As soon as the “Berlin-Warsaw Express” chugged across the border, the Virgin Marys began to appear. Some of them stood scarecrow-like and alone in their shrines at the edge of wheat fields, while others guarded the entrances to farm houses. Rosy-cheeked and smiling demurely beneath their blue shawls, they reminded me of home.
It was the first indication that I was on my way to a country with the potential to out-Catholic Ireland.
While the Virgin Mary may be rural Poland’s icon of choice, the late Pope John II reigns supreme in Warsaw. The former pontiff is carved into statues, pasted onto posters and a favourite among street artists, who sell paintings of his face alongside still-lifes of fruit bowls and flowers.
The adulation isn’t limited to the capital either. Last year, the Daily Mail reported that a businessman in the southern city of Czestochowa had erected a 45-foot statue of John Paul II, whom he believes intervened to save his son from drowning.
LSB and I soon got used to meeting some version of John Paul II at every street corner. We even began greeting him with a “Howeyeah JPII.” But it didn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not the only Roman Catholic actively revered in Warsaw.
In hindsight, I should have known better than to meander towards a park bench occupied by a life-size bronze statue reading a book. In my defence though, it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh statue by the canal in Dublin, a place where I have never been accosted.
LSB and I were basking in the sunshine beside the statue when we were approached by an elderly lady, who stood before us, staring. I smiled at her and she began speaking in Polish.
“Erm… No… Polski,” I responded apologetically.
She gestured excitedly at the statue. I shrugged my shoulders as politely as I could.
She talked some more, then motioned at us to stay put while she went away.
A few moments later, she came back with an elderly man.
He had a pleasant tanned and wrinkled face and was wearing a Nike sweatshirt.
“English?” he said and we nodded enthusiastically. “I have… um. little English,” he said, laughing.
“This man,” he said, pointing at the statue. “Jan Twardowski. He… um…” he cupped his hands around his neck to indicate a collar and the word came to him. “Priest. Yes. Priest!”
“Oh!” I said. “Thank you! I didn’t know who he was.”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “Priest… important priest… and also poet!”
“Priest,” the lady repeated, delighted. “Yes, priest!”
“Ah,” I said. “What a beautiful place for him!”
“Yes, yes, beautiful!” they agreed.
They left happily.
A few moments later, another party comprising two women and a man in a wheelchair arrived and stopped in front of us. They stayed there for quite some time and I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Though there were several vacant benches elsewhere, I thought they were perhaps trying to covet our spot. “Would you like to…?” I said, motioning to get up.
“No, no,” the lady pushing the wheelchair said, waving her hand.
Suddenly I noticed a presence to my left. When I turned I discovered a third woman on her knees by my feet, praying.
This, I thought, is one step away from Pope-shaped perogies.