My cousins have been honest and considerate. I’ve heard a great deal about the war, about poverty, about hardship. It’s etched on some of their faces, which is probably why they are more inclined to smile; every opportunity, as it were. It’s not that simple, of course; Stefania, for one, is ambivalent about the fall of Communism. To her, people were looked after then, in a sufficient though minimalist way. Now, the disadvantaged and the poor and the elderly seem to be left to fend for themselves. As ever, the price of freedom is miserable inequality.
They are also honest about my father. He was a much more complex man than I realised. I suppose all fathers – and mothers – are.
There’s no mileage to be gained in going over old transgressions, not least because there are some still alive who have suffered because of them. And how he behaved would hardly merit a minor storyline in a soap opera nowadays (“PolskaSoap”?). Enough to say that he was as capable as any young man of being ruled by his heart and his hormones rather than his head. As a result, three families were directly affected, hurt. Been there myself. Too often.
In the normal scheme of things, it would all have blown over. It would have been handled, as ever, by the women. Perhaps the whole messy business between my father and his family might have resurrected itself only occasionally, merely as hot-tempered, drunken recriminations at weddings and funerals.
But the War wouldn’t have that. It picked people up and dumped them thousands of miles away, on the other side of national and ideological divides, lost them from sight only to regurgitate them to find their personal landscapes had changed beyond recognition. It separated families, and when those families were going through dysfunctional times anyway, the process of healing never had a chance.
In Wroclaw, there is an unremarkable, iron bridge that connects the cathedral island of Ostrów Tumski to the rest of the city. A tradition has developed recently of lovers coming to the bridge, their names painted or engraved on padlocks which are locked around the bridge’s structure. Then, I presume, they cast the key into the River Odra, and their love affair is permanently commemorated. Padlocks are locked to padlocks, thousands of them: enterprising show-offs have taken to climbing to a higher and higher proof. It’s a lovely thought. I imagine the bridge groaning under the excess weight, eventually giving in and tumbling into the water, the first ever demolished by Love not War.
In the middle of my trip, I get an e-mail from a recent ex-girlfriend. I’d had a nice enough time with an accomplished, pretty, charismatic young woman, the experience marred only by an inability to find time for those shared experiences that build real intimacy and, perhaps, a little thoughtlessness about feelings as we came to the mutual decision it wasn’t going anywhere. So, something positive, but something I need to put in the past if I’m going to get things done.
We’re all guilty of it. We sit in a life with a door open, waiting for that someone who might have been something to walk back through it. They never do, of course, and all that happens is we get a draught on the back of the neck. Or, worse yet, someone else sneaks in and burgles our hearts.
It was just an e-mail passing on some professional information, with a “hope you don’t mind” message because I’d said that I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep in touch. No problem. I thank her for the details, hope all is going well for her. But it feels as if someone has rattled the letterbox of that door I’ve locked up so carefully, and it’s difficult to resist scurrying up to the spy hole to see what’s going on on the other side.
My father closed a lot of doors back in Poland, apparently. Trouble was, as he got older, they had a tendency to fly open of their own accord. In the late 90s, as his mental incapacity began to take grip and glaucoma was robbing him of his eyesight, my partner and I had a family get together at our home. She stepped out to top up teas and cakes; in his wonky way, he followed her out. She told me he’d grabbed her amorously in the kitchen, said it was so good to see her again after all these years. And then he started telephoning, he’d be round soon he said, don’t tell Raymond. God knows who she reminded him of, or what he was reliving, or how he managed to conflate it with a current timeline that included me. Cardiovascular dementia is a bastard, it seems.
