Storied Old Town
Center of Lublin...
Poor Adam, with whom I have shared a compartment on the ride from Kraków, is still hung over from a night out with a few Scots. He has slept just about the entire way, having decided to forego a night’s sleep at his hotel and head for the station for the 6:20 a.m. departure directly from the nightclub. Adam, who is from Bath, England, is in town for private Polish lessons. He is among the very few foreigners in Lublin. What an adjustment this is from the international flavor of Kraków.
The largest city in Eastern Poland, Lublin’s perimeter does not impress; it is an ordinary mix of mediocre apartment buildings in shabby neighborhoods and abandoned warehouses. The center of town is much more eye-catching. It has a bustling commercial zone of large businesses, hotels, banks, and travel agencies. With the Old Town in view, cars are diverted from a bricked pedestrian zone of cafés, small shops, and restaurants, all very attractive.
But when peeking through the portal and then finally coming out the other side of the Kraków gate, it is then you realize Lublin is a spectacular fairytale of a walled medieval city. The Old Town comprises
Always take pictures early morning...
but a minor fraction of Lublin, but it is a treat for the eyes, so far removed from the mass tourism of Kraków and the intense cosmopolitan scene of Warsaw. Its cobblestone streets open to squares dotted with cafés and restaurants, all providing seating below bright and colorful parasols. Walking around the Stare Miasto lends a magical feeling of a fortified city yet untouched by thousands of visitors. Impossible to get lost, alcoves and arches charm the eyes. A Trinitarian church tower rises above the walls and its bells chime. It is delightful here.
Exiting a portal to the east leads over a stone walkway to a castle from which the view of the Stare Miasto is just wonderful. I cannot say what is in the castle, for I have essentially stopped my gratuitous visits to these royal palaces of privilege. If not for the physical structure of the building or the view, I can certainly do without the monotonous tone of a tour guide explaining to me that to the left is some antique furniture on which no one can sit or has used since 1746. Moreover, on the right, a hall of portraits displaying an aristocratic couple and
Plenty To Do
And nothing to do at the same time...
their spoiled, aloof heirs does nothing for me.
Lublin accepts its share of tourists for sure, but in tolerable numbers, the vast majority of which is Polish. They do not spoil the scene rather enhance it and bring life inside the walls on lazy afternoons. Now my third day here, I have come across a Swede, suffering Adam, and two couples from the States. Besides this, it is a destination for Poles, and they come to enjoy one of their more captivating attractions. Evenings are cool and a young man strums his guitar to classical Spanish tunes. On the same stage, a demure and slender woman dances flamenco to the delight of patrons in the cafés across the way, who in approval hold up half liters of Lech, Żwiec, and Perła. The tapping of hammer and chisel echoes throughout town, evidence of a municipal effort to restore some of the buildings in poor condition. Some of those very same buildings’ façades are adorned with paintings, certain ones faded, of the city’s historical figures, emblems, and patterned designs. Others are run down, abandoned, or occupied by vagrants. Stone lions sit perched into the tiles roofs and oversee the morning street
Live music to follow...
cleaners and first wave of shoppers. As with anywhere I have seen so far in Poland, nuns stroll silently in thought on their way to their obligations at a church or convent.
I am staying at a teachers’ retreat of some sort, designed for large groups directly adjacent to a Dominican church. It is basically empty, leaving me to a large room and my choice of seven beds. The place is spotless, showers are fantastic, and the hot water is scalding. No one here speaks English, but the ladies at the reception have pen and pad in hand the moment I show up. They smile. Our last drama was that I prepaid a night and no one booked it for the next morning’s accounting. So, I showed them receipts, money went back and forth for no reason. A game of charades ensued. The minor catastrophe was remedied and I was on my way.
Rolf, a gregarious, colossal, and carefree Swede (the very same aforementioned one), has been my companion for the last two days. He looks like a lumberjack, and ten years ago, might have been the right fit as a tight end in the NFL. I set him up at the same retreat center, saved him a bundle of cash, and we have done our best to visit as many of the cafés as possible. We argue about the issues of the day, life in Sweden, the U.S., and whatever comes to mind. He is not used to a verbal battle, especially when I tell him he is wrong in my very tactful way. “Rolf, you mindless Europeans are the same monolithic bunch from Stockholm to Lisbon. Can any of you drones think for yourselves?” I think this is how I put it. That’s me. Tactful.
He invited me to the concentration camp at Majdanek, the most preserved and intact of all the German death camps. I declined, having seen all I need to for a lifetime.
Maggie is a waitress in her early twenties at the Café Aquarell. A few years ago, she spent a semester of high school in Indiana. She is quite keen to use her very up-to-date English, listen to the tips I offer her and her brother on taking care of foreign customers, and entertaining me as I sip on sparkling glasses of cold Perrier. I have seen her every afternoon, and get together to discuss the day’s events. It is good to have help in town without the language barrier. I’ll take it when I can get it.
We sat down for an early dinner, where she told me her impressions about Lublin and Poland. Overall, she is disappointed with Poland. Having had the taste of the both the United States and United Kingdom, she sees how many more steps forward her country needs to take to be on and even keel with its Western neighbors. She is frustrated with companies’ inability to compete in an open European market and the inevitable pain factor that accompanies having to do so. While the numbers are fewer, a lot of Poles, many formally educated, still leave for France, The U.K., U.S., and Canada. One of the campaigns slogans during the recent referendum on the E.U. Consitution in France was, “Do you want your plumber to be Polish?” Of course, this underscores a fundamental difference between Americans’ legend of welcoming foreigners to its country, and the Europeans’ hesitance to do so, foreseeing the objectionable consequences.
