Polish travels with my English Cousin


My cousin Arthur is an extraordinary fellow. I was reminded of this when he visited me recently in Warsaw. It was the end of his annual month long trip to central Europe in search of historic forms of transport. Seeing Arthur in pursuit of a photograph of a passing tram, bus, or train which, to the untrained eye would not merit a second glance let alone a full hue and cry, fills me with an overwhelming sense of awe. Why? On first appearances Arthur seems reasonably normal. Yes, he is eccentric and this eccentricity exhibits itself both in his haphazard appearance and in his constant need to engage with whomever is in the vicinity and willing to stop to be addressed, and I mean “addressed,” an encounter from which the listener always leaves enriched and delighted if somewhat overwhelmed. The fact is that despite his infectious zest for life and knowledge, the huge energy he brings to life comes at a cost, a cost which I am certain would exhaust the resources of most of us.

Man and nature have conspired against Arthur. He was born with a weak leg. Then, in an accident at school, he broke his good leg. This, through a trail of incompetence and misfortune, led to its amputation and a life long series of operations designed to convince his brain that the leg into which it continues to grow nerves is no longer there. The stump on which he walks with the help of an artificial leg is an open wound of raw nerves partially placated by constant doses of morphine. 30 years of morphine dependency naturally has taken it toll. All the more remarkable therefore is his determination to live life and, hence, my willingness to be his chauffeur whenever he comes this way.

Last year, we paid a fleeting visit to Mazury, or East Prussia, as he prefers to call it, in order to see the Elblag canal and to try to find some windmills. The windmills were illusive but the canal was easy enough. We planned to arrive on the day it was set reopen after a long period of closure due to the total restoration of the system of pumps, pulleys and waterways. As luck would have it, on our arrival we discovered that the opening had been delayed. This misfortune soon turned to our advantage. Arthur’s presence and irresistible enthusiasm, even if expressed in a language most of the local Poles found entertaining if incomprehensible, enabled us to have free rein over the whole system of locks, an opportunity few visitors would enjoy. Arthur determined to return when the canal was open which meant that I would have to take him.

For those of you who don’t know, the canal was built in the early part of the 19th century as part of the industrial infrastructure of East Prussia. Due to the lie of the land, there are inclines and descents which normal locks would be unable to cope with efficiently. In a brilliant resolution, boats are hauled out of the water and taken up or down hills on carriages powered by water driven engines and gravity. The huge energy required is entirely green. Sadly for the builders and investors, the arrival of the railway soon made the canal obsolete. Trains could carry people and goods to Gdansk in a fraction of the time. It could never make money. However, the canal remains a popular tourist attraction and a record of the incredible ingenuity of German engineers in the early years of the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

The restoration has been thorough. All the locks and the buildings associated with the canal have been painstakingly restored, largely thanks to EU funding but, nonetheless, a great credit to the Poles.

At the start of the canal a museum has been assembled in a building that once housed workers. It has photographs of the canal and shows how it was constructed. However, there is very little reference to the people who built it, how they lived and worked or, most importantly, who they were. The people who built this amazing structure were German and the surrounding population was largely German. I don’t think it is good for anyone when names are Polonised. Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in Mazury. To some extent, this is inevitable when a population is removed and another given possession of historic lands. However, I feel that it is dangerous to build a national narrative on the achievements of others. The quasi-expropriation of Copernicus is a case in point. It seems to me that instead of celebrating diversity and the success of the present population in preserving the achievement of others, something subversive is happening.

The canal trip takes about four hours. It is a time for reflection as the boat passes through fields of crops and wild flowers many of which can no longer be found in other parts of the continent. The journey is punctuated by the locks, though no time is lost as the boat sails deftly into the cradles on which it rides up hill or down to the next stretch of water.

Arthur, who hardly sat for a moment, by the end of the journey had made contact with most of our fellow passengers and all of the crew, gleaning information from them and in return enlightening them, and anyone else in range, not only on the wonders of the canal but on almost any other subject under the sun which dared to raise its head.


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