I went to see him about it, hating myself for feeling a twinge of righteous indignation. Upstairs, early evening, he was in bed, like a wee Buddha dressed in Paisley pattern pyjamas. Yes, he said, my partner did remind him of someone. No, he understood now, he said, as I patiently explained that he was confused, and it was okay to be confused, but he should talk it over with me if he felt like this again. As I went out, he called me back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A few years later, that relationship was gone, sabotaged largely by my own head versus heart versus hormones conflict. Our beautiful house was sold, I was living alone. In the November after it had all been reduced to rubble, I visited my father in the nursing home. He lay on his side, nothing left but a pair of old bellows sucking in air and a pacemaker that kept his heart going. I held his hand, those frost-bitten knuckles like walnuts that scared me as a child now shrivelled and tiny. I spoke about nothing. After half an hour, I told him I had to go to the shops, get some stuff in for tea. I guess he died around the time I was in the pasta aisle. As I left the supermarket, I was aware of a fundamental change in the air, and wasn’t surprised by the phone call an hour later.
My ex-partner was probably the only woman who loved me strongly enough to have been any use to me on this trip; perhaps one other, if things had been different. But they are both out of my life now. So I’m proudly self-sufficient, a happily independent traveller. I gave up looking for “my other half” ages ago; I am no less 100% a person for being single, thank you very much, and have no need of someone to “complete me”, no matter how joyous it can be to be in a relationship.
But on my last night in Wroclaw, I stand in the Rynek in the perfect light; the colours of the façades soften in the warm air. It’s peaceful and beautiful, but thoughts are thundering through my head like the bedlam of a coal mine. This trip has given me so much to do – revision to my novel, short stories that are throwing themselves at me – and only this laptop and the whole world wide web to work it out with, and there’s a nagging feeling which is no longer quite all the way at the back of my head that is uncomfortably like loneliness.
I hope all those couples on the Tumski bridge are still together. If my dad and I are anything to go by, I doubt it, unfortunately.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Creative Scotland. This trip was funded in part by their 2010 bursary award in order to undertake research for my novel.
Most of my family have connections with mining, sometimes spanning many generations; as I mentioned, my cousin Stefan, the son of a miner, has seen his son and his grandson go down the pits too. It’s a closed shop, a tight-knit band of fellow workers who relied on each other for their lives. My immediate family worked more in the metals business – my grandfather was a blacksmith who found more remunerative work in the iron foundries and zinc smelting plants. The photograph on the left gives some impression of the mutual dependence workers felt; they look like a Wild West gang, the James brothers in Silesia.
I do the tourist version of course, at the Guido mine in Zabze, with Milsoz, Przemek and Boezanna. The boys have never been down a pit before, and they are excited by the prospect; me too. There are glimpses of the hell that it must have been, in particular full size models of the horses which were kept in total darkness and trussed up to be lowered blindfolded down 800 feet deep shafts; that’ll appear in a story, believe me, and, knowing me, it won’t have a happy ending. Funny that we often feel most for the dumb animals.
The guide – who speaks Silesian, a linguistic complication of the region I didn’t know about – gives demonstrations of some of the latest machines working in the lower seams. Even the air extractor is cacophonous. With the drills and scourers and chewers that look like monsters from a steam punk comic, and with the rattle of coal trucks relentlessly ferrying the black stuff around, and with the heat and dust and the exhaustion of exertion… how do you capture that with words on paper?
The workers were organised on a military basis, with well-defined ranks and promotion structures. Privates, the face workers, wore black feathers in their caps; red indicated those experienced enough to handle explosives, for example. Medals were awarded for bravery, for long service, for promotion. No wonder these men slipped so easily into the role of disciplined cannon fodder during the many wars that have been fought here.
My father worked away from home most of his life; he officially retired at 65, but worked on at whatever he could find, from highly skilled welder early on until, in his mid-seventies, he was a building yard minder. Anything, basically, that kept him in the company of working men. I think, now, I understand why.
Pod Papugami is a tourist bar in the central square of Wroclaw. However, it is interesting in that it hosts live bands most evenings, and tonight is “Family Business”, with the emphasis on the business, says guitarist David Korba.
