Ewa appeared downstairs in metallic splendour; long copper coloured dress, silver bolero and old looking hooped earrings containing residual deer tusks.
“I was wearing them at one of your parties in the 1970s,” she said.
“You said, “Oh, you are too elegant.””
Oh dear – what an insecure twit I was. I remember those student parties in my flat near Katowice in Silesia. I was a so called teaching assistant at the University of Sosnowiec, although I had no one to assist. I was on my own fronting large classes mainly of bored looking teenage girls with inexplicable names like Małgorzata and Bożena. A rattled Fulbright scholar from the US called them, “The whispering maidens of Katowice.”
Ewa was one of my students who didn’t whisper or pass bits of paper to her neighbour. She worked determinedly and was definitely the most elegant, possibly the best looking of them all. A real Polish princess.
We first met when she put up her hand in class and asked me if I would like to go home with her for the weekend to visit her family in Oswiecim, better known to the world as Auschwitz.
“The town is very interesting,” she said. “We have a wonderful ice-rink.”
We’ve been friends since then, down all the years, and I was invited to Bielsko-Biała for her son Adam’s wedding on May 21st.
I remember when he was born, just after Martial Law had been declared. There was a food shortage and everyone was in a panic about finding milk for him.
A Polish wedding is possibly more significant than its English equivalent, especially if the family is strongly Catholic.
This time, unlike the 1970s I complimented her on her outfit. She didn’t comment on my black and white M & S dress and bright red fascinator, she was too stressed to notice. Her husband Kazik sat quietly sewing a button onto Adam’s suit.
We set off in two cars, along the pot-holed roads to visit the new in-laws, for a special Polish parental blessing on the young couple, which sounded rather strange to me.
The small house might have been English, part of a pleasant looking estate, but there was a large black crucifix at the bottom of the stairs, and a table set out like an altar in the living room, with a silver crucifix and beside it a bowl of water and a small brush called an aspergillum, used for sprinkling in the Catholic church. On the floor was a white towel.
The mother looked rather perplexed at seeing me, as if this intrusion might be the last straw on a very stressful day. She shooed me away from the towel as I struggled to take photos with a strange camera.
The bride came down stairs and no one made a big fuss at seeing her in her wedding dress, except me! In Polish tradition this is the moment when the groom first sees the bride. They both had to kneel on the white square. The four parents made spontaneous comments on their union before kissing them, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and sprinkling them with holy water which had been blessed by a priest at Easter.
Seeing Kazik cup his son’s face in his hands and kiss him briefly was very moving. I wondered if I would get through this without shedding tears. Around me everyone else seemed light hearted.
The nuptial mass took place in the church of St. Barbara in Mikuszowice, a smart looking country village. The tiny church, was built in 1690 from nailess planks of black larch wood, sweeping down to the ground in a broad stiff skirt. Above it has an onionish dome and a slender tower. http://www.panoramy-wirtualne.pl/panorama/kosciol-sw-barbary-w-mikuszowicach-bielsko-biala-spacer-wirtualny/33/5
I first saw these churches when I went to work in Poland in 1978 and found them disturbing, too like illustrations from fairy-tales. I associated them with village culture and persecution of the Jews.
Milling about outside in the sunshine, among the guests there were a lot of chic clothes on view, but I quickly realised that I was the only woman in a fascinator, or hat of any kind.
“For Polish women the most important thing is going to the hairdresser on the day,” I was told.
Inside St. Barbara’s is a Baroque jewel, with ornately painted walls, showing scenes from her martyrdom. There were also carvings of her, and St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, and over the altar a giant poster of the Blessed John Paul II’s beaming face.
When the comms were in power, the grim image of Maximillian Kolbe the martyr priest who died in Auschwitz was everywhere. He now seems to have been replaced somewhat by the sunnier, more triumphant figure of the late Pope.
The bride and groom go up the isle together, no one is “given away.” That custom is purely Anglo-Saxon apparently, but catching on in Poland, thanks to American rom-coms on Polish TV and the recent royal wedding.
There were no wedding service sheets, but I could follow the Mass easily as its rhythm is the same as the service we have at St. Michael’s in Chiswick. I didn’t lose my place at all.
At the “Pokoju” or Peace, I felt moved, and at the end when the choir, including Adam’s new father in law, struck up with an English anthem: “Great is the Lord. In his power we trust, ” sung in a rather “Swingly” manner with lots of “pah, pah, pahs,”
Afterwards the guests lined up to give the bride and groom presents of money and fresh flowers all beautifully wrapped. Ewa told me that flowers as gifts are getting rarer, and there is a new custom of asking guests for lottery tickets in the hope of a big win. Others ask for tiny keep sakes, “Pamiątka,” which can also be risky as you may end up with a room full of pottery elephants.
