During the nine-month voyage “In the Wake of Ancient Cultures,” as the
project was code-named, the students sailed from the Polish Baltic port
of Gdynia, around Europe to the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal
and the Indian Ocean to India and Sri Lanka then around Africa back to
Europe and Poland. They journeyed aboard the barquentine Pogoria, built
at the Gdansk shipyard in 1980, to the very sources of the world’s five
influential religions Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and
under the auspices of, although not funded by UNESCO, the trip was
sponsored by official Polish agencies the Anti-Alcohol Council, the
Assistance Committee, and the national TV – which jointly financed
one-third of the costs. The balance was covered by the Class Afloat
itself. Throughout the voyage, paying passengers were accommodated.
During harbor stops the ship made one-day trips for local tourists. To
serve and oversee the 30 cadets
there were 15 crew members, who also made up the school’s staff and
faculty. Mate KAZIMIERZ ROBAK, who taught Polish, Russian and
history and did double duty as the project’s secretary, is
now an editor at Gwiazda Polarna. His earlier work, To the End of
the World On the “Pogoria”, was excerpted in these pages in
August 1996. Stories appearing in this issue, adapted and translated
exclusively for GP Light, are from “Szkoła” (The School), a book
Courtesy of the crew
October 14, 1983, Gibraltar
The sun rose hours ago.
By now, the light was so intense, that the blue of the sky was changing
in places to a translucent gray. White walls of houses in the background
dazzled the eye a small sunlit patch of water, barely visible from where
the Polish Teacher was sitting, glimmered with cascades of iridescent
But in the shade of the big mountain it was cool and humid. Moored at
its foot, the Pogoria was only anticipating the heat. The morning watch
had just finished washing the deck, and the pleasant coolness drew
several people aboard. Waiting out the free time between the roll call
and the start of the daily chores, they kept themselves busy being lazy.
The harbor was quiet also.
Suddenly there was a sound of a car stopping, brakes squealing, door
being slammed, then the hum of the engine fading away. In the far
perspective of the quay, a silhouette appeared of a man in a white
uniform, wearing a large visor cap. The man was clearly making his way
toward the Pogoria.
Guessing that this was the harbormaster’s courtesy officer, an expected
visitor, the Polish Teacher unhurriedly started towards the gangway to
greet him. The dignitary was not in any hurry either. He was parading
with dignity, fully conscious of the importance of his own position.
As he approached the ship, he slowed down even more to take in the whole
scene on the ship’s deck, which was rocking gently several yards below
the top of the tall quay. The crewmen sitting astern picked up their
heads and stared at the visitor with curiosity.
The officer was huge, obese almost. His bloated red face and massive
arms and legs were fastened to a trunk of supernatural size that was
enclosed in heavily starched whites. Over his left breast pocket shone a
rainbow of naval decorations, and his whole uniform dripped with
ornaments of golden galloons and grosgrain.
As he came level with the ship sternmost, the guest allowed himself a
friendly smile, pick up his pace, and took
a sprightly step on the gangplank. Awaiting him underneath was the
Polish Teacher who, for the first time in his life, felt like cursing
due diligence. Scrubbed clean and rinsed with seawater, still aglimmer
with moisture, the entryway to the Pogoria was about to
witness a horrible incident.
Upon contact with the wet and salty boards, the leather soles of the
guest’s shoes suddenly lost traction. The terrifying rumble of the
failing body, the grinding screech of the gangplank swinging from the
impact, and the helpless thud of the back of the officer’s heels on the
deckboards all became one chord.
The Polish Teacher closed his eyes and held his breath. His face,
although still expressionless, was growing redderand redder as his chest
began to heave in a spasmodic tremor. When he opened his eyes again, he
saw at his feet the white figure with its mouth open as if to let out a
scream, but actually soundless. He wanted to bend and reach down, but
the dignitary stood up by himself. Slowly, he put back on his head the
cap which all this time he held tightly in his fist.
In a final effort of sheer willpower, the Polish Teacher whispered in a
voice that was still clear but dying:
“Welcome . . . aboard . . . sir . . .”
Then he turned his head slowly and saw in the corner of his eye that all
the other people astern had also got up and were now standing at
attention in total silence. And he heard the answer, subdued but clear:
“My . . . pleasure . . .”
Most GPL readers know about the elegant grammatical device used in the
Polish language to express respect, the third-person-singular-honorific.
To distance yourself from the interlocutor and thus show regard, you say
“pan był” and “pani była,” as opposed to just “byłeś” and “byłaś.” This
is similar to the English “thou” as opposed to “you,” or the French
plural-honorific “Vous” instead of the singular (and familiar) “tu.”
November 3, 1983, Vatican City
The minutes of anticipation dragged infinitely. The cadets stood lined
up in silent and pious concentration. At last the door opened. In the
company of a few clerics, Pope John Paul II entered with a springy step.
“Praised be Jesus Christ!” he said in Polish.
“Na wieki wieków. Amen,” he was answered by the choir of trembling,
The Pope smiled.
“It’s nice to see you all here,” he said. “I think we should start by
introducing ourselves. Probably you know me, but I don’t know you. Tell
me, what are your first names and where are you from. Maybe we’ll find
some friends in common.” The boys relaxed a bit. The Pope was walking
down the line, shaking hands with everyone. The priest following him
handed out commemorative rosaries every handshake was accompanied by a
flash from one of the two photographers present. The boys were
introducing themselves one by one.
