After four months of living in Poland I can say my move from the States was a wise one. For the first time in years I have been forced out of my comfort zone in a multitude of ways. Living in a different culture and navigating daily life can be filled with a myriad of challenges, but also small positive success stories. Being reminded of this and always putting things in perspective has benefited me well.
One area that I sorely neglected during the Covid years was traveling. Aside from getting in my car and going for two to three hour drives, I didn’t interact with other people. Restaurant trips were fast food at best and I made it a point to go as far away as possible from civilization. Central Europe is a completely different beast. Getting around is not as easy as jumping in my car. Planning has to be done, logistics examined, and firm dates are now the norm.
Perhaps I had lofty goals starting this school year to visit a different town in Poland each month. With my desire to check out other cities outside the country, I have been playing catch up the last few weeks to make sure that prior to Christmas vacation my goals are met. While I have visited new places like Częstochowa, Lubliniec, Jaroslaw, and Katowice, I have also visited some familiar haunts from my previous stint in Europe.
My first trip outside of Krakow was to Warsaw. This was a crazy trip to me, more emotionally than physically. Warsaw was the reason I moved to Poland. When I taught in Italy four plus years ago, on two different occasions I spent time in Warsaw and absolutely loved the city. Whether it is more of a reflection on me or just the city itself, the September trip to Warsaw felt more like checking off a box.
The city was dirty and not kept up the way it had been on previous visits. My favorite park was a shell of its past glory and nowhere as inviting or the refuge it once served. Even my run down to the river was methodical and off putting. If it hadn’t been for a cut through Lazienki Park I would have written the entire trip off.
Despite the mixed trip to Warsaw, the positives were evident. I learned to ride the trains and navigate the process. Now I know for certain that visiting smaller second tier cities would become the norm.
Lubliniec and Jaroslaw were next on deck and they were awesome. Many tourists overlook such spots, but between the castle from the 1500s and the 18th century manor nestled among the corn fields, I wouldn’t trade any of it for a bustling major city.
This past Poland city trip was a return to the Baltic Sea and to an area far busier than I remembered. I booked these tickets in September after my trip to Warsaw and before venturing out to newer places. Sopot and Gdansk were bright spots years earlier. Like my first visit, being on the water was therapeutic and between Amber Alley and the boardwalk to the molo, I was in a safe place.
For the most part, the return trip - only a weekend jaunt - was fine. I was in a familiar place, but not exactly one that was home. Maybe it was due to the colder weather or the clouds, or simply the fact that this vibrant water community is a shell in the winter compared to those long summer days.
I can’t exactly explain how I felt, just that it was all right. Although I wonder if my gallivanting to Estonia and Latvia hurt the return trip. There was a point where I wanted to live in this part of the country. Now after a second trip, while I wouldn’t group it with Warsaw, it’s only an area worth visiting to me. Even now after two trips, I’m not certain when I will return knowing there are so many other places in Poland that I would like to experience.
Still, I know on this last trip I simply tapped open the potential. As a World War 2 buff, Gdansk is an amazing place to see and explore. The seagoing tradition and the long standing commercial trade by being on the Baltic Sea is interesting, as is the Solidarity Movement and how these shipyards were the ones that brought about greater change in Poland. The community embraces the seasons and the ever growing Christmas Market seeks to bring locals and tourists together. Between shopping, concerts, the arts, a bustling restaurant scene, and a multitude of outdoors activities, there really is something for every person and family.
I appreciated the opportunity to visit, but it’s time to visit smaller areas of Poland and to get a glimpse into daily life for those in the provinces if you will, not those within minutes of the major cities.
I should add there was a bright spot to this trip, visiting Wojtek the bear, who served during World War 2 as part of the Polish military. A new statue in Sopot, I loved seeing their rendition of the bear and learning more about his place in Polish history. For me this made the entire trip. Hopefully you’ll enjoy that part of the vlog, as well as the exploration of the more popular spots in not only Sopot, but also Gdansk.
As for me, it’s time to shift to the next journey and to seeing what Poland truly has to offer.
I’ll be straight with you as much as I might say I’m a hiker, I’m not. I love walking, especially on paved trails, but the idea of hiking upwards is not exactly a tempting activity. Part of this might be due to my love of running. I know there are more potential hiccups when scaling mountains or rocky surfaces. With one roll of an ankle, I’m out of commission for a few weeks or a month. At this point in my life, I’d rather be able to run.
That being said, I have hiked on shorter trails and along lakes and rivers in New Hampshire. If you ask me if I have done any of the 48, you’ll get a strange look on my face. I feel like I have by watching Northwoods Law and all the rescues they have done, but I know enough to not even joke about climbing Mount Major.
I’m kidding of course, I know Mount Major isn’t anywhere close. The serious hikers are just that serious about their hiking. As much as I like being out in the elements, two to three hours running, the idea of a six to seven hour hike seems daunting even to me. That being shared, I hoped when I was in Ireland to do a cliff walk. That was penciled in from the beginning.
If I couldn’t figure out a way to go to Cornwall, then Dublin would be my compromise and I would find a way to walk along cliffs that looked out onto the Irish Sea. Originally, the plan was to do Howth. Several work colleagues mentioned the beauty of the hike and the fact it was a couple hours at most with restaurants on both ends.
Truly if the hostess at my AirBnB hadn’t said anything I was all primed to hit the Howth trail that Saturday morning. After a good conversation and some prodding, I decided it would be more of an adventure to take the train across Dublin to the other side of the bay where Bono and Enya reside in their palatial homes. To get a different perspective of the city and the coastline, was too good for me to pass on.
