The hardest thing about being an expat is watching your home from thousands of miles away. You don’t stop caring about what’s happening, you just feel even more powerless to help. When the rains don’t fall on California and the water reserves start disappearing, you find yourself conserving water half-way around the world. A lot of good it will do. When people that you love begin quarreling about the right to withhold service or the right to be served, spitting venom masked as righteousness or correctness or “freedom,” you find your own spirit writhing from the poison, your heart breaking from the malice. When your countrymen raise up arms against each other because one person is black or white or works in law enforcement or lives in a bad part of town, when homes and cities burn but you live on the other end of the planet, all you can do is watch.
I read other people’s newspapers on the bus. My Czech is good enough now that I can make out headlines and decks and photo captions easily enough. “The American Dream is burning in Baltimore,” said the last one. My generation is discovering the racism we all thought was gone is not. It’s a tough pill to take, to admit there’s a problem. To admit that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents made mistakes that we are still trying to fix. And I’ve spent many a bus ride in the last few months wondering why we haven’t been able to fix them. I’m sure there’s blame enough to share on both sides. I’m sure there will be plenty of “solutions” proposed in the near future. I’m sure I won’t see the problem fixed in my lifetime. We don’t know our neighbors well enough for that.
It was these thoughts, wrapping my mind up like a wet blanket, that I took with me off the bus from Warsaw to Ełk.
For those who don’t know, Ełk is a small, Polish town near the Lithuanian border. It’s often referred to as the capital of Masuria, a region of Northern Poland famous for its 2,000 lakes. The town is small and well-kept. Katka and I walked down the main street in the dark. It was about 10:30 p.m. when we were dropped off at the train station on one end of the main street and our hotel was nestled into the banks of the lake on the other end. It was an eleven minute walk (we timed it for a bet which I basically won).
The street below our hotel room circled the lake and the music from several bars and the laughter from its patrons wafted into our open window as we stared out at the dark surface of the sleeping waters.
The plan was to bike around it the next morning. Specifically, the plan was to secure tickets back to Warsaw, refill our travel snacks before all the stores closed (typical of Eastern Europe – everything closes on Saturday afternoon) and then find bikes to rent.
Surprisingly, everything went according to plan (and I say ‘surprisingly’ because nothing I do ever goes according to plan). It wasn’t until we’d paid for the bikes and were about to set off that I discovered the first major obstacle to the enjoyment of our afternoon.
I don’t know how to ride a bike.
I know I spent a whole day riding around in Moravia last October, but apparently my muscle memory was just like, “Sorry, we’re taking the day off,” and my mental chutzpah was like, “Well don’t look at us! When have we ever been helpful in these situations?” And then my emotions panicked and I almost hit a car because I was screaming and couldn’t figure out how to brake. Thankfully the gentleman in the car thought it was highly amusing to watch me narrowly miss colliding with his (parked) vehicle and then fall off my bike because no one ever told me what to do when you do find the brakes.
Katka doesn’t waste breath on the weak-spirited. She took off with a smile and I was forced to strap on a ‘spare tire’ (made of intense self-determination) and follow her down the main street, past the park where old men sat in their Sunday best playing cards at a table. Past the woman selling flowers and the men on the curb selling jars of honey. Past the older gentleman playing his accordion, a cup for coins set out in front. Past the little girls in pigtails coming out of the catholic church at the top of the hill. Then down towards the banks of the lake. (You can just assume that any time our course included a downhill portion, I was having some sort of mental meltdown, even after I figured out how to brake. Some things just don’t get easier).
Katka was patient with me as I wobbled along behind her. We only had the bikes for two hours and it was a big lake. Several times we stopped to take pictures. Several times I wish we could have stopped, but didn’t. There’s not much to do on a bike except look at what’s happening around you (and panic, and cry, and run into things, and wish you could be eating that little kid’s ice cream cone). Your ears open up to the sounds of birds and the song of the wind along the water. Your eyes, after adjusting to the sunlight, follow every bright and lovely thing that flies past – reeds growing out of the water, trees caked with fuzzy moss like slender women in green dresses, window frames and shutters painted like tea saucers.
And people. We saw people.
Some people were walking dogs, others simply sitting on benches beneath the brilliance of the sun’s golden rays. Others were families enjoying an afternoon out together, the smallest members practically swallowed up beneath their biking helmets. Many were fishing, or trying to.
When you’re on a bike, the world becomes out-put only. You can’t talk back to it, or argue with it, or reason with it. You just listen and watch and learn.
We rounded the bottom of the lake and began our trek back up the other side towards the Zamkowa bridge, where we would cross over and return to Ełk. This is where things got a bit muddy.
We’d been following Katka’s phone directions which had successfully gotten us to the bike rental, onto the right bike path, and then to the bottom of the lake. But the road melted into mushy sand that was difficult to bike across and we began to deviate from the phone ever so slightly. We chose to bike the shoulder of the road which wound through marshy forests and lonely neighborhoods. Eventually we hit a bridge and Katka said the phone instructions were to cross over, which we did. The paved road turned into a dirt road, bringing us past old farmsteads that looked unchanged by time, save the German car and the rust on the wheelbarrow sitting in the yard. Finally, our path curved down towards the banks again and we found ourselves on a pretty stretch of pale, packed sand lined by trees. It was easier to bike on and prettier to look at than the last lake-side path we’d been on. If this was what the rest of the trek would be like, I was not about to complain.
