Saturday 31 May 2008

Poland 5: The Bearable Lightness of Packing

On the train from Gdańsk to Toruń yesterday, I shared my compartment with an English-speaking Polish guy who turned out to be Tomek, the head instructor at a Krav Maga self defence academy in Łódź. Krav Maga is, apparently, a hand-to-hand combat system from Israel.

All interesting, of course, but what Tomek really wanted to ask me about was how I packed so light. He'd noticed my backpack on the rack above my head, knew from our conversation that I was from Australia and was touring Poland, and his interest was piqued.

To clarify, the backpack isn't one of those huge ones that seem larger than the backpackers they're attached to. It's cabin luggage sized. And it's the only luggage I ever take with me when I travel, whether locally or overseas.

Tomek, who travels a fair bit for his business, said he wanted to travel more lightly, but the problem was in choosing what to leave behind when he finally got around to packing. To which, I laughed carelessly and shared my secret with him (and now you): the "rule of three".

After years of travel, experimenting with less and less luggage and still complaining about how heavy it all was, I finally had this vision in Italy in 2001. Not that I put it straight into practice... bad habits die hard. But nowadays I swear by it.

The solution came by finally pinning down an ideal number of items of clothing, not to be deviated from. And that number is three. I pack three of the core clothing items in my backpack (actually two, as I'm wearing the third items onto the plane), with some variation on other items.

Here's an outline of my clothing packing for this Lonely Planet trip:

  • 3 shirts (2 T-shirts, 1 with collar)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of trousers (1 jeans, 1 black)
  • 1 fleecy top
  • 1 scarf
  • 1woolly hat
  • 1 jacket
  • 1 pair of boots
You can see it covers all the seasonal variations for spring in Central Europe, and I have worn everything on the list at some point in this trip. If it gets unusually cold, I could wear layers, but so far it's been textbook: cool nights and mornings, sunny warm days.

The single pair of footwear is a necessary element, as footwear is so hard to pack; they're solid black walking boots but look fine in a restaurant as well. Speaking of which, that's the point of the collared shirt and the second trousers: for wear at concerts, parties or meetings at the Australian Embassy (all of which have happened this trip).

In addition to clothing, I have the following:
  • toiletries
  • ultraportable laptop computer which weighs just over 1 kilogram
  • the Lonely Planet Poland guidebook
  • folder with papers, maps etc
  • mobile phone
  • camera
  • PDA
  • leads and chargers for the above
  • stationery items
  • foldable bowl and fork/spoon
  • small satchel
As I mentioned above, several of these items are carried on my person rather than going into the backpack. If you're wondering about the folding bowl, it's a miracle of design that allows me to have a simple meal of muesli in a hotel room from time to time.

Once off the aircraft, the satchel leaves the backpack and stays over my shoulder even when moving between cities. It only goes back when I need to get on a flight. And for reading material, I download a bunch of novels from the Web to read on my PDA (either paid-for downloads, or works available free because they're out of copyright).

You'll have noticed an obvious point: if you're going to travel this light, you need to wash clothing more often. Sure, but I think it's well worth the trade-off when I'm walking with a smile and a light step to the train station, with my easily manageable backpack on my back...

[For my April 2012 update to this blog post, click here]

Thursday 22 May 2008

Poland 4: Hostel Headspace

Here's a curious thing. A few days ago I arrived in Wrocław (pronounced vrots-wahf), an attractive city in southwest Poland. I'd been here once before in 2006, when it was covered by winter snow but blessed with sunshine.

This time was different. It was cold and drizzly for most of the two days I spent there, and I learned that it's not at all easy to handle an umbrella, a clipboard and a camera all at once. One of them inevitably ends up on the quaint cobblestone street. The city, however, was as beautiful as I remembered it, even through the rain.

I'd booked a private room in a backpackers' hostel, one of a small chain I'd used before. I sometimes choose these places deliberately, especially at the end of a research trip when I desperately need to speak English at length to someone, anyone. You can always count on finding people willing to chat at a hostel.

