At last I have found a spot to write. I have started this post so many times in my head. It first began last evening on going to bed when I found my excitement rising at the prospect of a full day of freedom. After two nights of difficult sleep though, I knew I must rest and not be sidetracked so just tried to fantasise about my impending freedom. In fact I must have fallen asleep almost immediately. I was very tired.
This morning I thought I would write at the station. My train was due at 9.06 just a 20min bus ride from home, I had already bought my ticket and busses are very regular. My host had insisted I must leave at 8.10 and last night overruled my suggestion that this was too early. When it came to it this morning she chivied me out of the house for 8 o clock and accompanied me to the bus Stop! I will have plenty of time to write at the station I thought.
Familiar with local trains, I am now surprised not to find any electronic boards for national trains but watching others, gesturing and clutching my ticket I find the information board I need, photograph it and retrieve the necessary information despite finding no one to speak English. It is surprising how few people there are here who speak English. My host tells me only the educated young have English, older people were taught Russian and German. She is right but even so, I find few young people who can or will assist me.
I need confirmation of my platform before settling to writing in the 45 minutes before my train, I ask two men, perhaps in their thirties, with small cases. They speak good English, are going to Krakow and instead of writing I learn a little of their lives. They think it must be a worry to live in England with so much terrorism and tell me how they flew to Gdansk on their journey here from Krakow but were so anxious about their safety when in an aeroplane that they are abandoning their return leg and taking the train back to Krakow, a 6 hour journey. This was their first flight. Of course they know Norwich from football, football is a common connector for people I find, i have learned that when a World Cup match was held in Gdansk the tourism increased dramatically over the next few years. Football fans came one year then brought their families to return.
The men are friendly and willing to talk, they work in sales and IT and say they are considering a visit to England next year but first must save money. They talk of Ukrainians who come to work here earning five times as much as they are able to do at home. We laugh about the skills trade, Poland to U.K. And Ukraine to Poland. I thank them for their kindness and say that I find Polish people kind, they laugh, disbelieving and then say perhaps it is because I am white but even so they do not think kindness a Polish trait. I remark that perhaps, when I speak English, it is only kind people who speak with me and perhaps the reason that many young people do not appear to understand is actually that they are the not so kind folk. We laugh and they agree.
I am disappointed that after five days here I still do not speak even rudimentary Polish. You do not need it my host says, it is not an important language, it is only for Poland and she will not teach me how to say hello, goodbye or to count. I extend an invitation to the young men, offer help and advice should they need it if they come to the UK and give my email address. They ask can they fly in to Norwich, I laugh and say yes but not cheaply, they must fly to London. I expect I will not hear from them but if I do, having a contact in Krakow, the south of Poland would do me no harm.
No writing time at the station then, but a 45 minute train journey in which to start. Wrong. I am taken off guard as my train is late and I am anxious about where I might be headed if I get it wrong. Once the Krakow train has gone taking them with it, I seek further reassurance and am satisfied. However, an announcement sees many people moving down the platform and I become anxious again. At the last moment seeking further clarification, a young woman says no, it is not my train, as I am about to leap over the 2 foot wide gap to get on. I think she is wrong and climb aboard regardless but with anxiety. The train has small compartments and I wonder if I am in a first class section but it does not appear to be so. The bullet nose is a fast train that misses many stops and with my heightened awareness I anxiously watch for stations instead of write.
We pass much neglected agricultural land, marshland with flocks of birds swooping on wild flowers. As we progress, tended agricultural land appears full of seeding rape, ripening grain and half grown corn. I relax as the first station accords with my timetable and wonder about the smart Polish couple who are now cleaning the floor from spilt coffee using loo roll. The coffee came free, a small paper cup of hot water with a sachet of Nescafé and pot of milk. He does most of the cleaning and also wipes his shiny shoes which have been splashed and reaches deep under the seats to clean the floor whilst his wife repeatedly collects fresh loo roll. We are in a 6 seat compartment and share it with a young Czech woman returning to Pilsner, Czech Republic, after a stay in Gdansk to study the holocaust.
