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.
SAM_1524
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…
SAM_6928
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).
SAM_6931
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).
SAM_6930
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.
IMG_20120730_124433
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.
SAM_6937
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.
SAM_6935
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…
SAM_6945
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.
IMG_20120730_125646
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
SAM_6960
IMG_20120730_123554
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.
IMG_20120730_130456
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).
SAM_1531
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.
IMG_20120730_144920
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.
SAM_1504
SAM_1505
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.
SAM_1516
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.
SAM_1509
,SAM_1508
SAM_1511
I also enjoyed thujas. These are lovely trees that we don’t have much in Russia.
SAM_1482
SAM_1479
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…
SAM_6914

Getting there

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.

My capital

The way to the dream wasn’t going to be a short one… First we needed to take a train to Moscow which is about 500km away from Voronezh. In the capital we would meet our travelling guide and the rest of the tourists who would join us on our journey. We would then set on a train trip from Moscow to the city of Brest, Belarus which would take us about 14 hours. This is where our coach trip would get underway. If all went as planned, then we would cross the Belarus-Poland border and… would actually be in the dream (i.e. in Europe)…

Actually for me the trip started as we got on a train to Moscow… This was when it finally dawned on me that that was it, there was no way back and what seemed an alluring dream, then a beautiful plan was now my reality… It felt really scary to get on the road, to feel the way travellers do, experience life in the way they do… As I was looking at my city through the windows of the train, I was wondering whether I would be ever coming back again… It wasn’t that I felt homesick before I actually left but the thought of going on such an extensive trip for the first time ever was incredibly overwhelming… Maybe in moments like these you really need to be secure in the knowledge that there is a place where you belong and you would definetely be back whatever trips and journeys life takes you on… Anyway, firsts always feel scary and cause one to think in quirky ways…

I always feel uncomfortable and quirky on trains (which might effect my thinking as well)… I was on a sleeping car only a couple of times and I knew this could well be my least favourite part of the trip… I just hate to be on a sleeper with a bunch of other people… It feels much like an invasion of privacy (in Russia we don’t make much of it, though) with all these people going about their daily routine in the space of a small sleeping car… It might look like the Big Brother Show or something… It’s just something I can’t explain because even though I’m not used to having a lot of space to myself in my day-to-day life, being on a train and sharing this space with other people makes me sick… More like emotionally sick with me having to watch these people and them watching me… It just makes you wonder how fate works bringing together all these different people travelling for their own different reasons… It feels like so many lives and fates are cluttered here… Were we all really meant to be at the same time in the same place like that?

So our trip officially started as the train set in motion… The only thing I like about trains is to hear the sound of a train’s wheels touching the rails… This rumbling sound alone is so serene and calm and so Russian to me… (I know it should be pretty much the same in the rest of the world)… So here we were listening to this sound and basically doing nothing apart from playing cards (this is what Russians do if we have some time to kill time on a train…). I was getting my head around how on earth I was going to sleep on this terrible, revoltingly pristine lining on this bunk bed a countless number of people had laid in… On the plus side, I knew I was this one trip away from coming back to Moscow… It’s been a long long time and I was eager to experience my capital again… I was on a brief visit there about twelve years which was actually the only trip I had been on… So coming back to Moscow was like revisiting this time (not that I miss it but I just enjoy letting my brain take me down a memory lane which is always an interesting and in a way self-indulging experience) and see how the city had changed or I had changed in the way I see it… Lying on a bunk bed felt like lying under the train itself with the wheels beating in my temple… I was tossing and turning and let my imagination take me far far away, to all these places where a dream becomes a reality, where I see, feel, hear in a new way… I was wondering where exactly we were as the train took us further and further away… I need to remind myself that I was still in Russia and my actual trip hadn’t started yet… But our country is so big and diverse that travelling from its one end to the other would be a journey in itself and who knows – it might even teach one to see, hear, feel differently… I might someday find that out but only after I get this dream of mine come true. I was certain I would change in the process…

