free zone / NGO zone

Gryfino: Time Warp

Institute of Reportage

“Am I a local patriot? I don’t really care for the term. I prefer to think of it this way: I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Przemek Lewandowski, head of the Włóczykij[1]Festival of Places and Travel in Gryfino, Poland, in a report by Andrzej Muszyński (The Polish School of Reportage).

The location: a movie theater. A man sporting waist-length dreadlocks takes the stage. The crowd listens as he explains the rules of Włóczykij Trip Extreme, an orienteering ultramarathon that counts towards the Polish Cup. In a moment, the participants of the race will set off on a one hundred kilometer run. The doors suddenly open and in come the members of the famous Polish thrash metal band Acid Drinkers. The audience falls silent.

Przemek Lewandowski, the man with the dreadlocks, approaches them. “I’ll be with you in a moment, gentlemen,” he explains.

The band is set to perform that very evening, giving it their all – just like the marathon runners.
Participants of the run keep streaming into town, arriving at the small train station and walking down the peaceful streets towards the local cultural center, which welcomes them with colorful graffiti. They make their way through stands where women sell lard, pickles, and hot, homemade meals. Moments later, they run into the famous Polish reporter Jacek Hugo-Bader, musicians from the band Blade Loki, and Tymon Tymański, who will take the stage with his band The Transistors later that evening. Bored with the long wait, members of the band Vavamuffin take the stage and perform a reggae version of the Polish wedding classic “Biały miś” along with Tymon Tymański.

In the borderland

The events take place in the northwestern Polish town of Gryfino, population 21,000. The town on the Odra river has become somewhat of a phenomenon on the cultural map of the nation, thanks in no small part to Przemek Lewandowski. But Przemek is quick to share the credit. “Many of us here in Gryfino have been trying to prove that small towns don’t necessarily have to be apathetic places,” he says.

Przemek Lewandowski

fot. private

Przemek studied part-time in Wrocław, where majoring in cultural studies. He completed the program but has yet to submit his M.A. thesis. “I’ll go back and get my diploma if I ever need it,” he promises. After leaving school, Przemek got a job at a large record store in Szczecin.

“That was back in the time when people would by shopping bags full of records,” he recalls. But then the internet came along, and with it a drop in traditional media sales. With business going poorly, Przemek had no trouble getting time off to go the Era New Horizons Film Festival. That’s where he met the future founders of Stopklatka, currently one of Poland’s largest film websites. He has been working for the site for ten years, commuting between Szczecin and his home in Gryfino.

“This is my place,” he says. “Here in the borderland.”


The countryside is a half hour walk from Przemek’s house. Beyond that lies the forest and the Tywa, just the kind of of river that wanderers enjoy exploring: wild and contrasting, blocked by fallen trees or piles of garbage, the kind of river that winds its way through places where no man has set foot for decades.

On the opposite side of the Odra river lies Germany. Local thieves used to make trips over the border to steal cars. But today, cities across the river attract shoppers with low prices — sugar in German stores can cost as little as half of what it does in Poland.

Przemek and his twelve year old daughter tour the countryside along the border on bicycles, carrying their luggage in panniers and setting up camp wherever they please. They have no trouble finding the necessary guidebooks. Regional enthusiast Marian Anklewicz and former Gryfino mayor Andrzej Urbański are just two of the authors who have published books on the area. Urbański researched local bike routes, but is just as enthusiastic about covering one hundred kilometers on foot in seventeen hours.

“Am I a local patriot? I don’t really care for the term,” says Przemek. “I prefer to think of it this way: I can’t imagine living anywhere else. This is my home. I know everyone who lives her, and I miss it when I’m gone for too long.”

He sometimes goes on sentimental trips to Drozdowo, a former state collective farm located a few dozen kilometers from Gryfino. As a child, Przemek would spend entire months there at his grandmother’s house. Today, the former German estate with its orchards and gardens lies in ruin. Everyone has left — everyone, that is, except for one man who has chosen to make his home off the grid with two dogs and no running water. In the winter, he must constantly feed logs into his wood stove to keep from freezing. He makes occasional bicycle trips to the local food bank. Some friends from Godkowo keep him supplied with water.

An anti-tourist festival

Every year, a few weeks before the Włóczykij Festival, Przemek puts everything aside. He sends out hundreds of emails and spends hours on the phone. He contacts film distributors. He manages to get copies of Werner Herzog’s documentaries from the director’s own brother. Some appearances never make it past the negotiation stage: one famous traveler who regularly appears on TV demanded a fee of twelve thousand złoty.

The festival’s first edition was held in 2007. “I tried to find an open format that would help integrate people. I traveled around the country and decided it would be best to to combine film screenings, slide shows, and local day trips. I knew it was going to be an ant-tourist festival, because what interests me is how people relate to places and their inhabitants,” says Przemek.

Włóczykij has grown into an eleven-day festival where travelers tell their stories, writers meet with readers, and where participants watch films, take part in workshops, and go on day trips outside of town.

Włóczykij also provides a stand for a local bookstore, which pays the organizers 10% of its profits in kind, i.e., in books. Przemek picks out travel and non-fiction titles to donate to the town library, where they end up on one of the most popular shelves, aptly named “Włóczykij.”

Regular festival goers are familiar with a few of its fundamentals. First: despite its growing popularity, the festival remains low-key affair. Second: participants are supposed to feel at home. Third: “celebrities” are treated with a certain distrust. Presentations by self-centered “travel stars” consistently get mediocre reviews in the annual audience poll. Mere fame is not a criterion for the selection of guests.

During the festival, the Gryfino Culture Center is abuzz with activity. There are no “staff rooms”: no part of the festival is off-limits to the public. The question “Coffee? Tea? Something stronger?” is repeated over and over.

