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Crossing to Poland

Manfred sits down and places a bottle of wine down on the picnic table not far from our tent. His treat, to enjoy while we pore over the map of Poland and he shares his experience and knowledge of this as-yet unknown to us country. He’s an engaging and educated man with a balanced view of the world. He tells me his parents were and still are holders of beliefs that he clearly doesn’t subscribe to. I wonder to what extent this has forged his balance. I would have liked to pursue this line of enquiry further with him but the wine and the map conspire to divert me.

He has a strong personality which might overpower some but I find myself engaged and energised by his diverse knowledge and we fall easily into deep conversation as the wine gradually depletes. Another camper joins us for a short time. Frank arrived earlier today, marking himself as unusual in a good way by tipping us a smile and wave as he parked up. He has a softer, more acquiescing personality that contrasts to our other companion and he also piques my interest. It’s a pleasure to be able to converse and communicate ideas with people easily again, if only for a short time. The warmth of the evening and of the company combined with the hazy glow of wine induced relaxation all contribute to a happy surrender that eventually carries me to my bed around midnight feeling light of spirit. Not before Manfred has managed to awaken a quiet excitement and curiosity about Poland. As we prepare to cross another border, old fears resurface, quieter this time but still there none-the-less. Fear of the unknown, of the uncontrollable, of being alien and alone. Fears we all have but few need to acknowledge or face. I’m grateful to Manfred for the gift he’s given me of quietening these fears.

During the conversations that evening and the following day we learn that the campsite we are all pitched at was once a border control between East and West Germany and that the decision to implement ‘the final solution’ – the slaughter of millions of Jewish people – was officially taken only a mile or two away in Wannsee. A thought that goes beyond sobering. Every single day of this trip we have been reminded of one of the World wars. The history of Europe is so tied up in the wars in a way that the UK’s is not and I hadn’t realised this stark contrast until this journey. Occupation and direct threat to the whole population left its mark here and it is still tangible in many ways so many years later.

The following day Frank walks with us to the old bridge border crossing a few minutes west of the camping site. My head just won’t wrap around the history contained here. A small pillar tells of how a young couple out on a day trip accidentally strayed over the border. The guards shot to kill repeatedly, succeeding with him but only disabling his female companion. Countless stories. My mind wanders. I see so many parallels between the events prior to the atrocities of WWII and the darkness of spirit I feel falling across my own country right now. I see so many parallels. The feelings of betrayal, or maltreatment, of disenfranchisement that allowed the population to be manipulated by people looking to meet their own power-hungry ends. A population of immigrants to blame for it all and powerful voices whipping up hate. I fear for our future. A populous too misused and manipulated to display kindness and compassion, to know right from wrong. How much longer before we slide further down the slippery slope? But even amidst the evil of the war, the best of humanity could be observed too I remind myself. It’s worth remembering.

We are asked, will we visit Auschwitz? It will destroy me from the inside out. I know it. I don’t want to. A part of me wants to run from it. I don’t need to go, we could pass by it easily. But a larger part of me knows that we will go nonetheless. Because I feel we must. It’s imperative to me that we bear witness to the echoes of the evil that took place and the lives that were lost there. Vital that I taste a tiny fraction of the evil that took place in those walls to know, to remember. To never, ever forget. Essential that I try to understand the reasons that built to that final devastating decision. Greed, power, division, entitlement. All of the things that are currently thriving in the world today it seems. Franks tells me he supposes that I don’t need to go, it’s not my history. Later he’ll come to understand after talking to me more that it is my history. It is all of our history. For each of us are capable of such evil and each of us are capable of being so powerless. We forget that at our own personal and collective peril.

The next day we cross into Poland. Instant change. I still find land borders a curiosity having grown up on an island whose borders require a change of transport to cross. It is no surprise to me that after a boat ride the people are different on the other side. But crossing a short bridge to find the whole national character has changed is bemusing. Such a strong thing national identity. And this with the borders having moved repeatedly and up to recent times.

In Germany I found my feet, my flow, my rhythm. We met wonderful people. But it also wore me down. The stares of strangers, the unanswered, ignored hellos, whilst still staring, slight scowl growing. The unsmiling faces. It was too much for me on my lower days. Then there was Poland, a big, apprehension-inducing unknown.

