Today has been another fun-filled adventure. After having falafel and veggies for breakfast, I went to check out the nearby technology museum (a super-awesome giant artificial Christmas tree with changing patterns stands in front). I didn't get far there because I only had an hour or so left to kill, and it looked expensive, and the "mini" self-guided tour for a reduced admission wasn't marked in English (nor was anything else) - so instead I followed up a clue about a "panorama" and before long I spent even more money than what I would have spent at the museum for admission to the 33rd floor of the Palace of Culture. The view from up there is astonishing - you can see everything! Even on such a grey and cold day it was exhilarating. It was a good thing that the interpretive displays didn't include English, otherwise I would have froze to death up there. Warsaw today felt like a -15°C day in Halifax. Maybe it was -15°.
The first leg of my train journey was pleasant. I got to know a few girls and a boy and we exchanged numbers and I reviewed my Polish in my spare moments and made up a few questions to ask or things to say. They all understood some English, but they were much more communicative with me the more I tried to communicate in Polish. Again, that's as it should be.
The train came to a final stop in Olsztyn where I had almost one hour to wait for my next train. My phone was dead and I was hungry, so I sat in a pizza place on the mezzanine next to a power outlet. I ordered a nice pizza and waited. I cut things fairly close; at it was I was burning the roof off my mouth in my haste to eat. But it was worth it - it was good pizza, easily the best (and possibly the only) I've had since Lviv.
Sleep is really starting to catch up with me, and I'm nodding off here and there. I should probably relax and let go.
I had a heck of a time when I first got on this train - the corridor is really narrow and you how how wide I get when I'm loaded down with stuff. I felt really bad because I couldn't communicate. My brain is still wired for Ukrainian, but at least "dziękuję" and "przepraszam" are replacing "дякую" and "перепрошую." Given those linguistic slips and my Ukrainian grocery bag, I think everyone thinks I'm Ukrainian! I've even faintly overheard a few people wondering aloud where I'm from - some place me from Canada because of my Canada Corps water bottle (which I ought to empty and put away).
... The moral of the story is that I should have boarded earlier. But that pizza was worth it. To this moment, I associate it with warm, happy feelings.
In general, the Polish trains are quite a bit nicer than their Ukrainian counterparts. Even on the normal fare, you get comfortable seats (first-come, first-served, but still good) and there are luggage racks and coat hooks and a sliding glass door for the compartment. And all this fails to mention that the trains run quite a bit quicker – possibly as fast as 100 km/h at times. There are a fair number of stops (and even more if you’re on a local electric train), but here the trains actually pick up some speed, and the end result is that the train is usually the best way to get around.
Speaking of my ticket, on this leg there was something wrong with it, but the conductor believed that I was innocent of the problem and let me get away with whatever it was. He was friendly and understanding of the fact that I didn’t speak Polish.
Maybe a lot of these observations seem routine – perhaps all I am doing is confirming the expectations of a normal traveller. For me, though, all this is like paradise after Ukraine. If you were to find me a Super 8 now, I would gush and effervesce as if it were the Trump International.
* * *
Well, it’s a quiet morning here at Czarek’s house, excluding the productive hum and buzz of the circular saws in the workshop downstairs. Czarek’s father and his employees make shelves, staircases and cabinets, among other things. They do really good work; I remember the pictures Czarek showed me in Grande Prairie of cozy cottage stairwells and elegant balustrades for mini-mansions.
Czarek, too, used to work with his father, but now he has another job supervising tileworkers at various worksites (like shopping malls under construction) all over Poland. He’s put over 100,000 kilometers on the company car since he took the job. Czarek’s sister B’ata is studying to be an architect and is finishing her final year. I hope she’ll show me some of her plans or drawings. Not to mention I get to help her with her computer later. Yay!
Czarek is still on his way up from Częstochowa, a city in the southern quarter of Poland, in between Łódź and Katowice. They got hit hard with snow down there, but you wouldn’t know it from the bare roads and comparative calm up here in the Masurian Lakes. As blustery as Warsaw was, apparently that was nothing.
So this is Miłki, a small gimina centre near Giżycko. Czarek’s dad found me on the platform and whisked me away in his car. I don’t know how he found me so quickly – maybe he just sought the person who looked uncertain! We drove to Miłki and tried to make conversation on the way, with varying degrees of success.
After I arrived and met the family, B’ata passed me her phone and suddenly I was speaking to Czarek in English. It was kind of an out-of-body experience. Here I was with these strangers who were treating me like a long-lost relative on the phone speaking in a foreign language with the person who’s the reason for my being there, who himself is 1,000 miles away. That’s globalization for you. “Have fun with my sister,” he laughed. And she was fun. Get your head out of the gutter.
Later, naturally, we all had supper and then watched some television together. Czarek’s dad got out the Warka (generally my favourite Polish beer), and at first taste I was like, “Why did I love this stuff so much?” Then by my fourth taste I was more like, “Where have you been these ten long months?” I imagine I’ll feel the same way about Ukrainian beer when the time comes, but for some reason I think Polish beer tastes better.
B’ata’s English is pretty good – about what Czarek’s was when I first met him (“I understand most of what you say...”), so it’s kind of like time-travelling after a fashion. I try to stick to Polish when I can, though. That said, I’ll probably get lazy when Czarek gets here (he just texted me to say he’s 70km away) and start saying all manner of complex things at high speed. Now that I realize this, I’ll try not to.
I really like it here. Czarek’s family have a really nice house and they’ve been exceptionally warm and friendly. I feel welcome here – maybe the hospitality is just typically Polish (in this case I think it is different, though), but either way I like it.
Ja kocham Polskę! (I love Poland!) To me, it feels like the Maritimes of Europe in terms of congeniality. It’s also a very open and unpretentious society, at least in the private sphere (which is all that matters anyway). I’ve been fourtunate to have many wonderful experiences here, and I hope to maintain some kind of connection with the country and my friends here for a long time to come.
I love Ukraine too, and I’ve met many fantastic people there (one student from Ostroh just texted me a New Year’s greeting – so nice!), but unfortunately the relationship is much more ambivalent. It is, quite simply, much harder to live there, and the rewards only outweigh Poland’s in terms of the confidence boost that comes with surviving a challenging experience. I will travel to Ukraine again (I mean, of course, in addition to my upcoming re-entry so that I can get back to Canada), but probably for a short stay.
B’ata just gave me some carbonated water – delicious! I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I had forgotten a lot of things about Poland, maybe in the way that a recovering heroin addict will try to forget his highs. It’s coming back to me now.