An American still in Poland
After 3500 views and counting, I decided to make a second part to an American moves to Poland. I decided to share it here for anyone who finds it appealing. On the non Polish front, I continue to travel and explore new worlds, I mean places. :) That was a Star Trek reference for those that didn't know. My first of three Malta vlogs went live tonight and next week Lithuania is on deck. With almost every weekend traveling, I have been vlogging constantly but no new writing to report. Hopefully, with my school vacation starting this Friday in Montenegro we will turn the tide in that area.
An American moves to Poland
I had been thinking about this vlog ever since I arrived in Poland. Almost six months in and after a subscribers comment on YouTube it seemed like the ideal time to share some of my expectations versus reality of life for me in this country. I can't stress it enough, while I'm sure some have similar experiences, this is my personal journey and reflection for my time in Poland. I don't claim to be an American with all the answers and I'm the first to say that growing up in the USA has given me a sheltered life in many ways. There is most definitely a bias.
Feel free to have a listen and hear what I have to share. If you like the vlog, give me a like or better yet a share or a subscribe. I hope to be back sharing my regular travel vlogs later this week.
2023 has come and with it much anticipation and expectation as to what that means in the months ahead.
Writing has taken a back seat of late, from a lack of motivation and the shiny new ball that is vlogging. Still, the storyteller in me knows there must be a novel or two ready to be told.
The challenge is maintaining a balance and expending enough energy to do both successfully. That’s the caveat in my non-writing fun of late.
Vlogging is more than just pointing a camera and talking. There is an interactive component that when ignored makes for a mindless walk through city streets. And yes there is a delicate thread of talking too much or not at all. Every location tells a different story and every viewer is looking for something specific.
In a way, this is similar to writing a good story. The characters, the setting, and the conflict must all work or the story is trash. Even if all those pieces are in sync, it doesn’t mean in a world of millions of books that the right set of eyes will find and resonate with your tale. The same can be said with any vlog. The thumbnail, SEO, description, what others have watched previously all come into play.
This is why my favorite vlog about a hike along the Irish Sea limps along with a hundred plus views, but a Gdansk old town tour and Christmas market vlog has 17 times the views. Part of this is luck, proximity, and well algorithms.
After years of independent publishing, I know this well. Rejection is part of the game as are dealing with readers who are not as enthused with the final product as the creator. While I have learned to accept this in a literary sense, the lesson is repeating itself in the vlogging world.
With that written, I’m putting all of my creative endeavors in perspective. That’s what my 2023 focus will be. Don’t let the numbers dictate what I write or film. Genres, topics, whatever I need to find passion in is what I must do to fully enjoy the creative process. That is far more important than anything else. It’s also why I will write a sequel to Rusty Star this year. The Marcus Files should also have another addition, time willing as well.
I have a few others writing goals that could be in play, but another lesson for 2023 is to focus on one goal at a time. Like a marathon runner, let’s put in the mileage first and see what develops and how the body responds. Here’s to a new month and a new year.
May your writing, vlogging, whatever your creative goals, be successful for you in the year ahead.
Return to Brindisi
In a few days I will be returning to Italy for the first time in over four and a half years. During the pandemic I dictated an entire book about my stay in Puglia, but the file was corrupted. After several attempts at rewriting the text, I put the manuscript aside and decided those words were not meant to be shared.
And yet with my new assignment in Europe, I have the chance to return, to stay for three weeks and to embrace those parts of me I left behind. In the spirit of this return, I wanted to share this introduction, the same one I intended to publish in Brindisi and Me. As the book will likely never be released, this should be a good starting part for our adventures in the weeks ahead.
One might be hard pressed to find an American that is not eager or willing to travel to Italy or live-in country. Whether it is our obsession with the cuisine, the culture, or the fact half of us appear to have Italian blood or have a friend that does, makes it that much more appealing. Granted, our perspective is skewed on what real Italian life is, constrained to Hollywood movies, Olive Garden, and to our relatives that went on that two-week-long trip to Tuscany or to Roma.
There is this love affair, one that I will admit I did not feel prior to being offered a teaching position on the heel of the boot. I remember asking my future employer whether they felt it would be a good fit. I was pushing for a former Soviet Union republic and instead I’m going Under the Tuscan Sun, well significantly farther south, but still the same sun. To say I was surprised that I would be undertaking a two-year teaching assignment in southern Italy would be an understatement.