They are, however, pretty damned good. Essentially a pub covers band, they play jazz-funk that is effortlessly entertaining. Korba is the star of the show; he is an excellent guitarist, with a gently lazy style that is ineffably cool. I like his patience: he waits for his solos, knowing that even if he is the leader, he is nevertheless part of a whole that consists of a five-string bassist, a subtle drummer and a lead singer, Asia Kurasnik, who has a voice like thunder but who knows how to use her voice and a mike to integrate herself into the soundscape without dominating it.
Efficient covers include a rather nicely tingly version of Alicia Key’s “Fallin'” and a funky “I Wish”, and the band enjoy themselves on “Respect”. Good stuff.
But this is a group of musicians who come together for the tourists to finance other, more worthy ventures; before he grabs the money and runs out the door, I have a chat with Korba. What he is most passionate about is his Mikromusic project, and that looks very, very interesting. I’ve been looking for some Polish music to buy before I leave, and this is it. Check out their MySpace site: “Slowa”, for instance, is just lovely. I’m off to the record store tomorrow.
ps – a word of warning. Polish beer is very nice, but it’s very strong and makes you pee a lot. I know.
My father was born in Lipiny, a typical Silesian industrial town. Eugen and Danuta take me there; sooty red brick tenements sit cheek-by-jowl with steel works and chemical plants, and over there, Eugen tells me, just at the top of the street, there was a pit head.
Now, it’s dying. The factories are closing one by one, the mines have gone and the area is riven by generational unemployment, alcohol dependency and abject poverty. They are ashamed to bring me here, says Iwona; they needn’t be, it’s a story that could have come straight from the east end of Glasgow, only with heroin as the drug of choice. No-one – least of all the EU which is building roads and rail tracks and infrastructure all over the area – has bothered to invest in this place and its people for so, so long.
Danuta is Lipiny born and bred; in fact, she was born in the same house as my father, the building itself now demolished but marked by that green tree you see on the left of the picture. I look down the empty space, into the remaining three sides of a rectangle that was the backyard where my father played, and where he tended the hens or pigs which were kept in little outhouses.
We wander for a while; she shows me number 91, where she lived in a one-room and kitchen with her family, then the two-room they went up in the world to. In those days, I can imagine a vibrant community of people in the street, including my uncle Alfons, who apparently went from door to door singing operatic arias for a few coins when the unemployment bit hard in the 1930s; he was so accomplished, the local radio station had him and Hubert on to do a show. The residents would have cared, would have had something to care about; now, everywhere is decay and stink. Yet, still, fresh-faced children play in the streets, just like my father would have done with his brothers. The German school he attended – built in 1906, it must have been state-of-the-art when he went there – is now used for some other mysterious commercial purpose, though, as is Danuta’s.
Not enough children to go round, it seems, not enough to make a difference. It reminds me of my time at Linwood High School, a community built to service and then torn apart by the closure of the local Rootes car plant. When it was built, the school held over 1200 kids; when I was there, the roll was under 500.
Churches, though, seem to do well enough in times of hardship. We visit the family Church, the one my father scrubbed up on Sundays for – and who knows how many other days Augustyna made him go. Perhaps he carried his good shoes there and back, so as not to wear them out, ready to pass them on to his next brother when he outgrew them.
And there was always another brother. Between 1905 and 1924, Augustyna had 13 pregnancies. Ten of them survived; Georg, Marta, Alfons, Helena, Reinhold (my father), Wilhelm, Elfryda, Viktor, Karol, Hubert. Almost constantly pregnant from the age of 16 to 35, she must have been exhausted. But she had a family to look after.
I lay a little posy on my grandparents’ grave (they were joined by Alfons in 1982) and Danuta and I light candles. Neither of us are religious, and I am not known for my sentimentality, but standing there is undeniably significant. Without all the religious guff, I really can’t say why, other than it’s a type of coming home.
