The importance of the historical relationship between Lithuania and Poland is immense. For over two hundred years the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed a dual state. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth reached its largest territorial extent, in the early 17th century. The state had a common ruler, who was both King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
Those days are long gone. Yet, plenty of cultural heritage sites remain on both sides of the border. In 2004 both countries joined the European Union. Since then, traveling to Poland became easy. As easy as visiting your grandmother in another village on a pension day. If your financial life is highly dependant on your granny’s big heart then you most likely know what I mean.
Poland happened to be the first country on the way to Asia. The feeling of ‘what have we done’ kicked in only after reaching the outskirts of Warsaw. We tried to convince ourselves there was no way back. Only forward.
PATIENCE - ATTRIBUTE THAT HAD TO BE DEVELOPED
The first thing we had to master was the art of hitchhiking. Easier said than done I must say. First of all, we decided to start in the usual way. As some wise people once said, sticking your thumb and waiting is all you have to do. Are they sure about that?
It didn’t take long to realize that hitching is the sport of the patient. Patience was an attribute we needed to develop. There was one time when it took 6 long hours for someone to stop.
“You are the weak link of this team,” Kamile declared without a tiny bit of doubt in her tone. “They are afraid of your convict-style haircut. You look like a criminal.”
Eureka! Do you remember the story of a falling apple that prompted Isaac Newton to come up with the law of gravity? My girlfriend’s words must have triggered some long-forgotten parts of my brain. As a result, it gave birth to an idea.
UNUSUAL HITCHHIKING STRATEGY
“I will hide behind the tree so they think you are alone! Once they stop, I will come quickly, before they realize what happened!”
Imagine a young blond girl with blue eyes, standing there with a white teddy bear. To be fair, it was completely ineffective against ladies. Their sense of intuition was out of this world. Luckily, it turned out that men were much easier to manipulate. While some of them rushed out as soon as they noticed me coming, 7 times out of 10 the new tactic worked fine.
By the end of the second day, Kamile and I reached Krakow. It seemed like a perfect time for a snack. One of many Krakow’s bus stops served as shelter while we enjoyed the last bits of homemade food.
Suddenly, a serious-looking officer popped out of nowhere. He stared at my backpack for a minute or two. Eventually, he decided we must be some awkward kids rather than homeless strollers. The officer walked away without saying anything.
REACHING POLAND'S SECOND LARGEST CITY
It was mid-July. The time of long days and short nights. Despite the fact we had a few hours till the sunset, it seemed wise to reach the Hostel as soon as possible. Our stay at the City Hostel was prepaid by my parents. Knowing we are safe at least that one night was all they wanted.
Once most of our belongings found shelter in a tiny hostel room, we headed to the old town. The old town of Krakow and districts surrounding it are well known for their beauty. Reaching the Main Market Square took only 10 minutes.
It’s a well-known fact that the Krakow’s Main Market square is the largest remaining Medieval plaza in Europe. 40,000 square meters was more than enough for the significant population of pigeons to roam freely. After a long day on the road, watching these fellows trying to find bread crumbs and love felt kind of relaxing.
“You know, I had a hobby of breeding pigeons when I was a child. Homing pigeons made up most of my flock.” I confessed. Kamile looked more than surprised. “Some say these creatures might be the earliest domesticated birds in the world.”
WHY PIGEONS ARE LIKE POLITICIANS
The majority of Krakow’s population hates pigeons for pooping on balconies and stealing food. Even though it’s forbidden to feed ‘em, senior citizens didn’t seem to care. One grey-bearded gentleman with a light brown checkered suit noticed us staring.
“These poor birds are like politicians,” he said. “Why is that?” we asked curiously. “As long as they’re at our level, they’ll eat out of our hands. But as soon as they get to the top, they poop on us without any shame.”
Slovakian-Polish frontier runs along the summits of the so-called Tatra mountains. It’s the highest range of the Central Carpathians. Wast number of its hiking and trekking trails. attract hordes of adventure seekers every single year.
For example, the town of Zakopane has around 30,000 permanent inhabitants. It sounds like a joke in comparison with the 1,500,000 yearly visitors. Little did we know about all the pleasant adventures that waited for us in the land of pitched roofs and wooden churches.
ASIA MIGHT BE OVERWHELMING
It was time to say Goodbye to Wiesław, a middle-aged workwear sales agent who kindly gave us a lift. The ride from Krakow to Zakopane took less than two hours. It was more than enough to get to feel the connection between us and this wise and mature man.
“Please consider staying in Europe. Italy, Spain, and Portugal are relatively safe and have a lot to offer,” he couldn’t hide the worry. “Asia might be overwhelming for such unseasoned hitchhikers. Anyway, you are young and strong. I have a feeling you will be OK.”
We stood on the roadside and watched his car turning into a tiny dot until it disappeared behind the horizon.
“Speaking of being strong, my belly is already touching my spine!” I started moaning like a starving bear.
GOBBLING THREE MEALS PER DAY
Before the journey, both of us had a habit of gobbling three meals per day and having snacks in between. It turned out that the so-called modern eating pattern had a considerable dark side. Once Kamile and I got out of this daily routine, our bodies didn’t know how to cope. It took a few days to adjust to a more improvised schedule. Once we did, such cravings became pretty rare.
