Polish Crusaders

It was a beginning of 1984. A deep communism. The martial law has already eased but we were surrounded by a total hopelesness when producing children was the only enjoyment in our lives. Then acquaintances of my parents stoke upon a great idea...

Poland was a co-signatory of the agreement of the Conference of the Security and Co-operation in Europe, signed in Helsinki in 1975, which safeguarded human rights, among other things a freedom of fulfilment of religious paracticies. Our authorities, having a very weakened reputation on the international political scene, cared very much about pretending a fiction that they met those obligations. In practice it meant that catholics (and they are 96% of our society) had the right to go abroad for pilgrimages. In that time, when getting a passport was almost completely impossible, joining a pilgrimage was the only way to get out to the West (I pass over in silence a possibility number 2: an abduction of an aeroplane, a way which was also carried on , however not so often since they started to put soldiers with guns directed towards passengers in the back of decks in planes of Polish Airlines). It was Rome on the first place among destinations of pilgrimages (a wish to visit the Polish Pope - a cult person) and famous of miracles French Lourdes was on the second position (in that time miracles seamed to be more probable than any changes in politics of our country). However many pilgrims used to go out only to ask for ask asylum abroad.

Meetings started in winter. About two hundred people participated in them - different human wrecks, who, because of political reasons in majority remained in the background of the "official" life: doctors, engineers, professors, students, social activists, my mother among them - an editor fired from her job in the very beginning of the martial law and I - in that time a student of Art. Academy. We used to meet at a catechetic hall or in a private flat of initiators of the idea. We agreed a specified plan of the action: first of all we had to apply to authorities for a permission to carry on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. We treated those preparations very seriously because we were sure that it would be probably the only travel to the West in our lives. This was why my mother decided to take with us also my brothers, 14 and 11 years old, much too young for such a tiring trip but if it was to be the only chance in their lives...

And so an application to the authorities... A problem arose because we didn't have a priest who should have led our pilgrimage so we looked not very convincingly. However we received the permission but only for one bus, it means for about 50 people and we were 200. - Worse luck! We had to draw lots who goes and who stays. It was a very dramatic evening, most of it's participants left it crying. Anyway, because of political contributions of my mother, there was an agreement that the four of our family would go.

Next meetings depended on a precise fixing a route of our month-long ramble along France and Northern Italy. Of course we planed (and we had to) reach Lourdes but besides we wanted to see as much as possible.

Agreeing a list of our food supplies was very important because the trip was to go on almost without spending foreign currency as we hadn't any. So we had to take almost all food with us: milk, soups and mashed potatoes in powder, bread for sailors with 2-months guarantee and a big amount of cans.

Long before the time of our departure we had to line up to the passport office. The queue consisted of some hundred people. We stood in line days and nights without break. Happily, it was May and moreover I could replace each other with my mother. We bivouacked on a street on portable angler's stools, with sandwiches and tea in thermos bottles. After a month and half of waiting for an unsure result, a week before the planned time of departure we succeeded in getting desired passports. We packed tents, sleeping bags, boxes with food to our rented bus. I painted an inscription: "Gdansk - Lourdes. Pilgrimage from Poland." And we started...

We bought salami in East Berlin. The first camping in West Germany floored us with its level of hygiene (what is a bidet for in a toilet?!). It was much more familiarly in France - our first stay was in a camp site of Gypsies, because we decided to look for such places where we didn't have to pay for.

I, as a graduated form a 2-years course of French at Alliance Francaise, played a role of a translator. To tell the truth, there was a lady with us whose knowledge of French was much better than mine but she was a very shy spinster who blushed seeing a man and was unable to say any word (and there was a lot of men to be asked about a way).

For me, in that time a rebellious student of painting, a participation in a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a centre of the catholic bigotry, was a delicate matter. On one hand I was very curious of the world and on another I felt very uneasy in a role of a pilgrim. So as to be on the safe side I took a bloody-red long skirt for the trip and just before the departure I shaved my long hair. In a result, on the German - French border our bus was stopped for some long hours: border guards were coming back many times to check my documents. I had a passport with me, a Polish and international student's identity cards. They kept asking me why I had long hair on every photo when in fact I was almost bald. Only when looking through the window I understood a reason of their suspicions: the frontier was pasted with photos of members of a terrorist group Action Direct who a week before had exploded seven bombs in Paris centre and disappeared after that. The only woman in the group, with a shaved head, looked exactly like me...

