January 17th, 2006


in transit, Toruń

[Well, guys, I’m getting way behind on my blog. There’re interesting things between now and then, but it’s reasonably condensed – I should be able to fill up the gap before I head to New York on Friday. ~ William, East York, Toronto]

(Written Wednesday, January 4th)

I’m breaking a Rule now and drinking a beer by myself. My excuse is that there’s nowhere else to go and sit besides a restaurant, and I’m not hungry. So now I’m sipping on a Warka and taking the opportunity to blog while I warm up and dry out. I’ll be meeting Karol, my old host brother, at 1615, and now it’s… 1313. Guess I can follow-up with a Pepsi…

On my last night in Płużnica I went out with Magda. We hung around at SMGP for a bit, sharing the four hitherto-unopened Warka Strong left over from New Year’s Eve. We had a nice time together but it had to end fairly early because she needed to walk home as well as go to work early the next day. I walked her most of the way – somewhere 500m or so beyond the Ostrich Farm we kissed goodnight and parted.

When I got home I explained my travel plans to Pantstwo Andrzej & Krystynna, prompting a two-hour dictionary-phrasebook assisted conversation. We communicated a lot, and we didn’t stop until well after midnight. As tedious as the constant book-consulting was, it was overcome by the interest and energy innate to what was being said. It’s really refreshing compared to – well, you know.

In the morning I traded photos with Przemek, packed my things, and went to say goodbye to Magda at the Gimina Hall. She works in an office there when she’s not studying sociology in Toruń. She said it was very sad that I was leaving – I guess it was, but wow, I just want to be on my way home. I’ve gone to the trouble of putting off home until the 25th, perhaps because I’m a glutton for punishment. Anyway, it’ll all be over soon and I’ll have seen and done all sorts of crazy-cool things.

So the first stop outside Płużnica that day was Lisewo. Marcin and I came by around 1400 and snuck in while classes were in session. We found Kinga in the gymnasium* staff room straight away, and soon after Marcin left we went to the primary school and found Agata. This was between classes, so a lot of shocked kids found themselves saying good morning or good afternoon to me (which one depending on their linguistic prowess). Still, I didn’t see most of the kids I knew from before – most of the ones I really knew were in third year gymnasium (roughly, Grade 9) and would be in high school now.

* - A gymnasium is basically the Polish equivalent of a junior high school, though a little more formal.

The teachers would be staying late that day for parent-teacher interviews – these were lightly attended and would be over at 1700. I took the time to step out for a haircut – I was too late, so then I looked around “downtown” Lisewo. Later I came back and chatted with Zheneta, and then Agata drove Kinga and I back to Chełmno.

Agata took me up to her flat for supper and then we went for a walk. Chełmno hadn’t changed a bit – it was just as I remembered it: still dark and dusky like a gothic movie on freeze-frame. It was set up quite well for the holidays. It brought back memories; Kinga had doubted my assertion that we walked up the dark, tree-lined road from our orientation camp hotel to the town at this time last year, so I had the opportunity to explain to her one of my fondest memories from that POC – that silly “kissing-killer” game. You had to be there.

Kinga’s husband came home later – he had been having problems with his car. Things at the service station wee moving slowly – a group of Britons had four or five cars in to be converted to left-hand drive* and were begging for a quicker turnaround time (the process apparently takes more than 50 hours to complete). The mechanic was making money hand-over-fist, albeit at the cost of sleep and a ton or two of coffee beans (I’m only assuming that last part).

* - ie: the driver sits on the left, making it much easier to drive in the right lane of the road

We went to bed fairly early as we had to be out of the flat by 0700. I woke up at 0630, washed my hair, packed my things, said goodbye and before I knew it I was on the bus to Toruń.

It was like a Ukrainian “bus” in that it stopped in every hamlet and hovel along the way, which was a good opportunity to see the Polish countryside that you don’t see in the tour brochures, but it was different insomuch as it was actually a bus. The 90-minute ride cost $3.

In Toruń I caught a cab to the train station, needed translation again to get a ticket (I had the times for a different Toruń train station (one of the small ones), so when I asked for the 1740 to Warszawa they didn’t know I meant the 1807.)… speaking of that (someone volunteering to translate), that’s NEVER happened in Ukraine and it’s happened two or three times here in Poland over barely as many days. That doesn’t mean I can stop working on my Polish, though.

I left my things at the station and went for a walk on the other side of the river. All the NetCorps people reading this remember that big bridge, right? It’s the only way across the Wisła aside from the rail bridge. And it’s long, really long. Anyway, I walked underneath it and took what I hope are killer pictures. The bridge looks really cool when it’s framed with tree branches, ice floes, and the odd duck.

I had meant to find another exit from the park, but the going was tough (no winter maintenance and there was almost a foot of snow), and I was afraid I’d just get my feet wet and catch a cold. So I headed back, which was just as well…

Not long after coming back onto the street I saw a man digging for something in the snow. That is to say I thought he was a homeless man looking for bottles. I was going to give him a wide berth, but I looked back out of curiosity, and he looked up at me and asked for help. He had fallen over in the snow and couldn’t get up! I pulled him up on his feet and held him for a long moment. We started to walk together, I holding his arm.

