THE STRANGE HOTEL

THE STRANGE HOTEL

In March of 2013, when its streets were covered in snow, I went over to Poland to visit my 23-year old daughter Ione, who had been working there for a year. She was teaching English in the outstandingly beautiful city of Wroclaw (its historical name is Bratislava, confusingly the same as the Slovakian capital), which then had no direct flights from the north of England, meaning we found it easiest to meet up in Krakow, a 4-hour bus ride away. Thanks to the impeccable Rynek Glowny Square, as well as the handsome 13th century Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow is a world heritage centre, and is so well known that certain pocket travel guides have all of 95 pages on Krakow, but only 5 on the rest of Poland, Warsaw included. Other compelling attractions include a great deal of live jazz mostly in subterranean clubs on Rynek Glowny, where both the entrance fee and a bottle of beer cost 1 euro. The jazz musicians are Poles in their early 20s, none of whom you’ve heard of, but all of them virtuosos nonetheless. You will also notice pristine horse drawn carriages with liveried drivers, as the Krakow equivalent of the London Sightseeing Bus. Less pristine are the frequent raucous stag parties of young Englishmen who long ago discovered that booze and accommodation in Eastern Europe can often be got for a song, and where you can get away with doing more or less what you like. One evening I was in a Krakow pub where one of a stag entourage was dressed as a caricature of lipsticked womanhood, and he and his cronies in their standard trainers and denims, did not even once glance around at the Poles surrounding them, to check if they were amused or shocked by their performance. I reflected that if a group of heedless young Poles had walked into a smart Manchester or Liverpool pub, and commenced a drunken cross-dressing rumpus, they would have been bawled out and turfed out of the premises faster than the speed of light.

The real shock when you’re in Krakow is of frequently coming face to face with at times chilling polar opposites. Next to the glamorous horse drawn carriages you will observe numerous smart minibuses doing shuttle trips to nearby Oswiecim, better known to you and me as Auschwitz. Those barbaric and quite unbelievable death camps of 70 odd years ago, are a popular tourist draw, if only because no one can assimilate the sheer magnitude and rank horror of the Holocaust, and has to see it with their own eyes. It is indeed vital that people see and learn from these terrible monuments to societal derangement and gratuitous evil, but perhaps the minibuses could be more discreet and respectful in their prominent pick-ups and drop offs, and for that matter the liveried carriages might decide to avoid the same city routes. Meanwhile, the first thing you’ll be told by your English-speaking guide is that Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a single entity, but a massive and extremely elaborate complex with a total of 40 dedicated units, some of them extermination facilities and others labour camps. 1,300,000 people entered it, of which 1,100,000 were exterminated. 90 per cent of them were Jews, but there were also 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners, and 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say that next time one of the latter knocks determinedly on your door, instead of groaning you might perhaps show them a new and deserved respect…

There was even more shock when it came to our Krakow accommodation, though only at the end of our stay it needs to be stressed. In this connection, my daughter Ione who has been backpacking everywhere from Iran and Iraq to El Salvador and Honduras, actually prefers communal dorm-sharing to the pampered self-contained en suite. I told her in advance I didn’t wish to stay in a hostel-style dormitory, and she nodded and laughed, and got me a single room and a dorm for herself in the same hotel. As it transpired, just down the road against a brick wall, was a large framed poster advertising the nearby Museum of the Krakow Gestapo, replete with harrowing archive photos taken by the Nazis of the Polish inmates they dragged in and tortured and often murdered. Back at the hotel my en suite room was fine, we were there 2 nights, and throughout my stay I made no connection whatever between our accommodation and that disturbing poster in the street below. But on the day we left, as we walked down the stairs with our bags, I noted for the first time a plaque on the wall with an inscription in both Polish and German. Ione had good Polish while I only had O level German, though it was enough for me to make out that the hotel where we had been staying was formerly the Krakow Gestapo’s HQ…

The grisly conclusion was obvious. The room where I had been sleeping unawares, might not have been the principal interrogation room, but whoever had been incarcerated there would have been able to hear the horrific screams emitted from close by. The same applied to Ione’s dormitory, and I checked with her and of course she had known nothing whatever of the hotel’s wartime history when she booked our stay in Krakow…

