A Shot of Strong Spirit

Life in a Polish Town

by Tom Galvin


It took five years to finally finish this book and it seems strange writing it now, trying to recall things that happened a decade ago when I arrived in a small town in eastern Poland without a clue. But a lack of direction can sometimes have great benefits, because things can turn out well in the end without the strains of making plans. Fourteen of us from a variety of backgrounds, mostly students, were chosen by APSO (Agency for Personal Service Overseas), the state body for overseas development, to go to Poland and teach in state schools in small towns. This was a time when the country was just beginning to emerge, in 1994, from fifty years of Communism, and I think it is fair to say that most of us had no real idea what we wanted to do with our lives generally. I can say that now with some degree of accuracy because I only know of one member of the group who is still teaching.

We were all on a one-year contract when we arrived and some stuck to that one year. Others stayed longer for various reasons - another year, two, or like myself, five. It was a mixed experience for us all as things got very rough on some occasions. At the same time the hospitality of the Polish people, the friendships made and savoured, the romances, adventures and benders all made it a unique experience that I doubt any of us will forget. It wasn’t the dark corners of Africa we were sent to, or a war zone, or the Arctic or anywhere completely hostile. It was Eastern Europe. But little was known about conditions there at the time and now, in 2005, a lot has changed. Poland has opened up. Europe has opened up and the country that I arrived in over a decade ago is no longer so much of a mystery. But it was then. And life was very different.

This is the story of life in a small town in Poland as I saw it. It is all real, truthful and honest. Some of it might seem a bit offensive, but anyone who knew me while I was there will know that no malice is intended. The Polish people are wonderful and my stay there was all the more memorable because of them.

We can all learn from them and let’s hope, as they reach our shores over the coming years, that we all do.


Chapter One

Summer 1994. It was late afternoon in the town, the heat lingering from another day of intense, radiant sunshine. I’d never imagined this country could get so hot. But there it was, a brutal, dry heat that stung like an iron and made everything appear rigid. The clothes hanging outside on balconies, stiff as playing cards. Windows gaping open, gasping for breath. Dried grass and bald patches on a playground with a swing buckling under the heat.

People moved slowly. Some on old black bicycles, some on foot, barely kicking up dust on streets that were patched together with tarmac and old rock. It needed rain. It needed some colour. It even needed some noise.

We pulled in through the gates of a school, just myself, a driver and a guide. It was kept well but looked as if it needed a couple of grand for a face-lift. Weeds poked up between cracks in uneven concrete. Window panes looked like chapped lips. Even the national flag drooped from a pole inside the gate, weary and just about retaining its colours. Standing inside the front door of the school was a small man, balding, sixties, a cigarette between old fingers and a wide smile like a spade on his face. He shook hands warmly, brought us inside to his office and made coffee in glasses, each glass heaped with two spoonfuls of tar-like granules that should really have passed through a percolator. The room was in stark contrast to the streets of the town we had wound through. It was bright, spotless, smelled fresh and was invaded by greenery from every corner. He motioned to the seats around a large table that was well polished and sparkled like a mirror, offering everyone cigarettes that had no filters. I declined. I was on the verge of giving up. Anyway, I was actually starving and eyed instead the bowl of fruit that ripened in the window next to all the plants.

The coffee was strong, had no milk, and as it cooled, large hard flakes began floating to the top like pieces of loose bark. I battled with the burning glass as the man who I now realised was the school director, discussed the terms of my contract between nods of the head, smiles and countless filterless cigarettes. He was the type of man that immediately put a stranger at ease. Smiles, a gentle voice, friendly gestures with the hands.

He bellowed smoke as he spoke. It came out his mouth. It came out his nose. I thought at one stage it would even come out his ears. If I were trying to quit I’d come to the wrong place.

We’d been to several schools that day, dropping off colleagues one by one until I was the last one left in the van. I had a bad taste in my mouth. All of the places we’d seen were fairly grim. Lonely outposts that were barely mapped that had the driver going around in circles as the day wore on. Villages with one main street, dying as it reached the outskirts, swallowed up by a countryside that was flat and endless and met the horizon with barely a cow to provide a focal point. Few of these villages seemed ready to cope with the arrival of a stranger. Bus stops, train stations, petrol stations were all in the minority. A quick search for bars, general stores, or even supermarkets was fruitless. These villages seemed more like time traps. Motionless and still, they hung there on the cusp of the modern world with some of their inhabitants just about hanging in there with them. But they held a beauty of their own.