Unlike Howth which I could see clearly from Bull Island, I had no preconceived notions on Bray and what to expect. I didn’t even know it was the first summer resort town in Ireland until I read the sign post explaining as much. The only information I had was to take the train to Bray and follow the water to the trail. There wasn’t anything else for me to go on. Greystones was the final destination, that is if I could find my way.
Downtown Bray reminded me of many seaside communities and brought a smile to face with their restaurants, colored houses, and Victorian brick homes. In the distance I couldn’t miss the cross that looked down from afar. Even in the video I made, you hear me make a comment about how I would be perfectly content just hiking up there for a look and calling it a day.
Little did I know my words would be fortelling as my fortunes to hike to Greystones were diminished before I even got going. A rickety and easily passable fence closed off the trail I intended to take. Not following the rules, I cut around and figured I could hike part of the way at least. Those bright Irishmen knew of my intentions. Not more than a three minute walk and a few bends in, they put up a heavy duty metal gate to keep walkers like me away from the landslide. Unless I was willing to scale a rock face and take my chances sliding across to the other side, it would be for naught.
I wish I could say I was upset, but being by the Irish Sea and getting a glimpse of a smaller town in Ireland was already a win in my book. Prepared to head back to the beach and people watch, I might have done just that until an older gentleman stopped at the gate. We chatted for a bit as he was about to set out for his daily two hour walk. This was his post heart attack routine to stave off any recurrence.
The trail to Greystones was closed indefinitely with over three tons of fallen rock to contend with. Only from his recommendation did I find out that hiking to the cross would take me to Greystones. He mentioned a trail, a gate to a farm, another gate, and then down to Greystones. While it would be more difficult and longer, the views would be far superior to anything I would have seen on the original cliff walk.
With two bottles of water and snacks, I set out for this hike. I had no clue how long it would take or how complicated it would be. The initial steps seemed easy enough until I saw the muddied trail of slick rocks and roots. Never one to go on the beaten path I looked for a side trail knowing it was a matter of when I took a spill, especially with a camera in one hand.
Thankfully, I saw a deer trail, a side route littered with leaves that branched out away from the main route. I figured it couldn’t be any worse and aside from the log I had to climb under, I was right. My quads and hammies would tell you otherwise as the trail got steeper and rockier, but it was manageable. Dare I say it was actually fun?
I forgot about the amazing views. I was able to see the mountains, the valley, Bray, and of course the ocean. By the time I made it to the base of the cross, I lost all ambition to touch the structure, let alone take a picture. No, I was focused on the trail, the road ahead, and the gate to the farmer’s pasture.
This was when I saw the real Ireland. I’m not just talking about the huge cow patties or the sea breeze slapping me in the face. I saw the rolling hills, the reds and yellows of the bushes, and well worn paths. I felt like I was in a movie trekking along on this dirt path over the ridge line to wherever my feet would lead me.
Bull Island was a treat, but this was idyllic.I didn’t even make it to Greystones. I hiked far enough to see the cove and the water line, but the desire to trail blaze and cut back across the way I came was too great. Now granted, the briar patches that cut my legs up might tell a different story or the troop of senior women parading along the one way trail, but all and all it was a great hike.
If I knew hiking was something like this, I might have taken up this hobby earlier. Here’s to finding the next Bray to Greystones route and to seeing what beauty other countries have lurking outside their city centers.
There was a point in the walk to Bull Island where I intended to share a short story but between the wind and the run in with the Easter Island statue, I dropped the ball entirely. You’ll notice as much when you watch the video. My apologies. With this being the holiday season, especially with Thanksgiving underway, I can’t help but think how important giving is in all our lives.
Many struggle this time of year, far more than other times. Some are lacking in basic necessities, others are without emotional or physical support. I don’t need to jump into war torn areas, where we know the need is great, but as I look outside the door and those I pass on a daily occurrence, I have no other recourse.
As a teacher in New Hampshire, I saw first hand how school districts support those who don’t have enough food, clothing, or even shelter. Here in Poland it’s a bit different. I know there is a need but I don’t know what channels they have to provide. The number of Ukrainian refugees living here clearly shows that Poland is a country that embraces a giving mentality. Many Polish families welcomed Ukrainians into their homes with open arms. They allowed them a place to stay until a suitable arrangement could be made during this trying period. Even now the country continues to support Ukraine in whatever way it reasonably can.
Back in the States, many live in a bubble. I know I did until sixteen years ago when I transitioned out of the Navy and went back into education. I remember gathering what belongings I did have in Maryland and finding to my surprise that my favorite fleece blanket was gone. I looked around the house, in every drawer, closest, and box. The unicorn blanket had been a keepsake since middle school and a favorite of mine.
I didn’t take it to South Carolina or Florida for fear of it being taken or lost, let alone knowing the blanket couldn’t be brought to boot camp or training command without an ample amount of ribbing. To say I was bummed, was a bit of an understatement. When it came up in conversation at the dinner table, I found out why the blanket was gone and how.
Stephen in his overly generous nature had given it to a homeless man in Washington DC. My first thought was you gotta be kidding me. Why did he take my favorite blanket? He didn’t donate his Grizzly Bear fleece but I guess anything that wasn’t my twin’s was fair picking. That’s exactly what happened. All said, some clothes, a second blanket I overlooked, and the unicorn fleece were all thrown into Stephen’s truck and delivered to a homeless person he saw near the Days Inn in downtown Washington.
