Sunday, October 6, 2013

Travel After School - My Second Overseas Trip (Europe)

Ewa, in Krakow, Poland.
December 29, 1993
My second overseas trip was to Europe.  Many of my friends had already been to or lived in Europe in some form or fashion and I had heard all of their stories and was itching to get there myself.  I had several reasons for going:
  1. My main motivation for the trip was to go to Poland and meet the family of my girl friend, Ewa.  I needed to know if I could live in Poland as I was considering marrying her.  So going there and getting exposure to the culture and language was pretty important to me.
  2. I wanted to spend some time with a great friend of mine, Kevin,  in Holland.  I had met him in Texas, and he had been working and living in Holland for close to a year and I wanted to catch up with him.
  3. I had some graphic arts film negatives to deliver to an organization in Austria.  They were translating some Christian discipleship tracts into various eastern european languages and the art work for these tracts was on the film I was delivering.
  4. I wanted to accompany a professor of mine and visit our mutual friend Janis, in his home country, Latvia.  I had worked and gone to school with him in Texas for a while and I wanted to see him in his home country.
Kevin in Pernis walking on a dyke
with a canal in the background
My trip lasted from the middle of December 1993 to April 1994.  My plan for this trip wasn't as rigid as my India/Pakistan trip.  There were certain places I had to be a certain times, but I also had several spaces of a week or two where nothing specific was planned.  This helped me be flexible with situations like passport replacements (see below) and other travel hiccups.  However, knowing where you are going to sleep is pretty important.  I had a pretty good idea where I would be spending my evenings for most of the trip.  Check my travel resources page for ideas on how to travel and getting a place to stay (and potentially room and board covered).
I flew into London and took a train from there to Rotterdam.  There was no tunnel under the English Channel back then so I caught a ferry across the channel.  Arriving in Holland, Kevin picked me up with a friend of his in a Peugeot.  I stayed with Kevin in Pernis, a small town on the outskirts of Rotterdam.  I was there while I recovered from jet lag, then take a train from Amsterdam to Poland.  I would be returning to Holland to visit Kevin for a longer period at the end of my trip in March.

While there in December, I had a great time catching up with him and meeting all of his friends.  We helped some of them decorate for Christmas, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences in their holiday tradition.  I really enjoyed walking through the community and seeing how people lived there.  Some houses are built right up against the sidewalk, and you could look right in the windows.  Bike paths were everywhere, as were waffle stands (a great Dutch snack).      

Some old Polish coins
I said goodbye to Kevin in Amsterdam and caught various trains to Berlin, into Poznan, Poland, on to Wroclaw, and finally to Strzelin - Ewa's home town.  Getting tickets for each transfer got progressively more challenging as less people spoke English and I had to change money every time.  I just about missed my transfer in Poznan as I wasn't clear on when the train was leaving and which platform it was leaving from.  I didn't really have much of a chance to get settled there because two days later all of us headed further south-east to spend Christmas in Glogowek at Ewa's brother's house. 

Helping Ewa's Mom make uszka, mini perogies that
go in a beet soup - one of the servings for
Christmas Eve supper
Winter probably isn't the best time of year to be trying to see Europe.  You have to pack more clothes and the weather isn't as accommodating.  However there are less tourists, flights are cheaper, and experiencing the local culture on a big holiday like Christmas is fantastic if you have a family to be with.  In Poland, the Christmas holiday goes on for several days.  There is a midnight mass on Christmas eve, and to see everyone returning to their homes in the snow was really neat.  I enjoyed being involved in getting the meals ready for Christmas - all part of the experience!

Culture and history is a pretty big deal in
In front of a facade in Wroclaw, Poland

