The Great Escape
27th June 2016
I was violently woken up by the buzzing of my phone. It was 6:00am. My body was still aching from the work I’d done the day before and the last thing I wanted to do was to get out of bed do it all over again. After washing and sorting my things I made my way down to the kitchen half an hour later. Claus was already there when I arrived, although there was no sign of Denise. “You’ll be clearing out the shit in the barn today” he grunted. I waited around awkwardly for another five minutes, the absence of any kind of conversation made the hairs on my back stand up.
Yet another ten minutes went by. Still no sign of Denise. I was staring at the clock holding a cup of water when she finally made her way down. “Good” Claus said, “now I’ll show you where you’ll both be working”. I had expected to at least have breakfast before we began, but then I realised that I really should stop wishing for anything. The barn was a large stone building which looked like it had been there for over a hundred years. We were given a pitchfork each and began. Again, I enjoyed the work, but the lack of English that Denise spoke meant that it was all done in silence. From time to time we smiled at each other or tried to communicate, but I really couldn’t be bothered. I was tired and hungry and wasn’t in the mood for making conversation anyway. Three hours past until we were told that breakfast was ready. Again it was the disgusting gruel type mash we’d had the day before -but I didn’t care. I was so hungry that I finished it before everyone else. I washed my bowl and left as soon as I could, not being able to stand the eerie silence of the table. No way was I staying here for any longer. “I’m going to leave tomorrow” I decided.
After another 2 hours and we’d finally cleared the barn. All the hay and shit was now in a compost heap at the other end of the farm, which we’d transported with two rusty wheelbarrows. “At least it’s over for today” I thought and I was happy that I’d finished. It had been five hours of work after all, which is what my contract said I needed to do per day. Then I looked up from where I was sat. Claus was stood over me. “Here! Now you and Denise can cut the nettles up there”. It’s safe to say I was livid. It was mere exploitation. While yes we were sleeping on a mattress in their attic for free and eating their food, it didn’t give them a right to make us work over time while they simply lazed around the kitchen. “Fuck tomorrow — I’m leaving after lunch”. I just wanted to get the nettles out the way and be done with it all.
After cutting nettles up a steep hill for two hours, we had lunch. I was still fixed on the idea of leaving. “But how?” I wondered. I hadn’t seen a bus stop anywhere and the thought of getting a taxi was unthinkable as I was in the middle of nowhere. I also needed to come up with a back story as to why I needed to leave, as confronting Claus and Petra was not an option I wanted to go down.
I had time to think about it however, as Petra made Denise and I mop the kitchen for the second time that day “for the guests”. Eventually, I came up with a plan.
Once I’d finished cleaning I entered the room off the hallway where Petra was sitting with her two stinking dogs. The air was thick with the smell of dog food and mud. She looked up, and for the first time her eyes were a normal size. “Petra… err… I have to leave.” “Why?” she retorted in a quick manner. “My grandmother… in England… has had a fall and is very ill.” “Right ok” she shrugged and continued feeding her dog. Thank goodness that my grandmother wasn’t actually ill. I immediately rushed up stairs to get my things, which were pretty much already in my suitcase. I was down and ready to go in two minutes.
“Where is the bus stop?” I asked Claus, who was lunched in a chair in the kitchen. “I don’t know” he grunted and continued reading his book. Again, thank goodness I didn’t actually have to get home to see a dying relative, because these people were immensely unhelpful and disinterested (what else was I to expect really?), I gave Petra a brief nod and left, suitcase in hand. I felt a sense of great freedom and yet disappointment, along with a fear that I’d never be able to get out of this Silesian hill village. I asked an old lady where the bus stop was and she pointed down the road and the gesticulated with her hand a right turn. The incessant barking of her dog meant I couldn’t actually hear anything. After walking for 10 minutes and making the crucial right turn, I finally found a bus stop.
The time for the bus to the nearest city, Jelenia Gora, read 16:04. It was only half three so I was pretty happy that in just over half an hour I’d be free from the place which had felt so inescapable the day before. Twenty minutes passed when a lady in her mid 60s came out the village shop, with a long cigarette in her left hand. She was a large, round woman, with a haircut that suggested she didn’t care much about her appearance. “This bus is finished! But don’t worry, my son is taking me to Jelenia Gora in half an hour. You can come with me.” I was very thankful. “Thank you, I have money” I exclaimed. She waved her arm to indicate that she didn’t want any and returned to her shop. If it wasn’t for her, I’d have no idea how I would’ve ever left.
During the time I was waiting, various men from the village were coming in and out — mainly buying strong larger. Meanwhile the woman was smoking profusely, probably unaware of the fact that smoking indoors had been banned in Poland for quite a number of years now. Eventually, her son drove up outside and she shut up shop. “This boy here, he’s from England, and he’s coming to Jelenia Gora with us” she yelled at her son. “Why should I take him?” he retorted. “Well… how’s he going to get there? ON A HORSE!?” I couldn’t help but smirk. Even though her son was a fully grown man in his forties, it was clear she always had the final say.
Her son quickly became friendlier towards my presence once he knew I could speak some Polish and we discussed topics ranging from Brexit, to university to football. His teenage daughter (who was sat in the back with me) took great interest when she thought I said I studied in New York. “No, old York!” I laughed. She continued looking out the window after that. It was not completely plain sailing however. At the start, the elderly woman lit up another cigarette, without opening a window. “MOTHER I CAN’T SEE!” he yelled. “OH YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING! RELAX!” If I didn’t laugh, I would’ve cried. After that incident I realised how odd the whole situation was; here I was travelling with three generations of complete strangers in a beat out car. “All this requires is a chicken and it could be a scene from Borat” I reflected.
After half an hour of driving we finally made it to Jelenia Gora. I had escaped. I gave the man who drove me fifty zloty and walked to the cheap hotel I’d booked on my phone at the bus stop. I contacted various family Polish members asking what they were doing and whether I could stay with them. I checked into my room and slumped on my bed. “Where to now?” I wondered.