A Bit of Cicely in Poland: Fans Find Post-Communism Respite With 'Northern Exposure'





LA Times, July 28, 1994

OLECKO, Poland — Krystyna Pawlak did the unimaginable last week, and she would like to thank the good people of Cicely, Alaska. Never mind for now that there really is no such place.

With a sleeping bag, two backpacks, $50 and her two daughters in tow, Pawlak fled the swelter and drudgery of her kitchen for the first time in years-- hitchhiking 400 miles over two days to this lakeside town on Poland's woodsy northern frontier.

To pull it off, the 47-year-old housewife lied to her husband (he thinks she took the train), spent a night in a convent (it was all she could afford) and ultimately set up home here in an army tent (she rented it from the Boy Scouts).

"My neighbors would never understand this," she said. "But the Indian woman in Cicely would. She once went off to Seattle looking for adventure. I am looking for adventure as well, and it has been wonderful."

The Indian woman is Marilyn Whirlwind, a character played by Elaine Miles in the American television series, CBS' "Northern Exposure." In just one year on Polish television, the quirky series has captured the imagination of this country and, as evidenced by Pawlak and other fans gathered here, has set off a social revolution.

Exhausted and disoriented by the trying social and economic changes of the last five years, many Poles have found an uncanny respite in the fictional environment of "Northern Exposure," an uncomplicated place where people accept life as it comes, tolerate differences among themselves--no matter how bizarre or comical--and work out problems peacefully.

"Our village (Stara Rudna) is completely different from that town--people are fighting with each other all the time, and we never really talk to each other about our problems," Pawlak said. "The town in the series may be artificial, but it shows how we could live if we tried."

More than 2,000 fans of the offbeat series met last week in this out-of-the-way place, which has proclaimed itself Poland's own Cicely, Alaska, the fictional setting of the television series. Because there are only 150 hotel rooms here, most visitors improvised on accommodations, sleeping in a school, pitching tents and wigwams and crowding into the homes of residents, in some cases free of charge.

Four barrel-sized kettles were kept boiling on a wood stove in a shady grove, one brimming with potatoes and the others with water for tea, coffee and, for the immodest, a sponge bath. The town collected donations so a family of 11 with no money could attend, while another penniless fan stopped to paint a garage en route to Olecko to finance the last leg of his trip.

"This series has drawn people of all ages and all walks of life, from the cab driver to the university professor," said Irena Groblewska, a Warsaw publicist who founded the fan club three months ago. "We have blind people who listen to the show. We get letters from convicts in prison, retirees and 8-year-old schoolchildren. It is an absolutely inspiring phenomenon."

Oleckoans acknowledge that their town is certainly not a postcard image of Cicely. It is far bigger and less rustic than its television counterpart; there are only imitation Native Americans; it is terribly flat, and the only moose in town has been rented and hangs above the entrance to a downtown convenience store. A small toy factory produces stuffed animals, which residents call Alaskan bears but look like koalas.

Townspeople say many of them share the uncommon warmth--if also some of the quirkiness--of the television characters, and, in the very least, they have a longing to be like Cicely. The silhouette of a moose has been unofficially added to the town logo, as has the slogan "Way Station, Olecko," a play on the Polish name for the television series, "Way Station, Alaska."

In one year on the air, "Northern Exposure" has become the most watched show on Poland's more highbrow second channel, even outdistancing the ever-popular evening news despite a less than ideal broadcast slot at 10:15 p.m. on Fridays. So encouraged by the viewer response, Channel 2 executives have already purchased 25 additional episodes and made it clear they want more as they become available.

Since the collapse of communism, American television programs and movies have become ubiquitous in Poland, accounting for about 80% of the entertainment on the two national channels.

But few shows have attracted such a passionate following--or aroused such intense feelings--as "Northern Exposure." Some prime-time soap operas and action series on Channel 1, including "Dynasty" and "The Colbys," have drawn larger audiences, but the attraction was more fascination than the deep, inner connection "Northern Exposure" viewers profess, programmers said.

"We are in a period of great transition in Poland, where it seems people are only eager to run to the stock exchange and check the value of their holdings," said Danuta Celinska, program manager for Polish television. "After more than four years of this, we feel the need to visit such places as Cicely, Alaska, and experience interpersonal contacts without any economic motives behind them."

For those meeting in Olecko, it was an opportunity of a lifetime to encounter other Poles who share their vision of a more ideal Poland. A packed calendar of events leaned heavily on back-to-nature themes, with outings into the nearby forest, seminars on growing sprouts, demonstrations on the customs of Native Americans, and kayak and bicycle races. There was also a series of cultural offerings, ranging from rock concerts to open-air experimental theater.

"We created a certain program, but the idea was to let people create most of it themselves," said Bohdan Skrzypczak, director of Olecko's cultural center and one of the town's many self-described Joel Fleischmans, the transplanted New York doctor in the series who must practice in Cicely as payment for his medical school bills.

"Even though this is a small town, you can realize your dreams here," said Skrzypczak, who moved to Olecko seven years ago only because he could find a large apartment there. "There are moments when I want to leave, but after events like this, I realize how much you can accomplish."

It was "Northern Exposure" that inspired the gathering, and it was the series that served up the most meaningful offerings of the week. An early morning radio show, fashioned after the show's "Chris in the Morning" radio program, provided a daily tally of good deeds in Olecko, sprinkled with poetry readings, guest interviews and philosophical musings.

And each evening at 6, hundreds of viewers crammed into a stuffy auditorium to watch the first episodes of the show, followed by soul-bearing, free-flowing group discussions on a breezy lakeside knoll. Topics ranged from the motives of characters on the show, to flaws and inconsistencies in the story line, to how a faraway--and make-believe--place could strike such a responsive chord in Poland.

Warsaw therapist Tanna Jakubowicz said the sessions were extraordinary because Poland has no tradition of group discussion. Sitting on the grass in a large circle, viewer after viewer bemoaned the pessimistic state of affairs in Poland and the lack of such interaction in their hometowns, while at the same time sounding hopeful that this unusual television series might help make a difference.

"We have a history in Poland of being victims, so people have always looked for someone to blame, someone to project our problems on," Jakubowicz said. "For years it was the Communists, but we don't have the Communists anymore, so there is a tendency to blame your neighbors, people who are different from you, who have a different religion or nationality. This meeting has helped people understand their neighbors are not their enemies, just as in 'Northern Exposure.' "


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