Poznan & Slesin

11 December 1999

We LOVED Poland, it was a comfortable place with very, very pleasent people and beautiful, civlized cities. It was easy to get around and also very inexpensive. Before we arrived in Poznan, which we really liked, we had already decided to come back to Poland before we go home.

The stupid 'Lonley Planet™' guide book, (which claimed to be written in 1998 and published in 1999, although the text which refered to such things as 'upcoming' elections in September 1996 put the lie to THAT!) had very severe warnings about Poland. They said that every person smoked terrible cigerettes and didn't understand that some people might not like it, they said there were no smoke-free places in the country - that smoke was unavoidable. They said the people were rude, subborn and obnoxious and the streets were dangerous, polluted and the shop keepers all tried to rip you off. Obviously the writer had a bad day or two in Poland!

We found this description very bizarre because we experinced the exact opposite. Poland was CERTAINLY the most smoke free place in Europe - mostly because people in Eastern Europe in general and Poland specifically OBEY THE LAW. It is part of the culture. People will never smoke if it says no smoking, and since ALL public spaces in Poland are no smoking, the only time we ever breathed smoke was in Internet cafes (just like the rest of Europe) or the one time our hotel room was next to the smoking lobby. Even out on the street it was rare to encounter a cigerette.

The people were not just polite, but overtly friendly and helpful, gracious even. And the traffic, from a pedestrian standpoint, was no problem. I do not know what the guide book authors were thinking or where they went. Perhaps they were actually in Italy. Of course this was Lonely Planet, a clueless guidebook that seems quite surprised that Poland had train stations that were actually built for the purpose of being train stations. I guess they were confusing it with Mars or the USA or something!

We arrived in Poznan at night after a lovely train ride through the plains of Poland, the very plains that have caused Poland to be involved in so many wars - do you think they would have been overrun repeatedly if they had the geography of say, Switzerland? I don't . The station was big and we took a long time to orient ourselves, but with a few nice people to answer questions we finally figured out the trams and the map and so fourth and set out towards our hostel. We immedieatly felt like this was a very nice, very real, very comfortable city. It has huge trade shows all the time, apparently, and there is a giant exposition center across from the train station for that purpose. Despite a little discomfort, arriving at night wasn't the problem that it usually is... perhaps just because it is such a comfortable city.

The city is the place where the Polish nation was founded... the Slavic tribe that founded Poznan even gave Poland it's name. It remained the capitol until the threat from nearby Prussia became too great and the king moved to Krakow - probably a good move, since the Prussians soon took it. Poznan, Posan auf Deutsch, remained in Prussia and Germany for hundreds of years afterwards.

We rode a VERY nice tram out into the residential area and got off next to a little park with a stream running through it. The hostel was one block away, on a residential street. It seemed a bit weird from the outside, a long long narrow, almost temporary looking building, but we liked the no smoking sign! The man at the desk was extremely friendly, and through a very enjoyable pidgin of German and Polish we managed to check in, pay and explain that we only wanted FOUR nights, and not the five or six they had us down as. (We wondered if she had counted the number of times we had said MORGEN (tomorrow) on the phone when i was correcting myself but later decided that she just wanted to make sure we were set for as long as we needed to be.) They put us in a very comfotable private room for the price of a dorm! He even adopted us and taught us Polish phrases and pronouncation. It was cool. In fact everyone who worked there was very friendly and we learned a lot and felt at home. Of course part of the reason we felt at home was that for the first time in weeks we had a KITCHEN! We immediatly made dinner and were happy.

The following day was Sunday, and because of that much of the city was closed. But after cooking and eating our oatmeal we set out for town and right as we got off the tram, we discovered, much to our pleasure, a Milk Bar that was opened on Sunday. So we stopped in and had something to eat. After which we took a walk down the, almost completely deserted, major street that it was on. This was THE Bancomat street. Now i should mention that in every city we have been in it has been very easy to find Bancomats (cash machines), they are everywhere. But this street outdid all others, there were, 5 or 6 per block for several blocks and at least one per block for the entire length. In fact it seemed to be a rule everywhere in Poznan that if you were standing at a Bancomat, you could see AT LEAST one other one.

From there it was a short walk to the actual active city center, a large square, but not the Rynek, where we found a tourist information center. The two women in there were very bored because the town was pretty vacant on a winter Sunday morning, so they were happy to see us coming. When i started asking questions about ancestors and villages and counties they got all excited and we had a great time together for about 30 or 45 minutes. I got some information and maps and bus connections for my family history quest. It was fun watching them track down information on how to get to Slesin in their books and computers! Perhaps more importantly, they gave us suggestions for 3 places to try to get information during the week.

