Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning Polish: "No, you can't have my cat"

After three years of living in Poland I'm quite satisfied with the fact that my Polish is finally on a more or less acceptable level, which means that I can have some conversations with the locals without using English, German or out of frustration my own language: Dutch (which never really helped me out in any other country, but okay)

I've been taking Polish lessons and although I'm still on a basic level with speaking, my listening and reading is way better, so I understand a lot. I'm just very quiet when someone asks me something.

Whenever I can I speak Polish -or at least I try/pretend to speak Polish- and usually that makes me feel proud. But not always. Lately I was doing my groceries after a 1,5 hour long Polish lesson, so I felt quite confident. I walked up to the cash desk to pay for my food, drinks and cat litter for the fluffy black hair ball that is called Mika. 

Everything went smoothly and I think the cashier thought I was cute with my not so perfect Polish. I gathered all my stuff and lifted the heavy cat litter into the shopping cart when the lady suddenly asked me: "Can I please have your cat?" 

A moment of silence went by and I was staring at her all puzzled: "My cat??!?!?? You want my cat?"

The word for cat in Polish is 'kot' and I was sure she just said that. I asked her to repeat herself and she said it again. She still wanted my cat! I explained to her that it's my cat and unfortunately she couldn't have it. The weirdest question ever, if you ask me. 

Now she was the silent one, but not for long: after a few confusing seconds she slowly said: "kod pocztowy", which just means postal code. With a red face I gave her my postal code in crappy Polish, apologised, said goodbye and walked out as fast as I could.

I still have a lot to learn, but at least my cat knows I'm loyal to her.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pstrąże: the city that always sleeps

A little girls' shoe, a toy tank and some plastic cups are the only silent reminders of the fact that people actually used to live here. In the midst of crumbled walls and shattered glass they lie still on the ground, as time around them passed by. More than 20 years of abandonment turned the city of Pstrąże into a ghost town where nature took over. In the last two decades the city became one of the most interesting places in Lower-Silesia for urban explorers.

From the moment of entering the remains of the city, the silence is overwhelming. Besides some birds and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, there's nothing else. The eight-story apartment blocks are the first thing you see and the idea that thousands of persons used to live here takes your breath away. The buildings are falling apart, but it's still fairly safe to enter them, as long as you're being careful. Trees are growing in the empty rooms and even on top of the apartment blocks.

From 1945 till 1992 the city was occupied by Soviet soldiers, who lived in this isolated city with their wives and kids. Pstrąże used to have a population of approximately 20.000 inhabitants and was quite a vibrant city. Build in the well known Soviet style, grey apartment blocks were placed one after another on one side of the city, next to the railway. On the other side of the tracks were the barracks, shops, schools, bars, a swimming pool, a casino and even a small theater. Unfortunately only a few buildings are still standing and sometimes it's difficult to see which purpose they served.

The city in the middle of the woods was first mentioned in the 14th century. It originated as a small village with the name Pstransse. In 1865 all the buildings were burned down to the ground by a big fire. In the beginning of the 20st century the German army began rebuilding the village for own use. They build a long concrete bridge across the river and also brought a railway connection with Leszno Górne. Pstrąże, or in Russian Страхув. was not visible on any map since the Soviet occupation in 1945 and the main bridge was blown up to prevent the Poles in the area from entering the premises.

Nowadays you won't find Pstrąże on your standard GPS navigation system, but on Google Maps you can see the city and plan your trip. There is still a smaller bridge that gives entrance to the ghost town by car. No one lives in the city any more, but sometimes the roads are still being used by some local farmers to avoid traffic jams and to save time. Since Pstrąże is surrounded by woods, so in autumn it's a popular location to pick mushrooms, so don't be surprised if you see an old Polish lady on a bike, transporting baskets full of the freshly picked goods.

