Warsaw? More like War-Sauna
inat v. (Serbian) To cause harm or damage to yourself while trying to harm someone else due to stubbornness; defiance for the sake of defiance rather than to achievelong-term goal; equivalent to the English idiom “Cutting off your nose to spite your own face”.
I expected my journey into Poland to be a little bit more… reviving? Glorious? I don’t know, but something other than what it was. Poland marked a new stage in my backpacking, the point when I descended into central Europe. Considering I would be there nearly 10 days, it felt significant to me, a traveler’s rebirth. But my actual going there did not feel that way in the slightest. Having gone to bed late the night before, I was especially irritated when I was woken up early but some guy snoring in my room. As a fairly neurotic person, a lot of things irritate me, but there are two pet peeves I hold above all others: people not replacing an empty role of toilet paper with a new one (Seriously, you’re going to stack it on the empty one? It takes two seconds to just change the damn thing!) and snoring. I can sleep through anything, something that has always been a running joke in my family. Since the time was I was a kid who would fall asleep on the bleachers of a high school gymnasium during the volleyball games my mom was refereeing, cheering, band playing, and all, my mother would say, “If a tree fell on the house, I don’t think you would wake up.” I can sleep through just about anything. But for some reason, I can’t sleep through snowing, which is odd considering I spent every summer as a child in the same tent or camp trailer with my grandpa, who turned into a lumberjack every night. Even back at school, when my good friend and roommate’s boyfriend Ian starts snoring, I seriously have to contemplate whether or not to throw pillow at him.
So, tired from my lack of sleep, I packed up my stuff, made the last bit of my rice for breakfast, and threw on my pack to realize just how sunburned my shoulders were from the day before. Think about how bad sunburns hurt to touch. Now think about how they must feel with 30 pounds pulling on them. And here I thought lifting Nellie couldn’t get any worse. I grimaced as I readjusted the straps so they caused as little pain as possible and set off. When I reached the train station, I realized I would be getting to my next destination quite late and would probably need something to sustain myself other than rice over the next six hours. Lucky for me, the bus station was positioned right below a small grocery store. Rather than choose something healthy and nutritious, I was in the mood for comfort food, with a particular craving for some good ol’ digestive biscuits. I found the snack isle and was pleasantly surprised with the large selection of cookies and biscuits they had on display. Now which one to choose?! I pondered over this rather meaningless decision for far too long and by the time I finally selected a package (which also happened to be the cheapest one- go figure) I realized that my bus would be leaving any minute. I ran to the checkout line and tapped my toe all the way to the front as if looking at my watch and sighing was going to make the woman rooting through her purse in front of me any faster. “Come on, lady, I have a bus to catch!” I wanted to yell, but she probably wouldn’t have understood anyway. I threw over one euro, not even bothering to wait for the change, and dashed out to the bus platform. He was just about the close up the luggage hatch when I tottered (which is about the most accurate description of me running with my pack on) on up and tossed my bag in the luggage hold. I no sooner boarded the bus when it rolled into motion. So, in summary, I almost missed my bus because I couldn’t decide which damn cookies I wanted. Amber’s indecision descends to an entirely new level.
The bus ride was long and it was actually dark (I mean real darkness!- the first I had seen in weeks) by the time we pulled in and I had quite a walk to get to my hostel. I exited the bus in the middle of a busy street illuminated in enough neon to just be considered a slight grade below Las Vegas. So now I was back in the city. And I had to walk 3km through said city to my hostel. At night. Fantastic. Coming from rural mountain and growing up in towns where everyone knows your name, cities at night make me nervous. For all the adventuring I’ve done and as bold and fearless as I act, cities at night can be downright scary for me. They make me feel small and vulnerable, especially as a female solo traveler. I am never so aware of that position as in situations like that. But cities at night can also be magical, and Warsaw was no exception. The way the lights glow and illuminate the darkness, the vibrancy of people still out and about, the perfect warmth of the air in the absence of the sun, it makes you feel alive, part of some vibrant heartbeat. There’s a novelty to a new city because of that and perhaps that is why I thought I always wanted to live in the city before I actually moved to one. They are enchanting at the start, but that novelty wears off quite quickly.
As did any feeling of safety the bright lights instilled in me because as soon as I left that main thoroughfare into the darker side street of Warsaw, I became wary once again. When I got to the place where the map said my hostel was located and couldn’t find it, I felt a flutter of panic, but being in no mood to actually go down that road tonight, I went straight into a pizza restaurant and thrust my map into the face of the girl at the counter with a pleading look on my face. By the look on hers, I could tell this wasn’t the first time someone had been in asking about the hostel because she took me outside and pointed to the dark gated doorway next to the restaurant. Sure enough, next to the buzzer panel, a tiny little sign reading “Warsaw Center Hostel” was posted. These hostels really need to advertise themselves better. I thanked her, went inside, and went straight to bed. Right before I drifted off to sleep, I had the fleeting realization that the only dinner I had ended up eating, had been cookies. Thank God for my last minute cookie decision.
