It’s cold in Brzeg… bloody cold.
And, this morning, for the first time since I settled in Poland, I find my normally sunny disposition tinted with an unaccustomed hue: I’m bored.
So… I’m sitting in the Ambrozia bar/café amid the usual crowd of middle-aged oddballs,
either unemployed or unemployable. The Ambrozia is a hostelry wherein the ‘same seats’ rule applies at the curiously positioned linen-clad tables whose chairs resemble relics from a Thunderbirds set; it’s an oasis of calm for the lost and the lonely and houses an opaquely redundant upright piano, a large backlit globe on the bar counter and an eclectic assortment of pastries in an ancient glass counter, all beneath the stony gaze of Pope John Paul ll. I’ve been here for two months now, and so I feel it’s time for me to say a word or two about Brzeg.
Let’s get the demography, history and why it’s here out of the way first.
I’d like to say that Brzeg exists because it’s a great place to live if you work in Wroclaw, but in all honesty, I can’t.
Windsor is a terrific place to live if you work in London, Alderley Edge provides similar
purposefulness if you work in Manchester, and there is probably a charming rural upper-middle-class community somewhere within a short commute of Birmingham, if you have the misfortune to work there.
But if you work in Wroclaw, you would seriously be putting into question the work-life balance if you chose to live in Brzeg.
Okay, let me tell you.
Brzeg is the most significant industrial hub in the Voivodeship (province) of Opole. Its industrial enterprise includes the production of agricultural machinery, electric engines, margarine and sugar production.
It is also home to BESEL, the Polish electric engine company, founded in the town in 1950, and also to a CIK car accessories plant, in addition to providing the workforce for one of the largest confectionary companies in Poland.
But Brzeg has an fascinating if chequered history; it was part of Germany until 1918 and then, post 1945 it became part of the population transfer and focus for the Soviet and Polish People’s Republic’s campaign to resettle Poles from the Kresy (un-annexed by the USSR) to the newly annexed territories that Poland wrested from Germany under Soviet jurisdiction as part of the Potsdam Agreement.
As towns go, it has seen a lot of changes.
But what hasn’t changed much is the physical fabric of the place and — I suspect — the wealth of leisure opportunities it has to offer its residents.
While its streets aren’t exactly paved in gold, they haven’t been ruined by the Soviets either. Large tracts of Wroclaw, or the bits of it that weren’t bombed by either the Nazis or the Russians, were systematically dismantled under the Communist PRL administration so that Warsaw could be rebuilt. The Soviets set out to make Warsaw the face of Institutional Communist Culture that the western world would aspire to, and Wroclaw paid the penalty.
And so despite a German military presence during WW2 that made way for the Soviets post-Potsdam, it’s a town that’s been pretty much left unmolested for centuries.
Walk through the streets of Brzeg on a cold December night and you will experience that curious sensation of possibly being the last remaining human on planet Earth.
Steer clear of the two centres of post-dusk commerce, the Froggy and Monkey liquor stores, and this sense of isolation pervades still further.
There’s not a bar, a café, a restaurant that extends a welcome far beyond nine. There are a couple of hotels where you will receive decent fare, but expect to pay hotel prices for this.
Brzeg is a time capsule. As you stroll through deserted streets you slip into the past; you will see no lines on the road, and ornate globular streetlights cast a watery yellow-tinged luminescence, which only serves to darken the shadows.
There is no need for parking restrictions — there are few cars. And there is no requirement for traffic-calming measures as cobbled streets that date from the mists of time do the job of a thousand speed bumps. And as for CCTV on every corner? Forget it; there is no need, for this is a town that time passed by.
But this is also a town of a trillion Groundhog Days.
Most nights I end up in the Brzeska, where I see the same faces, some of whom I privately name. Billy-Two-Beers, for example, a fellow who always wears the same Dennis The Menace style sweater and — for reasons I cannot fathom — always orders two bottles of beer on arrival. And yes, before you say it, I have been known to ‘double-park’ in Marbella but that is only because the service is truly dreadful. It isn’t here.
The Brzeska is busy enough not to be a ‘same seats’ bar. The staff are friendly and sufficiently curious about the presence of a non-Polish speaking Brit living in their midst to make something of a fuss over me. A fuss that’s not unwelcome, I freely admit. I’m more of a local here than I ever was in the Blue Ball in Sidford after twenty years of patronage.
The food — particularly the Hungarian Goulash — is excellent, and it’s cheaper and less hassle than cooking at home. And so I eat, reflect on the day and plan for tomorrow, then wander home around nine and seldom do I see another soul on the streets.
Brzeg… love it… hate it?
But for sure, in Brzeg, should you ever feel the need or the desire to do so, no one would hear you scream.