Dzien Dobry, Polska!

Arriving in Brest (Belarus) early in the morning was part of my dejavu. Just like the same trip last summer, that one was tiring and exhausting and made me want to cross the EU border as quick as possible. The only unfortunate difference was that our coach was parked across the bridge from the railway station and we had to go over it carrying our bags. Mine contained all those things I had with me as part of my “dress-to-impress” effort. But the closer the EU was, the lighter a heavy bag seems. So we got on our green coach safe and off we went driving through the streets of the early morning Brest till we reached the Belarus-Poland border. It would have all been the same dejavu if we hadn’t been asked to look out of the coach window while our luggage which was in the boot was being examined. Whoever saw their bag being taken out of the coach and thus randomly picked for closer examination, had to get out and open their bag in front of the customs officers and lots of other tourists waiting in other coaches to cross the border as well. Luckily, none of us had to do it and we didn’t have to struggle opening our bags as some other tourists did.
A quite handsome Polish customs officer stamped our passports and found out something was wrong with the guide’s visa, which caused a bit of a laugh because she was supposed to be the last person to have any problems of the kind. By the sounds of it, she would have to leave a couple of days later because her visa was expiring and the prospect of travelling without a guide didn’t sound too good.
About an hour later here we were in the EU and welcomed by one of its newest members, Poland. Dzien Dobry, Polska! That was my second encounter of this not so foreign to us country. This time I didn’t contemplate the tumultuous Russia-Poland relationship as I did the first time I was travelling here. I was just enjoying the incredibly green fields, the quirky Polish letters on advertisement boards, the sound of the Polish radio playing on the coach and our guide giving us some more details as to what we were going to see on this trip. It was all real and not for a tiny second did I doubt that . My reality of the time consisted of what was a striking contrast to Russia and Belarus. Beautiful streets, village houses with elegant swans and religious statues. They conveyed a sense of warmth and home. Some Poles were obviously enjoying planting crops (at least it looked like a leisure activity). I felt nice and comfortable, the way you’re supposed to feel when you had been to some place before. You put your fears and anxieties behind and just enjoy the moment. That’s exactly how I felt, a fresh and new sense of comfort. That was the first country on my trip I was visiting for the second time. That was a real-life miracle for me because at some point I thought I would never get to go abroad at all and here I was travelling Poland for the second time.
We enjoyed some more dejavu there going shopping in the familiar shopping mall. Like a bunch of seasoned travellers, we got stacked up with some food and felt at home with the Polish currency and being around foreigners in general – we are all humans at the end of the day! I knew I’d be back, I tell you, dreams do come true! That whole routine had a certain significance to it, like very few shopping trips in my life do. We got back on the coach and were on our way to the capital city, Warsaw. Another dejavu on my way!
I couldn’t wait to take a walking tour of Stare Miasto (Old Town) again and revisit the memories of my first-ever trip. We recognized some views of the city as we arrived. Yes, we weren’t as excited as we were at the same time last year but it was nice to be back and rediscover a bit of Warsaw.
People were out and about, it all looked like an ordinary working day and we were part of it for a couple of hours we were staying here. One of the first most recognizable sights was the Warsaw National Stadium that I said “Hi!” to for the second time. The vibe of the city seemed just as it was when we left. The only difference was that the sun was welcoming us back and that was building up the excitement for the first day of our trip.
The rest of the group went on a guided tour of Stare Miasto (Old Town) and we ventured to explore it on our own. For an hour and a half we had the city to ourselves and that was the most beautiful and amazing feeling and I knew at the time I would be writing about it!!! We were taking a leisurely stroll of Castle Square and taking in its beauty and glory which was restored after severe WWII bombings. Now that it seemed that it was just us and the city, this beauty was more lively and fresh.
Sigismund’s Column right in the centre of seemed to be leaning like the Pisa Tower and about to fall. That was a creepy visual hallucination all three of us were experiencing. But it was also charmingly beautiful against the clear blue sky. We took a moment to sit at the feet of the monument and feel a physical connection with the place. There were people reading or chatting and enjoying a lovely summer afternoon.
We had no time to lose so we made our way further to Dung Mound (Gnojna Gora). From up there we could enjoy the view of the Vistula, the Stadium and some more of the city. It was so beautiful and liberating to stop for a couple of moments. This is when I knew I got back in touch with the feeling of exploring and sensing Europe. I just needed to reach out my hand and it was mine again! Who was it living in that building on my left hundreds of years ago? Is there anyone living in there now? I was eager to know everything, like a child making their baby steps in getting to know the world outside…
There were horse-drawn carriages everywhere just as there were the last time we were here. I was asking myself if anything at all had changed and the answer is nothing had really but somehow it all felt different once we were properly exposed to it. The square wasn’t too crowded and I kept looking back as we were heading to Old Town Market Square to get more views of the place because I couldn’t believe I didn’t have to keep up with anyone and explore the place at my own pace. No guided tour can give you that feeling of freedom to explore. I was elated with joy!
There were all sorts of people walking by and it was so refreshing to see a variety of new faces exploring the city as well. There were also some Gypsies there and I instinctively held on to my bag. The street was lined with a lot of nice and lovely cafes where we could stop for a coffee or an ice-cream but maybe some other time if we happen to come again… It was all just as we left it… Poland is famous for cheap and high-quality food and everyone was welcome to taste it as part of their experience of Europe…
We were walking by St. John’s Archcathedral which was apparently closed for restoration. I was inside last year and it was a humbling spiritual experience even for a non-religious person like myself.
Then we found ourselves right at the heart of Old Town Market Square with a Syrenka (“Mermaid”) monument in the middle of it. Dzien Dobry, Syrenka! This is a beautiful female protector and symbol of Warsaw. We were lucky to find a vacant seat on a bench just opposite it and watched some joyful kids splashing their feet in the water below the monument. They were having a time of their lives and so was I taking in the amazing view of what I think a typical European capital is like… I could picture myself sipping coffee in one of the cafes nearby and letting the world go by reflecting on life… Here I was looking at the monument and windows of differently coloured houses and wondering if there’s anyone in there because to me they all looked like frozen pieces of life… From my observations, such houses are typical of major Polish cities. They were all really beautiful and painted a magnificent landscape in front of my eyes.
Since we didn’t have much time to spend reflecting on what living in a country which was a new member of the EU was like, we headed further into the city centre to explore it a bit more. We saw some nice retro car and more lovely cafes on our way. It all felt nice and homely. We found ourselves near the Barbican, these large high walls which used to be fortresses back in the day, so typical of Poland. It is the second-largest in Poland, we saw the largest one on our previous trip to Krakow. I love these architectural structures and somehow felt a connection with them on my first trip last year. We wandered surrounded by these large safe walls for a bit and took some photos of course. We climbed some stairs and got a nice view from up there. We also checked out some inscriptions scratched by a bunch of tourists who had visited before. That was when I truly and genuinely felt like a citizen of the world reading all of these marks left by people from different parts of the world. Could any of them know that very moment I was there reading these and thus connecting with whoever left them? I guess not but that’s the beauty of those inscriptions, as vandalizing as they are to an architectural structure. I reflected for a bit on what it was like back then when kings ruled the country and for a moment it all felt like my reality for the time… The clear blue sky and meticulous bricks made up the colours of my Warsaw afternoon.
Next to the Barbican, we came across a very sweet and touching treasure, a little stone boy, Mały Powstaniec, a statue commemorating children who fought and died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1939. I was standing there looking at this boy wearing a huge helmet on his head and it broke my heart to think of all these children who were killed and how wrong and unfair it was to take their young innocent lives… That was one of the most intimate and moving little monuments I’d ever seen! Amidst of this sightseeing, it just makes you stop and think for a second of how precious and fragile life is and how rightfully Warsaw was called a Phoenix city for rising up from flames and bloodshed of the war… May all these little heroes rest in piece and may their memory live on in this inconspicous place by the Barbican…
It was time for us to make our way back to Royal Castle Square. We watched some beautiful flower beds on our way and were basking in the Warsaw sun which was shining so welcomingly brightly as if inviting us to stay for a little bit more… We met some people basking in the sun as well and a couple of them were homeless and asleep. Well, if you explore more, you’re sure to come across more contrasts like this. We said goodbye to Royal Castle Square and made our way down to where our couch was parked. Our fellow travellers were not back yet so we had a little bit more time before we left. We walked a little bit to find this amazing green space with beautifully trimmed enormous bushes! It was nice to rest our feet and pose for some photos on the grass. It was an early afternoon and we had the whole space to ourselves!