Every now and then the site is being used as a military testing ground for rescue workers and as well for anti-terrorist groups. The last big training was last year, to practice response in case of a disaster, for example something similar to the Smoleńsk tragedy. The army, the police, rescue workers and fire fighters worked together and used Pstrąże as location.

While walking through the abandoned city it's sometimes difficult to imagine so many persons lived here. Everyone had their own life, with their friends and their loved ones. They did their daily groceries in the shop, they had a drink in one of the bars and they had to climb the stairs of the apartment blocks with their laundry. Nothing reminds of these daily routines any more, most of the rooms look the same and are stripped down, except for some apartments of creative inhabitants who painted their walls with curly decorations.

In all the years that went by every room had different colors on the walls, which now results in a colorful palette of chipped paint, layer over layer. Most of the floors of the apartment blocks are accessible, but be careful with the stairs and with loose bricks and shattered glass. The other, smaller buildings are mostly more damaged than the blocks. Sometimes walls came down or whole rooftops collapsed, take a good look at a building before you enter. Sometimes it's not worth taking the risk because you want to see the interior. A lot of buildings are quite similar to each other so it can be wise to just take a look at the next building and enter there.

If you want to go for some urban exploring the ruins of Pstraze with your own eyes, get into your car and put Kozłów or Stara Oleszna in your GPS system. From Wrocław it's approximately a 1,5 hour drive to these small villages. Drive through them and a few hundred meters after Kozłów you'll see a sharp turn to the left, next to some sort of parking place. Take the smaller road on the right, because the bigger road leads you to the bridge that was blown up. From this point it's about 1,5 kilometer until you reach your destination and then the urban exploring can begin.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Wrocław International for March 2012

Read The Wrocław International from March 2012 here on my blog. In this edition I wrote three articles, on page 1, 2 and 3 are articles in English about the new train station in Wrocław and the train crash from a few weeks ago. On page 15 you'll find a Dutch written article about the Dutch and Polish language and the Dutch Meetings I organize. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Complaining about Poles in Holland

I wrote this article for The Wrocław International, but unfortunately it will be printed in the April-edition, since this edition has  'discrimination & racism' as main theme.

A big group of Poles living in the Netherlands are outraged about an web portal where people can report complaints about disturbance from Poles and other central- and eastern Europeans. The website is created by politician Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom. The following questions are stated on the website: 'Do you have problems with people from central and eastern Europe? Have you lost your job to a Pole, Bulgarian, Romanian or other eastern European? We want to know.' 

According to Ino van de Besselaar from the Party of Freedom (PVV) the site is not to discriminate, but to develop proper insight into “problems caused by central and eastern Europeans in terms of crime, alcoholism, drug use, dumping household waste and prostitution,” so he said in Dutch newspaper AD. Although it officially may not be discriminating, the website generates a lot of controversy, not only amongst Poles but also amongst Dutch people. They cannot comprehend how PVV can be so harsh on minorities. The political party is known for their anti-Islamic ideas for years now, but apparently they are not so enthusiastic about other minorities as Poles either.

At the beginning of March, Dutch Minister of Immigration, Gerd Leers, went to Warsaw to talk to Minister of Internal Affairs Cichocki, as well as to Minister of Labour Kosiniak-Kamysz and Secretary of State for European Affairs Dowgielewicz. He explained to them that it's not a government website, but only from the political party PVV. On the same day that Leers visited Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk made the following statement: “The Netherlands is presenting an increasingly un-European face. There is no problem of Poles in Holland: it is Holland that has a problem, because it's the only EU country that is behaving controversially regarding immigrants and the enlargement of the Schengen zone.”

The opinions in Wrocław about this web portal are very diverse. Bartek, a 23-year-old student of the Wrocław University is not to worried about it: “It doesn't bother me too much, we are all living in a democracy so even the biggest idiot has his right to speak whatever he wants to, but luckily we don't have to listen to him.” Wrocław resident Piotr (29) also expresses his opinion: “It's a political issue, some politicians just want to gain voters, of course some of the complaints are well-grounded, but clearly exaggerated. Some misbehaviour of Polish emigrants is very embarrassing for many of us Poles staying in Poland.”

