About a week and a half before my Great 2012 Mileage Run, I began searching CouchSurfing.org for some possible places to crash. For those of you who aren’t familiar, couchsurfing is a term coined defined somewhat like this: travelers, generally backpackers and solo jaunters, who are hosted by a local in their destination and provided sleeping accommodations, such as a couch. CouchSurfing.org built up a community based on this template, and expanded the term “couchsurfer” to include those hosting a surfer (has a couch/bed available), those doing the surfing (needs a place to stay), and those locals who may not have an arrangement where they can accommodate an overnight guest yet want to impact the traveler’s experience in some way, usually by taking the backpacker for coffee, to lunch, to dinner, or for sightseeing as a guide.
I love every part of the idea behind couchsurfing and this primary company which facilitates its success; couchsurfing in this manner allows a traveler like myself to experience life as it is actually lived in those places visited. I am not subjected to immediate and blatant marketing of the region’s tourist traps, and the food I eat is authentic, mainly because there is often the home-cooked variety. I am immersed in the culture about as far as I can be, and I get to try my hand at the language, as well. I tend to operate on a prudent budget, but am not always a true, hosteling, hitchhiking, live-off-the-land backpacker (being from New York City, my greatest vice while traveling are cabs). For full disclosure, my mother is an assistant manager at one of the InterContinental Hotel Group’s properties, and she had booked me a room for several nights at the InterContinental Warsaw, a beautiful tower in downtown Warsaw that is consistently rated with 5 stars by users of various hotel booking sites; I cancelled that reservation, though severely discounted with her employee rates, because how could I truly experience this city while staying at an American hotel chain property?
I sent out a request to several guys and gals around my age, and got many timely replies back. A few people apologized as they were away or otherwise unable to host, and a few others said that they were unable to accommodate me but would take me around sightseeing or to chat over lunch or coffee. And then I got a reply from Sonia Pietraszewska, a born-and-bred Varsovian (that’s literally the English demonym for residents of or people originating from Warsaw), who said she would be more than happy to put me up for the few nights that I was in her city. I was delighted, and we started conversing back and forth on a daily basis. Around the same time, I was invited to a party by a group of Varsovian members of CouchSurfing.org, who had founded their own group, CS Warsaw. We went to the party, but more on that in another post.
After Sonia confirmed my sleeping arrangements, I had a few more replies that said I could be accommodated, but I gratefully declined. I also got a reply from a new friend who told me that she would love to meet me for an hour or two to talk. As my travel to Poland neared, Sonia gave me instructions on where I could meet her after I arrived.
When I arrived at Warsaw Chopin Airport, I was relieved to find a little store inside the airport that sold a GSM SIM card for my phone. For any stay of 2 days or more, I like to spend a few dollars to buy a SIM card for the convenience that it provides. The store had several options, all from various European carriers within the Euro Zone, but I finally settled on the Orange SIM card; I purchased about 120 minutes and like 200 text messages for only 10 złoty (about $3.15 USD at the time), which was more than enough for my entire stay. I was later even more astonished when I realized that I was able to use the same card in Paris and Amsterdam.
Though the winter of 2011-2012 was mild, for the most part, all over the world, my trip happened to coincide with an abnormal cold front moving in from Russia which affected much of eastern Europe. Even Amsterdam, my next location, experienced frozen canals, its first in more than 15 years. As I stepped outside the airport’s front doors, the cold hit me immediately. I braved it for about 3 minutes while I smoked a cigarette, then went right back into the airport to regroup. Sonia had told me to catch the #175 bus from the airport to the Ordynacka stop. I was told where I could catch the bus, as well as the fact that I could purchase my fare on the bus. After an excruciatingly cold, 5-minute wait, the bright yellow bus pulled up and let me in. I saw a machine towards the center of the bus to purchase my fare. As I looked at the options, I probably appeared to most passengers like I had done this before, but really I had no clue what the hell I was doing. There were numbers and prices, so I just quickly picked one, though I came to realize later I had gotten the wrong one. Warsaw’s transit system relies primarily on a sort of honor system. Many buses and train stops have no electronic way to account for passengers; there are, however, plain-clothed employees who question random people at any time, to keep people honest.
When the bus pulled over at the Ordynacka stop, the door opened, and directly in front of me was a Starbucks, exactly the place Sonia had asked me to meet her. She was taking her finals at her university, so I had an hour or so before she would arrive. I ordered a green tea and sat down. The first time I settle down in any new country for the first time, I always get a rush of excitement, and this time was no different. I sipped on my tea and did a bit of people-watching and browsed the internet.
Sonia arrived a while after, and we greeted each other for the first time in person. We walked out of the coffee shop and started heading towards Warsaw’s Old Town, and I have to admit that we were rather awkward at first. We seemed to ask each other basic and redundant questions simply to not allow that awkward silence much time; forced questions and conversation for conversation’s sake are not two of my strong points, and I felt inept during that first part of the walk.
