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Home to Poland.

DRIVING past the sign proclaiming IWONICZ-ZDROJ, the spa in the Carpathian Mountains in south eastern Poland, I was visited by a mixture of curiosity and dread. Iwonicz -- the seat of the House of Zaluski since 1799, when my great-great-great grandfather Teofil bought it and began to exploit the rich, natural springs emanating from the forest-clad hills. Our family, now spread throughout Poland, England and Denmark, have been making legal noises to reclaim our properties, stolen by the Communists after the war.

I was named after Iwonicz -- or to be precise, I was named after an ancestor of questionable reputation who was named after Iwonicz. My brief was thus given to me at my baptism in the timber village church: to cover up the old rascal's bad name. The chance never materialised -- at least, not in Poland; when I was six months old the Germans and the Russians carved up my country. My parents gathered me up in the early hours of September 4th, 1939, and we fled.

I was brought up and educated in England, became anglicised, and married an English wife. I visited Poland as a tourist in August 1968, and watched the tanks rumbling south to smash Dubcek's Prague Spring. I did Iwonicz on a day trip out of Krakow, out of curiosity.

Iwonicz was a dump, in the same way as all of Communist Poland was a dump. Very pretty centre, working spa, good sanatoriums, lovely countryside, but a dump nevertheless. I went to see my father's house, Belweder -- a sixteen-roomed, timber manor with verandas and outside staircases, set on a thickly wooded hillside overlooking the village. I took a photograph only because it seemed like the right thing to do. As I say, I was anglicised and young.

Middle age, however, does bring on a tendency to look over one's shoulder at the past; to reflect and re-assess life's values. Have I fulfilled my baptismal brief, and made the name of Iwo synonymous with redemption? I turned right round and stared into the dim and distant past -- at my roots. Could my heritage, for so long just a vague dream in someone else's consciousness, now become a reality once more?

I started buying calendars featuring Polish painters, and acquired CDs of Karlowicz and Szymanowski. I found secondhand editions of Sienkiewicz in the original from the Oxfam shops of Ealing and brushed up my rusty and accented Polish. I made my wife use dill in just about everything she cooked. I bought an antique map of 18th century Poland -- when it stretched from the Baltic to the Ukraine, framed it and hung it in the sitting room, beside a freshly resurrected and framed greeting signed by Paderewski, which had been given to me by an admirer after I had played Chopin's Revolutionary Etude at a school concert.

I re-edited the family tree that my father had spent years compiling when he re-emigrated to Poland. It goes back to 1435. It set me dreaming about epic family sagas like in all those blockbusters. Romance, adventure, revolution, heroes, villains: it was all there, and it was real. General Jozef, sentenced to death -- mercifully in his absence -- by the Russians for his revolutionary activities; Andrzej, Bishop of Krakow and avid bibliophile, who has a chapel and a statue in Wawel Cathedral; his brother Jozef, who pooled his books with Andrzej's and helped institute the largest and finest library in 18th century Warsaw; the imposing Karol, who married the enigmatic Princess Amelia Oginska, with whom he turned Iwonicz into one of eastern Europe's most fashionable watering holes. There were Maltese knights, papal prelates, warriors, and the usual sprinkling of villains -- among them old Iwo, of whom nothing is known beyond a bad press handed down by word of mouth.

Thereby doubtless hangs a tale. Maybe I'll write it one day.

I decided to take my wife Pamela to show her the Land of my Forebears, and to follow the Chopin trail with research on a further book on the composer's travels in mind. The weeks before our departure, I started to worry. Would it be a romantic idyll of rediscovery and rebirth? Would I, on arrival on Polish soil, leap forth from the Volvo and kiss the soil, like Pope John Paul II? Would I be able to control a lifetime of suppressed tears imprisoned in my Slav bosom, overcoming my public school-instilled stiff upper lip? Or would it be coping with the usual carousel of maddening frustrations still typical of Eastern Europe?

Our itinerary took in Gorzow, Torun, Krakow, and Chopin's own precisely documented journey from Warsaw to the spa town of Duszniki, on the Czech border. As well as Iwonicz. We crossed into Poland at Frankfurt-an der-Oder. At the risk of being approved of by young Prussians with shaved heads, baying for the return of territories ceded to Poland after the war, I did not feel I was really in the Land of my Forebears until Gorzyn, half way between Frankfurt and Poznan. Only then did the mixed feelings start in deadly earnest.

Initially I found Poland to be the same dump as before. A desolate landscape of the same boring townships of grey tower blocks, unkempt grass with bald patches, and polluted air. Yet there were differences. Gone were the endless slogans glorifying the Working Classes. There were patches of colour and advertising, welcome signs of private enterprise and imagination, to relieve the monochrome bleakness. The chugging Fiats were still there, as were lorries and buses spewing foul, acrid black fumes. But so were Mercedes, BMWs and Audis, driven at breakneck speed with scant regard for life and limb. I put it down to an ebullient Nouvelle Richesse. I wished them well and hoped they would calm down after the euphoria of new-found wealth had worn off. Later, I learned that many of these were stolen in Germany and Denmark, resold in Poland on the cheap, and driven by the same people who belted the hell out of their chugging Fiats to achieve 60 kph.

