Here’s a short piece I wrote for the Irish Times amateur travel writer competition recently. We’d just come back from Poland, so it seemed like a good idea to write about that.
Only a few hours of daylight were left to us – Maciej and his wife and two kids; me and mine – as we set off into the countryside for the start of a week-long tour of Pomerania, in northern Poland. Within ten minutes we had cleared the suburbs of Kołobrzeg, the large resort town on the Baltic coast in which we’d spent the last week as guests of Maciej and his young family. Everyone was glad to be on the road at last, and the crack was good on board.
“Stork! In the field – look!” said Janek, Maciej’s ten-year old son. A lone black and white individual stood motionless in a field of cut wheat, like a scarecrow put there to warn off lesser birds. Wind turbines – evidence of Poland’s attempt to wean itself off coal – spread away to the south. Passing through a village, we strained to look up out of the frame of the Volkswagen transporter van to see the huge storks’ nests atop telegraph poles. We were heading away from the setting sun, our destination a campsite some fifty kilometres away in the lake district he and his wife Ewa had scouted out online.
“This is the real Polish camping, yes?” Maciej said, over the noise of the van.
“How do you mean?” I shouted.
“No toilets, no showers. But we stop to get pivo, yes?” he said, looking back at me, smiling and angling his head slightly, making the chopping action on his neck with his hand that meant there’d be drinking.
“Great!” I said. The truth was, however, in our rush to avail of his offer on the HelpExchange website we’d met him on, an offer to accommodate us and drive us around a part of the world we otherwise wouldn’t have thought to visit, Tina and I may have – how to put this? – overstated our enthusiasm for camping; camping of any stripe, never mind sans facilities. And now a week of crapping au naturel loomed. Even through his shades, Maciej could see into my soul in his rear-view mirror.
“Come on you Irish pussy, don’t embarrass your wife.”
“No, no. It sounds great. Hey kids, you looking forward to some real camping?”
Alexander and Eoin mumbled their assent, but they were clearly already suffering the early stages of Minecraft withdrawal.
In the event, that first night was spartan alright, but rewarding. The contagious enthusiasm of our new friends, this Polish secondary school teacher and his family, carried us tyros along on a wave of self-sufficiency and sheer horse sense. We’d lit a fire, and Maciej got out the button accordion. In the morning’s clarity, we could see the field we were in was only fifty yards from a lake, fished already by enterprising early risers. I felt like shouting to them and waving: “Hey! Beautiful morning!”
That whole glorious August week – “the summer of the century”, as Maciej called it – was one of blue skies and starry nights. After cooling off in a lake in the middle of the forest, he’d play polkas around the fire, attracting fellow campers (often with tributes of beer), and I’d strum the guitar.
At our apogee, we got to within ten kilometres of the Russian border at Kaliningrad. On another occasion we spent the morning at Malbork Castle, once the largest in the world. And near the end we had a break by staying in a hostel in Gdansk.
“Ah Ralphy, you’re a good bloke.” Maciej said in his slavic brogue as we sat outside the ugly hostel building in the darkness, drinking. “I’m glad you came.” I was glad I came, too.