A lovely view of Poland’s lake region from an old, broken down dock.
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.
It was with some difficulty that I roused myself at just past seven on Friday morning, May 1st. In much of Europe, the first of May is a holiday. Communist countries once celebrated May Day (Labor Day) religiously – “You had to have a really good reason not to show up to the parades,” Katka explained to me as we brushed our teeth through bleary eyes – and the day is still observed even if its origins have become obsolete.
Katka and I were in Warsaw on the way to Ełk for the long weekend and a friend had put us up in his parent’s attic, which I quite liked. The whole house was lined with beautiful wood panelling, polished and smoothed like the inside of a doll house whose owner was rather keen on outdoors-y excursions and mountain cabins. The attic was spacious and quaintly prepared for our stay.
Michał (pronounced “Mi-:flem sound:-ah-w”) watched, amused and pleased, as Katka and I oggled over the large bookshelf taking up nearly an entire wall of the loft. Titles that I know and love in English, and that she knows in Czech, were sitting before us in Polish. We cracked open Harry Potter to see just how different the language really is. Unsurprisingly, it’s very similar to Czech once you get a handle on the tags and tails of the letters, and I understood about forty percent of it (though it helps that I have the books practically memorized).
Michał – who I called “Mikey” all weekend, for obvious reasons – is a bit of a surprise, not that I have many Poles to compare him to. He certainly looks the part of a Polish school boy, his long blond hair sweeping indecorously across his face and his flat, kind smile making him look properly yet modestly intellectual. He made us crepes for breakfast.
After listening to some Polish radio, comparing the names of months on the kitchen calendar, and arguing about the validity of the American pancake, we piled into his car and drove into town. Even after our coffees, we were still feeling groggy and heavy-headed. Katka casually reminded me that if we had followed my original plan, we would have had to be on a bus already. I don’t tend to admit when I’m wrong, so I just sat in silence and stared at Mikey’s long-handle umbrella as Mozart blasted off his stereo speakers.
The original plan was to get to the Polish lake region. I’ve wanted to go for a while now – ever since my trip to Dublin when an Italian I shared a cab with spent the entire ride telling me about how gorgeous it is. A few internet searches later and I was hooked. It got shoved to the top of my bucket list. But getting to Ełk was proving to be a harder task than I figured. It’s a remote little town, five hours out of Warsaw. Mikey said he would help us figure out the transportation if I let him show us the park first, so I let myself enjoy an unexpected morning in Warsaw – already a thousand times better than trying to sleep off the a.m. hours on a bus.
The roads were clear because of the holiday, but the sky brooded overhead threatening to give us a wet morning.
We parked the car and walked a few blocks over to Warsaw’s largest park. Mikey had brought with him a bag of almonds and sunflower seeds. We were going to feed the squirrels, he told us.
The plan didn’t quite register with me since feeding squirrels is not a common American pastime. A live orchestra could be heard from somewhere in the middle of the park, further pushing animals from my mind. The music flowed over us like the sunshine that was missing from our day. Ode to Joy was the first piece I recognized and it was followed by waltzes and polkas and marching band music. Katka and Mikey wanted to find the squirrels; I just followed the music.
We wound through several tree-lined paths before Katka spotted a tawny flash of fur darting across the lawn. She and Mikey followed quickly with almonds outstretched.
“Tursh, tursh, tursh,” Mikey encouraged the little squirrel who had stopped and was giving them quizzical looks. “Tursh, tursh,” he said again, egging him on.
The squirrel scampered close enough to grab the nut from Mikey’s hand before running off to the nearest tree to eat his prize. But he was back in minutes. Again and again, he’d race up, grab the nut and then dash away to eat or bury it. As we moved through the park, towards the music, more squirrels came up to us. Some shyly, others with exceptional brass.
“I love squirrels,” Katka said, spilling over with excitement. She was in her element, petting the orange balls of fuzz that would come up, hold her finger for a moment and then prance away with a nut locked between their teeth. They reminded me of myself in a small way – energetic, slightly psychotic, oddly adorable, and always appearing to be lost, confused or very deep in a shallow thought.
“Let’s see if we can get a bird,” said Mikey. Song birds were flitting about through the trees, pigeons and ducks waddled around our feet, and somewhere far off we could hear the flat trill of a peacock.
The birds took more effort. Coaxing them to leave their branches to scoop seeds out of the palms of our hands took patience and by this point we were so near the center of the park where the music was I decided to leave the birds to Katka and Mikey.
A river (or a very expansive pond?) washed peacefully under bridges and far-reaching boughs of the deeply-green trees. Tulips and spring flowers popped up along its edges and awning-covered paddle boats drifted across its sleepy waters. Now and then a rain drop would ripple its surface, but the sky was holding steadily.
The orchestra was on a center piece in the middle of the river, opposite a white concrete amphitheater. A larger congregation of people had stopped to listen to the music and to buy waffles from a stand nearby. We found our peacock among them and suddenly the song birds were forgotten. Mikey and Katka had a new target.
“I don’t know if we should try to feed him,” Mikey said. “He’s pretty big.” True. The ducks had been scary enough – I was fine just watching the arrogant bird puff and preen himself. Actually, I was fine just standing right where I was between the water and the music.
While the others tried to get the proud peacock to cooperate with the camera and the bag of seeds, I meandered around the amphitheater. The banks of the river (pond?) were softly green and the water looked cold. My mind wandered to Ełk and its lakes.
“We’d better start making our way back to the car if we want to catch your bus,” said Mikey, coming up behind me.