There was a problem though, on the second night: the people in the room next to me were shouting, slamming doors and generally giving the impression of suffering from hyperactivity disorders. There was a reason for that, I discovered, when I ventured out to suggest a lowering of the volume: the next-door dorm was full of Polish schoolkids.

What the? After issuing two increasingly cranky requests to tone it down, I headed down to reception to enlist aid. The chaos subsided (eventually... boys will be boys), but I realised I was still feeling irrationally pissed off at the incident.

Then, thinking it over, I realised why I was so annoyed. Travelling in a foreign country is stimulating and fascinating, but also tiring. Hostels full of international backpackers aren't exactly peaceful, but they are a refuge from the mentally exhausting world outside - a curious international English-speaking zone where we're all on an equal footing.

A day earlier, I'd had a good conversation in the hostel lounge with a group of Dutch backpackers, talked over tea with a Brazilian, and shared breakfast and English language teaching experiences with a British woman working in a nearby Polish town.

Strangely though, having an onsite party of Polish students on a school excursion had shattered my mental refuge, turning an international backpackers' hostel into just another Polish one-star hotel with its peculiar challenges.

It was disturbing to realise I felt this way. Was I being racist in wanting a break each day from Poland, so to speak? I hoped not. It certainly wasn't a conscious aversion - I love the country and its people, and enjoy getting out there each day to encounter both.

I suspect, on further reflection, that I'd feel the same anywhere. When you're a stranger in a strange land, it's essential to have the occasional breather from the demanding task of engaging with the local language and customs.

Would Polish backpackers visiting Australia feel the same, I wonder, and enjoy the mental break of an international hostel after a day of grappling with Sydney or Melbourne? You know, I think they would.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Poland 3: Bears of Warsaw

What's more interesting than the classic attractions of a city, the sights that are always there? Perhaps the sights that aren't always there, temporary attractions that come and go, and can't be captured in the pages of a guidebook.

I arrived in Warsaw by train on Tuesday afternoon, reaching the main street through the labyrinthine subterranean corridors beneath Warszawa Centralna, the sinister communist-era main train station.

This part of Warsaw is quite unattractive: a mess of heavy traffic, including cars, trams and buses, proceeding at pace along broad Aleje Jerozolimskie. Set back from the road are unpleasant examples of architecture from various eras, from communist icons to recently built capitalist skyscrapers.

But I was heading for the best part of town, the Old Town district which was meticulously reconstructed from rubble after World War II. The ever-reliable bus 175, which runs from the airport to the city at the normal public transport price (take note, Australian cities), let me off a short distance from the Old Town, so I started to walk toward the Royal Castle.

And then I discovered the temporary attraction du jour: a set of 200 or so bears, lifesize and made of some tough fibreglass-like material. Turned out it was a UNICEF fundraising project, and each bear had been decorated by an artist from a country belonging to the UN. It was fascinating wandering along looking at the artists' choices, seeing whether or not they reflected his/her country or just individual taste.

From the minimalism of the Japanese bear to the elaborate decoration of the Albanian one, it was an intriguing interlude. But it became compulsive... every time I passed the bears in the following days, I realised I hadn't seen the Polish bear yet, or the Sudanese one, or the Indian one, and so forth. Took shots of all the ones I was interested in, eventually.

It reminded me of other times in the past when I'd lobbed into a city to discover a temporary attraction, usually of an artistic nature, and took advantage of that lucky intersection of time and space. Off the top of my head, there was an Andy Warhol exhibition in Vienna, a tattoo convention in French Polynesia, a Picasso showing in Sydney, a Dali exhibition in London, and a mail art display in Cairo.

Sometimes, it's the fleeting sights that you remember the longest.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Poland 2: Hooray for Hollywoodge!

I'm typing this in the breakfast room of the Hotel Savoy in Łódź, Poland. But don't get too excited - it's a far cry from the Savoy in London (this place is two-star).

Łódź is a bit off the tourist trail but is actually a good looking town, and very different in appearance from all the other Polish cities I've visited. That's because it's essentially an early 19th century city, bulked up by a profusion of factories as the local authorities welcomed in the Industrial Revolution.