We also asked our basic questions about orientation including getting a small map and a list of Internet points. (and even one that was open on Sunday!) It was very nice and friendly and enjoyable. The entire time we were in there, not a single other person came in, but the automatic door was set to sense anyone anywhere on the sidewalk, and so about once per minute, someone would walk by and the door would open, letting in a blast of cold air and causing the two women to jump up to help someone but then discovered that no one was there. It drove me nuts and them too, i'm sure. I thought it was quite amusing -- I can only wonder what it would be like on a busy summer day!

Poznan's old town square, the Rynek is about 4 or 5 blocks from the active center of the city, -- so we headed that way in the wind and cold. This really is a Rynek -- a ring, because of the buildings in the centet. We wandered around the Rynek while it really, really, really tried very hard to snow, without, i'm afraid, much success. Eventually, while exploring the side streets, we found a nice little pizza parlor where we ate a couple of plates of pasta in the warm cozy downstairs and played speed scrabble until the place started to fill up - so we went walking again. By now there were actual snow flurries and we hurried to the Rynek to, hopefully, see the square and the buildings in the snow. In Wroclaw i had really wanted to see that gorgeous square and the multi colored buildings with it snowing, so this was my substitute. Unfortunatly the 25 second snow flurry stopped before we got to the Rynek -- obviously it was aware that the the world's best snow repelent had exited the pizza parlor.

The Rynek in Poznan was also very pleasent, but not at all like the brilliant one in Wroclaw. It was surrounded by Burger houses, in as many colors as in Wroclaw and even had buildings in the middle, but it just wasn't as grand. Also, with the weather, there was no one out and about and only a couple of merchents selling touristic crap struggling with the wind. We returned to our friends at the info center, for a few more questions, explored the streets around the city center and then headed back past the train station into a rather vibrant neighboorhod where we found a cool little basement Internet point with only 4 computers. The smoke was bad, but the people were very friendly and helpful and we were happy to read email. We were also happy to cook at home that night!

The friendly women at the tourist information center had suggested both the City Archive and the University Library as places that i might go to find more information on the mysterious ancestral counties that i was questing --so that was our goal for Monday. We made breakfast at the hostel, but also had soup at the same Milk Bar from the day before when we got into town. This Milk Bar was right across the street from a huge memorial to the numerous Polish revolts against the tolalitarian governments from 1952 to 1988. It was very dramatic, especially since there were about ten different years listed on the monument. We walked, or trammed past the monument several times a day while in Poznan. One evening while we were walking past the monument, we noticed a large polution monitor sign, like we had seen in Bratislava, mounted on one of the University buildings right across the street from the monument!

So we went to the city archives, in a huge official building, probably 200 years old. We could not find much information to help us figure out how to get around, and when we finally found the receptionist window, we had trouble communicating. Finally when she realized that we spoke English, she buzzed us in and pointed us around the wall to the room where she was... which was still hard to find. We put our coats and bags in the ubiquitous lockers and waited. The room contained some comfortable chairs and a table, the receptionist desk and the lockers. Soon a man came and asked what i needed. He also didn't speak English, and although we tried to speak German, he kept switching back to Polish. I showed him what i wanted and he went and got a couple of books while i layed out my map. It was strange because at the onset he said he could not help me and he needed to leave, but he kept looking further and getting excited. I could never tell if i should fold up my map and leave or keep prompting him. This went on for perhaps 15 minutes before he finally left, apologizing profusly. I did learn that the county names i had were very old and possibly mispelled, but nevertheless in the area.

We left the archives and found a big open market right next door, which we walked around for a bit, looking at chocolate, fruit, shoes, CD players, bicycles, clothing, meat, computers, video games, pets and cars. No, i'm kidding, there were not any cars, at least not that i saw! It was cool. Now, as several other times during our stay, we used the public restroom in the main city center. It was, like all city restrooms in Poland, immaculatly clean. It also, like all restrooms in Europe, cost money (which can get very frustrating!). This one was two zloty, about 50 cents, which we thought was excessive, but we also noticed that it was too expensive for the locals - the only locals who would use it were those who were... in pain, if you will. I thought that was kind of obnoxious, that it should be just for the tourists.

We returned to the Milk Bar on the Bancomat street and then headed for the University Library. Despite our recent good luck, i was quite frightened. We had cased out the area beforehand on Sunday and knew where to go. The University was not a campus, but just had buildings spread around the city, this building is only about 1 block from the tourist info center. We walked up to the building, and as is usual, it did not look inviting. We looked around for an entrance and finally found a tunnel between two buildings that, upon closer inspection had a somewhat hidden, nondescrpit dor, which turned out to lead us into a very modern lobby.

