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Poland: Navigating the public transport of Poznań

Poznań terrace houses

On Wednesday, when I took my camera, it wasn’t quite so sunny.

For me, it’s a bit of an awkward moment. You walk into a café past the seating that’s out in the sun on the main square of a quiet town at lunch time on a Tuesday morning, and ask to be directed to a toilet. The cafe is otherwise empty, and the waitress gives you an odd look. You promise what you really want is a coffee.

It’s not like I’m desperate or anything, it’s more a matter of security.  As a lone traveller who knows nobody in this foreign city, I have nobody who’s going to look after my bag for the duration of my expedition to the bathroom (where I find I don’t know the words for ‘men’ and ‘women’ in Polish). I don’t want to order a coffee and the waitress deliver it to an empty table. Who wants cold coffee? There’s a whole problem of not feeling comfortable leaving your handbag unguarded beneath the square table. I don’t even have a cheap coat or jacket which could prove this place is my space.

It’s a common inconvenience of being a solo traveller

In the sunshine, the old market square (Stary Rynek) in the centre of the old town of Poznań looks picture book worthy. Although the old town isn’t in the position of the oldest part of the town – that was on the little island close by where the Cathedral now stands – it’s here you find the old terrace houses, many of which are painted beautiful colours that remind me of a more subdued, elegant version of Cork, Ireland. Many of these terraces have become cafés.

I chose a cappuccino

Hoping nobody was staring at me, wondering what I was up to, I swallowed my little white lactase tablet. I know I shouldn’t be drinking a milky coffee. It’s the first one I’ve drunk in months. Worse still, I’m disappointed with the surplus foam, too much milk and there’s no chocolate sprinkled on the top. I’m no longer sure why I used to love these drinks so much in my pre-lactose intolerant days, or why they used to give me so much comfort. This choice is a symptom of the stress of the previous few weeks. I’m behaving irrationally.

And particularly the stress of the morning I’ve just had.

I’m staying with a wonderful woman, in the outskirts of the city, who, unfortunately, had no idea of how to use the local public transport. She is very much a car driver. Since I have no car I headed out, wandered through the housing estate where the houses stood proudly amongst their gardens (yes, gardens), past the yappy dogs and located the nearest bus stop. I’m not a fan of buses.

Getting a ticket was complicated

A kind Polish woman who spoke lovely English explained that there was no possibility of buying a ticket on the bus. However, she named the street and the newsagents where I could buy a ticket. Back ten minutes walk in the direction I’d just come.

The women working in the newsagents were gossiping

When I walked in, with my ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing but I’m happy to meet you’ expression. It’s been my experience that strangers in Poland do not pass in the street with a chirpy exchange of ‘morning’. They keep themselves to themselves. They do not exchange eye contact. A lovely Russian Theology graduate later warned that this is even more severe in Russia. To smile on public transport in Russia is as to walk around with a large billboard declaring yourself a fool.

I am a smiling fool. I did however manage to buy a ticket, thank the ladies, in Polish, and begin the trek back to the bus stop. The ticket was not, however, enough to cover me for an entire journey. The newsagents didn’t sell complete tickets, they only sold ten minute tickets. The sort of ticket that allow you to get on a bus and traverse to the nearest real, automatic, credit card accepting ticket machine. I said it was complicated.

I discovered the ticket machine

At the end of the bus route, where you change from bus to tram to get into Poznań centre I wandered around lost for a while and only came upon the ticket machine just as I was thinking of giving up and walking. I purchased a ticket that would last me for 72 hours and cover both the buses and the trams, but was cheaper than a day saver at home. Then, relying on luck, I climbed on a tram, assuming there was a good chance that all the trams went somewhere via the city centre. It was the number two tram.

Between the GPS on my phone, and my intuition of following the crowd, I hopped off the bus at what proved to be a convenient location. After gaining my bearings, I strolled down the cobbled streets towards the square, to find my coffee.