As a matter of fact, a trip to Moscow might feel as a trip abroad for some. It’s a fact that a capital and all its grandeur and magnificence don’t really sum up the country… Neither does Moscow sum up Russia… If Moscow is the heart of Russia, it means that it has so much more different kinds of blood pumping through it thus making it work with twice as much effort… This is how I see this difference between Moscow and the rest of Russia… It’s like Russia on an exaggerated scale blended with glamour, prosperity and pursue for the dream of prosperity for thousands of people coming here daily… I know it’s wrong to begrudge Moscovites their right to take this place for granted because it makes us seem truly provincial and makes them treat us in a patronizing way but it’s something that we can’t help really…

This is how I felt as I got off the train after a sleepless night and started taking in the capital and listening to the big heart of Russia beating with twice as much effort. I was ready to experience new things and even my bag that was heavy as much as I tried to empty it of all the things that I decided I could do without as I was packing back home did not stop me from feeling all these emotions… To my disappointment, things seemed the same as I left them back at home – people, streets, even the overcast sky seemed to follow us all the way from Voronezh…

I was terrified about the trip on the Metro (underground or tube depending on where you are in the world). We don’t have it here in Voronezh and the thought of travelling from home to work which seems so habitual to many people in the world was overwhelming…. But it wasn’t that bad after all and I even managed to do some people watching and wondered whether they could say that we were not locals or not and whether I could guess which of them were locals…. It was again fate bringing people from different background and sometimes places together in the same space… The Metro proved to be a quick and comfortable (something we are not used to here) way of travelling which took us to the centre of the big heart of Russia… I felt like the grandeur and beauty of Russia’s large heritage was within an easy reach as we were approaching the building of the Bolshoy theatre and seeing to the monument to Karl Marx on the way (which I remembered seeing in a travel guide book when I was small).

 

It felt like some opera music was about to play with people in fancy clothes and big smiles appearing from everywhere to get swept away by the power of art… I wanted to take a mental picture of everything – fountains, people, the vibe of the early morning capital.

I felt my heart trembling as I saw a glimpse of the Red Square from far away. This is sure the place not to be missed if you are in Moscow. It’s like travelling to London without seeing the Big Ben. The hotel where top celebrities stay at, the building of the Duma – everything felt surreal… The highlight of the trip was definitely the Red Square. The word “Red” means “beautiful” in old Russian. I virtually had to hold my breath before actually stepping in on the Square… It was like getting ready to take a dip into the ocean of emotions… Standing there I could actually feel the sound of blood pumping through the heart of Russia… It’s the image of Russia that we are grown up… It’s not the Russia that we see through our windows, it’s the Russia as an entity, as something massive both politically and geographically. It’s the place we remember from historical footages where so many crucial decisions were announced to the whole country listening in…

And, of course, it is the place for Victory Day parades with soldiers rumbling across Red Square bringing together people with a living memory of the devastating war and the emotions of people like myself who were lucky enough to be spared the sufferings of the time. There was so much history there that it made me want to cry… As I was walking down the square, I felt like it was a safe place to feel proud to be Russian and embrace a Russian in me. I felt privileged to be standing there and to be a sort of a memory card connected to all the variety of the feelings ranging from joy to sorrow felt here, all the events taking place here. It was a vague feeling but intense enough to make me emotional and say to my sister and friend who didn’t seem to be as impressed as me “Look around you!”. I felt incredibly proud to see all those people from around the world (especially from Asia) taking a guided tour of the square. I couldn’t believe that all these people came such a long way to experience the capital. It was incredible to look at their faces, hear them speak other languages. I knew I would be like one of those tourists the next day if (fingers crossed) I arrive safely in Poland. I had a feeling that here (in what I had to remember what was my own country) my first international got to a good start. It felt like Russia on the grandeur scale with me suffocating with history and seeing Russia the way people in the rest of the world see it. It was an iconic image of Russia. It was like a mirage to me which I felt physically. I wanted to come up to these foreigners and say “Love or hate it, this is Russia. We are ready to share it with you!”. I really felt like sharing just the way I’m sharing my feelings now…