“Tomek. From Szczawno.”
“Marek. From Kraków.”
“Marek. From Bydgoszcz.”
“Szymon. From Płock.”
“Dariusz. From Nowa Ruda.”
“Szymek. From Melbourne.”
“Pawe;. From –”
The Pope stopped and turned back.
“Szymek from where?” he asked.
Simon, whom everybody called “Kangur,” the kangaroo, blushed.
“Melbourne, Australia,” he answered with an accent that left no doubts
his first language was English. And in the same breath, with the same
accent, he added in Polish.
“Nie pamiętasz? Byłeś u nas w zeszłym roku!” Don’t you remember? You
came over last year!
John Paul II looked into Kangur’s blue eyes staring at him sincerely,
“Why! Sure I remember!” Turning to the others, he said, ”It’s wonderful
you have a guest from far away and are just like one big family aboard
your ship. I’m sure that in your company your guest will be speaking
perfect Polish in no time.”
Kangur shifted from foot to foot and smiled disarmingly. His grammatical
consciousness had just made him realize that he, the only one of the
crew, was on a first-name basis with the Holy Father.
John Paul II returned his smile and directed himself to the next boy in
“Paweł. From Kąty,” the boy said.
An act of devotion
December 27, 1983, the Indian Ocean
The cadet on galley duty cleaning the messroom was doing his absolute
best, sweeping the floor and wiping off tabletops and seats. Next he
started on the leaks staining the laminated walls.
The ship had only made off after a harbor stay and was carrying the
usual cargo of flies that somehow always managed to get below deck. The
boy was determined to get them all, and so an all-out war was declared.
The first round of attack focused the boy’s swift rag on the bull’s-eyes
that attracted most of the enemy forces and yielded the most casualties.
Targeted next were the opaque casings that housed the fluorescent
lights. A series of precise hits took out the rest of the enemy swarming
Only one fly remained.
The boy tried swatting it many times, but the fly would not pause so he
could get at it. At last it did, landing right on the framed portrait
photo of the Pope, the Holy Father’s personal gift to the Pogoria crew,
signed by himself. Armed with the rag, the boy’s hand went limp. He
looked at the fly like a bloodhound called off the track just before a
catch. He looked around. Nobody was there as far as he could see. Quick
as lightning, he threw the rag into his left hand, crossed himself with
the right, returned the rag to position and – struck! The whole action
took less time than a thought would.
The boy took earthly remains of the enemy fly between his two fingers
and threw it into the trash. Afterwards, he started polishing the glass
on the portrait and kept it for a long time.
April 23, 1984, on the Atlantic,
somewhere between St. Helena and the Equator
“Listen, Kaz,” Mietek addressed to the Polish Teacher. “You teach
history, don’t you?”
“Yep,” the Polish Teacher affirmed.
“OK. Let me get it straight. What’s the story on this Jagiellonian
dynasty? I’m getting all confused reading about them. There’s just too
much,” said Mietek.
The heat from the sun was growing. The Polish Teacher was sitting
astern, enjoying the rare moment with nothing to do. Trade winds blew
strong and steady, the sails were smooth, the ship had stayed right on
course for many hours now. But Mietek’s question ended the bliss, and
something had to be done about answering it.
Mietek had been born outside Poland. This was his first trip to the Old
Country, and he lapped up anything he could learn about it. The long
days of sailing presented him with an opportunity to make up for all the
time he hadn’t had before, what with going to college first and then
working in his job as an architect.
That was all very nice, but now, like a dark cloud, the Jagiellonians
hung over the head of the Polish Teacher. His eyes fell on the boy at
the helm and lit up with hope.
“Yo, Tomek!” the Polish Teacher shouted.
The helmsman turned around.
“Did you want to try for an upgrade in history today?”
“Yessir! As soon as I’m off the shift. In exactly half an hour, sir.”
“Deal. What’s your topic?” the Polish Teacher asked his student.
“I’ve two, sir. The Teutonic Knights and the foreign policy of the house
The Polish Teacher jumped up.
“Give me the wheel,” he said to the student. “I’ll step in. You are
assigned to the service of the passenger here, Mr. Mieczysław.” Turning
to the architect, he added, “Mietek, go ahead, ask him anything you
want. Just make sure you two stay close by. I need to hear his answers.
Tomek looked uneasy.
“But what it is Mr. Mieczysław wants to know?” he asked politely.
The architect presented a detailed list of uncertainties. For a while,
Tomek mulled over the problems in his head. Haltingly at first and then
more and more fluently, he began relating in his own words the story of
the white-mantled rogue knights, eventually arriving at the intricacies
of the relationship between Poland and Lithuania, the two countries’
respective battles and mutual alliances, their diplomacies and crownings.
From time to time, Mietek would interrupt to express doubt, to debate an
issue, or to ask to have things repeated. Patiently, Tomek would answer.
Step by step, he was teaching the man twice his age the history of the
country they both considered their own. The dialogue was becoming
With his eyes half closed, the Polish Teacher was leaning on the knotted
ropes surrounding the helm seat. The compass needle seemed frozen. The
barquentine was keeping a steady course, leaning slightly alee, and the
heat from the sun was growing more and more.
[Translated by Małgorzata Dymek-Ćwiklińska]