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A bike ride to bad news

When I found out about the Presiden’ts death, I had just come back from a bike ride to a ruined castle in the forests between Katowice and Krakow. The only castle  more beautiful than the ruin I biked to on Saturday was in the wine fields in southern France. I woke at 7 am, ate a great breakfast with the Easter leftover meat my family gave me, packed some sandwiches, and then hopped on my bike. I didn’t know exactly where I was going. 

The main road to get there was a busy country highway, going through small towns and up and down rural hills. The castle itself stood tall on a hill, surrounded by forests on all sides interrupted only by a few small village farms with chickens on the road. I was guided the whole way by seemingly happy Babci (Polish grandmothers). Every lady I talked to told me to ask someone else once I got to the end of the road, leading me into an adventure in itself (lady friends waiting for the bus, a women walking, a lady working in a grocery store, a girl waiting for a train, and the train-lady who controls the train gates). I saw this castle from the A4 highway on my way back to Krakow from Katowice. I didn’t realize it was so far!

After about 6 hours with my bike, I finally arrived back in Krakow. Luckily too- I had only 3 zloty (about $1) and had to beg the ticket lady at the train station to give me a ticket (Polish people are very nice). I locked my bike up in its spot outside of Piast, walked inside, and found out that the President of Poland had died.

And it wasn’t just the president. As I found out from my friend at the reception, over 80 important figures had passed away: the general of the army, as well as many parliamentary figures and the president’ s wife. All because of fog and an old plane. “Half of our government just died,” my roommate said.

The girl next door was on the verge of tears when I knocked on her door to talk about it. The American Consulate (where I am an intern) had a special meeting on Monday to honor the victims. Unfortunately, one of our secretaries had a close friend in the accident. 

There are shrines for the victims everywhere in Krakow. Under Wawel Castle at the Katyn memorial and at the doors of Kosciol Mariacki (the largest church in the main center) are just a few examples. There are literally seas of candles and flowers under every photo of Kaczynski hung in the city. The engineering dormitories next to where I live organized a special ceremony for the victims where the lights were turned off in a way to create a cross on every high rise dorm.

It’s strange how people come together so quickly after tragedy. It was raining on Sunday, yet the whole neighborhood was out to see the crosses. There are Polish flags everywhere, hung with a black piece of cloth. It’s almost as if I hadn’t been in Poland before and now all of a sudden the Poles are alive and proud. Hanging national flags in Poland is not as common as it is in America.

For about the next week, international media hubs will be massing around Warsaw. My Polish friend, Andy, was invited by the largest French radio in Paris to do its translations (he speaks perfect French and perfect English). When I was talking to him on the phone, all he could say was that he really was just excited to be able to be in Warsaw, with the thousands of others placing flowers around the Presidential palace.


5 Responses to “A bike ride to bad news”

  1. Matt,
    Send me an email about the proposed plaque at the Katyn Memorial in Niles (USA).


  2. Hi Matt –
    I was in the Peace Corps in Poland from 91-93 and really enjoy your descriptions of Krakow, as well as the Polish reactions to this tragedy. I passed this on to some of my fellow Peace Corps friends, who’s general reaction was ‘Why can’t the Poles catch a break?’ Thanks for posting this.
    Jean Ferguson, ’87

  3. Matt,

    I’m glad you are having so many opportunities to see different things and meet different people. I find the account of your adventures very interesting. Re: all the ladies you saw on the way to the castle, I hope some of them were good-looking!


  4. Matt,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. This last one particularly brought chills down my spine as I lived the moment here at augie with most of the Polish community I know of back home all up in arms. I’m second generation so anything that happens in the “homeland” resonates with me through my family. Thank you for your lovely descriptions, it makes me really miss some good chleb, kielbasa, i ogorki..nawet goralska herbata 🙂

    My family comes from the south so I have to say you need to visit Zakopane..the view is incredible.

    Another favorite are the salt mines “kopalnie” in Wieliczka….its a must see for sure!

    Czymaj sie zdrowo


  5. Hey man. I read your article in the observer. I was really impressed. i was considering writing one myself, but was a little intimidated because I didn’t know enough about the government. I didn’t realize a lot people didn’t like Kaczinski. My parents always spoke so well of him, and what he’s done for Poland’s government. I actually got to meet him with my folk dance group when he came to Chicago. He was a really humble and timid man, but maybe that’s what people had a problem with.

    I’m so incredibely jealous / really happy for your year in Poland. I wish I could have done something like this at Augie. It sounds like you’re living it and learning about our culture. We should talk once you get back. I’d be really interested in hearing more about your trip. I’m planning on traveling there for a while after undergrad.


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