Polish people cringe when I tell them my first experience of this country was the train station at Katowice in 2010. The cold concrete interior, swathes of wandering homeless, and an open air butchers shop that filled the station with the dead smell of raw meat are a few of the impressions I’ve retained from that trip five years ago.
Today, things have changed somewhat. The station is cleaner, the concrete is at least painted, and the butchers shop has disappeared. The crippled, dead eyed homeless still remain, sleeping with both eyes open on the small, steel seats.
Step outside the station and the drunks wandering out of bars and into Zabkas – the small convenience stores where you can buy a pint of a vodka for less than the cost of a bottle of water in most other Western countries – walk in such rapid, hasty, swaying zigzags that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into the Monty Python Ministry for Silly Walks, Central Europe branch.
I sit here now at the train station in Wroclaw, waiting for the 14.12 to Poznan. Waiting for a train in Poland is becoming a habit, an experience both strange and familiar.
Five years ago as a kid of 18 I waited in Krakow for the overnight train to L’viv. It was cold and I was holding tight to my backpack with a youthful fear of thieves. A group of homeless who had been sheltering in the station gathered around the door and began to heckle a crippled, dark skinned man who had been attempting to climb the stairs into the station. They hurled abuse at him as he struggled with the first step. Eventually he gave up and slunk back into the blackness of the night.
One year ago I waited in Zakopane for the overnight train to Lublin. I’d walked that morning over the border from Slovakia after spending the weekend falling off a snowboard and getting drunk with the lethal Tatras Tea (in that order) in the mountains on the Polish / Slovak border.
In Lublin I found the address on Lubatowska street where my Great Grandmother had been born. Old men, drunk in the early hours of the morning, urinated in the street and old women squatted on street corners selling thin, terrified chickens.
A jew, my Great Grandmother emigrated to England as in infant in 1913, and settled with her family in East London. Those of her family who stayed behind were eventually mustered with the thousands of others in front of Lublin’s grand castle, and sent on the trains to Krakow.
Two synagogues still stand in Lublin, a city once called the Jerusalem of Europe. The security guard at one gave me the key to the Jewish cemetery. I found it hidden in the shadows of a cathedral in a dodgy part of town. Locking the door behind me I walked among the ancient, overgrown headstones. The oldest Jewish gravestone in Europe stood there, with a Nazi bullet hole in the centre.
In Wroclaw I too have visited a synagogue and looked up the Jewish history in the area, but the experience has been less harrowing. The famous “Under the White Stork” synagogue – named after the tavern that used to be next door – is beautifully restored and, although empty when I visited, once again functions as a place of worship.
They say Wroclaw is like a larger version of Poznan and it was a little erie to discover just how true this is. The cathedrals lie over identical bridges in identical relation to the town square, and the narrow streets have the same feel – the same character. After being based in Poznan for the last 6 months, visiting Wroclaw feels like seeing an old friend with a strange new haircut.
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