I couldn’t be mad since it was for a good cause, but I found it fitting that my twin had only given up my belongings. I can hear his voice, “You weren’t using them.”
From what I gathered he did this multiple times. It was sort of a funny joke in the end because Stephen had passed eight months earlier and I could hear him rationalizing his giving even without having a formal conversation. This was the same guy who after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 said he was changing his life because if the Sox could come back from down 3-0, then he could do anything he set his mind to. Sadly, his own personal quest ended far too soon, but his legacy and the lessons he provided continue to this day. At the very least, I know my blanket found a good home.
In Dublin this specific memory popped in my head after I passed an old woman.
Let me back track, this memory didn’t show up until a few hours later on the return walk to my Airbnb.
The first time we crossed paths, she was up against a derelict building door. She mumbled something probably in Gaelic and held up a paper cup. I waved slightly and carried on more focused on finding Bram Stoker’s Park and his childhood home.
A typical American, I blew by her but not fast enough to lose sight of her condition and to see the whites of her eyes. She was barely sitting up and if not for the wall, I’m not sure if she wouldn’t be on her side. How she got to that spot, I couldn’t fathom, but at that moment I also put her out of my mind.
In Riga and now here in Dublin, seeing people in hardship pulled at my heartstrings, but I knew I couldn’t give to everyone I saw. There was no way to tell who was truly in need and who was putting on a show. Maybe that’s jaded, but it’s also the truth.
Three hours passed and I was cutting back after my tour of central Dublin. There was the old woman with the squinting eyes still against the wall. A light blue fleece blanket was wrapped around her legs.
I’m confident there wasn’t one the first time we crossed paths.
Again she spoke and I gently shrugged and smiled. Several seconds passed and I kept walking. I felt for my wallet and wondered how much cash I had. I knew I didn’t have change and anything less than a significant bill. About that time, when I was rationalizing why I shouldn’t stop, Stephen and his unicorn snatching deeds came to mind.
Possessed by Stephen’s memory and what was the right thing to do, I turned around. She didn’t see me coming as her back was turned. I tapped her on the shoulder. She lifted the cup and I shook it off.
Slowly I knelt down and handed her the bill. Tears filled in her eyes and she spoke in Gaelic. I’m pretty sure I know what she said, but we’ll save that for another story. We didn’t have to exchange another word. I saw the angel looking back at me, a woman who hadn’t always been this way, who had a long life up till now, but had fallen on a rough time.
I felt what she felt and knew this small gesture would help her more than it would me in finding another place to stuff my mouth and fill my stomach. I walked home hopeful for the old woman. More importantly, I was thankful for Stephen, his memory, and the lesson he taught me years earlier.
In this season of Thanksgiving it doesn’t matter how much you give, but that you put yourself in the right place to help those in need, in a way that truly serves. If you happen to see a unicorn fleece blanket, do let me know.
Growing up just an hour north of Boston, I considered myself Irish even if my bloodlines said otherwise. I know many from my youth that feet the same. My family was quick to frequent local watering holes such as Master McGrath’s and Patricks. We appreciated the food, the atmosphere, and of course the music.
I may have been a bit envious of one local family, immigrants from the Emerald Isle, whose boys sported tattoos of their beloved Irish flag. While my family never took us across the pond to visit, we still felt a kinship, a closeness to all that was Irish.
Being raised Catholic magnified our inner Irish spirit especially upon learning about Saint Patrick and how he kicked all the snakes out of Ireland while converting the locals to Christianity. In my late teens and early twenties, I found a love for Irish theme movies from The Matchmaker to The Quiet Man.
After my mother relocated to Annapolis, my twin and I found ourselves journeying with her many times to the Killarney House for some traditional Irish folk singing and food. While the years have passed and our family dynamic has shifted, mainly with the passing of my twin, those bonds we shared over Irish meals and songs never changed and surely are to be never forgotten.
I’m not sure when I first planned to visit the country. I know I had seriously considered as much when I left to teach in Italy. The budget airlines made it more than affordable, but for whatever reason logistically I wasn’t able to pull it off. Fast forward to four years ago and I booked tickets to travel during a long April weekend. I intended to go around the time of Stephen’s anniversary, to celebrate the island with him if you will.
I don’t remember what canceled this trip. I think it was food poisoning or some other mean bug that roared its ugly head just a day or two before I was to depart. Like everyone else that has put their life on hold due to the pandemic, I decided once I moved to Europe I couldn’t wait any longer.
Veteran’s Day this year fell on a Friday, which coincided with Polish Independence Day and a long weekend from work. Knowing I had the time, I bought the ticket in early September and made the plan to travel to Dublin. There were other places on the island I wanted to see and visit, especially with my desire to find the town where they filmed the matchmaking festival in Janeane Garofalo’s romantic comedy. Still, I had to be reasonable. Dublin was the most direct flight and for $70.00 I wasn’t going to fight that price.
I could hear my brother whispering in my ear about visiting the Guinness factory and getting our official perfect pour certificate as well as our fill of that liquid brew. I shudder at the idea of wasting time drinking what I considered a beer that tasted more like crappy coffee, even though I knew if he was alive this would have been a prerequisite to any trip.
There was a compromise in my planning to visit the downtown area. I know there didn’t need to be one, but I still thought of his wants and desires when making this pilgrimage. To begin I made it a point to stay outside the center, close to parks and decent running. Clontarf seemed and was the perfect spot. I knew the cliffs of Howth were within range and Bull Island was less than forty minutes by foot.