certain parts of Europe.  I think one would be well advised to attempt to observe and understand some of the differences.  Some observations I made while in Poland were:
  • Eye contact - when walking, people didn't make as much eye contact as I was used to.  It turned out this was because during the solidarity uprising, people were wary of secret police.  Avoiding eye contact was a way avoid unwanted attention.
  • Personal space - as a Canadian, I was 'spoiled' with lots of space.  Living space (apartment sizes) and personal space (in buses and trams for example) is economized in other countries.  I had to get used to less.
  • Common Courtesy - Pedestrians don't have the right of way in Poland. 
  • History is Personal - Are you from Germany or Russia?  Both are (historically) countries that have invaded Poland.  This adds important and sometimes negative context and perspective to any conversation and or relationship in Poland.
  • Patience in Lines - I didn't do very much waiting in lines growing up.  In Poland, waiting in lines was part of growing up.  I needed to learn patience.
  • Buying Strategies - During the uprising, many times food was in short supply.  So if there was food on the shelf that you maybe didn't need right now but you might need later, you bought it now!
Early in January, we travelled to Warsaw so I could get Visas for my other trips.  Back then I needed Visa's for my stay in Latvia and my passage through the Czech Republic to Austria.  However, when I stopped at the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw to ask a question, they examined my passport and asked me to get a new one.  It turned out that the lamination on the ID page of my passport was coming off.  They said it could look like it was faked and get confiscated at a boarder crossing.  So I had to get a new passport, a new Polish Visa, and then get my Visa's for the other countries - all in a week.  It kept us pretty busy.   I sure was glad we had a couple of extra days in our schedule to deal with that situation.

From Warsaw, I travelled with a professor of mine by bus north through Lithuania to Riga, Latvia.  We were visiting a friend of ours named Janis who had lived with us in Texas.  We spent a week up there and it was... cold.    From there my professor travelled on to Estonia, and I returned to Poland by bus.

Packing my backpack for another trip.  Long johns,
warm socks, and turtle necks are a must when you are
getting around in the winter without a car.
In February, Ewa and I travelled by bus from Poland through the Czech Republic to Vienna, Austria.  I was delivering the graphic arts film for translations to an organization called Operation Mobilization in Spillern, Austria.  We also stayed there for a week.  It was quite cold that week and we were mostly using public transportation to get around.  I was glad I had packed the warm clothes I did, but we'd still return to our dorms with numb hands and feet.  I remember going to a restaurant close to Stephans Platz in downtown Vienna, and having to coerce the waitress to serve us.  The restaurant was busy and I guess it was a bit annoying that we didn't speak German.   I'm not sure what it was, but we wouldn't return to that restaurant to eat anytime soon.  We were pretty amazed by the municipal recycling system they had set up even back then.  They were 15 years ahead of North America in that department.

A canal in Rotterdam.
In the middle of March, I caught a bus from Poland back to Holland.  I stayed with my friend Kevin again, and with the nicer spring weather we were able to get out a bit more.  We did some biking along dikes past windmills, and spent a day in Rotterdam going to the zoo with friends and seeing the sights - including the building that my mother started her trip to Canada from when she was 7.  On another day, a group of us drove to Antwerp, Belgium to hang around for a day.  That was a lot of fun and a bit of an eye opener - you don't have to drive long to get into a different country in Europe.  And the history in the buildings in a place like Antwerp is incredible.  I could have stayed there a little longer!

In one of the city squares in Antwerp.
Saying goodbye to Kevin, I caught a train to Calais, and then a ferry to Dover.  It was quite windy and I think almost everyone got seasick on that ride from Calais to Dover.  Once in London, I rented a room for two nights in the East End, and explored the city for a day before my flight left.

Looking back, travelling alone is a different experience than travelling with someone.  When you are alone, you are forced to make your own decisions.  What you prefer, like, and don't like - bit it personalities, food, modes of transportation, living conditions - become obvious pretty fast.   Travelling alone give me a better idea who I was, and who I am not.  I loved the history, cultural diversity, architecture, and geographic concentration of all of these things in Europe.  Personally, I'm not a fan of travelling alone.  I'd rather share my experiences with somebody.

Less than a year after this trip, I married Ewa and moved to Warsaw where we lived and I learned to get used to less personal space.  :-)

Volunteer - A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World (Book Review)

Published by Lonely Planet, Volunteer is authored by 6 passionate, dedicated travellers, and 4 expert advisors.  At around 250 pages and type set in the smallest font I've seen for a book, this 2013 3rd edition is jam packed with just about all the information, resources, tips, anecdotes, and advice you'd need to know if you were considering volunteering abroad.

The book's 10 chapters cover almost everything you need to consider before you trip, from surveys of different types of volunteer organizations to dealing with culture shock and getting settled once you've returned back home again.

If you are considering volunteering abroad, I'd highly recommend this book.