International Dutch companies and some politicians are afraid this might harm the image of the country abroad. Bartek: “I think it could make Holland look bad in Poland, because I think that Poles, comparing to the residents of many other nations act quite good, they are working hard and they're taking the jobs that the Dutch people don't want to do.” Agnieszka, a 26-year-old Polish woman who lives and works in Holland doesn't agree: “I don't think it would change the image of the Netherlands in the eyes of Polish people as I believe the Dutch society knows that not all Polish people are the same, as well as not all Dutch people are - there are also Dutch criminals and drug users, for instance. I believe that Poles know that this website is an idea of only a few people that apparently had some bad experience with some Poles, and it's not an opinion of all the Dutch.”

There are also a lot of Dutch persons who are really fond of Poles and other residents from central and eastern Europe. They organised an eastern European disturbance party in Utrecht to make people aware of how many good things Poles and all the others brought to Holland. The party was really successful, there was a crowd of more than 500 persons who enjoyed a night full of Polish vodka, balkan-beats and polka's. Also the Ambassador of Poland, Janusz Stanczyk wanted to do something to turn the tides and he helped to set up a website where you can leave all your positive experiences with Poles:

Eastern European Disturbance party
Picture by Renate Klinkenberg

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My first solotrip in Poland: Krakow

Thousands of football fans from the Netherlands will be taken over the city of Krakow this summer. At least, that's what is expected, since the Dutch football team will be training here and also rest in a luxious hotel. No matches will be played in Krakow, but since the city is very interesting for tourists and it's way closer to Holland than the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Holland will play. So there will probably be a lot of Dutch supporters coming to the old capital of Poland. Not only the Dutch team, but also the English and the Italian team chose Krakow as their residence, so it will be extremely crowded with supporters this summer. Before all the football fans take over the city, I decided to take a look and explore Krakow for myself, since every Pole keeps telling me that it's one of the most beautiful cities Poland has to offer.

Horse carriage on the Rynek.
St. Mary church and a horse carriage on Rynek
So that's what I did: a few days after New Years I took a small, but comfortable bus that would  take me in four hours from Wrocław to Kraków. I was a little bit stressed, since it was long ago I travelled by myself, apart from flying back and forth between Poland and Holland. This summer I did a few traintrips alone, but then I knew that at my destination Bartek will be there waiting for me at the station, or my travelmates from the travelprogram I was in. Now I went to Krakow alone, without anyone to meet there, since I did not had any contacts in the city yet. So it was my first real solotrip in Poland.

I wasn't really worried about the fact I was travelling alone, I would stay in a hostel in the old historic center of Krakow, with a view on Rynek, the market square. The best thing about sleeping in hostels, in my opinion, is that you can meet a lot of different people quite easily. They come from all over the world, but also from different cities in Poland, so I could extend my network of Poles. The bustrip was okay and went smoothly. I don't know this part of Poland that well, so it went pretty fast because I could look out of the big windows to all that we passed by next to the road: I saw some hills, a lot of churches, small villages with cute little houses, half-demolished buildings which seem to be in this state for years already and lots, lots, lots of industrial buildings, the less beautiful part of Poland, so to speak.

When I arrived in Krakow, I tried to find my way to the hostel. After twenty minutes of walking I stood on the market square, surrounded by beautifully lit historic buildings. My hostel was also situated at this great location, I checked in and was brought to my room. I knew that I would stay in an 8-person dormroom and I was very curious to who my roommates would be. I had my hopes up that it would be nice Polish people, so I could extend my network and practice the Polish language at the same time.

