I guess it’s safe to say I’m something of a procrastinator. After a 17-month post-Sochi Olympics slump in writing, during which a nearby country was invaded and paid work came and went, it took a writing contest to get me back on the computer. Not even my family moving from the Eurasian side of the new “Iron Curtain” in Belarus to western Poland had been so successful.
So, it’s been awhile and I have a lot of new observations. Some of them I might now write about as my personal hopes quietly fade of ever visiting a Russia governed by sane leadership again in my lifetime. Indeed, we are here in Lower Silesia today, now, rather than waiting for something drastic to happen back in Minsk, in part because of the nagging sense that we’d have better success in settling in Poland as immigrants rather than as refugees.
Why we selected Wrocław as a new home
Belarus had been a safe and quiet place for our small family throughout the years of my stay in the country, which began in 2008. Around the start of this year, though, rumors hit the news that Russian nationalists, possibly with Russian government backing, might be considering a coup d’état against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko following a series of friendly overtures he made to the West.
Of course, Lukashenko is, if anything, a survivor and he was only playing one side against the other, as he normally seems to do in these sorts of situations. However, in general, it’s often hard to gauge the news in the former Soviet Union – the rumors that make it into print are notoriously exaggerated, and have always been since even before the day that Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as General Secretary of the already collapsed USSR.
I found more unsettling the reports of verifiable atrocities being committed in the Donbas by so-called Russian patriots, even on such a small pretext as daring to speak any language other than Russian. I started to fear for my daughter, who often combined English and Russian words in her own patois. Certainly in any form of Russian invasion, everyone in Belarus would face increased risks, even just walking down the street and minding one’s business. But my daughter’s safety, as with that of her mother and little brother, is a responsibility that I keenly felt, and one I continue to take very seriously. In my mind, I needed them someplace safer.
So, we began to look around at our options. Because of my wife’s Polish ancestry, we found we could make arrangements to move her and the kids to Poland without too much trouble. My American passport would allow me to go along for the ride. We didn’t want to be too close to the military build-up on the country’s eastern border, so we limited ourselves to the southwestern part of the country. This left us a choice between Poznan and Wrocław.
Poznan I remembered from my travels in the 1990s as being a nice little college city with plenty of cultural activities situated conveniently on the Berlin-Warsaw rail line. However, looking at Wrocław and its geography, the city seemed to have relatively easy access to not just two capitals, but also to Prague in Czechia. Further, the Silesian city appeared to have more activities than Poznan going on every day with many organizations, even Internations – the expatriate group I joined while looking for work in South America –, providing things to do and people to connect with. What clinched our sight-unseen preference, though, was the fact that Wrocław would serve as the 2016 European Capital of Culture, which perfectly fit our aspirations for our children to develop a tolerant and cosmopolitan point of view. Still, we decided to visit and check the city out before moving.
In April, we arrived by train early in the morning, and after a carsickness-generating taxi ride, unpacked our things in a short-term apartment located in the city center. We then went exploring the city, which seemed to find fun even in such mundane things as store names. On one street, you could find a convenience store named for a frog (Żabka), while on the next you’d find one named for a monkey (Małpka Express), and then on a third one named for a ladybug (Biedronka). And everywhere there were fountains, funny statues, bridges, and little brass figurines of gnomes and dwarfs, each with a hat well-worn by thousands of hands that touch them for luck. An aqua park stood conveniently near the city center as a source of ready amusement, where slides and waves and the accouterments of a spa still await our return.
However, it was while riding a tram through the Rondo stop on the way to Krzyki district that my wife and I clearly saw ourselves living here. All doubts about our imminent move were erased at that moment.
The move from Belarus to Lower Silesia
We returned to our little town for a couple more months so that our daughter could go through her pre-school graduation, and then we went through the all-too-usual trauma of packing up everything and moving. The actual journey took about a day in total as we crossed by train into Lithuania, and then took an overnight bus from Kaunas directly to Wrocław. With all our heavy bags, and two children prone to carsickness, we clearly didn’t leave a good impression on the bus crew, but everyone survived to see the morning skies above the Sky Tower.
Going from one short-term apartment to another, our first days in Lower Silesia were a struggle. But we had luck on our side as my wife quickly found an apartment for us to move into. It was an excellent choice as well, set within a gated community in the Partynice part of Krzyki, in the center of several small shops and fruit stands and not far from both my daughter’s future school and the bus and tram lines that would take us elsewhere into the city.
