The return of the prodigal son

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In October 2015, I attended the Transport Ticketing Central & Eastern Europe conference (TTCEE) in Warsaw.  I flew to Poland feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation.  You see, I have Polish heritage – my mother was one of more than seven hundred Polish children that New Zealand offered refuge to during World War 2.  She and her older brother came here, and, having subsequently lost both of their parents during the war, they remained and raised their families here.  My mother returned to Poland only once in 1991. She viewed the place of her birth through the lens of the tragedy that befell her family.  Consequently, I had never visited at all, despite having been around Eastern Europe several times during my childhood.  This trip was a chance for me to rectify that omission and learn more about where my mother was born and spent her early years.

Even though I’d never been to Poland, it wasn’t completely foreign to me.  In my childhood, I’d spent many weekends with Polish family friends in Wellington, hearing Polish spoken, singing songs and eating delicious Polish food. So when I landed at the airport in Warsaw, the sounds and smells were very familiar – I was instantly drawn to the place.  By the time I picked up my bags from the carousel, I had already decided that I needed to come back for a longer visit.

Although I don’t understand Polish beyond a few basics, there is no doubting the familiarity that is generated when you hear the language that your mother spoke to you when you were young.  All the people I met were warm, friendly, and keen to share their culture – particularly once they found out that I was a returning prodigal son of Poland.  The highlight was one of the hotel staff who made it his mission to teach me a few more words of Polish before I was allowed to sit down to breakfast each day.  This common dog training technique worked wonders on me too!

Speaking of food, I discovered that in Poland, food is critical at all times of every day. The food is fantastic, particularly if you like meat of all descriptions and richly cooked vegetable dishes. There are no Nutri Bullets here. With the help of Piotr, one of the conference delegates, we found a great restaurant in the old town that served pierogi. It was delicious, but not as good as Mama’s.

And to go along with the food, we needed drinks.  TTCEE is the only conference I have attended (and there have been many) where there was a vodka tasting in the conference programme. There is a way to drink vodka and survive.  It involves moving seamlessly from actually drinking it, to pretending you’re drinking it, while you’re still standing.  I may not have been raised in Poland, but I’m well-versed in this technique.  Some other conference attendees were poorly briefed and lucky to make it to the next day.

To delight and enthuse Transport Conference delegates, just add vodka!

And where would good food and drink be without a little song?  A personal highlight was convincing some of the Poles at the conference to join in a round of Sto lat. It wasn’t that hard to do, on reflection. Possibly related to the vodka.

Over all, Warsaw is a surprisingly beautiful city, considering its tumultuous history. I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back to get it know it a whole lot better.