The receptionist opened the door to the room and said with a big smile: "Look at this, you've got the whole room for yourself! Isn't that great?" A bit disappointed I asked her: "There is really no one else?" and she answered: "No, it's after New Years, everyone left already, there are only 6 other people staying at the hostel right now." So that's where my plan to meet a lot of great people kind of fell apart, I would have to spend most of the coming days alone. Too bad, but okay, it's such a beautiful city, I can enjoy myself here anyway, with or without people to share it with. After looking out of the window to the beautiful square for a while, I decided to explore Stare Miasto, the old town of Krakow. Read more about this in my next blogpost.

If you want to see more pictures of my trip to Krakow, click here.

Krakow by night
View from my hostelroom on cloth Hall at Rynek

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Teargas and a hug from a nationalist

Mars der Patriotten, Wrocław, Polen

When I was a little alternative girl I walked in a protest march once. I didn't quite know what it was about, I think it was against the enrichment of uranium or something like that. At that time I wasn't sure as well, but I went to march anyway. In the 13 years that followed I never participated in anything like that again, also I never went to a protest march as a journalist. Now I do have this experience, and how, since I've been to the Patriot March in Wrocław on Independence Day.

Every year on Novembert 11th the Polish celebrate their independence and there are always Patriot Marches being organized. The biggest march is of course in the capital Warsaw, but also in my city Wrocław there were 2000 people on the streets to show that they are real Poles who stand up for their country. It's not only patriots that are participating, but also nationalists, fascists and hooligans. They all grab this chance to shout their nationalist slogans and light up flares and exploding fireworks. All together it creates an unfriendly and agressive atmosphere which I never experienced before. Since there are also demonstrations from antifa there is a big police force to keep the two groups seperated from each other.

On Rynek, the market square, the march started out pretty quiet. They walked a few rounds on the square, shouted some slogans, lit up some fireworks and flares and looked angry to the photographers and journalists, including me. When the group walked through the rest of the city centre, they came close to the other demonstrating groups and then the atmosphere totally changed. Suddenly I saw thirty extra police officers coming out of their vans and they runned towards the crowd. Curious as I am I decided to follow them to see what was happening over there. That may have been not the best decision of my life, because I couldn't find a safe spot to stand. The benches on which most of the photographers were standing were more than full and the only solution was to stay in the group of angry nationalists and hide my camera and phone, because most of them didn't quite liked the media.

I put my hood over my head and my scarf over my face to blend in with the crowd, this seemed to be the dress-code for being in the march. People were throwing flares to the police and at the same time a guy in front of me decided to lift a trashcan to hit the police with. Then all hell broke loose, the police force came towards us in one big line of shields and sticks. The guys around me decided to run into the police and I couldn't do anything else then to move in the same direction the crowd went and try my best not to fall.

Luckily for me I was able to stay on my feet and I even picked some patriots from the ground so they wouldn't get trodded under feet. At that exact moment I felt some liquid in my face and a very spicy taste in my mouth: teargas! I acted quickly and put my scarf over my entire face and held my hand over my mouth and nose to keep the rest of the gas away from me. Everyone started running away from the police, except from the first line of patriots, who lay on the ground screaming in agony. Shortly after this it got 'peaceful' again and the march went on to the other side of the city center. I decided to walk with the group to check out what will happen there, with my left eye closed and the feeling like I had just had a bucket full of wasabi in my mouth.

I planned on checking the opposite party, but due to the huge police force I had no other choice then to stay on the side of the nationalists and patriots. Since the whole centre was closed down by the police I couldn't go to my tram stop to go home, so I decided to update my Twitter and Facebook on a bench near to where the patriots were ending their march. After a few minutes a Pole came up to me and asked where I was from. When I said I was from Holland his face lit up and he decided to give me a very long and extended hug. Why he did that I still don't know, perhaps he thought I came all the way from Holland to participate in this March of the Patriots. I really have no clue whatsoever, but at least I had some first-time-experiences again in Poland. I now know how it feels to get sprayed with teargas and I know how it feels to be hugged by a nationalist.

Watch my video from the March of the Patriots:

Check de Nederlandse blog over de Mars der Patriotten hier