A mere three or four weeks into the job at Saint Exupéry, I was informed that I was going to Poland. I didn’t know quite how to react to this at first because it came very abruptly and I had never imagined going to Poland. I’ve got nothing against Poland or the Poles, but as much as I love travelling, I feel out of my depth when going to countries whose language I don’t speak, and I didn’t really know much about the country or its people. Nevertheless, a unique opportunity arose and I would have been foolish to turn it down.
The reason behind the Poland voyage was an E.U. cultural exchange programme. One class from the Terminale year group (the final year of school) had struck up a partnership with counterparts at a school in a town called Stalowa Wola, in south-east Poland, and in November 2009, the time had come for a 10-day visit to see the Poles. This programme had been going on for a few years so luckily the two French teachers who went on the trip, Rémi and Fabrice, had been there before and knew what was going on, rather than the E.U. just firing us in a tin can at 500 mph towards Poland and then leaving us to sort ourselves out.
I had only known my class and the teachers a month or so beforehand, so I was a bit anxious about going. I didn’t know where I would fit in; although I was closer in age to the students, who were all 17-18, I was still technically a teacher, and that’s how I thought they saw me. The class had got on quite well with Rémi, or rather Mr Weissberg, as he was still (relatively) young. He went to uni in Brighton and to me he sounded like a native English speaker. Really, it could have been just like a lads trip to Poland…with some kids tagging along.
So, Toulouse airport, at ridiculous o’clock, waiting for the flight to Warsaw via Frankfurt in my Toulouse rugby t-shirt, this was the start of a very long journey to Stalowa Wola: two two-hour Lufthansa flights, then a six coach journey. Great. Luckily, I had brought some reading material: a Polish-French phrase book, and in my capacity as a language teacher, I took it upon myself to educate the kids with some Polish phrases, principally one that translated as “elle est belle comme un petit phoque” or “she’s as pretty as a seal”. This must say a lot about Polish girls.
After a long coach journey through Warsaw (consisting of tall concrete slabs) and the Polish countryside, which we didn’t see much of as it was dark for much of the journey, we arrived fairly late thanks to the lack of motorways in Poland. The kids were promptly paired up with their counterparts after the awkward silence of meeting for the first time, similar to your first boy-girl disco, and they drove off home for the night. Us three teachers were then assigned a Polish teacher to stay with. Fortunately, I wasn’t completely alone with a stranger in a country I had been in for a few hours, as the teacher had a daughter who one of our students was paired up with.
The Polish teacher I stayed with was lovely, and had a really nice, comfortable house, with lots of wood panelling so it felt like a cosy forest cabin. She cooked a mixture of Polish and international food for us each night, and laid on a more than satisfying breakfast each morning. She later explained that the Polish prided themselves on hospitality, and it would have been rude not to take advantage of this. I offered to help with the washing up but it turns out that this can be insulting from a guest to a host. Fair enough.
The next day was spent at the local high school. There was a rather prestigious welcome ceremony in the gymnasium in front of the whole school, with personal introductions for us teachers, followed by the French and Polish national anthems (not the Welsh or British one though), and then a sort of play, with Polish students acting out various French and Polish historical figures (no Welsh or British ones).
There were some educational parts to this programme too, so the school had organised loads of activities for the kids. The first one was a sort of ice-breaker session. I can’t remember the particularities too well, but it seemed to involve tying an elastic band to everyone’s finger…and passing stones to each other on spoons…