But today, I was well rested and refreshed. Sleeping has become easier now and little disturbs me. Pleasure welled up in me as I packed the bike and I became aware that I was keen to be back on the road. Despite the best efforts of my coddled, intransigent mind, my body is responding to this way of life. Perhaps my biology is leaping towards a way of life closer to what it was designed for. It certainly feels that way. We had a little party of people waving us off, largely thanks to Mickey’s ability to engage anyone, everyone. After an unpromising start of suspicious sideways glances on the campsite, he now had everyone smiling, raising a hand and offering a friendly word as we walked to and from the toilet block.

Smiles and waves abound and we head out having paid up before. We’re up on the pegs, feeling like royalty and on top of the world. We stop briefly to remove our washing up sponge from the spokes of my wheel – oops! We start well by getting onto the Berliner ring in the wrong direction. I correct, unhurried. The sun is shining and we know where we’re supposed to be so no problem. We said goodbye to Frank and he told us the postcards we’d asked him to post the night before had led him to a happy solution for a decision he was struggling with on whether to buy an apartment in Berlin. Funny how the slightest of nudges sometimes helps. I like to think the world was repaying his kindness to us by revealing another option to him in that process.

We pulled in at a gas station on the East of Berlin having successfully navigated through road work diversions and the centre of the city for the second time, this time without hitch, drama or tantrum. I was feeling rather accomplished! Even the low oil in both bikes couldn’t knock the mood, we’d dealt with this before and knew what we needed to do. We bought oil, fuel and food and whilst eating, the guy who had served us asked where we were heading. His eyes widened…on those? More widening. We laughed. A few minutes later and he returned with two energy drinks putting them down on the table with a roll of his eyes. The message was clear: 25000 miles, New Zealand, you need them! As we laughingly thanked him another biker pulled up and began to investigate the bikes. He began smiling and nodding to himself, unaware that we were watching him. I liked him immediately. We walked outside to where he still stood and said hi. He looked up and his smile widened, warm and peaceful. “Huge respect” he said grinning. We laughed together and chatted, another biker joining us with more questions and smiles. Pictures were taken, Stefan saying “I need to show these to my friend, we need to do something like this!” He’d just returned from Poland and affirmed what Manfred had told us. Beautiful country, beautiful people. You’ll love it. Both Stefan and Henning (my friends call me Hightower) travelled a lot, these were people seizing life, also empowered to influence the manner in which they lived. They wanted nothing from us but to share the passion for a few moments, no hero worship, no talk of craziness. Nourishing.

We said goodbye, topped our oil and hit the road again. I checked the feeling of invincibility that comes after such a series of positive events, reigning in the spirited horse and harnesses it rather than letting it run wild. I lost myself in the business of being in the moment. Free of Berlin, a new country on the horizon.

We crossed the border, an understated entry that could have been missed but for the immediate identity shift. Road markings and signs changed format and people began smiling and speaking to us. The effect was immediate. The almost oppressive atmosphere of Berlin lifted and I felt more like a visitor again than an alien. The girl in the gas station that we stopped at to fill up and buy a sim card, smiled shyly when I asked her how to say thank you in Polish. She looked genuinely pleased when I repeated it back to her. What a change.

We bought a sim card and called Roman, making plans to meet. We head off again towards him in Gorzow Wielkopolski on tree lined roads, giving way to forest lined roads (all of which are incidentally perfectly surfaced despite what some scaremongering websites I’ve found have documented). I glance to the right and find the fields are tinged with a sheen of electric blue. It takes me a moment to make sense of what I’m seeing – what looks like an dual coloured material that changes colour as you move it, is actually a field of corn with wildflowers sown throughout it. The effect is evocative. The sun is bright and the forest is cool, such a perfect day. An hour and a half later our bikes were in his friend’s garage and we were welcomed guests in his home. We started the evening eating a great meal (I never cease to be fascinated and delighted by the variety in which a seemingly invariable meal of steak and potatoes is presented in each country), and went on to meet a few of Roman’s friends for more excellent Polish hospitality. First impressions of this country I know so little about – very positive. As I write this, we’ve been here for a little under a week now and impressions haven’t changed. It’s a country with a laid back, friendly vibe that will leave you to get with things and smile shyly with appreciation when you show an interest.

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