An unexpectedly long stay in Poznan
It’s time to leave Poznań today. Przem and Jarek, the AJP dealers that we came here to see have serviced the bike thoroughly, checking every seal and screw for the ravages of the road, to be sure we have the best chance of reaching our destination. I’m grateful that they’ve gone to such lengths although neither Mickey nor I share their apprehension about the length of our trip. A trip like this will bend the best of bikes, part of the adventure is how you deal with that when it happens. We are pushing these bikes through unchartered territory and out the other side and so far they’ve given us nothing but fun. Thankfully there are no major problems, and the small problems there are are dealt with swiftly and expertly by Przem and Jarek. Mine has a small oil leak, probably from a prior overheat damaging a seal and one set of wheel bearings needs attention – a combination of the extra weight carried and an incorrect batch of bushings from a supplier which has long been caught and rectified. AJP are fast and responsive and the necessary parts are with us the next working day.
I’m becoming accustomed now to life setting my schedule and Mickey has always been good at going with the flow so there’s no frustration at our prolonged stay in Poznań. Over the course of the next week or so we’ll develop a warm bond with Przem that comes easily and naturally in the way that it does when you meet a like-minded person. As much as I’m a scientist who deals with the tangible and quantifiable, I’ve also learned to listen to and respect the esoteric, abstract processes in life (although that’s not to say that I don’t have theories based in more tangible realms about how these phenomena arise!). One of these is the way that some people just resonate with you and Przem is definitely in this camp. He has an outlook and a manner that just fits easily with us and we find pleasure in the fact that our stay has allowed us to get to know him a little better. And whilst our interactions with Ewa - Przem’s wife - and Jarek are more limited by our lack of Polish it’s clear that they share the resonance. We’re in safe hands and so we make the most of our spare time.
Received with a warm welcome and furnished with coffee and delicious Polish apple pie (which is quite different to English apple pie), we take the bikes to the garage before Ewa drops us into the city. Over the next few days we’ll discover bit by bit the rich history contained here in Poznań and all accessible for little or no money. In the course of our week and a half of sightseeing here we spent around £10.
Poznań is a beautiful town. I’m not sure what I was expecting of Poland, I hadn’t been sure what to expect as I knew so little about it. Whatever it was, I was in for a pleasantly educating experience as it turned out.
The old market square in Poznań, or Stary Rynek, is stunning and took me quite by surprise. It’s reminiscent of Prague’s Old town square but unique in its own way. A wide open space surrounded by Baroque- and Renaissance-styled buildings reconstructed after the terrible damage sustained during the Battle of Poznań in the Second World War. These buildings are now decorated in bright colours with murals worked into the render. The centrepiece of the square is the architecturally impressive Ratusz or Town Hall and we arrived purely by chance at midday, to catch the goats coming out of the tower to butt heads playfully and a lone bugler trumpeting from each corner of the tower’s balcony. Many of the apartment buildings in and around town have ornate wrought iron railings surrounding balconies and decorated with brilliant blooms of only a single or two contrasting colours. The effect is quite striking. But I don’t want to give them impression that Poznań is a beautifully manicured tourist trap. It has a charming decrepitude to it too that creeps in to the odd building here and there. Crumbling render, old brick work laid bare, eroded point-work between tiny, time-rounded bricks and the fume stains and dirt of decades that seem to wash in waves down the walls. There’s even a house that has been deliberately maintained to preserve the multitude of bullet holes gracing its walls from WWII, a forceful reminder of the realities of war. It seems to me that the ravages of time are revered as a visible monument to the land’s history here. As a visitor I think this is a great thing. It’s all on display, it’s not something to hide, each crack and stain tells a story and it all adds up to an easy-going, open and honest charm. I hope it stays that way and these places never fall prey to the seemingly relentless drive to modernise, renew and replace.