I will be the first to share that I wasn’t some timid traveler either having studied overseas on two previous occasions and traveled to multiple countries outside the United States. Knowing that I had lived up and down the east coast and in the central USA made me feel confident that anything Italy would throw my way would be easy to manage. In some ways that couldn’t have been any farther from the truth.
Even though after World War 2 the United States would be central to helping Italy rebuild, something got lost in translation. Between American soldiers “rescuing,” I mean falling in love with Sicilian and Italian women who they would quickly bring back stateside to create a nuclear family with, any and all money that was sent back to help rebuild, didn’t find a direct path to the impoverished southern part of the country.
I’m confident you could look up Garibaldi’s unification of Italy, but the short version is that on paper the long one-legged land mass with a few islands to spare is one country, but in truth you have Rome and all that it represents as well as Milan, Florence, and the rest of the north to Venice, as one “cultured” state. That’s where the financial districts are located, where most Italians that remained after World War 2 work and are able to make a life for themselves.
Travel south of Rome and things start to get shady — shifty might be a better word. Yes, we can whisper such things like the mafia if you really want to, but it might not be necessary. It’s not so much that, but more like how the southern United States was treated after the Civil War. Industry versus agriculture is the bottom line. I’m sure some money has been sent to the southern part of the country, but my goodness if you talk to any northern Italians, they are quick to point out the money disappeared or was wasted because of those “barbarians, pirates, anarchists, and thieves,” concerning their beloved kin to the south.
Knowing there is an undertone within the country and in some circles outspoken critics ready to cut off Puglia, Calabria and the other southern regions, I find the irony in where the northerners flock when summer comes. Even in this time of COVID, where were northerners driving and flying, but to the southern part they criticized so much, hoping to get a reprieve from the virus.
The country is mind boggling. The average American wouldn’t know this since so many hit only Rome, Naples, and Florence. Very few head to the heel, to where you can look out at the bluish green water and know that across the narrow sea is Albania and Greece — only a reasonable ferry ride away.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I should have had an idea when a colleague sent me a book by Chris Harrison titled Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy. He said I needed to read the book prior to my flight so I could prepare myself. Southern Italy is not a Diane Lane movie or George Clooney’s villa life. I wasn’t going on some Roman holiday but to physically live there.
I think that’s vital to understand. Before we get into the grit of this memoir, let’s be clear that being a tourist and being a resident of a country are different things. Tourists are treated as a cash cow where a resident is expected to fall in line with the locals and embrace the mores and the accepted values of those around them.
In most of Italy the tourists are at least entertained and tolerated knowing how vital they are to local businesses — but not Brindisi. There’s a reason why my Italian home only allowed the cruise ships in port one day a week. The locals agreed the tourists could help the economy but by the same token, their shops remained closed in the afternoon because of the long honored tradition of siesta. Those rich fat Americans on vacation, my kin folk, had nowhere to spend their money.
Instead, let’s take this duck tour ride around the city, look at the old ruins of the air force base, the palm trees, the locals going about their busy days, and boom everything is closed, back to the ship.
Change is not in the regional dialect. At least I don’t think it is. That’s where this book focuses. You either embrace the Puglia lifestyle or leave. There is no halfway. For Americans, especially if you are there for a short trip you don’t see these nuances. You see the passion and the zest for life that these people have, and you fall deeper in love for the food and the energy around you. What you miss is a community focused on finding ways to live life by working less and resting more.
I know that sounds ideal. Get a little closer to how that happens, and you see a hodgepodge, a harmonious dysfunction for those that reside here. That’s what I want to talk about and share. By the time we’re done, you’ll find that even in this chaos, the pull is too great to truly leave. Even now almost five years since my departure, I can say that part of me remains in Puglia, along the rocky shores of Brindisi and at the masseria.
I see the stray dog gangs lurking along the roadside, the piles of trash waiting to be picked up for the two months of summer tourism, and the speeding cars passing one another on single lane roads. I feel the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze blowing sands from Africa along my path. I hear the laughter of two old men catching up, taking a cigarette break, as they wait to drive a school bus full of kids, while a shopkeeper blares his television set to hear the football results he already knows by heart.
In the early morning hours, before the sun begins to rise, and only after most of the residents have truly gone to bed - in this silence with the melody of the crashing water, I find a piece of me I had never known. Then it goes away just as quickly from the sound of a bottle crashing on the floor in the apartment above, followed by a fury of yells and then a creaking bed to serenade those desiring sleep. How I miss you dear Italy, how I miss you.
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.
A hike to remember
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.
A Thanksgiving Story
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.
Just a stroll in Dublin
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.)
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.