Knowing I had preplanned nature I wondered where Stephen would have liked to venture to save the beer factory. Always amused by his name on signs and venues, St. Stephen’s Green was nonnegotiable. While Stephen wasn’t overly religious, I knew he wouldn’t turn away from a brief tour of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as long as he wasn’t paying and we did a Kuiper Twin driveby. If you don’t know what that entails, let’s just pretend you have the attention span of a gnat and walk through every room and fixture without reading a thing.
Other than those two spots, the rest was open to whatever whim we wanted to follow. There were no serious restaurants I had to visit. Whatever looked cute and not packed was the order of the day. For myself and Stephen we had to have mussels in some form and there had to be a true hiking trip along the cliffs of the Irish Sea.
I thought any other additional planned venues would be too ambitious and for someone that hasn’t traveled with much frequency these past three years not reasonable, especially after my recent trip to Estonia and Latvia. While Estonia had been a reprieve, the congested feelings of Riga lingered and was a recent reminder of what I didn’t want to experience anytime soon.
I do find the irony, now living in a city frequented by crowds and tourists galore. And yet, where I live aside from Sunday afternoon where families go for their strolls with kids and dogs in tow, my section of the city is a quieter place with refuge from the masses.
Downtown Dublin at night wasn’t even an option. The idea of being around crowds and droves of tourists was not on my agenda; add in toasted ones and that would make a heck of an evening. I could see Stephen having a few shots of Jager to cope with his own anxiety in such circles even though I’m sure he would have managed with a few bar hops of his own if in proper company.
Taking all these things into account, I planned for a low key Dublin trip with a little city action and some country viewing as well. While I wish the trip had been longer, those three days were enough to embrace the spirit of Ireland and what it meant to my family growing up. For the second week in a row, I was able to reconnect with the water and feel closer to the memory of my twin. Whether it was the stress of moving and switching jobs, getting that connection back, one that I felt in a way I had lost, made the trip even more worthwhile.
Join me if you would like for the four videos I made vlogging this Ireland based retreat. The first two videos focus on the city of Dublin and the longer than expected walk to St. Stephen’s Green. Whether it was a bad case of ADHD, I stopped too many times to count. Between looking at signs and street corners, for what I’m sure was all the right reasons, a three hour round trip walk was a grand undertaking. Thank goodness I was alone.
The second set of videos focus on nature, specifically Bull Island and the hike from Bray to Greystones. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever been to either spot, let alone Ireland.
The New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow is a relatively tourist-free area. Tucked away between a major shopping mall and a construction zone for the new train route, it’s off the beaten bath. I discovered it back in late August when I ventured into Kazimierz. What was intended to be an afternoon walk to figure out where different side streets went and if there were some special running routes I had overlooked, I found myself before the iron door.
I forget which Saturday I found my way to the gates and even more what I wondered as I stood there trying to catch a glimpse at what lay out of sight. The Jewish Sabbath forced me to return a day later and I was not disappointed. Not only did I find the place to be an undiscovered gem, but I enjoyed seeing the history before my eyes.
Cemeteries general speaking are not the biggest draw. Many go to pay their respects to loved ones and friends who have gone before them. Others go out of tradition, to see several generations of family. And yet, there are others who are curious to travel in these hallowed grounds and to learn and see what they can better understand.
I go simply to feel the energy, to get a glimpse of the past, of those that have walked before me and the connections those individuals made. While I didn’t recognize any names at this cemetery it brought me home, a recurring theme of late in my life.
Walking in solitude and yet feeling part of the community, where thousands of graves harmoniously welcomed me into their place of rest, there was peace. Not kept up like other cemeteries, the overgrown bushes and unkempt shrubs provide additional blankets and pillows for those resting eternally. They also create a mood and a wink that this place is special and not to be overlooked.
Especially meaningful to me, with every step I took around the perimeter, was the thoughtful creation of the walls - a menagerie of old tombstones plastered together, where the memories of the departed stand watch. Whether out of necessity to rebuild the cemetery after its World War 2 desecration, or simply as a meaningful way to utilize those stones that were too badly damaged to be preserved, it feels right to be guided along by this wall of names and dates.
While one can get lost in the many twists and turns and the countless memorial markers, the serenity in the place is what gets to me most. I’m drawn to the trees that provide a canopy of cover from the sun and rain. I’m drawn to the methodic sound of my footsteps over the partially cobbled grounds, and to the fact I can let myself drift to other places, that is if I don’t wish to dive into the history around me.
Sometimes when I visit I simply focus on saying little prayers for those who had to say goodbye too soon to a loved one. I might think about a family name and what took them from Bavaria to Krakow in the early 1900s or even in the early 1800s. I don’t overlook the fact that many returned here in the 1980s choosing this location for their final stop. For a city where the Jewish population is miniscule at best, knowing that some returned here after years away, after a forced exile in some circumstances, the connection to this land is mesmerizing.
So I visit. I walk. I look around. I breathe the same air. I lose myself in this place.
While I don’t know any of those that have departed, I thank them for the solace they provide and a place for me to let my mind wander freely should I care to do so. In a place where tourists run wild, not even five minutes, several blocks away, this is a place of refuge and a place for respite. Should you ever find yourself at the gate, take a moment and step inside. You certainly could be better off for stepping off the heavily traveled tourist route and into a place that could be your diamond in the rough or at least one that could be a treasured Krakow memory.
The video below is from a late October day, just prior to when I left for Latvia and Estonia. I hope I did the cemetery some justice and perhaps some of you will find the same charm and spirit that I do from every visit.
