To begin understanding why I was alone in Poland, please start with the previous post “Back to U.S.S.R.”, a story of pain, betrayal, and Belarus.
I disembarked the plane in Warsaw after a 9-hour flight, my backpack pressing heavily against my back, my crumpled itinerary sheet in hand. I stood in the airport, crowds of people rushing around me. I was alone. I was going to stay here alone for a full week, until my flight to Tbilisi where I would join Victor and his family. I exhaled and looked around. I had no idea where to go. It has always been easy – just follow Victor out of the airport. Follow him to the bus/metro/taxi that he already pre-planned. Follow him around the entire country, occasionally pointing at things and asking, “What’s that?” I had no one to follow, no one to talk to, no one to answer my innumerable questions.
I was sort of prepared for this. I had planned out my trip – 3 days in Warsaw, 3 days in Krakow, and 2 days in Gdansk. I had a guidebook and maps and hours of extensive research done before the trip. None of it was making me feel any better. I took a deep breath and tried to make sense of my itinerary.
Step 1. Change dollars into zloty and figure out where to buy a bus pass.
Step 2. Find the correct bus and get off at Old Town.
Step 3. Safeguard all my belongings with my life as this bus is known for the high rate of pickpocketing incidents.
I managed to get zloty and the bus pass and even get on the bus without any major incidents. As I clutched my backpack to my chest and watched the cityscape rolling past the bus window, I was feeling a slight sense of relief. Maybe I can do this after all. I have been traveling for years! I know what I am doing, even on my own.
Suddenly the bus turned off the major road and dived into a small alley. Confused, I looked around. There were only a few people left on the bus. The alley ended at a small park-like area, surrounded by residential buildings. The bus screeched to a halt and all the doors opened. The few fellow passengers immediately scattered in various directions. The bus driver leaned his seat back and pulled out a newspaper. I sat in my seat, still gripping my backpack, my mouth wide open. At no point did we pass anything resembling Old Town. I stared at my useless itinerary, then out of the window, willing with all my might for drab residential five-story apartment buildings to magically transform into the medieval architecture of the Mazovia Province.
“Excuse me,” I said to the bus driver, “Pardon? “
He slightly lowered the newspaper and stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“English? Russkij?” I asked.
The bus driver dropped the newspaper into his lap.
“Polskie!” he announced, with more than just a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Then, just to drive his point home, he swept his hand around pointing out our surroundings, “Polska!”
Thoroughly shamed, I stepped off the bus, the driver chuckling behind me.
I stopped a young couple walking past the bus and butchered the pronunciation of “Stare Miasto” (Old Town) until they understood and simply pointed at the only other exit out of the little park area.
“You are here!” the young woman said.
“I am?” I was a little skeptical. The way they were smiling at me, it was possible they were joking.
I followed the couple out of the park and they both turned to see my reaction when the residential neighborhood suddenly gave way to grandiose architecture. They laughed and waved goodbye, as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, gaping at the buildings around me.
I spent the whole day exploring Old Town Marketplace, The Royal Castle and Castle Square, and the Royal Route, a long road lined with parks, churches, palaces, and some of the most beautiful medieval architecture in Warsaw. In the early evening, exhausted and weary, I was resting my feet on the steps of the large bronze statue in the middle of Royal Square, while trying to take awkward selfies of myself. Two teenage girls, no older than 15, approached me and in broken English offered to take pictures of me.
“Why you alone?” they asked.
“My friend couldn’t come with me on this trip,” I told them.
They turned towards each other to translate my words in a joint effort and discuss their answer. After a few backs and forth, they turned to me, their faces set at the most serious of expressions.
“We be your friends here then!” one of them said and the other nodded along. I laughed and we spent 40 minutes talking about their school and my trip and getting to know each other.
One thing I realized before my first day in Warsaw was even over: solo travel is incredibly freeing. If you are tired, you sit down and rest. If you are hungry, you eat. There is no need to check in with anyone, there is no need for schedules. You only see the sights you are interested in, you are free to take a shortcut or a long scenic route, depending on your mood. Warsaw has free public Wi-Fi mostly everywhere, so I was able to connect my phone and send various observations, pictures, and anecdotes to Victor, who 5,000 miles away and 7 hours behind, still somehow answered every one of my messages.
But one of the most unexpected benefits of solo travel for me was how easy it was to strike up a conversation with locals or other tourists. With a traveling companion, you are stuck within your own little bubble– your personal conversations and inside jokes keep you engaged with each other and everyone on the outside mostly gets ignored. Walking around alone kept my eyes open to a bored ice cream vendor who wanted to chat, to schoolchildren interested in practicing their English, to an old woman on a bus who in a mix of broken Russian and Polish merrily complained about her life for the entire ride.
Whenever I felt that I went too long without speaking to anyone, I joined any random free tour group – a tour of Old Town, food tour, historical WWII tour to spend a few hours chatting with fellow tourists and asking increasingly detailed questions of the tour guide. I learned far more that way than from the worn-out guidebook I kept carrying around with me.
On a day trip to Malbork Castle, the world’s largest brick castle constructed by the religious crusading order of Teutonic Knights, I found myself inadvertently following another tourist all the way from Gdansk to the castle. I saw him on a platform, then a few seats away from me on the train, then tracked him through the streets of Malbork, towards the castle. By that point, I had in my mind christened him “Victor” and was having full-on imaginary conversations with this complete stranger. Don’t judge me, this was already day 6 of my solo trip and I was starting to get a little lonely. Also, try not to laugh when I tell you that when this man suddenly swerved off the sidewalk towards a tourist shop to look through some souvenirs, I STOPPED AND WAITED FOR HIM, AS IF WE WERE ACTUAL FRIENDS. He bought a postcard, turned around, saw me standing there like a complete psycho, and instead of running away, he smiled and said, “I guess we are going to the same place!”
I tried to pretend that I was adjusting my backpack and taking a rock out of my shoe by simultaneously bucking my backpack off and hopping on one foot, but it didn’t make me look any saner. He introduced himself with a name that I didn’t even try to remember as I was always going to refer to him as “Victor” in my head. By the time we were standing in line to buy entrance tickets, it felt like we were old friends. We explored the castle together, grabbed lunch, and even had a few inside jokes going. The only one I remember happened when another tourist asked if we knew where the bathroom was. “Victor” misheard and pointed at the small room with actual medieval “toilets” and I had to chase that tourist and yell, “Don’t use those!” Riding back on the train, we would occasionally shout “Don’t use those!” at each other and laugh hysterically.
It was nice for a day to feel like I had company, but honestly, I didn’t feel too sad saying goodbye at the train station. I was enjoying my newly found freedom a little too much.
More about Poland in the next post – Blast From My Soviet Past!