Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Swedish American in Poland

I just got back from Poland the other night. I flew down to Wroclaw, Poland for a couple of days. I had never heard of Wroclaw, but was searching through Ryan Air's website and found a ticket. For free. Technically, after a couple of fees it cost me 94 SEK. Roundtrip. That's damn cheap. So away I went.

Like I said, I knew nothing about Wroclaw. And my trip started out with a bit of confusion, as it so often does when I fly places. This time I was on time though. Which was a plus. I went to my gate and waited patiently. Then they announced that they were boarding my gate to Breslau. Well, I'm going to Wroclaw. So I waited, and everyone around me got up and started getting onboard. And then they made another announcement, same city, but this time they threw in the flight number. Which matched mine. I decided to get on. They checked my ticket and allowed me onboard. Turns out that Wroclaw has a few different names. Breslau is the German version if you will. And apparently, Skavsta wanted to confuse us all by announcing Breslau but posting Wroclaw.

I arrived to rain. And cold weather. Which was fine. I was coming to a former communist country so it felt kind of fitting. I had never been to the eastern bloc so this was all very exciting to me in a horribly history nerd sort of way.

And it was all glorious. Old churches at every turn. Some of those majestic ones. Others those stubborn, tired churches that have been through hell. Communist buildings. Wroclaw had it all. And a lot of it was right in Old Town.

Old Town Wroclaw wasn't really that old. Turns out that Breslau, as it was known during WWII, was one of the last cities in Germany to capitulate. By the time Europe was divvied up and Breslau became Polish and Wroclaw 70% of the city was destroyed and 90% of Old Town lay in ruins. Following this, the Polish government thought it more important to rebuild Warsaw. So raw materials, namely bricks, were shipped from Wroclaw to Warsaw. At its height one million bricks were being shipped out of the city to rebuild Warsaw. Somehow Wroclaw survived.

And the town was rebuilt. Including Old Town. Old Town however was not rebuilt to look like it had right before WWII, but instead in an old Baroque style. But the trick is that it's all a façade. The builders stuck with their classic communist buildings. And just made the fronts of the buildings, the façade if you will, look like Old Town. So Old Town, while an incredible homage to the past, was really built after 1945. And now you know.

I went out to a concentration camp, Gross-Rosen, a little ways outside of the city. This involved a train ride. And the train ride was glorious. Not because I particularly like trains but because I got to see the Polish countryside. It reminded me of Skåne. If Skåne had suffered through WWII and communism.

Along with the Nazi history just outside of town, Poland had a bit of communist history. Wroclaw as well. And they displayed that history with a lot of public works of art. One of which is by far the coolest works I have ever seen. At a cross walk on one side is a group of people who are disappearing into the cement. On the other side of the cross walk they are reappearing. Apparently this work of art was put into place on midnight of the night of December 13th, 2005 on the 24th anniversary of martial law being declared in Wroclaw. The people disappearing into the cement are in honor of all of those who disappeared and went underground when martial law was declared.

Another public work of art is the numerous gnome statues that dot Old Town. Seems like a tourist gimmick. And it is. Kind of. But it actually goes back to the Orange Alternative movement in the ‘80s. A group of people who protested communism in nonsensical ways, mostly in hopes of avoiding violence being used against them. One of my favorites was the group singing Stalinist anthems in front of the monkey cage at the zoo. But the gnomes are in tribute of the group dressing as gnomes on International Children’s Day in 1988.

My last day in town was a short one. I had to be out of the hostel at 10. And my flight left at 1. So I got up early again to get the most out of what little time I had left. So I was out the door at 7:30. I had plans of checking out all of the communist buildings. And it was pouring. Which seemed to fit the situation actually. I was soaked through. But I toughed it out and immersed myself in communism. And that's about all the communism I need.

Lots of old cement buildings built in what was called Socialist Realism. Now when I think communist buildings I think cement. Like I mentioned. And I was right. But there was more thought to this than just cement. Like disaster. One housing complex which was used as an example of Socialist Realism was built with very wide streets. In case of fire all the people cramped in the housing could get out. That same complex had lots of trees around. Not for aesthetics but because if the (misinformed) thought that trees would soak up the radiation from a nuclear blast. And finally, the four buildings that made up this complex were built in a way that they could easily be turned into a fortress. It was incredible to see.

Overall I was amazed by Poland. I suppose I went in with some prejudices just because of the whole communism thing. But it was a beautiful town, some great history, and some delicious food. Cheap and delicious. I stuck to classic Polish foods, which turned out to be meat, potatoes, and soup. Which worked out well because I quite like meat, potatoes, and soup. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the food. And Poland in general.

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  1. Did you visit the Leopoldina while there? That's the old name for the University of Wroclaw, founded in the early 1700's by the Austrian Emperor Leopold I of Hapsburg. The university' establishment had much to do with the efforts of Jesuit priests. and consisted of 2 faculties, one for philosophy and one for theology.

  2. I wandered around the university a bit. in fact, that first picture has the university building in it to the left. I checked out a couple of the statues around the buildings. they were some pretty impressive structures. I was surprised by how much of a unversity town it really was.

  3. Very cool! I dream of going to Poland one day... I have family (and my sirname) from Northeastern Poland... I just was in Latvia, also first time in a former soviet country... amazing!!

  4. It is so important to be shown, not only reminded in the written word and images as most of us have been, the horrors of a totalitarian state. Eva and I went to Budapest a few years ago and when you get off the main drag you can see the abject misery of the old people and neighborhoods who have been through Nazism and Communism. We visited a museum that had a traveling display of Samizdat. My next blog, on Wednesday, will dwell on this.

    Welcome back to Sweden.

    From Ron, currently in California

  5. @sassa – I would definitely recommend it. I had so much fun. And it was easy to get there on RyanAir and very cheap. In fact, I think RyanAir has some cheap tickets again to Warsaw and Wroclaw.

    @Ron – Agreed, and this was the first time I had really seen what WWII really meant, and what a former communist country really meant. It was pretty amazing.

    It also really made me want to explore more of eastern Europe.

    I look forward to hearing about your adventure in Budapest.

    Enjoy California. It’s windy and snowing here.

  6. When we were in St. Petersburg in 2002, we saw several sites that "were destroyed by the nazis." They we hoping to rebuild soon. in 2002.

    And the bloc housing was very surreal, and seemed to just go on and on, geometrically, in every direction. It was like standing in a hall of mirrors or something.

  7. yeah its pretty amazing isn't it?

    and I would imagine that st. petersburg had even more of the block housing and communist buildings.