Wednesday, 25 July 2012
Perfect, Perfect Poznan
Sometimes things happen coincidentally, like winning a weekend away the same time a wedding invite to a foreign city lands on your doorstep. Sometimes things happen for a reason, like two people from different countries meeting some place altogether neutral and falling in love - the place they meet being an environment for where they both share a passion and lifelong enjoyment. Sometimes coincidence meets reason and it becomes altogether something entirely different - in this case, it all came together in Poznan, Poland. A place that Stephanie and I won’t ever forget.
Whilst I worked at RMG, I met Paul, who became a part of our development team. Over the course of the time we worked together, we became good friends along with the rest of the small team that we had, including Iqbal, another developer. Before Paul left the agency, he told Iqbal and I of a girl that he had met on his holiday. A girl that Stephanie and I subsequently met for the first time a little later, ironically at Iqbal’s wedding. By then we had all gone our separate ways and were working in places elsewhere, but have kept in contact meeting for drinks, not as often as we should, but as much as we can.
When Paul introduced us to Gosia, it’s fair to say that we were as smitten as Paul was, even in the infancy of their relationship. I don’t think anyone can radiate such warmth from a simple smile and it was clear to Stephanie and I that Paul had met someone very special. I’m sure that Iqbal won’t mind me saying either, but we did speculate and say that we hadn’t seen a couple that were just so simply made for each other and said that they would one day end up marrying just as we both had.
True to the rather prophetic discussion that Iqbal and I shared, Stephanie and I received a save the date notification towards the end of last year. We had been preliminary invited to celebrate Paul and Gosia’s wedding with them in Poznan, Poland - a place that had us both diving for Google Maps! Then this year, just as Stephanie and I had claimed first prize in the inaugural Bird Family Fat Fighters competition, a rather terrifying sounding invite landed on our doorstep which gave us the perfect opportunity in which to redeem our reward.
I say terrifying in the loosest possible sense, intriguing would be the more sensible word. But the invite carried a carefully worded survival guide. Paul’s top tips on how to survive a Polish wedding, mainly in handling the severe quantity of Vodka that was likely to be consumed. Alongside that vital information were other things of lesser importance, how to get there, where to stay, such things as that. A little Internet research and a few emails to our benefactor, two flights and a room at the Don Prestige Residence had been secured - we were going to Poznan!
Upon arrival at Poznan airport, a rather woozy Stephanie and I made our way through to the arrival hall, forming a small group of people evidently also there to celebrate alongside Paul and Gosia. Paul was flying out without his wife-to-be, she had already been in Poland for a week making the last minute arrangements, of which later evidence would prove how busy she had been.
We were met in the arrival hall by Gosia’s father, a tray of vodka glasses and an assortment of breads. The invite hadn’t prepared us for that, nor the words of welcome which were offered via a translation from Gosia’s father who thanked us all kindly for coming. He spoke about how proud he was and happy that we had arrived in his country to celebrate a very special weekend. We didn’t need a translator to understand the sincerity of his words and both Stephanie and I felt immediately humbled and privileged to be just a very small part of it.
We had cars laid on from the airport to our hotels, the wedding party being spread about across various hostelries around the old market square. The Don Prestige Residence, our home for the next few nights being one of them. Gosia and Paul had arranged a welcome pack, a message thanking us for coming, some Polish beers and chocolates which was a lovely gesture in a weekend where lovely gestures were frequent and varying.
After a whistle-stop pause at the hotel, where we got changed and quickly refreshed, we head out into the Old Market Square, famed around Poland and beyond for its size and authenticity. We had a couple of drinks before meeting at Brovaria, a local restaurant, hotel and bar that was sat directly on the square. It was our first opportunity to meet with the people that we would be celebrating the wedding with and a chance to sample some local food which was quite honestly incredible - and very cheap.
Our fellow guests were a mixture of people; family, friends, past and former colleagues, both English and Polish. There was even a lady from Canada who had met and travelled with Paul whilst Paul was circumnavigating the globe. Everyone asking one another how they knew the bride and groom, sharing embarrassing stories that went down as well as the food and copious amount of beer.
Once the meal had finished we moved from the restaurant and sat outside in the square where we were taught and educated by a chap named Bart about the finer intricacies of drinking Vodka. Two large bottles were ordered alongside two jugs of fruit juice. Vodka isn’t consumed with coke, or lemonade as we drink it here. But rather straight, down in one from the shot glass and chased leisurely with the fruit juice which takes the sting out of the burn. Stephanie and I also learnt that Vodka is to be served as cold as possible and over the course of the weekend, we learnt that this was true. The colder the vodka, the better it tastes - or it might just have been our senses were obliterated by over consumption!
Rather than wobble home back to the Don Prestige Residence, we opted to stay out and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy Paul’s official last night as a free man. With Euro 2012 having just finished, there are a couple of Go-Go clubs which have popped up as a result in foreign trade. Being firm traditionalists Stephanie and I decided that we hadn’t wanted to miss out on anything, so we went along and shared some more drink in the basement of a lightly lit ‘Gentleman's’ establishment whilst getting to know a bit better the people in our group.