The uneasiness I felt in Riga dissipated the moment I got on the bus for Estonia. Within minutes of leaving the city center and getting out into the countryside, I wondered if I was making a mistake leaving early. Truly, I knew it was the right call. These lakes and wooded vistas of Latvia were nothing more than a tease of what I thought I was getting myself into. Instead, I was plagued by city life and all that comes with.
Not even forty minutes onto the ride, the farther we drove away, what stress I had felt was all bought gone. Instead, I settled into some journaling and reflected on what had gone wrong for the first part of my trip and with everything else in life. I know that’s a heavy statement and overly dramatic to put out there, but truly I believe when we are faced with adversity other moments of similar angst rise to the forefront.
When all one can do is sit in their comfy bus seat, play Angry Birds, and ignore the stench of body odor and a clear beer detox episode from my fellow passenger and seat mate, these thoughts force themselves to be processed. I had two hours to kill, to see what I could better understand to make the rest of the trip a more productive one.
Pärnu is a beautiful beach town. While this might be the fourth largest city in Estonia and it’s former capital, to me it’s just a large town of forty thousand souls. For that I was grateful because it was easy to navigate and designed perfectly for walkers, runners, and bikers. Even if I tried, which I did, I couldn’t get lost within the city limits.
Where with Riga I felt like another body; in this hamlet, I felt more at ease with nature and the beach that beckoned. Still even with this more relaxed atmosphere lingering thoughts came into my head on why this trip had this up/down feeling. Then it struck me over dinner, that I had no one to share this trip with. Aside from my video camera and friends and family I texted, there was no other physical presence to experience this reality. To be frank, that was a challenge.
This was the first trip I can remember feeling out of sorts with my traveler of one status. I share it freely now, because many people travel alone. We all don’t have the luxury of travel friends or a romantic partner that we can tolerate enough to venture out to other parts of the world. To that end, when any unsettling experiences arise, all one can do is rely on themselves. It’s easier said than done.
While I loved walking the quiet streets and commenting on the varied buildings and architecture, I would have preferred to have spoken more on the history of the region. Obsessed with all things Estonia since the early 1990s, I was game to share my knowledge of what the transition had been like after the fall of the Soviet Union. Moreover, talking about what life was like as an independent country prior to communism would have been a worthwhile conversation.
Despite these best intentions, I remained stuck in my head. Having suffered in a way with the city life of Riga, I became that little boy from Brentwood who simply wanted to feel like he was back home riding his bike in the woods. The remainder of the trip was focused on rebooting the system and grounding myself.
Part of this reboot was a continued connection to the water. It didn’t matter the time of day, the weather, or the temperature; I kept walking the same section of beach waiting for that cosmic wink that things would be okay.
Some might tell you being alone is a state of mind. Some might even be envious of a trip without any friends or family to consider. And yet standing out on the shoreline looking out at the vastness of the Baltic Sea, I was reminded of how dreams change and in the future it’s better to not force things.
The fact during my previous teaching stint overseas (five years earlier) led to three canceled trips to this region should have told me something. It’s not necessarily timing, but perhaps divine intervention saying there are other places to be that will resonate more. I laughed thinking back at the previous trip I canceled and how instead of traveling I hunkered down in my Brindisi apartment and wrote most of the first draft to Valo in a one week period.
On this trip, I had intentions to write, to dive into National Novel Writing Month and instead I can report that the journal I wrote in daily, basically to process my thoughts of loneliness and questionable dating past, was left behind on the Lux Express bus I traveled on from Estonia back to Riga.
Talk about a wink that this wasn’t the area for any writing, let alone for any meaningful writing to remain in my possession. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this portion of my trip. There was peace in the air and even though I didn’t see the sun the entire time, feeling a closeness to the water was all I really needed.
Returning a few days later, I felt relief that I could finally move forward and check off these Baltic boxes. Neither trip was what I had expected or planned. Then again, I needed downtime to process some deeper thoughts, to move on from loss, and to realize that sometimes the best vacation is either one spent at home or among familiar things.
Traveling is said for many to be a way to see new locations, try new foods, and experience different cultures. For me, while that might be true at some point, right now it’s about finding that sense of home and familiarity in a toxic world that is continually a challenge to navigate. Here’s to the next trip being a better match for my current state of mind.
(Note the first two videos of my Estonia trip have been linked below. There are four total so by the time you watch these might very well all be up in the Baltic section of my YouTube channel.)
There was more trepidation than I would care to admit getting back on an airplane, let alone flying to a country I never visited. I thought with it being basically three months since my arrival in Poland any hesitation would be out the window. My previous excuses for not traveling the last two plus years have been due to Covid. Wouldn’t you know it but the end of September took care of that with a healthy dose of bed rest and extra portions of Magnum ice cream bars.
Going to Latvia and Estonia were bucket list countries, ones that I had intended to visit for over six years (Latvia) and twenty-eight for Estonia. I wish I could report back and tell you both countries were exactly how I imagined with planned return trips on the horizon, but the universe has a funny way of shifting focus.
To begin, I had the highest of hopes for both spots. I even looked at potential airfares to return during my Christmas vacation. There were different activities from an old Soviet Union plane museum, to an Orthodox church on the water, to the Riga Zoo, that I knew I could fit in on a future trip. This trip would be one for getting acclimated and learning how to get around without stressing myself out. Now I’ll be the first to say I’m not some city slicker. If I have a choice, it’s more rural or a smaller city at best.