I remember throwing a coin near the monument to Zhukov when I was to Moscow twelve years ago to come here again… And I did… I remember taking pictures of these places on our old photo camera which is now history… A lot has changed in the city itself or it’s rather me and my perception of the world around that changed…

I have one more thing to remind me of Moscow… It’s my Cheburashka T-shirt. Cheburashka is a character in a very popular Soviet cartoon. I have several Cheburashka toys at home as well. Cheburashka always brings out a child in me. And it was how I felt in Moscow, like a child who was so excited to see, feel, hear things…

It was an emotional day in Moscow and I think that it really got me ready for what would be my first trip abroad… It made my feelings more acute, enhanced my vision (the contact lenses were on of course). I was longing for more and said goodbye to Moscow only to come back here again as I got on the train to Brest… It was all REAL…

 

Introduction (Before it all started)

INTRODUCTION (JUST BEFORE IT ALL STARTED)

 

Travelling abroad has long been something I really wanted to do. For a number of reasons… First off, I have a strong belief that every person in this world needs to get around and explore the world. There is a German expression that comes to mind when we start elaborating on the educational value of travelling. It is “Reisen bildet” which means “Travel broadens the mind”… There’s no doubt about that really… But to me it’s not education in the classical sense, not the one that we can get at schools (for free if we’re smart and lucky enough to get into a nice school). It’s not education that makes one put an all-nighter and slave at books… There’s no need to sit exams and impatiently waiting for the results to come in… It’s not an obligation after all… A university education can potentially open up our eyes to the world and open the door into this vibrant world to us… But, likewise, it might not… Much depends on how one’s life works out… But travelling, which is to me a complementary form of education, does wonders for people… It makes you feel, see, hear… All of the things a healthy person can do at birth but… DIFFERENTLY… It can make you feel, see, hear in such a new, intense way that you may end up feeling you weren’t able to feel, see and hear before…

Ok, this is how I felt about travelling and the role it played in an ordinary human life. The bottom line is that I reckon one’s life ceases to be ordinary after they cross the border… And what’s across the border? This question got me wondering since I was a young kid. There’s this thing about growing up in this country. I guess it all goes back to the times when there was the so-called “iron curtain” when people were not free to get around. I don’t know exactly how people of other countries felt about this obviously dramatic situation but in this country even people like me who don’t have the memory of the iron curtain were born with the lasting notion that there’s something completely different, new, vibrant right across the border. I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my young mind I thought even the air abroad was different from ours… It might sound like a really stupid thing to assume as the air is not geographically confined… It is something that we all share… But what is truly different is its quality… We naturally find it easier to breathe in the countryside than we do in a sprawling city… It’s the same thing with life… It’s a gift we are all granted at birth but we all choose or have to use this gift differently… Some mess it up while others make the best of it… Sure, there’s a multitude of ways to live your life…

So, growing up I knew for sure there was something different somewhere outside this country where I was born… I had no clue whether I would ever get to feel, see, hear it… Or would it just stay a sort of a forbidden fruit I’d never have the privilege of tasting? Yes, here it is considered a privilege to go to another country… Well, there’s traditionally a list of countries that few people would like to go to… But Europe and America have always been a sweet paradise to us… I know this might seem like a very limited and foolish view… I guess it is the media that do a wonderful job giving us the impression people are more well-off in these regions of the world… This is what lures hoards of people into this heaven on earth… But the sad truth is that life is not that easy and the media often turn out to be highly biased and tend to twist the facts to suit their political agendas… It is up to the way one feels, sees and hears to make the right assumption and hence read between the lines or see beyond the screen (reading declines in popularity so this newly coined expression to me best describes this ability)…