And so I ordered a cappuccino, and then wished I hadn’t.

 

Poznań terrace houses

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Germany: ein hund, ein cobra but no English

I’m not entirely sure how it came about as an arrangement. However, the deal was I’d write a blog post if Jesska took me to yoga.

Seeing that I was with Jesska, and that I was new, the super flexible soft spoken yoga teacher came over to say hello. Jesska introduced me as her friend from England

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

I know enough German to say ‘nein’, but in that moment, my brain failed.

There was a brief exchange of thoughts between Jesska and the teacher, before Jesska explained I should move mats so that I would have the best chance of seeing what was going on. Because yes, I’d agreed to do yoga in a language I do not speak.

Now I’d always thought of German as a harsh sounding language

However, in the mouth of the yoga teacher, it was soft. We laid down on our yoga mats to the sound of typical calming yoga music. Everything smelt of incense. Pretty soon I was feeling relaxed, and my pre-yoga nerves had dissipated. As I focused on what I was doing, it occurred to me that actually understanding what was being said didn’t matter so much. If I’d never done yoga before, I might have had some difficulties, but a downward ‘hund’ is a downward dog and a cobra is a cobra.

All I had to do was copy

In fact, sometimes I found myself ahead of the rest of the class as sometimes the verbal instruction followed the teacher’s movement.

It was all going well until she stopped demonstrating and started walking around the classroom. I’d focused on watching so intensely that I had completely failed to memorise the routine, so now I found myself having to copy the other students. Of course, all the students’ movements looked slightly different from one another.

As the teacher walked around she corrected our poses

I felt her hand on my back giving me some small prods and a gentle push here. Moving me into a better position. Then there was the additional helpful miming. She demonstrated ‘put your head on your folded arms’ with a purposeful stare in my direction.

Jesska says that occasionally she’s add a word in English. I missed these English prompts entirely. I had no idea the teacher had said them until Jesska asked if an up dog was the same as a downward dog in the car on the way home. No, but I appreciated the effort.

The surprise came right at the end of the session

We lay down, covered in our blankets, ready for the compulsory post yoga nap – chavasana – and closed our eyes. That’s when I heard the teacher putting on her hand-cream.

Odd time for moisturising your hands, I thought.

And then, suddenly, I found that the intense smell of this magic hand cream was making itself intimately acquainted with my head, neck and shoulders. I was being anointed.

Would you try a yoga class in a language you don’t speak?

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Like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud

Flying home

That green you can see is Yorkshire.

Whilst, physically, I’m back in England, mentally I feel like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud. I have a to-do list, which I started compiling a week ago. It gets longer and longer by the hour as I think of more and more things that, ideally, I ought not forget. This time, I’ve only been away just over a month, but it feels like longer. I’ve spent the last three weeks on buses and trains, living in different hotels and teaching English to teenagers, sofa salespeople, established lawyers and determined grandmothers. My 15.4kg suitcase and I have had quite the adventure travelling around Poland, and quite the education. The suitcase limped home, tyre-less and battered. I’m a little better off, but tired all the same.

When you’re travelling, you can just forget about all the stuff you left un-done back at home. Especially when your bed gets made for you, your towels laundered and your dinner served to your table, you can just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. But now I’m home, and I have this to-do list of competing priorities. Important things, like voting, sit side by side with nice things, like sending a thank you for a little crocheted coaster one of my room mates made for me while we were away.

And I’ve made so many notes whilst I’ve been away. There’s a huge amount of consolidating of information and learning that I need to sit down and just do. I’ve got a fair few thank you notes to write too.

Loosening my grip on the end goal helps reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Having an end goal is crucial, but sometimes you need to stop staring at the horizon and work on what’s at your feet. What can I do without going anywhere, without any great plan, without thinking too much. Just do it. Bum on the chair and action. Often, when you’re overwhelmed, it doesn’t really matter what you do, only that you’re steadily making progress. Post travels, it’s more important to build momentum and get back into the habit of working.