Our pretty little trail ended abruptly, leading down to a rickety dock. To our left was a nicely manicured lawn which several men were working in, setting up a fence. Straight ahead was forest and thickets. Katka checked her phone.
“I think if we just cross here we’ll find the path on the other side.”
I was skeptical but she plunged into the forest and I was obliged to follow, worrying about popping a tire on the prickles and twigs crunching beneath us (never mind the branches and thorns that took their fair share out of my arms and hands).
The path was not on the other side of the immaculate lawn we had just circumferenced. No, just more forest and chocolatey brown fields as far as the eye could see. It looked like a road might wind through them at some point, but we couldn’t be sure. Not even Katka’s phone sounded positive on the subject.
“Let’s just go through here,” said Katka, pulling her bike up along a spit of green, straw-like grass that lined the fence running along between the lawn and the edge of the field. Her tires made tracks in the soft, wet dirt. I followed hesitantly, mud caking to my tires and my shoes as well. Half-way across the field I saw Katka stop and talk to two Polish men working on the other side of the fence. After a brief exchange, she kept going. When I reached the men I greeted them in Polish and they grunted back, seemingly unbothered by the fact that two strange girls were trespassing on this newly plowed field. I had considered saying ‘hello’ in English, but thought better of it. I wasn’t really sure if Poles like Americans. I knew a lot of them still felt iffy about Germans. Americans think there is divisive history in our part of the world… They need to spend some time in Eastern Europe.
We did finally find the road and by the time I pulled myself out of the muddy acreage, Katka was checking her phone again.
“If we’re quick enough, we should be able to get the bikes back in time,” she said. The rental place closed for the afternoon (like everything else) and our detour had cost us precious time.
“What did you say to those men?” I asked, knowing that Katka doesn’t speak any more Polish than I did (“Hello” and “Thank you”).
“I asked them if the road was ahead,” she said, pocketing her phone and flicking up her kickstand with her foot. “They understood most of my Czech. The languages are so similar.”
I nodded and mentally prepared myself to get back on the bike. She was already off.
The path was sandy, rocky and hilly, as if the bike gods thought it’d be hilarious to make me reenact the Odyssey. Sun now out in full, I could feel sweat collecting beneath my bandana. But it was good. It was good to struggle and sweat. At least we knew where we were going this time. And the fields around us were greenest I’ve ever seen, dappled with red and yellow farmhouses and barns, flowers, and wind-blown trees. Katka’s flaxen hair blew like a banner in the wind as she sped down hills in front of me, a seemingly natural fixture in the surroundings.
We passed a young woman on foot who looked to be about our age. She was dressed like us and cradled a phone in her left hand. But here she was walking back from town to her family’s home as I imagine her mother and grandmother did before her. Some things don’t change.
It was a while on this path before we came to the next little town. More old homes, staunch and square. People were gardening or making repairs to fences and tractors. A woman walked to her gate with arms full of flower pots, stringy black hair swept behind a peach-colored scarf, long nose curling over a thin smile. Several men near the edge of town were coaxing a tractor out of the forest onto the road, its attached wagon laden with lumber.
And then there was a home by itself, far separated from its neighbors. It wasn’t finished and I could see through the frameless windows into the brick structure. Its attic had windows looking down onto the street where I was and across the lake on the other side. Wooden beams arched up into the loft and I wondered who would live beneath those arms. What family would make their home on this side of the world, beside this lake? How will they celebrate their Christmases and birthdays? They will most likely speak Polish, but will they know English or Czech? Will they know their neighbors? Will they understand their neighbors? It’s one thing to understand that someone is looking for the road, it’s another to understand why they’re looking for it, why they’re struggling through the mud with bikes.
The bike path came up alongside the shores of the lake a final time before we reached the bridge. We stopped to take pictures on a broken dock jutting out into the water. Ełk lay just behind us. We were almost back.
It had been a full afternoon, if not a long one. Just a quick trip around the lake, but it felt like a trip around the world.
We walked back to our hotel in the golden ripples of sunshine, bikeless and hungry. The park in the center was empty now and the woman selling flowers had gone. People had left to do whatever it is Polish people do on Saturday afternoon. Go home, I guess.
And I thought about my home.
The thing about being an expat is that you see the world through an entirely new lens. You realize that the problems you think only exist in your town exist everywhere else too. The world changes rapidly in some ways and yet stays frozen in others, and we struggle to find our way between the two. People wrestle to pay bills, people are judged because of where they come from, people never stop to ask why. And so we never understand each other.
When I go back home, I’d like to start treating people like I’d treat a bike path – with open ears and open eyes. And maybe when the road is finished, I’ll have a better understanding for who my neighbors are.