Trip Start Sep 13, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Poland  , Baltic Coast,
Saturday, September 20, 2008

We left for Poland the morning of Saturday September 20th.  It was Dan, Eric, Mark, Dustin, Josh, Andrew, Bryan, Alonzo, and I who went.  We all met in front of the dorms at around 7 before we left for the train station.  Alonzo was a slow poke so we had to wait around for him (apparently some of the guys pulled an all-nighter, but instead of going to his room afterward to pack, Alonzo fell asleep).  After getting everyone together for the walk to the bus station we headed off with Boyan as our guide (he lives with Alonzo and was going to Chicago for a conference and needed to catch a train to Hamburg at the Haupbahnhauf like us). 

We got to the bus station on campus and paid our 2.10 Euro fee and were on our way.  We each had a backpack of clothing items and that was about it, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  We were actually quite lucky that Boyan was with us because he helped us figure out the train ticket information.  The ticket we needed was still on a regional train route which helped a lot with the price (Not to mention, each 25 Euro ticket was good for 5 people).  After we got the ticket business figured out, we just stood around in the train station waiting for time to pass.  The station and its waiting area were both open to the outside air (we had a roof, but not any walls) so it was a little chilly in there.  You wouldn't think that there would be anything exciting going on in a train station in northern Germany at eight in the morning, but low and behold, there were about twelve police in full riot gear waiting at the station along with us.  Apparently the local Luebeck foosball team was coming back from a game and it is customary for the police to have a full squad available at the station so that if the crowd that develops waiting for the team to arrive or the one that comes back on the train with them is a bit too rowdy, the necessary force will be on hand.  By the time we left for our train nothing had happened, but there were definitely a lot of people wearing the local green and white colors (not to mention the many sidelong glances that we got from the police as we were a large enough group to invoke worry ourselves). 

The commute to Poland was broken up in three parts due to some railway construction: we started with an hour train ride, followed by a forty minute bus ride, and then finally a four hour train ride.  This was about a hundred times better than Amtrak though, there weren't any delays, the bus ran without incident, it was comfortable, and we didn't have to make any unnecessary stops along the commute.  There was a little entertainment while on board too; in the back of the car that we were in, five young punks just couldn't stay out of trouble.  Every five minutes or so at least one of them made their way to the bathroom (we assumed it was to do a line of something) where they proceeded to blare their German punk music, they constantly talked loudly in the back amongst themselves, and apparently they aggravated some of the other passengers in the rear with them because when we stopped at one station along the way, three German police officers STORMED (I mean ran!) down the aisle and spoke with the kids for almost fifteen minutes as we travelled.  Their pep talk seemed to work for a while, but it wasn't enough, their bad behavior continued and finally there were about twelve police officers that stormed the train at a later stop.  Unfortunately for us, they were about thirty seconds late and the train took off with the police on board and the punk kids flicking them off from the platform as it flashed past.  The rest of the trip was just fine and we arrived in Szczecin at about 14:45 in the afternoon.

