Posts Tagged With: Gdańsk

Friends And Strangers On A Train

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

ON A TRAIN FROM TLEN TO GDANSK, SOME THOUGHTS: Travel to places where people don’t speak your language of course creates challenges. The language barrier traps you in a maze of confusion and constant struggle to understand what’s going on around you. It isn’t something that can’t be overcome, but if you let it, it will do a job on the good energy you need to continue on your merry way. I was waiting for a train – this train that I am now on – that was more than 15 minutes late. Then came an announcement over the loudspeakers affixed above the station platform. It was a woman’s voice – a soothing voice – albeit going on for an eternity about something of some urgency. I don’t speak Polish, but based on the reactions of the people around me, I instantly knew something was up that had to do with my train. In the land of language barriers, where ears are rendered useless, eyes do the listening. I was at the train stop that serves the tiny village of  Tleń – population 260 – on my way back to Gdansk.

With Michal at the “gate to Hell” in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The large boulder was dragged to the area by advancing glacier during the Ice Age. And yes, my layers of clothing was not working for him so he gave me the winter coat off his back!

With Michal of Tlen, Poland, in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The  guy gave me the coat off his back . What, my layered look wasn’t working for you all? 🙂

It was a very cold Saturday morning, and everything coming from that woman’s mouth would determine if I would spend another night in Tleń or be on my way. Soothing as her voice sounded, it was hardly soothing enough to ease my growing anxiety sparked by the people on the station platform appearing to go into mild panic. As I stood there in the freezing cold, I watched some of them swarm around a weather-beaten train schedule that had clearly seen better days on the support beam from which it hanged. Others nervously checked the time on their watches or cell phones, frantically sent text messages, or made phone calls.  I scanned the people in sight for a  friendly face, one not so apparently consumed with worry, in a quick search for someone who seemed likely to speak English – usually someone in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s or early 40’s. I approached a young couple and half-apologetically asked if they spoke English. In a unison that couples and twins often muster, they said “A little.” Poles are kind of funny when it comes to the question “Do you speak English?” In the relatively short time I’ve been in the country, I’ve noticed that regardless of the person’s ability to speak English, most will say  “a little”, perhaps to save face should their command of English falter. In the case of the young couple, “a little” could not have been a more on target self-assessment. They struggled with every word and in very broken English they managed to say the train was late, a  “duh!” fact I and everybody standing on the station platform already knew. My rephrased question was whether there would be a train at all and if so, when?.  “It’s late,” the young woman sheepishly said. Double duh! Aha! Okay. But do you know when it will come? The two turned to each other and in Polish began to confer as if world peace was at stake. I stood and watched as they tried to come up with the right English words to explain the situation to the American who speaks no Polish. She then said “wait” as he made a phone call. He spoke a few words in Polish to the person on the other end of the line and handed me his sleek new iPhone. On the other end, a woman with a much better command of English explained that the train was delayed by mechanical trouble and that there would be another update as to its arrival. She said it would likely be along in approximately 20 minutes, but an announcement would be made to update us. Sweet. A language hurdle cleared by Apple Inc. Steve Jobs – rest his soul – again saves the journey. I thanked the woman on the phone and the couple for going the extra mile. In Polish I said “Thanks”, which made them smile. Thirty-minutes later, here comes the train, even if there was no heads up announcement. Did I mention that Poland has the most painfully slow and worst train systems of all the places I’ve seen in Europe? In places like Tleń,well outside of big cities, the difficulty to find someone who speaks English increases. So your eyes take over where your ears are of no use. When the train is not doing what the posted schedule says it’s going to do, watch how others react to any official announcements made entirely in Polish – or any other foreign language you don’t speak, for that matter – and you quickly realize you don’t need to know the language to know you better act and fast.


Main train station, getting to know you.

