I met Miroslav almost the instant I stepped off the plane at Gdansk Lech Walesa airport. I was looking up at the timetable for the tram when the retired journalist offered to help. ‘You are from England?’ he asked. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m heading into Gdansk. Is this the right tram?’ I replied.
‘Come with me. I have a special permit for the bus. No pay.’ Miroslav added invitingly.
We spent the forty minute journey chatting about London, Miroslav’s love of Rod Stewart and his neighbours small garden. ‘When Rod Stewart plays in London we will go together,’ he said ‘I have access to any concert.’ As he said this he showed me a photograph of a ticket bearing the legend ‘local crew’. It seemed a big stretch to me but if it worked, it worked. I was amazed by the fact Rod Stewart was still touring. ‘My friend has such a small garden. It is a joke. Half is garden, half is cemetery. I have been there many times but I never saw a ghost.’ My new friend had been to the nearby Intel headquarters to interview William Savage, the Vice President of Product. To make the best impression Miroslav was wearing a USA baseball cap with a bald eagle thickly embroidered onto the front, the letters and design appropriately coloured and proportioned to mirror the stars and stripes; a large turquoise rhinestone dangled from a black cord at the correct length; the rest of Miroslav’s outfit was a fitting tribute to the legend of Ron Burgundy – grey cashmere turtle neck, grey woollen suit with black slip on winkle pickers all superbly concealed beneath a lavish flasher Mac. It was a joy to behold.
As we pulled up outside the Gdansk Glowny Railway Station, quite conspiratorially, Miroslav suggested we go to the Scandic Hotel to use the bathroom. ‘We take a leak, then we walk the town to your hostel,’ he said. I had no immediate plans so decided an impromptu tour of the town would be a great way to spend my Friday evening. ‘If you look here, you will see the old town hall, beyond the trees,’ he said just as we approached the ancient city wall. ‘There are many churches here, this is St Katharina, very bad luck church, burned down so many times. Over there is the church of Solidarity. This is the city wall. Very old. You see the tower? Part of the wall. This is Pellowski, famous bakery, gave bread to the strikers.’ As we approached the Jacek Tower we passed the central market, groups of young men stood around drinking Tyskie beer and munching durum kebabs. The sight of food reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since morning so I suggested we join the crowd for a feed. As I wolfed down the mixed meat and creamy sauce, Miroslav made a great show of taking a bite here and there, explaining that his stomach was small and that he lacked appetite. A homeless man dug into a bin to collect cans and bottles to redeem the small deposit, Miroslav spied his chance, questioned the man thoroughly, then handed over the kebab. It was a kind gesture and better use of the food. We sat a moment to watch the procession of life go about its search for entertainment, it was after all Friday evening. Miroslav slugged back the last of his ‘medicine’, a bottle suspiciously similar to one which could contain vodka, gave us both a jelly sweet covered with chocolate and we were on our way.
‘This is old city wall, look, meets the tower. Great place for take a leak,’ he said. The arches of the inside of the city wall reeked of piss. A seldom seen place since on the other side of this stretch of wall was a beautiful park with lions carved into marble, clusters of benches to sit off a while and subtle lights illuminating the trees. Miroslav had picked a unique route. ‘You see that statue? That is the king of Poland. Below is Turkey.’ We crossed a small road into a large cobbled square, an adjacent bar blared out: ‘I wear your Grandad’s clothes, I look incredible. I’m in this big ass coat from the thrift store down the road’, a popular spot buzzing with locals. Ahead of us loomed a huge rectangular brick built tower, a former jail in days past, a formidable and imposing structure, not without style. The next day the square would host a ‘festival of Europe’ to celebrate diversity and cooperation. A direct reminder of how much the union is valued on the continent. Directly opposite the jail, which is now a museum, is the golden gate. Miroslav explained, ‘this is kings entrance to city. The golden gate is very special, look at the gold here, important place for king.’ We passed through the golden archway into a very pretty street, cobbled, lined with charming, well finished buildings of the gothic period, all now functioned as restaurants, bars or as Miroslav pointed out, brothels. He chatted briefly with his ice cream vendor friend before sprouting his next idea, ‘we take some beers and go to a very quiet street, very important street, you will see it is typical, traditional street. It is also place of biggest brick church in Europe.’ We picked up a couple of Warka dark beers and sauntered off the main strip into a side street.