We wandered around the town soaking up the vibe, I’m not a city person and often a few hours in the bustle will have me wishing never to see a place again. But Poznań is full of open spaces, many of them green: squares, large open intersections and parks. And people don’t seem to be in so much of a rush here as in other major cities, but maybe that’s an illusion of the space and wide pavements. We found we were happy to sit a while in various places, leafed or architectural alike before wandering on to another. Often, it seemed that our dallying by a place would attract others, some with the slightly mystified look of locals who had walked past a thousand times but never really seen the place…it gave us pleasure and entertainment to speculate on what their story was. One such place was a captivating war memorial of a glass pyramid skylight sunk into the pavement and with iron eagles emerging out of it and the granite pillars alongside it. As we moved around the sculpture-cum-monument we heard tropical birds in the trees up above. It took us some minutes to realise it was a speaker in the trees. And so we settled on a nearby bench to observe as others approach the previously empty monument and go through the same process as we looked on, whiling away time happily.
I was delighted too to discover Poznań has a botanical gardens. I have a little habit which has evolved quite organically and without effort, of visiting the botanical gardens in every city I stay in that has one. I find that they’re a good counterpoint to city living. A small oasis of green calm in the concrete jungle in which I can reconnect to myself again. Poznań botanical gardens was no exception, with areas of formal and stylised planting along with wilder, less tamed areas, all with plants that were surprisingly overlapping with Britain’s flora. Mickey and I spent a few happy hours with our adult brains switched off and our curiosity switched on, exploring and delightedly sighting terrapins, listening to mating frogs and toads and watching the insects busily visiting the flowers. We walked back through the huge cemetery in between the hotel and the gardens, another spot in a city that I always seem to gravitate towards and for similar reasons. There is a mindfulness of life that is activated on entering a graveyard and quiet, healthy contemplative mood that restores me. It’s a place to be respectful of the past, hopeful for the future and squarely grateful for the present. In this case the cemetery was a vast impeccably-kept graveyard with imposing wrought iron gates and still in active use. We cut our visit short out of respect for a funeral taking place down at the far end. People milled about outside the disproportionately tiny red brick chapel placed right at the centre of the cemetery. As much as tried to quell it, my curiosity rose. I wondered whose funeral it was, young or old, man or woman, were they well-loved, how had they died? I silently wished the mourners well as we moved off quietly.
As we explore Poznań we come across numerous forts and military structures. After the second or third I realise a pattern that pique’s my interest. It becomes a bit of a treasure hunt. One day whilst exploring Lake Rusalka a beautiful expanse of water located in walking distance down a pleasant wooded path from our apartment we find a sign marking the site of the first fort we’ve found. All in Polish, we find a memorial a little further up. Mickey takes photos and we continue on, enjoying the wildlife and nature of the area. A day or two later I remember to look up the memorial we’d found and begin to understand the depth of the history here. Poznań fortress once ringed the city, a massive fortification with forts positioned every few kilometres around its perimeter and these were the structures we’d been stumbling upon. Built by the Prussians, it had been put to use more recently by the Nazis. At Lake Rusalka, we had been standing close to the site of a concentration camp. People local to the area had been imprisoned here and built the lake by damning the Bogdanka river in 1943. Thousands had been executed in the forests through which we had walked by the Nazis. Sobering knowledge and the subtle, unimposing appearance of the memorials we found made this discovery all the more moving. In later days we sought out more forts, Fort Winiary in Cytadela Park and Ostrów Tumski leading us in turn to more discoveries: the war graves of the men who took part in the real-life Great Escape, and some amazing art work and sculpture. (After having glanced at the guide book, Mickey was extremely excited to hunt out the “Horse Fingers” sculpture…For 20 mins he walked with renewed vigour in search of the sculpture. Only after asking me how far it was to the Horse Fingers and a 5 min conversation trying to figure out what he was going on about did I realise he’d misread the Headless Figures sculpture…”you do know horse’s don’t have fingers right?” apparently, this was the source of his excitement “it would have been cool to see what they looked like”…we giggled maniacally for a long while after that…gotta love his mind sometimes! J).
