Friday, 6 August 2010

Companions on the Polish Road 1: Kraków to Gdańsk

When I travelled around Poland in 2008, I made a point of talking with people I encountered along the way.

As I was researching a possible travelogue book about Poland, I wanted to get the most out of encounters with locals on my journeys.

Two years later on my next round-Poland Lonely Planet trip, however, being interactive was its own reward.

Some of my best travel memories, I realised, have arisen from chance encounters with people, both on transport and on the streets.

Although most Polish trains are divided into compartments and are thus conducive to chat, I find that Poles have something similar to the British reserve. The polite procedure when entering a compartment is to say "dzień dobry" ("Good day") to your fellow passengers, but not intrude further.

But if you do fancy a chat and you both speak enough common language to communicate, it's possible to end up in a warm and interesting conversation.

And there are other ways to meet both locals and other international travellers. Here's a few of my experiences in May-June 2010...

Kraków: In 2008 I discovered the English Language Club by accident, when I noticed its small sign hanging above a street in the Old Town. This time I made a return appearance in the company of Narrelle. The club has met weekly since before the end of communism in the 1980s.

It's run on a pretty simple concept - a mixed bunch of locals, tourists and expats meet in a big room up a tatty staircase to chat informally, helped along by tea and biscuits. If you're ever in Kraków on a Wednesday, get along to a meeting from 6pm to 8pm at ul Sienna 5, near St Mary's Church; it's a fun way to meet the locals.

Kraków-Łódź: On this meandering train journey to Poland's second-largest city, I realised that a couple down the corridor were lightly bickering in English. Passing by their compartment, I introduced myself and discovered the male half of the sketch was a UK academic who was heading to Łódź to consult with colleagues there about a possible joint project.

We had a pleasant chat, and speculated whether onboard catering might materialise once they added an additional complement of carriages to the train at Częstochowa. It did - in the form of a lady with a trolley - and I scored the last kanapka (sandwich).

Warsaw: Visiting funkily-decorated hostel Oki Doki to check its details for the LP book, I bumped into its owner, Ernest. That's not as obvious as it seems, as he spends a lot of his working days at other locations; but somehow we always happen to be there at the same time when I drop in every two years.

We sat in the hostel's bar and shared a beer or two as I heard about his latest travels. Ernest is the most well-travelled Pole I know, having been to just about every continent with his wife and daughter. But not Australia... yet.

Wrocław: In this attractive southwestern city I had arranged a meeting with artist Tomasz Moczek, creator of the famous dwarf/gnome statues which are scattered through its Old Town's streets. First I scored Poland's chattiest taxi driver, who was determined to have a lively conversation about Australia no matter how limited my command of the Polish language.

He deposited me at a crumbling old industrial complex which turned out to be a former brewery full of artistic offices and studios, and I sat outside in the sunshine with Tom and two of his friends who helped translate, as we all drank beer and talked art. That was fun.

Gdańsk: In the Baltic port city, I met up one evening with my friend Andrzej Gierszewski, as I have since Narrelle and I met him in 2007. On that occasion I was looking for someone to interview about the amber trade for a 'vox pop' box in Lonely Planet's Poland country guide, and Andrzej was perfect - he related a great set of tests you could do to discover if a piece of amber was fake.

Every time I return we've met up at cafe-bar Kamienica on ul Mariacka, a beautiful small street of terraced shopfronts featuring gargoyle-head drain pipes. We drank a bit too much beer (Polish beer is becoming a theme, I see), and talked history, culture and politics as the sun set.

Next week: Enter the internationals - an expat cafe-owner in Toruń, a Belarusian fellow-traveller, two American ladies on a bus, and the Polish-American couple at the Golden Donkey...