Gdansk in Gold & Grey
hanyauku v. (RuKwangali) The act of walking on tiptoes across the warm sand.
My last and final Polish stop was a town little known to the mainstream tourist world, it seemed. I stumbled across it by chance while researching places to go and from all the pictures, it looked perfect: small, quaint, and close to the beach. I was self-conscious in telling people I was going to this city, mainly because the word looked so strange that I of course immediately assumed I was pronouncing it wrong but it turns out, I wasn’t actually too far off. Form what I gathered, the true pronunciation is “gd-EYE-nsk” but saying it phonetically gets the point across just fine.
Coming into the northern coastal town, I realized I had some misconceptions about it. First off, it was not nearly so small as I was led to believe. In fact, outside the Old Town, it was quite like any metropolis and as it made up one third of the tri-city string, along with Sopot and Gdynia, it was also on the eastern end of a sprawling string of cities that bled into each other. Second, it was definitely not as close to the beach as I had believed. In my head, I had constructed scenarios and me waking up early, going to do some yoga or go for a run on the sand (hey my fantasies are always a bit optimistic), then going for a swim in the warm ocean, before settling out on the warm sand to read the day away. None of that ended up being true but I’ll get to that bit soon enough.
My hostel was remarkably close to the bus station, but that didn’t stop me from wandering up and down the street about four times trying to orient myself before finally figuring out which direction I needed to go. When it comes to navigation, it’s always something for me. I walked into the 3City Hostel right on the edge of Old Town to have a guy immediately come up and introduce himself to me. “Hello! I’m [insert name here because I forgot it]. I’m from Iraq but I live in Sweden. Where are you from?” Okay, person I don’t know. Um… Can I get checked in first? I don’t know why I attract Middle Eastern people living in northern European countries, but he was thus far the third I had encountered on my travels that had become a bit annoyingly obsessed with me. Recall the midnight coffee incident in Venice. I muttered a few pleasantries and sidled around him to the reception desk and started my check-in procedure, hoping he would get the hint and go away. Nope. He waited. As soon as I was handed my room key, he was on me again. “So do you want to go out and grab drinks or something? It’s my list night here and I leave early tomorrow so we should do something. “Um, thanks but I need to figure out what I’m doing tonight,” I said as a polite way of saying no. “Well, give me your contact info so we can get together when you figure it out. What’s your phone number?” At that point, I was done being nice. Still suffering from the natural fluster that comes from travel and having Nellie still on back, I kind of just snapped at him. “Look, I just got in, and I’m tired and I really want to put my stuff down, okay? I’m sorry but I’m not interested in going out tonight.” He was unphased by my response, handed me his business card anyway, and told me to look him up Facebook and message him when I figured out my plans. The moment I climbed the stairs out of his sight, the card went in the garbage.
The hostel itself was nice enough, but not exactly very personal feeling (except for my too personal first encounter) as it was actually quite large. So far on my travels, I hadn’t really been lucking out on getting good social hostels, at least not compared to some of the ones I stayed at during my last trip. I guess it’s a bit of a different game in high season with a constant fast cycle of tourists in and out of these places. I’d like to point out that tourists are different from travelers, at least travelers in the backpacker sense. While we backpackers are tourists of our own kind, we are also of a slightly different breed. We don’t go to places with checklists of tourists attractions and padded wallets that allow us to splurge on things. Instead, we go places with open minds reading to see what each new city has in store for us. We live minimally, cheaply, and spontaneously. We also try to blend in a bit more, look like a local, and a bit less like a tourist, though my unfortunately love for photos does me no favors in that regard. Tourists are also almost always in groups, or at least pairs, which isolates them from interacting with us solo travelers and, as a product, isolates us as well. Back in March and April, tourists weren’t out in droves and thus the main people I encountered on my travels were other backpackers who were looking to find friends along the way. Granted, I have still run into those people, just not as frequently. I’m just not used to difference I guess. The lesson in all this: Traveling in high season sucks for a lot of reasons.
The first night was a bit rough. It started rocky when I rolled over to go to bed and a group of Swedish people in the bunks below stayed up giggling and whispering. While the whispering was a nice gesture to show they at least understood human etiquette when someone is trying to sleep (which, trust me, is more than you get from a lot of people in hostels), they clearly had never worked in theatre and thus didn’t understand that whispering actually carries better than just soft talking. Between that, the creaky beds, people barging in and turning on lights in the middle of the night, and bathroom light shining through the porthole in my face all night (I couldn’t turn it off without risking accidentally turning on all the lights since all the rooms had a multitude of switches and it was a puzzle figuring out which one goes to where) it was a restless night.
I woke up the next day to grey skies, which was perfectly fitting because I had planned on going to the beach that day. Here I had spent the last week cussing the heat, only enduring it by the prospect of getting to at last spend four days lounging on the beach where the heat wouldn’t seem so bad. Naturally, it rained nearly the entire time I was there. Locals were saying it was probably the worst weekend for weather they would get all summer. I didn’t tell them it was because I brought my bad luck rain cloud with me for fear I might get stones in town square. It was like Malaga all over again.
