only in europe

Thursday, November 4, 2010

When I planned my trip to Italy, I made a list of all the possible "ways home". I looked at Ryanair to see where I could go from Bologna. I made a list of every feasible city and wrote the price of each flight; then added the amount it would cost to get me from the arrival city back to my city in Germany. I had 5 different cities to choose from (2 in Germany, 2 in Spain - where I could visit Salzburg friends, 1 in Belgium - where I could visit Christie) and I added a 6th option (Poland) just  to see how much it would cost. I didn't want to just go back to Uttenreuth and sit in my apartment for the rest of my break (10 days is a long fall break! And I'm not complaining). All of my other Fulbright friends had planned major trips of their own.

Lo and behold, Poland was the cheapest option. This shouldn't have surprised me but it did. I also kind of didn't want it to be the cheapest; I felt like visiting a 3rd time in 4 months would be excessive. But regardless of that, Ryanair flights are so cheap that even with my flight ticket and paying Karol some gas money to drive me back from Wroclaw to Uttenreuth, it was by far the cheapest option. I also knew that I would be paying for virtually nothing during my stay in Poland.

I left Italy on Tuesday morning. Erica had class so I packed up my things and walked to the train station by myself. It was a small victory for me -- not getting lost during the 40 minute walk from point A (Erica's apartment) to point B (train station). I took a bus from the train station to the Bologna airport. I checked in and strolled through security. When I say "stroll", I mean it - I strolled through. No one looked at me as I walked through the metal detector and no one was sitting next to the screen as I sent my bags down the conveyor belt. It was slightly alarming. I boarded my plane and fell asleep before take off (this happens on every flight, I think). Only 1 hour later, I had landed in Krakow.

I knew I could take a free shuttle bus from the Krakow airport to Krakow Glowny (the train station). I found the free shuttle bus immediately and stepped on. The bus stopped at a train platform, however -- not the train station. An announcement came on the loud speaker (first in Polish, then in English) instructing all passengers to exit the bus and board the train on the platform, which would then take us to the train station. I did so, knowing that I had no Zlotys (Polish money - I had not yet seen an ATM to withdraw these) to purchase my ticket on the train but I hoped I could pay with euros (this is acceptable in certain non-euro locations). Once on the train, I realized that it was not possible. By the grace of God, a young Polish girl said to me, "Do you want me to buy some euros from you? I have Zlotys I can sell you". I pulled a 5 euro bill from my wallet and said, "Will this work?". She gave me 20 Zlotys (luckily, I know this exchange rate well and I knew this was a 100% fair trade). I thanked her repeatedly and bought my ticket (which was only 7 Zlotys). I sat next to her and asked if she was getting off at the train station, too. She said yes and I said, "Good, I'll just stay with you, then" and she smiled.

We got off together at the train station and she asked me, "Is this where your journey ends?". I said, "No I am taking a train to Wroclaw". Her eyes lit up when I said this and she said, "I'm going to Wroclaw!". I asked her where she was coming from and she said she had just landed from Bologna. I told her I had just landed from Bologna, too and asked what she was doing there. She said she was visiting her boyfriend who lives in Bologna and asked me what I was doing in Wroclaw. I laughed at all of our coincidences and we walked to the ticket office together.

The train ride from Krakow to Wroclaw is 5 hours. I knew there was a train leaving Krakow at 19:30 and getting to Wroclaw at midnight. I walked with Magda (my new friend) to the ticket box. She told the ticket woman that she needed 2 student tickets from Krakow to Wroclaw (my Salzburg student ID is infinitely valid...miraculously, they never stamped an expiration date on my card). The woman told Magda they don't accept credit cards and, knowing that I didn't have any Polish money at the time, Magda bought my ticket for me.?! Granted, this cost less than 10 euro so it was not a huge expense but I thought it was so nice, nonetheless. I told her that I could either go to an ATM and withdraw Zlotys to pay her back or I could go to the bank upstairs and exchange my euros. I noticed that she only took one ticket from the ticket woman (which she handed to me). I asked her where her ticket was and she said she only had enough money for one. I, of course, felt horrible and told her I could have gone to the ATM and withdrawn money (which is what I would have done had she not been with me). She said, "No! You are a guest in Poland. It was my pleasure. We have over an hour until our train. I have time to buy another ticket". ...Oh and let's talk about this -- less than 10 euros for a 5 hour train ride? That is ridiculous. In Germany, a 5 hour train ride would cost upward of 80 euro, probably. The prices in Poland will never cease to amaze me.

