A brief extract from Chapter 5...

If freedom then what freedom? - sketches and fragments of a new Poland with a long history...

…I will not claim that behaviour on the road definitely illuminates or reveals national character. It is, however an interesting speculation with which to fill an idle moment.

British driving is an interweaving ritual of organised chaos, whereby participants noisily proclaim their right to individuality while, for the most part, strictly adhering in reality to the rules of the road. Germans, meanwhile, are fast, organised, and highly disciplined as they thunder along the autobahn. The glory of huge gas guzzling, highly polished, road dominating American Cadillac’s is betrayed by their dented and pulverised fenders, which are so indicative of sloppy driving and sluggish automatic gearboxes!

Polish driving is different!

We are on the road from Wilkasy to Ryn deep in the north east of Poland.

Normally, or perhaps notoriously, Polish roads consist of a single lane with an extra associated half width lane in each direction. The amiable driver of a slow vehicle, of which there are very many indeed, will gracefully pull over, without any change of speed, so that he is driving partially on this half lane and partly on the actual main carriageway in order to allow you to overtake astride the centre of the road.

Today, however there is no half lane just the single narrow carriageway in each direction and so overtaking is more hazardous than ever.

I am in the front passenger seat of a right hand drive Peugeot, designed for driving on the left in Britain and certainly not for driving on the right in Poland. So it is that in the front passenger seat I must make the decisions of life and death as to when to overtake but it is the driver who, with very limited visibility, must convert my poor judgement into accelerated action!

Fran is in the driving seat and I am next to her. Gosia is in the back of the car with tiny Michal and four year old Marcin. It is ‘thanks’ to Marcin that we are listening, as we speed along in the mid-August heat, to a tape of the Smurfs’ “Christmas Hits|” at high volume in Polish. For those who do not know, Smurfs are little bright blue cartoon characters who speak, and more unfortunately sing, with a high pitched squeak. Today they are endlessly squeaking what sounds like “jing, jang, jong” to a tune that has only slight and passing resemblance to “Jingle Bells”!

Suddenly we are no longer travelling at speed. We have arrived at the rear of a ‘convoy’ travelling at a very low speed indeed.

Leading the convoy is a trio of typically Polish tractors. I am convinced that these beasts are especially designed so as to monopolise the whole carriageway at the lowest possible attainable speed.

Our convoy also contains three lorries of which two are just huge European TIRs which would be more at home on the autobahns and motorways of Western Europe rather than the narrow twisting turning lanes of north-eastern Poland. They present little challenge for a truly Polish driver. The third however is a real Polish convoy superstar - a truly monstrous long and wide lorry pulling an equally devilish trailer both heavily overloaded with what appears to be heavily polished wooden planks.

Behind the main body of the convoy, like a swarm of infuriated and frustrated bees, lurk no less than nine cars neatly tucked in at the rear, we become number ten.

In other countries driving may be about speed or panache but here in Poland driving is about one thing and about one thing only - overtaking! The art of driving in Poland is to sit as close as is possible (millimetres are preferable to centimetres) to the rear of the vehicle in front without actually touching it. One then draws attention to one’s intention to conduct some stylish overtaking by continually pulling out ostensibly to see if the road ahead is clear but in reality to scare the living daylights out of anyone foolish enough to be heading in the opposite direction.

Having exhausted preliminary foreplay the ultimate moment of ecstasy and triumph comes as the driver finally pulls out, accelerates, and glides comfortably past the inferior snails, which were hitherto impeding progress! The manoeuvre is only considered a total triumph if an oncoming driver is driven to the brink of heart failure and has to swerve to avoid imminent death! When one driver makes his ‘move’ several others will happily follow tailing him as closely as possible even though they have no forward visibility whatsoever and hence no knowledge of any oncoming traffic into whose path they are rushing on the wrong side of the road!

So it is today and our nine unknown associates weave and buzz until the moment comes to make their respective ‘moves’.

At last it is our turn and I proffer the long delayed advice “Go! Now! Put your foot down!” and half close my eyes. We pull out at full speed and start to hurtle past these tractors and lorries crawling along in their painfully sluggish inferiority.

It is only then, to the accompaniment of a particularly painfully crescendo of “Jing, jang, jong”, that we see them - in close formation, two abreast - white helmeted, blue patterned shirts, black lycro shorts - heads obsessively down - ten cyclists heading straight for us!

…There is one question to which I am unable to extract an answer from my Warsaw friends and acquaintances. Indeed they look at me with total incredibility as if to say, “What is he talking about? Can such a thing really be happening in Poland and here in Warsaw?” The question is simply why are there resident cats in so many Warsaw bookshops? Fran’s theory is that the cats may originally have protected the stocks of books from gnawing rodents. Personally I would have thought that self-respecting rodents would have found more productive targets such as bakers or food shops for their gnawing exertions.

