18% of Poland’s 38 million people can’t find work. The unemployed in Poland could replace every single Irish job, and still have one million people left over. They leave the country in droves, seeking luck in European cities - London, Birmingham, Dublin, Cork - where two days work earns them the equivalent of one month’s wages back home. Many cut the cost of travelling to Ireland by taking the bus from Warsaw through smaller Polish cities, Germany, Holland, Belgium, England, and eventually arriving at Busaras on Store Street in Dublin. It takes 42 hours.
Like many buildings in Warsaw, Dworzec Zachodni bus station appears like a shell dropped from the Communist era. Corrugated steel and a peeling blue and yellow colour scheme lie underneath a thick film of dust. Countless booths selling miscellaneous meats, magazines, infinite brands of cigarettes and soft drinks stuff the floor of the station. Local buses pull in up front, but at the back of the station, queues of young Polish men and women wait for the bus to Ireland, shuffling away from their families towards the grimy grey concrete platforms.
There are a few prolonged hugs from mothers. Awkward photographs are taken while the stringy moustached conductor rips ticket receipts, and eventually the bus pulls away about a third full. Technicolor seats like autumn on acid promise headaches and the legroom is designed with Oompa Loompas in mind. Polish power ballads play as we head beyond Warsaw’s outskirts past colossal C & As, KFCs, H & Ms and various other initialled monstrosities. As the billboards advertising Presidential candidates thinned, the TV on board remained dead and I beg for some distracting film, worried that the only viewing pleasure our busload would soon be witnessing was my excessive breakfast in reverse.
The conductor garbles down the microphone like a drunkard exclaiming from a manhole, and I instantly regret my urge for telly. The rest of the passengers become engrossed in a Polish horror film on the bus’ only TV. The plot seems to largely surround a naked woman on a steel table and a guy who likes to jump through windows (in slow motion.) My silent wishes for the bus driver to pull over at the most intriguing sign so far (‘Gay Billiard’) remain unanswered, and we rocket towards Lodz.
In Lodz, the tower blocks trap the city with an expansive concrete hug. Factories that from a distance look more decrepit than Jackie Stalone, a little closer appear to be functioning places of work. The flats shed paint like eczema, covered in graffiti acne sprayed by unimaginative perpetrators and the bus station resembles a horror movie seaside hotel. Every building from Poland’s recent communist era seem not to have had a lick of paint since the Wall fell. Perhaps, their upkeep seems pointless, just dolling up the reminder of a time period that they want to crumble for good.
The numbers on the bus double at Lodz. Hot crowds gathered around the food kiosks to get a last meal. A thin mother with a drawn wrinkled face ran around the bus as it was about to leave. Trying to spot her daughter who had taken an aisle seat and wasn’t visible from the outside, she squinted through the windows before smothering her face with hands and tears as the bus finally pulled away. Most have their entire families seeing them off and an elderly couple leave their crying son behind. The man, struggling to climb the bus stairs with a walking stick keeps walking back down to hug his son again. His ascent is eventually made impossible, as his son locks hands around his father’s neck, bawling. His father turns around and gives a last forceful kiss.
The surrounding countryside is full of sights no longer common in Ireland. The land is farmed in small sections, divided into orchards, cabbage and potato lots, cornfields and wheat. Families work the land together, bailing hay, weeding and harvesting their food. The women all wear long blue floral day dresses with red or blue aprons and headscarves. Such a fractious agriculture industry is now being propped up by EU price controls.
The late 80s and 90s in Poland were characterised by falling governments, unable to stem a bleeding economy. The Privatisation Act of 1990 liquidated many of the state-run companies and a subsequent glut of privatisation has led to short-term GDP growth and a “tiger” economy, similar to Ireland’s economic resurgence in the 1990s. This burly push for economic liberalisation throughout the 90s has ensured private companies now control 70% of the economy. Such investment hasn’t eased unemployment, and the government, which once gleamed profits from most of Poland’s industry, is now forced to reduce public spending by 17 billion in the next two years. And the government has borrowed heavily, owing $100 billion to the World Bank.
The torture on my coccyx had now progressed to the equivalent of listening to Atomic Kitten demos on a dentist chair. How much more could my much prized buttocks take? Will they erode? Or will they be flattened so much as to spread out beyond the realm of my hips, like flip-out food trays on the arm of an old aeroplane seat? A train passed teasingly under a bridge we dawdled over. Its wheels sung a Polish slag directed at me, “yourassisgettingsorer – yourassisgettingsorer – yourassisgettingsorer”.
There are storks in Poland. Yes, I’m as mildly surprised as you are. I forgot that storks existed beyond the context of Pampers ads and Disney cartoons, where they’re relegated to reprimanding jive-talking crows. But here, driving between fields, storks hung out, occasionally lifting a leg gingerly, as though they just realised that was a cow pat, not soft ground. Three hours after Lodz, we reached Konin where the tower blocks again circled, and eventually, Poznan, where the bus was finally full. We drove by the kind of forests you get chased through and then it was fields again. I began to wonder if you have to be on a plane to get DVT.