Slowly, we ambled back through the park, stopping to hold out our hands hopefully to the song birds. The squirrels followed us like hungry puppies but they had lost their novelty and we were saving our seeds for the chirpers. .
“Sorry guys,” Mikey said. “We’re bird people now.”
We found a thicket flush with the little singers and several dropped into our hands for the seeds we held out. Birds feel hollow, like there is nothing beneath their feathers. It’s an odd sensation to have one on your hand, its scratchy feet clinging to your finger for the briefest moment, before lifting off again.
Suddenly, Katka let out a shriek of delight.
“A mouse!” she said. “Look!”
There beneath the bristly green foliage was a tiny beige-colored mouse, poking its nose out of its hole.
In a moment, the birds had been forgotten and Katka and Mikey could do nothing but try to coax this mouse out of its home.
I kept wandering, towards the car, away from the music, looking for birds.
It started raining right as we closed the car doors and the onslaught was unrelenting when we pulled into the bus station. The bus, unfortunately, was all booked and we couldn’t get tickets. The next one didn’t leave for two hours which would get us to Ełk much later in the evening. I bit my lip and put on a good face. (I’m learning to respond to situations I dislike in a grown-up fashion).
We decided lunch was the next obvious move, so after procuring actual tickets for the bus at 2:30 we trotted off to Warsaw’s “Old Town” area.
The day became gorgeous rather quickly. The sky opened up, dumping sunlight on us in heaps. Jackets came off, sunglasses came out, and I readjusted my camera settings to handle the light exposure. Bright red and white banners hung across the street and every puddle reflected brilliantly blue sky.
The only down-side were my shoes which have a number of holes in the bottom and are missing several key pieces of material around the sides. I’d throw them away but (a.) I can’t really afford new ones right now and (b.) I spent quite some time drawing very intricate pictures on them. They’re basically artwork now.
I sopped along behind Mikey and Katka in my soggy shoes until we reached the pierogi (stuffed Polish dumplings) restaurant. The patio opened onto the main street and our corner was closest to the intersection. The noise and colors kept our spirits up as we ate our lunch (which was phenomenal).
But returning to the bus station was harder than we thought it would be, on account of getting lost multiple times in multiple ways (and I’m happy to say, not all of them were my fault this time). Long story-short, we raced into the station as the bus was pulling away.
Of course. Of course it was.
The next bus was at 5:30 and we wouldn’t get to Ełk until 10:30. Katka and Mikey were both visibly upset and verbalized their emotions in undertones and a few choice words I don’t allow in my classroom. We discussed options – staying in Warsaw, getting to Ełk in the middle of the night, going to a different lake town, going back to Prague.
Frankly, I wanted to die. The prospect of spending my whole weekend in Warsaw was depressing. It’s nice enough to feed the squirrels and eat dumplings, but I wanted to see the lakes! That was the plan from the start!
My two companions were distressed, so I suggested we find a place to get coffee, cool down and regroup.
“Adventure never feels fun in the moment,” I told them as we walked back to our car like wounded kittens. “But give it a few hours or a few days and this will be a great story.”
Because of the holiday most places were closed, but KFC (God bless U.S. hegemony) was open and had decent wifi. We called our hostel in Ełk, we booked tickets for the 5:30 bus, we looked at our squirrel pictures.
It was only when I looked down to check the computer cord that I noticed my shoes. I knew they were wet still, but the sight made my stomach tighten. My beautiful pictures were smeared and and unrecognizable.
This was a bit of a blow and I bit my bottom lip. Katka noticed and laughed at me.
“After all we’ve been through today and you’re getting upset about your shoes?”
I swallowed and smiled.
“No, I’m an adult. I’m not going to let this bother me – just needed to take a moment to commemorate the dead.”
And that was it. Situation handled.
I bought Katka and myself some chicken sandwiches for the road (knowing we’d need nutritional and emotional support during our long bus ride) and we returned to the bus station for a third time.
“I feel like we’ve been here before,” said Mikey as he parked and turned off Johannes Brahms. We said proper ‘goodbyes’ this time and he pulled away in his smart little car as we headed into the station. We only had a half hour to wait and then we boarded the warm bus, taking our seats near the front.
I was pretty proud of myself for surviving the day. I didn’t let the catastrophes and ruined plans affect my attitude. I didn’t stress out or become controlling. I didn’t have a single breakdown – not even over the shoes, technically.
We were waiting for the bus to pull away and I reached in for our sandwiches. What I pulled out was a gooey lump of bread and mayonnaise. The cheese and meat had slid around and the juices had soaked through the buns, the paper wrappings, and the bag I had put them in. And worst of all, they looked as unappetizing as I felt unhappy.
Changed plans. Missed buses. Ruined shoes. These things I could handle. But when I looked at how pathetic our sandwiches were – which I had bought with money I barely have, specifically as a treat to make us feel better after our long day – I burst into tears.
Katka laughed at me again and suggested we take pictures and add them to Buzzfeed’s list of foods people cry over.
It took me a couple seconds to realize that the tears had stopped and I was eating the sandwich. The meltdown I felt coming never did. I had moved on quickly. I had conquered another foe standing between me and adulthood.
Life is like a walk in the park. We move from squirrels to peacocks to songbirds to mice, each new thing a challenge and an adventure. And eventually we move on from it, farther into the trees, closer to the music. The key with life is to realize when it’s time to make that move.
The bus carried us through five hours of dark fields and forests. The whole time I thought about how much my walk in the park has changed in the last two years. I definitely came to Prague in squirrel-phase.
But you know what? I think I’m a bird person now.