Now Warsaw like all Polish cities is a city of bookshops. Poles are omnivorous readers and books are comparatively speaking extremely cheap when compared with the U.K. This is a country where book shows and top selling new releases can feature on the national television news. There is a huge and regular outpouring of books from the publishing houses. Warsaw boasts a huge and regular book market and there are bookshops everywhere even tucked away in the most unassuming of minor city centre cul-de-sacs. Some bookshops are huge. The two big Empik stores in Warsaw (on Marszalkowska and Nowy Swiat) are enormous newsagents, superb and hospitable bookshops (the one on Marszalkowska provides comfortable chairs and convenient tables for browsers) and are certainly the best shops in the city for CDs, DVDs and Videos. However they do not so far as I know offer employment and accommodation to small felines.

The city is however littered with many smaller bookshops some general and some specialist in stock. British visitors struggle to remember to pick up small plastic baskets upon entering into which to place the fruits of their browsing before heading for the check out. It is in some of these that one finds cats. Tucked away on Piwna in the Old Town is a fine little bookshop specialising in art and antiquarian books. This is home to a large black cat, who luxuriates on a large polished slightly hollowed out tree trunk. He will graciously allow visitors to stroke him and, when in a particularly good mood, he will with the slightest gesture of the paw indicate which of his soft toys, suspended from sticks fixed to the edge of his tree trunk, he would like you to tap so that he can then pat lazily at the object swinging before him.

On Nowy Swiat there is a rather snooty purveyors of stationery and such who still operate on the old communist shopping system. You select the goods, which you wish to purchase, and duly hand them to a shop assistant of distinguished years who clearly regards herself as your social superior and therefore behaves accordingly. She in due course retains your goods and gives you an invoice which you take to a separate cashier seated at a till, and protected from contamination by customers by ample glass screens. She will grudgingly accept both invoice and cash and provide you with a receipt with which to reclaim your purchase from the original shop assistant, but only when she has finished patronising the queue of customers which has built up in the meantime. This system is now mercifully almost extinct in Poland and here it is performed not as if it is a hangover from the communist days but rather as if it is a lingering tradition from some for gracious and unhurried age when customers knew their place. Needless to say the black and white cat, which sits on the counter at the far end of the shop delicately grooming itself with leisurely grace, does not deign to be stroked by mere customers.

Nowy Swiat (in English ‘New World’) is a strange mixture of everyday city centre bustle and gracious, stylish and expensive shops. It’s evident capital city sophistication contrasts oddly with an agreeable and relaxing tang of provincialism. The latter stems from the fact that the post-war regime limited the height of its rebuilding to a modest three stories rather than the grander heights of pre-war times. The relatively low skyline combines with the broad pavements to give Nowy Swiat an impression of spaciousness, which makes it far more relaxed, and less crowded than London’s Oxford Street. It is difficult to reconcile that impression with the American study of a few years ago which shows that Nowy Swiat can claim more “foot falls” than either Oxford Street or the Champs Elysees! The Blikle Café on Nowy Swiat, which opened its doors for business in 1869, is with its famed donuts, a favourite meeting place, although today it faces stiffer competition than ever before from the newer bars and cafes which are springing up like cheeking upstarts all around.

It is logical that there should be literary cats on Nowy Swiat. After all it was just round the corner that the cat Ivan, much referred to in his book ‘New World Avenue and Environs” resided at the home of Tadeusz Konwicki.

Just a few minutes walk away, heading back towards the old town, is yet another book shop which boasts the most magnificent tabby cat. If he is in the mood to be admired he can generally be found lying between books on one of the tables, fully stretched out to take advantage of any summer breeze wafting through the open door. If he is tired he may be tucked away on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. Some times he can be found sitting quietly, perhaps alongside a friendly girl student who is sitting on the low internal steps reading a prospective purchase, while absent mindedly stroking behind his ear. Sometimes he can be seen curled up and sleeping in the smaller of the shop’s two windows which is about three feet above ground level. If staff notice he is in the window then they may put a little hand written sign next to him, which says “Please do not tap the glass. I am trying to sleep”. A year or two ago we were leaving the shop and noticed a drunk standing outside some feet from the window, and obviously transfixed by what he saw. Unwashed and scruffy he clutched a bottle in the one hand while making hugely exaggerated gestures at the window with the other hand. He was rocking backwards and forwards on his heels to the amazing degree, that only a total drunk who has lost all fear of falling can actually accomplish. He was booming at the top of his voice “Look, look! It’s a cat in the window! Look, look it’s sleeping - and look - it’s written a sign”.


Bonaparte, Bras & Bigos
Damn Passive Sympathy
The Stairway To Heaven
Why Didn't You Tell Them About The Flagpole
If Freedom Then What Freedom?