Poland. :)

Friday, August 27, 2010

When I think back to Erica's and my trip to Poland (which was over a month ago), I get a little sad. It was so much fun and I wish I could re-live that weekend all over again. Erica and I have talked about how the best weekends/trips/nights/whatever are usually the ones for which you have absolutely no expectations. That is definitely how I would classify our pre-Poland attitude; we had no expectations because we did not know what at all to expect.

I guess I should preface with the reason we were going to Poland. When I studied at Uni. Salzburg, I lived in IK amongst a multitude of international students, one of whom was a Polish boy named Piotr (full name pronounced 'Piotrek', pronounced like it looks -- P O trick...the American version of this name is just 'Peter'). He has extended the invitation for me to visit him in Poland so many times and I've always wanted to take him up on that offer. Last July, before I flew home, I was so close to coming and then backed out at the last minute. Over Christmas break when Lindsay and I were traveling around Germany, Austria, etc., I tried to plan a trip to Poland and it fell through. I tried to plan another trip since then, which also fell through -- the reason being that Poland is so hard to access. Everytime I look up the train itineraries to determine how one would travel from Austria to Poland, I end up deeming the trip more trouble than it's worth and cancelling my plans. For example, you can't purchase a ticket directly from Austria to Poland, so that means you'd have to get off in the Czech Republic and again inside the Polish border and buy tickets there, and any time I think about doing this, my stress level starts to rise and I say, "Okay, not going to Poland" and that's that.

This time was different though - very different. Piotr had already told me I could come any weekend I wanted. He also told me I could bring any friend I wanted. On a whim, I asked Erica if she wanted to be "that friend" and, somewhat to my surprise, she immediately accepted. Erica's grandparents are Polish and she has always wanted to go there. Her mom has been a few times but never Erica, which is interesting because Erica has spent several years in Europe (she's lived in Germany 2 different times, Switzerland once and now Austria). So I informed Piotr that we were coming and he told his parents (he lives with them) and we scheduled the trip.

Fast forward to Friday, the day we are supposed to leave. Erica and I have not yet purchased our train tickets to Poland. We are planning on take the 1:35 pm train to Brno (Czech Republic), transferring there to Katowice (Poland), then transferring there to Wroclaw (where Piotr lives). That's 3 trains and we have tickets for none of these. In the days to come, we would think back on this and marvel at how nonchalant we were about our lack of preparation. That day, for some reason, I didn't find it odd at all that we hadn't really thought about our trip longer than it took me to back a bag and bring it to work with me. We both had taken off a half-day so we could leave early from work and go to the train station. Hours before we were supposed to leave, I was sitting at my computer printing out the itinerary when I decided it would be best that we not go. As it had every other time I attempted the journey to Poland, the train itineraries were stressing me out to a point that I would rather cancel the trip in its entirety than actually attempt to go. I stopped over at Erica's office and casually said something like, "Should we even do this? Have you seen the train itinerary? There is no way we can make all of these connections when we don't have tickets for any of them". Please note that we literally had minutes (sometimes as few as 2 minutes) in between transfers and that if we missed a single train, we would not be able to arrive in Wroclaw at all that night.

Erica and I are very different and I am normally the one who says things like, "Don't worry, it will be fine, we don't need to plan, we don't need to think ahead, it will all work out". She is normally the one worrying, being responsible, planning things weeks in advance, etc. For some reason, in this situation, I was the one proceeding with caution and she was one the one telling me it would all work out.

Reason # 1 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We left work at 1:07. May I remind you that the train left at 1:35 and we didn't have our tickets yet. To get to the train station takes around 20 minutes....20 minutes from the time you step on the Stra├čenbahn. We still had to wait for that. As we were waiting, we were thinking, "There's no way we will make this train." But for some reason, we continued, believing it was possible. We took the Stra├čenbahn to the U-bahn to the train station and stood in line to buy our tickets.

Reason # 2 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We somehow chose the longest line in the ticket office. The man in front of us, I kid you not, was asking the ticket-man how to exit the train station. Erica and I wondered if this was a joke because why on earth would anyone not know how to exit the train station. You walk out the glass doors, through which you can see the street....that's how you exit the train station. The man was asking this at 1:30. Our train left at 1:35. We still did not have tickets.

Reason # 3 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We accessed the ticket counter at 1:33. Our train left at 1:35. Erica paid for both of our tickets to save time and the first time she inserted her credit card in the machine, she was so frazzled that she did it upside down. The transaction didn't work and we had to start over. By the time we had our tickets in hand the giant clock at the station read 1:34:40. That meant we literally had 20 seconds to run to our platform. Somehow....we made it.

^^^ We also somehow secured a compartment to ourselves, bought sandwiches off the food cart and rode successfully to Brno, Czech Republic....where we had 4 minutes to run (sprint) off of the train, buy our tickets to Katowice, Poland, find the correct platform and board the train.

Reason # 4 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We stepped off the train in Brno and we realized that everything was written in Czech and we had no idea where the ticket counter was. No idea. We both start running in circles, basically, looking for a ticket counter. We finally find one.

Reason # 5 why we never should have made it to Poland:

The ticket counter doesn't take credit cards. Neither of us have any Czech Kronen (only euros). At this point it's just funny. Now we have to find an ATM and then return to the ticket counter to buy our tickets to Katowice. We have, oh, about 2.5 minutes to do this. Somehow, we do it and successfully board the train to Katowice.

Reason # 6 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We sat in the dining car and ate salads (we now had some Czech Kronen to spare) and looked at our itinerary. Literally the moment after Erica said the words, "We will have 20 minutes to spare for this next connection, so we'll be fine", we overheard the ticket-man say to someone (in English) that the train was delayed 20 minutes.

