Death Race

Last week’s long weekend saw the traditional annual mass movement of Poles as families marked All Saints’ Day (which fell on a Friday) by the traditional pilgrimage to their relatives’ graves throughout the country. All Saints’ Day is a public holiday in Poland and, as with most events connected with death here, is taken very seriously. In Warsaw it is a major logistical exercise with many extra buses and trams running and with special services linking the cemeteries. The roads leading to the major cemeteries are closed and become open air markets selling flowers and lanterns. In the days leading up to 1st November graves are tidied up ready for the feast itself and it is not unusual to see folk even enjoying a simple picnic by the grave they have just tidied up. A visit to a cemetery at dusk on All Saints’ Day to see the full effect of the candle lanterns placed on the graves lighting up the darkness is a dramatic sight and worth making even if you do not have a family member to visit.

Since the graves of members of my wife’s family that we visit in Warsaw are easily reachable by tram we thankfully miss the equally traditional annual carnage on the Polish roads as folk race across the country from one cemetery to the next. Indeed, it has become a rather macabre tradition each year to read the reports following 1st November to see how many have managed – unintentionally but, in most cases no doubt, not unavoidably – to join their dead relatives as a result of a road accident.

This year the tally was 38 dead and 410 injured in 338 accidents, compared to 36 dead last year and 51 in 2011. The commonest cause of accidents was excessive speed for which, of course, there is neither reason nor excuse, and without which most accidents would simply not have happened. Folk would do well to remember that it is much better to arrive late than dead on time (or not at all).
Another factor is alcohol. I have written here before (please see Road to Perdition) that the average Polish petrol station might easily be mistaken for the local bottle shop but with allowable blood alcohol limits much lower than in the UK (in effect making it unwise to drink even the smallest quantity of alcohol) it is amazing how many folk still drink and drive. By all means stay at home and drink yourself to death but please stay away from the roads and killing others. Last weekend 1298 people were arrested for drink driving, most of them on All Souls’ Day (Saturday) – clearly they were concentrating on the wrong kind of spirits. That is a large number and since the police probably only caught only a small fraction of those guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol it does not paint a very reassuring picture of road safety in Poland. To the heady mix of aggression, stupidity and lack of skill we may add excessive speed and alcohol.

Unlike the UK where the police may not stop a vehicle simply to carry out a random breath test and must have a reasonable suspicion that the person has consumed alcohol, the police in Poland may conduct random breath tests. I experienced (for the first time) such a random test a couple of weeks ago when I was driving back to Warsaw late at night from a friend’s birthday party. Since I had not been drinking I knew that I had nothing to fear and I was politely waved on my way afterwards. Even so, I did find the experience slightly disturbing, rather more disturbing than when my car was stopped by armed soldiers looming out of the darkness at an unofficial road block in West Africa – more on that on another occasion.

And yet for all this, it is possible to walk around Polish towns and cities late at night free from the drunken rabble that have made many English towns so unpleasant these days. There are no public displays of mass alcohol induced loutishness here except, alas, in those places such as Krakow, to which budget airlines fly plane loads of young British (and I can’t think of a suitably pejorative adjective) for so called stag weekends. Cheap alcohol and pretty women are a great attraction but the irony that too much of the former prevents full appreciation of the latter is lost on these morons. They present a very poor impression of the British and expose the Poles to behavior which is as unfamiliar as it is inexplicable as it is inexcusable. Whatever the reason for their behavior it would better if they simply stayed at home.

Be that as it may, the Poles seem to have a fascination with death. And when it comes to All Saints’ Day, the prevailing sentiment is that I’ll get to the cemetery even if it kills me – which, alas, became all too true for 38 poor souls this year.

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