Bardzo mi miło Polska (Nice to Meet you, Poland) Part 2

As we were driving through the Polish countryside and were on our way to Warsaw, I kept thinking about Russia and Poland. The history of Russia-Poland relations was known to be one of a lot of conflict, war, resentment, finger-pointing… It is the long-standing conflict of the Orthodox and Catholic Church, uprisings with Poland trying to regain independence from the Russian empire, countless backlashes during the communist era, the Katyan massacre (a brutal murder of thousands of Polish nationals) during the World War II, repressions, a plane crush of 2010 in which all members of Polish political elite were killed… All these thoughts kept gnawing at me as we were making our way to Warsaw. The bottom line is whatever it was that made us drift apart regardless of our Slavonic identity and whoever is to be held responsible for that, I think it is about time that we all moved on and forgave each other past wrongs. The very fact that we were in that country was indicative of our will to stick together and put aside differences instead of holding a grudge. I think among all European countries Poland should be closest to us because it is new to the European community and is a Slavic country after all.
So here we were in the capital of Poland. That was a dreary day, the sky was persistently grey. I tried to put the thoughts about the World War II behind me. Growing up, I took a huge interest in the history of this war. As we were driving into Warsaw which looked pretty calm, the tour guide was telling us about a dire economic situation in Poland, about mortgage rates, unemployment…
I think by doing so she intended to get us to understand that we were not worst off and even though Poland now joined Western Institutions like NATO and the European Union, they were still having a hard time. To me, even though it was an economic hub, Warsaw looked then like a post-Soviet city and it wasn’t European as my Mum who was on a visit here some thirty years ago rightfully said. There was some Soviet air lingering around and I was still engaging in comparisons between Russia and Poland.
We were on our way to what was the highlight of our short stay in Warsaw. We were to take a tour of the Royal Castle Square (plac Zamkowy). It is a meeting point and one of the most famous tourist spots in the Polish capital. Warsaw is called the “phoenix city” because it has survived many wars and was demolished during the World War II and was painstakingly and meticulously restored in the years to follow.

A story of a man who was our guide (pan Kshishtof, sorry if I misspell his name) in Warsaw was in a way similar to that of the city. I was surprised when I saw him. He looked like a man from a fairytale dressed in some strange outfit. He spoke good Russian which I couldn’t help but admire. I really love it when people from other countries take their time to learn our language, no matter how hard it is believed to be. Unlike some English-speaking people, I would never take a mickey of a person’s accent or grammar… It always feels nice that people still bother to learn our complex language. It makes me feel incredibly patriotic to hear people from abroad speak my language… So later on, our tour guide said that this man was over 70 (he didn’t look it) and he lost his parents during the war when he was young. He now led a very healthy lifestyle and always went for a run, rain or shine. So it was this man and his native city that have been through so much pain but got over it and survived. SAM_6943
So this man had a little time (only 1.5 hours) to show us around but I know if time permitted he could go on and on till after dark. He seemed to be totally in love with his city.
First, we enjoyed some views of the Vistula River (the largest river in Poland).
Also there was the National Stadium which was one of the venues of Euro 2012 (I’m a football fan and it was a privilege to be seeing it).
As a person with a teacher degree, I was astonished to find a Teacher monument. I loved the interpretation of what a teacher’s job was like.
So here we were in the middle of Warsaw. On our right we had the Royal Castle. It has a dull brick exterior but it is of course of huge historical importance. Unfortunately, we had no time to get inside. This square looked just like it was in one of the cards my Mum brought from her trip here. I was proud to relive this for her.

I kept staring at the imposing column of King Sigismund III Vasa from 1644. It was the King who moved the court from Krakow to Warsaw in the 16th century. It is the oldest monument of the city.
I noticed that all the buildings in the square were colored differently. As it turns out, back in the day houses had no numbers so they used colors to tell one house from another.