The next morning, however, I was not so grateful for that decision as the hunger pains in my stomach demanded that I get my ass out of bed and find some food for it pronto. After first making myself a cup of coffee (because I didn’t need another part of my body screaming at me later for not at least having that) I set off toward Warsaw’s Old Town about 5km away. Naturally, there was nothing in the way in food anywhere near my hostel and thus I had to walk almost the entire way to Old Town before I found a vegan Chinese restaurant and ordered myself some sweet and sour soy chicken. Not exactly your typical breakfast meal but at that point, I couldn’t afford to be picky. Besides, this had protein and vegetables in it, so that had to make up for my awful diet the day before, right?
After the tunnel of hunger was lifted from my vision, I could focus on the city. The first impression I got of Warsaw’s old town was “regal”. Everything felt very clean and very polished, and some of the buildings were far too white to be as old as they actually were. Even the churches felt fancy, and I don’t mean fancy in a “look at us we’re rich and Catholic and can afford to plate this entire wall with gold” kind of way, but fancy in a very simple and elegant way. The first church I went in, for instance, which happened to be the church in which Chopin’s heart in buried in an urn (Chopin is a big deal in Warsaw as he was born there) was entirely white inside. Everything looked so pristine with white walls and white pillars, adorned only with white flowers and clear crystal chandeliers. This particular church was in the middle of a service and thus I sat there for five minutes or so, breathing in the sweet scent of dried rose and listening the voices of the congregation singing hymns echo off the walls.
Music was a theme in Warsaw. It seemed the city intended on preserving Chopin’s musical legacy not only in the form of historical landmarks and informative plaques about his life, but by making music a priority to the entire city. I passed several churches handing out fliers for cheap concerts held each day. On nearly every street corner, there was a piano and someone seated at it, tunes of complex, classical music flying from his or her fingertips. Often times, when I walked through cities, I have my iPod in my ears because I like to have a constant background of music in my life. Here, that was hardly necessary. Warsaw has a soundtrack all it’s own. As I made my way further into Old Town, the buildings became a bit more colored, but not in bright shades like I had seen in the Baltics. Rather, the took on shades of sand and rust, giving the city a much more earthy and unpolished feel. In combination with the classical music, it felt a bit like stepping back in time.
After I had exhausted the relatively small Old Town in a matter of a few hours, I decided to walk an extra 5km down to Warsaw’s beach. Now before you look at a map and think I am geographically stupid, yet I am aware that Warsaw is nowhere near the coast, but it is divided by a large river. On the banks of said river, directly opposite to the Old Town, is a surprisingly nice sandy beach that stretched out for maybe half a kilometer. I got there and quickly found that sitting out on the beach was much better in theory than it was in practice. To start, it was way too hot to just sit there and not periodically get in the water. The problem was, the water, being a river flowing through a fairly major city, was not exactly ideal for swimming, and that’s coming from someone who’s gone swimming in the Thames. After about five minutes of sitting on scalding hot sand, feeling sweat drip down places that I hate having sweat drip down, I abandoned the notion and went to seek out some other place to relax. Fortunately, this beach was also home to a nice little cabana bar called La Playa and I figured they would, at the very least, have somewhere shady I might be able to sit and get the beach vibe without the heat.
Turns out, La Playa had just about everything: free exercise dance classes, hammocks, cool little hanging swings that I occupied for quite a while, etc. The only thing it didn’t have, which was incidentally the only thing I really wanted, was some free or cheap water. You see, I had picked a very unfortunate day to forget my water bottle at the hostel, and between the fact that it felt like Satan’s sauna and the fact that I drink an inordinate amount of water for a human being, I was really feeling its absence. I should have known when they checked my bag for food and drink as I walked in that theirprices would be ridiculous. I walked straight to the bar, scanned the menu, and instantly walked away. No way was I paying like 3€ for an amount of water that probably would have evaporated before it even got to my tongue.
But they did have something else that made up for me not being able to drink water, at least in my mind: beach volleyball. I have had the urge to play volleyball for a long time now. With my mother as both a coach and referee, I grew up playing volleyball. I was always in the gym during her practices and while I wasn’t always there with a volleyball myself, it’s been in my life for a very long time. As soon as I reached middle school and was actually able to join my school team, I did and played for the next six years. And I loved it. I loved it through hot double practices in an un-airconditioned gym in August. I loved it through circuits that pulled stomach muscles and tube drills that made my thighs feel like fire. I loved it through unfair, childish coaches and political bullshit that sought to make three of my four years in high school miserable. But I rose above it and played varsity for the latter of those two years. Then I went to college and, assuming I wasn’t good enough to play at the collegiate level, haven’t played in nearly four years, outside an odd game here and there to just screw around. I never realized how much I would miss it.
