Did I get verbally abused for being foreign?
What did I expect?
And what makes me return every single year?
I'd travelled to many places before I met Kinga: Hawaii, Mexico, Australia, Los Angeles, San-Francisco and Las Vegas of course. I'd always been on holiday to far away 'exotic' places or somewhere typical in Europe such as Spain or Greece. It had never even crossed my mind to visit Poland. I knew nothing about Poland at all. I knew nothing about their food, nothing about the culture and the only words I had learned were naughty and rude - not much help unless I wanted to offend someone! I was a bit apprehensive and nervous about going to Poland. Were these people going to be aggressive to me because I was foreign? Were they going to hate me because I was in a relationship with a Polish woman - only time would tell!
Fast forward to the end of March 2005. We landed in Wrocław on a late flight. Back in those days the old military airport was in use; nowadays there is a lovely, shiny, new, glass airport sat right on a ring road and it takes just twenty minutes to drive to our Osiedle from the airport. Not back in 2005 it didn't! Kinga and I had flown with one of Kinga's friends too. We were picked up from the airport by two men - one of whom was a family friend of the person we had travelled with. We squeezed into the back of this very old car and I'm sure they were drunk. We had to travel through the city centre and most of the roads were cobbled stone and it was one bumpy ride that took over an hour.
We arrived at the Osiedle - I don't think I had ever asked Kinga about her home, I just assumed it was a house, so I was surprised to see block after block of flats. We made our way up to Kinga's Mum's flat. Now, something that I have come to love is that smell of fresh
Polish cuisine. Every level of those flats produces a different smell. I had no clue back then what was being cooked but now I have a keen sense of smell for Polish food. If we are leaving the flat now to go to the shop for example, I'll turn to kinga and say something like "It's Sunday, number five is making Rosół, I can smell it".
We spent the week running errands, medical appointments, dentist appointments and things like that. Kinga took me to the Rynek and the city centre and I fell in love with this place! Wrocław Rynek is a thing of beauty. Cafes, shops, street entertainers, restaurants and bars all over the place. I was shocked - this place was beautiful. We had beer at Spiż and I tried 'chleb ze smalcem' which I loved.
We spent Easter Sunday with Kinga's son Bartek and Kinga's Mum. My first Polish Easter - very different to the UK where we don't have a specific Easter meal. I tried all of the food on offer, it was delicious.
Something else I experienced on this trip was the love this country had for their Pope, Jan Paweł II. Unfortunately, whilst I was in Poland for Easter, the Pope died. He passed away on 2nd April 2005 in the Vatican City. Of course, I was well aware of who this man was, but I could not have imagined the effect his death had on the Polish people. He was one of them, his birth name was Karol Józef Wojtyła he was born in Wadowice, Southern Poland. His picture is still seen framed and hanging in most polish homes. The country went into mourning during this period and the country closed down. For me, it was very strange - I can only imagine it being similar in the UK if the Queen passed away.
Back in 2005 there was a small bar just a few metres from Kinga's flat. It was dark and small. It had a pool table, dart board and a bar covered in speedway and football memorabilia. I first walked in and felt like turning around and leaving. Everyone stared at me - not something you do in the UK unless you want trouble. As a kid growing up in England you are told 'it's rude to stare', so I assumed these people wanted my blood. But, in Poland I have come to understand this is pretty normal - people stare all the time and they don't actually stop when you catch their eye - they just continue to stare right at you. I took a seat with Kinga, we ordered a beer. Kinga wandered off greeting all her friends and was getting hugs and kisses from all these people she had grown up with. I felt like a spare part - then one by one these guys came over to our table, shook my hand and introduced themselves. We drank vodka and beer, they were so hospitable and I left that bar thinking how nice these people were to me - they didn't even know me. It was nice to be so welcomed by these strangers and now I can say that a couple of these individuals are some of my best friends and like extended family to us. Back to my concerns I mentioned at the start of this post - did I get verbally abused for being 'foreign'? - no. Well, at least I don't think I did as I didn't understand a single word back then! Did the locals hate me for dating a Polish girl? - no! They welcomed me with open arms.
I don't have many other memories of that first trip; probably due to the amount of alcohol I shared with the Polish people! I didn't know back then that this first trip was the start of a love affair between me, the country of Poland and city of Wrocław and I have been back every single year since. I feel a sense of belonging in Poland, I feel that I have family and friends there just as I have in England. Although I am a very proud Englishman - I think I can honestly say that my heart is in Poland.