We were moving further to the barbican on the cobblestone pavement as the guide was telling us about the history of the buildings. There were some locals walking their dogs too. I loved that the place didn’t seem too touristy and wasn’t too crowded. Just standing there and looking at all those buildings was overwhelmingly great! It was so educational which made it so much more worthwhile!SAM_6953
The square is lined with some lovely European-looking cafes, souvenir shops. By then, we were given some time to get some souvenirs. Getting my head around the prices was a bit easier this time around. Now I have a magnet from Warsaw. It was the first one in my collection. I also got hold of some cards which were on display and seemed to be free. I never knew whether they were really. I hope either way, the Poles won’t spare me that…
Also I learnt a little story about the mermaid (syrenka) which is a symbol of the city. A legend has it that there were originally two mermaids who went on a journey of the oceans and the seas. One of them decided to stay at the coast of Denmark and the other one reached the Vistula River. I loved that story and made a wish to see the other mermaid in Denmark too.
We had a chance to get inside St. John’s Archcathedral. I’d never been to a Catholic church before and it was a really spiritual experience. Being there felt much more comfortable than being in an Orthodox church. It was more liberating and less suppressing.SAM_6956
As we were walking near the barbican which used to be a historic fortification, we saw some old Poles basking in the sun (the weather changed for us by then). One lady from our group tried to say to them something like “Hi, Russia”! Basically she was making a fool of herself but the Poles smiled at her. Hopefully she didn’t ruin the image of Russia which they might still resent.
It was almost time to say goodbye to our guide and the wonderful strong city of Warsaw. We got on our coach and were leaving the city wishing to go back here for a longer stay. At least we got a little idea of Old Town (Stare Miasto) (this is the part we were to).
We were 7 or 8 hours’ drive away from the hotel in the town of Słubice near the German border. Before that we stopped for a meal at a café outside Warsaw to try some żurek which is a typically Polish soup and some other delicious food.
It was a long drive to Słubice and there were just haystacks and fields that looked a bit duller than those that we saw as we set out in Poland. It was a long busy day and after two nights in a row we spent enjoying the “romance” of a train travel, we needed some good night’s sleep before we hit Berlin the next day. Staying at a hotel was nice. All we needed was a shower and a bed to sleep in. I was so sleepy by the time I hit the sack but I stayed awake a little longer to have a listen to some radio. It felt incredibly surreal to be lying there in this comfortable bed in Poland and listen to a German radio station. It was perfect! Berlin, here we come!

Almost there and Bardzo mi miło, Polska (Nice to Meet you, Poland), Part 1

So now it was all about crossing the Belarus-Poland border where we were to have our documents and luggage (so we thought) inspected. We went through two border checkpoints. Before we got to the first one, the tour guide walked us through some rules and tips we ought to know. I felt like a kid again and all I knew was that I needed to keep out of mischief. I was under the impression that Europe was a place with lots of rules of its own and we were not welcome there. Now looking back, I understand she did a good thing putting her foot down and trying to scare us like small kids because that way we didn’t get our hopes too high and ended up having the best of the time. On top of that, everyone was good and stayed safe through the course of the trip. She knew all too well that people on vacation get too carried away and do things that can compromise their safety. I thought it would be a terrifying experience with each of us getting out of a bus hands up to get searched and scanned. It would be humiliating to have a customs officer go through my bag but otherwise I won’t be able to enter the European Union. The good thing about having a Schengen visa is that you can travel in and out of the Schengen area (which comprises over twenty countries) with no border controls. Only later on did we find that out. I pictured a border check scene to be one from a Nazi movie but it all turned out to be quick and peaceful. No one bothered to go through our bags. In both cases customs officers took a look at the luggage department of the coach to make sure there were no people or hazardous objects in there. Then another customs officer came into the coach to get our passports and then we received our passport stamps. The whole procedure wasn’t as lengthy as I thought it would be. We were off to a good start. I kept looking at the stamps at my passport still incredulous we were now minutes away from entering the European Union. It now seemed to be in an easily walking distance. Isn’t that funny that all these borders are just human-made? This is people mostly that made what is across the border different from what we are used to on the other side of it. We just had the border river Bug to cross and here we were… It was all just a little formality. It was just a fact of reality, not a dream I’d been fascinated by until then.
So then the tour guide announced we were now officially in Poland!!! This was it! Goodbye for now, Russia! Hope you don’t miss us much (I know you won’t!). Now I focused on looking out the window (which became my habit through the course of the trip and made my neck a bit sore) to work out what was different from Russia. We saw fields all around us (that looked a lot like Russia).
