COLOGNE / AMSTERDAM / WROCLAW – 16 November
Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.
I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.
At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.
Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.
It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.
The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.
There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.
KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November
“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll
Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.
Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.
In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.
(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)
Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.
So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.
(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November
That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.
EPILOGUE – 3 December
So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.
The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.
I feel, therefore I am.
It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.
This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”
We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.
The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success 🙂