If you look at any of my travels the last six weeks, aside from a trip to Warsaw to visit a park that is long past its prime, I have traveled mainly to cities with less than fifty thousand people, save the day trip to Katowice to chase a spaceship. The point being, I underestimated how congested Riga would feel as the largest city in the Baltic states.
I should have known immediately upon getting on the bus from the airport to the city center, that for a more introverted personality who did his best to keep his distance during the majority of the pandemic, that this was not going to work out well. Let’s be clear, I could have been ripped off and taken a taxi for twenty-five dollars as opposed to the two dollars it cost to do my best sardine imitation with a hundred strangers who had the same idea to save a buck. Wanting to get a real local experience, I paid for this awful Disney wannabee trip where at best I stood against a pole with six inches between me and the exit door.
Several yahoos, who would be my traveling companions, enjoyed the thrill of adjusting ourselves at every stop as more idiots tried to see how many people could be crammed into our little section. At one point we just laughed at the onlookers who tried to join us, with one guy actually telling him, “Yeah right.” There was no space, save the schmuck and his two traveling companions glued to their phones that elected to throw their bags on top of the lone free seat in the entire bus. I might have made a break for the area, simply to see if it was possible to call this fellow traveler out for his callousness, but I had other problems.
Between the exit door doing its best guillotine impression of my hands and feet at every stop, I had a little girl who insisted on pushing me closer to my doom. Even when she wasn’t pushing me, the little girl who was coughing up a lung didn’t help matters much. Her mother had no concept of germs and deemed her hand the appropriate barrier to protect the rest of us from whatever infection or ailment her daughter carried.
After twenty-five minutes of this road show, I saw that we had managed to get to the Latvian National Library. A beautiful structure with over four million books, I would have jumped to walk through their halls, but had to settle for getting off the bus once we crossed the bridge. I knew there were still several more stops until the expected departure, but short of screaming, I had to get off when I did.
True to every other place, the college population paid closer attention to their screens than walking through the underpasses and the sidewalks. I felt like I was in a 3d version of Frogger which entailed me almost getting run over by a 1950s style tram whose track conveniently came out from a blind spot on the corner of a derelict building.
In my infinite wisdom to get a real Latvian experience I didn’t book a hotel room in the old town. That was for Instagram tourists, love birds, or British stag parties who needed better proximity to the many bars and establishments that enjoyed taking easy money. Maybe the extra fifteen minutes of walking was worth the added price. I wouldn’t know the difference because instead I sought out the most direct route to my living quarters, a route that opened my eyes yet again to city living and the contrasts of those residing within the limits.
Not since Warsaw in 2017 have I seen any homeless people camped out in underpasses or at bus stops. Granted currently living in Krakow, I’ve seen my share of public intoxication (by college students in the early morning hours), but nothing during the afternoon in the middle of the week. Within a few minutes in this section of Riga, I saw both.
I managed to figure out where the central market was, the largest in the Baltics with oversized German Zeppelin hangars as the covered portion of this shopping bazaar. I might have taken longer to admire the flower district with numerous booths and stands of varied colors and designs, but I was still reeling.
The blasted underpass I was forced to walk through, a tunnel of shady proportions, was unsettling at best. This sorry bastard pissed himself after a duo of college aged girls passed his woefully obvious bathroom spot. Granted, they weren’t lucky from their vantage point either. Who thinks someone is going to drop their drawers next to a busy road at the entrance of a heavily frequented sidewalk? I sure didn’t. To see this inebriated man chase after the girls after he soiled himself didn’t help matters. Even with them yelling at him to let them be, he followed them all the way to the market, probably asking for some change or a date to make up for them ruining his precious relief moment.
I couldn’t believe this was my introduction to the city. Lines of people waited for buses not even fifty feet from this exchange, and there I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. I wish I could say the rest of the trip was easy after those initial awkward moments, but I think it was the beginning of the end for me.
Even before the pandemic I was always careful about my traveling. I wanted to make sure it was as flexible as possible and that I wasn’t adding anything to cause unnecessary stress. Being around people, let alone crazy drunk people wasn’t on my to do list for vacation.
I would love to have a conversation about how Riga was a city of contrasts from newer buildings, remodeled ones, and completely derelict ones all on the same street. The same was true of the sidewalks, the shops, and from what I could gather the people as well. As a lover of Art Nouveau, aside from an early morning run, I didn’t get a chance to compare Riga to Prague or other hot spots of this style. This city famed for this architectural style wisely hid these beautiful structures far enough away from the real city and close enough to the tourists, or those more financially endowed to paint a completely different picture.
Of course there is always more to the story, but the short version is I wasn’t ready for Riga. She might have been ready for me, but it was too much stimulation, too much varied energy, and as a lone traveler I needed to be somewhere more low key where I could feel grounded and renewed.
I did find some moments of brevity and release, from my walk to the opera house, seeing what remained of the largest synagogue, and finding a half decent restaurant in the old town. Still, I had planned to be in Riga for two nights. I was already on a bus to Estonia after one.
Katowice, a city of 250,000 souls, is an hour train ride from Krakow. I passed near the city on my first trip to Lubliniec and heard whispers of its coal mine past and present. While I should have planned for more than a four hour trip, I secretly wanted an excuse to test out my new video camera and walk around. With a Monday journey to Latvia on deck, I didn’t want to overdo it, but I also wanted to be out and about. The ongoing goal is to visit somewhere new in Poland every two weeks, although due to a busy travel season ahead, once a month is more realistic.