The platform was surprisingly busy, with young school kids, old people and peddlers alike.  Fortunately, a nice peddler spotted us, and when I say nice, I mean he wouldn't take no for an answer and insisted on taking us all the way from the train station to our Hostel.  The nine of us had gathered together as soon as we got off the train just long enough to make sure no one was still on board, but apparently that was all of the time he needed.  He came up to us assuming that we spoke German (I don't think German passers-by are too rare since the city is just inside the border) whereas we assumed that all he knew how to speak was German besides his Polish.  So we scrambled to find Bryan so he could figure out what this strange old man wanted from us.  But as soon as Bryan started trying to talk with him, the man turns to the rest of us and says in very broken English, "Don't worry, I speak English."  He then proceeded to ask us where we were from, where we were going, what we were doing in Poland, if we had a place to stay figured out, if we had Polish currency, if we needed help with our bags...the list goes on.  After he was content with our one word answers and awkward sidelong glances at each other he told us to follow him and he would point us in the direction of our Hostel.  This seemed sketchy enough as it was, but things went downhill from there.  After he got us off the platform and out of the big crowd he told us to just wait there for a minute, he then disappeared.  We were all trying to see where he went (for an old man he not only moved quite quickly, but he also blended in surprisingly well) and trying to take a straw poll as to whether we should try and run away right now or wait for him to come back.  We were all convinced that we were ready to run when the man popped back up right in front of us and told us to follow.  The skepticism amongst the group increased as we followed this strange man out of the train yard and onto the normal streets (when I say normal I mean that they were paved and had cars driving on them, but really they were as shabby and rundown as imaginable, not to mention all of the buildings were different shades of gray from what we assumed to be fifty plus years of soot.  The front of the buildings looked like they were all connected, just had different colors of paint to separate one from the next, but there were also archways about fifty meters apart that led behind the front façade of the building to a central courtyard), none of us were too keen on walking right behind him so there was about five meters of empty space between the man and the rest of our group.  Bryan and I were at the front of the group and both turned to look at each other and said "fuck that" in unison when we saw the man start j-walking across the street in the direction of one of these alleys that led to a courtyard that not only looked significantly more rundown than the next, but also had a group of guys, all about our age smoking, spitting, and looking as thuggish as a white Polish guy can look.  This is where the gap between the man and ourselves grew to about 10 meters as we all stopped on just the other side of the street that we just crossed.  The man noticed the lack of shuffling feet behind him or something because he turned around and motioned us all to follow as he continued to walk backwards.  We were all pretty ready to shake our heads no when the man took a sharp right, as if he could see out of the back of his head, and kept walking towards the tram stop a few meters in front of him.  We all breathed a partial sigh of relief and walked a little faster to catch back up to him.  He told us what we needed to do to get to the hostel from there which we assumed meant that he was going to leave us there and go back to the train yard or something, but instead of leaving after he told us where we needed to go, he just stood there.  We understood that we were supposed to get on the tram now, but none of us had any Polish currency, we told the man this but he didn't seem worried at all and just told us that he had tickets.  Bryan and I had every intention of walking to the hostel using the map that Eric printed out when he booked our stay at the hostel, but this man wouldn't hear of it.  We asked him several times if the tram was free but each time he answered us with a different version of, "I have tickets."  The rickety old tram arrived a few minutes later which was a bit surprising, judging by the look of it I would have expected it to have derailed at least once on its journey to the station.  We all got on board the already cram-packed car finding just enough standing room to hold us all.  The tram car bumped along showing us a mild glimpse at some of the surrounding city.  Things got a little brighter after we got further away from the train yard, buildings got a little cleaner, people looked a little friendlier, and there were even some grassy spots to be found.  I was standing a bit ahead of the rest of the group so Dustin had to work pretty hard to get to me, nudge me and tell me that we were getting off at the next stop.  So, at the next stop I got off, a few more of us got off, and then a bunch of people rushed to fill our places making it a bit tricky for the rest of us to get off.  Somehow we managed to all make it off, but this was when I learned that this stop was an attempt to lose the old man.  The doors were just about to close when he came jumping out of the car like a pro.  He was a bit frazzled due to the early departure, we were feeling a bit defeated, unable to outsmart an old Polish man and Mark was being distracted by two good looking Polish girls who were motioning him to follow them.  We laughed about it later that night; we ended up following a dirty grungy looking old man instead of two good looking locals...  Once the man got his bearings set straight he told us where we needed to go....and then showed us once again.  This time we were a little less apprehensive since we were in a much better looking part of the city and felt like he may actually be trying to help us instead of rob.  We followed him past the big town hall and threw a park (where he offered us "American cigarettes" about six different times not quite understanding what "no" meant.  We talk about it now and are fairly convinced that he knew just enough English to help with directions, offer cigarettes and ask for money.  Everyone got a little extra bounce in their step when we saw the sign for Hostelling International on one of the buildings up the street in front of us.  We made our way up the steps of a three story, cream colored building that looked like it was in surprisingly good condition (more than what I had expected anyway).  The receptionist started a new chapter to this story.

Somehow we managed to decipher that he didn't have our reservation between broken German, English, Polish, and Russian.  We tried to explain to him that we had already made a reservation and paid a six U.S. dollar reservation fee.  He was unable to honor the reservation and after a few phone calls, some more broken conversation and a lot of pencil erasing in his gigantic book, he told us that he had two four person rooms available for us (meaning that one person would have to sleep on the floor) for 108 each.   All of our jaws dropped to the floor after hearing this number.  It was then that we remembered that they don't use the Euro in Poland yet so we would be able to take advantage of the 3.5 to 1 exchange rate to pay for the rooms.  None of us had any Polish money yet so he told us to go exchange currency and when we returned the rooms would be ready for us.  It was at this point that we noticed the old man had still been waiting for us to finish in the hostel, great.  We went out to him and told him that everything was alright.  He then asked for money, as we had all been expecting.  We denied for a while until he said, "at least pay for the tram tickets that I gave you."  This seemed like a fair deal so we gave him four Euros and he was finally on his way...without us.  We hung around the hostel for a while looking at some of the signs around it (apparently we were 16000km from Canberra and 12000km from Washington D.C.) to make sure that we wouldn't run into him shortly down the road.  After a few minutes we started walking in the direction that the receptionist pointed us looking for somewhere to exchange our money.  We finally settled for an ATM in a corner bank.  The bank itself was of course closed, but the lobby was open and there was a normal ATM there.  The city itself is pretty drab looking.  All of the buildings were different shades of grays and cream with a few light blues and greens mixed in.  We had walked past a very large office building with radio towers and transmitters on the top, a few small shops, a bar and a few corner delis.  After we all pulled some money out of our accounts we noticed a building (I say building but really I mean a section of the wall of a building that looks different than the rest) that was bright pink and contained some of the first English words we had seen so far in Poland.  In big bold letters painted on the front of the building was "SEX SHOP."  We were all thoroughly amused and several of us took some pictures (as strange as it was, we used the SEX SHOP as a navigational landmark for the rest of the weekend since it was so easy to pick out amongst the rest of the buildings).