So how do we think of things that are brand new and things we might never get to experience? They are all like a part of a FAIRYTALE… The one that ignited our imagination, nurtured a DREAM and took us far, far away (to what seemed a different country even if it was a classical Russian fairytale)… It’s something that we used to be read to sleep as we were lying tucked in warm nice beds of ours… It’s something that had the voice of that someone so close, so dear (one is so lucky if they have a person like that reading sweet fairytales to them)… And what if it is the right way to learn to feel, see, hear differently? I mean as sweet and tempting as a fairytale is, it’s even sweeter to be secure in the knowledge there’s that person or people who used to read to you to sleep now waiting for you to go back from this fairytale (it might eventually not turn out to be a fairytale) … It’s just a thought… I’ll be coming back to that later in my story which kicks off as soon as I set on my trip to a fairytale (or what might not turn out to be one)…

So after I had all these fairytales lovingly read to me and had my inflamed mind take me incredibly far away, how could I know I would ever find myself in a fairytale and have my innermost dreams ever come true? Eventually one of such dreams I wanted to see become real was seeing what was across the border and learning how to feel, see, and hear differently (well, I might have to learn to breathe differently as you remember I was on a mission to try whether the air abroad was different)…

I chose to pursue a career in foreign languages which obviously could be of help if I ever got a chance to go abroad. Basically my job is to teach others to use a foreign language in their daily life and make the best of all the opportunities it offers. Anyway, that’s what I’d like the ultimate goal of a teacher of a foreign language to be… So since I got into the University I knew I was compelled to develop a burning passion for travelling and was yearning to see more of the world. Actually my daily routine (almost my whole life really, except that incredibly brief trip to Moscow I was on when I was 11) was confined to the area between the place where I was born and the place where I moved to study. That was not the geographical scope of life I was dreaming of… My feelings, my vision, my hearing were longing to be enhanced, become more acute by what I thought could be the most amazing experience in my life.

Well, I AM a dreamer (I don’t even need people telling me this time and time again) and a part of me still childishly believed in fairytales and I sought to find out how much the media twisted the facts (both positive and negative). At that point I was educated enough to realize people abroad were not all naturally more well-off and had their problems to deal with. What I wanted to see is how different these problems were and how differently they were dealt with…

I was desperate for a breath of fresh air and wanted to get a taste of an education I was talking about in the beginning. I know too well that a University degree does not suffice to make a person really sophisticated and open their eyes to the world beyond. I had a physical and mental feeling it was not enough for me anyway… So it all came down to whether I ever got a chance to experience the diversity of the world…

Fairytales like that are not for free and one needs money to buy them a ticket to see what’s across the border. Sometimes I get way too pessimistic about life (is it about Russian people generally having a grim outlook on life?) and thought I might have to face the fact I might never get to live this dream of mine… I knew there are fairytale-like things life within the borders has to offer but I set my mind on travelling and wouldn’t let go of my dream…

I remember getting terribly jealous of people who were on a magic trip abroad… Some of them didn’t really care, I mean it wasn’t even a dream come true for them – they just wanted to have fun and perhaps show off and say they had money to spend… I mean they weren’t even transformed by this experience… Did they really learn how to feel, see, and hear in a different way? Or was it possible at all or was it just something I imagined in my dreamy mind? Well, there certainly was something magical about abroad that kept almost all people I know who had a ‘privilege’ (as I still think it is) of travelling abroad coming back for more… Whenever I asked them to tell me more about their trip(s), all of them struggled for words to describe it and there was something about the way they spoke, some glitter in their eyes that got me thinking there might be no words to describe these overflowing emotions so all I could do was get away and feel, see, and hear it all for myself… At least not all of these people were dreamers like me so there was a huge motivation for me to travel… Besides, there was no iron curtain to keep me from getting out of the country… Well, let’s admit which is in itself a dream for lots of Russians….