At four am, we stumbled out into the night air, where we were hit by the inevitable alcoholic bite. Somehow we managed to find our way home and passed out into a vodka induced coma until both Stephanie and I woke up a few short hours later feeling very, very much worse for wear!
In fact, I would safely go as far as saying that it was by far the worst hangover I’ve ever had, in terms of headache, that I could have cried believing that I’d ruined the wedding day for myself and that I would never, ever be able to drink again! As much as Stephanie and I, along with Iqbal and his wife Ratna walked around Poznan viewing some of the sights, I could not make myself feel any better. It wasn’t until we stopped for a spot of lunch where I ordered a beer that I began to feel better. Hair of the Dog? You bet!
Feeling slightly better, albeit only just, it was time to get ready for the wedding. And what a wedding it was!
Just as we were met by Gosia’s father and his words which evoked a feeling of something very special happening, upon walking into the Pałac Działyńskich we got the same feeling all over again. The wooden doors of the building, which had been locked earlier on during the day had now been opened and walking in, we were guided along a curving pathway up the stairs littered by tiny pieces of coloured petals. Either side of the aisle were large, sepia coloured photographic prints, sat on easels of Paul and Gosia that they had taken of each other during their courtship. Stephanie whispered as we were walking past them that the hairs on her arms had stood up and I, being me got a little teary eyed!
The main reception room upstairs where the ceremony took place was simply stunning. Washed in history and decorated beautifully with white cotton chairs and green roses which dotted the aisle, standing out in contrast against the white statuette that was at the head of the room.
Stephanie and I were sat on the aisle towards the back, which afforded us a great view of the proceedings. We could watch Gosia being walked down the aisle by her father and as he gave her over to a waiting Paul. Now he might not have spoken English, but every man who walks down the aisle with their daughter says exactly the same thing. That ferocious feeling of pride which was evident across the way he held himself and stood tall with his chest out. It was beautiful to watch and see how much a father genuinely loves his daughter. I couldn’t help but think of Phoebe and the eventual man she might marry - I’ll be a mess, I know I will!
The ceremony was conducted by the town mayor, which gave it a much stronger sense of formality. He was standing in front of them, with his mayoral chain and formal posture, but made much more personal than the UK equivalent as both Paul and Gosia, rather than standard vows had written their own ‘promises’. If Iqbal and I had speculated much earlier on about Paul and Gosia making an immediate connection, the promises they made between them only cast those thoughts in stone. I don’t think there were many dry eyes in the house after those promises had been made and they were made with such feeling that the only thing left was to declare them man and wife!
After the ceremony and the obligatory rice/confetti throwing, Paul and Gosia head off to the Hotel Delicjusz by way of an old white classic car. I’m not familiar with the make, nor model. Paul is the petrolhead out of either of us, so I wait eagerly for him to correct me. Either way, it was a pretty spectacular vehicle which matched the surroundings of the Old Market Square perfectly. The rest of the wedding party made their way to a waiting coach and head off towards the reception, Paul's survival guide ingrained into my mind with what to expect. As we made our way across the square, we caught a quick glimpse of the happy couple who were having a quick photograph opportunity on the bonnet of the classic car parked in front of the old church on the square. I don’t know the Polish phrase for ‘Get a room’, but I’m sure I heard the locals shout it out a couple of times!
The Hotel Delicjusz was a short half hour coach drive south of Poznan, which gave us a chance to talk about the ceremony and how spectacular it was. It also gave us a chance to discuss Vodka coping mechanisms and the general consensus was to just go with it! Which we did! We also mentioned the customs of the ceremony, which two local lads helped us out with. Michał and Piotr talked about what we could expect, some of things that are usual at Polish weddings. Stephanie and I were fortunately sat next to them at the wedding breakfast as Michał was tasked with interpreting the proceedings as they happened.
After Paul had carried Gosia across the threshold into the main reception room, we were all invited in to meet, greet and provide the married couple with a gift. Gosia was provided with flowers by the women and large vases were at the ready in which to store them all in. Stephanie and I queued to finally greet the bride and say a massive thank you for inviting us - how welcome her family had made us feel and wish the pair of them all the very best as a married couple.
As the formalities died down, we were invited to sit ahead of a seven course wedding breakfast as outlined in Pauls survival guide. We were served with chicken soup, which helps line the stomach for the forthcoming vodka. Shortly followed was a selection of meats, potatoes, other vegetables and salads. Afterwards came a course of small bites, appetizers including some fish dishes which were all explained and identified rather helpfully by Michał and Piotr. During each course toasts would be made, with Vodka and me chasing manically for my fruit juice glass. I might have been feeling rough earlier, but I was back in the game and gratefully so! We had a course of sweets, beautiful, intricately made cakes that tasted as good as they looked and a further course of ice-cream with an assortment of fruits.
