As we rush to the train, I also snag a shot of Blackland Metal Rock Pub with its black facade and large white skull on the roof. I’d seen it on our way into town and noted how much more intimidating metal feels emanating from Germany than it does from a suburban Philadelphia Hot Topic store.
What awaits us in Poland? How do you pronounce Wrocław?
The PolskiBus wi-fi is spotty, but the yerba mate is sparkling. Pan Ducale biscottis are a satisfactory road breakfast as we begin our three-hour drive east.
We roll out of Berlin and start seeing huge windmill farms every few miles. Then more trees. Then an Ausfahrt sign. Then more windmill farms. And so on. It starts to be like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon background in real life - just less colorful. The monotony is broken up occasionally by a huge McDonald’s sign leaping into the sky like a cross on a highway in the American South (or, for that matter, a McDonald’s sign in the American South).
At a certain point, I realize that “Ausfahrt” is not a city with a tremendous amount of exits on the A4. I could lie and say I realized this quickly, but I don’t like lying.
We stop at a huge yet seemingly unoccupied gas station near the Polish border and several police get on-board. We are on the upper level of the bus, but we can hear that, as they enter below, they are shouting, “MCGARVEY!! MCGARVEY! Where is this CRAIG S. MCGARVEY?!?” I begin my deep breathing exercises at this point, telling myself that my fake passport is of very high quality, the contraband is very well-disguised, and that my contact on the other side of the border crossing has almost certainly paid off the correct government officials. I ask my girlfriend to repeat my alias to me several times and she does. “Biff Scrimmage. You are Biff Scrimmage from Wales. You are traveling to Poland to participate in cultural events with your friends from university. And your name, indeed, is Biff Scrimmage.”
But my anxiety gets the better of me. I try to make a break for it. I take a brick I found in the dumpster at the Berlin airport and I began bashing in the window next to my seat. But it won’t so much as dent! By now, the authorities hear all the commotion and they race up the stairs. I am fully panicked and I start operating on instinct. I begin tossing biscottis at them and splashing yerba mate into their faces. They reach for their guns but one of them yells something in Polish.
The man behind me translated: “Yo, these biscottis are fuckin’ sweet, bro! Let’s just take the rest of the day off and enjoy these tasty-ass jawns! Shit! All we ever do is work, broski!”
OK, maybe I do like lying. Fiction writing is fun! The police WERE there, though, and they did check our passports. Some people were, indeed, pulled off the bus for unknown reasons, including the woman sitting across from us. She entered the gas station and returned with some documents that seemed to pacify the officials. We later found that this border stop was unusual and possibly related to the crisis in Syria.
After a short while, we were back on the road. The rapidly deteriorating road. It was that same repeating Hanna-Barbera background as we crossed into Poland, but somehow the driving experience had gone from a fresh LP on the turntable to a warped thrift store 45 on a children’s record player.
We are greeted at the bus station by Neo. He takes us to his home, the second graffiti-covered building we’ve lived in this week. He offers us some house slippers and begins preparing a fresh fruit-and-vegetable smoothie for us. Before long, the first of many home-cooked meals appears in front of us. It quickly becomes clear that, in this phase of the trip, we will trade spaciousness and privacy for deeper immersion into the local community - and that it will be worth it.
Still early in the day, we get back out downtown and look for Daniela, Neo’s girlfriend. We are told she will be wearing a coat that is a little bit like the orange coat that Kenny from South Park wears.
We walk toward St. Elizabeth’s Church and I fall quickly in love with its Gothic architecture and unusual stained glass window designs. Not wishing to disturb all the people praying, I resist the urge to sing loudly in the beautiful, fourteenth century church, but not the urge to walk up the 300-foot tower for a bird’s eye view of my new temporary hometown.
My new friends and my girlfriend follow me up, but we all find ourselves winded by roughly the 200th foot. High on adrenaline and motivated by the drive to see everything I can see, I continue my ascent.