I think one of the perhaps too rare moments in my life when I rose to the occasion was the eulogy for my brother-in-law, Donald Cringean, my sister Jennifer’s husband. A handsome, physical lad who had boxed and was a black belt in karate, he was cut down by Multiple Sclerosis in his twenties, and it fucked him up for the best part of the next twenty years until he died obscenely young. I was asked to say a few words at what was a humanist ceremony in all but name. I spoke very personally about him, about my trips with him, about fishing and pool playing and all sorts of nonsense. I like to think I did him proud.
Being Catholic, a priest was press-ganged into service for my father’s funeral years later. Dressed up like a Spanish galleon, he never knew my father, never even met him. “I think he was a man who worked hard for his family,” he coos soothingly in his stereotypical Irish brogue and turns to my mother for a nod of agreement; suitably validated, he continues with platitudes that I don’t hear and certainly can’t remember. I could have said more; bloody hell, our cat could have.
I remember my father talking about his death only once, when he said, “just don’t burn me”. He changed his mind in the nursing home, apparently, and he was cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Paisley Crematorium, a place he had never been to, I imagine. My mother and others in the family still go there, lay some flowers on the spot where the jar was tipped empty.
I went once, one Christmas I think. I am shown the spot. A patch of dirt, and next to it another patch of dirt where the ashes of a young person must have been strewn, because plastic toys and other junk intrude on my father’s space. It means nothing to me, and not because I am an atheist and a rationalist who knows that when you die, nothing is left to watch from “up there”; it means nothing to me, I think, because it would have meant nothing to my father.
And I am here in Lipiny, where he was born, at his parents’ graveside. Of course it would have been just an empty gesture to bring a little bit of the dust that was him home, but it’s a gesture I would happily have made if I’d known ten years ago I would make this trip.
The cast list (so far!).
Danuta, my lovely cousin. She reminds me of my wee sister, Christine; similar hair, similar dimples. She has put her all into my visit, organised the trips here and there, the cousins round for tea, the meals and stories and jokes. She is a wonderful cook; a fantastic beetroot soup, a piquant goulash, stuffed peppers and beef, and cakes. Oh goodness, the cakes. I think I am in heaven when I taste her cherry cake (cherries from her own garden; she has green fingers), and then her walnut and apple cake (walnuts from her own garden…) takes me to an even higher plane. These would make her a wealthy woman in a Glasgow tea room. There’s just one problem. They tell me that Silesian food is unhealthy. I disagree – there’s absolutely nothing on the plate that has ever seen the inside of a factory – but it is certainly rich. Over the last few months, I’ve been working hard at the gym, feeling and looking better for it; I now think the process has gone into reverse, and I’ll have to redouble my efforts back home…
Eugeniusz, her husband, a gentle, cultured, cuddly bear. He is a man of action, building not only his own house but half the street too, multi-layered, ingenious buildings that are light and spacious. He’s a former climbing instructor, a mountaineer who, even in the Communist days, was such an ambassador for his country that he was granted visas to the highest places in Peru and Nepal. He has lived with death and danger, always accompanied by Danuta; he was once offered a considerable sum of money for her by a warlord. Wisely, he refused. Utterly generous, he gives me a print on rice paper he brought all the way back from Nepal decades ago; I will frame it, display it, treasure it.
Milosz, their son, is a handsome, gentle, wise young man who gets affectionate when he’s had a few. He is charming and interesting and, in his excitement at the thought of going down a coal mine for the first time, still a wee boy. He’s married to Iwona – the perfect princess Iwona – who is pert and pretty and completely charming too. Even as she teases me mercilessly (she can’t help repeating every dzien dobry or dobranoc I attempt, giggling because “it just sounds so strange”), she is infinitely patient in her translations for me. She has all the zizz of a lightning bolt. For most of my visit, she is my rock. They are both fantastic company. I invite them to Scotland; next weekend would not be too soon.
