By Sara Evans, Rosalind Roberts and Lorna Whitaker
Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1
Seven years after the ending of the cold war, Eastern Europe, for many people is still the grey land of tower blocks, bread queues and environmental decay, so why would anyone choose to spend five months studying in Poland?
When we five Aber students left for Poland on the Wroclaw – Aberystwyth exchange in February 1996 we had no idea what to expect but we were prepared for anything.
Wroclaw is like any other European city. In recent years shops and businesses have sprung up. A visitor to the city can experience the lively street scene with modern bars and cafes set against a backdrop of the historic town hall and market square, someone who lives in the city learns that Wroclaw is a city of contrasts. The city’s skyline, visible from the twenty first floor of our student hall represented this diversity. Tower blocks symbolize the legacy of communist housing policy but they’re certainly not grey, painted in bright pastels the buildings, in a small way, shows the Poles’ determination to keep their culture alive. Numerous church spires represent the endurance of the catholic church, the distant mountains – Poland’s natural beauty, whilst newly built factories on the edge of town show the growing interest of foreign investors. On the street – department stores stocked with Western goods and trams carrying advertisements for everything from Barbie to Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut show one side of economic liberalisation, elderly women forced to sell bundles of vegetables to make ends meet, is another.
Our view of Poland was not just confined to city life. We began our stay with a two week intensive language course in a tiny village in rural Silesia, an important insight into a country where forty percent of the population work in agriculture. Over the next five months we travelled throughout Poland and other East Central European countries. Poland has a surprisingly varied landscape, mountains in the south, eastern lakes and the Baltic coast line. We found ourselves picking amber from the beaches around Gdansk, rafting down the Dunajec gorge which forms the border with Slovakia and walking the historic walls of Warsaw. As with everything else in Poland the natural environment is characterised by contrast; the environmental degradation in areas such as upper Silesia, which is home to the majority of Poland’s heavy industry now threatens both economic and environmental disaster.
Although we were fortunate to have the opportunity to travel our life in Wroclaw meant that we were more than just tourists. In the fist few days of our time in Wroclaw every detail of daily life seemed strange. Travelling to lectures on a crowded tram jam packed with people from all walks of life, surrounded by a language we knew little of, was a far cry from the usual trek up Penglais hill. But within weeks things that had seemed strange became the norm…taking the number 9 tram into town, buying anything from toothpaste to vodka from one of the hundreds of red kiosks (which act as the equivalent to the corner shop), stopping for coffee and cakes at the opera house cafe and paying twenty groszes for strictly three sheets of toilet paper when using the facilities. Bigos (traditional Polish dish) for lunch at “Bar Vega” was as natural as having a cheese and tomato baguette in the Union, whilst Klub Kolor on a Thursday night (50p a pint) became the equivalent of Friday in the Glen.
Becoming accustomed to student life in Wroclaw did not mean that we became immune to contrasting elements of Polish life. The examples of our experiences are not the shared experiences of all the inhabitants in Wroclaw, indeed to some extent they were those of a privileged minority.
What we really learnt about the people and politics in Poland came from exchanging ideas with polish students. In lectures we studied the history and culture of Poland and the political and economic transition in east central Europe. We had seminars with Polish students covering a wide range of topics from the growth of solidarity in the 1980’s to contemporary issues such as the ‘return to Europe’. Ultimately there is a limit to what you can learn about politics and IR in a lecture in Aberystwyth. Politics is about people and their lives. What gave us the greatest insight into Poland’s politics was to hear students discussing their own experiences of communism and the post communist transition process.
It is all very well to read about the communist clampdown on the solidarity movement in 1981, it means so much more to listen to a student, then a young boy, who lived opposite the local police station where demonstrators were taken; or to hear from a lecturer how the people showed their lack of faith on government propagandist news by turning their TV screens in their windows to face the street and leaving the house to go for a walk when the news was on. It was our interaction with Polish people and hearing their own stories which helped us to gain a wider understanding about Poland’s history and politics.
We would like to wish the very best of luck to those students who will be involved in the exchange next semester and we would like to thank all those in the Department of International Politics who helped get the Polish exchange off the ground and gave us such a fantastic opportunity.