Remember when I said I was excited about Gdansk because I was under the impression that is was a nice little beach town where I could walk out to the beach in a matter of moments? Yeah, not so much. In fact, it took about two hours to walk the 10km trek out to the beach, and most of that walk was through some considerably sketchy residential area. But I finally got to Sopot Beach just as it started to sprinkle. But I’m not made of sugar. I could handle a little bit of rain, and it fortunately didn’t last long or ever get very heavy, though the thick cover of clouds did last for the entirety of the day. Without the sun, I could feel the biting cold of the wind as it whipped off the ocean, but even that wasn’t enough to drive me away. Maybe it was just the wonderful psychological phenomenon of effort justification after having walked so far that deluded me into thinking I was having fun despite the chill, but nevertheless I was. One major bonus to the weather was that the beach was practically empty and I could thus curl up against a large piece of driftwood with my book without listening to the shrieking of children.
It was peaceful. There is something very enchanting about the sea, which I know is cliché, but things become clichés for a reason. As I sat there with my book set on my lap and the legs half buried under piles of cool, damp sand (because I’m actually a five year old disguised as a pseudo-adult), I lost myself in the dark tumult of waves before me and in the sound of the sea hissing softly and roaring mightily all at the same time. Perhaps man is so fascinated by the ocean is because it embodies dichotomies. It is both calming and terrifying, soothing and deadly, remembering and forgetting. Or maybe it’s because everything about the ocean is temporary and we as humans are overly attracted to temporary things that will eventually leave us and hurt us. And we envy the ocean’s ability to keep on existing through all the impermanence, still invincible and powerful. My favorite slam poet Sarah Kay said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” Sometimes I wish I were as malleable as the feathers that get swept away by the wind and the names written in the sand that get washed away by the next high tide. But at the same time, I like the way my heart is molded of cement and layer upon layer of its wet form dries and maintains the shapes and imprints of those who have touched my life. Out infinite capacity for remembrance within a finite existence is what makes us human truly remarkable.
As the day drew on, I would occasionally get up and walk through the surprisingly warm surf, squishing the sand between my toes and avoiding the occasional jellyfish washed up on shore. After one particularly close call, I found myself increasingly glad that the weather was not quite accommodating of swimming. And since no one was on the beach to judge me, I broke out the timer function on my camera and screwed around taking goofy photos of myself jumping off logs and doing yoga in the sand.
Eventually, it was my stomach that drove me to move. Though I had packed myself a jam sandwich for lunch (because I had stolen bread and jam from the breakfast provided by my hostel that morning) I was still bordering on hungry and I had another two hours walk back. At least, I hoped it would only be two hours, but after getting myself twisted around in a slightly sketchy and very confusing neighborhood, it started looking like it was going to take me a bit longer. I wandered in circles, trying to get my bearings and cussing under my breath to no avail. Finally, my flustered flailing of limbs and foul mouth caught the attention of a passerby. “Are you lost?” What gave you the indication? I tried to explain where I was trying to go, but as he was also not form the area, he didn’t really know how to help me. When I told him I was ultimately trying to get back to Old Town, however, he said, “I’m headed there on my way home. If you wait fifteen minutes I can drive you.”
So I know what you’re thinking: “Maybe you shouldn’t get in a car with a random guy you know nothing about.” Here’s the thing you should understand about travelers; we are very trusting. Not stupidly so, but we also have learned to see beyond the haze of 21st century “everyone is a serial killer and everything will give you cancer” mentality. Our eyes are open to the truth of people beyond misconceptions, fears, and stereotypes. I guess that’s bound to happen when you become the continued recipient of selfless help and witness the truly amazing capacity for kindness people possess. Traveling actually makes you quite a good judge of character and quite a good judge of situation. For me, it’s all about my gut. If my gut tells me someone is sketchy or something doesn’t feel right, then I’ll avoid it, but my gut wasn’t giving off any warning signals against this guy, so I climbed into his truck and ten minutes later, I was standing at the door to my hostel waving goodbye. Sometimes, trust can pay off.
That night as I was making myself a potato, onion, and fish stir fry, I started talking to an older guy from Holland who apparently visited Gdansk quite frequently. Before I knew it, we were engrossed in a deep conversation about American politics that spanned from Edward Snowden to the Ferguson. I was impressed. This guy form Holland knew more about American political issues that I would be willing to bet a lot of Americans, which is sad and unfortunately thing to recognize about your own country. I can’t say I blame the rest of the world for hating us in that regard. Eventually, we went out separate ways and I went out for a late night walk in Gdansk. Cities at night are always enchanting but Gdansk was exceptionally so. All of Old Town seemed to be glowing with a soft orange light as I made my way through its now quiet streets. Most the tourists had gone to bed or were sitting in one of the many little bars still open. The city was quiet and peaceful in their absence. My favorite part, however, was down by the river where the tightly spaced houses rose up like orange beacons against the black, starless night and then cast their light onto the dark water below. I became engulfed in gold night of Gdansk. The only thing to make my night better? Chocolate. Suddenly feeling a craving for something sweet, I found a little corner shop still open and managed to buy three full chocolate bars 5 zloty, or about $1.30. Street lights and cheap chocolate are fail safe ways to my heart.
