Early 21st century Łódź is a work in progress, a city in a state of extended flux, firmly wedged between its solid industrial past and not yet fully evolved future.
The town grew almost overnight on the strength of textile industry, which exploded in the region mid-19th century. Imposing factories, of predominantly Jewish and German ownership put Łódź on the map and shaped its character. Fast forward a couple of world wars, post-war antisemitism, collapse of Communism and Łódź textile industry is no more, but the town remains a large urban establishment, with the population of just under 700,000.
To an impartial observer trying to make sense of its current status Łódź seems a bit rudderless, if you excuse a cross-language pun (Łódź means boat in Polish).
The word on the street is regeneration. It sweeps across town with scrubbing brushes and pours bucketloads of fresh paint over everything in its sights.
It is against this background that I want to introduce the heroine of today’s story, or rather, she is today’s story.
Ilona is a walking talking laughing crying thinking feeling story of modern Łódź.
Łódź born and bred, she loves her city with the force of emotion humans rarely display towards a geographical location. Except, to Ilona Łódź is much more than that. Łódź to her is a state of mind, it bubbles over in her veins and it resonates in everything she does. And if you find the above turn of phrase a bit over the top, wait until you meet Ilona, and you will realise that if anything, my description was tremendously understated.
Ilona was born to a working class Łódź parents. Her mother was a textile factory worker, who spent the best years of her life on a shop floor, in appalling working conditions, in almost unbearable heat and all-permeating dust. Her father was a taxi driver.
She graduated with a law degree and married a teacher, but she remains immensely, passionately proud of her parents’ hard working background, emphasis on hard.
I went to school with Ilona, but we were not close then. Thirty years later, Facebook messenger brought us together again, and my, oh my, how could I have missed that woman until now.
Ilona knows everything about Łódź. I realise it is a bold statement but it is virtually impossible to exaggerate the level of her knowledge on the subject. She knows every restaurant worth knowing, she is able to retell the story of Łódź ghetto day by day, she knows the dodgiest courtyards in the shadiest parts of town and can render the tiniest detail of every mural, monument and graffiti with photographic accuracy. She talks fast, swears a fair bit, and downs vodka shots like a pro when situation demands it.
Ilona debuted as Łódź tour guide during recent Łódź Ugly Beauty minibus tour of eponymous Łódź sights. She was fantastically engaging, incredibly knowledgeable and bowled us over with her indestructible effervescence.
I am writing all this for a reason. After the tour had ended, it became very clear that it is only a matter of time before Ilona becomes a legend in her own lifetime, and when this happens, I will want to be able to remind all of you that I had my share in launching her into the orbit.
Inevitably, Ilona can also come across as overbearing and opinionated, borderline pontifical. Some find her exhausting and draining, not to mention hyperactive. The human jar of marmite if ever there was one. It is quirkily fitting then that Łódź itself is often seen as a marmite town. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it, but before you decide to leave it, please allow Ilona to show you around. She might just change your mind.