Stranded in Corona times. Act 2: The Confrontation

During the COVID19 pandemic I got stranded in Warsaw. Coming from a Northern European nation with a lot of freedom, even in Corona times, all of a sudden I was living in a country where a very conservative government was making sometimes very questionable attempts to control its citizens, and me. Act 2 of my story: The Confrontation.

Want to know why I got stranded in Warsaw in March 2020? Read my earlier published Act 1: Love in Corona times, does it work?

Wednesday 1 April 2020. The start of the new month is no joke in the country led by the conservative party PiS. Fair enough, making customers wear gloves in shops to limit spreading the Corona disease makes sense, as well as stopping organized sports activities or grouping on squares. But forbidding individuals to go jogging, prohibiting the use of private cars unless for a good reason and – worse – make parks and forests no-go zones for people other than hunters … the latter goes very, very far. Poland officially has 43 fatalities on 38 million people on 1 April, Sweden 385 on a population of 10 million.

Saturday morning queueing with social distancing at a local supermarket in Warsaw.

I’ve been sambo – the Swedish word for a couple living together – now for half a month, after the Polish government banned all international air and rail traffic in mid-March to fight Corona. From Kraków there was no easy way back to Sweden, so my love took me to her place in Warsaw instead. There we share a one-room apartment 24/7. Theoretically a big challenge for any two individuals who’ve never spent more than a weekend away together.

Movement restrictions

The fact that the woman I’m falling for is Polish and keeps track of the news as much as I do – despite she is no journalist – helps very much in understanding the state of affairs and how the Polish people see things. She is my interpreter in many ways. Having been in Poland regularly for the past three years is one thing, understanding the deeper nuances of the society as a foreigner is a second.

Skaryszewski in Warsaw, before the government’s ban on entering the parks.

Checking out the new movement restrictions I head out to a bigger park on the eastern bank of the river: park Skaryszewski. On foot with a shopping bag in my pocket just in case a police officer would ask me what I am doing further away from home; not that I think he will buy my story though. I follow the path just north of lake Kamionkowskie. I see no police tape but after a few hundreds metres there it is: in the middle of it all, near the amphitheatre at the end of the main park boulevard a big blue and grey van with blue lights on top. The vehicle is clearly visible from the other side of the lake; Spring has just arrived but it will take a few more weeks before the trees have enough leaves to wrap the park in a green blanket.

During the weeks before none of the parks I’ve visited was crowded. People were never in danger of contaminating each other. Having the police guarding an empty green zone seems overdoing things. For a second I feel I should test the officers’ response time by running through the park, but that would be a double offence of COVID19 restrictions. Even though the hefty fines of up to EUR 300 the government has announced have no legal base in any law, it will be difficult to convince the constables of my rights and their constitutional wrong in this matter.

In the heart of the authentic Warsaw-Praha, during the Easter weekend.

I have become very aware of police appearances and once I quickly deviate from my path and walk into a residential area, after two patrolling officers throw curious looks on me when I go for a walk – shopping bag with me and all – in an area without any stores relatively far away from home.

Like most big cities Warsaw is a concrete jungle and green zones or jogging keeps people healthy. During our now standard Friday meetings in “the pub” – read: group Skype – we discuss the stupidity of the new rules with a smile on the face and a beer in the hand. Funny how Corona has reshaped contact with friends. During the 14 years I’ve been living in Sweden we never met all of us together through videoconferencing. Apparently, the virus is destructive for people’s health, societies and economies, but not for long-term friendships that cross borders.

Basic rights

Wednesday 15 April 2020. I am pissed off. Despite being a journalist I do have certain values. And a government that has been underfunding the hospitals, has proved to be willing to break the constitution and other laws just to get more power and control and is using a discussion on abortion as a way to deviate the public’s attention from the real mess – that goes way to far. While Europe fights Corona, the Polish people still fight for basic women’s rights. (Read my news article on this here).

Spring walk in the popular Stary Mokotów area of Central Warsaw.

I feel I am slowly beginning to long back to the land of the free: Sweden. True, the lazy way the Swedes are treating the Corona threat – which will make them a nation non grata in Europe – is terrifying, but at least in Sweden the people are relatively free. Sweden has a well-functioning democracy. Rights for women and men, although still something to work on, are almost equal. There is a strong believe in freedom of expression and freedom of sex and religion in Scandinavia. A giant contrast with Poland where the church has unbelievable power up to the highest ranks in government, and where the government of the nation, including the president, and many regional rulers have declared war on their fellow countrymen and -women if they are not heterosexuals.

Less black and white

When I leave home for a walk on 16 April I cannot help to be a bit proud of the small rainbow on my now obligatory face mask. It is actually not a protest, as it reminds me of my late grandfather, who loved rainbows very much. He was together with my grandmother ever since he walked her home a few days after he returned from Nazi-German forced labour camp in the village where he was born. Opa was a story teller, and after he passed away in December my closest friend told me I must have gotten this skill from him. My grandfather was a colourful character.

Entering Park Łazienki on 20 April to celebrate the reopening of the parks.

As of 20 April the Polish government also became less black and white in its views. The park and forest restrictions are lifted. The way to celebrate it: before noon my sweet and I wander into “the Royal Park” Łazienki. The few tens of visitors including us all wear face masks, still obligatory, and gaze around at everything. The green zone is “lushing” up as Spring is evolving, the sun and palace are reflecting in the pond. I feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

Back to Sweden

I’ve decided to make it back to Sweden via the only way that has not been blocked: by boat. Frankly a healthy thing to do in any developing relationship, because after this intense “date” of six weeks it is good to get a perspective on things. To avoid the risk of contamination my love will drive me in four hours to Gdynia, a laid-back city on the Polish coast. I’ve booked a hut just for me on a big ferry for the 12 hour journey across the Baltic Sea. On the Swedish side I’ve rented a car for a close friend who will drive 6 hours south from Stockholm to pick me up. I intend to avoid public transport for some time to come and am still seriously worried about what I read and hear on the Swedish laissez-faire approach to Corona.

Orłowo Pier, Gdynia

April is nearing its end when my dear and I are on Orłowo beach. Against regulations we take our face masks off while we look out over the sea, too cold to swim still, our buts rest in the sand. Almost 300 kilometres north, beyond Hel peninsula (what’s in a name), lies Sweden with on the last day of the month 2,876 COVID19 deaths, against 644 in Poland. Even if the real fatality rate in Poland is three or four times higher than the official stats, Sweden seems do to very poorly on Corona.

On the beach

My mind settles back on the beach. Will I miss “my girl” and will she miss me? I ponder when I catch her eye. Will I miss Poland? I think when look at the cliffs of this pretty coast. Will I even miss the Polish restrictions that actually have kept me safe from Corona so far? I wonder looking at my face mask on my lap.

At Orłowo beach, Gdynia

And then, just before we head to the ferry terminal for the long kiss goodbye there it is. About 8 metres from the beach a seal pops its head above the water. Close yet untouchable, moving gracefully, being curious. After a minute or so it sets out again to deeper waters, and so will I. | Marcel Burger / (text and photos)

This is the second act of my COVID19 story, set against the backdrop of the events unfolding in Poland and Sweden in Mid-March to Mid-May 2020. In Act 1 why I got stranded in Poland.

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