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
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: