Location Poland

This is perhaps not how other people plan travels.

train travel on a ferry
This was the train from Naples to Catania. It took a ferry to cross from the mainland to Sicily which amused me more than taking a plane.

Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels

When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.

This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.

A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed

Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.

The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.

Another friend invited me skiing

I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.

Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of

And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.

Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)

Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.

It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.

Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia

Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.

Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.

I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train

I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.

I also find trains soothing

There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.

Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.

What’s your favourite way to travel?

Why I prioritise learning to listen

Stepping out of normal life, to be somewhere remote and just listen. It can be kind of special.

The Grandmother asked why would I want to go to Romania, a country I know nothing of, and do nothing for a week but converse with people who want to learn my language.

It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t tick the typical list of priorities that people have for their lives. I get a qualification, yes, but that’s kind of just a bonus. It’s not going to lead to a career, I love teaching English occasionally, but my ambition isn’t to be an English teacher.

It’s not just me though. In Poland, the woman I shared a room with had flown there from Canada. Not a girl in her twenties, a woman with a house and grown children. She wasn’t paid, she didn’t get an exchange of a qualification. She just wanted to spend her time listening to these people who were in the process of trying to change their lives.

Which is what I enjoy about it.

Some of the participants in Poland were people whose work had paid for their place and encouraged them to partake but a significant proportion had paid for themselves. Public speaking is terrifying to most people anyway, and speaking a foreign language which you know you’re not fluent in to a group of strangers takes some incredible nerve. At the end of the week every participant gives a presentation in English. You don’t turn up for a week of English immersion just because your boss thought it was a good idea. You can’t learn a language if you aren’t willing to commit to it. It takes guts.

There are many reasons people want to learn English, that as a native English speaker we take for granted. International business demands it. Travel is easier with it. Sales wants it. Machine manuals and health and safety documentation are written in it. There was a determination from those fed up of struggling through meetings in English, or having to have information translated.These were people who wanted to make change happen. If you speak English, you can have more influence.

One woman I met worked in a Polish only role in the lower levels of a big international company. When the chief executive gave speeches and talked about the company in English, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what was going on. She cared.

Another oversaw implementing the health and safety requirements from a non-Polish parent company, and wanted to improve her English because she needed to convey Polish law and Polish health and safety requirements to the parent company in a manner which they could understand. Somehow she was going to make them listen.

And what about a grandmother learning to speak her grandchildren’s first language.

Or an office-worker who wanted to travel.

Or, one of my favourites, a woman training to be a coach. As the best textbooks on coaching are predominantly in English decided that she was going to learn to read them.

It’s an odd combination. You spend all day, everyday listening and talking. People open up.

Complete strangers sit and talk authentically and freely about anything on their mind: crumbling relationships, aspirations for their businesses, family, depression, death, neighbours, improvisational theatre, teenage drinking, moving to a foreign country, or the ordeal of having their son’s girlfriend to visit for the first time.

You learn more about a persons hopes and dreams in one week than you learn about many people you see regularly over years.

A Polish bedtime story

By Posted on Location: 1min read

I sit across the table from an older Polish man. He’s one of those people who stands out. There’s something beautifully genuine about him, but there’s also something unsettling in his haphazard coordination, jolting manner, frequent bursts of loud speech and the terrifying sincerity about his message. He’s one of those people who exhibit an odd unpredictability. He’s not quite aware of how he’s being interpreted, and is hurt easily because he doesn’t quite understand why people react the way they do. He’s difficult to converse with. If he started talking to you on the train, you’d feel uneasy.

He tells me about his life being full of sharp ups and downs, and he recommends the books and authors who gave him something to believe in when he wasn’t sure that he had anything at all. I listen, take notes and ask questions. Occasionally I correct his English.

And he shows me this video:

Poland in the fog (near Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains)

By Posted on Location: 1min read

Thursday afternoon and a free hour. My camera’s neglected, tucked amongst my belongings, under timetables, notebooks and scenario guides. I’m teaching English, constantly conversing and I’m exhausted. I’m scared because in only a few days I’ll be going home, and I have many things waiting for me when I get back which threaten to overwhelm me.

I contemplate sleep or reading. There’s a swimming pool downstairs, but I’ve only an hour.

Instead I pick up my camera and walk along the road to the church. Normally you can see the church from my bedroom window, but the fog here is too thick to see anything. Outside I follow the road. It’s straight and I can’t get lost. I watch for cars with a certain terror – ready to dive into the field should one come along because I know they’ll hit me before they see me.

The fog makes it impossible to focus. It’s not just the camera, but my eyes which relax then contract again and again, quite unhappily. I’m working hard just to see, struggling although I know resolving the far off street light or stone wall is impossible.

Poland: Navigating the public transport of Poznań

By Posted on Location: 4min read
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

Poland: Teaching non-native speakers business English

By Posted on Location: 2min read

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.

When you have no memory, but plenty of stories

The desolate unfairness of Half of a Yellow Sun makes for a cruel story. My naïvety of world history catches me out when I read such books.

It’s set in Nigeria and the short-lived Biafra. I’ve heard of Lagos, but I hadn’t heard of Biafra of the Igbo people, and I couldn’t have pointed out Nigeria on a map.  I had no awareness of the atrocities I was going to read when I started the book. Yet the book isn’t all dark depressing and horrible. It’s a story of people, families, children and love.

But the backdrop to these relationships is horrendous. Emotionally, I can’t comprehend such unfairness. My brain has been washed with a lukewarm ‘there are people starving in Africa’, but most of the time my world feels no larger than this one-bedroom house or the concrete office block where I work.

My closest understanding of Africa comes from my Egyptian friend, at college in America, my South-Africa colleague, applying for British citizenship, and my obsession with ancient history. To this Africa, I can relate. It’s educated and eats three meals a day, often with cake or biscuits. It looks familiar, barely any different from my world in my one-bedroom house and concrete office block.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun shook me up. I need shaking.

And I have a huge amount to learn. If you have any suggestion of stories that have touched you and educated you about this world that we don’t see, please share.

But with regard to Biafra and the characters of the story, I just let into my heart, there’s a small fact that particularly jars with me.

From Wikipedia, “Britain supplied amounts of heavy weapons and ammunition to the Nigerian side because of its desire to preserve the country it created. The Biafra side on the other hand found it difficult to purchase arms as the countries who supported it did not provide arms and ammunition. The heavy supply of weapons by Britain was the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the war.”

Estimates suggest 3 million people died from the fighting or the associated famine.


Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very different book. It’s not quite as tightly written as the Half of a Yellow Sun, but is definitely worth reading, especially, if like me your knowledge of recent history is sparse.

Again, I know the name Kabul from the newspapers, but in reality, I know nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I’m an independent and educated woman, so Mariam in the book is alien to me. Her learning consists of reciting some religious verses and cooking. Her life is held within a tiny, closed world whereas a woman her power is limited to a level that I simply cannot comprehend. The street outside changes around her: first by the Soviets, then by civil war, then the harsh rules of the Taliban, who in turn are pushed out by the Americans and the British declaring a war on terror.

Reading a story makes her street my street. Her family is my family. Her heartache is my heartache. But her humility isn’t my humility, it takes me a moment to accept that I can’t comprehend what it is she goes through, I don’t know I have that depth. I’ve never been pushed to my limits.


So, with this all churning in the back of my mind, my thoughts on remembrance day didn’t go along the lines of ‘I remember…’. They went along the lines of what do I need to plan to learn next. It’s a way of thinking that started in Poland, as I was walking through a stunning, beautiful city I became aware that where each modern building stood had once stood a street where men, women and children fought until death for an elusive freedom.

I went to the Warsaw Rising museum, and came out wondering why I knew nothing. I know nothing more than the British school curriculum. This doesn’t once mention the Warsaw Rising or the Biafran War or the many other catastrophes that I know nothing of. It says nothing of the soldiers who, as I was listening to the teacher regurgitate the textbook, were fighting and dying.

Too much coffee. Too much cake.

Burger Recipe. Poland, 2014

I’m sat in a café with a goat beanie baby drinking tea – it’s Assam as anything that remotely tastes of what I’d call normal (Yorkshire tea or Lapsang Souchong) isn’t sold this side of the channel.

My coffee limit has been reached. Not particularly today, I’ve had one cup, but in general over the last two weeks. Tea’s a lighter welcome refreshment.

The overdose of coffee is part of a bigger problem. My entire diet is a disaster.

It begins with breakfast. I don’t fancy meat and cheese first thing in the morning. When we stay in places that offer a complimentary breakfast I’m overwhelmed and just drink more coffee, sometimes orange juice and eat the fruit.

When there’s no breakfast options then a trip to the nearest bakery for croissants and coffee is in order, and I’m not sure that this rates positively on the healthy scale, even if it tastes good.

When we’re self-catering, i.e. a hostel with kitchen or an apartment, then cereal is an option. Of course we can’t carry a cereal box around with us, but cereal comes in minuscule boxes anyway. Small enough that between two of us we can finish a box in three days.

There is little variety in the cereal sold here. And I feel the basic normal cereals are the ones that are missing. If you want something that’s soaked in chocolate and has a picture of a cartoon astronaut you’ll be fine. If you want something with the most minimal number of calories you’ll also have no problem. If you want normal cereal you’re screwed.

We’re darting between city centres so corner shops replace the supermarkets (although there was an underground Aldi in Vienna), this accounts for the lack of shelf space, but mostly I think the problem is that cereal isn’t revered like it is in my house at home where it’s bought 15 boxes at a time.

Meals that aren’t breakfast come under one of three types:
1. Ones we cook or make. Pasta with vegetables or bread cheese and salami.
2. Ones we eat at restaurants. Pizza or local dishes like gnocchi, veal stew or goulash.
3. Cake or pastries.

Three meals a day can therefore look like: croissant, pizza, cake.

Of course we also have snacks. Sometimes cake, but there are also Spar’s budget cereal bars (the banana one really is very bananary), strawberry and cream flavoured sweets originally bought in Hungary and rather unappetising butter flavoured crisps.

We had chocolate but that lasted all of ten minutes.

What food do you miss when you’re away?