I am leaving Tlen, the village in north Poland where 260 people live. To say Tlen is a small town is the ultimate understatement. It’s the smallest town I’ve ever visited in Europe. I am on my way back to Gdansk, just over an hour away. I am sharing the compartment with a young Polish woman who has been really helpful with the “a little” English she speaks. At the train station the ticket office was closed and so I had to buy a ticket on the train. The conductor spoke no English, and I of course can only say “good afternoon” and “Thank you” and “yes” and “no” and the “F word” in Polish. Yes, I need to add a few more words to my vocabulary. So the young, blond woman has so far acted as my interpreter and my bodyguard. She helped me buy my train ticket, interpreting for me and the conductor. Then when some guy opened the compartment to our cabin and asked “Are you English?” and “Do you have some money for me?”, the young woman said a few choice words to him that included the “F word” and “Thank you.” That much I understood. The guy shut the door and left. And my defender returned to reading her book. That’s the one thing about traveling in some places. People come to your help and sometimes when necessary, to your defense. They see it as their duty to help. The good in people comes through. For instance, I am now the proud owner of a winter coat. I didn’t pack one because I thought I could just wear layers of clothing and be warm enough. But all along the way in Poland, friends and strangers kept offering to get me a coat, even as I stated and restated that I was plenty warm with what I was wearing, and even as the temperatures dipped way below freezing. My layered look apparently didn’t look warm enough for winter, and so the offers for a winter coat. And so now I have one, thanks to Michal and Ana. Ana, who drove me to the train station, brought it to me as a gift. “If you’re going to stay in Poland you need a winter coat” she said. Cool. People can be generous and so cool and come to your aid even if you don’t think you need it. I had the situation under control – I think – with the train panhandler, but the young woman had the language knowledge and finesse to tell that guy to piss off. He got the message quick. As I am now in Gdansk, where I will be spending the  month of January and part of February working at the Mamas & Papas Hostel, I left Tlen content to have so many friends across Poland: Michal, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Kamila, Karolina, Kamil, Kasia, Ada, Mama, Papa, Mateusz, Martyna, Allan, Kasper, Monika, and the feisty young blond woman on the train. Her name is…Mystery.

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month



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This town gets very little to no respect. It’s the city that most Poles will tell you holds nothing special. It’s not even worth a visit some will go so far to say, and the naysayers includes residents.

I came to Bydgoszcz by way of  Tleń, a small village where my friends Anna and Michal. own and operate a guesthouse. Tleń, with only 260 inhabitants, is 36 miles – or 58 kilometers – north of Bydgoszcz.  I had been holding fast in Gdansk when I got a call from Michal to invite me to Tleń, with its rivers and lakes in the Tochula Forest, Poland’s vast wooded area.

If you love nature and being outdoors, you will love  Tleń and its surrounding areas. At every turn there are lakes, rivers, meadows with ducks and swans and all sorts of other wildlife. This is rural country, to be sure, where you come to unwind.

On their way to shop for supplies in the big town, Bydgoszcz, I joined Michal and Anna. It would be a chance for me to see what all were telling me was not worth seeing. It would also be an opportunity to reconnect with another friend, Kamil, a history teacher who lives in Bydgoszcz. As soon as we arrived in Bydgoszcz, Kamil and I took off to do some sightseeing while Anna and Michal shopped and took care of other business. True, when I first arrived in Bydgoszcz, nothing immediately impressed me, but walking around the old town, a few things did.

There was the river that runs through the city, the manicured green spaces to enjoy an afternoon, the public art and cultural centers, and of course the bounty of churches that date back centuries. St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral’s interior is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. The city’s oldest. St. Martin & St. Nicholas was built in the 15th Century in the so-called Vistulan Gothic style, with every inch of wall and ceiling painted in bright shades of red, purple and pink. I love the interior of this church!

Bydgoszcz is a great launch pad for the surrounding cities and villages and countryside, all reached by car or bus within minutes. Or come for the shopping. Right near the old markets, there are some great modern shopping malls.

Inside the colorful St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral

Inside the colorful St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral

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Gdansk, Poland: The Beginning And The End

Snowy Gdansk

Snowy Gdansk

The Old Town section of Gdansk is very beautiful. But the thing that surprised me about it the most is how it looks so much like Amsterdam without the canals.

I learned that Dutch Mennonites built the city and were a big part of the population from the 16th to the early 20th Century. They built the city to resemble Amsterdam. Neighboring Germany also played an important role in the development and architecture of Gdansk, which was once a German city under the name Danzig. Adolf Hitler used the loss of Gdansk to Poland as a pretext to attack Poland, which was at the time allied with France and Britain.

And so began World War II.

The city is also where the Solidarity movement against Communist rule began. That movement is said to have emboldened others in the Soviet Communist Bloc, three months later leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Much of Gdansk, particularly the Old Town, was destroyed by Russian and Allied forces who attacked German forces occupying the city. When Poland decided to rebuild the Old Town in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it made a political decision to rebuild in the Flemish-Dutch architecture instead of the Germanic-style construction. So today Old Town looks more like a town in the Netherlands than one in Germany. Gdansk does still have houses and buildings reminiscent of ones in Germany and can be found in neighborhoods untouched by Allied bombings.

 To look at Old Town today one cannot imagine it has been rebuilt.

The reconstruction was done using the same bricks, painstakingly putting the pieces back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The place is truly beautiful, especially this time of year with the snow and Christmas lights.

I took a walk in a snowfall in the Old Town and these are just some of the images.

Click on the photo above to see more images I uploaded to my Facebook page.


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