Our first stop was a shop just some minutes’ drive away from the border. The Polish for “shop” is “sklep” which in Russian means “tomb”. It might be a gruesome experience. There we would be able to get some food to get us by during the trip (we were not allowed to bring any milk or meat from Russia).SAM_1499
In fact no one cared and the only reason people weren’t bringing these with them is that we may get a food poisoning if they had some milk or meat after carrying it around with them for two days. Russians are not particularly big on food but we do love to have much in supply. I believe it goes back to the time when people in this country had to starve during and in the aftermath of countless wars so they essentially needed some food to see them through just in case. It is something that we do even if we (like myself) were lucky to be born long after the World War II was over. But I do remember having not much food in the house in the early 90s when the country was experiencing major economic problems. I felt as if I was reliving this time when our group (about 40 people) walked into the shop. People wanted to get their hands on everything they could as if there was no tomorrow and tomorrow there will be no more food left in the world. I think there is something that we do when we are shopping that makes people in the country we are in know, beyond any doubt, that we are from Russia. I struggled to get my head around the prices (I knew I had to multiply everything by 12 – this way I knew how much an item would cost in roubles). All the food looked quite familiar and ordinary. The other people from the group were grabbing endless bottles of drinking water because it was cheap here and we will need water to keep us hydrated when we are out on excursion. We decided we would just run it into a bottle at the hotels we would be staying at. We didn’t feel like a part of this shopping frenzy. We just got some ham (it was put in a special package so that it stayed fresh extra long), cheese, chocolate, bread and juice. It was still funny to be looking at these quirky Polish letters on packages (I knew I would keep at least one to satisfy the linguist in me). After that we went to a cash register to pay for the food. I looked at Polish cashiers to take in their faces (there were one of the first Polish people I encountered). Happily, they weren’t that curious and kept their cool as they were expected to. My friend came first and I was after her in the queue. As the cashier was ringing up my purchase, my friend started taking some of my items along with the rest of hers. The cashier said something (the only word I caught was “Pani” which is a formal way of addressing a lady in Poland). This is then it dawned on me I had no words (shame on it, what kind of a teacher am I?) to explain to her that it was ok and Masha wasn’t committing a robbery after all. But somehow she understood and so did my friend. Gosh, I wish I was in Russia then! Being abroad for the first time proved to be a challenge. I could hear some familiar words as she told me the total (everyone seems to understand each other all around the world when it comes to money). And here I was! I felt an absolute failure and loser as I understood I totally forgot how to say “Thank you!” in Polish. I remember practicing that one on the train just yesterday. It was “Dziękuję” (I remember it was similar to the English “Thank you!). I think nerves just kicked in and I felt like I was sitting an exam. It was my first international face-to-face encounter. I felt so ashamed of my ignorance so instead of trying to be polite, I just nodded and left. At the other cash register my sister was given some free candies for saying “Dziękuję” (she did some Polish back at the University). This was my lesson to learn so I made a promise to myself I would be more focused and less nervous.
So after everyone was here (we were given about an hour for shopping and everything – we grew accustomed to time restrictions later on) and the tour guide made sure no one was left behind, kidnapped or lost track of the time (we set our clocks back by two hours). We hit the road again, we were Warsaw bound. We were enjoying our Polish food (especially the juice, it was simply delicious!) and listening to some radio station the tour guide was playing for us. It was a wholly new life experience sitting there counting the złoty (Polish currency), tuning in to Polish radio stations in my MP3 player and trying to figure out some familiar words.
My telephone said I was in Poland – great!!! I texted my Mum to say we were now in Poland and were having a good time abroad.
We looked at fields, haystacks, cows (for the first time in my life I saw a black one!), very nice comfy houses. The tour guide said Poles were known to be wonderful housekeepers. That was true indeed. Every inch of land was meticulously looked after.
I also enjoyed thujas. These are lovely trees that we don’t have much in Russia.
