published: March 2013
Poznań, March 2013
A guest post by Ben Gould.
Day 1 – Greeted by machines
A ticket to my weekend lodgings bought from the tourist desk for less than a quid leaves me prematurely beguiled. The number 59 to Kaponiera roundabout and I’m off. Two Frenchmen (I think) on the bus loudly converse in English about the approaching 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. An elderly woman beside me is reading a gossip rag. I can’t see anything through the fog stamped on the window save intermittent flashing light.
Poznań was a city I never envisaged seeing, and a few weeks prior didn’t know existed – an offhand remark from a chap at work informing me that it’s Poland’s fifth largest city, and formerly the nation’s capital, initiated a Ryanair bargain hunt. Krakow was tempting, and being in the throes of alcohol withdrawal syndrome the last time I was there, I subsequently longed to experience it in a different frame of mind/shape of body. When a set of return flights are a mere £40, though, a pauper opts for the cheaper option.
Roundabout: a glance at Google maps back home suggested a rudimentary, perfectly normal circle that cars go around; instead there are diggers, cranes and various other machinery ripping holes where the circle should be, and the darkness doesn’t help matters. This calls for an emergency, and I manage to rendezvous with my friend Lewis in the underpass, he having been here and checked in since the morning.
We spot an off-licence en route to the hostel, where after some deliberation I purchase a few bottles of Desperados beer and 1 litre of red vermouth, attempting in vain to converse with the proprietor concerning the awesome cheapness of his booze stock. He politely smiles, no doubt wishing I’d exit the shop and stop broadcasting the cocktail potential of my items.
I check in. The dwellings are post-modernistic, minimalist, with this silver sheen that only serves for me to draw futuristic parallels with the ‘machines’ at the roundabout – the progress of industry. James Cameron’s Terminator films are in my head with a slash of Kubrick’s 2001, and only vermouth will extinguish these thoughts. There are no souls in the hostel save us. No party music (it’s Friday evening), no mandatory screaming. This is unusual. I’m scared.
After pretty much drinking all of our bottles we order a taxi to the main square. A paradigm of the old – museums, taverns … architecture not being torn up by robots – it is a lovely sight, and immediately recalls to me squares I’ve visited from previous continental adventures. It has – much like Bruges, Tallinn and Prague’s old town centres – all the mod cons, in particular the bars that are calling our names.
The salient establishment is Medieval in interior, dimly lit, green ceilings with swords piercing out of them; it’s at least how I see it, though I am a little prone to hallucination whilst under the affluence … I mean influence (see what I did there?). It is disconcerting to not hear English voices in an alien drinking den; one feels paranoid that at any moment someone will take offence at your boorish non-indigenous ‘craic’, that you are indeed intruding. We proceed outside to track down and explore other bars, but are denied entry to their quaintly beer bosoms for I am slurring my words like a tribute to the Denzel Washington drunken couch scene in Flight (2012). No one will let us in. I think we go home at this point.
Day 2 – Museums, restaurants … bars
After a run – during which I get lost for 20 mins before realising I’m on an adjacent street – we eat breakfast in an exceptionally priced restaurant; even after 4 drinks with the meal it’s still under £20. There’s a film crew over the road – students most likely – filming a drama piece beneath some monuments. We edge out of the way in case we’re ruining precious tape, segueing to a museum about the 1956 uprising, a lovely little exhibit, your usual mandatory educational enclave for these kind of trips. It’s eerily bereft of humans, only a shy curator at the desk who refuses a tip, then ‘facepalms’ as I take a photo of Lewis sitting astride a plastic mock-up tank. Telling ourselves that in 1956 we’d verily be running from a batch of legit tanks instead of lusting for a decadent kamikaze of cocktails, we do feel a little bit grateful for our current modus operandi, and decide upon seeing another museum before hitting the sauce.
We arrive back in the square from the night before, via a newsagent where I buy some cigarettes and a bottle of Desperados, which I blithely drink from whilst slightly stumbling down the street. This museum is chock-full of paintings and nothing much else. The softly-spoken lady at the desk kindly asks us to remove our jackets, ominous for there are no other items on the wall hooks – without my cloak I would be lost and naked in Poland. We compare the portraitures to people we know, which is highly amusing, the staff curiously observing from a safe distance, praying we hastily depart.
We do so, venturing into a plush but tumbleweed-embracing cocktail cafe by the square, indulging in piña coladas and Mai Tais before gracing another bar, this one of the McDonald’s variety – it actually reminds me of McDonald’s. A McDonald’s in Texas. Not that I have ever been to Texas, though Tennessee is in that region. Kind of. I think. Too much bourbon in this saloon ….