Directly ahead of us was St Mary’s church, believed to be the largest brick church in the world. A vast monument with a single main tower of several metres width, gothic arched windows bigger than a billboard; spires to the rear gave some sense of scale and quirk of detail to the beastly size. It was an impressive thing though hard to comprehend at such close quarters. We turned away from this megalith into Mariascka, the clock turning back with us to a former time, when gargoyles and garretts were fashionable and life was of a more simple kind. We stood off halfway along the street up a half dozen steps to the small outside area of a stonemasons workshop. Half finished boulders scattered about the space, a neat row of stone plinths to the right of the doorway. ‘This is my friend, he is sculptor. We drink here a while. Nice and quiet place. Etcetera.’ We opened the bottles with Miroslav’s keys, toasted ‘nasdraviee’, the story would begin shortly. ‘After the war, 95% of this city was destroyed. By the Russians looking for Germans. Totally destroyed. Now, all these flats are occupied by Communists, shitty Communists. Look over there, you see the second floor,’ he pointed up with his beer bottle, covered his mouth with his other hand and whispered, eye brows raised like the arches of St Mary’s church, ‘even now live there KGB.’
‘You know about full moon?’ asked Miroslav, ‘it makes wolves howl, robbers rob and crazy people insane. Etcetera. Emotion runs high. I have felt it. Never make an important decision on a full moon. Put it off for a few days. Better wait and put it off. Full moon is powerful. It is coming in next days.’ We guzzled the beers, Miroslav almost toppling over one of the large unfinished rock carvings strewn about the place, and stepped away from the memories. Further down the street was the shop of a famous diamond family, a couple of hip cafes and by day, an army of stalls selling amber jewellery set in silver. A short stride later and we were on the riverside. ‘You see crane? Used to be for swinging large items on ships, etcetera, etcetera. Let us go to your hostel now,’ he seemed to be nearing intoxication. The repeated use of etcetera to elaborate his point was an obvious sign. We walked fifty paces to the bridge and suddenly Miroslav decided that we had better see the rest of the main strip, ‘this is green gate. We must see the water god, etcetera.’ We were now at the opposite end of the main street; the restaurants were busy, diners clinking glasses merrily. Up ahead was the new town hall with its beautiful clock, below it the statue of Zeus, squirting water high up above his head, pitched fork in hand. In the museum behind the trident a group of guests were enjoying a private party. Miroslav peering through the stained glass added, ‘Ah, yes, this is wine degustation. Some people come together to taste the very expensive wines, very expensive. I have experienced many wines. Very many. Red wines not so good in here. Old wood floor stains, etcetera. Big problem.’
We meandered slowly to my hostel, which without the tour, would have been a twenty minute walk, to arrive at eleven ten. I’d made no reservations, I rarely do, and before I had chance to request a bed for the night, Miroslav had begun to speak rapidly in firm Polish to the young guy on reception. As we’d entered the building a group of youngsters had laughed at a private joke, causing Miroslav to take offence. I had no idea what the conversation was about, but the young chap behind the desk looked bewildered. Despite this confusion I was handed a key, shown a room and pointed in the direction of the kitchen and showers. Miroslav and I sat down on a nearby sofa, where we exchanged contact details, then he asked if I knew any place where his niece might find work in London. I said maybe I did and that if he ever came to the UK, he had a friend he could call on.
Beautifully symmetrically, on the afternoon that I was leaving, a full six days later, quite by chance, I met Miroslav once more, this time at the bus stop. Dressed exactly as before, save for a dark blue overcoat in place of the trusty Macintosh. ‘I saw and wondered if it was you. I see that it is. So short is time,’ he mused.
‘Hello. Yes, time flies. Do you know what time this bus is due?’ I asked.
‘I will check. You could take the train also. Very beautiful, trees, green. Etcetera. Much quicker,’ walking across to the timetable, he replied, ‘four minutes.’ The bus pulled up just as he said this. ‘Remember, you have a contact.’