Katowice did not disappoint. I found it super easy to navigate and in my case get to Spodek, the famous sports and entertainment venue where Metallica, Genesis, and The Cure played their first Polish concerts. I wasn’t there for a show though, but to catch a glimpse of the saucer-like structure. Any chance to see a potential UFO or a fake one was in order for this Star Trek fan. I loved the fact that Spodek was the largest indoor use facility in Poland for over forty years. Even now, it’s still number two.
After enough time to get in some shots, I meandered through the city and looked at the varied architecture. This one building in their center square caught my eye simply because it was blue. I found myself next in a beautiful church and eventually at a large park where a parachute jumping tower stood like a lone soldier. I’m still processing a day later how that tower was used prior to the German invasion in World War 2 and I’m confident again after the Red Army made their arrival to the city. Seeing a bit of history is always rewarding.
With the sun out and the temperature just right, I finished off my trip roaming the park and watching the various dogs at play. It was a great trip, although I could have done without the temperamental self register at the grocery store in the mall. For over five minutes that sorry bastard would not let me put my backpack in the bag area. Despite pressing the help button, no one was eager to give a hand to this American as the line grew. I confused a well dressed man as a store employee and gave him a wave only to retreat just as quickly as he brushed past me into the mall. I gave up, threw the bag on the floor, and the register finally let me scan my items; including a double scan of a loaf of garlic bread I thought needed to be ingested. Note to self, don’t buy that item again.
From there I thought it would be a quiet ride home. If someone told me I would be on a train returning to Krakow in a compartment full of rabid Backstreet Boy fans, I might have just laughed at the absurdity of it all. Truth be told, when I stepped on the train and slid past a corridor full of eager people ready to disembark at a future stop, I saw the pulled curtains and wondered what I was getting myself into.
With my camera in hand, a more confident me might have filmed as I pulled open the door, but I didn’t have a chance as one of the five women in the compartment let me in. There were a few giggles and immediately I was asked what my level of fandom was for the Backstreet Boys. Music boomed in the background. These five moms were at the end of a nine hour train ride from Szczecin. The almost empty bottles of water, Coke, and a fifth of vodka made that clear. I smirked at the empty plastic cups spread across the table and wondered if the right Kuiper son was traveling this day.
For the next hour, I had more fun on a train than on any other journey thus far in Poland. How is it not easy to join in with a choir of women singing BSB songs from the late 90s and early 00s? I can only imagine after selfie time and some impromptu dancing what would have ensued had I accepted a shot or two of vodka. I guess we’ll never know.
Traveling in Poland continues to be more exciting and rewarding with each trip I take. Here’s to keeping the momentum going and for more adventures to share along the way.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles was a popular 1980s movie that I was too young to appreciate, let alone allowed to see by my parents. Yet my life from May to the present has consisted of all three modes of transportation. You can throw in a boat for good measure, if you would like. For those Stateside, many are only familiar with their personal SUVs, trucks, and muscle cars with the occasional plane ride mixed in for the winter getaway to the Sun Belt or a Mexico holiday. Unless you are Amtrak Joe, you likely have had more time playing with a train set at Christmas time, than actually riding one with any consistency.
Before I ventured across the pond, (yes I will overuse that phrase in the years ahead), I took a twelve hour jaunt from Boston to the Washington DC area. In a previous post I might have said eight, but what’s a few hours among friends with a three hour bus ride thrown in for good measure? The point being that if you were around me after my train ride and the thousand stop journey, including a point where I thought I would have to get out and push (somewhere across Long Island Sound), you would know I flew back to Maine not wanting to see what punishment the train could cause to the other side of my neck for a return trip.
I also was quick to point out to anyone that would listen that Poland trains were far superior to anything the USA had to offer and I would be content riding them whenever that might be. Fast forward to the present and three separate round trip journeys. I went three hours north to Warsaw to spend time in my favorite park. That was a disappointment between the unkempt trees, the added graffiti, and a restaurant that was long shuttered and left for squatters. My trip was saved though with an early morning run through Lazienki Park and glimpses of royalty and a palace that I had overlooked on previous trips. I loved the entire scene, even with the light chilly rain that fell throughout my jaunt. The only part missing was a partner in crime to stroll with in some Victorian recreation.
There was a point here somewhere, aside from the fact that also on that run I smiled at the anti war messages painted roadside in front of the Russian embassy, and that point was that riding the train was not how I remembered.
The wagon or carriage, whatever we want to call it, was clean and that was a given. First class where one paid a few extra Euros for the right to share a cabin with five strangers as opposed to an open seating area with others was underwhelming. I think I was hoping for either a cabin straight out of Harry Potter or one that’s so common in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc with the four sleeper racks. It might also prove my age that the last time I was on a real train that didn’t serve only as a city’s metro system was from Yaroslavl to Saint Petersburg for an overnight journey. This was during my undergrad years.
As for the train from Krakow to Warsaw and back, the seats were comfortable enough. I had a corner seat, thankfully so I didn’t have to be wedged in between anyone. Granted it’s not like I’m dealing with Americans on these trains. Obesity is nowhere the same in this country so the uncomfortableness some people feel say on planes Stateside has not been my reality here thus far.
The only issue in the shared quarters is people having to negotiate where they put their legs and their bags. Certain individuals who I can’t name because well I simply glared at them in disgust have no issue lugging their oversized wheeled bags into the cabin and leaving it in the middle as a stage prop. There is no qualms about throwing multiple bags on the rack above our heads even if it looks like there is only space for one bag per person.
