Tales From Warszawa

I wasn’t that surprised when my luggage didn’t make it off the carousel in Warsaw; I’ve travelled a lot, and I figured this kind of thing happens so often that it was only a matter of time before it happened to me. And really, if it was going to happen at some point, this was probably a better time than most: I was with my brother so I could borrow his toiletries and shirts and the only emergency supplied I’d really need to acquire for myself would be underwear and pants. I’d packed all the important things – tablet, ipod, charging cables, phone, wallet, passport, book, gloves, beanie, cardigan, jacket – in my carry on luggage, which I still had, so the only issue I was really facing was a lack of clothing choices and the unattractive but nonetheless not too painful prospect of having to wear lynx deodorant instead of dove for what would, hopefully, not be too long. image The lady at the lost and found was surprisingly helpful. ‘Have you got your baggage tag?’ she asked. Yes I did. She looked it up. “Your bags will get here at 9:30pm,” she told me, handing me a form to fill in my details, “and we’ll deliver them to you.” Relief. Well, this was easier than I’d expected it was going to be. In fact, on the long journey to our hostel I really enjoyed not having to lug my bags around with me. I didn’t mind that they’d be a little later than I would be. Our hostel – The Warsaw Downtown Hostel – was absolutely lovely and cozy. There was a lucky dip when you first came in, where you’d pull out either discounts or lollies or inspiring quotes. We got an inspiring quote. It was small and family-like, with the sweetest receptionists, and not only were there free coffee and tea and biscuits, but someone had just baked a bananapear and berry cake which was just sitting there on the dining table for us to eat, along with a huge bowl of fresh fruit. What an absolute world away from the hostels I’d been staying in in the UK! image Dylan and I were sharing our room with a English geologist named Liam, who frequently visited Poland, and a friend of his from Russia, Juliana, who had never been here before and who Liam was taking on a whirlwind tour around the country. Liam could manage this because he was working remotely and had wanted to come to Poland for a dental checkup (which is apprently really expensive in the UK), while in Russia their New Year’s holidays go from the 1st-5th and then they have Christmas holidays from the 6th-8th (they celebrate Christmas on the 7th) so Juliana had some to spare and had agreed to go wandering around with him. Juliana got really shy about her English, but Liam was more than happy to make up for her silence and we had a wonderful time over dinner at a gluten free potato place round the corner from our hostel. I learned a lot about geography and cartography that night and it all sounded so much more exciting than I’d ever imagined or considered it to be. I wondered idly if I had chosen the wrong path in life and should have become a geologist myself, then promptly remembered how bad I was at telling rocks apart in high school geography, and gave up on that idea. image I’d wanted to explore Warsaw more, but as it got later, I instead retreated back to my hostel. Warsaw was cold! My fingers and toes felt like they were burning with it, or like the cold was some monster that was just repeatedly gnawing on my extremities in a really painful way while the rest of my body just bent and quivered with it. I’d come prepared for the cold, with thermals and thicker socks – but they were all in my checked luggage. Instead I spent the night at the hostel, where they were doing ‘Polish Beer Tasting’. I expected it to be a bit of a piss up, but instead it was a bunch of really cool people – two Dutch girls, an American guy, a Scottish guy, an Australian girl and of course Liam and Juliana – who were chilling in the living room, where the receptionist had a few bottles of different beers and would pour a few sips into everyone’s glasses in turns, and had also laid out some cheese and olives and popcorn and chips as accompaniment. image “Let’s play a game,” I suggested, as everyone sat down and that initial awkward silence descended. “Oh no,” said the Australian girl, groaning, “not one of those lame ice breakers. I’m so sick of telling everyone my name and where I’ve come from.” “Not one of those lame ice breakers,” I promised. “Instead, how about we…” I tried to think of something that would be different “…each tell a story about our most traumatic experiences.” Everyone looked skeptical, but to their credit they all participated wholeheartedly. For the next few hours we sat around telling each other the most embarrassing, painful and awkward stories we had, and I was laughing so much that I completely forgot to pay attention to the time. 9 o’clock came and went. Then 10, and 11, and soon it was almost midnight. My bags hadn’t arrived. The others decided to go out, but I didn’t have appropriate clothes – not for going out or for dealing with the weather – and instead stayed up to read the product disclosure statement for my travel insurance. You could only make a claim if your baggage went missing for over 24 hours. ‘Well,’ I told myself, as I headed to bed, ‘if I’m going to be stuck anywhere, at least it’s in a nice hostel in a nice city with some nice people.’ It could definitely have been worse. image In the morning I showered and changed into my brother’s shirt and called up the airport again. “There’s been a delay,” the man on the phone told me. “They’ll actually arrive at 1.” What a pain. It was too cold for me to step outside for more than 5 minutes before I literally thought I was going to suffer from frostbite and/or hypothermia – and this was made even worse by the fact that Dylan had woken up that morning really sick (just as my health was improving), was in bed with a fever, and needed me to look after him. What was I to do? I didn’t want to spend all day at the hostel, especially when I was a little bit doubtful that my bags would arrive by 1, and extra especially because both Dylan and I really needed some food. I decided to bite the bullet and just go shopping for some socks, underwearm and a second jacket that I could wear underneath the one I already had. Things weren’t that expensive in Poland, and if my bags didn’t arrive in time – as I suspected was going to happen – at least I wouldn’t have just wasted all day indoors, hungry. image I happen to be an incredibly bad shopper. I don’t take ages doing it, I just hate having to look through racks for something that will: a) Fit me; and b) Look good on me that I usually just walk in, see if something catches my eye, and if nothing does, I just walk out again. This time though I searched desperately through H&M for a jacket that would fit under what I had, and for thick socks, with no luck. They did however have lots of nice underwear, so I grabbed that. I peeked through all the other stores on the block as well, with zero success, before I steeled myself and headed in to what I pretty much consider the nightmare of all shopping experiences: TK Maxx, where desperate shoppers throw everything everywhere and trying to find what you’re looking for is like searching for one specific piece of hay in a very disorganised haystack. Luck was with me this time though, and entirely by accident, just as I’d gotten a little lost, I happened upon a very nice maroon ‘vegan leather’ jacket that was lined with fleece – and then right at the checkout, when I went to pay for it, were some thick hiking socks. I bought them just in time – as I headed back to my hostel, delicate white flakes of snow began to float daintily across the skies and I switched from walking to running, desperate to feel warm again. image Getting socked up and jacketed up felt amazing. Really cold weather is absolutely awful when you’re not prepared for it. You just ache all over and your body starts to shut down and all your mind can consume itself with is the thought of being warm and dry. You don’t care about the prettiness of your surroundings or the smells wafting over from nearby kitchens, or that there are meant to be really interesting museums around. Just warmth and dryness. So it felt like such an immense relief to put on those socks and that jacket. Finally, I could start to really experience Warsaw! I headed up Nowy Swiat, the most famous street in Warsaw. This was the street where the royals and nobility set up their palaces back in the day, and now it’s full of a mishmash of historic buildings, trendy cafes and restaurants, some seriously stunning bakeries, fancy bars, and expensive stores. Being so soon after Christmas, it was also dripping with decorations – which, I was surprised to note, all had the names of banks on them. I know banks and other institutions often sponsor opulent street decor, but it felt kind of crass having their names up there quite so visibly – in lights – on every little bit of tinsel. If you ignored that, though, it still looked magical. image Just as a quick side note, Poland is like a mecca for gluten free food, and for being able to pay for things with card. I popped into the Carrefour for some food that I could take back to the hostel, then found a charming little pizzeria – where they did gluten free pizza! – for lunch. The inside was all white linens and polished wood, with an inviting little fireplace to the side and elegantly rustic chandeliers overhead. I put my things down, ordered a gluten free margherita, and went to go relieve myself in the bathroom. The worst thing about travelling as a girl, I think, is menstruating. I know – how can I talk about such a thing?!? I realize that this will be a little too much information for a lot of people, and some may think it inappropriate for me to write about in a public blog. Being a strident feminist, however, I’m afraid that I can’t, in good conscience, omit this part of the story. Anyway, for those who don’t know, travelling through different time zones – particularly if you’re experiencing a lot of stress – can sometimes mess with your cycle. Surprise periods are the worst surprises, especially when all your sanitary products are in your checked luggage. image I couldn’t leave just yet, I’d already ordered. I shoved about half a toilet roll into my pants, then headed back upstairs and waited on tenterhooks for my pizza to arrive. I must have seemed like such a pig – the staff were trying to be nice and there I was, more or less inhaling the pizza before I grabbed my stuff, rushed to pay my bill, and literally ran out. There was a pharmacy just down the road, with two female pharmacists serving a large bunch of men who were all shopping very leisurely. I joined the back of the line and waited as each customer had a long conversation with the pharmacists, glaring at the backs of their heads and hopping from foot to foot, hoping they’d get the hint and hurry up just a little bit. Finally all the men got served and left, and it was just me and the two pharmacists. “Can I please get some tampons?” I asked. Blank faces. Oh great. “Tampons? Pads?” The pharmacist tried offering me deodorant. “No, no, tampons. Vagina? Bleeding?” I tried miming it. “Blood! Menstruation! Periods!” Finally, some recognition! “Ahh, menstruation!” said the pharmacist, smiling. “Yes! Yes, menstruation!” I cheered. She turned around and handed me a box of…. period pain medication. “No, no – not medication. Menstruation, tampons!” This was like a game of charades. She took the box back, bent back down, and this time resurfaced with a box of tampons. Hallelujah! “YES!” I cried “Tampons! Yes!” I’ve never been so happy to buy a box of tampons. After I’d gone back to my hostel, changed, and checked up on my sick little brother, it was 3. Still no bags. Well, we’d flown in at 2.45pm the previous day, so that made over 24 hours. I jumped onto the Medibank claims page and tried to submit a claim for the jacket, socks, underwear and tampons. Claims forms ask a lot of questions, and it’s