When I was eleven I went to Poland for the first time. My father took me by car and the journey took four days. It was all very exciting, though exhausting,but I thought it would be wonderful once we crossed the border. Especially after 24 hours in Prague which were the most frightening of my life.
My father had a transit visa to cross East Germany and Czechoslovakia, but after all that driving, in a an Austin 1100, I think, he was very tired. So he asked at the police station in Prague if they would let us stay the night. Yes,they said. My father was taken away into a police cell and I and the woman we were travelling with, Mrs Brabec, I think was her name, were put into a dingy room somewhere with no food or bathroom. Horrific. There weren’t any hotels for westerners then, who were all treated with great suspicion. Somehow the next day we were reunited, and quickly got back into the car. We stopped at some traffic lights on the way out and I got out my secret stash, a can of Coca Cola. I began to drink it while we were still standing at the lights, when suddenly I felt stones being thrown at the car, and a lot of shouting – western spies, degenerates, enemies of the people; all that sort of thing. Luckily the windows were shut, Mrs Brabec was screaming, my father got very flustered but quickly pulled away. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and got on the main road to the Carpathian mountains and the border with Poland.
All was well for a couple of hours. We managed to find some food, I didn’t show my Coca Cola again when something seriously petrifying happened. We’re on the open road,not a motorway nor even a dual carriage-way – just a long straight road, probably one that Hitler had built before and during the war. No cars in the vicinity, no houses or people to be seen. All at once thirty or forty or maybe more soldiers leapt out from the ditches all wearing gas masks and fully armed.
They all began running about and shouting and then eventually one of them brought out a flag and stopped our car. Obviously they were on manoeuvres, but I wasn’t to know that. I thought we were going to die. The soldier who stopped our car didn’t even have the courtesy to remove his facewear, but he just checked our documentation and asked us why we had overstayed our visa; luckily everything was multiply stamped and so we went on our way. Several hours later we reached the Polish border in the mountains. It was and is a beautiful area, but the toilets left a lot to be desired. Everywhere. It’s taken over fifty years for things to improve in that area!!
in Poland my father was going to meet up with some prewar friends – a married couple who had a son. Exciting! He was (and is) a little bit older than me and he was charming. I was extremely shy in those days and my Polish wasn’t confident, but he took a great interest in me in the nicest possible way. We stayed at the Villa Urocza. Urocza means charming. The villa was not. My father and I shared a small room painted institutional green. two small beds, two chairs, a table and a small and dusty wardrobe. Yet better than the Prague accommodation, it has to be admitted. Be thankful for small mercies ( I did not say to myself)
Then, as now, I was often hungry, but food in the villa came at appointed times. No choice. No flavour. As a child I was not allowed to say anything. I managed to eat some dry bread – the greasy pork and cabbage were beyond me, though my father enjoyed it all – his and mine! So at least one of us was happy. I have no idea what we did with Mrs Brabec, but she wasn’t there.
The next day was the best day of the whole trip. We went for a walk in the mountains. I like walking, though I have never been good on hills. This time, however, we were accompanied by my father’s friends who were lovely and their son Jurek. It was hot, and I got tired quickly and I certainly didn’t have the right sort of shoes, but no one made me feel awkward or clumsy – they just let me get on with it. The area was beautiful and then we came across something that I will never forget.
It was as small medieval Norwegian Stave Church which had been brought over from Norway in 1842. It was entirely made from wood, and built on enormous staves. We went inside and the windows were astonishing. All the windowpanes were round and bull’s eyed but very tiny. Thirteenth century glass. It was one of the most romantic places I have ever been to in my life. There was no one about and so we could shelter from the sun and explore as much as we liked. Jurek told me the whole history of the place in a way I could appreciate if not exactly remember – thank goodness for the internet now! – and I have held on to the memory of that day for over 5o years.
A few years ago I discovered that it had been severely damaged in a fire, but it has been rebuilt very faithfully I believe and now people come to look at it in their droves. Unusually for Poland it is not a Catholic church but one of the few Protestant ones!