This is how Poles are fundamentally different from Russians despite being so close geographically. I loved statues of Virgin Mary or Catholic saints placed close to the road. Some of them were decorated with streams and ribbons. This tradition turned out to go back to pagan times before Poland was converted to Catholicism. I’m not religious but I found it truly amazing and homey. It was raining, but it made the whole experience even more authentic and enjoyable. It was a perfect countryside – lovely houses, swimming pools… I imagined this is what we could have been if we had tried a bit harder and laziness wasn’t in our DNA. Polish advertisement, Polish radio, Polish food – I was ready to embrace Poland…
We were on the road for 3 hours before we reached Warsaw. I was buzzing with excitement! It felt incredible to be able to see more of the world which became so much wider within the matter of hours…

Getting there

Before we bid goodbye to Moscow, we needed to meet our tour guide and fellow travelers. We knew our train for Brest was leaving at 15.40 and we were all supposed to meet at 15.00. The last thing we wanted was to be late so we came to the train station a bit earlier. All sweaty and sticky, we had been hanging around the platform since 14.00 hoping the tour guide would show up earlier because the station was getting crowded and it would take her a while to make sure everyone was here.
We were looking at other people at the platform in a bit of puzzlement wondering whether those were the people to keep us company throughout the upcoming trip. There were going to be a lot of people on the train for Brest and only 40 of them were our fellow passengers. We were hoping we would be travelling with some quiet intellectuals because another last thing we wanted was a bunch of disorderly individuals that would totally ruin this dream trip. That seemed like a scene from a detective story – us looking passers-by up and down speculating on whether they could be people going on a coach trip with us. What if they all got cold feet (like before a wedding) and stayed home and we will be travelling on our own? This might sound like a perfect trip – we were up for it! I’m not very social so I’d love to mix only with my sister and friend without having to engage in some small talk with people I don’t know.
It was 14.50 already but the guide was nowhere to be seen. I saw a picture of her on the website of the travel agency we booked with but ironically she was wearing sun glasses in it, so the only thing I knew about her is that she was slim and blonde. The picture might have been from a while ago and by then she could have dyed her hair black and gained a considerable amount of weight. It would take a discerning eye of Watson and Holmes to identify this lady. She had all essential documents (passport, train tickets) so without her showing up there would be no trip at all. Now it all came down to her. She might have been a bit more punctual and saved us the trouble of sticking around waiting for her to come. To make things even worse, we hadn’t succeeded in identifying any of our fellow travelers. We were told to wait near the first coach and there was nobody around. There were some people looking lost and confused as us but they turned out to be going on another coach trip. Some people were just casually hanging around and by the looks of it, they weren’t looking for anyone. We were done with looking around and playing detectives so we transformed into witches pronouncing curses on the tour guide. We all started into a rant about how misfortunate and miserable we were having our holiday plans wrecked by this one tour guide whose job was to make sure everything was running smoothly instead of leaving us there high and dry.
Now, in hindsight, the whole situation seems utterly ridiculous because she wasn’t late in the first place and it seems funny how it got us on edge. I guess we just wished for the trip to be perfect, it was a dream that we had worked towards for the whole year and this was what got us jittery.
It was 15.00 when a woman who matched what I saw in the photo finally made an appearance (she must have checked her watch against the chimes of the Kuranty in Red Square). Out of the blue, people started crowding outside our coach (there was no way they could have met the tour guide before!) so this was then that we were made sure we wouldn’t be travelling alone. I sized everyone up to see if any of these people would constitute a threat to my dream trip. As I was doing so, I felt a sting of jealousy (I generally have a jealous streak) – I didn’t want all those people there! Instead, I wanted to have Europe all to myself! But anyway, I had to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t afford an individual trip yet so I would have to share my dream with a bunch of strangers (neither of whom hopefully would turn out to be bonkers).
Now that wait and anticipation was over, things seemed to start looking up for us and everything seemed to be as planned. The tour guide called the names of each traveler and gave them all the paperwork. The crowd seemed quite big, which made it feel like there were going to be more than 40 people on the train. I had to make my way through the crowd not to miss our names being called. There was nothing to worry about but Russians love to panic over even small things. It felt as like we were queueing up for some freebie – no one wanted to miss out. After we made sure that all the travelling documents (except for the passports) were there, we were all set to go.