annoyingly tedious to fill in. I did it, clicked submit, and was hit with an error message. Twice. Well, desperate times call for desperate emails, I figured. (In case you’re wondering by the way, I got an email back from them very quickly asking for my bank details and apologising for the website problems, and in a few days my claim was processed and I got all the money back. This is why I always tell everyone to go with Medibank – seriously the best travel insurance ever. So good.) image And then, at 3:30, after I’d more or less given up on seeing them again – my bags arrived! I immediately went off to shower, brush my teeth, change into my own clothes, use my own deodorant, and just enjoy how great it felt to have my things with me again. By this time Dylan was feeling a little better so we headed on out to a chocolate cafe down the road to celebrate. The chocolate cafe was a mistake. I’d been salivating over all the beautiful desserts on display every time I walked past, and when I walked in the choice seemed easy – I wanted some of that insanely decadent looking (wildly overpriced) cheesecake. When I bit into it, however, it tasted terribly dry and bland. I was to learn later on that this was just Polish cheesecake, also known as sernik – it’s made from dry curd cheese, and it lacks any of the tanginess and creamy texture of New York cheesecake. Oh well. We made up for that disappointment by finding a Turkish restaurant and buying a huge slice of baklava (and by huge I mean about six times the size of a usual slice of baklava. It was, in all actuality, a slab of baklava) for the equivalent of $1.50. I suppose it averages out. image It was getting dark, so we only wandered around downtown Warsaw, marvelling at the architecture (Palace of Culture and Science, anyone?) before we headed back to our hostel for a burger night. I love a hostel that gives you free food or drinks every night! (And I know, some of you will think that it’s such a cop out because I should be experiencing real Polish culture talking to locals etc etc but both Dylan and I were ill and our wallets were much lighter after my stint in the UK, so the free dinner was incredibly welcome.) When Sunday came around, we woke up all set to go and explore and really make the most of our remaining time in Warsaw. We wandered through the Old Town, peeking into stores with folk art and handicrafts, through the Christmas markets, past lots of historic buildings. There was really good wifi coverage through most of the Old Town and Google maps had done Warsaw really well so I could just look at where we were on the map, see what was around us, and read about the buildings and monuments we passed. There were a lot of churches everywhere – and lots of monuments dedicated to Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Nicolaus Copernicus, Pope John Paul II and, of course, Frédéric Chopin. My favourite were these benches that had maps etched into them of all the places in Warsaw that were connected to Chopin, and that would play various songs of his. “Well,” Dylan quipped, when we found the first one, “this gives a whole new meaning to musical chairs.” image I knew who Copernicus, JP II and Chopin were but I’d never heard of Mickiewicz and Słowacki, and had to Google them as we sat in a cafe, drinking tea and eating bolognese quiche and carrot cake. The bolognese quiche was tres fantastique, it was basically bolognese sauce in a quiche with lots of cheese, and had the fortunate trifecta of looking, smelling and tasting superb. The carrot cake looked like a top specimen of it’s cake variety but tasted rather sub-par. Poland, I was beginning to realise, was highly talented at decorating cakes but sadly lacking when it came to making them taste good. To give you the short version of what I discovered, Mickiewicz and Słowacki were two of what are known in Poland as the Three Bards: writers/poets/essayists who captured the spirit of the Polish struggle for independence from the rule of foreign powers. The third, Zygmunt Krasiński, must not have been as good or as revered, because while I couldn’t escape seeing the names of the other two everywhere I went, I never saw his around until I Googled theirs. image I’d been so desperate to check out the Copernicus Science Center, but it was booked out for the entire period that we were there and for days afterwards, so we had to give it a miss. My favourite place, however, was the Chopin museum, and as it was a Sunday we got in for free. I don’t believe in just visiting museums because you’re in a city that has them; when you’re travelling for long periods of time you get museumed out if you just visit museums everywhere you go. I do, however, love finding museums about people or things I’m interested in, and I was definitely interested in Chopin’s life. I always wonder how musical ingenues develop their talents and gain recognition. Chopin lived, as I suppose one would expect, a particularly interesting life – the kind of life Nietzsche would have applauded in his latter philosophical writings, with lots of travel and various relationships and many ups and downs; a seriously full life that the museum afforded us wonderful glimpses into with interactive installations that took you through amusing anecdotes and photos and his letters, and an entire section where you could just listen to all his compositions. My favourite was Impromptu in C-sharp minor, (Op. 66), 1834. I could sit there and listen to that on repeat for hours on end. That was, unfortunately, all we had time for in Warsaw. It was strange, we’d only come here because we couldn’t get a flight from Edinburgh to Krakow, we’d never intended to visit Warsaw for it’s own merits, and we only stayed there for longer because of my bags and Dylan’s health. And now we were leaving, feeling like we hadn’t had enough time to see all that it had to offer. Oh well. Warsaw, ladies and gentlemen – worth more than a stopover on the way to Krakow.

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