I begin to practice yoga again, it’s been a while and I notice the difference. But it feels good to stretch, breath and connect again. People say yoga helps calm the mind but I’m finding increasingly that I need a measure of calm first to practice. I’ve noticed a settling in myself recently, a contentment and a quietening of my internal world. Mickey and I spend so much time laughing together and I would never have thought it possible that I could spend 24/7 with someone and still smile involuntarily when they’re the first thing I see in the morning. I used to think that sort of life was for others not me.
After overcoming the initial difficulties of adjusting to life on the road, it’s been enlightening to settle again briefly in the knowledge that I can’t leave for a while. It’s given me a chance to observe the fidgety restlessness that overtakes me and, if left to run its course, turns inwards and begins to cause damage. I need a life that occupies me meaningfully so that I can feel like I’m not wasting time. I think I was born to move. My overactive mind needs fodder to digest, a never ending stream of novelty to keep it occupied and happy.
The initial adjustment period, the steep learning curve of culture shock towards life on the road has prepped me well to be grateful for this realisation. I’m aware of those out there who interpreted that initial period as ingratitude, and perhaps weakness, or of indication that I would give up and come home. Something that needed eradicating or denying, something which I needed to stop whining about and get on with. But I always knew deep down that it would pass. As did those who have been through this process themselves. And I’ve learnt from experience that honestly and authentically experiencing those emotions is the only way for me to get through them intact and access the lesson they have to teach. There are some who cannot tolerate that process but there are many who can and I’m blessed to have one of the latter by my side. Always patient, the most intelligent, caring and humble person I know. How could I ever be ungrateful for a life that gifted me my soulmate.
And so with my mind and body well and truly tended and rested, we hit the road out of Poznań. We don’t yet know where we’re heading but we have an hour or so of re-loading the bikes to concern ourselves with. We say a warm goodbye to Przem and he leaves us with a bottle of his father’s home brewed fruit liquor, a significant gift for many reasons and one for which we’re grateful. Mickey and I very much hope we’ll all meet again one day. And with the now familiar bittersweet anticipation of saying goodbye in exchange for the open road we’re on it, in the warm hazy sunshine…destination for the evening, as yet, unknown.
The following day our luck ran out however. The rain set in, putting a stop to any sightseeing and the hotel was fully booked. They did have an apartment available however, a little further out and a little more expensive but better the devil you know....We did now have the problem of how to get all of our stuff over there. Checkout from the room was at 11, check in at the apartment was 14:00. Our bags, fully unloaded from the bike were many and not at all designed to be carried. We weren’t looking forward to sitting outside the hotel in the rain with the bags. Przem and Eva kindly stepped in once again, Eva collecting us from the hotel and taking us and our bags to their house and cooking us an amazing meal of Polish cuisine, which I’m taking to rather well. We had a delicious tomato-based soup which may have been Goulash, followed by Schnitzel, boiled potatoes, cucumber salad (which I think is called mizeria), sauerkraut salad and pickled mushrooms. All of it was superbly delicious and the bonus of it being home-cooked after so much shop bought food only added to the enjoyment.
During the meal, Przem laid out the detail for us. They hoped they’d sorted the leak but still weren’t sure where it was coming from. He quizzed us on details that might help them close in on a potential cause…I fear we weren’t so enlightening, my memory of events and Mickey’s differing markedly enough to render us at best uninformative, at worst a bad comedy act! The decided course of action was that we would hope for an improvement. Janek would return to the South of Poland and we would pass there in a day or so. We would keep an eye on things and get in touch if we encountered the same problem.
“I’m very sorry to tell you…and I apologise for how this sounds” says Przem clearly about to broach a potentially tricky transcultural bridge with strangers whose sense of humour he isn’t yet confident of “but Mickey, you’ll need to keep an eye on Katie’s exhaust”. He gives a grin that is equal parts apologetic, amused and apprehensive. He needn’t worry though, he’s on safe ground.
“So I need to watch her rear end to see if any blue smoke comes out” says Mickey with a cheeky glint in his eye. He makes a show of leaning around the bac of my chair and assessing…”looks clean so far” he grins. Everyone, around the table has a good giggle at that, definitely a joke not lost in translation!
