The sweet melancholia of cigarettes and shipyards in Gdańsk

After my time in Ukraine, I wasn’t quite sure how Poland would be. Surely I’d already reached the heights of social experience when I heard about Vladimir Kalashnikov’s sex tourism and toe amputations? Just to make sure things were suitably spiced up, I started out my Polish trip by standing in the wrong queue at Gdańsk airport border control. On the one hand, queuing up with the Ukrainians meant that I wasted almost an hour in the no-man’s land between runway and baggage collection. On the other hand, it meant that I could get a real feel for post-Brexit EU travel, without the associated visa costs. Lucky me! Shortly after passing through, I was then selected for a bag search by customs officials for the first time in my life. Thankfully, they didn’t find any of the top-notch Ukrainian LSD or young Russian children that I was trafficking into Poland…

Consonants and solidarity

Gdańsk is a nice enough city. Since I’d been in Ukraine for a short while, I was definitely running a bit low on the whole Old Town cobbles and churches vibe. Gdańsk certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. However, there are two real treats for me in this Baltic beauty. The first is Wrzeszcz, which is handily named in a very pronouncable way. Wrzeszcz is the suburb where I stay during my time in Poland. It’s the kind of place that gets called ‘little Kreuzberg’, because there’s a place selling falafel and some young people have beards. But it’s legit a really nice area with a bunch of tasty veggie places (e.g. the amazing Avo) and a great bar called Kurhaus that’s full of craft beers, friendly locals and a barperson who makes butterfly trousers.

While in Wrzeszcz, I stay in the most beautiful apartment with the most wonderful host. She knows the correct way to brew green tea AND she likes the film Timbuktu, so we’re immediately on to a winner. I want to know what my host likes in Gdańsk and the answer is not very much. So she takes me to Stocznia Gdańska, one of the few places that she has a lot of love for. Stocznia Gdańska is the shipyard where electrician Lech Wałęsa (later to become Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Poland) and other remarkable women and men organised the first of a series of strikes that led to the formation of the Solidarność trade union and eventually Polish independence in 1989. It’s also a pretty cool place to hang out, where you’re surrounded by ships and cranes on one side and a barren post-industrial landscape on the other.

The Polish way

My host also becomes an inspirational guide into Polish culture, most notably by introducing me to a variety of Polish cinema and literature. I haven’t finished any of the books yet, but I’ve started to delve into various films. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s (1987) Blind Chance gives us a glimpse of three possible scenarios for an individual in Communist-era Poland with the conclusion that our fate can switch at the drop of a beer and, ultimately, life never ends well. Andrzej Jakimowski’s (2007) Tricks is a cute reflection through a child’s eyes on how we can’t always control our destiny. Tomasz Wasilewski‘s (2016) United States of Love meditates on four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society, which exemplify everyone’s despondent loneliness. And let’s not forget the number one tip for understanding Poland: smoke lots of cigarettes.

In some way, this miserable melancholic realism has rejuvenated me as I return from my travels and settle back down to monotony and routine. But if that’s a little too downbeat, don’t worry, you can knock yourself out with one of Poland’s top disco polo stars, Akcent:

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