Friday, July 28, 2006

Relative Perceptions

I think I'll skip the Polish history lesson as European history is just too much and I'm no expert. The main thing these days is WW2 history anyway which you must know already. Poland, of course, was occupied by the Nazis the longest and suffered a ton through the whole thing. The majority of the major cities (the exception being Krakow) were completely destroyed and nothing more than rubble by war's end. As beautiful and peaceful as these old towns are, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is all reconstructed and 60 years ago everything was so different.
Poland so far has been fun and yet hard on me. It has been quite a shock for us too. Summer in Poland means tons of tourists, which means few beds and more logistical trouble for me. We have started to do, out of necessity, what others are doing, and booking beds ahead on the internet. I can't tell you how sacreligious that is and makes me feel all wrong because it defeats the concept and purpose of "backpacking". Never before have I had to do this, but at this time of year with 4 (soon to be 5) people it must be done. With all these other backpackers around, it's gotten much more interesting on the conversation front too and I've been regularly staying up until 4 or 5am chatting away with people. I'm only averaging a few hours of sleep per night in this country, especially when you factor in the sleepless nights in buses, cars and trains. But it's been fun. Hostels here are also stuffed with all sorts of goodies like free internet, laundry, kitchens (great for the budget), movies and the like. The trouble is finding time to get a turn....
I was in Poland very briefly 2 years ago and I am finding it a very different experience this time around. I have to emphasize this because it just totally plays into the concept of relativity. For example:
1. Costs. We must be the only backpackers in Poland complaining that it is expensive. Everyone else is laughing at how cheap it is. 2 years ago I came from Scandinavia and Moscow to Poland and thought it was cheap too. The reality is that we are paying ~$15/night each and ~$4 for a cheap meal. Transportation is the real killer.
2. Driving. Everyone we meet complains about the Polish drivers and how crazy they are, not following the rules or the lines on the road. We had thought they were perfect. They even stop for pedestrians. I also thought 2 years ago that they had really small cars here. Now they seem big and the streets crowded with vehicles. People complain about bad roads and small 2 lane highways (which most are) but honestly it's heaven after where we've been through.
3. English. The first time, coming from Scandinavia (where they all speak fluent english) to Poland, I found it difficult. Now, I could swear that they all speak english here (not even close to true) and it's so easy.
4. Women. Polish women are beautiful. No denying that, and yet, coming out of Ukraine it's actually going a small step down on the beauty scale (though Polish women are far more human and normal). Also, seeing so many female smokers and girls with short hair, while common at home, seems so odd now to me.
5. Temperature. Everyone seems to be commenting on a heat wave all over Europe this summer and it being a problem. We had no idea and still have a hard time believing it because 35C is a nice, pleasant temperature to us now and we don't really notice it.
6. The concept of time and distance. We are definately in a different part of the world. I'm starting to think that the west really does live too fast and everyone is too hasty. This is well illustrated by the fact that people look at you funny when you say that you'd rather pay 1/2 the price and take the 5 hr train to the next town instead of the 4 hr express one. What is 5 hours to us now anyway? Damn, we used to do that before breakfast, not as a whole day's travel. I have a hard time believing it's only a few hours between capital cities here. Poland is apparently also a big country and cities are far apart. Haha don't make me laugh.....
7. Poverty. Another problem with arriving in the "west" (or almost west anyway). These people just aren't happy. They try too hard and look too much to their western neighbours to be able to enjoy what they do have. You constantly hear from the locals how poor and miserable Poland is and how lucky we are to be in the west and rich and have slacker, trouble-free lives. They have to work so hard to make ends meet, blah, blah, blah. Um, last I checked, they all had cars, homes, tv's and cell phones like we do (er, make that YOU do). They even have cheap booze to enjoy at the outdoor cafes. Having seen what we've seen in Asia (and they were happier in their poverty too I might add), I just want to throttle these whiners that think they have nothing. Talk about ungrateful. Georgia and Armenia were the same, though they do have bigger problems than here. The only thing easier for us than them, is international travel but even then, how many of you at home are barely making ends meet and are dreaming of going on a vacation abroad someday? It's not like we didn't sacrifice anything to be where we are now but they have no concept. The western propaganda machine still works I guess.
8. Racism. Wow. In a country that suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis and then the Soviets, how can racism and skinhead, neo-Nazi groups be so strong today? Didn't they learn anything? Same thing in Ukraine and Russia these days too and apparently it's becoming a bigger problem as hate crimes are on the rise and the governments don't seem to care. (It's even been suggested that it is quietly supported in places like Russia as it is like a sense of nationalism that ultimately supports the government and blames the government's shortcomings out outside groups.) Again, coming from multicultural Canada, and traveling through countries where we were the minority and very vulnerable, it's crazy to think that it's like that here. They have hardly any minority people running around anyway. On a side note I just want to say that I've never seen worse popular hairstyles in my life than I have this past week. Shaved heads except for a short poof at the back. I looks like they had a mohawk and then accidentally shaved off the top part. Tons of people also have Mohawks and we've even started seeing dredlocks again (nonexistant since India). Everyone seems to wear some form of camo clothes, be it pants, skirts or whatever, even the girls.
Anyway, it's just interesting how people's perceptions change with different experiences. All the more reason for people to travel.
I'd never been to Warsaw before, but I had been to Gdansk, up on the Baltic sea coast. We decided to go up there anyway as I wanted to see Malbork castle (which I missed last time) and the girls wanted to check out the beaches. Busy place and the beaches are nothing really compared to India and that end of the world. Of course coming straight from home, I'd probably have nicer things to say... We hung out there anyway, wandered around Gdansk and even went to see the movie Pirates 2, just so Bre would shut up about it. It had Polish subtitles but was in english. As Bre mentioned before, we met 3 Polish-Canadian siblings (Monika, 21, Adriana, 17, and Marcin, 15) that had a car and were travelling the country visiting friends and family. We got along great and had loads of fun but unfortunately our time together was too short. Our time together ended with the completion of the road trip to Wroclaw where we spent 3 days doing absolutely nothing. In the end I never did get to see Malbork castle, making that 2 failed attempts to get there. Unbelievable.
In Wroclaw they had a film festival going on and the little square in front of the opera house was covered with a "pool grass" carpet and had lots of lounge chairs for well, doing nothing. Great for us, and we spent most of the 3 days just people watching and taking it easy. Adding to that excitement were the nescafe guys giving away free coffee.... Wroclaw is nice, as the old town square is huge and very pretty. It's also the perfect example of how frustrating this language is. Wroclaw is actually pronounced "vrotswahf" and Lodz as "woodge". Yeah, go figure. They also have way too many strange consonant combinations like cz and sz everywhere. Good thing they speak enough english for us to get by.
From Wroclaw we took an overnight train to Zakopane. It's the Whistler of Poland, right on the border with Slovakia, south of Krakow. Very pretty but as the main ski resort, quite Whistlery and full of local tourists at the moment (just like the beaches around Gdansk). Unfortunately it was raining all day today.
On another note, it turns out that my beating in Ukraine was worse than I thought. I'm still sore and think I've got 2 really bruised or cracked ribs in my upper right pec. They totally don't feel normal and smooth any more. Hmm, don't think I really deserved all that. Guess extreme sports are out for the next little while....
Ammon

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