this poland is making a big noise in my head

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 My first attempt at taking a photo on a ‘proper’ camera. It was on the bus that we hitched part of the way to Łódź on. Out of focus, yep, but I’m sticking it on here anyway for memories sake 🙂

I first met Katie when she walked into the pub I was working at in the French Alps many moons ago. She had only a backpack, a few euros and a disarming smile, having hitch-hiked alone all the way from Reading at the tender age of 19. She was looking for work, and we needed a bartender. It was a magical friendship made in the mountains, and it stuck. Over the years our friendship has evolved in a slightly all-over-the-shop but organic sort of way. Mostly we’ve been living in different countries, each following ‘all the good things’ down the yellow bricked road to wholeness, fulfilment and contentment. (I’ve been trying to work out what the good things are for a while now, “but the thing is, it’s a slippery little bastard, and it changes!” That’s a line from a new poem, I keep slippin’ ’em in there!)

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Katie, the soul-sister. My first portrait attempt (bit cheesy but I still quite like it!)

Both in spite this and because of it, this summer we decided to go on a long-awaited adventure to Poland together. Life can be a logistical nightmare, but if you just keep on putting the effort in in the right places, you end up with sweet soul sisters and brothers who you can make lovely things and times with. I met a lot of these kind of friends in my mountain days. Each one of them is living their own life, and each one of those lives is completely different to the rest. We see each other when we can, but the love is always there. I see this as simply the beautiful price I pay for for the freedom of the feet – for choosing not to live in one place forever, or even just for following discovery over continuity. I guess the freedom of the feet is more a state of mind than a literal thing. You don’t really have to go anywhere, it’s just that you never know where this state of mind might take you!

Anyway, I doubt this will be the last of our trips together. It might well be the first in a long tradition, the idea being that we’ll still be nattering away and reminiscing about our exploits when we’re 80. In fact, scrap that – we’ll still be adventuring when we’re 80! For me, a self avowed late-starter of many things in life, this was my first proper hitch-hiking and couchsurfing venture. It was perfect timing, considering how I was feeling at the start of summer. Katie was the ideal travelling companion; never stroppy and always willing to give things a go. Together we got easily over-excited by small wonders on backstreets and sliproads across Poland, all the way from Berlin to the Baltic Sea. You can find her scribblings about our trip on her lovely blog ‘Je Suis Une Monstre’ here and  here and also right here. In fact, check out the whole thing, she’s a pretty interesting lady.

Admittedly, hitch-hiking didn’t get off to a great start on our way out of Germany. We waited for quite a while, and eventually one guy who had a massive dog in the back of his car tried to persuade me to go to his house with him (alone) so that he could ‘drop the dog off’. Hmmm. No thanks mate. This served as a nice gentle reminder to trust our instinct and not give in to lifts from weirdos no matter how long we had been waiting. Fortunately, this was not a sign of things to come. In Poland, we never waited for longer than 20 minutes for a lift, and our very first lift really set the tone for our great experiences in the country.

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Me, trying to get out of Germany. Photo by Katie.

We had barely set down our bags on Polski soil, and had not even so much as stuck out a thumb, when up rolled what was possibly the nicest couple in the country to sweep us off our feet and into the forest. They seemed a tad perplexed about why we weren’t going to Woodstock. This was a question we heard repeatedly, since our whole trip was spent going in the opposite direction of the 500,000 Poles travelling to the biggest free festival in the country! Since the ‘klezmer’ (aircon) wasn’t working, this lovely pair insisted on providing us with cans of low-alcohol fruity beer to assist in keeping our temperature down. Unfortunately, since I had a pretty bad case of ‘kac’ (pronounced ‘katz’), that’s hangover to you and me, all the sickly sweet drink did was enhance the hair-raising ride of our first Polish hitch-hiking experience by making me feel really, really dodgy.

His driving was insane and all I could do was deep breathe and hope for the best, while the lady danced to really loud, pumping Polish pop music and occasionally turned round to smile sympathetically at me. This was a hangover of the highest order. I actually felt as though I was on some serious hallucinogenic drugs, so perhaps it was also a bit of heat-stroke from waiting in the sun in Germany. By the time we got out of the car I knew that I was going to shit and sick (or spew and poo) immediately, but in which order?! That was really my only question.