We made our way back to the hostel without any other problems, paid the receptionist and split up into two groups for the rooms.  Unfortunately, Bryan and I got stuck in the four person room with Josh and Andrew, woohoo.  As soon as we got our bed sheets (we had to pay 6 Zl each for them which amounts to about 2 dollars), made the beds, unpacked some of our bags (I left all of my clothes in the room, but put all my valuables in my pockets) and used the bathroom we met up with the other room and decided to go find a place to get some food (none of us had really eaten since 800 that morning and it was now pushing 1800.  We asked the receptionist again for a recommendation since we were looking for some good Polish cuisine.  He drew a dot on our map and said that the place was called Café Bar.  We decided it was good enough and headed back into the business part of town.  The café was a little hidden and took some time to find, but when we did it was worth it.  The inside of the place was quite nice, all the tables were polished wood, the bar was large and elaborate and there was a smiling face behind it.  Unfortunately the face didn't speak any German, Russian or English, but understood that we wanted to eat so she went and found someone who could speak some German.  Bryan ordered 9 orders of the same meal along with 7 Bosman beers and 2 cokes.  I got a vegetable soup along with my coleslaw and a main course of boiled potatoes, baked pork/chicken in a breading.  The food was ready in no time, tasted good and was reasonably priced.  The beer was cold which was a bit of a shocker since we were now used to the warm brews of Germany.  After we ate we were all pretty tired so we took a scenic route through town and found a huge mall.  This mall put MOA to shame and was full of young and old people alike.  We split up for a half hour to look around and buy some groceries at the Real inside the mall.  The mall had a food court, Movie Theater, a large atrium, and lots of stores.  We met back up, checked out some of the local girls (there were a lot of attractive girls in Poland, for a while we had been asking "why Poland" for a vacation location and now some of the group was quite assured that Poland had been the right choice) and decided to head back to the hostel.

After about 15 minutes back in the hostel with Josh and Andrew, I was ready to leave again.  I took a nonchalant poll to see what they wanted to do and for the most part, their response was "Kick off my shoes."  This was good news for me so I jumped on the opportunity and asked Bryan if he wanted to go for a walk.  He said sure and we said see you later to the other two.  I got out of the room and took a deep breath; we were now free from the extremely awkward people who could stand out as Americans in a crowd of Americans.  Bryan and I decided to see if any of the other guys wanted to go out (it was only 2100) and of course they did, well, all but Dan (he was content with chilling in the room).  So the six of us took off once again and headed back downtown.  The city was pretty quiet, apart from a few small bars and clubs.  We had walked past a club earlier, B-52, but it said it had a 10 Zl cover charge.  We decided to settle for a small bar that had a deck with tables, chairs and umbrellas set up (it was raining a little).  We couldn't even see the name of the bar, but decided that a cold beer and a chance to sit around and chat would be a nice closer for the evening.  After finding out that the barmen and women spoke English, we ordered a round of the Polish brew Tyskie and made our way back out to the table and chairs outside.  Right before all of us had found the bottom of our glasses, a large crowd of mixed company headed into our bar and headed directly downstairs.  We were intrigued, took a vote and decided to drink our next round downstairs.  There was still a 5 Zl cover charge for the basement, but it seemed like a small price to pay.  We got our beers and headed for the back room where there was some mood lighting, coffee tables and a bunch of couches.  This looked like a good enough spot (not to mention it made Bryan and Mark happy since it was right across the room from a table full of girls) so we sat down and began nursing our beers (this time Lech, another Polish brew).  The bumping and thumping techno coming from the other part of the basement was fairly well dampened so we were able to carry on a conversation without needing to scream the whole time.  We finished this round and decided that one more was in order (four Polish people sat down near us and two of them, a couple, could speak decent English).  We chatted with them through the third round and decided that 0030 was late enough for us, said our goodbyes and made our way towards the door.  We were almost up when we notice that Mark was DANCING WITH A GIRL! 