I have seen few old people in Gdansk and had little opportunity to speak at all with others of any age so it is refreshing to be able to do so now. Keeping an eye on stations tho, I fret that an expected stop does not seem to happen and then become alarmed to see us travel through the stop immediately before mine. Perhaps the young girl was right and this is not my train. There is no reassurance, no information on board, my companions cannot help me and I am unable to understand announcements. I compare the time between my timetable and mobile and gather my things together. We begin to slow, Malbork I enquire of my non English speaking Polish companions. Yes they agree, yes Malbork. So it was with relief that I climbed down and very pleased that I had not busied myself with writing and relied on getting out at the fourth stop as the timetable indicated.
My theoretical purpose of today is to spend hours studying the history and construction of Malbork castle. In truth, I have no interest but to be able to stray from my mother hen and be alone appeals. I want to find a coffee and sit down to write. I smile that it is already ten o clock and I have not yet begun to record my thoughts contrary to my expectations.
Leaving the station, an attractive cafe seems likely but is too close, I want to stray into town before I sit. I find no helpful road signs and decide against asking google maps for directions, just wandering will be good for now. I locate a tall red and white chimney that I hope will guide me back to the station along with a yellow derreck and a shop that I will call Lidl for it has a capital L. It turns out to be a supermarket and as I have not seen any cafes and need the loo, I stray inside. I find I have little interest in inspecting food items, we have eaten nothing in my time here that tempts me towards Polish food. Mostly we have eaten bread, cheese, meat and tomato. Just twice have we eaten out, the first in Hel when we ate fish chips and salad and the second, yesterday when I invited her to lunch.
I’m unsure why she said yes yesterday, so many times she has declined my invitation. After a week of bread and meat, bread bread and meat, I chose some beautifully griddled vegetables with black lentils. She was disappointed as she had brought me to a traditional Polish restaurant but this is not traditional food but by now my interest has gone and I explain that I am actually vegetarian. She is, of course disappointed to hear this and wants to know why I have not told her before. I explain that I think it important to fit in but if I have a choice then I can choose not to eat meat. My meal is wonderful, black lentils that I think I do not know at home, maybe will look them out in a Polish food store sometime.
I have tasted dumplings once, after asking about them and saying I would like to go out to eat them. She said no, she would buy some instead and dished up a plate with 5 dry dumplings, indistinguishably filled with meat and vegetables. No sauce or other accompaniment. Just dumpling. I ask for pepper, I want butter but dare not ask for she is always commenting that I must eat food without fat and says I have made this chicken without fat and this beef without fat. The dumplings I have seen on the markets have been lightly fried and gleam with a bronzed shine but the pasty white boiled dumplings she serves up are about as appetising to taste as to look at.
I have eaten a tiny smoked mountain cheese with a touch of red currant jam at a market, a delicious mouthful, I thought we were going for breakfast but she laid out the usual bread, cheese, meat and tomato in the morning and insisted I must eat at home. It is so hard to understand the protocol and how to be a polite guest. My brain is so exhausted with struggling to understand and concentrating on speaking slowly and clearly so she understands. Two days we have theoretically agreed to go out for breakfast but both times she has insisted on eating at home and then just going to look. Both times I have bought myself a mouthful out but would really have loved to wait and eat properly.
The supermarket does not have a cafe as I hoped it might but it does offer a toilet which I use before walking on. I reach a corner with promise of shops and head towards them. My host has told me I must walk straight to the castle, go straight to the castle she says, there is nothing of interest in the town, you can find anything you need at the castle. Ignoring this, I walk into town instead and see my first old men of my trip, sitting by the road side, talking and spitting. I want to stop and take photos but do not do so, I wonder about back tracking and trying to take photos furtively but think I am too obvious and it would not be right to do so. I walk past and as I do so the odour of urine drifts and I feel a sense of satisfaction that I have walked this way. Perhaps here I will see another side of Poland.
