to France again but not due to aggressive migrants in Calais, but the French authorities. „You know, those migrants attack us drivers all the time as they know, they won’t be met with any punishment. But if we try to defend ourselves, we are treated with an harsh response. Meanwhile neither French or Britons do anything to protect drivers who need to go through that jungle on regular basis. We are between the hammer and a hard place, and if we try to act on our own, we are simply made a scapegoats”. Now he says he only goes around Eastern Europe – Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, sometimes Russia. „At least those are civilized countries. This leftist madness did not made it to there yet”.
The only topic on which I failed to find anyone agreeing with the government was logging in Białowieża forest. Even my right wing driver, proudly wearing his patriotic clothing and waving around baseball bat with some patriotic motif painted on it disagrees with Minister Szyszko’s actions. „I was offered a job on one of those logging trucks” – he said – „But I declined. I am known to be user of the services of the roadside hookers, but I am not a whore myself”.
The nationalist motifs are seen everywhere. A typical football stickers, that football fans used to stick everywhere like a dogs that need to mark their territory for some years now started to include some nationalist symbolism. Now many of them are no longer related to football at all. Some just display a picture of one national hero or another and say „I am proud to be Polish” or „he is my hero”.
The walls are also covered with murals and graffiti – and it seems to always need to be in line with the right wing narration. For example the city of Leszno, mostly known by the place where famous Czech philosopher Comenius found refugee and wrote some of his important works could be expected to use his person to promote itself. OK, there is a monument of him, although the style gives away that it was placed there long time ago, or perhaps it was origininally to portray a Confucius?
But in general when it comes to pictures on the walls, it seems that the more obscure graffiti is, the more right wing message it carries…
During this two weeks in Poland I’ve seen more celtic crosses than during my recent trip to a early Christian establishment in a Scottish island of Iona.
„Patriotic clothing” seems to be pretty popular, although it is obvious that wearing it is a statement. My friend, who works on creating a Enigma museum in Poznań, telling the story of the Polish codebreakers who broke it’s code as early as in 1933 and provided all the mathematical apparatus that allowed Alan Turing and his team in Bletchey park to work on deciphering german messages gave me a gift – a T-Shirt with the three legendary codebreakers and the slogan „they broke the enigma code”. While I mentioned it to some of my friends, they seemed to consider it an example of Patriotic Clothing as well. One of them asked me „but come on, you can spread the message in Scotland alright, but you are surely not going to wear it on the Polish street like some retarded fascist”? Obviously the public perception of this kind of the clothing is slightly different than patriots claim.
But it seems that for many people wearing some t-shirt with nationalist slogan ticks all the boxes and they don’t need to think about their country anymore. I was surpised to see that while my right wing friends claimed on Facebook, that celebrations of the Warsaw Uprising anninversary was completely spontanous, and thus the proof that today’s youth are really patriotic, the whole town was plastered with (illegal) posters informing about celebrations on the Plac Dominikański, one of the main junctions in Wrocław’s city centre. So aparently the allegedly “spontanous celebrations” were organized by someone:
But at least this was some change from the monthly rosary “for the moral renewal of the Polish nation”:
To my surprise, my friends from the opposite sides of the spectrum had very similar views on the matter of cyclists. „Our president is an extreme lefty, so he gives all the priority to cycles in the city centre” said my right wing friend from Poznań during a cycle journey across the town. „But you cycle in town on a daily basis, you should appretiate that” I conquered him. „Well, yes, but still…” – his response was not really clear but obvious enough to indicate, that he is sticking to his guns on the matter.
My extreme leftist friend from Wrocław of course does not share mninister Waszczykowski view about cyclist being part of the leftist conspiracy forced on us by Brussel’s regime, but he is still strongly opposing allowing cyclists to participate in the city centre traffic. „Look at all those cycle lanes, how much space they take, and they are only used during the summer… It is such a waste of space, it should be given to a public transport instead!”
Those, who are too lazy, or not leftist enough to cycle, can use Uber, which is becoming one of the popular income makers for Ukrainian migrants. I was sharing a ride with my friend and after he left we had a small chat with the driver of the battered Alfa Romeo that seemed like bringing me home for the night would be the last thing before it falls away in pieces. We exchanged our experiences about being a migrant in a strangers country. I asked him, if he experienced some hate incidents. „Not really” – he answered – „yes, the people tell me to go back where I came from, call me a chochoł (offensive term for Ukrainians) and accuse my parents of participation in Wołyń massacres, but that’s normal” he said. For me there was nothing normal about treating visitors to my country like that, but I soon learned that he just have different point of reference. Ukrainians are met at every corner, it has been estimated that up to 10% of current residents of Wrocław might be Ukrainian. At least a few times I witnessed them being harassed with some hate speech on the public transport. When I reacted on one of such occasions, I was met with some amazed stares like if I did something really stupid – and it was not only coming from the attackers themselves, who’s faced clearly gave the message “look, there is another idiot who asks to have his face smashed”, but also from the other passengers of the tram. Even the Ukrainian girls seemed surprised, that someone is actually ready to stand up for them. It was only when I saw the police checking the paperwork, or rather harassing a group of young Ukrainian men I understood why: they were addressing them per „ty”, rather than using the polite form, using vulgar language and threatening them, in a disguise of a joke, with some physical abuse if they fail to instantly produce required document. Those Ukrainians submitted to all of this, some even tried to respond with their own jokes, so I just assumed that for them such treatment is indeed an everyday piece of bread.
Police seems to be not so brave to the Polish citizens. The foot patrols in the city centre have to face constant mocking after the infamous case when they killed an innocent person. „Hide your balls, Police is coming, they might have a tazer” shouted some drunk guys at the market square. „Look, they are propably out of juice again and look for the charger” commented some other passers-by when they saw two police officers entering the electric shop.
But when you walk through the town, eavesdropping on people’s conversations, those related to the recent political events tend to be rather grim. For me the most striking one was a conversation in the pub held by the two guys occupying the table next to me:
„You know” – said the first one – „they are full steam ahead on the curse to completely taking over the country. They have parliament, the government, the president, they are taking over the media and the judiciary system. The next thing they’ll do will be rigging the electoral system and they will stay in power forever. We are heading straight to having a second Belarus here”.
„And so what?” – answered the other – „You don’t even know what you are talking about, as usual. Have you ever been to Belarus? I was. They have beatiful streets, people sit in nice cafes, beer is cheap, everybody is working and they don’t have to brownose those muppets in Brussels. Actually I think the life in Belarus is pretty neat”.
I looked around, seeing that beautiful old town with people sitting in the nice cafes, drinking their cheap beer served by the Ukrainian waitress – as there is not enough Poles to fill all the vacancies – and I wondered – if we finally get to the point where Belarus is now, will anyone really notice?
This piece was written for Britske Listy.