On our return to the hostel we stumble across a Lidl and I’m overwhelmed with joy. I purchase some more beers and a bottle of vermouth for indoor drinking. Boozing back in the dorm, it occurs to us that we’ve not bumped into anyone who speaks native English yet, which really is a first. I’m also convinced that Poznań is an extended transit area of an airport. It’s a stopgap between more populous Polish delights. Pleasant yet not quite serene, normality approaching the perfunctory, ethanol is the crucial ingredient required to make the city that little bit transcendental.
We promptly polish off our supermarket findings, end up in a taxi, and then a series of bars, the only remaining narrative from any of them a nice relaxing tavern where we have an epic conversation about something I will one day remember, the exterior featuring a vexed local screaming “English c***s” at us. Another night for the books ….
Day 3 – The same as Day 2 but with a market
It’s 3:00 p.m. and we’re just up. No gut-busting run – there is no energy. Even the shower is a trying test. We eventually scale the hostel walls and graduate to a stroll around the square that is now a Sunday market. We shimmy in and out of stalls looking for treats to present to loved ones, but see nothing really of interest save some very authentic-looking air rifles, the tables the most densely populated of the array.
Breakfast is eaten at about 5:00 p.m. Its denizens keep leaving the door open, the cold draught an annoyance forcing me to drink more. Yesterday’s cocktail bar really can’t be resisted after this. Sat inside, we get sniggers from the staff, surely mocking our ‘girly’ cocktail choices. The prices never cease to astonish me, to the extent that it’s the centrifugal aspect of discussion. I declare I could visit some parts of Poland every weekend instead of ‘partying’ in Edinburgh, and end up a richer man. It’s feasible.
A last joyous visit to Lidl as it’s the final night. Amaretto is purchased along with a coffee liqueur concoction. I can’t find the milk. The checkout operator is clearly exasperated with my checkout behavior (putting a carrier bag over my head), and spouts out information – perhaps vitriol – I cannot discern. I quickly move on. It’s dark now, my lovely Lidl bag masquerading as a beacon for any cowardly cyclists moonlighting on the pavement. Not that there’s anyone about; the place is a ghost town.
In our hostel dorm sits the first human we’ve come across, a Polish dentist in his 30s. He seems bemused at our chat, and then swiftly concerned as I get increasingly intoxicated with the emptying of the amaretto bottle. Lewis shows him a copy of a book I wrote; the gentleman is genuinely gobsmacked that the inebriated presence before him has ever written anything in his sordid, decadent life.
We say our goodbyes, as he’s working the next day. I’m not sure if we get a taxi or walk into town but it’s definitely cold either way, my cheeks a purple hue, hands shaking. All this research about trams and bus routes and it’s only walking or taxis we’re experiencing. It is indeed a frightfully small town, and we stick out like a sore thumb. BRITS: OVER THERE.
A very tall chap in a bar bickers with the patient member of staff pouring his pint. Aggressive, excruciatingly loud, I put ordering a drink on hold in case he overhears my accent. Sat at the table, peering out onto the deserted square, I register that all this drinking would be more logical if there was a community of travelling backpackers to legitimise the indulgence – peer pressure, I guess.
I never thought I’d be one for being successfully accosted by leafleting strip club staff but, well, it’s happened. When in Poznań. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do so we decide to venture into this anachronistic decadence on the edge of this pious – beer excepted – old town square, and don’t emerge for 7 hours ….
Day 4 – Getting out of Dodge
My phone alarm clock generates a beeping noise I’ve never heard before in its existence and I try in vain to locate it. I finally do, almost tossing it across the room. It’s time to check out. A quick shower is necessary. I’m all over the place and nearly slip twice. Nothing will fit in my bag. I bequeath the hostel my underwear and some airport-purchased toiletries. That was nice of me.
We return to the restaurant we endowed our presence with on the Saturday. After that it’s the bus to the airport. Glorious duty free: Poznań-themed coffee-filtered cigars, and a cute lighter. And two miniature spirit bottles – Jack Daniel’s and Cointreau. And a bottle of Żubrówka. Yes! I have some of Poland to take home with me. We take off, departing what was essentially a three-day jaunt to an archaic multiplex of bars. It is not the milieu that remains, but the sheer temerity of the alcohol induced, and yes, it did facilitate some very gnarly chit chat. Farewell, Poznań. We may return one day, but Krakow must surely now beckon ….
by Ben Gould