Reason # 7 why we never should have made it to Poland:

Once we realized the train was delayed, I called Piotr and told him. I asked him to look up if there was another train we could take from Katowice to Wroclaw or if we would need him to drive to Katowice to pick us up. He told us if we missed our train, we could take another one....that would get us to Wroclaw at midnight. Our scheduled arrival time was 9:35, which was already late and we definitely didn't want to arrive at midnight. I asked Piotr if there was any way we could just board the train and buy tickets on board (you can't do this in Austria but I thought maybe you could in Poland). He said yes, actually, this is possible -- you just have to tell the man in the front car that you need a ticket and then someone will sell you one once the train starts moving. Perfect, we thought. Then he told us....they only take Zloty (the Polish currency). Funny. We only had Euros.

Reason # 8 why we never should have made it to Poland:

We arrived in Katowice 20 minutes late (due to the train delay) but figured it wouldn't hurt to try to find an ATM anyway, just in case we could make the train that was schedule to leave in, oh, 10-20 seconds? We decided that running around in circles probably wasn't the best plan, so Erica started asking people where an ATM was. That's when we realized that absolutely no one there spoke English. I'm pretty accustomed to everyone everywhere speaking English. But this is Eastern Europe and I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Eastern Europe might as well be its own continent. Finally, Erica switched to German and a woman understood and directed us to an ATM. I withdrew money for both of us (a total of 40 seconds has passed) and we run as fast as we can (up flights of stairs) to the correct platform. Oh, and I should mention that it was downpouring rain at this point. Somehow (still don't know how) we stepped on the train just as it was leaving and poked our heads in the first car window to tell them we needed to purchase tickets. They (I guess?) understood and nodded. We found seats in a compartment and then began hysterically laughing at the realization that we had actually made all of our connections even though we really, really shouldn't have.

On the way to Wroclaw, we watched Youtube videos on Erica's blackberry (Marina and the Diamonds, on repeat) and looked out the window, commenting on how incredibly different Eastern Europe is from Western Europe. Erica has been to Russia and she said that so much of Poland was already reminding her of Russia (something she would repeat as the weekend progressed). We finally purchased tickets and I called Piotr to tell him that we would, indeed, be there at 9:35 and he said he'd be waiting for us. I got so excited to see him; I hadn't seen him in exactly 1 year, when we both left Salzburg in July 2009. Erica tried speaking Polish by reading off of the ticket. The Polish people in our compartment smiled and laughed politely and that was our first indication of how nice Polish people are (in Austria or Germany, if you so much as mispronounce a syllable of German, you might receive death stares that make you feel like an ignorant fool).

We finally (still not sure how) made it to Wroclaw at 9:35. I found Piotr and he and Erica got along immediately. He told us that we were waiting there for his friend (also named Piotr) who would be joining us for the weekend. We met up with "the other Piotr" and the "original" Piotr drove us to his family's house. ^^^ The "original" Piotr and Erica.

When we arrived at Piotr's, to say we were met by a welcoming committee would be an understatement. First of all, Piotr's mom had prepared a feast -- and I am not using that word lightly -- for us, which was spread across a large table on the back patio. Both she and Piotr's dad greeted us warmly and then around a dozen or so of Piotr's friends began to show up. Some of them had never met an American before and Erica and I couldn't help but feel like royalty.  They were asking us for photos seconds after meeting us, haha.  We felt so welcomed and the food was amazing. We thanked Piotr a million times and after awhile, they informed us that this is a very normal Polish tradition ("dating back to the Middle Ages"); when a house guest from out of town comes in for a visit, no matter what time of day or night it is, you prepare all the food you have so that a feast awaits them. Erica and I are definitely a fan of that custom.

We woke up early (very early) the next morning to see the city of Wroclaw.

Piotr and Piotr showed us around all day.
I looooooove the colorful buildings.
 It is such a hidden gem. I love it.

While sight-seeing, the boys showed us a famous tower.
I don't remember the name, so for now it'll just be
"a famous tower."
You pay 5 Zloty (which is, like, 1 euro)
to climb to the top.
Erica and I paid and the boys waited at the bottom for us
(and I learned that, apparently,
there is a difference between 5 Zloty and 5 Zloty cents).
We were secretly glad that they did not accompany us
when it took us much too long to climb the stairs.
We were seriously out of breath.
It was also super hot and we felt like we were going to pass out.
But the view from the top was great!

When we came back to Piotr's house,
his mom had made us another awesome meal:
traditional Polish stew
with Blueberry Pierogi (above) for dessert.
Erica knew all about Pierogi but I did not.
It is my new obsession.....

The boys had planned everything out for us
down to the minute.
It felt so nice to be taken care of
and guided around -
we literally had to make no effort whatsoever all weekend.
Also, Erica and I calculated that we saved more money
(even with buying our train tickets)
by going to Poland than if we had stayed in Vienna.
We discussed how this is the best way to travel -
no more staying in hostels and navigating on your own....
only visiting locals who host you so well!
They took us to the mall and we shopped a bit.
They took us to dinner at a really good pizza restaurant
(where we learned
that Polish people eat ketchup with EVERYTHING!)
They took us to a fountain show
(I can't really explain that, but it was so fun).

They also took us to a Polish brewery,
where they brew honey beer!
It reminded me of the butterbeer in Harry Potter.
Shown above is:
Piotr, Piotr and Piotr.

The one in the middle is my friend from Salzburg.

The end!

Next post:
our journey back to Vienna...
which is arguably more ridiculously unbelievable
than the journey to Poland from Vienna.
No, not arguably.
Details forthcoming.

Jan said...

Oh dear, I'm not sure I want to read the next one then. Go easy on it okay?

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