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Not the exact place we got dropped off at, but similar…  and straight into the woods I went.

I won’t disgust you any more with my roadside exploits, but suffice to say that it was pretty unpleasant. Still, I soon recovered and the whole thing didn’t dent my day too much. I was feeling far too happy to let a few agressively expelled bodily fluids get me down. With a little help from those two kind souls and their sufferance of my sick-face, plus a guy who said everything in his car was ‘kaput’ and a fully air-conditioned, empty Polski bus on it’s way back to the depot, we were well on our way to Łódź  (pronounced ‘woodge’, but with a soft ‘w’ that’s said as though you’ve got a fag between your lips).

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It’s pretty good having a whole bus to yourself. Photo by Katie.

For a moment on the bus, we panicked, when we thought that the bus driver had missed our turn off and was carrying us to some undisclosed location, not of our choosing. Katie looked at me – ‘you go and ask him’. I looked at her and thought, aww, that’s sweet, the adventurous one is encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and try some more Polish. I expressed this, but what she actually said was ‘no, not at all, I just can’t be bothered… please you do it’, with a weary grin. All I could manage was a pathetic ‘pszepraszam, Łódź?’ which was like whispering ‘Please? Manchester?’ in a desperate, child-like voice to the driver. This request tickled him, and since he couldn’t speak English to respond, I took his jolly face as evidence that he wasn’t kidnapping us and sat back down.

Even when we found ourselves on a motorway sliproad, which is illegal in Poland, we managed to get a lift without a bother. I took to dancing and smiling like a friendly maniac, and found that it’s true what they say – eye contact with the driver is essential for hitch-hiking. Recently, someone told me a tale about when their Dad was hitching in Norway back in the day and somebody stopped, smiled, and said sweetly ‘Buy your own car’. A bit below the belt if you ask me, and anyway, this limited experience of hitch-hiking has already taught me that lifts don’t really come for free.

It’s hard work walking for yonks out of a city to get to the nearest decent road where somebody might be more likely to pick you up, you hope, as you drag your walking boots along weighed down like a donkey with backpack and tent. It also seems to be written into the job description of the hitch-hiker that you should provide the in-house entertainment, regardless of whether or not you speak the language. The constant smiling gives you cheek-ache, the slightly dodgy experiences nearly give you a heart attack, and the putting your journey into someone else’s hands constantly means you really have to give a lot of yourself to the experience.

Lucky for us, it turns out that the Poles are a nation of very friendly, generous, character-full folk. We met more than a few people that I would describe as ‘natural actors’. Even when we stoody by, open mouthed and mute, not understanding more than a few words of this alien language which is full of confusingly-strung-together-consonants, they were somehow entertaining. They just used anything nearby as props, plus a generous approach to the twisting of language in order to communicate. Those Poles know how to spin a yarn.

We quickly got the feeling that the whole country is just that bit more DIY than the UK. There’s still a dab of punk in Poland, which I guess is to be expected in a country which has had it hard (harder than us Brits anyway) in the not too distant history. From the DB radios fed on wires out of car doors and onto roofs, to the mass proliferation of decent boots, we witnessed a mixture of the hard-working obedience that is the English stereotype of the Polish, and subtle disobedience. You can’t drink a beer in the street, an issue which one young Pole informed us should be top of the political agenda, and it’s illegal to jaywalk, but the Poles we met definitely had some rebel in them.

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‘Hardcore, No Disco!’ Katie getting into the Polski spirit.

Our host in Łódź was the lovely Mariola, who showered us with hospitality, green smoothies and special egg breakfasts. Mariola loves her city, and it shows. Busy as she was, she made time to let us into her life, which after all, is what this couchsurfing lark is all about. When she suggested a beach party on the first night we arrived, I did question what kind of crazy EuroPop event we were going to find. Particularly because Łódź, which incidentally means boat, is a totally land-locked city.