This was a big shock for all of us and we made the unanimous decision that we not only couldn't leave him there alone, but we also couldn't put a stop to his frolicking.  So...we all sat down and started chatting with the people around the bar area (there was a bar upstairs and one downstairs for the people who paid the cover charge).  Shortly after we all had acquired a spot to sit or stand or lean, a Polish kid about my age plops down on the couch next to me and say in the thickest Irish accent I have ever heard in real live "so, you boys here looking to start some trouble eh?"  I was caught off guard for a second and then quickly assured him that we didn't want any trouble and that if that was what Mark was making, I would go get him right now and we would leave.  He mumbled something, got up, whispered something in one of his friend's ear (or clan member's ear, we weren't really sure, but all of the guys in this one group were wearing blue jeans and a blue and white plaid button down), came back to me, sat down, and said "good thing we got that straightened out, didn't want to fight tonight anyway."  I gave him a confirming nod and we proceeded to talk about where I was from, where he was from, and each other's stories.  He eventually called some of his other friends over and we all chatted for a while.  After about a half hour most of their group took off leaving Mark, his girl and one of the girl's friends/bodyguards.  I figured that we were going to be there for a while so I ended up going back to where we were at the beginning of the night, with the four other Polish people.  We sat down back with them and noticed that the floor was really wet and there was a glass full of a broken glass.  We found out that one of the guys can't hold his liquor very well and he was now completely passed out after spilling/breaking 4 beers (two liters worth of beer).  The rest of them were feeling pretty well also.  We talked to them for another two and a half hours, I don't even know what we chatted about, and most of the topics were completely random.  We had them teach us a few Polish phrases, they wanted to know the translation of a few dirty English phases, and it ended with a good hearty handshake from each of them (including the intoxicated guy who was forcibly woken and hoisted out of the bar.  The one barman who came back to check on us was wearing an "Amateur Pornstar" shirt and the other bouncer came back and he had a messed up face with a mouth full of super crooked teeth.  He was a pretty big dude so we took that as a good hint to get out of there (not without taking a souvenir or two with me though).  Mark's girl and her friend were leaving in the same direction as us so we walked with them for a while and split up right after Mark gave the girl his number.  This was where the night ended for us, we got back to the hostel, broke off to go to our respective rooms.  The room Bryan and I were in had a set of bunk beds and a pull out couch wide enough for one and a half person, that's where Bryan and I had to sleep.  Luckily we were both really tired (it was 400) and went right to bed.

The morning came of no real consequence besides the fact that we had to be checked out of our two rooms by 1000 and into the next room, a 12 bed group room.  I was the first one up once again and didn't have any trouble getting the rest of them up, after a nice warm shower and plenty of time to get all of my stuff packed up.  We got out of our room, I went to check on the other room, got them roused, and we all moved into the next room.  All of the guys that I went out with the previous night were quite tuckered out so they all went right back to bed.  At this point I was wide awake so I went into the internet room, checked my emails, and decided to go for a walk.  I was able to sneak out before Josh and Andrew were able to find me.  I just went to see if I could find a good market that some of the other kids could get some breakfast food at (I had some breads and applesauce that I bought the night before so I was doing just fine myself).  After my walk I went back to the room, played a little solitaire, read some of my book and waited for the rest of the guys to wake up.  When they finally did we decided to go for a walk and see some of the sights that we didn't check on the previous day.  We walked through a big park, saw a statue of the Pope, the town hall, and some other interesting buildings.  We eventually decided to make our way back to the mall that we were at the day before and get some food.  We made our way to the food court of the mall and decided that a Pizza Hut would suffice.  This Pizza Hut was far different than anything we had ever seen in the states.  The restaurant had a fancy bar on the bottom level and another smaller bar on the top level.  Both had plenty of seating space, candles, full wine racks all over the place and of course, nice big pizzas for reasonable prices.  We all ate four pizzas and four pitches of lemonade for cheaper than we all ate at the bar the night previous.  The pizza hit the spot, and after that we didn't really know what else to do, so we walked around the mall some more, toured some more of the city, and called it an early night.  We went back to the hostel, played some card games, went on the internet a little more, chatted and turned in with our newest roommate, some random old dude who was in one of the beds in our room.  Some other dude came in at around 6 the next morning and woke me up.  I got up, ate some more applesauce, went to the internet room one last time, and packed all of my stuff.  We still had to be out of this room by 10 so we all got up, packed and got out of there.  For Monday we only had one thing left that we wanted to do, and that was to buy some Polish vodka.  We did this at the mall, some of the guys bought some ice cream and pastries and then we took off for the train station.  We took a nice scenic route to the train station (which was a good 45 minute walk).  We got to the train station bought found out that the Polish train station didn't have the nice automated ticket machines that there were in the station at Luebeck so Bryan and I began to scramble to figure out what we needed to do to get back "home."  None of the ticket agents knew our languages and we needed Polish currency.  This was our last chance to get rid of our currency so Bryan and I went back to see if any of the other guys had any Polish cash that they wanted to get rid of.  No one did, but Mark and Eric remembered that they had seen a ticket machine on the train on our way here.  This was what we were banking on so we just sat there and waited for the train to come.  We got onboard, found the machine, got our tickets, and enjoyed the rest of the ride back to Luebeck.
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