The view from the top of the tower turns out to be as breathtaking as I’d hoped. As I loop around it with my camera, Neo points out landmarks and gives us a sense of what this city has to offer us. The colors of the gorgeous Market Square, the out-of-place but impressively large Sky Tower (Poland’s biggest building), the university, the river, the factory area.
Neo borrows my black marker and wrote all of our names at the top of the tower, sealing them in a cartoon heart. It is Graffiti Official - we are in Poland!
On the way down, I photograph city scenes obscured by mesh wire and reassure some fellow American travelers, on their way up, that they don’t have far to go. That wasn’t necessarily true. But it sounds nice.
Back on the street, we head over to a cafe called Kawiarnia Literatka. Just like the German cafes we’d visited, there is a sense that we could stayed there for five hours without getting in anyone’s way. A feeling that everyone was getting done what needed to be done, yet nobody was busy. I sit with my espresso and try to slow my travel-crazed mind down enough to be present in this new place with these new friends and new accents. I am successful.
I resist the urge to spend my entire trip taking photos, but take mental notes to photograph things such as the mural of a pig with red boots playing a concertina. The home with dwarves and Shrek characters fastened above and beside the front door. The many dwarf statues we passed on the sidewalk (turns out there are over four hundred).
After all the traveling and poor sleeping, the prospect of doing anything that night other than staring slack-jawed at a movie sounded horrific, but, on the other hand, why travel 4,200 miles just to say no to stuff?! I know that a night of music and vodka at Bohema Bar & Music Club with my new friends would eventually seem like a stellar idea.
Which, of course, it immediately does. My first Polish vodka of the trip. Tyskie beer. It seems everyone in this cave-like club knows someone from our group of friends. The artwork and sculptures are delightfully profane and become more and more graphic the closer you get to the men’s room stall. (The men’s room that my girlfriend and I briefly shared as it is, evidently, the only working bathroom.)
Our new friend George is tearing it up with his musician friends in front of one of the creepiest clown murals I’ve ever seen. At one point, I notice that my beer buzz was fading; Neo slides a shot glass in front of me as if he hears what I was thinking.
After midnight, Youri and his girlfriend stop at what turns out to be a very popular KFC - two floors, drunk locals everywhere, and both a large security guard and a dwarf statue observing everyone closely.
Day Six - First time I’ve ever woken up in Eastern Europe. I am sitting on a couch with Nicky at Neo's house. He lives with his Macedonian girlfriend Dani, his friend George from the U.S.A. and France, and their friend Youri from France. His girlfriend Jagoda has been around, as well; she is the only actual Polish person among us.
They are feeding us great. Homemade meatballs and fries tonight. For lunch, we went out to a cozy pizza place and ordered three pies, six different varieties of toppings spread out on each half. It was at this restaurant, on our second day in Poland, that we inexplicably heard “Johnny B. Goode” a THIRD TIME.
Nicky and I hit the streets. My Nikon and I are on the lookout for murals and odd things, i.e. the sculpture of a life-size alligator being lifted into the air by a small red balloon.
A friend of a friend suggests we go to Hydropolis, “the water museum.” Neo kindly accompanies us on this slightly lengthy journey to the museum that, as the web site states, is “a place for those thirsty for knowledge!” Get it?
Back home, it’s common to see an elderly woman sitting on an overturned Wal-Mart shopping cart while waiting for a SEPTA bus. Both Berlin’s and Wrocław's public transit puts the U.S.A.’s to shame.
Later, we are asked if we want to hang out in a swanky bachelor’s pad occupied by an ex-Canadian military man with a very large TV. Yes, we do. We are told there is a chance of board games emerging and in our slightly sleep-deprived states, we say quiet prayers to the travel gods that they won’t.
The bad news is that the board games DID emerge and, in my sleepy absentmindedness, I managed to mess up one of my moves and briefly become the laughing stock of the party. The good news is that we got to watch the Redman episode of MTV Cribs on the very large TV while drinking expensive booze. I could call the night a wash, but the sheer weirdness of being in some stranger’s apartment halfway around the globe, drinking his whiskey, reading his books, and watching his TV means that we won the night. If not the board game.