They have another son, Przemek, a passionate intellectual who lectures in IT at the local university. He is a born teacher, his gestures and tone and expressions filled with a zest for life that must have his students walking across hot coals to get to his lectures. His girlfriend, the elegant, shy and lovely Borzana, shares his love of climbing and dogs (they are experienced, expert trainers); I have a notion that I’ll take them to some sheep dog trials when they visit. When I tell Eugen that I think his sons are excellent young men, he almost bursts with pride of them, and grins and thumps his heart.
Stefania, Danuta’s mother, is a little bird of a woman, 84 years old with a razor-sharp memory. It is a huge honour to meet her as she is the last of my father’s generation, and knew all the characters in his complicated family. She is lovely, full of smiles and hugs when she accepts you; there is a deep strength in her, though. She was my uncle Hubert’s first wife, and brought up three children under difficult circumstances; she’s the type of woman you want on your side. She has a naughtiness about her, too; she laughs delightedly when we discover that the Polish word for “fart” sounds like “bonk”, and I explain what it means in English and why I think it is appropriately onomatopoeic.
My cousins Teresa, Irena, Ingrid and Stefan are all in the mix too. Teresa is a kind and jolly woman; she invites us to her house and presents us with a cake topped with fruit and jelly that looks as if it belongs in a jeweller’s shop window. Irena and Ingrid tell me about their families, and show me photographs of their weddings in which they look like film stars. Ingrid, especially, deserves thanks, since her side of the family is most closely linked to my father’s story; it must have been difficult for her to meet me. Teresa’s brother Stefan in a spry 76-year old who looks about 60. He traces his branch of the tree for me. A miner, with a miner for a son and a grandson, he gives me a little plaque made from coal that commemorates his service in the mine. It is a treasured possession, and I’m honoured once more.
I met Halina, Eugen’s sister, her husband Dariusz and their very cool son Artur in 2006 when I visited Siegen. Halina, an interior designer, shares her brother’s grin and wicked sense of humour, and she gives me a beautiful little landscape painted by a local artist; I have just the spot for it in my house. Daruisz is a mechanic; his yard is packed with lovely old Wartburgs that look like Volvo Amazons, and Polski Fiat rally cars that Jeremy Clarkson would scoff at but look fantastic. He shows me the pride of his collection, his father’s 1966 Mercedes 230 sedan, with less than 50,000 kilometres on the clock and in absolutely pristine original condition. It is gorgeous, an unusual cobalt blue decorated with acres of chrome. He lets me sit in it: I almost pee myself with boyish excitement, but I am too afraid of ruining the seats. The family shares that open-spirit and warmth that comes from having enquiring minds and a lust for travel; Dariusz has just worked on several cars taking part in an annual classic rally to raise money for charity in which his elder son is participating; he’s just been to Loch Ness on the tour.
When I go back to my hotel at night, my dreams are busy busy busy. I am surrounded by hundreds of people, and I have lots of things to do. I wake up tired by the effort of my unconscious mind filtering and sorting all the information I am swimming in. Not surprising, I suppose. But these are lovely people, with a lot to say to me, and I’m having a great deal of fun listening to them.
Polish churches are different. I visited St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow a few years ago and marvelled at the interior; made of brick rather than grey stone, the inside walls are plastered and every surface painted. In Krakow, it was in warm red and mustard tones, a bit like my own house; here, in Wroclaw, it is in cool, refreshing whites. The effect is airy and almost informal.
The faithful turn up in droves, whole bus parties of them. Healthy and sick. Old and young. Blind, on crutches, in wheelchairs. One child rolls down the aisle of the cathedral towards me; her front wheels flash neon, like those daft trainers you get in the shopping centre at Braehead.
There is no pattern to their piety; gruff middle-aged men kneel and clasp their hands for minutes, old grey ladies cast off a quick one-two-three-four as they scurry past, perhaps to get the priest’s attention first. Odd bods, I think, and then I slap myself. They are in groups, families, friends; I’m sitting in the pews in my solitary atheist smugness. Serves me right.