Each year, participants are treated to dishes from all over the world, free of charge. Last year, a restaurant owner from Germany offered to provide French and German cuisine. He showed up, delivered the food to the volunteers (one of whom is Julia), and left.

“He got freaked out!” laughs Monika, Przemek’s wife and an employee of the Culture Center. Freaked out by what? Perhaps the crowds, which have been growing more and more numerous every year. This year the women running the food stalls claim to have sold as much in one night as they did in three nights last year. After an evening of slide shows, featured guests and audience members get to know each other better over some vodka, herring, and pickles at “U Suszka,” a local bar.

The festival ends with an event that has become a legend: the Włóczykij Ball. Last year’s ball was held in the village of Borzyma, and featured a performance by the Bartkowiacy folk ensemble. As the organizers explain in the festival catalog, “The Włóczykij Ball is a search for lost time in smoked kielbasa.” The Bartkowiacy band is a whole other tale: the group has toured half the world with its folk repertoire.

The Inter-Odra Republic

The festival is made possible by support from sponsors and the city. Ticket proceeds cover just part of the costs.

“We somehow manage to keep it running,” Przemek says, smiling, “but we won’t go far without a larger hall. This year we squeezed everyone into a tent pitched beside the Culture Center. As for next year, we’re trying to get more equipment. We bought a projector this year for 10,000 złoty, and we put up 3,000 of that out of our own funds.”

In the travel community, Włóczykij is an absolute phenomenon and is regarded as the best festival of its kind in the country.

Funding for future editions of the event will be easier to secure now that the festival is formally being taken over by an institution that Przemek helped found, the Inter-Odra Republic Association. Its members include Kuba Stankiewicz, the guitarist and vocalist of Braty z Rakemna, a Gryfino band that has achieved moderate success in Poland and is working on an upcoming independent release. The treasurer of the association is Tomek Miler, editor-in-chief of a local newspaper, “Gazeta Gryfińska.”

If you want to know how to run a local paper, just ask Tomek and his team. Together they won first prize in last year‘s “Local Press” journalism competition, run by Poland’s Association of Local Newspapers.

The Inter-Odra Republic is also setting its sights on the publishing market. Przemek is considering writing a book about Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway state that seceded from Moldova in 1990. Has has recently been making regular trips to the Eastern European country.

A system of communicating vessels

The cultural scene in Gryfino is like a system of communicating vessels, all connecting at the Gryfino Culture Center. The director of the center, Maria Zalewska, gives project heads carte blanche. “There’s a lot of room for initiative,” says Przemek.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the town’s Contemporary Dance Theater, headed since 2005 by Eliza Hołubowska. In 2009 she founded the region’s only contemporary dance festival, the Autumn Dance Stage. Eliza’s work has been featured and well-received at Poland’s most prestigious festivals, but she still finds time to help run the “world cuisine” event at Włóczykij.

Another event hosted at the Culture Center is the Patchwork Festival. Run by Krzysztof Gmitera, Patchwork is a four-day celebration of contemporary arts featuring performances of all sizes: from small invitation-only plays to large-scale street theater productions and experimental events in uncommon urban spaces. The festival also includes films, exhibitions, and evening concerts. Nearly one hundred artists from seven European countries have appeared at Patchwork since its inception.

The Culture Center has also been home to the Uhuru Theater since 1997. Its founder and artistic director is Janusz Janiszewski, a theater director, Polish teacher, and former actor of Szczecin’s Kana Theater. Actual performances and rehearsals take place at the Lion Stage, located in a town building that once housed a shooting range. “They wanted to open a folk museum in there, but I got my way,” Janiszewski laughs.

The theater mainly draws local high school students, who often have few other options for spending their free time aside from hanging out in front of the liquor store. The theater company has won a whole list of distinctions at national theater festivals.

Przemek introduces me to a friend of his, Piotr Ostrowski, a film director and creator of a movie titled Chłopaki z… ferajny (“Goodfellas”), which he shot with Grupa Filmowa Chłopaki i Spółka (The Guys & Co. Film Group). As he claims, the film is the story of a small town somewhere in Poland. Przemek screened the film at Włóczykij, advertising it as “a blockbuster gangster film made in Gryfino.”

Przemek also runs the cinema at the Gryfino Culture Center, which belongs to Poland’s Arthouse Cinema Network. He’s also the artistic director of the Ińsko Summer Film Festival. After each year’s edition of Włóczykij, he sets out on a tour of the country’s film festivals in search of interesting films.

He has also recently become one of the members of “Rocznik Chojeński,” an annual journal devoted to the town of Chojna – where Przemek attended school – published by the Terra Incognita Association for History and Culture. The journal received a nomination to the Polish-German Journalism Prize for an interview by Robert Ryss with Eckehart Ruthenberg, a German and a son of a Nazi. Ruthenberg seeks out forgotten Jewish cemeteries in western Poland. The journal’s coverage competes with Poland’s largest daily newspapers.

Ruthenberg suffered a heart attack last year and was unable to attend the 2010 edition of Włóczykij. Perhaps he will make to next year’s festival.

Attention, Gryfino!

In the catalog published for this year’s edition of Włóczykij, the festival organizers summarize a Czech short story and conclude by saying, “This isn’t the place to quote the story in its entirety. It should be noted, however, that it mentions a typewriter loaded with a sheet of paper, on the margin of which were written the words: ‘Attention! Włóczykij! Gryfino. Time warp.’”

Andrzej Muszyński
Translated by Arthur Barys

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.

  1. 1. The festival is named after Włóczykij, a character from Tove Jansson’s Moomin series. Referred to as Snusmumriken in the original Swedish, the fictional wanderer is known as Snufkin in English-language editions of the books.