Most of the township was located in a valley. Setting up a camp far away from the residential area sounded like a wise decision. Once our tent got its true form, we were finally ready to enjoy the long-awaited oatmeal, two cans of red kidney beans and a giant loaf of fluffiest white bread possible. Kamile could not believe how large my appetite was.
“Wow! You ate a lot of oats!” she remarked with a waggish smile on her face. “If I were you, I’d be ashamed to look in the eye of a horse!”
The night was soundless. Both the settlement and peaks of Tatra were in sight as we left the entrance open. The clear summer sky and infinite shining stars contributed to the setting. It was one of those moments when it seems like the less you own the richer you are. It felt like we were not alone. All the invisible forces of Mother Earth were guiding and protecting us.
“Shhh… Do you hear it?” Kamile drew my attention once an oncoming dog bark broke the silence.
Once we got out of the tent I couldn’t believe my eyes. The herd of several hundred sheep was passing by our green little tent. At the same time, four or five shepherd dogs assured their steady pace. In a split of a second, a mysterious man popped out of nowhere. White loose shirt tucked into brown faded trousers was the first thing that I noticed.
“This might be his property” - I whispered.
GUESTS IN SOMEONE'S PROPERTY
Once the gentleman came closer, I was finally able to see his face. The middle-aged man took off his hat and dropped down the stalk of grass that he was holding in his fingers. It turned out he was curious to know who we were and what we were doing in his precious pasture.
A mix of Lithuanian, English, and hand gestures were used to describe the situation. A pause of silence was the only thing we got in return. For some time it looked like someone may have to collect all the toys and leave. We couldn’t be more wrong.
“You are welcome to stay as long as you want,” a good-natured smile lit upon the man’s face and he started laughing.
EXPERIENCE LONG FORGOTTEN
Who would have guessed everything might turn out so well? The host took us to his farm and arranged a guided tour. Being able to wash our faces and replenish the water supplies felt like salvation.
Hand gestures made up most of our dialogue as the language barrier was way too high. People who live in Zakopane and the small area surrounding it are quite proud of their accent. It is truly unique. Even those who don’t speak Polish may notice some subtle peculiarities.
Early in the morning, I was awakened by the song of a local rooster. The last time this happened was 20 years ago when I was staying at my Grandpa’s. He lived in a rural area, pretty similar to this one. All the elders in that neighborhood kept at least a chicken or two. Like everywhere else in the Western world this tradition is now long bygone.
“Marvelous…” I thought. “This trip is like a time machine.”
GOD'S MYSTERIOUS WAYS
“I had a terrible dream,” - Kamile relentlessly despised my reflections. “In my dream, it seemed wise to have the last haircut, as I wasn’t going to see my favorite hairdresser for several months. I guess the crazy old lady decided to make an evil joke. What she did to my hair was horrible. Long story short, she took her hair clippers, the ones that are used to make convict-style haircuts like yours, and made a straight line from the forehead to the neck…”
My girlfriend’s story reminded me of an episode from the TV series “Mr. Bean”. The main character held the fort for his hairdresser and gave several customers terrible haircuts. The funny thing is I recall Kamile saying that my Mr. Bean’s kind of humor was one of the reasons she got interested in me in the first place. If that’s true, it is safe to say that Mr. Atkinson’s influence on me was one of the key factors that allowed this journey to happen in the first place. This is what I call God’s mysterious ways.
MEANING OF 'FIAT'
“Do you know what’s the meaning of the inscription on our host’s vehicle?” I pointed at the old relic our new friend drove with pride.
“FIAT is the brand of the tractor, but I am not sure what’s the meaning of it” - Kamile replied.
“It means ‘Fix It Again Tomorrow’” I explained while trying to hide the smug face expression which pops every time I have something silly to say. It’s unfortunate but it turned out that I was the only one who found it funny. Luckily, my self-esteem is hard to hurt…
Two aliens staring at him must have drawn the farmer’s attention. He waved at us while holding a piece of bread in his hand. A brilliant thought hit me like a bullet flying at the speed of light.
“He is inviting us to have some breakfast!”
It turned out the farmer was not alone. He asked his friend Jacob to join. We called him “the local intellectual” as he knew quite a few English words and phrases. Most likely learned them while living and working in Scotland.
During that time he was mostly entrusted with the duties of construction site auxiliary worker. Even so, he claimed to have many other talents too. Excessive consumption of homemade alcoholic beverages and successful communication with middle-aged ladies were only some of them. One thing is for sure, he was a hilarious interlocutor.
After breakfast, Kamile decided to explore the farm. Her goal was to say hello to every single one of the farm animals she could find. At the same time, I kept chatting with our Polish friends and tasting homemade goat cheese. As my uncle says, you never know when is the next time you may get something to eat.
Once Kamile went out of sight, they bring a wooden bowl full of whey and encouraged me to drink it all.
“Drink one - up one night. Drink two - Up two nights” - repeated Jacob until the last drop disappeared in the abyss of my belly. It seemed like the broad smile on Jacob’s face will tear it apart. Up to this day, I have no idea what exactly he had in mind.
All good things come to an end. It was time to express sincere gratitude and say Goodbye. Next destination - Slovakia.