The sun is hot, I stop at a small greengrocers to buy a nectarine and the young assistant speaks English, I ask her for the castle and she points in the direction I am already headed. The nectarine is very fresh and juicy. Walking on, the pavement is blocked by what at first I think to be road chippings but turns out to be coal. I notice an old man talking and then see his shovel and then the cellar window through which I think he must have been shovelling. He is at rest and I take a photo of his shovel and coal but wish I were brave enough to gesture a request to photograph him shovelling.
I reach a junction, still see no signs for castle but stumble upon a young woman who turns out to be Polish but from Scotland. She carries what could be a wedding bouquet but looks more like a funeral wreath except that it is all the most brilliant yellow. She tells me I have walked a long way in the wrong direction and I must backtrack. I thank her and continue on briefly before choosing a parallel route back. I change my mind tho, remembering the old men and the man with the coal and cut through some high rise apartments hoping they will be ok and take me to my original street. It is here that I found a bench in the shade and sat down for the first time to write. Nobody has bothered me, the high rise apartments look well cared for and a woman sweeps pavements and then gathers weeds, clearing the edges. I think it will be a good place to walk through and see what I find.
Almost as soon as I stand and turn out of the shade I first hear and then see a group of people behind a line of billowing sheets in the back yard of some smaller older buildings and again I want to go closer to listen and learn but intruding on privacy I cannot do, so wander on. I am pleased to find I am back at a small toy shop landmark and look ahead but think the coal has gone. As I proceed I realise that this is not in fact the street I came down and looking back see my toy shop and also the turn I failed to take that must have been my outward journey.
I stop to ask google which way I should be heading and decide not to retrace my steps after all. Equally I do not take the route promoted by google but instead wander through a pedestrainised alley and looking up, see a sex shop, the first English sign I have seen since arriving here. Emerging from the alley I am just a little relieved that I can see the L supermarket I started out at and in fact have enjoyed a short detour.
Crossing the main road close to the station where I started, I find myself entering another section of the town and it becomes immediately apparent that this is perhaps the Main Street with busier shops, tree lined cobbled streets and benches beside pyramids of geranium with old people sitting and standing talking in the shade. Ahead I see what must be the castle and as I proceed towards it I find a cafe with people sitting outside and decide to rest a while. As I sit, the other people leave and with the table left clean and clear I think they have left having not received service. I do not mind, I write in comfort. After a while a waitress emerges and brings coffee and cake to a couple sitting beside me, I enquire and she intimates I must enter to order.
Inside I see an array of cakes but these do not interest me, I would like to find a Polish lunch. I order coffee and return to my seat. In a square in front of me children play in water fountains. There are many features such as these in Gdansk and suggest to me a very different part of town from the one I was in just a few minutes ago. My latte is very European in a tall glass, McDonald’s is across the way and I want to return to the seedier part of town but must progress towards the castle so I may take photos and recount the glory of it when I return to my host. I spied a tiny doorway earlier which looked to be a pub and although I now see signs in front of me inviting me to restaurants in both English and German, I think that when I return later to the old part and want to find a beer I may dare enter the peeling wooden door and see what happens.
Before I leave the cafe I ask for the loo and am sent into a small dark shopping arcade and descend stairs into increasing gloom. I am unconvinced and when a woman creaks her body to stand in the entrance of the loo I turn and return back up the stairs. I feel mean but have not had sufficient time alone to understand the protocol or etiquette of public loos like this and paying for them, my host having avoided them at all costs. I cross the street and enter an exceptionally clean McDonald’s to avail myself of their facilities!
