I will show you my town. Tales about a Prussian woman and skating in August

Then there is also a student who greets a group of visitors holding her grandfather’s pre-war bicycle. The vehicle, still in use, shows that the former inhabitants of Brzeszcze were fond of durable things.

‘In this house I spent my childhood,’ says Ms Barbara from Alwernia. ‘Right next door was the post office and a telephone, something rare in the ‘50s. When the telephonist received notification about a fire, she knocked on our wall. Then I told my father and he switched on the siren which called the firefighters’. 

Professional guides seldom speak in the first person. They will not tell us that, as children, they heard of ghosts prowling the crossroads where, according to elderly female neighbours, a church used to be a long time ago. How long ago? – very long. A resident guide will add that the foundations of the church have indeed recently been discovered there. ‘Well, you don’t say!’ the surprised tourist will answer.

The group are walking behind a stocky man with a moustache. They stop when Mr Zygmunt, a retired miner, greets his neighbour. The neighbour will gladly show everybody how he built in a shower cubicle in an old building where, just like in miners’ houses from the turn of the century, there were no bathrooms. Another neighbour will open the shed where he stores an old copper for warming bath water. The visitors’ children like a bathroom dating back to over 50 years ago.

Mr Marek shows visitors round armed with a family album, ‘This is my sister in the nursery school for miners’ children at the beginning of the ‘50s.’ ‘It was as early as August that I sat down on the stairs and cleaned my skates to get them ready to go down that hillock, come winter. There were few of us who had skates, I was so proud to have them.’ There is an old, fine house in the market square in Alwernia, and next to it the street slopes down steeply. It was perfect for skating in winter, half a century ago.

Another woman from a mining town tells the story which will make tourists remember that Silesia is Silesia, and Malopolska is a world apart, even if it is just across the Vistula river. ‘A bicycle was a precious possession, children didn’t normally have their own bikes but they wanted to learn to bike. I learned it owing to housewives who cycled to Brzeszcze from Wola or Góra, villages across the river, in Silesia. They crossed by bridge or ferry. Then they cycled to Stara Kolonia to sell butter, eggs and cheese. When they left their bikes leaning against house walls and set off to sell their products round the houses, the news spread among children, ‘the Prussian woman has arrived by bike!’ It was time to use the opportunity and do a few circles quickly, so that the owner didn’t notice. Usually, it worked but later she probably wondered how come her wheels were decentred…’

In Poland there is no state organisation for non-professional guides, which would support them (eg. through training). The reason is probably that professional guides are afraid of competition and that voluntary work for local communities is still not popular with us.

Amateur guides provide complementary services to those of professionals. They tell their stories in the first person and they hold personal and community experience above solid historical facts.
When we visit historic sites with professionals, we look at them from a different perspective than while strolling around the town with local residents. The latter are indispensable in the localities where we cannot find professional guides, i.e. in the majority of small towns and villages.

In their places, resident guides are supported by local cultural institutions, mostly libraries. In bigger towns with municipal museums, they form groups of volunteers (friends of the museum) at these institutions and often provide complementary offer. In smaller localities with no institutions that employ professional guides, they are factually supported by libraries or community centres. As regionalists, they often belong to associations which cultivate local culture and traditions. They are frequently appreciated and awarded prizes by local authorities which take their opinions into account in the social dialogue. They do not tend to have stage fright in contact with the media. They offer their private time and energy. They show tourists family mementoes. They let themselves get drawn into discussions and get a hoarse voice because they are not used to speaking for so long. They are fond of tourists. They are fond of their fellow citizens. Most of all, however, they are fond of their town, monastery, park or district. 

In the 12th edition of the Malopolska Days of Cultural Heritage we can meet resident guides while visiting Stara Kolonia – a miners’ housing estate in Brzeszcze (district of Oświęcim) and Alwernia (district of Chrzanów).