The next day was equally as grey as the morning before but considerably more wet, as it was actually raining and was expected to intermittently do so for the rest of the day. A part of my wanted to stay inside, where it was warm and dry, maybe actually catch up on my blog, like I had been telling myself I would do for weeks, but the other stubborn part of me didn’t want to waste the entire day and so I pulled on my bright blue rain jacket and trudged out into the rain to explore Old Town in greater depth, as I had actually yet to really do that other than my late night stroll and my brief passing the day before. The name “Old Town” in Gdansk is a bit of a misnomer considering the entirety of the original was all but destroyed during WWII and rebuilt after 1945. More accurately, it should have been called “New Old Town” but that’s just my suggestion. Gdansk’s Old Town is similar to those in other Eastern European cities, very colorful, very well-kept, very pretty, and very religious. Gdansk, at least, at the ability to claim they were home to the largest brick church in the world. The joke in Gdansk for tourists is to make them count the bricks and locals will even show you where to stand to start. I wonder how many people fall for that.
Eventually I joined up with the free tour and wandered with them through and slightly outside of Old Town. It wasn’t the most exciting free tour I had been on, but it was enlightening all the same. These free tours are always a bit hit and miss but I enjoy going on them anyway because they do help give you a bit of background on the place you’re visiting. If you’re a fairly random traveler like me who all but throws darts at a map to pick a location (“Ooh that picture looks pretty, I’ll go there!”), it’s nice to learn about places you had never heard of before… like Gdansk. Gdansk is actually a perfect example of why travel is important in learning about the world. I have yet to talk to anyone other than fellow travelers and Polish people who have even heard of Gdansk and I myself had never heard of it before Googleing “cool places Poland” (I should totally be a travel agent).
And yet, it is essentially the city where Polish communism finally fell. The Gdansk shipyard, which was the last and probably most significant stop of the tour, bore witness to Gdansk’s solidarnose or solidarity movement in the 1980s which gave birth to Poland’s first non-communist trade union. For the next decade, Gdansk acted as the heartbeat of a string of anti-Soviet labor strikes until communism finally fell in 1989, just shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall now act’s as the world’s symbol for the fall of post WWII communism, but because of that, it is easy forget all the major players that helped Eastern on that journey. Being in Gdansk was a reminder of that and today, just outside Gdansk ship yard, there is a monument dedicated to workers who started this movement and all those who helped see it through to a free Republic of Poland.
That night, I faced a huge struggle trying to make dinner. The hostel kitchen had an induction stove, as many hostels do, and I hate induction stoves. I can never figure to how to work them. Call me old fashioned, but I fail to see what’s wrong with a good old propane stove. I had use the stove before successfully so I just couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working now. All I wanted was to make a grilled cheese, is that so much to ask? I went to one of the cleaning ladies and told her the stove wasn’t working, and she, in a brilliant display of customer service, looked at me and said, “So?” Excuse you? I bit my tongue and retreated before I could say something that might land me with piles of sand in my bed. While I finally figured out the pan I was using wasn’t heavy enough to trigger the weight sensor on the stove and made my grilled cheese, I was just incredibly frustrated at the whole ordeal. I love traveling, but there are aspects of it that get exhausting. It’s the same shit hostel after hostel; finding clean dishes to cook on, being roomed with rude people, finding your way to the hostel from the bus station, little things that aren’t a bit deal on their own, but start to pile up after weeks.
Maybe it was just the weather, maybe it was my disappointment wrought of the difference between expectation and reality of Gdansk, but I felt myself hitting that mid-travel slump while in Gdansk. Gdansk marked 3 weeks of life on the road, which is weird to say because it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like just yesterday I was driving away from Oxford, hearing the cacophony of chaotic church bells ringing for the last time as the dreaming spires disappeared in the distance. I have a month and a half left. It sounds like a lot but when you’re traveling, it goes remarkably fast. Oddly enough, I’m not homesick. I guess that’s because I don’t really know where home is right now. My heart misses Oxford more than anywhere else but I logically know that’s not home. I miss Montana and the mountains and my family and all my summer traditions. I miss my Philly friends. But which of those places is actually home? I’m not homesick for a place but for people and if I never had to go back to the states but could have everyone I miss just join me over here, then I’d cash in what’s left of my savings and buy them all plane tickets. But I can’t do that unfortunately, and so I’ll do what I do best: keep moving forward.