Sonia pointed out a few things, and then we decided that we were both too cold to continue further. We waited for a bus, but then she saw how inadequately dressed I came, so she stopped a taxi instead. When I got to her apartment, in the eastern Warsaw neighborhood of Praga, I became more comfortable. Her mother came soon after, and she possessed some kind of childlike energy and enthusiasm, and I immediately began to feel at home; I find mothers with mouths quite entertaining and easy to talk to. Mama started cooking a small meal for us, and made me another cup of hot tea while I waited. We talked and laughed about couchsurfing and our various travels as we ate, and then I was told that I was to go to bed! Mama had seen that I was exhausted from my trip and insisted that I nap before the party later that night, and as I came to find out, arguing with her was an uphill battle.
I set my alarm on my cell phone for two hours, and woke up three hours later (story of my life). Stepping back into the dining room, Sonia and Mama were talking, like best friends, which gave me quite a warm feeling. The party with CS Warsaw was soon, and we began to get ready. Sonia must have told her mother how cold I had looked earlier, because she pulled out a pair of nylon, stretchy leggings that I was to wear underneath my jeans. I was grateful at their generosity and to have that extra layer, but it didn’t end there. Apparently, I don’t know how to operate a scarf, so Mama wrapped it around my neck and tightened it like a noose, allowing no cold to be able to seep through (and almost no air). I hadn’t brought a hat, and she lovingly scolded my naïveté and let me borrow one of her beanies. How would I have survived this brutally-frigid weekend in Poland had I stayed at the InterContinental?
We got back from a long night of drinking and socializing and went to sleep. The next morning, Saturday, February 4th, I woke up to a lovely breakfast prepared. Mama had made coffee just for me, and I was given toast and jam and a piece of kielbasa to go with it. After breakfast, I took a shower in the adjacent washroom. The tub was elevated and also served as a sink to wash up and brush teeth, and I was actually very interested to use it. As soon as I dressed, we left to go buy a few items at the grocery, and then we continued on to an open-air market specializing in clothing. It was a Russian-style setup, with rows and rows of tables with various apparel laid out under a giant tent. Markets like these are actually my favorite place to visit in each city, as there is no more enlightening experience anthropologically than to see a working-class market in full-swing.
Since I didn’t have a hat, she bought me a thick Russian-style hat with the ear flaps; I thought it made me look rather goofy, but the bitter temperature that weekend (-30° C) did not have me in a position to be more fashionable. After leaving the market, we boarded a tram back to the apartment, where we unloaded the groceries as Mama prepared lunch. More conversation ensued, and by that point I felt as comfortable with these two women as if they were my own mother and sister.
Following lunch, we once again got ready to head out, and once again Mama had to take matters into her own hands and put my scarf on, and she gave me not one, but TWO extra jackets to wear under my original coat, for a total of THREE jackets! With my dress shirt and undershirt beneath it all, there were five layers! I was not complaining, though, and complaining would have fallen on those motherly-stubborn, deaf ears had I tried, anyway.
Journeying out of Praga district, we made our way to downtown Warsaw. First stop was a mall, which I was amused to find a T.K. Maxx as an anchor tenant, instead of the T.J. Maxx I was familiar with back in the States. In front of the shopping center was Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in the country. After that, we decided to continue to another section of the city, which called for taking the metro, located directly below the Palace. This time, I was shown how the ticket system worked and the correct ticket to buy, and that worked out well, because as I was waiting on the platform, I was stopped by the “ticket control.” The guy was dressed like an average businessman, and came up to me and started talking Polish. He pulled out a handheld scanner of some sort, and Sonia intervened and talked on my behalf. She told me to pull out my ID, and show it to him, and he left after he was satisfied.
We headed towards the Old Town, since we didn’t get to see much of it the day before. Mama went off on her own to some meeting, so Sonia and I walked the cobbled streets of Warsaw’s picturesque Old Town until it grew dark. The night was approaching and we called up some friends who we had made at the party the previous night and we all met at a German bar for several more hours of drinking and talking. A taxi back home was worth the extra few bucks, as waiting for the bus in that temperature at that time of night would be too daunting for the Dauntless Jaunter.
The next morning, I followed the same routine as the previous one, though with less excitement; it was February 5th, and my flight onward to Amsterdam would depart at 1pm. I ate breakfast and took a shower, and then I packed all my things. I discovered that Mama had washed my outfit from the day before, and my socks and boxers were strewn about the house, which I found amusing and warming at the same time.
A taxi was called to take me to the airport, and I said my goodbyes to Mama. She wished me a safe continuing journey, and told me that I could come back whenever I wanted. Sonia walked me out to the cab, and we said goodbye, as well. As the taxi pulled away, I missed them immediately, and I longed to spend more time with them. I’ll be back soon, I guarantee it!
Poland – No matter how cold it becomes, the people’s warmth more than overcomes it.
Dedicated to Sonia Maria Pietraszewska and Mama Kwiatuszyńska, the hostesses with the mostess, and friends of mine for life.