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.