So, when I saw people out on the courts passing a ball around (and not looking entirely awful at it), I instantly gravitated toward them. I wanted to ask if I could play but that whole social anxiety thing stopped me. Instead, I chose the much less embarrassing option of standing nearby, all but salivating like a dog looking a juicy steak just out of reach. As I had hoped, my look worked, because eventually, one of the groups came up to me and asked if I wanted to join. I look contemplative for a minute, as if I was actually weighing my options, then said oh-so-casually, “Yeah, if you guys need another player for 2 on 2.” So smooth. I wasn’t dressed for playing. In fact, I was actually wearing one of my nicer backpacking shirts but I didn’t really care. I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity. Besides, I could just avoid diving since this was a nice casual game. I walked out on the court, the soft, flour-like sand burning my feet with every step until I reached the court itself which they had attempted to spray down with water to cool it off a bit. We split into two teams, and I ended up being teamed up with a guy also from America, but who was temporarily living in Poland.
The game started and I was astounded at how fast the instinct came to back to me. And that whole ‘not diving’ thing? Yeah, that went out the window within the first five minutes. Part of that was probably due to the fact that sand is really hard to play on. Get up and go factor is significantly reduced with beach volleyball and that means you often can’t get to a ball unless you dive. That combined with the fact that I am incapable of letting a ball drop without at least trying to get it up made it to here I spend more time with my face in the sand that I did on my feet. For a while, my teammate seemed a bit surprised and unprepared to back me up, and my saves went to waste. “Sorry, I’m not used to playing with someone who’ll actually go for those things. You must have had a coach somewhere drill into you to always get a touch.” I smiled at him and said, “My mother.” She may have only been my official coach for three years of my playing, but I learned everything I know about the game from her. And when you’re mother is the coach, you don’t get a free ride. In fact, you have to work your ass off twice as hard to prove you belong out there. I never got favoritism from my mom. I never wanted it. But having to work that hard to prove I belonged out on the court, especially when certain political conflicts challenged that right, made me a better player, and I’m forever grateful for that.
It felt incredibly good to be playing again, but I quickly learned that beach volleyball was an entirely different game from court volleyball. So much of volleyball is about fast footwork and that simply doesn’t work very well on sand. Every aspect of the game, jumping, running, getting your feet set, takes about twice the energy when on the sand, though the heat of that sand was enough to keep me from being too stationary on it. I had been winded within a few minutes of playing (hmm… maybe I should start doing some cardio) but not knowing when I would get this chance again, I kept going for nearly two hours. Eventually, we joined some Polish guys who seriously looked like they knew what they were doing and, of course, got our asses kicked. At that point however, my body started to creep beyond the point of just exhausted and, between heat and lack of water, I could feel myself pushing my physical limits into dangerous territory. At that point, I bid my new friends farewell, attempted to shake some sand out of my clothing, and hit the road. I still had a 10km walk back to my hostel and while I could have easily stopped to buy a water bottle on the way, the frugal part of me refused to pay money for something I could get free back at the hostel. Matters of money tend to render any logic I have useless. Oh you’re about to pass our from dehydration and your lips are practically glued together? Well too bad because that bottle of water costs one whole euro so no water for you! In hindsight, that was a pretty poor decision on my part.
The walk back seemed to take forever. At one point, I passed a bank and above it was a little billboard with electronic numbers flashing the time, 17:23 and the temperature 35°. Seriously? No wonder it felt like Satan’s sauna out there. For my American readers (seriously America, quit thinking you’re so special), 35° Celsius is about 95°F. And it was no longer the hottest point in the day. I had to reckon that a few hours ago down at the beach, temperatures had to be well over 100°. What a great day it was for me to forget my water bottle, walk over 20km, and exert myself playing volleyball in the blistering sun. It was a wonder I hadn’t passed out from dehydration yet. In that moment, I found myself wondering how I could have ever wished for the heat. What I would’ve given for those blissful grey Oxford skies in that moment. The grass is always greener.
When I finally drug myself back into my hostel, I immediately went to the kitchen and guzzled about a liter of water then retreated to the shower to wash the sand and sweat from my body because let me tell you, I had sand everywhere. On my last travel stint, when the weather was significantly colder, I would complain if my hostels didn’t have hot water and I took a fair amount of miserably cold showers. This time, however, that ice cold shower was just about the best feeling in the world. Feeling remotely human again, I went back into the kitchen to make myself dinner and guzzle about another 2 liters of water before collapsing in bed, thinking about how sore I was probably going to be the next day.
As I lay there reading, a sudden BOOM! sounded outside. The other guy in the room and I looked at each other before both rushing out to the balcony to see what the commotion was. Overtop the building across from the hostel, fireworks were blooming against the black sky, lighting up the night with reds, greens, and gold. While I knew it was the 4th of July back home, a fact which, admittedly, loses a great deal of meaning when you’re not in America funnily enough, I had no idea why Warsaw was shooting off fireworks. Surely it couldn’t be to celebrate American independence. After a later Google search of “4th of July Poland” I discovered two things. First, that Google is truly a wonderful thing, and second, that some Polish actually do celebrate the 4th of July because it was a way for Polsh immigrants to show their loyalty toward America, particularly during times of anti-Poliish feelings in that late 19th and early 20th centuries. While I didn’t know the reason at the time, I was glad for the little show. The 4th of July is one of my favorite times in Bigfork and I would be lying to say I didn’t miss being home for it. But right then, a little slice of home was brought to me in the form of tubes of colored gunpowder and recreational explosions. And honestly, what could be more American than that?