I remember that before the departure, to look more like pilgrims, we distributed wooden crosses among us. That of mine got broken just at the beginning and that fact was considered by my fellow-pilgrims as a next argument that I was a delegate of the evil.

We were going towards Paris where we planned to spend four days. Of course, because of lack of money we couldn't dream about a hotel. We had an address of a monastery situated on the city's suburbs. We found it: it was an imposing classicist palace. However we were surprised to see gendarmes standing at its entrance. I approached them and explained kindly that we were a Polish pilgrimage on the way to Lourdes and that somebody in Poland recommended us that monastery as a place where pilgrims passing Paris could stop at. Policemen smiled and told that yes, it had been a monastery there before but it went bankrupt and two months ago the palace was sold to a police academy. I came back to the bus with that news; we were terrified but we decided not to give up. I was sent for negotiations again, so I came back to the guardhouse and kept repeating that we were exhausted pilgrims, we had children with us and no money to stay at a hotel. Apparently I moved their hearts, because suddenly it reminded to them that there was still one monk staying in the palace who was responsible for liquidation of rests of the monastery properties. If he agrees we can stay. At the end of a dark corridor, I reached a small room where I was met by a strange short man with ruffled beard and wild eyes. He told me at the beginning that he was on the war in Vietnam and that he didn't like to be irritated. When I introduced a gehenna of Polish pilgrims on the way to Lourdes to him, he started to scream loudly and gesticulate but from his screams I understood that he agreed for our stay. He allocated us rooms according to a military order: only two persons could stay in one place. We slept on a stone floor but we didn't care about it: we had four days for visiting Paris! I, of course, rushed to Louvre and Centre Pompidou. In the end of our stay there I was delegated again to thank to the monk for his hospitality. He met me curtly and gave me sloppy packed bundle which turned out to be an eighteen-century bronze chalice. He explained me that we should have taken it because what a pilgrimage we were without any chalice...

We went on, along castles on Loara, across the Massive Central. Every now and then quarrels flared up in the bus because everybody wanted to visit another places during that trip of the last chance. I insisted on going to Albi, a place where Toulouse Lautrec used to live and his museum was situated. My fellows didn't know that artist so I explained them that he was a wonderful painter who made portraits of prostitutes.

Finally - the Pyrenees and Lourdes. Already on the place, our pilgrims got seized with a religious enthusiasm and they started to dream to have a service conducted in Polish there. I was sent to negotiate at the curia. A bishop's secretary opened his eyes wide hearing my request and explained that one should order a service two months in advance in Lourdes. I started to say again that we were Polish and it was the only chance in our lives for us. Impressed by my impudence, he finally agreed and in two days we had the Polish service in the holy cave.

From Lourdes, we went to the Cote d'Azure. We got robbed by thieves there, at an illegal camp site. From Cannes, I remember still my mother convulsed by laughter when she observed me when I ordered to give me luxurious fur coats for trying on at a shop.

Our next stage was Italy. I was waken up by my mother at five o'clock in the morning at a camping in Alps to have time to swim in Lago di Garda before our bus's departure. At dawn the air was still cool and water in the lake - icy cold but what isn't done when it's for the first and last time in your life?

Next was Venice. Mosquitos wanted to eat us alive. It was just time when the Biennial of Art. was held there. Later, in Poland, I aroused a big jealousy among other students - I was the only one who succeeded in traveling to the West. We were so frustrated with the impossibility of travelling that once we applied to our academy authorities to get a permission to make a journey to our sister-city Leningrad. At the beginning they promised us some help but after some months during which nothing happened we learned that there had already been the journey organized but only our professors took part in it.

We were coming back to Poland in the last moment. We had to cross the border before our passports lost their validities. Registration to militia's "black list" was a penalty for even one day late-coming. So in the end we were going days and nights. Our driver was furious. Already on the Polish side, we stopped for the night at a monastery in Czestochowa - Polish pilgrimage place. Next day, on the cathedral's hill, I fainted, exhausted with the month long journey.

Agnieszka Wolodzko


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