Volleys in Poland
By Christopher Von Wolf

I bought a pair of brand new Volleys for the trip but I couldn’t wear them because of the ice and snow. They were so white, so clean and I wanted to wear them to the restaurant and get them dirty but instead I had to wear my boots. The food in Lithuania was good but the table service, like everywhere in Eastern Europe, was terrible. A hangover from communism and an economy that was not built around customer service, consumer satisfaction or receptive to supply and demand.

When we were in the Baltic’s and Russia I cursed the snow and the ice, but now it was melting. It was slush and mud that stained your jeans and ruined the footpath. No one likes it and there is nothing you can do about it. We went to Poland by bus and when we woke up there was no more snow, no more ice. I missed it immediately. I missed the shades of grey and dry as a bone apart from some drizzling rain. There was no more winter wonderland, just a grey mood that seemed to be everywhere in Warsaw.

Warsaw – a city built from the rubble of its former life. Everything a synthetic echo of the past. It is wide roads, long distances between things and little more useful than a railway interchange. Just a place on the way to somewhere else.

The McDonald’s in Warsaw was the same as McDonald’s everywhere else with the exception of curly fries and mayonnaise. But this is Second World democracy – the freedom to sell your own culture and buy another. The same way we eat Thai food back home. These republics were communist the day before last and founded just yesterday but they feel like they’ve been selling Coke for generations.

We got the train to Krackow and played cards and put our heads out the window. It took longer than expected and we wondered if we were on the right train or if we had missed our stop. But we hadn’t and we arrived an hour late in the dark.

It felt too normal, too familiar, too much like home outside the museums. People speaking English in the pub and on the street…Irishmen in Irish pubs, kebab shops, a tourist information board on every corner and a restaurant menu I can understand. Like I’m just a passenger, like it just belongs to you and me and everything was made for you and me – and it is. A natural response to keep tourists happy, good reviews and repeat visits. This is the new Poland, the new Eastern Europe, the new Second World. A functioning free market in equilibrium where supply always meets demand, impervious to the pressure to preserve their own culture. A whole country reduced to a speciality item on a McDonald’s menu.

We took the bus to Auschwitz, bought tickets for a guide and waited for the tour to start. Auschwitz is two tonnes of human hair in a room, a room full of children’s shoes, gas chambers, ovens and chimneys. But as terrifying as it is, Birkenau stays in your mind. It is the defeat of reason, an absolute zero. The neat tidy rows of crumbling barracks and the parallel lines of the railway tracks that lead all the way to the gas chambers. It was empty and efficient. It was an industry, just a factory, just numbers on paper. So I left feeling flat, my brand new Volleys stained in the mud.