I lined up with my envelope containing £20 and told the bride she looked, “as good as Pippa Middleton,” forgetting that I’d been warned that “pipa,” pronounced, “Pippa” is a very rude word in Polish. Hearing it cause much hilarity in Polish homes during the royal nuptials.
“You must say Philippa at all times,” warned Ewa.
The bride laughed and I got the impression they thought I was a bit eccentric anyway, with this red feathery thing on my head.
We made our way in convoy into higher mountains, to the small hotel, the Stara Szmergielnia, the equivalent of “the old whet-stone.” A beautiful place with a wide court-yard leading down to stables and the Białka river.
We were going to be there until the next day. The party might last that long. “However late it ends,” Ewa told me, “the parents must stay till the very end.”
A strange convention indeed. No sloping off to bed like the Queen. I was glad I had a room to retreat to even though it was ominously number 101.
A fat chef appeared with a very large loaf, with a heart shape cut out and filled with salt. He gave the bride and groom a glass of water and one of vodka. They had to pick a glass each and the one who got the vodka would be “the ruler,” of their house.
Food began appearing as soon as we sat down.
It came stacked up on the plates, Kotlets, traditional beef roulade, and a modern version with chicken and fruit, piled up like pleated material. Very tasty but I couldn’t recognise much of it, and to Ewa’s annoyance there were no menus.
Then endless salads; raw celeriac with walnuts and orange, herring in cream and with apple, cooked vegetables and traditional chicken broth.
There was supposed to be a Greek salad but to Ewa’s disgust no one could find it, but it was difficult to spot as the tables became crammed with food and the lights dimmed as the disco started.
The bride and groom kicked off the dancing with an ambitious tango. I suspected that the tentacles of Strictly Come Dancing reached even into deepest Poland. Then the DJ launched the evening with the hits of Boney M.
I sat there in my fascinator, clearly not fascinating anyone much, but the man next to me and his wife spoke some English and he seemed very charming and amused by me as we excavated the food and drink.
He wanted “Kluski śląskie,” glutinous boiled dumplings. They were there among all the plates but he asked the waitress for an extra portion. I wondered if he might like to have them in a kind of croque en bouche, piled up with gravy poured down over them, but I couldn’t put that into Polish.
At first there was a toast, then one glass of wine and some orange squash available, later Ewa managed to procure some real fruit juice, and a small but ominous bottle of vodka. People had to decided early between wine and vodka, mixing the two would be lethal, but the wine was kept back for awhile. Despite this, the dance floor was full of sexy couples and then I was dragged up and flung about and clutched closely by a sweating, barrel chested man, which was quite enjoyable.
We sat down for awhile for some gypsy music and singing by a local “mountain man,” and I realised that my fascinator had been noticed. A fat young man who looked like a football hooligan asked to be photographed with me wearing it, then he put it on himself, then on his wife.
After a few old records the music seemed to be mainly covers of old songs. I asked for some ABBA and the DJ reluctantly agreed. For a few moments I was again the Dancing Queen, only seventeen, prancing about alone in the strobe lights. I don’t get to do that very often these days.
At 10 pm more food arrived, this time large fried pierogi, or ravioli, with cheese and meat. I was visited by a young girl from Alabama. She said she’d deliberately changed her accent at college as other Americans thought it was “too cute,” the frequent reaction we English get.
She was living with a Polish boy in Krakow, studying East European culture and Polish language. Apparently her mother is very understanding, but her father finds it inexplicable that she should swap the US for Poland.
Over the din of Polish pop music which neither of us knew, she laid out the whole basic structure of the language to me, a bit like doing a diagram of the National Grid or inland waterways. She was really clarifying it to herself, but it was useful for me to hear.
“Honestly, you know I speak it like a seven year old,” she said. “All the nouns and pronouns decline and the verbs conjugate in three tenses so I often get lost.”
But unlike me she had cracked the code. I told her that in a few months it would be gushing out of her and she’d be surprised to hear herself.
I wished that I’d worked at it when I was living there, but then all the students wanted to speak English to me, while teachers from the Jagiellonian university said they didn’t want to hear foreigners speaking poor Polish. I couldn’t have focused enough anyway.
Strangely she said she couldn’t follow the wedding service at all. After ten minutes she shut off because of all the “formal, old fashioned Polish.” Well, she was by tradition a southern Baptist, so perhaps she would have found the Eucharist hard to follow even in English.
As the hours ticked by in what was part party and part endurance test, people came up to chat and intimacy developed quickly.
Ewa told me she had seen a piece by Dame Diana Rigg on line, about me. In 2003 she sued me for libel, got about £40,000 I think, in an out of court settlement and my career at the paper went into a nose-dive. It was her word against mine and I didn’t have a tape-recorder, just my trusty note-pad.
“That woman wrecked your career,” said Ewa bitterly, “and your health.”
