Friday 13 August 2010

Companions on the Polish Road 2: Toruń to Lublin

“A good companion shortens the longest road.”

This sentence is an old Turkish proverb, and it proved very applicable to my recent research trip through Poland for Lonely Planet.

(Though I won't mention the three wars the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fought with the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the 17th century - for that would be tactless)

Last week I described the Poles I met while travelling from Kraków to Gdańsk. This week, let's hear about the fellow foreigners I met up with on the way...

Toruń: From the train station serving this beautiful Gothic city in southern Pomerania, I had to catch a bus across the broad Vistula River to reach the Old Town. As I walked through the station underpass to the bus stop, a cafe advertisement caught my eye, as it was largely in English.

When I dropped into the Kona Coast Cafe the next day I discovered a genial American, Jon Greene, behind the espresso machine. He and his Polish wife had decided to live in Poland for a while, and he'd refused to consider anywhere but Toruń (a fair call, in my opinion). We sat a table and chatted for a while, and I gave my approval to the coffee. It's worth dropping by if you're in town - the cafe's at ul Piekary 22.

Giżycko: For some reason on this particular trip, I had to catch a lot of buses and trains around 6:30am - for some reason the next choice would always depart too late in the morning. So on a chilly weekday morning I found myself sitting on a bench in front of the humble train station in this attractive lakeside holiday town in Masuria, in Poland's northeast.

Another early train had just left so there was just me on the platform, eating my packed breakfast from the hotel I'd just checked out of (Polish hotels will always pack you a breakfast if you have to check out too early for the in-house breakfast, which is much appreciated).

Then a young guy walked up to me and asked something. I explained that my Polish wasn't fluent, then found out he spoke reasonably good English and was on holiday from nearby Belarus.

Aleksandr and I were both heading to the city of Białystok, which required a change of trains at Ełk. Now I love Ełk, because it looks like the English word 'elk' but in fact has a letter 'Ł', which sounds like the English 'W'. So the name of the place is pronounced 'e-w-k'... which sounds adorable, for some reason.

(You can learn a lot of utterly unreliable but amusing nonsense about 'Ł' at its Uncyclopedia page, which describes the letter as "The evil twin brother of L. He is an ally of ∩ and controls the Unicode Villain Organization of Eastern Europe, or UVOEE for short.")

Anyway, we got out at Ełk, marched into the station building to discover which platform our connection was on, then trooped off to Platform 3 to board the next train.

We had a good talk along the way; I was intrigued to learn that Aleks, a keen sailor, had been due to join the Soviet navy just before the USSR dissolved and the career opportunity disappeared. Now he works in an automotive business in Minsk and sails as often as he can. Poland's northeastern lake country is perfect for that, of course. And not far from Minsk.

Białystok-Warsaw: A few days later I was leaving Białowieża, a small town in the eastern Podlasie region, which is famous for the wild European bison which still live in the surrounding forest.

I was waiting for a bus at about - of course - 6.30am, when I got into limited conversation with an elderly couple in Polish, who were impressed that I hailed from so far away. Then a waiter from the hotel restaurant showed up, on his day off, and we had a more fluent conversation in English.

When I left the bus at Białystok, I had the vague impression I heard some people speaking English. But at that stage in the Polish journey I do sometimes imagine hear English - my brain seems keen to twist what it hears into something I can recognises. Odd, but true.

Anyway, I shook my head, walked across the pedestrian bridge that led to the train station, and bought my ticket for Warsaw and onward to Lublin.

Then I realised there really were people speaking English - two middle-aged American women being helped by a young Polish woman who, I discovered later, had walked them all the way over from the bus station to assist them, even though she was due to catch a bus herself. Nice to see the Good Samaritan spirit at work.

After she'd left, I introduced myself to the ladies, and also introduced them to the dubious delights of Polish train station coffee (a choice of instant coffee or percolator granules served in boiling water, which you allow to sink to the bottom).

We shared a compartment on the train to Warsaw. Pam and Margie (I think those were their names, from memory) both had Polish ancestry and had been travelling to various parts of the country; they would be transferring at Warsaw to a train to Kraków. So we chatted, then I waved them goodbye at the grim Warszawa Wschodnia Station, where I was catching a connection to Lublin.

Lublin: My final meeting came courtesy of microblogging tool Twitter. I'd exchanged a few comments about my Polish adventures with Polish-born Twitter user @rusticbynature, then realised she was tweeting from my next stop Lublin, so suggested meeting up. So myself, Ania and her American husband Jaime, a keen photographer, got together at the Złoty Osioł in Lublin.

It's a hidden-away pub-restaurant in the centre of town, dimly lit and full of rustic atmosphere, and I wouldn't have found it easily by myself. If ever in Lublin, see if you can locate it, starting with this address: ul Grodzka 5a. Its name, by the way, means Golden Donkey...

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