Later that afternoon as Przem and Janek returned to work, Eva dropped us off at our new home for the night – a luxury apartment which was costing us all of £30 to rent and we settled in for the night as the rain continued to lash. We’d lightened our load a little at her house, leaving most of our bags to ease our transfer the following morning. We were glad we did this morning! So today began with a brisk walk with bags back to the hotel to check out. We dropped our bags and set off in search of objectives two and three
Objective two: find and devour breakfast was, mercifully, quickly fulfilled and very satisfactorily; scrambled eggs, bacon and coffee for two for the princely sum of £4. Three proved somewhat more difficult, with all identified electronics shop informing us solar chargers were only available via the internet, rather than instore, something that was a problem at the time but has since rectified itself in the form of a silver lining. You see, we can’t get anything delivered by internet unless we stop for a while in one place. And, it transpires that’s what we’ll be doing from today.
A few hours ago we received a call from Przem with bad news. With the tone of a man very close to defeat, but as yet refusing to give in, he explained that the leak was still active and had shifted position, the engine would need to be dismantled. As accurately as he could, Przem laid out the timeline of events he anticipated – in all an extra week in Poznan. His humour had not deserted him though, nor had his grace and consideration as he batted away my apology that we’d dropped this on his doorstep and drew my attention to the fact that we might want to consider whether we needed any of our stuff, currently stored in his garage. We rang-off saying I’d call back in a bit after I’d discussed options with Mickey. I recounted the conversation and then we began to look at the cheapest living options for the next few days.
And then the internet went down. It came back eventually and we set about identifying the various options, trying to narrow them down. The major consideration was that we were already a little tight for making it to and across Iran in time for our visa expiry date so there was likely to be little time left for exploring once we had our bikes back. Did we just book a place in Poznan for 7 days and get a really cheap price but tie ourselves to a place we’d already explored quite a bit? Or did we spend more money, hop on the train and trip out to other cities around Poland, at a cost of around £20+ each per day but achieving our objectives of seeing as much as possible? I hate decisions like this, not enough information and finances requiring me to limit opportunities. I hate making money-motivated decisions…but sometimes you have to respond to what life throws you. Eventually, we decided a middle-ground between the two might work. We booked at a cheap price for a few days so we can re-evaluate at that point. This way, we have a couple of days without having to schlep our stuff around but we’re not stuck in one place for what feels like an eternity! A week is a long time to plan ahead when you’ve just settled into living day to day!
Next, we called Przem to arrange to pick up some of our stuff from his garage. Half way through the call Mickey got cut off. It took us a few minutes to realise we’d run out of credit. Try as we might we couldn’t decipher the words of the Polish lady speaking to us when Mickey tried to redial Przem’s number. Eventually with a bit of Google-based detective work we found the code needed to check account credit and translated it online to discover we did indeed have a grand total of zero on the account. No problem, topping up should be child’s-play right? Hmmm, not so much. Cue initiation of operation: Figure Out My Phone Number. An hour long google investigation into the various ways of determining the number of a sim card. My shiny new virgin sim didn’t have the phone number written on it, nor did the bumpf it came with. None of the tricks on the interweb worked and eventually Mickey retraced his phone history, put it together with his memory and my phone history to identify the one time he’d called me from his new sim (also now devoid of credit, also with an unknown number) so that I could identify his phone number, call his phone and hey presto! Determine my number. We were both in fits of hysterics at the lunacy of it all by the end. And technology is supposed to make life easier!
So, today. I have a bike that’s weeping oil but a couple of dedicated mechanics who are hell bent on getting it fixed and it comes with a bit more of an opportunity to get to know Poznań. We’ve identified a place to stay for the next few days, without curtailing our freedom and spontaneity too much. We have a fixed address to receive goods, oh and we won the battle to determine our own mobile phone numbers. Most importantly we’re still cackling like loonies…amidst all of this I’m sure there are some lessons, regarding silver linings, the bright side of life, and winning the small battles in life and some witty quote that was made just for this occasion. The problem is the internet’s gone down again, so I can’t look it up! ;)