Once in a while, he’d start stumbling quickly and have to turn sideways into a fence, which he’d grab to support himself. I tried to be the relaxedly breathing person that I wished him to emulate, but it was no use (then again, when I was shivering that time at Lee’s host family’s apartment building with no place to go, I couldn’t relax either. Oh, by the way – all is forgiven there. I’m cool with them again. Now they don’t like ****** for equally mysterious reasons. It’s a start, anyway!).

This was fast becoming scary. I kept as cool as possible and used one of our fence layovers to reach for my phrasebook* and ask him a few questions.

* - In Ukraine I wouldn’t need it for this – my Ukrainian is better than my Polish in terms of speaking, but they’re rather competitive in terms of understanding. In fact, Polish is often easier for me, perhaps because the language faces West.

“Where are you going?”
“To home.”
“Where is your home?”
“There,” he pointed. He then suggested I find him a taxi. I was prepared to flag one down, but none appeared. We continued a little further and came upon a bus stop. There I explained to a twenty-something female peer that I didn’t speak Polish and that this man needed to go home. (I’m not sure how I did on the second item.) The man thanked me, she took him away with attentive care, and that was that.

As I walked across the bridge I wondered what caused that man to fall in the first place. Was he shaky just from the chill or was he having muscle problems? How long was he in the snow? It was frightening to think about. I was suddenly more thankful than usual for my health and youth, and started singing “Old Man” by Neil Young as I crossed the remainder of the bridge.

In the downtown, I found a small arabesque restaurant called “Mecca” which served me a medium pizza with donair sauce, salsa and hummus plus a glass of kiwi juice for 10zł (just over $4). What a deal! What a nice lunch! When in doubt, always follow your stomach. The part that reflects poorly on me is that I was sort of thinking about ordering yet another pizza! No wonder my Albertan host mother called me a garbage can.

After lunch I found some photogenic churches, told a dozen or so people that tried to hand me advertisements that I didn’t understand Polish (by now I can annunciate it so rapidly that I sound like an auctioneer). I found the planetarium, saw the signs mentioning that there were two shows in English, and that the oribitarium tour would take 40 minutes – I was foaming at the mouth! and… the door was locked. Wha?! A woman came to the door and gently pointed out that they were closed from the 31st to the 6th. I was heartbroken.

None of the museums seemed interesting by their names (except the “Museum of Travel” (here lies Will Matheson, too crazy to come home), which I couldn’t find), so I ended up here after some pedantic deliberation. It’s an interesting cubbyhole called “Absurd Drink Bar.” The décor is certainly that, complete with hats hanging from the ceiling on wires, and lights made of sandblasted wine bottles with holes in their bottoms for said light to escape. It’s cozy in here, and I’m glad they haven’t booted me out – it’s 1513 and I’ve still got a sip left of my beer. Time to drain it, buy some gingerbread, and meet Karol at the Copernicus statue.

* * *

Whew! Made it! The one thing I’m not going to miss about Polish trains is finding a cabin with reasonably genteel-looking people without a ton of luggage and more than two empty seats. If I didn’t have so much junk with me myself, though, I’d choose almost any cabin. Oh – one more little wrinkle: I need a non-smoking. The choices in smoking are pretty good: I even found a smoking cabin completely empty, and another with a lone man - leaning back, knees wide apart, legs stretched out - really enjoying his cigarette. No problem; it’s kind of like when every parking space is taken except the handicapped spot. Anyway, I found a decent cabin – I pity the two girls in this one whom I asked if I might come in, because after ten minutes of walking up and down four carriages, I must have looked crazed. Oh, and my hair’s sticking up like Calvin’s.

Just after I left the Absurd Bar, I found a map & atlas store. Nothing else! Just pretty cartographical things! Well, I had to go in – no, they’re closing in ten minutes, please don’t come in. Oh, for…

With a half-hour or so left to kill, I went down to the riverfront and took pictures. (“What did you do during all that time in Eastern Europe, William?” “Well, I took pictures…”) I noticed the anchor that we had posed around on the official NetCorps visit to Toruń. In a poignant moment I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I was Alone. In a moment of giddiness, I set up the self-timer and got a picture of myself on the anchor looking forlorn à la “Where is everyone?”

After I fooled around with that, it was almost time for me to meet Karol. I went downtown and made my other planned Toruń stop: the Kopernik gingerbread store! I got small boxes for my upcoming travelling companions and a big box for myself to share with others. I probably would have purchased more, but portability became a major concern here. Gee, I still need to get my mom that Ukrainian tablecloth.

I met Karol at the statue and we went for tea at the leaning tower. I didn’t know they had a café in there. It looked like I was standing up the wrong way, even though the floor was level (the brickwork wasn’t). The dimensions were small; the place would have been great for hobbits were it on the ground.

I really enjoyed my chat with Karol, and afterwards he took me to the train station. He invited me to stay with him next time I’m in Poland, and I believe I shall.

And the rest, as they say, is yet to come…

[As I signed this off, I was a few hours away from Warsaw. The next update will cover my mysterious journey back into Ukraine; the following update will be the wrap-up for Ukraine with my Ontario writing thrown in. Or it’ll go something like that.]