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Mariola and Katie. A bit blurry (taken by me!)

 DSC_0549Me and Mariola, taken by Katie.

We pulled up at Manufaktura, a renovated area of old factories-turned-shopping centre/hotel/gallery/beach party! Usually I hate these kind of complexes, but if you have to go to one, Manufaktura is an extremely well-executed and not too offensive example. The next night, Mariola and her friends took us to the (FREE) outdoor cinema in a local park. Mariola was very knowledgable about films, and gave us a lot of tips for good Polish films to watch. It was during one of our film chats that she coined the phrase I used for the title of this post – ‘this film is making a big noise’. I just really liked her turn of phrase, so I wrote it in my notebook. Back to the outdoor cinema – tt didn’t even matter that the film was Spanish with Polish subtitles. The experience was amazing, and every so often Mariusz would lean over and offer us a little synopsis to take our mind off the profusion of vicious mosquitos.

Polski mosquitos, DAMN YOU! Vitamin B and tabletki antihistamino were all we needed, but nobody understood our Polish language attempts in the chemist. It also took us three hours to find menthol filter tips in a specialist tobacconist, because tobacco hasn’t become mainstream there yet. Even so, we didn’t really care. We just wandered the dusty streets of this city taking photos like proper tourists, ogling street art and the crumbling, abandoned buildings which are the relics of Łódź’ industrial history. Handmade goods and beers galore in OFF Pitrowska were an ace intro to the city, as were Mariola’s tales about how things have changed in the city, and in fact the whole country, during her lifetime.

Some say it’s the forgotten city, others hail it as ‘Poland’s Manchester’. For us, it was pure magic.

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(All photos by Katie)

Getting out of Łódź was a bit of a trek. Our earlier good luck with the hitching gave us false confidence and we thought we might even get a lift out of the city. Not so. We had a bit of a hike on our hands, which we began in good faith, but I admit that we eventually gave up. Hungry but not yet too grumpy (we both like our food man, I’d never make it as a real hand-to-mouth traveller. I need to eat every few few hours), we decided to take the tram. Lots of charading ensued as we tried to understand a friendly lady’s transport directions to the road we needed. We hopped on and settled in for what we later found out was famously the longest tram journey in Poland. The longer you’re on public transport in a country where you don’t speak the language, the more you doubt you’re going in the right direction. The  thing is that when you’re having fun, you’re just not really bothered either way.

We got a lift with a guy who told Katie she had ‘beautiful eyes’ and spent the entire journey frantically translating on his phone with not even one eye on the road. We nearly went into a bloody lorry, at which point I yelped, prompting him to do it repeatedly again, as though scaring girls in cars was some kind of personal, macho duty. Anyway, we survived. The next lift came with leather seats and in-car laptop tapping, with two young guys working in telecomms. One had spent a year in London working as a rickshaw driver, and gave us a long and comprehensive rundown of why he hated it. The English are a bit racist, girls get drunk, take their shoes off and piss and sick in the street (obviously I didn’t tell him about my motorway-side hangover exploits!) It was all the stereotypes in one foul swoop, but we let him off. He was a nice guy essentially who had just had a hard time of it in London, as I imagine immigrants often do, whichever country they go to.

We made it to Sopot for a brief interlude at a weird Polish holiday resort, which was an experience.  I dipped my feet in the Baltic sea and then we headed off to Gdansk in search of Piotr, our next host. He told us to meet him at ‘the biggest church on the planet’, where we should ‘send the raven, and look out for the orange trousers’. That’s the best directions I’ve ever had. From this we deduced that he was going to be ‘a character’, but we didn’t realise quite what an all round good, interesting guy he’d be.

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Piotr, otherwise known as El Capitan, wearing his birthday hat at five in the morning on the way home from his birthday Fire Camp. Also insisting on carrying all the bags, like a proper Polish gent. Photo by Katie.