It is well past noon and I am hungry. Having become less anxious about causing offence now I am close to leaving, yesterday and this morning I have stopped eating the almost obligatory bread. Today, I had an egg and a tomato for breakfast. Food has been interesting here, I am sure I will have lost weight, we have eaten a simple breakfast each day around 9.30 and then had a prolonged morning before eating dinner at around 3.30 and then resting before heading out again. Every evening I have been offered more bread cheese meat and tomato but other than the first couple of days when I ate out of politeness, I have declined. I am surprised, without having to make decisions for myself about when and what to eat, I have not minded hunger and not been anxious about food. Perhaps there is a lot to be said for not always preparing ones own food and just two meals a day.
I look for a small local cafe but only find restaurants offering pizza and burgers, I am too close to the castle. Holding on to my hunger I move into the castle grounds thinking I will eat when I head back but am pleased to immediately find a rustic market area with wood smoke, cheese and wine stalls as well as dumplings. Enjoying the wood smoke and the very ‘safe’ atmosphere of unbusy tourism, I have eaten fried dumplings. Sadly not with cabbage and mushrooms for they have run out, but some meat and others with potato and cottage cheese. Lightly fried dumplings are far preferable to boiled in terms both of flavour and consistency. They are filling too.
As I eat, I remember the mixed salad pot I had on my second day here, my day in Hel, when I asked for salad with my fish. The pot of slightly pickled cabbage and carrot salads were delicious, maybe I can find something at a supermarket to take for my journey home tomorrow.
I fear I must move on and at least find out if I can wander in the castle grounds without venturing inside but am very comfortable here. My thoughts of finding a beer later through the gloom of a dubious, peeling doorway may have disappeared. Sitting here with music, woodsmoke and nobody except the sun bothering me feels a very attractive option! The castle first!….. Much later, my beer will prove to be at neither place.
It is apparent from the atmosphere and order that European money has gone into this site for it bears little resemblance to the old remnants of the town I left earlier. Indeed, as I approach, familiar EU flags adorn information boards. We have had European discussions, my host and I, she is sympathetic to the demands of the EU but says that no, Poland will not take immigrants and indeed displays racial prejudice. In a similar way, racial prejudice was intimated by the friendly guys at the station when they suggested maybe I only found people friendly because I was white.
EU business is difficult to understand, discussion and co-oporation must be the way forward but it appears Poland has an entrenched stance in some respects yet benefit financially, what do they give I wonder. Who really understands just what we as a country give and just what we take. It is difficult to see evidence in a relatively wealthy city such as Norwich but in Cornwall it was apparent that EU money was improving roads and infrastructure.
Oh joy of joy, as I enter the castle grounds contemplating EU matters, I think that I will just go see what is in the shop and just see how much tickets are. The shop is minimal and there is a machine for tickets, I punch in an enquiry having pressed the button for English. Oh joy there are no tickets. I then attempt the beginning of a purchase for a guided tour and there are no tickets either. It is past 2 o clock. So when she said I must go straight there, what she meant was that tickets are limited. I chuckle, no longer needing to pretend that I must lie about having entered.
It is indeed a large castle, outer courtyard, inner courtyard, both of which I can walk in and then the queues begin for the inner buildings and I am pleased not to be in them. Instead I skirt the outer walls, sit for some time leaning against the castle wall and get bitten by a long legged spider. Up until then I was very comfortable in the long grass looking out across the river. Now though I am aware of every blade of tickling grass and constantly swish at insects that do not exist. Time to move on. The river is wide and appealing. I regret that I brought my swimming costume yet despite being a coastal town, have not swum in the sea nor found a pool. Independent travel has a lot going for it over escorted experiences.
On leaving the castle grounds, the benign EU rustic eating drinking area no longer appeals. The sun has been hot all day and although I have walked in shade whenever able, my shoulders are smarting and the stifling heat of the courtyard with smokehouses is no longer attractive. Nor yet do I want to trudge back to the older part of town. Instead I opt for an insipid bar in another street, the wind blows here and is cooling. I seem to have found a new friend, a young girl, perhaps 3 or 4 years old who is beginning to be a nuisance, women sit along the terrace from me seemingly unaware that she is spending time at my table. It is nearly four pm, my disappointing beer is done, time to move on.