Once we were in our new place, my wife went directly to work on the paperwork for residency for her and the children. Since they had the proper credentials to register immediately, and since time was of the essence for registering our daughter for school, we decided to wait until after they got residency before doing the paperwork for me. This would give me time to search for work, which might help us get me past this bureaucratic headache.
Indeed, anyone who hasn’t yet been to the “Urząd Wojewódzki” will probably fail to appreciate what a massive undertaking getting legally registered involves. I’ve seen paperback books that had less pages than the application, which had to have all manner of supporting documentation, some of which had to be translated by a certified translator.
However, my wife, who resembles the character Susanna, the stapler-wielding heroine played by Carolina Bang in the short film “036”, came prepared. She had all our family’s Belarusian documents already translated, everything filled in and properly photocopied, and all the required photos prepared for submitting. All I had to do in support was provide the filing fees, which were apparently considerably more the monthly salary of the person who took the application, and keep the kids entertained while everything was checked with a fine-tooth comb.
After this, my wife again did her bureaucracy-breaking magic with the application for our daughter’s registration at school. In September, she’ll go to her first real school for the first time. We had worried much that we had to get her Polish up to a certain minimum, but it turns out that she will have extra language lessons as a Polish-as-Second-Language speaker. I’ve also been reassured that at age 6, she is at the perfect age to learn a new language, but we will still continue to work with flash cards, vocabulary books, online resources, and daily viewing of Polish cartoons in order to prepare her for the challenges ahead.
Impressions after a month
Many of the quirks and exciting elements of Wrocław have already become old hat to us, but when I look out the window, I find I’m still happy with the view. Unlike in Belarus, I don’t struggle with the idea of going outside – well, at least not so much. When there isn’t a heat wave, I know there are things to see outside, even if each trip with the kids means an inevitable stop at a playground. (Am I a bad dad that I don’t find these interesting?)
A walk in the neighborhood still involves exploration – new parks, new streets with different neat things on them, trails by the railroad tracks, and of course, the dwarfs, even here in Krzyki. One of the Internations functions took me to a themed restaurant near Plac Solny called “Café Konspira”, which celebrates the anti-Communist past of the Polish underground. Painted on the walls there was the inspiration for the dwarf statuettes, the original gnome stencil that usually got painted over Communist slogans that themselves covered graffiti in the city.
The gnomes were originally the creation of a group called the Orange Alternative, an ally of Solidarity from the days of Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Gdansk Shipbuilders strikes. Applying surrealism in the fight against Soviet oppression, the group, led by “Major” Waldemar Frydrich, developed a unique manifesto and an underground publication by the same name. As a result of their efforts, the dwarfs began to appear across the city, and their image came to be closely associated with Wrocław. In 2001, artists celebrated the memory of this uniquely Silesian counter-culture group by leaving three dimensional depictions of these early freedom fighters on the streets of the city, which today provide a unique quirk to Wrocław that seems to capture the imagination of the child in everyone.
When you look up from the gnomes, though, you find a city full of people who come from not just everywhere in Poland, but from just about every part of the world. The city leaves me still pleased with a cosmopolitan image, one in which foreigners blend in with Poles to create something new and unusual. Certainly the city has a lengthy history that has seen it go from one country to another as the nearby boundaries shifted like snakes on the political map of Central Europe. But this has only added to the international feel of the city.
In the relatively wealthy riverside Biskupin district, the Hala Stulecia stands as a memory of the days when the city was called Breslau, and was situated in Germany. Szczecin-born Architect Max Berg built the structure (which today hosts the city’s basketball team’s home games), using reinforced concrete in its design, at the time considered innovative. Originally constructed on the 100th anniversary of Prussian King Heinrich Wilhelm III’s uprising against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1913, the building survived World War II because Soviet bombers regarded it as a convenient landmark for identifying the city – from the domed structure, they could easily determine where their targeted factories were located.
There is, of course, much more of the city that I have to see. They say there are over 130 bridges still standing in the city. I’ve only walked half the promenade along the old city walls so far, seeing everything from the Witold Pilecki monument westward. And it seems like every weekend the Rynek, the cobble-stoned square where the old City Hall and its ancient-looking clock still stands, changes into something different. One weekend it could be a street fair, while the next it hosts an outdoor theater and beach during the city’s film festival.
This period in our lives can easily be called our Silesian Summer, but clearly Lower Silesia has much more than a single season to celebrate. I look forward to sharing it with my wife and kids in the months ahead.