I waited in line, while Cheryln sat down to write in her journal and wait with our coats and packs. I tried to explain what i needed, i had picked up only a little Polish, and so i finally asked the woman at the counter if she spoke English. She, and everone else in the office ran around behind the counter and after a minute, pulled some guy up from his lunch to speak to me. He told me to go out the door, across the tunnel and then to room 62. After running across the cold tunnel i went through a door that was half hanging off it's hinges and found myself in a dark, dirty basement hallway. I walked past a man sweeping and poked my head down the hall before returning to the door to find a old, unlit staircase behind the door. The man asked me where i was going, i said 62 in English and German and then showed him where the man had written it down for me. So he led me up the stairs, around a cornor, through a few doors, up another staircase (yes, i was now thourghly lost) and we suddenly came out on the second floor mezinine of a gorgous old fancy lobby. He told me 62 was on the 3rd floor, so i went up two more staircases (3rd in Europe is 4th in American) and found room 62. Again, like in Krakow, the dark, dusty old hallway opened into a comfortalble, ultra modern reference room.

The librarian was probably my age, but the way she dressed and carried herself made her feel like a grandmother. She was very friendly, competent and confident and spoke English perfectly - of course she said she only spoke a LITTLE English. She was very cute, round, and puttered around the room pulling out books and maps and typing on computers. She was very helpful and also very cheerful and we both had a good time. We explored a little on the Internet, and found some good links to explore.

After 25 minutes of exploring books and the web, i started to get the feeling that we were done, so i prepared to leave. But instead she took me downstairs to the reading room, which was similar to, but nowhere near as grand as the one in Krakow, where she started digging up MORE books. I pulled a few reference books off the shelf where i was standing and browsed them while i waited for her. I even learned something about the French side of my Dad's family - really.

Finally we returned to the original room and i collected my things. She was very apologetic for not being able to find the counties, but i learned a great deal about Polish counties and i felt like it was useful as well as enjoyable. The main thing i got out of it all was some useful addresses to write to, but i also picked up lots of tidbits of information, usually when she would make an aside comment. For example, we know that my great, great, grandfather was married in a town called Slesin, but we were unsure about his name, because we had seen two different names listed for him. Without being asked this woman saw Adalbertus/Wojciek listed on my datasheet and looked up and told me, "Adalbertus is Latin for Wojciek". I was excited... a very useful piece of information for me, but for her, just an aside!

All in all it took about 45 minutes. Of course once i left the room i was completely lost. I wandered the building for a few minutes, even going through the grand main lobby and looking out at an unfimiar street, before i finally found the mazelike back way that i had come up and heading back across the tunnel to Cheryln.

The woman at the University had told me about the church archive at the cathedral across the river, so after a bit more exploration around the town center, we walked 30 minutes across the river. It was starting to snow quite a bit at that point! We got to the cathedral at about 2:20, but it took us close to 15 minutes to wander around the building and find the archives building. When we got there the people who worked there were leaving, and said, rather rudely, to us as they passed - oh, we close at 3pm - come back tomorrow. I did then wonder why they were leaving at 2:35!

I was very upset about this, especially because we didn't have another day, we were planning on taking an excursion the next day and going to Berlin on a VERY early train the following day. We talked about taking a tram to the end of the line, but we were both in a bad mood and the time and tickets were not going to work out very well. So we went to a Milk Bar right accross the street from the the train station. Then we went to the station and spent a long time trying to figure out what to do about our train ticket, because the cheap train was at 6:40 in the morning!! We had also hoped to walk across the border (for the experince and to save the international fee!) but it didn't look like that was going to work out. Finally we decided that if we took the train at 1pm, we could still go to the Church Archives that morning, so we bought our tickets to Berlin and also to Slesin.

That evening we went back to the Internet place for more email work. Part way through the email session i couldn't sit any longer without going to the bathroom, so while Cheryln typed, i went out walking in the dark (although it was only about 4pm), feeling more and more desperate, looking for a place to pee. Finally i couldn't wait any longer and i ducked into an alley. As i walked out i noticed from the signs that i had stepped into a major center of the porn industry... i was kind of embarassed walking out of it like that! On a better note we found a really nice grocery store next to the Interenet place and stocked up - then headed back to the hostel and made dinner.