Finally, to conquer this overwhelm that strikes me whenever I return, I know I have to let go of comparison. I’m me, not anybody else. Sure, other people might move faster, might recover quicker, might not care so much, might be better. But none of that really matters.

Small steady steps.

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Poland: Teaching non-native speakers business English

I went for a run this morning in the hotel grounds

We’re situated in the north-east of Poland, not so far from the border with Lithuania, by a beautiful lake. In the shade of the trees the air held a chill, but still the sun shone brightly, and soon I was sweating and glad I’d left my jacket back in my room.

We had breakfast. A buffet of cold meat, salad and bread. I had coffee and muesli, which oddly had chunks of chocolate in it. I’m not normally a chocolate at breakfast kind of girl, but neither am I a ham sandwich person.

Then I met up with my mentee

She’s working on a presentation which she’s going to be giving tomorrow on the salty snacks industry. I coached her for the hour. She’s nervous of course, but she knows what she’s talking about and she’s going to do just fine.

Then I found myself a mug of hot water with a few slices of lemon. I need to take care of my voice. And went outside with a lawyer who needed my assistance practicing negotiation. A lawyer who has taught lawyers, and who employs lawyers and who needed my help. We sat on a bench in the sunshine to discuss the situation. We covered potential problems of high unemployment, the challenges of persuading young people to stick around in a town with few job opportunities, and developed the arguments that he would need to negotiate with a farmer’s alliance for gain support for the building of a new supermarket which the farmer’s alliance were dead against.

At one, I took a break

A few of us hired bikes and went for a ride, picking up essentials from the village shop, like chocolate.

Then time for lunch: beetroot soup which, like cucumber soup, is apparently a very traditional meal, followed by roast chicken and buckwheat groats. With an accompanying conversation about jellyfish.

And now, with my tummy full, I have an hour or two of time to get on with my own work. Soon though, I must return to the conference room and begin a session on telephone conversation. With my wonderful accent this will be an excellent listening test for the people I’m coaching.

Teaching, coaching, mentoring, listening

This is how I’m spending my week in the sunshine and I am learning so much.

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The Netherlands: And the King’s birthday celebrations

king's day

The streets were crowded with people and their unwanted belongings. King’s day is the only day where it’s legal for anyone to be a street seller.

Looking out of the apartment window, on the evening of the 26th April in the Netherlands, I could see teenage boys in hoodies washing the street. This is not quite as friendly or community minded as it sounds. The marks they were washing away were the names of other Dutch children. The territorial battle ready for the day ahead: the king’s birthday.

So the next morning, I awoke to the sound of young girls singing American cheerleading songs. I assumed they were also dancing, but they were down on the street, and I was up in the apartment sleeping so I couldn’t see.

So why a territorial battle and cheerleaders?

The 27th April is King’s Day. Or at least that’s what the English language marketing calls it. It’s the celebration of the Dutch King’s birthday. There’s occasionally some confusion with tourists as for a long-time Queen’s Day was on the 30th April and older guide books will quote this date. To make matters more confusing, the 30th April wasn’t really the Queen’s birthday, it was her mother’s birthday. The Queen’s actual birthday is mid-winter, but moving the festivities from the end of April (where they had been previously) to mid-winter wouldn’t have been good for a celebration that typically takes place out on the streets.

Suitably prepared, I wore my orange dress

Which was borrowed of course, because orange is not a participant in my wardrobe. By the time I’d dressed and eaten my breakfast, the cheerleaders had run out of puff. Their chanting gave way to the quaint tune of the barrel organ.

Meanwhile, the children who weren’t pom-pom aficionados had brought out their old toys, clothes and other belongings and were flogging them to one another.

king's day

You had to walk slowly through the streets to marvel at the contents of people’s lives.

King’s day is the only day where anyone can sell stuff on the street

People crowded the streets. I cooed over Spot books by Eric Hill (I learnt to draw by copying pictures of Spot – Dribble in Dutch). And saw a pair of old fashioned ice skating blades. The sort you tie to the base of your boots.

