On a fairly busy street in Warsaw – Poland‘s capital city – I watched a woman in the distance emerge from around the corner with a bouquet of red roses in her gloved hand.
On this day in which the calendar declared it was officially the first day of spring, the bitter reality was that winter was still upon us. It was one of the coldest days of the year, and new snow had fallen over the past two days. There was no hint of spring, not even a sprouting bud on any of the long bare trees that line sidewalks near the Warsaw University of Medicine in the neighborhood known as Ochota.
This part of Ochota teems with young students – fresh-faced future doctors – on their way to learn if they have what it takes to be doctors. On some days, even in the dead of winter, what young people choose to wear – fashion wins over cold common sense – befuddles. But not on this day. Everybody was bundled up, with scarves, hats, proper shoes and hoodies pulled tightly over heads. On this day, despite the appearance of the sun, the Siberian express that had crept across much of Poland like a slowly advancing fog, was not to be denied. Oh yes, earlier in the morning there was also – gasp – fog.
So far, everybody that I’ve talked to has said it is unusual to see snow or to be this cold so late into March. Not that I am some sort of expert – I am every bit new to Poland – but seems to me wherever there is winter, March has always been a winter month.
Snow beauty?: Everybody is a critic
Ahead, the woman paused on the sidewalk that stretches for more than two city blocks. In one quick movement, as if to avoid notice, she then jammed the stems of the roses into the glistening snow, took one step back, looked at red roses, and walked off, lost in the crowd of medical students waiting for a city bus.
When I reached the flowers
I noticed that they were already wilted. But they still looked very beautiful against the white of the snow – red roses seemingly and curiously springing from a snowfield.
I will likely never know the woman’s reason for putting the roses in the snow. Was it a homage to first day of spring? Could it have been her way of sending a message to Mother Nature to get over her winter blues and at once make way for spring? Or was she perhaps making some sort of offering to the weather gods to replace the snow with flowers in full bloom? Or was it just a simple act of sharing – to have others enjoy flowers she had already enjoyed, rather than toss the droopy bouquet into the trash? Many questions, no answers.
I for one appreciated the gesture. I stood there, for a moment forgetting the bitter cold, and inspected the frosty red petals – and every sad leaf and determined thorn. Then, I too, walked away – but not before snapping a few photos.
No sooner had I walked away, I was struck with another reality, as an unleashed dog, the owner standing by, walked up to the bouquet of roses, sniffed them, and then lifted his leg and peed all over them. Goodbye nice-smelling roses. Goodbye white snow.
As I faced the rest of the day, what was I left with? Some in this world heal. Others create, often beauty. And there are those ready to piss on it all.
The morning started with snowflakes dancing in the frozen air. It wasn’t the kind of day anyone in his or her right mind would pick to stand on a busy intersection with a weather-wilting cardboard sign to thumb a ride from a passing stranger. Earlier this year I had hitchhiked rides across South America – mainly in Argentina – but then it was summer and the weather was better. Nevertheless, I decided to cement my “roughing it” traveler cred – as in credibility – by attempting to hitch a ride from Warsaw to Gdansk, Poland. By car, the trip usually takes about 5 hours. I hoped to complete the journey close to that time. It wasn’t to be.
The night before, I had slept in the Praga section of Warsaw. It would take a tram, a subway train and a bus to reach the ideal spot at the edge of town to hitchhike north. That trip took more than an hour. Once at the spot, I was entered a McDonald’s to gather my thoughts and strategy. Should I wave my cardboard sign? Should I dance? Should I flash smiles or appear serious? Should I wave? Or should I just stick out my thumb and hope that was enough to have someone stop? I tried all those for the more than two hours I was standing there (the dancing was more to keep warm). My fingers and toes frozen solid, I decided to seek refuge in the McDonald’s. After I thawed out, it was back on, but this time I shifted to a new location closer to the McDonald’s. Within minutes, an older gentleman pulled up, rolled his window down and said he was going in the direction of Gdansk, but only as far as his hometown Mława, a town in the north-central part of Poland, and scene of a reported massacre of thousands of Jews between 1939 and 1945 at the hands of German soldiers and Polish sympathizers.
He said his name was Andre and that he was a carpenter and part-time shoe salesman. His car was full of shoe boxes right to the roof. The Audi was so loaded with shoe boxes that I could not get my backpack in the backseat. So Andre got out and help me shove it into the trunk where he had more boxes. At first the trunk wouldn’t close, so we had to give the backpack a few more shoves to make it fit, crushing some shoe boxes – and shoes – in the process. Then we were off. During the more than two-hour trip between Warsaw and Mława, Andre and I tried to communicate, with very little success. He spoke no English and I spoke no Polish. And the only other language he spoke “a little” was German. So for most of the trip we traveled in silence. But he was a nice old guy, about 65 years old. When he stopped at a gas station to buy some windshield washer fluid, he surprised me with a cup of coffee. He said – or at least what I understood him to say – is that I looked cold standing on the road.
As we traveled, he pointed things such as restaurants and sites along the way. And how many more kilometers were left to travel. Once we made it to Mława, he dropped me off at a gas station on the road, we shook hands and he smiled and said goodbye. I thanked him and went inside to use the restroom. Soon as I emerged, I walked up to a man pumping gas and asked if he was heading north to Gdansk. He said he said he was going in that direction to Elblag, about one and a half hours south of Gdansk. He gladly offered to give me a ride. It would take another 2 plus hours to get from Mlawa to Elblag.
My new ride turned out to be a 44-year-old regional judge from Elblag. He commutes between Warsaw and Elblag twice a week to teach law at the University of Warsaw, he said. He was a travel enthusiast who spoke some English. His name was Roman.
Roman spent a great part of the trip on cell phone talking to his secretary and others. When he was not on the phone, he was sort of quiet, perhaps because of his limited English and my lack of Polish. He managed enough English to say that he had traveled all over Europe and to parts of Asia. He said of all the countries visited, Italy was his favorite.
As we drove I knew it would be dark soon. I was thinking what I would do to reach Gdansk at night. Hitchhiking at night is not impossible, but not ideal. It just makes things tougher. But as we entered Elblag, Roman said he would drive me to the train station because it was dark and not good to be out on the road trying to thumb a ride. He didn’t give me an option as he pulled into the train station and bought me a train ticket to complete the rest of the journey to Gdansk. I was super surprised he would do that and of course thanked him. “No, it’s my pleasure” was his response. I was blown away by the generosity of the people I met out on the road, including a man who bought me a metro ticket in Warsaw because the machine would not take my credit card.
Hitchhiking, inherently a risky thing to do, actually can go the other way and show the goodness of people.