Piotr showed us that it’s true, in Poland they do drink a lot of vodka. However, they always pass it around in our experience. In Gdansk, at Piotr’s 30th birthday Fire Camp (never again will I call it a camp fire! This way just rolls off the tongue better) shit got shared. Whether it was sausages, home-brewed strawberry vodka or stories – the overall impression was one of warmth and generosity. It seems that a Polish welcome is a warm one, and it got me thinking about how it’s just not always like that, paricularly if you find yourself at a gathering with people who all know each other but don’t know you very well.

At parties people can tend to count their cans and hug their bottles just a wee bit too much. Is it a British thing? Or perhaps it’s just a people thing? It could be that when you travel people are more generous towards you, simply because they know you’re far away from home, and maybe you seem a tiny bit more exotic. All I know is that there can often be a bit of an everyman/woman for himself/herself mentality when it comes to enjoying ourselves, and that quite a lot of people can’t really be bothered to make an effort with new people.

Recently, I realised I could do a bit better at both of those things myself, and I’ve now made a more conscious decision to approach everyone I meet as though they are new friends. I think it’s a nicer way to live.

On this occasion I felt so relaxed amongst my new friends that I swiftly overdid it on home-brew and really strong spliffs and then fell asleep by the fire for five hours in a stupour! Through my haze I felt people covering me with blankets and kindly tucking me in. I was totally at home under the stars, although Katie told me later that someone almost dropped a massive hunk of sharp log on my head. Also, when I woke up, I had some burns on my arm from where the fire had spat at me. So having said all this, I’d also like to point out that you can’t expect pissed people to save you from a spitting fire, friends or not! There’s a limit to these things!!

DSC_0878 DSC_0877 DSC_0886 DSC_0892 DSC_0900 DSC_0905 DSC_0918 DSC_0922 DSC_0940 DSC_0935 DSC_0958 DSC_0945                                      Piotr and friends at Fire Camp. One or two of my photos in there (I was getting better by this point), but mostly by Katie 🙂

My most enduring memory of my time in Poland was our visit to the stochnya, the historical home of anti-communist solidarity in Gdansk. This was a place where history was made! This is where the protests started which helped to bring about the end of communism in Poland. There are some memorials at the front, but a little beyond that and it’s actually abandoned now. You can just see the outlines of the ‘historical cranes’ as Piotr called them, over the water. However the area we were in was all private property, since they build superyachts round the back! Bizarre.

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My favourite. I took this one of Katie and Piotr in the abandoned factory by the Stochnya.

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Mainly photos by Katie of the evening leading up to and including us scurrying around at the Shipyard. I did the one of the two of them on the bench though 😉

We shiftied through a small hole in the wire to explore the broken-down buildings, rusty remnants of communist-era machinery, the odd boat (with an old kettle dumped inside it), and to bask in the atmospheric light streaming through half-smashed windows. What an amazing place. We were very drunk, as this was post Piotr’s personal vodka tour, but this only added to the magic and we still managed to get some great shots. Well, I say we, Katie did, mainly. I took a couple and then pretended to be a film-maker, diving around trying to get strange angles in order to capture the mood of the moment as I perceived it. I panned to Piotr, who obliged by giving an inspired performance as an imaginary cut and paste Texan/Polish shipyard worker hybrid. Damn that guy should be an actor! We even got caught and searched by the guards, which of course made it all the more fun!!

To cut it short, and because this expression of rambling Polski-love is turning out to be longer than I anticipated – more people should visit Poland. There’s plenty of culture and history and art to go round, and you’ll even get free tea and a chocolate wafer biscuit on the train. You can charge your phone in the train station sockets and nobody will try to charge you, which is pretty remarkable. They’ve got lovely lakes and fire camps and there is a general sense that this is a country on the up.There’s optimism in the Polish air, and whilst there’s often no klemer and you still have to pay for the turnstile toilets, we just really liked it.

Also, soul sister (or brother) adventuring is good. I recommend it. If you’ve got friends in faraway places, it’s special for your friendship to take some time out to explore together every once in a while. A snatched day or weekend here and there is fine, but everything needs feeding, and trips like this feed soul, friendship, itchy feet and the craving for adventurism. We coined the term ‘magnetisement’ shortly before our trip, and magnetisementing good things all over Poland is exactly what we did.

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