Tuesday morning we were heading to Slesin, the town where my great, great grandfather was married. I thought it would be a good chance to see a small town, fun to see a place where some of my family was from, and who knows, maybe we would learn something. It was a cold morning with intermitent frozen rain. We got up early, ate and took the tram to the station where we easily caught our train to Konin. Both Konin and Poznan are on the mainline between Warsaw and Berlin and the line has been very well taken care of. The stations along the way were mostly brand new, there were very easily readable signs marking each town and it was a very smooth, enjoyable ride. It was cold and occationally snowing outside, although we saw little snow on the ground. We arrived in Konin and wandered inside and outside the station until we found the bus station.

Konin actually looked like a very interesting little city and we discussed spending some time there, especially since we were unsure of our bus connection. It was very cold waiting for the bus, but since we were not the only ones waiting we assumed we had read the schedule correctly, and sure enough the bus came and we got on - it was only about 15 minutes, not the 45 minutes we were expecting, until we saw the sign saying we had entered the village of Selsin. The bus stopped at the small town square and we got out into the wind and snow flurries. We really didn't know what we were going to do in this tiny village. We looked first for a Milk Bar, covered all 4 streets and didn't see one. We did see a huge blue arch on one of the streets into town, but we figured we would look at it later. We walked out of town in the direction that the map in the town square seemed to indicate that the church might be. Sure enough, after only 5 or 10 minutes we found an old brick church - simple, but certainly grand for the small village. We sat in the wind shaddow from the church and ate fruit and sandwiches and chocolate.

Then we got up the nerve to walk next door to the church house and see if we could learn something. Ok, we actually stood at the door for about 10 minutes trying to get up the nerve. There was a sign that said ARCHIV, among other things. There was also a sign that seemed to say the building was open 10am to 11am. It was 2 minutes after 11. We rang the bell. After a long time a man answered and when we explained what we wanted, showed him our datasheets, he just waved his hand at us, grumbled and slammed the door in our faces. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as my mother always says. (Actually my cousin Elaine, who has done extensive family research in churches in Europe says that sometimes the only way she ever got anything was by going EVERY day until they just got sick of her and let her in!)

From there we wandered down the road looking for the graveyard, didn't see it so we headed back to town. Back in the center we went to the grocery store and then picked one of the four roads out of the square and started walking. After only a couple of blocks we saw the post office and i figured it would be interesting to go in and see if we could look up some names in the phone book. Besides it was warm and a nice break from outside! At first i couldn't find a phone book, but then i saw some, seemingly abandoned, envelopes covering a stack of books and once i moved them, i found the phone books. Right as i was sitting down to start looking the owner of the envelopes walked up, an older man who looked at me cross at first, but then asked me what i needed and was so excited about it that he helped us explore several area phone books, but we did not find any Kubinskis. It was a very pleasent experince. Once we were outside walking again, we realized that we should've asked him were the graveyard was!

We wandered down the road - it was cold and windy and there were snow flurries, but we were quite happy to be out walking. After awhile we decided it was pretty clear that we wouldn't be finding the graveyard in this direction, but we walked a bit further because it was interesting. We were in a newly built 1950's style (american) suburban neighborhood! Eventually we turned around and instead of walking past the post office again we took a couple of turns (that means we covered almost every street in town, this was a VERY small town) and eventually found ourselves out by the church again. We went further down the road then we had before, and found the graveyard. We have discovered that graveyards are an interesting cultural experince and we like to try to find them and explore. This graveyard, as with much of Eastern Europe, had real live flowers growing on the graves, which were encircled by small stones making kind of a box, with the headstone (for a whole family) at the top. And the graves were VERY close together! We wandered for quite awhile in the snow flurries and on the soggy hill side looking for any family names - but most of the graves were from the last 70 years and we saw nothing related. But it was certainly interesting to see the history, the Germans and Poles, the wars and other changes.

The graveyard was just along the shore of a huge lake, so we walked back into the town center along the lake. Several times we crossed the narrow gauge railroad that i guess comes up from Konin - i was curious about it. The lakeside path leads along the backyards of houses and into a park where the maintence workers were clearing leaves and looking at us like we were crazy. We eventually wound up next to the large blue arch marking the exit of town towards the lake (and excactly 1 block from the town center). The road had been widened at some point so that one lane went through the arch and the other around it, but the arch itself was in good shape and clearly very old. I found inscriptions on it which had a year around 1812 and talk of Napolean, it wasn't clear to me if it was to celebrate the victory OF Napolean or OVER Napolean. I suspect the later. In any case it was a really cool monument and it kind of helped my excitement about this ancestral town.