I attempted to bond with my two-seater companion, and offered her a jaffa cake, a friend currency if there ever was one. She said something that sounded like she was coughing up a baby hedgehog and accepted one, which was the extent of our contact, despite my inviting smiles and pleasant, (if unshowered) demeanour. Other passengers were a bit more forthcoming. What I mistook for flirting about 17 times was eventually explained by my accompanying Lonely Planet: Poland guide: “The Poles’ sense of personal space may be a bit cosier that you are accustomed to. You are apt to notice this trait when queuing for tickets or manoeuvring along city streets.” Or, I might add, sitting on a bus for 84 hours (round trip, people.)
At a petrol station stop, somewhere near Germany, I got talking to Louisa who lived near Warsaw. She was travelling with a friend to London. In October, she moves to Birmingham. She has a friend there who will try to help her find a job. “maybe if you know somebody who knows somebody who knows a manager somewhere, maybe,” that’s Louisa’s version of how to possibly find a job in her home town. She has a low paying job and at the moment, can’t make ends meet. “Today, I saw people getting on the bus with families crying leaving them. It’s not fair.”
As we settled in for the second flick of the evening - a thriller; where all but two of the main characters wear balaclavas throughout, which is quite confusing (that, and the Polish element) – the moon announces its yellow prominence through the black German woodland. When you’re tired enough, you presume you can sleep anywhere, but your body will always beg to be horizontal, an impossible feat. Instead, I propped my head against the window, and tried to ignore the can in a paint mixer momentum.
Twice through the night, we stop at service stations. Nobody else buys food. Ever. Instead they smoke desperately while I’m inside, stocking up on Doritos. The next day, we’re peeled off our seats and marched through passport control at Calais before boarding ‘The Pride of Canterbury’, which I was under the impression was a cathedral and not an ugly hulk selling overpriced five-piece breakfasts. Bought one anyway, obviously. On board, a sullen anticipation came over the passengers. They were reluctant to talk, huddling instead in groups of two or three on deck. My body cried for sleep. For some, London marked the end of the journey. Others went on to Birmingham, Manchester and finally Dublin.
On the bus to Dublin, a few of those who had shared my journey from Warsaw were recognisable. The rest of the passengers had travelled from different parts of Poland. They all, I might add, exuded an appearance of content refreshment, in stark contrast with my knackered and sweat-stewed visage. Victoria Station housed us for five hours, a land of thieving pay phones and mischievous bus company officials who had merrily informed me of no less than two stations and four imaginary platforms where I should really be getting the bus from. Only when I removed one hapless booking agent from his swivel chair and forced him to lead me to (and place me on) the bus did I reach the finish line of their evil goose chase. I was, therefore, more than happy to leave the bastard station, and only wished for some dirt to toebog at its direction as we rolled out.
On the radio, a DJ informed us of nightmare traffic scenarios with all the joviality of a toddler in a ball pool. It started to rain and I spent the next hour playing the underrated game of peek-a-boo with a toothless little boy in front of me. ‘K-19’, a bloody submarine film was on. It was dubbed of course, but I had developed a concentration mechanism for filtering out the quieter original English script like a baker looking for misplaced raisins in a bowl of flour.
At Hollyhead, I dragged conversations out of the few passengers with broken English. Monika Paczesna from Pila was visiting her husband in Cork. He has worked in Ireland for a year and has seen his wife once during that time when he made it back to Poland for a few days. Her knowledge of the country is limited, apart from how expensive everything is and that “Guinness gives headache.” Peter Stanek, in his 20s, was going on holiday to Galway, but Magdalena Sadouska’s reasons were lost in translation - perhaps a holiday too.
I spoke to a lone traveller, Kasia Ogndnik from Javorna, as she shuffled in the cold night sucking on cigarettes. She’s moving here, but she doesn’t know for how long “maybe a year, I hope.” It’s her first time in Ireland, and she’s heading for Lisdoonvarna where she has a job in a restaurant lined up. “It is very, very hard to get a job in Poland,” she says, shaking her head, “you just can’t.” Kasia has heard that there are a lot of Polish people in Ireland, and that it’s easy to get work, but it’s better to secure a job before you leave. She has the right idea. One restaurant manager in Dublin said they received at least ten CVs from Polish job applicants a day.
Another family were returning to Dublin. The young parents and peek-a-boo son both worked as kitchen porters and were coming back from a visit home to spend another six months. Asked whether they liked life in Ireland, they looked quizzically before the wife replied laughing, “we have work!”
After a furiously cold night sailing to Dublin Port from Holyhead, we arrived at Busaras in a surreal lethargic haze shortly after 6am on Friday morning, having left Warsaw at 11.45pm on Wednesday. Everyone took a cautious rabbit-like gaze through the Dublin morning, and then bent over to dig out their luggage.