Last week was an eventful one for two reasons. Firstly, on October 31st, it was Halloween. Then, it was Wszytkich Świętych or All Saints Day on November 1st. Halloween is a very popular holiday in America. No-one gets off of work for the holiday and different people like it for different reasons. Children love it because they get to go trick-or-treating and wear costumes. Young Adults love it because they get to wear costumes, have parties, and drink a fair amount of alcohol. Some adults also like the holiday because it is fun for their children or they get in the 'holiday spirit' and decorate their homes and give out lots of candy. I did not miss Halloween very much this year. It was a fun topic for my lectures, but I certainly did not feel like I missed out that much. I guess I don't have much Halloween spirit. I did see some children going around Lębork on the night of Halloween in costumes so maybe it is getting more popular here in Poland. Whether this is good or bad I have no idea.
More interesting than Halloween was the day after or All Saints Day. This day started off very well because it was a day off of work. I enjoy my job, but a free day here and there is much appreciated. I knew that the custom here in Poland is to go the cementery and decorate the graves of your relatives with candles, flowers, and other such-things. Due to this I was hoping to see the cementery during the night of All Saints Day. Being the efficient thinker that I am I had a good thought as to how I should get to the cementery. I knew the cementery was a far distance away from the house, so I figured I would run to a park, work out a little bit, and then continue running on to the cementery. This was a good plan in theory. However, I did not account for two things: One was the rather large amount of people both at the cementery and walking there. Second was the fact that I was wearing shorts and a work-out shirt and I looked out of place with everyone else wearing pretty nice clothes. Despite my feeling a bit out of place due to my attire I pushed on and made it to the cementery. The candles and decorated graves were very very pretty. I stayed for only a little bit and then headed back to the house.
I was very impressed with the appearance of the cementery. I am sad that we don't have a similar tradition in America because I think that it is a nice way to honor and remember relatives who have passed on. However, I do believe that if we did have the same tradition of decorating our cementeries then it would turn into a competition and a fight. For example one person might try and have the biggest candle, or the most flowers, or the prettiest tombstone, and so on. So, the nice tradition of remembering your deceased might be turned into an all-out competition and the intentions of the holiday would be lost. So, I am personally sad that we don't have the same traditions for All Saints Day, but perhaps it is for the best.
I had the opportunity to take a day-trip to Gdańsk recently, and it was truly a wonderful decision. I did not have much of a plan as far as what I would do in Gdańsk, but I knew that the city is a big tourist destination and so I could figure something out. My trip started with me buying the train tickets to get to Gdańsk in Lębork. Even this was exciting and different for me, because I did not use the train company that I was accustomed to. For most of my travels in Poland I have been used to the train company; PKP or else PKP IC. However, when I bought my tickets for my trip to Gdańsk, I saw that the train would be through SKM. I was not familiar with this company and so promptly asked my boss what was going on. He told me that SKM runs the yellow and blue trains and that they were only a different company from PKP. This seemed like no big deal to me and I was just happy to have the ability to take a train to Gdańsk.
