Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Village life - Letnica, Lubuska

Just outside Zielona Gora is the village of Letnica. A small commuter 'burb, so there was no reason for me to be there. Except that part of Quest Europe was taking place here. This was where the Best Films from the Alter-Native Festival of Romania were taking place. And what better than to spend a mosquito ridden evening than here in Letnica.

Yes, there were mosquitoes in Lubuska - a frigging swarm of them. The whole area was infested. A hot, moist summer made it ripe for these little terrors. But I will stop talking about the lowlight of my holiday (itchy bites) and go to one of the highlights. The movies which was held in the old Protestant Church of Letnica.

Now Poland is a Catholic country. It is fair to say that Catholicism is intricately linked with the culture of the nation. For a country that has been dismembered, shrunk, had its borders shifted hundreds of miles westward, has had torture and tyranny as a regular byproducts of many of its governmental institutions, it is probably been one of the stabilising factors of the country. Which is why Catholicism, even today is a beacon of strength in this country, while in the rest of Europe, church attendances have shrunk to a few hard core elderly. The Catholic Church in Poland is very much like Christianity in America. Strong, visible, part of popular consciousness and attended on a weekly basis.

So it is surprising to see a protestant church in a village, even one that is no longer actively used for worship. Oh, there is a reason for that. Until 1945, this was Germany. Protestantly so. And it can be seen on the World War I monument outside the church grounds:

The inscription from the base is from John's Gospel: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The futility of war. It would be along time from the erection of the plinth that this land would know peace in any semblance or form.

And so this Protestant Church, filled with so much history was the venue for one of the many screenings of Quest Europe. And in a village! I have been to many festivals, but to one that screens films in such a small settlement. The Polish are real culture vultures because there is no way that a somewhere this remote could host such an event. That was well attended. A full house, by all members of the community, young and old. And that served free apple pie!

(I would propose to any girl who could make cake this good!)

The Church itself has been magnificently restored and I think has to be one of the best venues I have ever watched a film in. A beautifully haunting place, with simple but elegant architecture. This village is far off the tourist scene, so to be able to come to a hidden gem like this is simply amazing for the uninitiated foreigner such as myself.

Letnica is a fascinating place, and not just for the films that I saw, which were truly amazing. It is a small place, and as a city dweller, I find visiting the countryside far more entertaining than seeing big cities. Don't get me wrong, I too am a culture vulture, and I really enjoy the feast that is found in a city. But when I am on holiday, I love to see a slice of life I don't normally experience. Getting into the countryside, difficult though it is, fascinates me.

Letnica is also a fascinating place for its setting. It is easy to sometimes forget the historical context of this part of Poland. This was once not Poland, not even a Slavic or majority Catholic country, but a westward looking Germany. Especially that Poland is both linguistically and (supposedly) ethnically homogenous. 97% of population in Poland claimed to be Polish in the 2002 census; compare this with Britain which has large parts of the country covered by different languages (Welsh, Gaelic and increasingly Cornish) as well as our cities where multiple languages are spoken. Poland does not have that, yet its border changes have been far more dramatic than the UK's. It is interesting to start thinking about why this is so, and Letnica made me think of this...

So you forget that borders change, people come and go, or assimilate into the local population. This part of the world has had a very violent recent past and has suffered many upheavals. And unlike many other parts of urban Poland, here in the villages and small communities, those scars have remained on the landscape. The relative emptiness of the area, the forgotten languages inscripted at random on old memorials that have survived, the abandoned buildings once put to use as part of the community. Even the local culture reflects this once strange past, almost totally eradicated from everyday living, only existing through historical text books. Despite its beautiful and serene setting, Letnica reflects this turbulent past. It is a fascinating piece of history, but it will be one for further exploration another day...

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