The night before we left for Wroclaw, we went to the cinema, where we were delighted to find that the excellent film they were screening, Slawomir Fabicki’s Milosc/Loving (2012) was provided with English subtitles. Ponder for a while that the equivalent scenario would be for a Pole holidaying in Britain to go to a cinema where an English or American movie was provided with Polish subtitles. This of course is wholly improbable, though not in any fair or objective sense, given that certain UK cities like Carlisle have substantial populations of Poles (at Carlisle railway station, for example, the parking instructions are in both English and Polish). That aside, we watched one of the most profoundly moving films I have ever seen in all my life, which makes it all the stranger that most of Ione’s Polish friends have never even heard of it. This is particularly baffling, as it has the gifted and handsome star actor Marcin Dorocinski (born 1972) playing the lead of Tomek. He and his wife Maria (Julia Kijowska, born 1981) are a professional couple living quietly in a small obscure Polish town, and she is pregnant with their first child. One day when Tomek is out, the town’s mayor (Adam Woronowicz, born 1973) turns up at their door, and seeing her alone rapidly forces himself on Maria and assaults her. The cruellest twist, while convincing enough, is that when Tomek learns from traumatised Maria what has happened, he is stonily alienated rather than sympathetic. Soon afterwards he decides to go to the mayor’s house to confront him, but the quaking official orders his wife to do the dirty work by offering Tomek a heap of cash as compensation. Foolishly Tomek takes the money, and his alienation from Maria grows exponentially as a result. As subtle counterpoint to this haunting parable, Tomek’s mother (Dorota Kolak, born 1957) is in the last stages of cancer, and is at home being nursed by her husband (Marian Dziedziel, born 1947).With the mother blindly groaning and weeping piteously in her bed, as if she were regressed to primitive babyhood rather than infancy, for the first time ever I beheld a truly credible depiction of the cruel disease in its terminal stages. The poignant twist is that Maria is a special favourite of her mother-in-law, and so she is there to tenderly nurse her towards her end, while Tomek with his wounded selfish egotism does not have the same power, and thus fails his mother and his wife and for that matter his grieving father when they all need him.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 24th

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

A few years ago, when I was living in the small market town of Brampton in North Cumbria, UK, I had an unusual and theoretically impossible encounter. I was just about to go into the smaller of the two Spar supermarkets on a warm summer evening, when someone approached me to ask a favour. It was a smiling and heavily made up woman in her late sixties who I’d never seen before. She had a number of furrowed lines on her face and was visibly dishevelled, her jeans and blouse in grubby disarray, and she also exuded an odour of beer and wine that effortlessly overpowered the evening air. She also had a little dog on a lead and the dog was a tired but amiable old Lakeland Terrier, with a hint of lengthily acquired dopiness that possibly correlated with its mistress’s recreational habits. The woman looked at me and said could I please stand and hold the dog for her, while she went inside the shop. Somehow, I felt a premonitory unease at the request, and asked her why she just couldn’t tie him up at the convenient post nearby, like every other dog owner.

“Tommy doesn’t like being tied up,” she said. And then she hiccupped.

I stared at Tommy and decided I couldn’t imagine him disliking anything much, other than being forced to walk up a steep hill in the adjacent North Pennines.

“OK,” I said.

The woman disappeared for what turned out to be an endless 15 minutes. I stood there staring at the traffic going past, and feeling rather stupid. I even had the mad idea that possibly the woman wanted rid of Tommy, and this was an elaborate albeit drunken ruse for his abandonment. I said to myself that I would stand another 5 minutes of being a sentinel with his canine adjutant, and then I would shout inside the Spar to tell her to hurry up. Just as I was rehearsing all of that in my head, I suddenly felt something very warm on my left leg, and then within a second the warm turned to cold and then wet…

Tommy had treated me as a lamppost, even though one of unusual design, and had decided to piss on me…

Dog piss on your lower leg when you’ve been doing someone a handy little favour, fills you with a painful sense of melancholy and even of self-pity. I didn’t blame daft little Tommy of course, I even felt sorry for the feckless little blighter… but I did blame his stupid bloody mistress. When, after a marathon wait, she emerged, and I was starting to smell like a social work case, like the swaying lady herself in fact, I snorted:

“Your dog’s pissed on me! Look here! Look! It cocked its bloody leg, as if I was a lamppost.”

She tried not very hard to restrain her quaking mirth, and without a trace of guilt, embarrassment, dismay, much less any mordant self-reflection. Then what she said took my breath away…

“Are you sure it was my Tommy?”

For a time I was speechless, for she was seriously frowning as if I must be the fanciful kind.

I snapped at her, “Who else could it be? Ordinary Brampton folk aren’t in the habit of randomly pissing on locals, nor even on passing strangers. Look. The wetness stops exactly at Tommy’s height…”

She shook her addled head with haughty finality.

“That’s not the way my Tommy would behave!”

I reeled at her righteous use of the subjunctive. Meanwhile she assumed a majestic disdain, surveying me as if I was the inebriate, and she a woman of sobriety and immaculate habits, not to speak of flawless control of her autonomic nervous system.  

“Try looking closer to home,” she advised, before revolving on her heel and departing with Tommy.

The next post will be on or before Friday November 15th