The Last Trip

Polska!

My final Peace Corps vacation was a good one. There were no crazy travel stories this time. I made my way to Poland for the 3rd time in a year. If you told me 2 years ago that I would go to Poland 3 times during PC, I would be quite confused.

The trip was sandwiched around one of the biggest religious holidays in the Christian world, Easter. Poland is an 88% Catholic country and quite devout at that. So, I had a chance to experience another holiday in a foreign country. That’s always a good thing as it expands your mind in ways you can’t anticipate.

The main point of the trip was not Easter though. It wasn’t even to see Poland. I just wanted to see Aga. We got to spend a solid 10 days together. The bonuses were getting to experience Easter and seeing a new chunk of the country.

We started in Warsaw, since that’s where the airport is. I don’t like Warsaw. Every time I’m there it’s gray, gloomy, and depressing. Aga doesn’t like it either. Actually, all Polish people I’ve met who aren’t from Warsaw do not like Warsaw. That’s completely the opposite of Armenia, where everyone adores Yerevan. It’s so over the top that at any moment you can turn on my radio to its one station and hear a cheesy song about Yerevan. Come on guys, sing about something else. There’s a lot here to sing about. Anyway, we didn’t stay in Warsaw long. We were on the move back to her town of Stęszew (Sten-chef).

Warsaw - The gray place where no one knows where anything is

I really like Stęszew. It’s about 6,000 people and charming. I already wrote about a lot of the basics in Poland, so I don’t want to beat the horse. Stęszew is cool because it is a little community where many people know each other. You can walk somewhere, or ride your bike, or drive your car. It has train and bus service to the big city. You can walk to the countryside in a matter of minutes. You can be next to a lake or in a forest if you desire. It is something of a commuter city, but without the ugly trappings and artificiality of suburbia. In fact, it’s been around since 1370. I wonder what all the Oakwood Hills of America will be like in 600 years.

A coal-powered train makes a special trip once daily in Stęszew

We spent some time in Poznań meeting some of her friends. I always feel awkward and guilty when they all switch to English just so I can understand. At this point I know a bit of Polish but not enough to have a conversation or understand anything. So I graciously speak with them in English if they are able. However, I also had the opportunity to use my other language. Aga met a couple Armenian girls randomly at her university once. I met both of them and was almost as shocked with their amazing Polish as they were with my conversational (but not amazing) Armenian. Although I needed to and wanted to escape Armenia during the vacation, it was still music to my ears to hear Armenian. Especially in a place where I didn’t understand much of what was going on. Their clean Armenian words cut through the haze of Polish so sharply I couldn’t believe it. Just as strong if not stronger than the cocktail party effect.

Poznań - my future home

One of many impressive malls in Poznań. There is no eminent domain. Notice the little chicken stand.

One of the Armenian girls has a Polish boyfriend who is from Toruń. She invited us up to visit them on Saturday. That was too perfect, because we had been trying to decide between Toruń and Wrocław for a day trip. Now we had a reason to go to Toruń and a friendly face to boot. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Friday was Good Friday. To me it was always another day. But in Poland it really does feel like Jesus just died. Everyone is a bit sadder, there’s not as much cake, and no one eats meat. Some people don’t eat at all. We went to the church that night for a solid 2 hours or more. I feel comfortable enough in their church even though I’m not Catholic. I decided to start kneeling with them back in December even though we don’t do that in my church (okay, I don’t really have a church these days). Everything else is pretty straightforward. I don’t take communion but that’s okay because not all of them do either. But on Good Friday they started doing something that made my heart jump into a higher gear: they laid a cross of Jesus on the altar and the offering basket next to it. Usually the offering is done by a guy walking around with the basket. This time Jesus was in charge. People started lining up down the aisle. Then, one by one, they got down on both knees, kissed little metal Jesus, and wiped him with a community hankie that was draped on the cross. Then they threw their coin in the basket.

“Oh God!” I thought. “I’m not doing that.” But it was a problem. Her parents very generously always give us a coin to put in the offering. Should I just give her my coin? Or maybe there’s a chance I can sneak up there after the service? As the church was packed, it was obvious this was going to take a while. I asked Aga whether I was even allowed to do it since I’m not Catholic. “You can, but you don’t have to.” The best answer you can get. There’s nothing like being comfy in the house of God. But then I started thinking about the situation. I thought about my life in the Peace Corps. I thought about all the whiskery Armenian male cheeks I had kissed. I thought about all the times I rode without a seatbelt. I thought about not blowing my nose in public. I thought about all the small little things I do to fit in with their culture. And then I realized that this was just a cultural exchange. How many Americans get the chance to be in a small church in a Polish village and give Jesus a big wet one? That’s when I decided that I wanted to kiss Jesus.