So instead of an Old Town around the core of a medieval market square, Łódź's hub is ul Piotrkowska, a long street lined by attractive Art Nouveau buildings (interrupted by the odd concrete monstrosity for contrast).

But what's really interesting here is the National Film School, established in 1948 in Łódź (Poland's second-largest city) when Warsaw was still lying in ruins from WWII. As a result, Łódź became Poland's film centre. And as Łódź is pronounced 'woodge', there's been no end of puns about Holly-woodge.

The school is a famous institution that's turned out numerous successful actors and directors. Some have gone on to international fame, notably directors Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski.

They like the film connection here; there's a 'walk of stars' in the pavement on the main street, with famous Polish directors and actors. Also, extending beyond the cinematic, other famous Łódź creative types are immortalised along ul Piotrkowska in the form of life-size statues.

The most prominent is that of Artur Rubenstein, the famous 20th century pianist. His statue is accompanied by a full-size grand piano! (though the image above is actually from my 2006 visit to Łódź during winter; I haven't had a chance to load my latest photos to my laptop yet).

Łódź is a fine example of how a city can reinvent itself. Once only known as a manufacturing centre, it's embraced the creative, and given itself a new lease of life.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Poland 1: Art and the Sleep Debt

God I'm tired. I haven't yet been in Poland for 24 hours, and have hardly got started on the mountain of work that is a Lonely Planet research job, but I'm exhausted already.

Actually, the tiredness has very little to do with the work, and a lot to do with how I got here.

Flying between Australia and Poland isn't that simple. You'd assume that you could fly to an Asian hub like Singapore or Bangkok, and there'd be a direct flight to Warsaw from there.

In the bad old communist days, LOT Polish Airlines used to service some Asian routes, mainly for the status of being a world-spanning airline. But no dice nowadays... places like Warsaw have to be reached by European hubs like Frankfurt.

So to keep the trip down to two flights, I flew Melbourne-London via Qantas, then London-Kraków via Ryanair. Sounds simple, and the Ryanair flight cost a very cheap 1 pence (no kidding).

But... there were 12 hours between the two flights, and a city between the two London airports: Heathrow (west) and Stansted (east). To make the most of it, I decided to spend the intervening hours in the city. Having found the showers at Heathrow, I jumped on the Tube, dropped my backpack off at Liverpool Street Station's left luggage counter, then Tubed and walked to the Tate Modern on the south bank of the Thames.

I was a bit early for the pre-set rendezvous with my friend, playwright Ben Ellis, so I looked around for a coffee. Had to settle for Starbucks, but had a good chat with the Polish guy who worked there. Then I sat in the warm sunshine outside the Tate until Ben turned up.

There really is nothing so wonderful as a perfect sunny spring day in London, particularly as they're so unpredictably scheduled. The sky was a perfect pale blue, the coffee wasn't too bad, and the sunlight was sparkling off the scaffolding at a building site opposite the gallery entrance.

The exhibition was great: a collection of works from Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia. Amazing quantity and variety from the three friends, startling to see how far they'd wandered from the famous artwork I knew them for. There was no genre, material or style these artists wouldn't try. I'm glad I was in the right time and place to see it.

Then Ben and I met up with his partner Claire at Golden Square; sounds like the name of a Chinese restaurant, but is in fact an attractive open space between office blocks in Soho. The sun was continuing to do its stuff, bringing large numbers out to sit on the concrete paving of the square. Claire was mildly surprised that we only spotted one guy who'd taken his shirt off, this being the usual British reaction to an unexpectedly early bout of warm weather.

It was all good stuff; but the whole time, I was suffering from sleep deprivation. The Qantas flight had been full, so without a chance to stretch out in any way, I'd only slept for two hours. As a result, on the Ryanair flight I kept dropping off. I continued to microsleep on the train from Krakow airport to the city centre, and even as I was walking to the hotel everything seemed oddly distant, as if it were happening to someone else.

So even after a sleep last night, I'm still very tired. However, the weather continues to be exceedingly clement, and I know enough sleep will eventually sort me out. But I think next time, I'm getting a more expensive connecting flight directly from Heathrow to Poland, rather than spending the day in stimulating London, running up financial debts to accompany an enormous sleep debt.