In the National Museum, Catholicism in all its Gothic scariness is predominant. Don’t let anyone tell you Mel Gibson’s “Passion” is the most brutal representation of the Crucifixion story around; you should see what 12th to 14th century Silesia made of it. The images of flagellation are bloody and visceral, the faces, like that of the veil of St Veronica, are tortured and alien, the landscapes are hellish; and then there are real beauties, such as the Virgin and Child from St John the Baptist’s Cathedral, painted by… well, some drone in a master’s workshop.
There’s nothing of great interest after the Gothic period – the modern art is drab and uninspiring – except that I come across one portrait that proves that Robert de Niro existed in a former life, and his name was Johan van Vogt, and one lovely portrait of Elisabeth Schroeter.
The nationalism is supplied by the rather stunning Raclawice Panorama. 120 metres long, 15 metres high, it is one of the few surviving European panorama paintings. Completed in 1894, it commemorates the Polish nationalist uprising of exactly 100 years earlier. Housed in its own circular building, it’s Wroclaw’s biggest tourist attraction. While the quality of the painting is so-so, the effect is truly monumental. Unfortunately, I found it extraordinarily difficult to get focussed photographs of the huge landscape and few images appear on the web – so take my word for it, it’s well worth a visit.
ps – I did this on my Macbook, and I hate it. Nothing works right, it’s too slow, text editing is crazy without an easy right-click button, copying and pasting is a footer, do something wrong and it fucks you up and downloading is a bastard. I also object to iPhotos telling me what to do all the time, when I just want to know where my photos are. I truly hate to admit it, but I’m a Windows boy…
Mid-afternoon in Wroclaw, nothing to do in the evening, so I try to track down some live music. The tourist office says there isn’t much on, just this Susanne Sundfør gig down at the Arsenal. I decide to go. I’m glad I did.
Susanne Sundfør is Norwegian, which means she’d probably rather be anywhere else but performing on stage here; it’s not difficult to imagine that, given Norway’s size, someone in her touring party has been directly affected by events there. Not surprisingly, the five-piece band are dressed in black and distinctly subdued.
Sundfør herself is a waif with a powerful voice. Steeped in Scandinavian wonky electronic-eclectic that sounds, in a good way, like everything from OMD to Kraftwerk to Jean Michel Jarre, and with a voice that is pitch perfect and hits some amazingly high notes, with shades of Carole King and Tori Amos in there, this is interesting stuff.
But there’s no denying the influence of the tragedy in Norway. She sings in English, which means the prescience of her lyrics goes largely unnoticed. When she sings “O Master”, the lines
“Waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet /I feel so alive”
must rip her heart out. Perhaps she’s arranged the set deliberately, but there are few chances for applause, and this is one that she barely and painfully acknowledges. “The Silicone Veil” punches home too; “I go to a funeral every day… I carry their caskets…”
Sonically and musically, she does some lovely things. Highlights include “The Brothel”, the provocative title track of her most recent album. She sings solo, her ethereal voice counterpointed with a sub-woofer that kicks the shins, knees and nuts at the same time. Even here the words – “God has left us anyway” – seem to drain her.
The band manage an encore, though goodness’ knows how. “Here’s a new song,” she says. “I hope you like it.”
What follows – “Among Us” – is a real danceable with a rocky edge and some fantastic vocal interchanges with her excellent backing singers. And then, if I’ve heard them right, the words slice home like a scalpel:“There’s a killer among us… He collects hearts in jars… He dumps his bodies into a wishing well… Who will save us from his madness?”
If anyone can sing for those youngsters slaughtered by that fucked up bastard, it’s this young woman.
Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited. Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills. I’ll go back to any of them any time. But I really like this place. It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.
But it is all about facades. Big Baroque and Rococo facades. The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat. All facades.
Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.
I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him. It’s impossible, of course. He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city. Even the people have changed: Germans out, Poles in. It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago. It has been rebuilt with a different heart. Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for. It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek! Spanish! Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes. What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes? Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?
