The chartered van made its way up a narrow winding road. With the slow climb, its engine sputtered and seemed to momentarily stall on this heavily wooded slope.
All around us there were miles and miles of trees – many of which have stood in Karkonosze National Park for centuries. On a hike, I paused and tried to imagine the centuries of history they’ve witnessed. If only these tall, proud trees could speak.
A stream of beauty
Despite the daily shot of trekkers who come to soak in its beauty and discover the 721-year-old Chojnik Castle (built in 1292), Karkonosze is an amazingly peaceful place. It’s Poland’s slice of heaven. One of many, really. It’s about a 10 kilometer run to its neighbor, the Czech Republic.
As we ambled up and neared our hilly destination – Chojnik Hotel – the houses that dot the ondulating landscape were fewer and farther apart. When we finally arrived at the hotel and the driver shut off the 16-passenger van’s engine, the silence was so evident, so extreme, it would become the subject of conversation and much discussion among hotel guests for much of my stay.
Having spent much time in cities, perhaps made the silence even more pronounced. It was so quiet that during my 5-day lodging I was taken quite aback when I heard in the distance the footsteps and click-clack of Nordic walking poles of a lone hiker coming up the road.
At least one hotel guest complained it was so quiet she could not sleep, her frayed nerves accustomed to the racket that comes with living in a noisy city. For me, this silence was pure delight. After spending months in city after city across Europe, it was a joy to hear, gasp, heavens, absolutely nothing.
I had come to Chojnik by happenstance, invited to take part in a nearly-weeklong English immersion program. I was joined by several native English speakers and several Polish people seeking to brush up on their English. Poles were paired with native English speakers and they conversed on a variety of topics.
We had set out from Wrocław, the largest city in western Poland. It is located on the Oder River.
Mateusz, the man with the plan
And now here were, housed at the Chojnik, which we all agreed was the perfect guest house. A few months ago the hotel and restaurnant reopened under new ownership and management. It has been completely remodeled, inside and out.
Mateusz Szymon, a 26-year-old interior designer and architectural student, breathed new life into the hotel when his family took it over seven months ago.
Serenity: The Chojnik grounds
“It’s hard work,” he said recently, seated in the restaurant. “It’s not a good option when you live in a place where you work. You are always working.”
The Chojnik is a labor of love. It’s also a great getaway from everyday madness of the city. With it’s private ski slope complete with lift; fish pond, and acres of natural trails, it’s definitely a place of peace. I certainly found it there.
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 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.
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