Then there were the eating places. Very cheap and often excellent, restaurants and roadside snack stalls were mushrooming everywhere. You can tuck into a borscht with pasties, followed by roast pork with noodles and beetroot purreed in sour cream, all imbued with heavenly dill, a side helping of crudites, rye bread, a decent Polish Zywiec lager and a coffee for about |pounds~2 or |pounds~3 per head.

However, you will be forced, screaming within, to eat to the accompaniment of the mandatory rap, turned up full, even if the only customers are a middle-aged couple following in the footsteps of Chopin. The noise pollution is unbelievable. Trannies with flat batteries turned up full; two televisions in the same room playing two simultaneous programmes or videos; street musicians (Chilean, would you believe it?) competing with techno-rock blaring from shops. Personally I cannot stand rap or techno-rock, but I will defend (but not to the death!) anyone's right to enjoy these disciplines in the privacy of their homes or headphones, and 30 clean watts per channel is intrinsically a Good Thing; but what awesome agency has brutalised a nation's ears so that it cannot discern distortion?

Varsovians have a saying that the best view of Warsaw is from the top of the Palace of Culture -- as it's the only place in Warsaw from which you cannot see the Palace of Culture. From our twenty-third floor Forum Hotel room we had a splendid view of the Palace of Culture, emerging from a browny-grey pall of pollution, like Debussy's 'Cathedrale Engloutie' emerging from the sea mist. This remarkable edifice, a 'present' from Stalin, is arguably the most perfect example of Stalinist-Brutalist architecture in Eastern Europe.

Actually, I quite like it; but I concede that it does upstage Warsaw. This may not be such a bad thing, as Warsaw is a concrete jungle with all the charm of a motorway intersection. The beauty and some history are there, at ground level, if you know where to look and can stand the fumes.

I had to be constantly reminded that four fifths of Warsaw had been razed to the ground by the Nazis. Perhaps my mind keeps blotting out the fact, which always makes me seethe inside with sadness rather than rage, like a safety valve. Why do our enemies hate us so?

Having bribed the hotel doorman with a |pounds~10 note to park the Volvo right outside in a 'reserved' space for three days (cheaper than the official guarded car park), we set off among the fumes in search of Chopin's ghost. He was easy to find. Belweder Palace, the re-created Chopin salon, the Ostrogski Palace, the Holy Cross Church, et al.

My Forebears were there too. We discovered that the Church of the Visitation, where Chopin played the organ, had been consecrated in 1761 by Bishop Andrzej Zaluski. I tried to photograph the Paca Palace, albeit rebuilt, where Chopin played his last Warsaw concert in 1829. Now a government building, formerly the Merchant's Hall, and before that, the Zaluski Palace. An unshaven official waved his hand at my camera with cries of 'verboten'. His rendering of the word was ineffective: it needed a Prussian intonation. So I ignored him and took several photos. He shrugged and left.

The Chopin trail uncovered Poland's alternative culture; secretive, unsure of itself, dreaming of greater things, and broke. Men and women of learning and culture, lost in a brave new world, mouthing words like market, promotion and advertising, not really knowing what they mean. As authors of a new book on Chopin in Scotland, we were treated as honoured guests, and nothing was too much trouble. The Chopin salon was specially opened up for us. We had pride of place at a piano recital at Zelazowa Wola, Chopin's birthplace and national shrine near Warsaw. The Chopin Society at Ostrogski Palace went to a great deal of trouble to research the Chopin-Zaluski connections in Warsaw. We have an open invitation at Sanniki Manor, where Chopin stayed as a teenager, and which the local council is trying to get off the ground as a Chopin museum, recital hall and hotel. We were personally taken by the manager round the magnificent Antonin Palace, the Radziwill family's splendid octagonal timber hunting lodge, where Chopin stayed and taught the two Radziwill princesses the piano. It is now an hotel, restaurant and venue of concerts and an annual Chopin festival.

Chopin is big in Poland, and growing bigger. So is there hope for the future beyond Mickey Mouse and Burger King? Perhaps, but it will come at a price. The Chopin trail is only paved with stones.

So where does the Land of my Forebears go from here? What Land will I be a Forebear of? I do not share the prevalent optimism of bar-room politicians, ex-patriot Poles, and media post-communist hype. Give it five or six or ten years, they say, and free market Poland will be like Western Europe.

God forbid! Western Europe is quintessentially western, made up of post-war ingredients. Eastern Europe will be made up of post-communist ingredients, but what the nature of the beast will be I decline to speculate.

At present Poland has virtually no culture. All the guardians of the traditional values have either been exterminated, suppressed or have fled to the West. Those that still hold the torch are playing blind man's bluff. Poland is a young nation on the game that needs ideals, vision, and a more elevated sense of purpose. It needs leaders who can lead the nation out of lawlessness and banditry, teachers who can instil more than a youth culture revolving round rap, baseball caps worn the wrong way round and graffiti of mis-spelt English obscenities.

