Friday, 1 June 2012

Poland 1: Jazz & the English Language Club

I stumbled across the English Language Club in 2008, while updating the Poland chapter of Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe guidebook (which is what I'm doing again right now).

While wandering around the beautiful Old Town in Kraków, I happened to glance up at a sign on a building near the massive and historic St Mary's Church:


There's an interesting back story to this simple social group. According to Roy, its current organiser, the club's origins can be traced back to 1983.

This was, of course, deep within the communist period and the club was presumably a safe way for Polish students to meet and talk with foreigners who were visiting Kraków as tourists.

The tradition continues in the 21st century, with a less covert mission - to provide a weekly space for Poles, expats and tourists to meet up and chat.

There's nothing fancy about the setting, a simple room on the top floor of an old building owned by the Catholic Church, with folding chairs and a grand ceramic stove in the corner in 19th century fashion (nowadays it's heated from within by electricty rather than coal).

Anyone is welcome to come along to the meetings, and the club charges two złoty (about 60 cents) to cover hot beverages and biscuits.


There's usually a crowd of 25 to 40 people there, and on the most recent Wednesday I got into some interesting conversations as I moved around the room.

Among those present, I chatted to a Kraków local who's recently been to India and wants to go back to live there; and an English teacher originally from Liverpool who ended up in Kraków mainly because he was friends with a Pole he knew while living in Edinburgh.

A Ukrainian who's working in Poland gave me the lowdown on the differences between the Ukrainian and Polish languages - he estimated they were about 40% the same. An English teacher discussed recent Polish government cutbacks to the education budget and what that might mean for teachers.


But my most interesting discussion started with a Canadian whose relationship with Poland started via jazz, as he's a musician who first made contact with the lively Polish jazz scene online.

This was a cue to mention my theory that jazz became so popular in Poland because it was the new, energetic music form in the 1920s, when Poland had just been reassembled after more than a century as part of other people's empires, and the music resonated with its nation-building task.

However, a local IT worker in our huddle of chairs disagreed with my theory. He thought jazz may have instead become popular in the 1950s and 1960s as a gesture of musical defiance against the communist regime and its suffocating cultural restrictions. He also pointed me to Beats of Freedom, a 2010 documentary on Polish rock under the communist regime.

Now all I have to do is find it.

The English Language Club meets every Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm at ul Sienna 6, Kraków, Poland. Entry is 2zł.