Szczecin, part 1

posted 4 May 2005

Written 24 April 2005, ca. 11:30 p.m.

Well, some days go more smoothly than others. Olek picked us up as planned at 7:00 a.m., and after a brief hooferaw over check-out (since we had checked with them the night before and been assured everything was squared away, they had lost part of the paperwork, but they found it again), we set off for Szczecin, a five-hour drive away. The plan was to stop at a World Heritage national park on the way for a two-hour round-trip hike to look at the migrating dunes, and Olek brought along a colleague who was also interested in seeing the park. We'd been promised sun and warmer temperatures, but when we got there, it was very cold and beginning to rain. In addition, the park's seasonal tourist services, including the electric cars that ferry hikers to the trailhead, had opened as scheduled at the beginning of April but had closed again the weather was so bad that nobody showed up to use them. They'll be open again next week, but today, the hike would have been three hours because of the extra time needed just to get to the trailhead. Because we couldn't be sure the rain wouldn't get worse we opted instead for the half-hour round trip to the Baltic Sea shore (the walk to the dunes is so much longer because you have to walk a long ways lengthwise of the barrier island to get to them). As it happened, the rain stopped, and the walk through the old forested dunes to the shore was beautiful, but it was still pretty cold, and we had to carry our computers with us (because it wasn't safe to leave them in the car in the deserted parking lot). When we reloaded everything to resume the trip, the tripod shifted position, and closing the hatchback snapped one of its legs off. Drat.

The driving was much like it was in the U.S. before the advent of the interstate highways—10 miles of high speed, then slow down for a village, then speed up again, and repeat ad infinitum. It was mostly wide two-lane black-top with narrow breakdown lanes on both sides, but the Poles made it function almost like a four-lane highway. They cheerfully overtook vehicles in front of them in the face of oncoming traffic, and sometimes oncoming traffic in which someone was also overtaking! Vehicles being overtaken and those coming the other way were expected to pull partway into the breakdown lanes to make room, and more than once we found ourselves four abreast as we overtook the car ahead while someone coming the other way did the same!

We stopped at a rustic roadside place for lunch that featured wild game, mostly venison and wild boar. I settled for chicken livers with apples and onions, and David had pierogi filled with potatoes, cheese, and herbs. Olek let me taste his "flaki," a peppery tripe soup that engenders mixed reactions even among Poles, largely because of its name, which I'm told is explicit and far from euphemistic. We both started with a rye-meal-based white borscht with sliced sausage and quartered hard-boiled eggs in it. Excellent.

On the outskirts of Szczecin, we pulled into a lay-by next to a particular freeway exit well known as a smuggler's haven, which had been chosen as our rendez-vous with Teresa's department chairman (who came to pick us up because Teresa can't drive with her broken wrist). He was late, so we got to watch quite a large number of transactions between Germans driving home toward the border (10 km away) and a guy with a station-wagon load of cigarettes at the low (lightly taxed) Polish price. One crew headed the other way even parked their semi and crossed four lanes of freeway traffic to pick up a few cartons.

Once our ride arrived, we transferred all our luggage to his car, and Olek and his colleague headed back to Gdynia while we were ferried to our hotel, where Teresa was waiting for us. She spent the rest of the afternoon giving us a tour of downtown Szczecin and taking us out to dinner. Now we're back at our hotel, a beautiful old wooden house on Wielkopolska St., right next to the university. Unfortunately, the hotel has rented out its ballroom for a christening party that involves a lot of loud music, an even louder DJ, and flashing and spinning multicolored disco lights. The repertory seems to alternate between American rock and boistrous Polish "funky-chicken" style numbers. At one point, the DJ turned the microphone over to a delighted toddler, who made the most of it for a quarter of an hour or so. They promised to turn off the loud music at 9:30 p.m., and they did—for about 15 minutes. When I went down to reception at 10:00 p.m. and asked (shouting over the din) when the music would stop, I was told 11:00 p.m., but in fact it has just now stopped at 11:20 p.m. I had thought that the party must be going strong, because I could hear shouting, whistling, stomping, etc., but from the reception desk, it became clear that most of the party sounds were actually part of the music—the room I could see into was empty except for the DJ and his flashing lights. (I'm pretty sure the occasional off-key singing along was live, though.) The final number included not just whistling, shouting, stamping, clapping, and singing but gunfire and the neighing of horses, clearly the climax of the evening.

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