The Shanghai Hotel 5

  When I first came to Boleslawiec the Voidovod, Piotr Roman, put me up in the Piast Hotel. Close to the main square, the Piast was and remains a piece of Communist history: plumbing, brown paint, service and all. It was here that I watched Andrzej Lepper come into the dining room for breakfast, saw the waitress double take, saw Lepper`s look of shock as  he realised that no one else in the room recognised him, saw him withdraw only to try again with the same result. The explanation was simple. All the other guests were GI wives who had come on an excursion from Germany to buy Boleslawiec pottery. Lepper went without breakfast that day. Anonymity was too much to bear.

 

After a few visits to Boleslawiec I discovered the Shanghai. Chinsy and full of English furniture bought at house clearances in southern England, it was a 19th century German villa transformed into an uncomfortable cross between a better class Chinese restaurant and a Home Counties executive home. The owner was an Anglo-Pole called Stefan. The more I got to know Stefan the more I had my doubts about his provenence but on first encounter I was thrilled to have found him. When I told Roman about my discovery, a look of disapproval crossed his face. It took a little while to discover the reasons for this.

Stefan said that his Polish father had been with the RAF. I forget who his mother was. He had spent a lot of his time in Brighton. Though not the marrying kind, he had married an older woman who lived in Sussex Square and had some money. At some point, they moved to Henfield and owned a substantial Georgian house in the High Street from where he ran a building business. I seem to remember Stefan telling me that when his wife died there was some problem with her family over money and jewellery. Whatever the case, he came to Poland with enough to buy a number of historic houses which he wanted to convert into hotels. One was the Palac at Grodiez, a splendid early 18th century mansion a few miles from Boleslawiec, where Hitler planned his invasion of Russia. All these houses were in terrible condition and I suspect that the Shanghai was the only house he had the funds to restore to any sort of condition. Whatever the d├ęcor, it was infinitely preferable to the Piast. So, on my next visit I stayed there.

The Shanghai Hotel 4

I left the station and headed towards the main square.  I passed the monumental 19th century law courts, cleaned up since I was last here. Then the theatre. Finally, after 10 years something is begin done to preserve this fine little mid-19th century neo classical building which, when I used it for my opera project, was in grave danger of falling apart. What is being done now is encouraging. A large sign announces the large amount of money the EU and the town have allocated for the restoration and metal fences surround the whole building. However, I suspect the builders are few on the ground and taking their time. When I went to the town`s information office the girl behind the counter intimated that there are no specific plans for what will happen in the theatre after the restoration has been completed next year. This is so typical. So many restoration and building projects have been funded with no plan for the afterlife, the legacy. But, stop griping. So far so good.

 

The streets leading to the square look as unkempt as they ever did. Not much paint has been spared to enliven them, but with the sun’`s warm glow on this early spring day, who cared? A few paces later and I arrived in the square. How did I feel? A little disappointed. There was the town hall, much as it had been. Apart from one or two houses which have been decorated in strong colours, one where a Polish king had spent the night especially horridly in an unattractive shade of green, it was exactly as it was.  

 

However, I must admit that I was delighted and excited to be back in Boleslawiec. No, the people are not particularly happy looking, appealing or friendly. Most of the buildings have attractive Renaissance facades though almost all have nothing much behind. The Russians were ruthless in their destruction and the heart of Boleslawiec burned as the hordes from the Steppes laid their trail of destruction towards Berlin.  But despite all these shortcomings, there is something charming and appealing about this place.

 

I hastened up the hill, past the splendid  Renaissance church, past the regional administration’`s 1970s red rotunda. Past the modern cinema, a new swimming pool, the Communist blocks of flats, newly decorated but still squalid, on past the fine of German high school to find what I had really come for. And there it was.  The sign, almost obscured by the overgrowth, but there. The fiendish and ferocious Chinaman pointing the way to the Shanghai Hotel.

 

The Shanghai Hotel 3

The first fleeting impression of the renovated hall was lasting. Disappointment. The tiles have been skinned, over cleaned, robbed of the patina and depth of colour that time had accumulated. Now they are flat, pale green with no gloss. How sad. They looked better with the dirt and graffiti.

I say my impression was fleeting because the small train that had brought me to Boleslawiec, marking the halfway point on its way to the Polish/German border, was lavatory less. Any passenger unaware of the fact, like me, who had not taken precautions before leaving Wroclaw, would be in for a very uncomfortable ride. I made a bee line for where I remembered the lavatories were. Still there, modernised but now requiring 2 pln to get in. Fortunately, as I arrived a woman was coming out. Unusually for Poland, she held the door open for me. Good manners or a wilful act of solidarity to defraud the lavatory operator I shall never know. Still I was grateful.


Whoever redesigned the lavatories had not thought it through. The toll door leads into a passage with two doors on the left leading off. The furthest is the ladies. The nearest, an oversized door hanging from the right, which is awkward to close, opens on to the gents giving full view of the row of urinals and anyone who happens be using them. Had it been hung the other way round decorum would have been preserved. When I arrived at Wroclaw airport, I had noticed something similar. The urinal door opens directly into the baggage collection hall. Anyone coming in or out cannot avoid giving full view of the urinals. As happened when I was using them, someone inconsiderately left the door open and I was exposed to the glances of all and sundry waiting for their baggage. Not nice but perhaps there is a reason. Public exposure reduces the chances of hanky panky, I suppose.


The station cafe occupies a small room on one side of the hall with a front facing window. It is a throwback to the good old days of heavy net curtains, lycra covered furniture and walls, plastic flowers and dismal chocolate coloured paint. Handwritten notices on the wall warn the traveller that the seating, an array of plastic garden chairs, is only for the use of the café’s clients. Another advertises 2pln to have your mobile phoned recharged. I thought that only happened in remoter parts of Africa where the main sources of electricity are privately owned petrol generators.


“Real or instant?” asked the unsmiling elderly woman behind the counter. “Espresso”, I said, faintly hoping for the best. “We only have instant or real”. Did I want either? I went for instant. I watched her preparing it. A spoonful of instant went into a wafer thin glass. We waited for the aged kitchen kettle to boil.


A young man came in and asked for real coffee. The woman took a spoonful of real coffee and repeated the same process as with my instant. Here time has stopped still. Real or instant coffee used to be made in the same way. The disadvantage of this way of making real coffee without a filter is that the coffee merely rises to the top, thus creating a film of undissolved grounds which has to be negotiated before reaching the liquid coffee. I have yet to master the technique to make it drinkable.


Customary too was the preference for glass rather than china, strange here in a town famed for its potteries. The glass becomes very hot and it is almost impossible not to get your fingers scolded even with the help of the one layer of napkin wrapped around it. On getting my glass I made haste to the nearest table and put it down just in time before I dropped it. I sat and waited for the coffee to cool.


The first thing that caught my eye was the fridge behind the counter. Was that Russian on the door? Goodness knows how old it must be. It must date from when the Russian troops were stationed here at least 30 years ago. Still working and looking surprisingly well preserved. So much for the bad reputation of Russian manufacturing.

Then the lights went out and the television above the fridge abruptly went off. There was a flurry of action behind the counter. The woman went to the draw that serves as a till and took out money. I heard the coins dropping into a meter. Instantly, power was restored.