If you wanted kitchen equipment, old videos or a satellite dish, you could have found what you were looking for. It was like a car-boot sale on mats on the street.

A girl arduously playing her cello impressed me. I tossed her a few coins to keep her spirits up. She played well, and for the briefest of moments, I wanted a go.

Mostly though, the displays made me think of all my excess belongings

Many of which I haven’t touched for a decade. I can’t help but think I might have got something out of trying to sell them when I was younger in such a fashion. There’s got to be some good bargaining and money management skills learnt in such an environment. And I liked that the children were both benefiting and working for their toys.

But most of all, I liked that in a culture where throwing stuff away is the easy norm, this second-hand stuff was getting a new leash of life.

What toys and games could you put on your mat?

 

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Resilience: against cold rain, hail and the things that pull us down in life

Resilience

Not easy walking – sand-dunes on the Fisherman’s trail of the Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

It starts raining. I pull the waterproof cover across my bulging rucksack, zip up my coat and pull up my hood. I’m prepared for the shower that comes, but it hits quickly, and all I have on beneath my coat is a t-shirt.

I’m wearing a short stretchy black skirt and a pair of black tights. To me, it’s comfort clothing. Stretchy, dark, doesn’t take much room up in my bag. Not perhaps ideal for a storm.

I soldier on

What an interesting word choice. A military attitude for a holiday walk.

The hail begins, and it strikes my legs. The tights aren’t much protection. I wince, and decide since there’s nothing I can do, I will ignore it.

Protection, that’s a thought, a barrier between the weather and me. My coat is thin, but it keeps what it covers dry. The landscape is open here. Not long before there were masses of trees, but not now.

And the weather continues

Soon, I’m cold. My ankles are wet. My knickers are wet. Then my feet become wet as I wade across a puddle and misjudge a stick that I was relying on supporting me. I sink and I shiver.

Gritting my teeth, I march against the wind.

Until the sun comes out

And, deftly, urgently, I strip off the coat, pull on a cardigan, a jumper, a fleece and then my coat again. I eat a piece of chocolate saved for emergencies. I laugh at the situation, determinedly. To laugh means we’re alright, doesn’t it?

I will not whine, I will not mope, I will not complain.

Perhaps one might criticise me for walking without waterproof trousers? Or for choosing a skirt which left my ankles to become sodden, and tights which were too thin to offer any pain relief to the sharp ice? But nobody will be able to say that I was not strong enough to endure without whimpering. There will be no crying.

Unlike Snowdon

Where, perhaps ten years previously, unfit and undisciplined in my complaining, I moaned about the climb and the snow and the effort it took, and the pointlessness of it all. And then I moaned some more.

Or the Lake District, a few years after that, where, unfit and undisciplined, I let everyone know of my aching limbs and tired body. Every meter of climb that I faced was an ordeal.

But not now

I have learnt that all one needs to internalise the pain. Choose something mundane, like the force of your breath and meditate on it. Breathe in, breathe out. Say nothing. Keep your eyes on the floor. Let the legs ache, the thighs complain. Let the aches and the complaints pass away with the rain.

Nothing is permanent. Sunshine will come. There will be a small café with a toilet in which tights can be changed and dry socks can be swapped for. There will be a strong espresso, with a teaspoon of sugar, no, two espressos. And a sandwich.

Most importantly laugh. Do not cry.

This is what resilience is, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Is resilience acting as if we’d never fallen, never been hurt? Or is it more about recognising the need to eat that bar of chocolate when the time comes?

Without self-compassion does resilience exist, or is it just denial?

I’m starting to think that it’s not the ferocity of the hail that makes you stronger, nor the saturation of your socks. It doesn’t matter how strong the winds were, or how cold the rain was. It’s not about marching on stoically and keeping the ordeal contained.

The chocolate melts in my mouth.

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