This year marks the 550th anniversary of the first rafting on the Wisła river. The golden era for sailing the river, which started in 1467, brought about a period of prosperity for both Poland and Europe. Let’s take a journey back in time to the days when the Wisła was considered by some the most important river in the world.
Poland was said to be the ‘granary of Europe’ because it excelled in grain export. Rafters (flisaki in Polish) took care of transporting it down the river. Some see them as able-bodied mountaineers, who took the Wisła as their bride, others seek the patriotic soul of Polish noblemen in them. To fully understand these comparisons, let’s take a look at the typical day of a rafter.
At dawn, the rafter boards his raft, just like his father and grandfather before him. He is dressed in a linen shirt girdled over his waist, hemp trousers, a hand-made overcoat called a płótnianka (probably made by his wife), a straw hat and is not wearing shoes. While waiting with his comrades, with a bundle of food on his back, for the boatman (retman), he quietly sings (editor’s translation):
The rafter’s wife,
has an easy home life,
While the poor rafter,
Works for bread ever after
Once the crew is complete and the grains loaded, the rafters embark on their journey up the Wisła towards Gdańsk. The sail-less ship is managed by a few boaters. Straw huts, accessible only on one’s knees, serve as beds, shelter from rain and storms and as a pantry. A typical rafter’s breakfast consists of black coffee and bread with lard or fiutka – overcooked potatoes with onion, parsley and pepper.
After a humble meal, it is time to return to rowing. Swaying on the waves of the Wisła, the rafter passes people collecting wicker on the riverbank, greets fisherman drawing out their nets and pities the sandblasters’ toil.
At lunch, the rafter meditates upon his own misery, while eating buckwheat with flower (fucka) or a soup made of overcooked plums (garus or pituch), or – rarely – meat and milk. He freezes, doesn’t eat enough food and get enough sleep… He has to agree to the paltry pay: 4-5 rubles for a week’s sail, that same amount of food and 20 groszy per week for beer (while the boatman, who hardly does as much as the others, gets paid several times as much). Fortunately, communing with nature and the feeling of freedom compensate for the inconveniences of the job. In a few years he might become the leading rafter, then get promoted to deputy boatman, and later, if he’s lucky, he might even become the boatman, ‘a master of life and death’, as the Polish saying goes (jak retman na tratwie panem życia i śmierci).
For now, the rafter can console himself in two different ways, and he makes good use of both of them. The first is praying to his patron, Saint Barbara called lovingly Warwarka. Tired after a hard day’s work, the rafter reaches the shore and prays in a nearby chapel.
Another form of coping is entertainment. Rafters were known for their joyous disposition and courage, especially during brawls. The crew and the local villagers (and, of course, young girls) dance and sing to the sounds of violins and pipes. If there is a novice among the rafters, he has to go through a ‘rafter’s baptism’: a festive ceremony of shaving his beard and being poked fun at, which ends in a drinking binge (the novice has to buy himself out with vodka). Dinner consists of bread or potatoes with coffee, just like breakfast...
And so the days pass until the autumn leaves put an end to the rafting. Returning home, the rafter will present himself to the elders, give his money to his wife and children and tell his comrades stories of his voyage. And soon, he will long for his days on the Wisła river.
Article originally written in Polish, Feb 2017; translated by WF, Apr 2017
Sources: Maria Biernacka, Kamieńczyk – osada flisacka, [in:] 'Studia i materiały do historii kultury wsi polskiej w XIX i XX w.,' Wrocław 1958; Michał Pawilno-Pacewicz, 'Flis a sprawa polska,' Warszawa 2011.