So here it was… Another invasion of privacy (i.e. a sleeper-train trip) began. We weren’t happy to find out we were going to share a compartment with a woman with a four or five year old who looked like a nuisance. The coach was very stuffy but I knew I was strong enough to make it through another trip on a train. As we were already on our way to Brest where we were to arrive 14 hours later, I started reflecting on this short stay in Moscow and texted my Mum about it as long as there was a signal and before we set out far from the capital. The tour guide was walking around the coach giving each passenger individually their passports and providing some instructions on what we need to do after we arrive in Brest. Obviously we had another mountain to climb before we got to Europe. We were to find the coach that would be taking us on your trip. There were supposed to be lots of them near the station in Brest so it might be pretty hard. Seeing a ridiculous picture of me in the Schengen visa made me feel better about that mission. I knew we would be fine…
The way seemed incredibly long. We tried different things to keep us busy but we were soon bored. The only person that kept us entertained was a nuisance girl. I felt like giving her a slap. That should be good fun! I just don’t feel comfortable around loud kids…
Having climbed on our top berths (another mountain to climb), I attempted to learn some basic words and expressions of Polish. My friend joined me and we had a bit of fun pronouncing all these. There is an assumption that Russian and Polish are similar but that is not entirely true (more about it later). We are both language teacher and would feel awkward being in the country without speaking a word of its tongue…
Our phones were going mad with the signal on and off. So we went to get them charged. There was only one socket and we were happy to occupy it. It felt really good and refreshing to be standing there having a chat (about nothing in particular like friends sometimes do) and looking out of the window. We were still in Russia but it was a part of it we had never been to before. The scenery looked different. There were dense woods all around us. I couldn’t believe it was the last of Russia I would be seeing before I come back ten days later. There were some old houses sliding by… We seemed to be halfway between Russia and Poland (where our trip would start). It felt nice to be unaware of what this trip would bring. I wish I could go back to this moment.
There was a long stop in Smolensk so we got out for some fresh air. The station looked really disappointing. Voronezh didn’t seem like a country town to us anymore. The next stop was to be in Belarus. It was getting dark and we had some 7 more hours to go. The next day would the first day of our trip and we needed to get some sleep to get ready for it.
As I was drifting in and out of sleep, I heard the woman and her girl getting off so I knew we were already in Belarus. Even though we were technically in a different country, nothing changed. I tried to look out the window to hear the announcements at the stations we stopped at – they were all in Russian. Belarus was part of what was a huge country till 1991 and it never completely felt like a different state. I was trying to fall back asleep and to quench my linguistic curiosity when one man got in. He was in our compartment where the woman and the girl used to be. It was pretty dark and I didn’t see his face. My friend’s blanket fell off from her top coach and she climbed down to pick it up. The man tried to help her out because it was dark and she was only half awake and he tried to tell her something but she wouldn’t understand. This was when I started contemplating cultural and linguistic differences and letting the thought of being abroad sink in. I was thrilled about it.
Dawn was breaking as we woke up to get cleaned up and dressed. The view from the window was dreary with dense forests and swamps all around. It was still Belarus. I started remembering History classes and Soviet partisans (this is how they called people involved in the resistance movement during the World War II) who were hiding in these woods. I was happy to be in touch with the history of my country but I was looking forward to experiencing Europe which was not a long way off now.
About an hour later we arrived safely in Brest. The bags seemed so hard to carry and I couldn’t wait to put them somewhere. Finding our coach wasn’t that hard and the trip was kicking off right there and then. We were all like a group of kids. The tour guide counted us. Everyone seemed to be here except one person. She had to call the roll only to find out that the first person on the list was the one to be missing. We couldn’t go without him. This was when we experienced the first downside of group travelling when the entire group has to wait on one person. It was kind of annoying. The tour guide was agitated but it wasn’t long before she found the missing person and brought this man of thirty or something into the coach as if he was a small kid. She told him to apologize, which he did. He was now a good boy. We were now ready to go. We needed to be at the Belarus-Polish border as soon as possible not to get stuck there for ages as there were plenty more coaches at the check point.
I was sorry we didn’t have time to visit the Brest Fortress which was awarded the title of Hero Fortress. It is one of the most famous World War II war monuments that commemorate the defense of the frontier stronghold during the first week of the war.