It was now time to say a proper goodbye to Warsaw… We had so much to look forward to on that trip but this part is always a bit sad even if like this time, it’s the second time you’d done it. We drove for a bit to find ourselves outside the city and stopped for a lovely Polish lunch which was just as substantial and delicious as it was a year ago… Polish food is an amazing value for money! I think this is what we and Poles have in common when we really make an effort to make our eating experiences homely and intimate.
It was quite a long and familiar way to the Polish-German border and this little village where we were to stay for the night. On our way, I made an attempt to have a listen to a Polish radio station and I found that oddly interesting and engaging and I remember spending a couple of hours just figuring out some words which were similar to Russian and a few Ukrainian words I know. A pure linguistic delight can easily be found in any part of the world and that’s the beauty of my job and language is arguably one of the best ways to connect with the country you’re visiting even if it is just by hearing this language being spoken without understanding much of what’s being said.
We arrived at our hotel in a nice and small village which seemed like a nice place for a stopover. All we wanted now was a good night’s sleep which would get us ready for what the next day of our adventure would have to offer. Watching TV at this lovely hotel was also something I couldn’t miss out on my foreign trip. I popped into my sister’s room and we watched my favourite BBC World News and finishing up the leftovers of what we got earlier that day at Pajero. I love this channel because just like those inscriptions on the Barbican, in a way it keeps you in touch with the rest of the world. That was when we found out the news about the arrival of the royal baby George! How cute was that to be in Poland and to get a live coverage of the reaction in London! This news kept us awake a little longer and it was a really beautiful international experience and the joyous London seemed so much closer now that we were in the EU! We certainly couldn’t see the “It’s a Boy” sign from our hotel window but we felt part of the event anyway! Congratulations, William and Kate and all Brits! I messaged my British friend on Facebook and posted a photo from Warsaw on my timeline so that was my way to keep people updated with my adventures. Wi-Fi connection was surprisingly good! It was now hard to sleep for all the excitement but it was time for some shut eye. Amazed by my international experience of the day, I went to bed with a smile on my face. It is Dobranoc from me!

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…