We walked to the mall adjacent to the train station (super convenient). I exchanged some euros I had in my wallet so I could pay Magda back immediately. I asked her if she wanted to get something to eat and she said sure, so we walked to the food court where we had a variety of eating establishments to choose from: McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, KFC, Starbucks, etc. I asked Magda where she wanted to eat and she said, "You are a guest in my country. You choose".

We mutually agreed on Subway and sat down to eat together.  She asked me if her English was okay and I told her it was great. She said she was nervous talking to me and that this was the first conversation she'd ever had with a native speaker. I told her she was doing so well and she thanked me and told her it meant a lot that I said that and that it gave her confidence. This made me so happy because I fully understand what a struggle foreign languages can be.

Over dinner, I learned that she is 19 and was born and raised in Wroclaw. She is engaged, actually (so she learned the word 'fiancée' ) and her fiancée is also Polish, but he is living in Bologna playing basketball professionally. One thing I love about Polish people (and this goes for mostly all of them I've met - Magda included) is that they are so proud of the country. So many Americans talk about how terrible our country is, all the negative things they hate about it, etc. Especially growing up in a place like Oklahoma, which many consider boring and uninspiring, I became accustomed to hearing comments like, "I can't wait to get out of Oklahoma. This place has nothing to offer."  Poland, like any country, is far from perfect. I mean, to be quite honest, I don't know if I could even live there for an extended period of time. Yet the Polish people I've met love their country; the language, the people, the customs, the history. Magda was so flattered when I told her that I love Poland and it was really nice to hear her say, "I love Poland, too. I love living in Wroclaw".

We finished our meals and Magda purchased her train ticket and we boarded the train....only to find out that there was an hour delay. I found my head phone splitter in my purse and asked Magda if she wanted to listen to my iPod to pass the time. She had fun picking out songs and told me my taste in music agreed with her. :) We talked continually for the next few hours but even with the nice conversation, it seemed we would NEVER arrive in Wroclaw.

On that train ride, I keep thinking how I am constantly humbled by the kind people I meet over here. I don't I immediately trust everyone I meet but there's no doubt in my mind that I've met more good people than bad. At one point of the train ride, Magda phoned her dad to tell him we'd be arriving late and she explained to him that she wasn't alone. She told him about me and when she hung up she said, "My dad told me to tell you that he really appreciates you looking out for me and that if you can't get a ride at the station for some reason, we can give you a ride home". I wanted to tell her that I had assumed she was looking out for me - not the other way around! Come to find out, this was her first time to really travel on her own so her parents were feeling pretty uneasy. I was so impressed by her genuine sweetness all the way to Wroclaw and when I found out she lived very close to where I was staying, I told her we could give her a ride home. That way, we were able to spare her dad from making a 1:00 am trip to the train station.

When she got out of the car, she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and asked me for my name so she could Facebook me (we have since made plans to hang out this weekend and go to the Sunday market). When I told my Polish friends about this, they laughed and said, "Leave it to you to make a new best friend during a 6 hour train who doesn't even really speak your language."

That's one reason why I love living in Europe. Every day is such an adventure and situations like this happen all the time. Of course, some times these adventures aren't so the time Jenny and I had to sit at a street cafe in France for hours on end drinking overpriced water while waiting to board a midnight train for which we didn't even have tickets. Or like the time Lindsay and I planned the trip of a lifetime (Austria, Spain, Germany) only to wake up each morning of the trip facing more monumentally frustrating obstacles than the day before. But other times, as was the case with Magda, sometimes these adventures lead to meaningful relationships. I have so many examples of crazy stories where random trips here and there make me stop and question what is "coincidence" and what isn't.

This is the part when I stop and laugh and say, "Only in Europe!"
Jan said...

What an adventure. I'm glad you met such a special girl. God is so good isn't He?

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