Poland smells like Sheffield smelled when I was growing up, before the Clean Air Act, and as such it's a smell that goes straight to my hindbrain. It smells like going home.
Although I will agree with Bogna that Bytom is a hard place to love.
I'm going to ramble for a bit, so if anyone fancies looking at some LolCats instead you'll find them here. For anyone else, I'm over
I'm not sure whether the pollution has anything to do with it, but common sense tells me that the more particles in the atmosphere to offer a nucleus for water vapour, the more chance there is of fog, and Poland does have some spectacular fogs. I remember once driving to Krakow on a very cold day when we dropped down into a little river valley and suddenly hit a wall of fog so thick we couldn't even see the front of the car. The only things that saved us from catastrophe were that the fogbank was only about a hundred feet thick and we were the only car on the road at that point.
Anyway, this is all just a long-winded way of saying that we were flying to Katowice but because of fog we were diverted to Krakow. This wasn't as bad as it could be; at Krakow the airline had already laid on coaches and we were bussed back to Katowice (actually, it's Pyrzowice, about fifteen miles from Katowice) airport in about an hour. The same thing happened to Bogna earlier in the year, and she said it took them two hours just to get the coaches organised.
We were in Poland to attend the wedding of Bogna's cousin, which went off without a hitch. The bride looked lovely, the groom seems a thoroughly decent man, it was a very cold day and the church was one of those new brick-built stadia that are only nominally heated. There was some singing, which I did not join in, mindful of the sight of John Redwood trying and failing to sing the Welsh national anthem some years ago. One girl who got up to sing solo had one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard; not a lot of punch behind it, but high and pure and, unless my cloth ear misled me, with as close to perfect pitch as makes no difference.
Afterward, we repaired to an hotel in town for the reception. Which, my hand to god and tell you no lie, lasted more than ten hours. The reception started around three in the afternoon, and we were still eating at half past one the next morning. And there was no alcohol, for reasons which were explained to me but which I can't remember now, so people started to drift away early - say about eleven. But it was fun. Lots of dancing, some of which I participated in. Bogna danced so much her knee swelled up. We got home about three, I think. The next day pretty much went by without me.
The day after that was New Year's Eve, which we were to spend with friends of another of Bogna's cousins, who had just built a new house in a village out on the road to Racziborz, about forty minutes' drive from home. The temperature, which had hovered around minus two or three since we arrived, popped up to plus one and as we left it started to snow. By the time we arrived at our destination, there were about four inches of snow on the ground. As our destination was out in the country, more or less where I set the final scenes of The Villages, and we were driving through conditions which would have shut Britain down, I found it all vaguely eerie.
Anyway, our New Year's was very civilised. We ate a very nice meal, we chatted, we had a few drinks, although I heard Bogna telling a friend later that she was rather disappointed there was no dancing and that six Poles and a Brit not exactly known for his fear of strong drink couldn't manage to get to the bottom of a bottle of Finlandia between them on New Year's Eve. At midnight the whole village erupted in an orgy of fireworks for about half an hour, then everybody went back inside because the temperature had dipped again. We talked some more. We went to bed about four.
I like Poland. It's a weird mix of old and new, particularly where we were in the towns that were once in Germany. There are brand-spanking-new buildings and there are buildings that were there when the towns were called Hindenberg and Sosnowitz and Gleiwitz, and there are Communist-era blocks inbetween. There's graffiti everywhere, most of it really inept, but you do get a sense of a people trying to bootstrap themselves out of the past and into the future. No one takes anything for granted. And the people really are wonderful. Even the drunks are polite. Yes, the whole country needs a good clean, yes, the roads are in poor condition - although when I was back in Sheffield last year the roads were much worse - but there's a real sense that Poland is a proper European country, ready to step up and punch its weight on the world stage after not even existing for so many years.
The one thing that coloured our visit was that on the morning of the wedding Bogna heard that one of her old schoolfriends had died. I never met her, but apparently she and Bogna were close. She'd been ill with cancer for a couple of years but had been rallying recently - something I'm learning to interpret as a bad thing - and died the evening before the wedding. Bogna was cut up about it, and I don't think she's come to terms with it yet. We were due to come back together yesterday, but she changed the tickets so she could attend the funeral today. I had some work arranged and had to come back yesterday. She got back this evening and seems kind of disconnected. Granted, she came down with flu while we were over there and feels awful, but I think she's still trying to process what's happened. She got home, had some of the chicken soup I made for her, played with the cats for a bit, made some phone calls, and went to bed. It's been a long week.