After the service her mom came up to me with a huge smile and we did an awkward hand clasp celebration type thing. She was so happy that I even came to the church with them. And probably more so that I tried to do everything they did. Even without that, I think it’s clear I made the right choice.

The next day we took the train to Toruń. Aga picked seats across from two suspicious looking people. In fact, everything about the situation screamed, “DON’T SIT HERE!” Two slightly crazy looking people, a weird smell, and an empty bottle of vodka in the little trash can. By the time we sat down it was too late to change seats, both for the social awkwardness getting up would entail as well as the crowdedness of the train. It was an old drunk man and a crazy middle-aged woman. Turns out the woman had just been released from prison. She gave Aga a book and a pamphlet she had written in prison about other prisoners. The book was about a Russian secret intelligence director that Aga was really interested in. So, sometimes if you sit next to ex-cons good things happen. Another lesson learned.

Anyway, we got to Toruń and met the Armenian girl and her boyfriend. They drove us into the center of town. Toruń is a beautiful old city situated on a river. The center of town is classic old Europe. There are massive churches, pristine streets, and crooked, cobbled back alleys. We went to the ruins of a fortress. The only remaining tower was the Toilet Tower. In medieval times they took care of their business in this tower, which is smartly located above a tributary heading out of town into the main river. We explored a bit more of Toruń, but it was cold and windy. It’s a great, often overlooked Polish city.

We're not in Armenia anymore, or Kansas for that matter.

Ten budynek jest wspaniały (This building is great)

The Leaning Tower of Toruń

They were nice enough to let us tag along as they went back to Poznań that evening. They even drove us all the way to Stęszew, completely beyond the call of duty in my book. The next day was a day of celebration. There was a big meal. Before the meal her father read a blessing. Then we each took a Polish deviled egg, which symbolizes the new life of Jesus. My kiss must have worked wonders, because that egg and the rest of the food was delicious. We spent the rest of the day hanging with the fam playing Sabotage.

Originally we had planned to go to her brother’s city on Monday and Tuesday, but we decided against it. After traveling from Warsaw, going to Poznań, and then Toruń, we were traveled out. It was nice just to stay in Stęszew the final few days. We went for walks, met with friends, and just took it easy. On the final day we made pizzas for her family. In Poland they prefer pizza with ketchup smeared all over it. So, I’m not sure the pizza was as big a hit as it would be for an American family, but they still enjoyed it. Especially her mom, who finally had a break in the kitchen. That night we had kopiec kreta (Mole Mound cake) for my early birthday celebration. They sang Sto Lat (One Hundred Years) as I sat in amazement at the celebration of my birthday in a foreign language and culture. Then we all sang the Happy Birthday song together. Everybody knows that song somehow.

Many walks were had

Ham pizza

The next day was the beginning of my long trip home. Aga and I said our goodbyes on the train platform like a scene from a movie. This time it was the correct train. That makes the trip home so much easier. Then it was a simple bus ride, plane ride, and a couple marshrutka rides, plus a whole lot of waiting, until I stepped inside my dark little apartment.

And now I’m back, trying to soak up all the good things about Armenia and not think about Poland or America too much.

They have Chuck Norris jokes. I think living in Poland is going to be alright!

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4 Responses to “The Last Trip”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    Your detailed descriptions always have the the ability of making me think I am right there in the midst of everything you do. Poland looks like a place you will enjoy tenfold over where you have spent your last two years. Looking forward to hearing about those adventures also.

  2. Gail Says:

    Great Poland story, Kev jan. Always the editor, I did notice in the last section that you said you had 1 “plain” ride—whcih may be the case, but think you really had a plane ride. 🙂
    Yours in English editing,
    the Mom.

  3. Gail Says:

    Crap, did you see my typo in my comment? Just goes to show I shouldn’t have made fun of your “plain.” LOL

  4. icenugget Says:

    Wayne, I think you’re right. I hope you’ll stick around to hear about the Polish epilogues to Peace Corps.

    Mom, nice catch! And no, at first glance, I didn’t see you typo. So next time just don’t say anything about it 😉

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