Poles, Priests, Prostitutes and Pupils: a Pomeranian Pot-pourri
Bydgoszcz is a large town in Poland that has recently been given its own diocese. One of the results of this has been the creation of special Identification Cards for the priests of this area. Aga, my gorgeous Polish friend, is a graphic designer, and has shown me these cards she is helping to design. She tells me that it’s not a silly precaution: in the past, a few charlatans have donned albs and chasubles, and as fake priests, have got away with taking confession and even celebrating mass. Now they would be turned away, so to speak, at the celebrant altar, because their I.D’s would not be in order. The I.D’s have an unusual twist; while the front of the card, with all its personal details, is written in Polish, the back is written in Latin. Neither Aga nor I can make head or tail of the Latin, except that the word “Lord” appears a couple of times.
Anyone who thinks Poles are to a man, woman, and child, deeply religious, and have infinite respect for all priests, should think again. On the grounds that ignorance is bliss, and as a joke, Aga and her colleagues had a lot of fun with the photographs of the priests when put onto their computer. They gave the men of cloth bug eyes, extended their noses, or added a moustache. This computer graffiti horrified only the boss, who accused them of being a bunch of children. “Only having some fun,” was their reply.
Aga’s and her colleagues’ flights of fancy remind me of a group of business people I taught when I was last in Bydgoszcz. The theory was that they could concentrate more on learning English if they did week-long intensive courses in a hotel far removed from their workplace, and so their everyday work would not intrude on their studies. So, Emma, a colleague, the business people and I were farmed out to a small place called Swiecie, some 40 km north of Bydgoszcz. They were very obliging students, but they tended to make jokes about having three heads, and made remarks like “Red alert! Red alert!”
The reason behind all these witticisms became clear: the hotel itself was splendid; it had a jacuzzi, sauna, swimming-pool, fitness centre, and even an internet cafe; every room had its own cable TV; and every guest had their own room (unless otherwise requested). The downside to this place was its location. It stood right next to a paper mill, and the air stank so much that you had to close the windows to breathe in fresher air. The hotel was also close to the local lunatic asylum, and after dark, a security man with an Alsatian dog prowled the grounds of the hotel in case they should either come across a thief, or an escapee.
The staff did not seem to have been affected by these two drawbacks; they were resolutely normal and polite, and coped with the idiosyncrasies of the guests with titanic detachment. A more motley collection of hotel guests, on the other hand, you could not imagine; apart from the business people, Emma, and I, there were some resident guests – Joe, a logger, originally from Minnesota, who was giving technical advice to people in Swiecie; Karl, an Austrian working at the paper mill who kept promising us he would arrange for us to go on a tour of the mill, and yet this always failed to materialise; Dave, an ex-oil rig engineer who was doing some engineering not connected with oil rigs – there aren’t any in Swiecie – and mixed groups of travellers passing through who wanted a swim and a jacuzzi.
One evening at the dining room table, our group were involved in a discussion. The idea was that just as a world-class slalom skier needs the best skiing equipment as well as outstanding technical ability, to make the difference of 0.0003 seconds to lift the Championship. This is also so true in the World Burping Championships, where the type of beer drunk would give a truly seasoned burper the edge over his rivals, and we were all voting on which of the heady local brews would fit the bill. Our raucous laughter had attracted the attention of our fellows in the ‘hotel community’, but the students were starting to get tired, and duly retired for the night, so in the end only Emma and I were invited to join them for a drink. Soon, we were sitting together discussing the local delights. “Yeah, you should try the fleshpots of Swiecie,” Joe told me.
I was amazed that a place such as Swiecie should boast any fleshpots, but I was then assured by the Austrian in his most solemn tones, “yes, there is a fleshpot.” Our conversation moved on to another subject, and we never did get round to visiting the “fleshpot” (Emma, anyway, was far more interested in the paper mill).
Which brings me back to the present. I am working in a very respectable school in Bydgoszcz, which is housed in a beautiful building. However, a meat factory lurks behind it, and a brothel stands opposite it, making the school a sort of filling in a gunther sandwich. In the summer, the prostitutes used to be highly visible, parading their wares through the open windows. They didn’t do this in the winter, because of course, it was too cold and even with closed windows the glass would get steamed up. Now, due to complaints from the Language School administration, they don’t even flaunt their bodies during the summer, but rely on word of mouth. The latter seems to be effective; every night, groups of mostly young men seem to gather around the doorway and wait while one of them presses the bell, before disappearing inside.
The meat factory behind is doing good business also, but, due to the drive to improve air quality (relatively good in Bydgoszcz) will be moving next year out of town, into a new and shiny factory with the very latest filtration. The fate of the building that houses it at present is uncertain. It probably won’t be turned into either a church or a brothel, as there seems to be enough of both to keep punters of both kind going. Just up the road is the largest church in Bydgoszcz, the Basilica. According to a local priest, a small section of its congregation consist of the ladies of the night, who here, as elsewhere in the Catholic world, are quite religious as a group.
In Bydgoszcz, however, as in all over Poland, even non-religious Poles have unbounded admiration for the greatest Polish priest of them all, the priest of all Catholic priests, the Pope, and even Aga and her colleagues would not dream of playing around with his photograph.