Some of the living quarters were also stuck in that black hole between the old and the new. One school had somehow forgotten they were getting a foreign teacher, a girl who smiled bravely as she was led up a flight of bare concrete steps and into a single room by the cleaning lady who had been forced to shoulder the blame. There were no curtains, a couch full of holes for a bed and a bathroom with a toilet that was the colour of a rotten lung. The woman ranted and apologised profusely, waving frantically at everything as if with one swish of a magic wand she was going to magically transform the room into a boudoir fit for a sleeping beauty. The girl smiled and thanked her. We felt bad leaving her there alone and there was a short burst of hysterical laughter back in the van. Once on the main road again, there was barely a sign anywhere to say the place even existed and I never passed near it again. Now, I can’t even recall its name. But I’ll never forget how it looked.

The tiny village of Sadowne was next, a place not worth describing, its only significance being its proximity to the former death camp of Treblinka. This was the last stop for Paul, a guy roughly the same age and as equally bewildered as myself. He hesitated before stepping down from the van and onto the courtyard. There stood a rather solemn looking man, the school director, gasping heavily on a cigarette and beckoning all of us inside to his office. There was no coffee on offer there. Just a few abrupt words from the director, his expression tired. He didn’t volunteer any false hopes that Paul would be having a year to remember. He simply recited his duties as if reading off a shopping list and made it all seem very plain indeed. From the office we were led to the living quarters, a single room next to a single Russian woman with a young kid. Immediately looking for his escape route, Paul asked the whereabouts of a bus or train station. He was informed the train station was some distance away and that he could get a lift with the director whenever he wanted. Where does it go? To Warsaw, presumably. Since I couldn’t yet pronounce the name of the place I was headed for, I didn’t ask if there was a link. That was it. I shook Paul’s hand and left him there stroking his chin. Within a matter of minutes we were back on the road.

I was going to miss them. All of them. For two weeks we’d been together at a converted monastery in the southeast of the country, drinking mostly, making vague attempts at learning smatterings of Polish in what was basically a familiarity stint. Almost every night was spent bunking off to an exclusive club in the nearby city getting drunk, every morning at a desk in a local school by eight, cracking open bottles of fizzy mineral water and trying to get our tongues around the Polish language. It was a tough one. And I knew right then I was never going to really master that language. I learned it well and it was there in my head, but rarely did it get as far as my mouth without a lot of thinking getting in the way. That disturbed me considering I had come here to teach a language myself. And that was a constant cross that I could never deal with. Others coped more easily. You could spot them during those lessons, even with the hangovers they had a confidence about themselves. They bit into those foreign words like food they had already tasted. They were the ones who were going to make good teachers. I’d probably have to work it that bit more.

Yet there was no competition between anyone. If anything, everyone acted as everyone else’s crutch, particularly when the time came for us to split up and go our various ways. Then the numbers dwindled daily and the bond was broken. We grew sad, then bored and finally just waited our turn. Sat on the wall outside in the courtyard of the monastery, the guys bare-chested, the women sweating, sipping on beer and watching our pals disappear one by one like cattle. Wondered where the hell they were being taken and how we’d all get to meet up again. All we had to go on was a list of addresses that nobody could read and mystifying phone numbers composed of about four digits.

Finally, the guide turned to me and went through the details in English, looking reassuringly pleased. I had Fridays free, if I wanted, and otherwise worked about six teaching hours per day. Although there were a few guys in some of the classes, the school was mostly for girls between the ages of sixteen and early twenties and there were two other English teachers there that I could work with. I was to focus on improving conversation skills and vocabulary and in general introduce a more colloquial language into the class rather than the ‘book’ English that the students were used to. After that, the rest was up to me.

I tried to look content because my director did. So I nodded firmly and shook hands with him as he stood. At that point, I was more concerned with my living quarters than the job. The job would take care of itself once I had a half-decent place to call home.

I stood at the window and watched the van drive out through the gate, severing that last link I had with the Irish group. It was getting slightly dark now and a lump rose up in my throat. Here I was in a new home - clean, spacious, but understandably bare. Just me, the hum of the fridge and the fading summer evening sky outside, bloody orange, black at the edges. I’d met a Polish guy in Dublin before I left, who told me that summer evenings are always colourful in Poland, and he was right. It was colourful. Deep warm colours hanging over a landscape that was rolled out flat like a football pitch. There’s a certain temperature in the early evenings in summer in Poland that’s neither too hot nor too cold. It’s a comforting temperature that calms the body and soothes the mind. You gaze out the window and the sun looks as if it's being carried off gradually towards the west like a massive slow-moving balloon. I think after the long day, some of the rough places I’d seen and the feelings of loneliness that suddenly hit me, if it had have been pissing down rain, I would have just turned around and gone home.