And so, on to Iwonicz. The least I could do was to have a closer look than I did in 1968. Would I wish to be involved in the reclamation process? Would I want to live there? Or just milk the State for what I could get out of it. It's what everyone else is doing, so why not jump on the bandwagon and grab with the best of them?

So what is my attitude supposed to be, I asked myself as I drove past the road sign? Beloved aristocrat returning to the bosom of his people to reclaim his inheritance, or damned Westerner come to privatise the waters and throw everyone out of a job? An old babushka toiling in the fields, with whom I got chatting, kissed my hand when she discovered who I was, and addressed me by my defunct title. The drunken proprietor of the appalling hotel fell to his knees and, repeatedly kissing my wife's hand and complimenting her on her goodness and understanding (where on earth he got that idea from we shall never know), apologised tearfully for the noisy commercial travellers in the next room, the carpets of dead flies under the window, the torn curtains, the drunken revels of the previous night, and the fact that brackish, black water was only occasionally available. He tearfully added his shame that the Count had to put up with such terrible behaviour on the part of our contemporary compatriots.

Iwonicz is a dump, where communist brutalism and a miniature paradise co-exist in an horrendous clash that left me angry, culture-shocked and depressed.

In the village were neglected buildings, uneven pavements covered in weeds, verdant hillsides covered in boring new little boxes, wooden shacks thrown up to serve beer, coffee and greasy sausages and chips and shops with just enough colour to pay lip service to free enterprise. A grubby souvenir shop, with its rack of postcards out of reach, was attended by two surly, disinterested girls that would put Sharon and Tracey to shame.

The only restaurant in Iwonicz was a concrete block with an interior that had all the 'Gemutlichkeit' of the buffet at King's Cross station, c.1950. It's policy ('beans is off, dear') was reminiscent of Peter Sellers' 'Balham, Gateway to the South' sketch from his 1950s 'Songs for Swinging Sellers' album. The only things available were a bowl of greasy tepid 'Zurek' soup with globules floating on it, and an inedible hamburger. Breakfast was all right -- you can't ruin rye bread, butter, a glass of hot water and a tea bag. We reckoned the assorted scruffy malcontents knocking back beer until the whole table was covered in empty bottles were bad enough, until one chose to sit at the next table to us, browsing through a hard-porn magazine as he breakfasted on 'Zurek' soup, scrambled eggs, beer and bread.

In the midst of this proletarian paradise lies the centre, traffic-free and mercifully free of the pall of foul fumes that lies permanently on the approach road. Well maintained for the benefit of stressed, card-carrying party workers, this gem of a place has not altered since my father's day. Beautiful walkways, dominated by the strikingly original wooden clock tower, weave among the lovingly tended flower beds set among green lawns and clusters of shrubbery. Picture postcard timber buildings with high gables and decorative balustrades reminiscent of the very finest New England architecture abound. The magnificent hotel 'Pod Jodla', surrounded by trees, overlooked this perfect romantic setting from its hillside perch. The local cinema is housed in the most exquisite miniature concert hall you will ever see. Wide, paved paths lead to the sanatoriums, baths and healing houses scattered among the richly wooded hills behind the village. The spa is certainly well run and a credit to Polish health care.

Now, with card-carrying party members a bit thin on the ground, Iwonicz is beginning to go to seed. Few Poles can afford its benefits.

An evening stroll in this idyll would be a joy, if it were not for the gorgeous 'Krakowiak' cafe dispensing rock music for the benefit of the whole valley and the hills above. Free of distortion, and middle-of-the-road fare, admittedly; but most of the clientele taking the balmy evening air were either sick, elderly or wheelchair bound. Is there no escape?

We visited Belweder. My father's house, once a shrine of fine furniture, elegance and good taste, largely thanks to my mother, was now an empty shell. A group of deadpan teenaged girls, supervised by a hearty, bustling woman in her thirties, were sweeping the place out and clearing out rubbish. The house had been used as a school of cookery; but now its lease had run out, and it was being returned to the State, who, I was assured, had no further use for it. The cleaners were the director of the school and her students. The director gladly showed us round, and even suggested I should take it over, now that no one wants it any more.

We spent a good hour going over Belweder. I looked for ghosts, but found none. I stood in a corner of the veranda, the site of my first photograph as a baby in my mother's arms. She was seated, smiling, radiant and proud, on a settee covered in an enormous, floral pattern, cradling her new-born son with a mission written into his name. I stood in the same place, being photographed again, trying to recapture something. But the ghosts were silent. As souvenirs I took two faded Polish flags and a White Eagle emblem. Someone had stuck his crown -- abolished by the communists -- back on its head in gold card.

Maybe too much sewage and spring water have passed under the bridge.

Maybe I'll just leave things as they are.
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Author:Zaluski, Iwo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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