All the while that people were eating, the Polish members of the party would spontaneously stand together in song, with their glasses raised. We learnt that this was a song of celebration, sung at weddings, birthdays, christenings and other times of blessing. Everybody sung with gusto and knew all the words, except of course us English onlookers. I felt rather ashamed that we didn’t have anything equivalent but joined in the vital toast part where the word cheers was universally understood.
There were other customs which we joined along with, but wasn’t too understanding of their purpose. For example, a cheer would sound and Paul and Gosia would have to be joined together in a long kiss. All the time people were cheering, the kiss would need to continue, it seemed almost that the cheering would only end once everyone had been satisfied that the kiss had lasted for a significant period of time!
Not everything was unfamiliar. The first dance heralded the beginning of the dancing, we all watched Paul and Gosia dance together as husband and wife before joining in ourselves where the dancing lasted all night - only to be interrupted by further courses of food. At two o’clock in the morning the dancefloor was cleared and a table appeared its place with more soup, succulent gammon and more bread and pickles.
The atmosphere, as you can imagine with so many people content on food and endless supplies of vodka was exuberant, jovial and celebratory. We all joined in the dancing, the chains of people that danced merrily around the room in ways more elegant than the English equivalent. Gosia’s father stopped Stephanie and I and hugged us both, in a thanking gesture that put me in a rather reflective mood. We’d both been made to feel so warmly welcome that we struggled to imagine a situation whereby had the roles been reversed would we be as welcoming back?
Iqbal and I were outside later on that night, or should that be very early the next morning. I’d been feeling fairly humbled anyway and Iqbal and I, as we’ve done before started talking about Rene Descarts, philosophy and the meaning of it all. I even later on that night attempted to write a long winded, though-provoking Facebook status which wouldn’t send, thankfully. But it talked about love being the meaning of life, not religion, nor politics or all the rest of the stuff that we have no real control over. How two people from different lands could meet in neutral territory only because it was a passion for something that led them there in the first place and that love didn’t share borders or something along those lines.
Before I could develop too much of a complex and hate myself and my nationality for our general ignorance, the evening was over - at six o’clock in the morning! It could have stayed on had we wanted it to, but taxi’s had been booked and all the people who were staying around the Old Market Square were due to be taken home. So we did, eventually crawling, literally into bed at six thirty, more or less fully clothed wondering just when we had ever been to a better party!
On the Sunday after the wedding, even though half of Sunday had already passed by the time we had woken up, we were invited back to Hotel Delicjusz for the official after-party BBQ. Stephanie had the foresight to arrange with Michał and Piotr a lift back during the afternoon ensuring that we’d arrive promptly at one o’clock. However, we didn’t wake up until 12:20 wondering what way was up, still drunk and unsure what had been planned or not. We received a telephone call just moments later from Michał saying that they were outside waiting for us and were ready to go! Cue mass panic, mild hysteria and a whirlwind of smeared makeup and lost clothes. We managed to keep Michał and Piotr waiting for twenty minutes as we got ourselves into some form of respectability.
On behalf of Stephanie and I, a huge thank you to both Michał and Piotr for your help that afternoon - and a big apology for keeping you both waiting!
Evidently we were not the only couple feeling much worse for wear. Pretty much everyone was feeling the same way. Armed with my rejuvenated belief in hair of the dog, I attempted to level myself out with a beer and a little bit of food which was once again in vast supply. It was pretty much in vain as I was very much still a broken man. But around the tables in the courtyard of Hotel Delicjusz, stories and broken memories of the night before were being shared and remembered. Making the feeling sorry for myself a little more easier to bare.
After the BBQ, Stephanie and I head back to the Don Prestige Residence and prepared for our final evening. We began with a quiet meal on the square before meeting up with those still left standing. We shared more celebratory drinks and said farewells that all endings to all things good eventually brings.
I wrote another Facebook status on my last night from my iPhone, but the Facebook gremlins swiped it as they did the day before. It wasn’t quite as alcoholically motivated, but said that if we, as people are measured by our friends and family, how successful does that make us? If anything, what does it say about us? More importantly, what does it say for Gosia and Paul? They truly have some amazing, kind, warm hearted people around them that I would be proud to call any one of them a friend. Stephanie and I are lucky too, we have people like that in our lives and a lot of our success as a couple is due in part to them.
In summary, what can I say that I haven’t already said? Stephanie and I were invited to a friends wedding, a friend that I knew very well for a short space of time and haven’t seen as much as I should. A friend whose wife and family treated us as one of their own and shared their celebration with us as warmly, kindly and as hospitably as anything we’ve experienced before in our lives.
We went to Poznan for a celebration, but it is the people of Poznan that should be celebrated. We’ve had our eyes opened to a different culture, a different way of living and a different way of treating the strangers that we meet through life.
Stephanie and I would like to thank Gosia, Paul, their friends and family for having us and making us feel so welcome. We would like to wish you all the very best in married life and know that with the support and love you have around you - it will be amazing, just like your wedding!