Unpacking for a year is an odd thing. As you drag the items out one by one, there’s a sense of finality about it. It’s not just a wash bag and a few books. There’s things that suggest permanency, remind you of home. Clothes that smell of home cooking. Towels with the scent of the washing powder your mother uses. Books and magazines with coffee rings on the covers. You stare at them and realise that like you, they’ve travelled thousands of miles and won’t see home again for another twelve months. So they take on a value that they previously never had. I had about three large bags with me, one of them a lot heavier than it was the night I packed it. So I opened the zip of this one first and began wrenching out some of the winter clothes that lay at the top. Heavy socks, gloves, a scarf and some of those ‘Long Johns’ that were eventually used to polish my boots. Below the clothes I’d packed a few books and there in the middle lay the cause of the bag’s weight - a statue of Our Lady and a heavy wooden photo-frame with several pictures of my family and friends smiling up at me from under a clean piece of glass. Obviously, ma had got to the bag the night before I left when all the luggage was sitting downstairs by the door. Mothers mean well when they do such things. Religious relics are always a favourite. So are family photographs. But I didn’t need to see all of that right then. The statue went onto the window-ledge in the hall and the photos just drove me to bed, feeling like a stranger should feel in a strange land - lonely, isolated but exhilarated.

Lying there in bed, I began to go over the images I’d conjured up for myself before arriving, comparing them to what I’d seen so far. You don’t expect a thousand volts of culture shock coming to a place like this. It’s not the centre of Africa or the Middle East. It’s still Europe, but it’s a part of Europe that most of us have only peeped at when it was hidden behind the iron curtain. So question marks hang over almost every aspect of life. I’d been told many things, a lot of them rather dark. One girl who’d spent a year in Warsaw had offered me a piece of information by way of reassurance about a month before I left. ‘You can get cornflakes there,’ she’d said, with a smile that faded rather miserably once she realised that cornflakes weren’t on my list of priorities. I’d pictured instead the bowl they were in, a deep wooden bowl paired off with a spoon cut from cheap tin that made a harsh sound when dropped on a stark kitchen floor. In that bowl I saw a lot of soups. Soups made from thick vegetables and stringy meat, meat that came from an animal that had worked hard all its life. A horse maybe, with a shaggy coat, a massive pair of blinkers and no name, the remainder of his carcass finishing up as glue on the bench of a peasant carpenter.

I’d pictured timber houses, smoke gasping out of their chimneys day and night, sitting under the shadow of grey blocks that clawed the landscape like broken umbrellas. I’d pictured old men with shattered teeth, young girls with bright blonde hair, packed under scarves decorated with the flowers of spring. Fields that were golden in autumn and steel blue in winter. Cold vodka, warm beds and the sound of men singing in taverns, keeping a beat with the thud of beer tankards on long wooden tables. As I drifted off to sleep, I think it was fair to say I had a rather confused image of Poland before I arrived.

Copyright © All text by Tom Galvin 2005 Copyright©EighthSquare.com P.O. Box 580 New York, NY 10113

Tom Galvin graduated from University College Dublin with a BA and came to Poland in 1994 with APSO (Agency for Personal Service Overseas) the Irish state body for overseas development. He was posted as an English language teacher in the School of Economics, Minsk Mazowiecki, which lies about 40 km east of Warsaw. While there he completed his MA and began writing for the Warsaw Voice and contributing to programmes on Radio Polonia in Warsaw. He also self-published his first novel, Gabriel's Gate; its whereabouts now is a mystery. On his return to Ireland in 1999, he worked as a staff writer and later as editor for In Dublin magazine, and contributed as a freelance travel writer for other titles including the Sunday Independent, The Irish Times and Backpacker and Abroad magazines. In 2004 he wrote The Little Book of Dublin published by New Island Press and began writing for the opinion column in the Evening Herald, before working as the editor of the arts and culture section for Village magazine.



A Shot of Strong Spirit - Life in a Polish Town
by Tom Galvin
First edition 2005
Published by Shoregate Press

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© Tom Galvin

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This publication has been grant-aided by the Warsaw University Society of Irish Studies [logo]

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