J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Off to a cold start

Michael Mo­ran be­gins a quixotic jour­ney across Poland to trace the roots of Chopin’s mu­sic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Y con­cert ca­reer had foundered in my 20s. By night I had worked as a croupier un­der the painted Is­lamic ceil­ings of the sumptuous Crock­fords Club in Lon­don’s Carl­ton House Ter­race and prac­tised Bach and Beethoven by day. In the end I de­cided not to teach the pi­ano but to fol­low a dif­fer­ent life path in academia, al­though my pas­sion for the mu­sic of Chopin re­mained undimmed.

I de­cided to ac­cept a man­age­rial post­ing to War­saw. In the early 1990s con­fi­dence had be­gun to re­turn to Poland, hy­per­in­fla­tion had ceased and for­eign in­vest­ment and joint ven­tures were ex­pand­ing in scope. The pur­pose of the joint ven­ture was to in­tro­duce Pol­ish com­pa­nies to the joys of the mar­ket econ­omy.

This post­ing would give me am­ple op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore Chopin’s Poland as well as carry out my more of­fi­cial obli­ga­tions to­wards busi­ness train­ing in East Cen­tral Europe.

Ini­tially I had grave reser­va­tions about ap­ply­ing for the con­tract. Hard in­for­ma­tion about daily life in Poland was un­avail­able. The cus­tom­ary unattrac­tive pre­con­cep­tions about the coun­try were con­firmed by every­one I spoke to. Hardly any­one wanted to visit Poland then, let alone live and work there.

I ar­rived one des­o­late Jan­uary morn­ing in the win­ter of 1992. Ex­hausted from walk­ing around War­saw air­port at­tempt­ing to fol­low signs in Pol­ish, I fool­ishly climbed into a taxi and op­ti­misti­cally pointed out an un­pro­nounce­able sub­urb on my map. We headed to­wards the ad­dress along a road that ran be­side the win­try Vis­tula, which drifted past in var­i­ous shades of grey.

It was a des­o­late land­scape of bare trees and frozen earth, snow on sand, ice form­ing at the jagged mar­gins of wa­ter flow­ing be­neath the ice sheets. It is an un­tamed river, the last large un­reg­u­lated wa­ter­way in Europe.

The driver nod­ded with un­der­stand­ing at my frac­tured Pol­ish but still pro­ceeded to get lost. Hours passed. Even­tu­ally we were driv­ing in dark­ness across ploughed fields on the river banks. I pre­sumed he was ei­ther a Ukrainian refugee or an ex-se­cret po­lice mafia agent, for when­ever he asked di­rec­tions peo­ple wil­fully mis­un­der­stood him and shied away. I be­came con­vinced he was il­lit­er­ate as the names on the map seemed of no nav­i­ga­tional as­sis­tance. When we fi­nally ar­rived at the train­ing cen­tre I asked him how much I owed. ‘‘ Five and a half mil­lion zlo­tys.’’ I was aghast and of­fered him half the amount. In­vec­tive in Pol­ish and English flew. I had been warned that War­saw taxi driv­ers in those days ha­bit­u­ally mul­ti­plied the fare by 1000.

The train­ing cen­tre was 18km from the city cen­tre, deep in a pic­turesque birch and pine for­est on the banks of the Vis­tula. Pri­vate al­lot­ments for rais­ing veg­eta­bles, known as dzi­aki , sported tiny, fan­tas­ti­cal cabins. In the mid-16th cen­tury the area had been a royal hunt­ing park, but the vil­lage had been de­stroyed by the Swedish in­va­sion 100 years later.

Nearby were the shrap­nel-licked ru­ins of a small, neo-clas­si­cal palace built by Count Hein­rich von Bruhl, the pow­er­ful chief min­is­ter un­der the sloth­ful and porcine Elec­tor-King Au­gus­tus III. My first im­pres­sion of the cen­tre was that it re­sem­bled an aban­doned mil­i­tary bar­racks.