So here I was, really determined to go on a trip abroad. I knew I was going to book it with the money I’d earned myself without asking my parents to give me some extra money I lacked. Besides having my dream come true, going abroad with my own money would give me a huge confidence boost. It just makes all hard work and effort more worthwhile, not just something you have to do to survive. The time of anticipation of the fairytale is probably the longest but the sweetest. Whenever I felt down and drained, I looked into some trips on the website of the tourist company a person I know working for a tourist agency recommended. In an odd way all these tempting alluring descriptions of trips to different countries of Europe drew such bright, colorful, stunning pictures in my mind that I couldn’t wait to hit the road…. Other than that, it seemed to give my life a huge purpose…. At some point it really turned into an obsession, I could go on and on about my future trip and all the things I would be seeing and experiencing…

Choosing places to go to is next toughest thing after earning money…I heard lots of positive reviews of coach trips. It’s a relatively safe and comfortable way of travelling which offers a good value for money. It is reassuring to know that in order to get the privilege of travelling one does not have to be rich anymore. So fairytales and new countries are so much easier to reach and discover. As I said, after I chose the trip that looked interesting and affordable, my imagination ran wild. Virtually not a day went by that I didn’t fantasize of what it would be like to find myself in a completely different country. What will I be feeling physically and emotionally as I will be walking the streets of the cities I previously saw only on TV? The anticipation took over my mind completely. If I had the time, I think I would sit down and write a book about the trip I hadn’t even been on….

After the trip was booked and paid for, I got a quirky feeling that there was no way back and there was no changing my mind… Why would a person in their right mind be thinking like that, working hard towards his goal and then getting doubts about whether it was a right thing to do at all? I guess it was because the dream was so massive and so unlikely to ever come true (so I believed) and I relished so much just fantasizing about it that when it was actually to come true, it ceased to be a fairytale and became a plan. But I absolutely loved this plan and was hoping nothing would stand in the way of me staying true to it. It was a massively beautiful plan that really made me not care at all about some stupid and small things and people in my life. I was proud of myself for actually going along with my dream and not giving up on it despite of being told how dangerous it might be to go to a different country. There are certain risks involved in getting any dream come true really. But the biggest risk for me was that I might get disappointed with my trip and maybe I was mistaken when I thought that was the glitter in the eyes of the people who had travelled abroad? Or maybe it’s just a thing with every dream that it’s much sweeter as something you fantasize about than something that is true?

As I was just a couple of days away, I started getting really panicky. I hate packing even though I know it’s an indispensable (and the least fun) part of travelling. I was sitting staring at my suitcase having no clue how on earth I was going to pack all the stuff I wanted to take with me. I knew that all the things I would finally squeeze and force into my suitcase would be a part of this dream and will always remind me of this trip and my big dream for many years to come. At that point I got really sentimental. The thought of me being away from this country gave me a chill (?). What will be happening here as I will be away? All these questions and doubts kept bugging me. I guess it’s all part of our love-hate relationship with our country. We want to get away and afraid we’re going to be missing it after we do…

I knew that just in a couple of days I was going to see it all for myself. It’s actually a hard task trying to put this feeling into words. It’s like finally getting to meet your dream man, the one you’ve been longing to see which you thought would change your life forever. But as soon as you realize it’s just a human, you might be afraid of actually facing him. What if he turns out to be just a man but not the one you’ve been dreaming about? What if this date turns out to be a complete disaster with all your dreams come crashing down? Well, it wasn’t my idea of a perfect date anyway as I was paying for it all by myself and it wasn’t my dream man (countries in this case) wanting to see me, I was the one who wanted to go and see them. I had two options anyway – either I get utterly disappointed and find myself something else to dream about (I’m a dreamer so I shouldn’t have any problems with that) or I fall in love like mad and will be devastated as I know this date won’t last long and will have to wait and hope for another chance to go there again)…

Ok, I was all set to go, all my things packed. Needless to say, deciding on the wardrobe was the hardest thing to do as even though I knew my dream countries wouldn’t give a toss about the way I would look, I wanted to look my best (or as good as my suitcase will allow me to). I was hoping I wouldn’t leave anything behind because I wanted it to be a perfect fairytale and was ready to forget about the world I used to know and make a memory… Ok, I made sure I had taken my contact lenses (I was ready to see differently). Feeling and hearing shouldn’t be a problem either. I was wondering – will I be the same again? Is the air going to be different? Bon voyage to me anyway!