Once people get settled there is a wide cross section on the proper dos and don’ts that depending on one’s age dictates certain protocols. I believe that people expect it to be quiet in the carriage but then again that doesn’t stop some from taking phone calls, watching movies without earphones, and playing music. Granted this is usually done when people don’t expect their cabin buddies to return.
I had that blessing when I went for a bathroom trip on my return ride from Jaroslaw. I was gone a few minutes and this older woman was blasting her phone to Tik Tok videos. After a death stare, and the fact I mouthed some choice words whether she understood them or not, she put the phone away and went on to read her Vogue magazine.
While it’s slightly off topic at this junction another older woman was looking for her seat. I don’t know if she was blind or just confused but the seat numbers are to the left of each door. After the conductor checked our tickets and identification, a minute or two passed and the conductor returned with this same woman. She pointed to the far window seat where my Tik Tok wanna be had transplanted herself.
There was a weird exchange, because clearly my buddy had taken the wrong seat on purpose. She planted her three bags above her head and her coat as well. Begrudgingly she slid over, directly across from me. She wouldn’t even move her bags without some prompting. I watched the entire exchange and wondered why she thought she was better than the others in this compartment. Come on now why can’t she have the window seat?
The blind bitty, left and then returned two times with a multitude of bags. My favorite part was when she unceremoniously extended the table and plopped her reading material down. I swear she gave a cross eye to the Tik Tok lady. I might have wanted to see a cat fight but aside from a snarky “Dzien Dobry,” it was rather mellow. Things went quiet after that with eventually naptime ensuing for the elderly in my area. Look at the ingenious way to keep out the light in the photo below.
I wouldn’t trade this train ride with Warsaw or my trip to Lubliniec because for once I didn’t have to hear the banter of couples who decided the hallway was the best place for a two hour long conversation. Or did I have to watch those same passengers linger in front of our window to stretch their legs.
But best of all, or should I write “the most classic moment” is that I didn’t have to sit across from two guys who decided that finishing the bottle of vodka before 11am on our way to a pilgrimage site was a good idea. Those old timers started with soda and then changed over using two small plastic cups for cover. The best exchange was watching one of them debate on where to throw out the 1 liter bottle.
Riding the train is eventful that’s for certain. There are informal rules but already I have seen them broken by many. Nevertheless, I prefer this method of travel. Where else can I enjoy the views of the countryside and see a country I never truly explored from the vantage point of a leather seat?
I imagine there is more to discuss on this topic but like my train rides time goes quickly. I promise a part two to trains, but we’ll get off at this station and plan for another ride together in the near future. Till next time.
If there is one major regret from my time living in Italy it would be that I deleted my journal and blog entries from that time period. How many times have I done the same with this very website? With the exception of the memories I have, I no longer have a record of my feelings on certain days or observations, and what I found revealing.
Fast forward five years later, now in Poland, I’m going about this a different way. Too many family members and friends have asked for some sort of ongoing vlog. To remedy this situation and to share more of my overseas journey, I have set up a YouTube page and Instagram account. I’ll share the links below.
I’m not sure how committed I’ll be to these new ventures. Still, I’m starting with some shorts and we’ll go from there. Concerning the blog, I have pictures to share from over the weekend. My latest adventure, three weeks post Covid, took me to the Ukrainian border. I don’t know if it was twenty miles or thirty, but the point being I was fairly close. My family was concerned simply due to what the media has shared back in the States. I can assure you the only thing I saw was an amazing sunrise over Poland’s “corn basket.” Is that even a term I can use?
I find it funny how I found my room for the night at an old manor wedged between Jarosław and Przemyśl. There was no available place to stay in P town so by default I looked around for any hotel, motel, room; whatever that would suffice. I know next time I’ll do more planning in this area. These are both what I would consider provincial towns, one around 40,000 people and the other 60,000. While not small, they are far from the big cities of Poland.
Taking the train for three hours was one thing but the fact I couldn’t get an Uber (there are no drivers in that area) made my traveling costs increase. Talking about prices, my roundtrip train ticket was around $31. My taxi fare to and from the manor ran about $28. That’s crazy to think 12 miles of driving was almost the same as trekking across the lower part of Poland.
As for the manor itself, I loved the decor as it was a hodgepodge of styles from suits of armor, classic cars, old radios, and Victorian style parlors. I can’t leave out the main seating area for the restaurant that is a hunter’s dream. The food worked for the evening and the grounds were serene. Best of all, a mile up the road were unparalleled views of the vast countryside. I’ve seen corn before but never so much in one place.
Even this morning when I went running, I continued to explore by foot the agricultural vistas which included a run in with a deer bounding across an open field for the tree line. An introvert by nature, just putting myself in a new situation was deemed a success. I was patting myself on the back after I managed enough Polish to get the hotel attendant (who spoke no English and worse Italian) to call me a taxi so I wouldn’t miss my train.
Back in the States I don’t think I would celebrate over such a trivial thing, but in this case I either had to walk back 5.5 miles to catch the train back to Krakow or figure out a way to communicate to get there faster. Being in Poland for me is about self discovery, pushing my limits, but also celebrating little moments. This overnight trip was one to celebrate and I’m sure the first of many. Who knows I might head back out towards the manor. It’s the only place I have seen so far where the taxi drivers go about 75 on a narrow country road.
Sixteen plus years as a published author, Jonathan has been independent the last eleven. With readers across forty-seven countries and six continents, he has readers around the world. Writing across genres, he loves good dialogue and flawed characters.