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Travel in music: Chapter 31 - 2006, Poland (part II)

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2006 – Chapter 31 | By the time I went back to Poland, with Leanne, only six months had elapsed since I was last there. Yet, the circumstances were so different it felt like being in another country. Temperatures had plummeted by a whopping 70° C, from summery highs of 30° C to arctic extremes of - 40°C, the lowest temperatures I have ever experienced. The media were full of warnings that explained it was dangerous to spend too much time outdoors. Since we lived on a pedestrian street, we timed our trips to the supermarket. We would make pit stops in cozy cafés, groceries in hand, to warm up a bit before carrying on. In spite of the warnings, every morning, newspapers published gruesome anecdotes of people who froze to death on their way back from the pub or while resting on park benches. I remember a tragic article about a girl who had refused to let her very drunken boyfriend in because he was being loud and obnoxious only to find him frozen stiff at her doorstep the next morning.

We were reporting on the food industry, which is a very significant economic sector but also one where traditions and regional specialties are an untapped source of pride. The percentage of people working in agriculture and fishing industry in Poland is 2.5 x larger than in the EU-28 overall. It also meant that we had to visit almost every corner of Poland to highlight every region’s focus. The fish smoking and canning industries were logically concentrated on the northern coast. In Małopolskie voivodeship, around Krakow, we visited apple orchards and cider, juice, purée and concentrate plants. The Lublin region specialized in berries of all kinds and manufactured frozen goods, jams and syrups. Pork farms were more scattered but the largest production was in Wielkopolska, in the West, where they also made Poland’s best kielbasas (sausage) and an array of other delicatessen. Around Białystok, in the far northeastern corner of the country, there were plenty of vegetable canning plants, not to forget bison grass vodka distillers. Unfailingly, we emerged from these visits laden with products, to the point that we lacked space in our tiny kitchen cupboards. Our generous interviewees proudly showered us with smoked salmon, canned herrings, cold-pressed apple juice, frozen beets, cranberries and mushrooms, pâtés, dry sausages, pierogis (traditional Polish dumplings), jams and many, many other things. Some were not so tasty; others were plain delicious. The best gift we sampled were fresh, jarred soups, courtesy of a family-owned small enterprise that poured passion and talent into their elaboration.

In this harsh winter, given the spread of destinations, we traveled extensively by train and by car. In total, I calculated we must have done more than 15.000 kilometers in just over two months. It was not always pleasant. Windswept train stations, in remote villages, had us cursing both the weather and the erratic punctuality of the Polish rail. We huddled like emperor penguins on the unsheltered, empty quays while waiting for trains that never arrived.

Nowhere did winter bite as hard as in Auschwitz-Birkenau, however. This ex-Nazi extermination camp in southern Poland is largely intact today. It holds a museum to honor the 1.1 million victims that died in its boundaries. Retreating German soldiers destroyed the five gas chambers just before the Red Army reached the camp, in January 1945, but the prisoner barracks, holding cells, medical experiment buildings, sorting rooms, barbed wire enclosure, execution wall and everything else is as it was during WWII. We visited it on a freezing morning. It was -25°C, there was a thin layer of snow on the ground and grey clouds hung low in the sky. The horror was visible and palpable. The ghosts of victims seemed to float lugubriously in the air. I could almost see the emaciated faces of starved prisoners and hear their cries of despair. We walked with our heads down, in oppressive silence, trying to imagine what it would have been like to attempt to survive, huddled in wooden barracks with no heating, while the smell of burning corpses permeated the air. If winter robbed us simple visitors of tears, some 60 years later, how did the few survivors endure it?

There were three of us in the team, Leanne and I, and Nick, our new Polish colleague who had just joined the agency after acting as translator in my previous Poland project. He is rather tall, towering at 193 cm. For a trip down south, to meet friends at the Zakopane ski resort, we rented a ridiculously small 1.1 L Chevy Spark that had virtually no trunk, courtesy of our puny budget. How exactly we managed to fit in there, the three of us with our luggage full of winter clothing, was a mystery. That we succeeded to drive it up the slippery, winding slopes of the Tatras Mountains, with no chains, in the middle of a heavy snowstorm was a downright miracle. For the next two days, however, the car was buried under a coat of snow several meters thick. We only traveled through the village’s scenic streets on foot and by horse-drawn sleigh (kuligs).

The upshot of such extreme cold is the beauty it generates. Zakopane is an ancient, traditional hamlet, in the heart of a mountainous national reserve that is famous for its decorative, wooden architectural style. Under a heavy snow mantle, the overhanging roofs and arched dormer windows of the chalets lent a fairytale atmosphere that the fur-coated villagers only enhanced. The Baltic coast was also overpoweringly beautiful. The old Hanseatic harbor of Gdansk is a gem in any weather but under a blanket of snow and ice, it just sparkled with a different, magical light. On the same bay, not far from the seaside resort of Gdynia – where I had sunbathed in the dunes just six months before – lies the Westerplatte base where the first guns fired Europe into war in 1939. In this same bay, I saw frozen sea for the first time too. Giant plaques of ice formed along the peninsula, broke off and drifted into the Baltic Sea horizon, reflecting the winter sun’s rays with unequaled intensity. When faced with such a spectacle, for a brief moment, you would forget your toes were frozen and reconcile with Poland's winter


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