We went back to the town center and waited a few minutes for a bus -- most of the people did not get on it, but we did, figuring that if it went the long way around the lake and would be more scenic and an area we had not seen. Besides, we were cold and it was warm in the bus. We were right. It took the longer way and it was a very interetesting area dominated by an unimaginably enormous church - right out in the middle of nowhere, this gigantic church sprouted out of the farmlands. We now realized what the man at the City Archives had been trying to tell us to look out for! Appearently it is being built by some local people to commerate the visit by the Pope - i seriously wondered if it wasn't bigger than St. Peters! We got back to Konin in time to quickly run to the train back to Poznan.

We got up on Wednesday morning and were sad to leave our wonderful hostel and even sadder because we were leaving Poland! We got completly packed and caught the tram into town, looking foreward to breakfast at our favorite Milk Bar. Throughout Europe the trams and usually subways and busses, operate somewhat on the honor system. That is, you buy your ticket or pass in advance, and ride the tram. You don't have to show it to anyone to board, but you do have to punch it in the validator machine. Occationally a ticket inspector will come around asking to look at tickets, you never know when. We only had been asked for tickets once or twice, but we always always had our tickets - not even because we didn't want to get caught, but because we want to do the right thing. This day we had carefully counted out our tickets for the 4 or so tram rides we were going to need to take.

At one stop on this tram a grungy looking guy got on, unwashed, dressed shabby, backpack, army boots, looked 17 or 18. He walked over to the ticket validator and disabled it, pulled out a badge and annouced to everyone that he was an inspector. I was quite amazed at the amount of deception he went through! We actually had a small problem that morning because, it seemed, we were supposed to have a second ticket for our backpacks. He didn't mention it when he looked at Cheryln's ticket (she was up against the wall) but he told me about it. Once he realized i spoke English, he told me to punch a ticket, but didn't fine me. Then he hauled someone off the tram to pay a big fine.

We ate at the same Milk Bar again and then went out to the Church Archives. They were not as rude as the guy the day before, but they were very short with us - telling us that, even though they didn't know where the counties were, they didn't have any records from whereever it was that we wanted. The didn't look at our data sheets and would not listen to us at all. After they dismissed us the priest came over and gave me the address of the parish that he thought would have records for Slesin at least. I appreciated that - i will write to them. We were in and out of there in 5 minutes and we were thinking, 'We skipped the cheaper train for THIS?!'.

We couldn't decide weather to walk or take the tram... our packs felt VERY heavy and Cheryln especailly was having a hard time. I was in a bad mood and was not being very understanding about her not being able to walk with her pack comfortably - of course, mine was pretty uncomfortable too (A couple of days later when we left Bonn we realized that our packs were much lighter... we left A LOT of weight in Bonn, so our packs really were very heavy that day!) ! Anyway, we did walk to the marketplace where we bought some train food and some little gifts for friends we would be staying with. Then we took a tram to the station, and saw a third Milk Bar that we had not found before while we were on the tram.

We noticed that in Poland almost all women wore boots. The women over 35 wore very nice traditional ankle high boots that looked warm and functional and went well with both a modern skirt or the traditional outfits - the women under 35 wore flashy, shiny, trendy boots high on the calf that usually had outragously high heels. In all of Eastern Europe, the platform shoes were unbelieveable - but Poland was the worst. Almost every woman between 12 and 30 wore shoes with gigantic towering platforms and exceptionally tall chunky heels. It wasn't unusual to see 5 and 6 inch heels, augmented by large platforms on the front. Almost all of them appeared to be completly impossible to walk in - a theory confirmed by watching the wearers struggle to negotiate some of the most terrible obsticles, such as stairs, paths, sidewalks or level floors. The most amazing of all was one, surprisingly attractive, young woman in the Poznan train station who had well over 6 inches of heel sticking out below the hem of her pants, and you still couldn't see the top of the heel or any of the shoe. It was weird! The whole phenomonom is bizarre and rather gross in my opionion. I imagine that these women are going to need serious medical attention in the not to distant future. But that seems to be what the arrival of capitolism has brought most of all to Eastern Europe: stupid shoes.

Although we had a total of 13 days in Poland, we wished we had twice that. We really felt like we were doing the high speed tour of Poland and we covered only four cities in the western and southern extremes. There was so much more we wanted to see! Oh, and we did notice that the Polish don't seem to hate the Germans, and the German language as much as i was told to expect when i visited in 1990. (Of course, the same can't really be said for Russian.) We got by so well with our German that we begain to think that our German was better than passable. We forgot, of course, that it was better than passable where many people only spoke passable German!

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000



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