On the road at Euro 2012
By Kai Pfaffenbach
As a news photographer working for Reuters in Germany it is quite normal to spend some time in your car. It is not unusual to drive between 3000-5000km per month. So I expected nothing different when coming to Poland for the Euro 2012 covering the soccer matches in Warsaw and Gdansk. During our tournament planning we agreed on traveling in a big van with our team of three photographers and one technician. That seemed a lot easier than spending more time getting all the equipment to an airport than actually flying.
Four times we had to hit the road towards Gdansk and back to Warsaw. About 360km one way shouldn’t last longer than 3 to 4 hours. “It’s about the ride from Frankfurt to Munich to cover some soccer at Allianz Arena. Entering the highway in Frankfurt and three hours later you take the exit in front of the stadium”, I thought to myself. As a matter of fact our trips were different and we experienced quite a few new things on our journey – everything in an absolutely positive way. Even though there’s not much of a highway to begin with, we had a lot to see. In retrospect we divided the trip in three parts.
Part 1: the strawberry and cherry alley – not one or two people were offering self-harvested fruits here, but dozens. They displayed the freshly picked fruits on the hood of their cars, sitting next to it under a sunshade waiting for customers. Of course we took the opportunity, made a good deal and used the strawberries for a refreshing milkshake after coming back. Some refreshment was needed as the drive on the country road is somewhat challenging as well. Some Polish drivers are very “creative” when using the space of only two lanes. It is nothing special if you face three cars driving towards you next to each other. Thank god that didn’t lead directly into the next part of our journey….
Part 2: the graveyard alley – maybe that sounds a bit strange but it was very striking how many graveyards we could see left and right from the streets. The special thing was the size of those graveyards. Using the country road for almost 120km we drove through villages having just two rows of houses left and right from the street but a graveyard double the size of the village. Talking about that during our first trips we decided to look around at two or three of them on our last trip back home from Gdansk.
It was Saturday morning and it seemed that all villagers were coming to the graveyard to maintain the graves of their loved ones. As the line up of the graves looks a bit chaotic (there is almost no space between the graves facing in all different directions) the people spent a lot of time and effort to keep the graveyards in good shape.
Not only one, but three or more candles on the graves, fresh colorful flower bouquets everywhere created a friendly atmosphere at what is usually a sad place. People were friendly (that was nothing unusual as about 95 percent of the Polish people we have met during the past three weeks were not only friendly but very nice and helpful), nodded with a smile as we walked around the graveyard with the cameras getting a picture here and there.
During one of our visits we found out why the graveyards seem to be big compared to the villages. People told me that smaller villages nearby also use the graveyards and lots of the graves stay for a long time.
In my home country Germany most of the people let the graves clear after a while (let’s say an average of 20 years). Here in Poland it is a good tradition that you keep the grave of your relatives as long as possible. As a proverb says; from the way people treat their dead we can observe how they live together. This provides further certification that the Polish are very friendly hosts – not only for this tournament
Part 3: high noon on the highway: the brand new highway A1 led us from Torun all the way up to Gdansk. For just 28 zloty you drive 150km on a perfect road with most exits still closed (as it is too new). But it would not have matched our colorful road book if we wouldn’t have discovered something different to our home countries again. In Switzerland, where my colleague Pascal Lauener is from and Leonhard Foeger’s home country Austria the workers on the side of the highways would use large tractors to mow the grass, as they would do in Germany. The disadvantage of using heavy equipment: the result always looks a bit sloppy and you might kill some animals in the high grass. The Polish found a different solution. In groups of up to 20 people they use a motor scythe and just walk along the highway. The result is impressive: it looks almost like riding through a golf course fairway!
Our Gdansk trips are done and we will wait in Warsaw for Germany’s semi final having one or two days off. I will spend one of these days to drive to Auschwitz. I haven’t been there and want to face the memorial of the darkest part of Germany’s history. I am sure this will not be a colorful and joyful trip but I will be as grateful for this experience as for the incredible great time I have had in Poland so far.