Maggie studies nursing in Warsaw. I raised the question of her staying in Poland after her studies are complete. She paused for several seconds.
“I want to stay here. But nurses make no money. With a course or two in Warsaw that prepares us for nursing in the West, we can get good jobs. We are in the European Union, so many students look to other countries now.”
“Is this a brain drain?” I explained the term to her.
“What are salaries like for nurses in Poland?”
“Terrible. About 1,000 złote per month.” After rent, other living costs, and public transportation, you actually lose money if you are a nurse. None have cars and only go home during vacation.
“And Polish hospitals?”
Her eyes flew open wide. “Don’t go there! Horrible! There is little technology except if you can afford to go to a private hospital. People, farmers from the countryside, have no money. They often are two to a bed, lying in the hallways. Electricity is cut to hospitals that do not pay electricity bills. They don’t pay because they haven’t the money.”
I decided to offer her a few stories about Ukraine and the conditions there. Maggie came back, “Doctors here take bribes all the time. In the form of alcohol or cash. If you want really good attention, the best nurses, and surgery without waiting days in the hospital, you give the doctor money. It happens everyday in Poland. Understand that a surgeon makes no more than a carpenter.”
“But how does the bribe materialize so that all parties understand?”
“Easy. The doctor begins to explain all the difficulties and dilemmas in your case. The sooner you pay, the sooner the dilemmas go away. It used to be worse. Nowadays, doctors go into private practice and accept normal fees. But, you have to be able to pay.”
“Abortion is illegal in Poland. And your country is very Catholic.” Maggie rolled her eyes in agreement. She indicated a fissure between her own generation and that of her grandparents. I told her that even in Lublin, though, the churches were full on a Monday morning with young and old. “What does a young woman do if she doesn’t want a child?” I never inquired about her personal view on abortion.
Maggie outlined that she has to get a hush-hush referral to someone who knows someone, who might be able to point her in the right direction. It is all set up to save face and cover their ass because authorities will prosecute those doctors who perform the procedure, or are even complicit. Naturally, money has to be spread around to see the right people. “In the end, many girls go to Holland for a four-day holiday.”
I changed topics to education for a quick question. “In Ukraine, it is common practice even nowadays to pay for your grade. Many have told me that in the areas of the sciences, history, and literature, professors receive a cash gift to ensure good final results. It is so common there. And here in Poland?”
“Yes. It happens. But it is much better now. Most final exams at University are oral, face-to-face in a private room. So there is opportunity to pay for a grade. But I know very few who do this.”
Maggie asked me my thoughts on Poland. “I do not know if I am ready to live here. But you have to see it from another perspective. I have come from Ukraine. So, to me Poland is some futuristic science-fiction space station compared to your neighbor.” She agreed, having been to Ukraine also. “People are generally happy. They smile. You Poles welcome Americans. We feel comfortable here. You are friendly to us. We can travel throughout, stay in decent places, and see Europe in one country.” I pause for a moment. “But, I imagine Lublin must depress you in winter.”
“Very dark and gloomy.”
“Poland in the summer to me is bountiful fields, flowers on balconies, and a slow pace. I like it here. Your country is less than twenty years removed from Communism. Communism destroyed Poland. It sucked the life out of your people.” She offered no objection. Yet, she was at a young age where she never had to know its true evil. “I take a look around and I am extremely impressed with what your country has done in that short period of time. Look at the whole picture. Put aside the poor salaries, unemployment, and the older generation that longs for the days when the State took care of them. Poland makes things. You have manufacturing. Trucks with Polish license plates and Polish goods criss-cross your country. Poles travel! Are you kidding me? How many of you left Poland, or could afford to in the 1980’s? None! Now, you can go to your travel agent and get a package tour of Rhodes. And leave the next day! I tell, you Maggie, I am impressed here.”
She never saw it that way. It made her feel better.
Zamość belongs to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, due to its Stare Miasto, but even more so its fine-looking Renaissance main square. Eighty kilometers from Lublin, and fewer to the Ukrainian border, Zamość merits a quick stop and a hello, but no more. Shops sporadically open during the morning. The quiet streets in the vicinity of the square are pleasant, but nothing special. Only a handful of tourists take snapshots of the vibrant buildings, the double staircased and flamboyant town hall, and a few horse drawn carriages standing with no real hope of any major commotion. The sole police officer in the square assumes a comfortable stance on a park bench and munches on a pastry. (Some things do not change!) There is little to see and less to do in Zamość. I am glad I made it a daytrip and returned to Lublin. I must admit that I spent more time to and fro in the minibus than actually in Zamość proper.
One other thing I learned from Maggie is that only a negligible few actually reside in Lublin’s Stare Miasto. Having been ignored for so long, living conditions tumbled into a state of disrepair. Polish law once made it practically impossible to evict tenants in arrears of rent. These same tenants put no effort into their surroundings. Light bulbs and smashed windows were never replaced. Even when electricity and water were cut off to units in shambles, these vagrant and delinquent families squatted within, knowing full well the law was on their side. Even today, you can see this underbelly of Lublin loiter in the streets at night. Overtired children roam unsupervised in the alleyways, screaming and carrying on well into the evening. Many wishing to buy apartments and fix them up will not do so until they feel safe. Gypsies aggressively approach visitors for pocket change. Lubliners who see the Stare Miasto as the focal point of the city’s future touristic development are worried.
As I look out my apartment window under a crescent moon and a lit church tower I bid goodbye to Lublin. I could come back here even though there is little to do but soak up the atmosphere.
Like so many places in Poland, Lublin effuses one component hard to overlook: hope. There is hope here. I leave confident that my next time in Lublin will greet me with significant changes and development, no matter how tedious the process is for this to become reality.
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