My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.
It is all so unfathomable too. I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words; “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants. It’s a Countdown nightmare. So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films? It elicits a long-suffering smile.
I’m sorry. I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”. But I can’t.
I have a trip planned to Poland to meet relatives I have never met, and I confess to being more than a little terrified. It will be wonderful, I know – my last visit to Siegen in 2006, when I met several of my cousins, was a totally unexpected emotional whirl fuelled by Chinese food and 90 proof vodka – but intimidating too. I have never had an extended family, never knew any uncles or aunts other than an occasional meeting with some of my mother’s relatives from London, never played with cousins, never had a generational narrative that gave me a context for who I am. Now, in my fifties, I’m going to be immersed in it, even if only for a little while.
My cousin Danuta, who has promised to look after me with traditional Silesian cooking, sent me photographs of my grandfather Christian and my grandmother Augustyna. I look at them and they seem so distant – as of course they are, separated from me by 150 years, two world wars and a whole continent. I don’t know what I see in their faces, other than the sternness of an existence that was unbelievably harder than the cosy feather bed I’ve known. They will be key characters in the early part of the novel I am writing, but I can’t connect, can only invent and manipulate and imagine them. I only know my grandfather was a worker, a strict man who nevertheless never beat his children, despite it being fashionable; of Augustyna, I know even less. I look at their faces and see almost nothing of me in them.
They are my blood, but I actually have no idea what that means. Even though I have four siblings, we’ve never been particularly close, largely because of age differences; my father always worked away from home, and my mother had a full-time job keeping house on her own for we five. I suppose we were a pretty atomised and rootless group of individuals, so I was always unable to relate to the big families my friends had, their running jokes and feuds and sentimentalities. I have no idea if I envied them – I don’t think I was emotionally aware enough at the time – but I certainly do now. Removed from all that, I might as well have spent my childhood years locked in a sensory deprivation tank.
I am so looking forward to making some sort of connection with what I never had, but I can’t help wondering if I’ll find I’m emotionally ill-equipped for it all. Of course, it’ll be lovely; I’ll hear so much about them, and they will give me so much. I hope I’ll be able to give something back in return.
I’ll take a deep breath, put on my kilt, I think, and just join in the party.
Sad news from my cousin, Eugen, that my uncle and my father’s last remaining brother died on Sunday.
I met Hubert a few times, most memorably in 2006 when I visited him in Siegen. What was so obvious about him was his generosity. His table was laden with goodies to eat and drink, and he piled gifts on me that he wouldn’t let me refuse: I came back with a video camera for the family, and my friend Marisa, who came with me to act as interpreter, left with a DVD player under her arm. That was what he was like, said Eugen, there’s no point saying no.
He was also a bit of a rogue. We spoke to him about his early life, and he told fascinating stories of the bizarre shortages that hit the Polish economy during the periods of hyperinflation in the 1920s. He risked being thrown in prison or worse just to smuggle cutlery across the border, his pockets lined with rags to prevent the knives and forks jingling together. He spoke about my grandfather, and, just like my dad, could find little to say about him that didn’t centre around his work ethic, his ability to provide for his family. As for the war, he was as reluctant as any old solider to talk about the worst of it, but he gave us enough sense of the cold that froze men to their rifles and the battles in which brother found himself shooting at brother.
There were uncomfortable moments too; talking about horrifying times is so difficult for those who witnessed them – took part in them – first hand. Of course, he had some views about politics and race that belonged to another, less forgiving age; but he was a survivor and a provider, and I suspect that was good enough for him. And I learned more from him about my father than anyone in my family has ever told me.
I hope to visit my remaining cousins in Poland soon. Hubert’s death will be a huge loss to Eugen and Christine – two lovely cousins I met wholly unexpectedly for the first time on that 2006 visit – as well as their sister, Danuta, who lives in Katowice.
For me, it’s another part of my father slipping into oblivion.