Ewa really does not like what she sees as bad people at all and seethes if they are seen to prosper, a hangover from the old communist days when flagrant injustice was the norm. For a moment I imagined a Polish posse descending on the liver-spotted old cow. But it’s old history now and despite being a tabloid journalist, I still have my integrity. Some months after it all happened I heard La Rigg on Front Row on Radio 4 contentedly describing herself as, “A monster.”
The DJ generously offered us a rendering of, “Viva Espagna!” and the floor filled up again. I was pulled up to dance by a man ho constantly twizzled me about and kept pirouetting me in and out under his arm as if we were jiving. He wouldn’t let me alone and wanted me to join in congas and groups of arm wavers in the centre of the room. I got away from him and had a moment of pure joy under the strobes, dancing to, “Staying Alive.” That never had more resonance for me. I didn’t bother with it at all when it came out.
“Should I stay or should I go?” by the Clash brought back memories of working in Wormwood Scrubs. We had a visit from what remains of that group and some of the men loved that song. Particularly a Dutchman I was fond of.
Then we had Polish disco music and for a moment the floor seemed to be taken by Polish Elvis impersonators.
I returned to my table which was gradually stacking up with food, feeling a bit maudlin about all that had happened since I was last in Poland ten years ago. Thinking about all the new people I’d met over the last year, some of them at Maggie’s Cancer Support Centre, so many of them slowly dying, to be swept away soon like leaves. That connected with thoughts about Poland and the last war, the great horror, which is never far from mind; so many good people just like these frisking about so sexily, all those pointless deaths. I had a sense of everyone being intensely valuable which I never used to have.
The couple reappeared to cut the cake, thin slices as the whole bottom tier was mysteriously missing. “It’s like communist times,” I said to Ewa who looked apoplectic.
Other cakes arrived, sturdy wedges of poppy-seed cake, apple cake which I love, and piles of petit four, but some mad fool had flavoured almost everything, apart from the apple, with coconut.
When I first went to Poland as a picky girl, I didn’t like the flavour of coconut, dill and caraway, which the Victorians used for small cakes. My mother was forced to eat them as a child, in an age where children had to take whatever they were offered.
I quickly realised I was going to have to put up with these three flavours as they were in almost everything, with caraway often put into bread. Over the years I have got to like potatoes and fish with dill.
At 1pm the rather surly waitress brought us a kind of very fatty soup, “bogracz” a kind of goulash, which is supposed to be supportive to vodka drinkers. The wine had appeared and more vodka, and people had made their choice of poison hours before.
The bride decided to throw her bouquet at last. A large girl in a very short, tight pink dress was determined to get it, there was a scrum, a real pile up and in the struggle the flowers were shredded. The girl in pink emerged triumphant but got very weak applause after such a desperate fight.
“I’ve never seen such a strong fight between maidens before,” said Ewa, still cross about the blips in the catering.
I could sympathise with the fat girl in pink, as I realised that this was the first wedding I’d ever enjoyed. I have not been invited to many, which was a mercy as I used to behave so badly at them, wanting so much to have one of my own. Now all those bitter, anxious feelings had gone. I was happy for other people being happy, a tottering step in the right direction I suppose.
I stayed up for some very good ice-cream, but at 2am slipped away before the beetroot soup, to room 101. Other people had gone too, but the young and the surprisingly old, and the parents were still hard at it and stayed till 5am.
In the morning I pottered about before anyone else came down. Breakfast was fixed for 11am. Round the side of the hotel I met the fat chef, still in his whites and hat, having a quiet smoke.
He said he’d been working for seventeen hours non stop. His pay was not as good as it would be if he moved to London, and was Gordon Ramsey really as crazy as he seemed on TV?
Ewa told me that one of the mountain women had asked for my fascinator. She had told her it was improper to ask for such a thing. I said she could have it, as long as it didn’t become an object of pagan worship. But then I hesitated. I am going on the Queen Mary to New York soon and rather fancied wearing it to go on board.
The bride and groom went off on their honeymoon, walking in the Beskidy mountains. They were staying in a luxury hotel at the foot of Pilsko mountain. When I saw the bride with her enormous ruck-sack as long as her long, graceful body, I thought they were heading for the summit at 5108ft. I asked what was in it.
“I am a woman. I need so many things,” she said in that winsome womanly way that some Polish women still have.
I was up there myself once in deep snow. We met some Czechs on their side of the invisible border, and toasted each other in vodka, but after initial greetings sat in silence, in a kind of acknowledgement of mutual political oppression and frustration.
Ewa’s home and the other mother in law’s soon filled up with the couple’s wedding flowers. It was sad to see them sitting there in their wonderful arrangements, lining every window ledge and table, a beautiful burden.
In the house in Bielsko, I had my usual bed on the top floor under the eaves.
It’s a tall country house, with a wood interior, which her husband built by hand with his friends. When I first saw it in the early 1990s I thought of it as a kind of tower he had designed to imprison her. She has never let down her tawny hair and attempted escape but things have changed drastically around her.