I was met by my Pol­ish coun­ter­part, Dr Grab­ski, a sur­pris­ingly snappy dresser in yacht­ing jacket and club tie but with dis­turbingly cold eyes, who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally showed me around. As we walked, he jammed matches in the en­ergy-fru­gal, spring-loaded light switches that re­fused to re­main in the on po­si­tion.

‘‘ That con­tract you signed is com­plete rub­bish! We will in­vent so­lu­tions as we go along!’’ he burst out gaily.

Over strong cof­fee, con­fi­dences con­cern­ing the pre­vi­ous con­trac­tors were re­vealed. A men­tally dis­eased fe­male teacher, af­ter a ro­man­tic in­ter­lude, had at­tacked one of the per­son­nel man­agers dur­ing a snow­storm and had bit­ten him on the neck and face as he at­tempted to es­cape her ad­vances and leap from the mov­ing ve­hi­cle.

For­mer aca­demic staff had turned out to be shoe sales­men, a truck driver who had de­liv­ered or­anges to Te­heran and an un­em­ployed ac­tor who spe­cialised in voice-overs for fry­ing mush­rooms.

Now the Poles wanted a more pro­fes­sional group and were jus­ti­fi­ably tired of be­ing taken ad­van­tage of by cyn­i­cal West­ern com­pa­nies.

The build­ing must have been one of the last con­fer­ence cen­tres in War­saw un­touched since com­mu­nist days. Two ar­chi­tec­turally ster­ile blocks were linked by a cov­ered walk­way. De­crepit and over­grown ten­nis courts with rot­ting nets lay to one side of a ne­glected Ital­ianate gar­den that had once graced a charm­ing sum­mer villa. A three-legged dog nosed some promis­ing rub­bish bins. The re­cep­tion area was dim, with un­smil­ing women be­hind a glass panel fur­nished with a tiny speech aper­ture that forced one to bend dou­ble to com­mu­ni­cate.

Any­one hop­ing to use the tele­phone needed to grasp the sin­gle red hand­set pushed through the gap on a short cord. Dis­con­nec­tion seemed in­evitable and usu­ally ir­re­versible. The line be­came in­cred­i­bly faint if it rained ow­ing to the low-qual­ity por­ous Rus­sian ca­ble in­su­la­tion. A faint aroma of urine and boiled fish mixed with the kerosene used to wash the stairs. It min­gled with stale cig­a­rette smoke from over­flow­ing ash­trays on per­ilously tall stands. Cats fought un­der the ra­di­a­tors and dogs ate scraps of lava­tory pa­per on the floor. Peo­ple rushed about dis­tract­edly car­ry­ing huge bun­dles of laun­dry in and out of pri­vate cars.

The cor­ri­dors were dec­o­rated with curl­ing pho­to­copies of Pol­ish medal­lions and pho­to­graphs of onions and toma­toes. An enor­mous beige plas­tic bust of Lenin had top­pled in one cor­ner of an of­fice while most of the light­bulbs in the wooden can­de­labra had blown.

Glass cases con­tain­ing num­bered lumps of coal and boxes of an­i­mal feed printed with car­toons of pink pigs lined the walls. Strips of fly­pa­per en­crusted with gen­er­a­tions of in­sects hung from the ceil­ing of the lava­to­ries. Three times a day a truck ar­rived in a cloud of diesel to pump out the cesspit at the rear of the build­ings, at which time a sweet, cloy­ing odour wafted over the com­plex.

The view from the win­dow of my room was of a flat as­phalt roof gar­landed with light­ning rods linked by ca­bles. Clouds of steam is­sued from ev­ery junc­tion of Pick of the Valen­tine’s Day pack­ages; free nights, from Bali’s new-look Club Med to a South African sa­fari; win a week­end at a health re­treat. Th­ese and other money-sav­ing of­fers are fea­tured in Travel&In­dul­gence’s hol­i­day deals, up­dated daily:

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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