Wrocław is pronounced “Vrots-swav.”
This is one of the first things I learned as we started to piece together this trip to Poland, after Jake’s mum, Krysia, mentioned flying into “Vrots-swav.”
“Is there an airport there?” I asked, having never heard of this city.
She looked confused. “Yes, it’s a really big place.”
I then realised that Wrocław is not pronounced “Roe-claw,” as my feeble English brain suspected, but “Vrots-swav.”
Maybe you already knew this. I am currently learning Polish and I am learning a lot about the astonishing variety of sounds you can make just from S, Z and C.
Learning Polish might sound like a rogue move, but when you consider that Jake speaks Polish – I mean, he can’t discuss astrophysics but when he speaks Polish in Poland it’s clear he’s not merely a tourist with an unusually advanced knowledge of Polish grammar, which is fluent enough for me – and that the whole of his mum’s family is Polish, it decidedly less odd.
I love languages and delight in mashing up words between English, French, Spanish, Italian and now Polish to create an entirely new incoherent dialect. Despite this, it took me a year to clock that I had a bilingual partner and that I could force him to teach me Polish daily for free. Screw you, judgemental Duolingo owl.
My favourite word so far in Polish is marchewka, pronounced “mar-hev-ka,” which means baby carrot. I figured it was important to start with the words that I use most frequently.
One of the reasons I was so excited to go to Poland, aside from eating copious amounts of pierogi, was that I got to practise my brand-new Polish. Pronouncing the city we were arriving in correctly seemed like a good place to start. (To be clear, I still always read “roe-claw” in my head, but Wrocław wasn’t built in a day, HA).
It’s always so special visiting a country with someone who speaks the language and knows the culture. We’d decided to visit now specifically because of a particular exhibition being held in Wrocław this winter, a collection of work from the ‘Grupa Krakowska.’
Jake’s great uncle Stanisław Osostowicz was a fairly well-known Polish painter, who was part of the Kraków Group, a collection of thirteen liberal young artists who were thrown out of fine art school for creating art that opposed the increasingly militaristic right-wing government. Despite the expulsion, they held their own show anyway, refusing to back down from totalitarianism.
Tragically, he was killed in a civilian bombing in Warsaw at the start of WW2. Some of his Kraków Group colleagues went on to live and create art for decades more, with the eldest passing away in 2009 at the age of 106.
Krysia was in touch with the curator and she offered to meet us at the exhibition, due to the family ties. It’s not every day that a family member’s artwork ends up showcased in a major museum – seemed as a good a reason as any to hop on a plane over to Poland.
So, we arrived in Wrocław. We weren’t meeting the curator until 4pm so spent the day looking around.
Now, there’s a chance that Wrocław is actually an extremely photogenic city. I mean, I wouldn’t bet any money on it, but there’s always a chance, right? However, I have no way of knowing, because the sky was so overcast and hazy all day that getting good pictures – and a lasting memory of Wrocław as a beautiful place – was exceedingly difficult.
Not everywhere is going to be classically pretty. And we weren’t in Wrocław primarily to sight-see, we were there to see an important family exhibit. But still – I love taking pictures. It forced me to get creative.
After spending the morning at the ethnographic museum and the Racławice Panorama (and eating our first żurek and pierogi of the trip) we headed to the exhibition.
Not only was the art fantastic, there’s something incredibly special about seeing the family history of someone you love deemed important enough to share widely. Of course the life and career of Stanisław Osostowicz matters to Jake and his mum, but numerous people had decided the Kraków Group should matter to people outside of the artists’ own families, so they curated the art from their time together and put it on display.
It’s public validation that this person and their work mattered. It had an impact.
You could see the group’s influences on each other, with similar styles being observed across each member at different points. There were oil paintings, sculpture and sketches and some photos of the group in their prime. There was a photo of Stanisław. Jake has his nose (but fortunately not his mono-brow).
It was dark as we left the museum. The previously cloudy, photographically challenging day had been replaced with a city whose electric bill I would not want to be responsible for.
The Christmas lights changed everything, turning the grey, industrial, post-Communist city into a place that Santa could surely see from the North Pole.
Something about being abroad makes the Christmas markets quaint and authentic rather than tacky and overpriced. Yes, there were churros and waffles, but there was also oscypek, smoked Polish cheese that is then grilled and covered in cranberries. I love me a waffle but this was basically Christmas halloumi and was the best thing to happen on a Friday for a long time.
We were heading to Kraków early the next morning, to catch up with some of Jake’s family’s old friends – it may have involved having afternoon tea in a convent, something I did not expect myself to be doing that weekend – and look around an altogether prettier city.
Wrocław was about history and family – and oscypek. And it was great.
(I just can’t bring myself to not have a good time when I’m seeing a new place. Would I recommend you visit Wrocław? Eh. There are more interesting Polish cities. But we ate great food and saw a great exhibition and had fun together and I just can’t not have a good time. Glass half full and all that. Of Kompot, obviously.)