The actual day of my trip began with me waking up early, grabbing a hunk of bread for breakfast, and quickly walking to the train station. I am not proud to say that I did not leave myself much extra time. However, at the train station, I saw the yellow and blue train and knew that this must be the SKM train to Gdańsk. The train ride was uneventful, and my first glimpses of Gdańsk were amazing; The architecture, impressive buildings, grand churches, tourist shops, Mariacka street, and its gargoyle drains, and of course the statue of Neptune himself. All of this really blew me away, and I was immensely impressed with the city. After walking around and having a coffee, I decided it was time to go to the Europejskie Centrum Solidarności. First I stopped at the memorial to the fallen shipyard workers of 1970, and then I entered into the vast museum. My first reaction was 'wow.' The museum is huge and very well put-together. I bought my ticket, grabbed my audio guide, and took my first steps into the main exhibit. Little did I know that the museum would require so much time. I spent about five hours at the museum, and I enjoyed every second of it. I was very happy that I was able to see the plywood sheets with the 21 demands of the ship-yard strikers' written on them. These demands are one of the most important documents of the entire 20th century and being able to see them in person was an experience that I won't soon forget. Learning more about Lech Wałęsa was also very exciting for me. I consider him one of my personal heroes. What he and the leaders of Solidarność were able to accomplish is truly amazing. However, I find the story of Lech to be the most interesting because he was a regular person, just like you and me, that rose to accomplish earth-changing feats. It is not hard to think of a different history where Lech lived out his life as an electrician and did not fulfill the role that he did in the Solidarność movement. However, he stood up for what was right, and despite his humble beginnings he went on to do great things. Many times in our world it is easy to feel that nothing we ever do truly matters and that we are too small to change or make a difference in the events of the world. I see Lech as an example to us all that no matter where you come from or how small or unimportant you feel, if you do what you feel is right and just and stand for what you believe in then you can make a difference.
After my wonderful time at the Europejskie Centrum Solidarnośći I ate dinner at a Bar mleczny. I ate Tomato soup with noodles and naleśniki with mushrooms. After dinner, I went to a bar because I saw they had a Guinness sign. Now, I enjoy Polish beer quite a lot, but there is something about a Guinness on draft that makes it special. I ordered one Guinness and sat and nursed it for a while. After my tasty beer, I went back to the train station and found the SKM platform. The train ride back to Lębork was nice and relaxing, and I was back home and in bed all before 2300. As I went to sleep, I thought of the wonderful day I had, the taste of Guinness, and the accomplishments of Mr. Lech Wałęsa.
The next topic came to me from an interaction that I had with my boss's wife. She was showing me that she had a coat hook which I could hang up in the first floor of their home if I liked. She said that all I had to do was put a screw in the wall and the coat-hook would hang off of that. This led me to the question: what the heck is the wall made out of anyway? I know the walls of their home look very different than in America and are made from a different material. So, after a long discussion I figured out just what a wall is made of, what is behind the wall, and how houses are built. Due to this conversation I am now inspired to share more about the difference in building between what I am familiar with in America and what I have seen here in Lebork.
The first style of housing that I want to write about is the standard apartment building. I see these housing units all over Lebork and I must admit they are very practical. They seem to be able to house a lot of apartments or flats and this is very good for allowing more people to live in one building, while saving space at the same time. I believe there are many American cities that have similar buildings. New York City certainly has many such buildings and it is somewhat common to find the same block style apartment building in any major American city. So, it seems that apartment buildings or complexes are common the world over and there are many parellels between what is here in Lebork with what is in American cities.
While apartment buildings may be the same, there are some key differences between houses in Lebork and houses in my own region in America. The styles are much different. Most houses in my region have more sloping roofs and roofs made with shingles or metal sheets. They are also wider and not as tall as the houses here in Lebork. Another difference is that most homes in my region have basements or lower levels. These are floors of a building that go below the ground and it is very uncommon to not have one in my home region. Most are what we call 'not finished', which means that they are not a place that could be used for a living space but are instead a space where you can store things or have your washing machine and/or dryer. For example my Mother uses her basement for laundry and my Grandmother uses hers to house her furnace and firewood.
The way the buildings look are also much different. Most American homes have a thing that we call 'siding'. This is a thing that is put on the side of homes to help protect the material underneath. Most of the time it is made from plastic or metal, but sometimes it can be made of something more expensive. Siding is essentially a cheap way of covering up the structure of a house so that the weather does not damage this. I have noticed that most Polish houses are made of concrete or brick. There are American homes that are made from similar material, but if they are most do not have siding and one can see the layers of brick that make up the structure of the house. However, brick homes are more expensive so more common are homes that are made from wood. These homes are less expensive and have cheaper parts than brick homes. They are not entirely made from wood as the foundation is made from concrete, there is insulation in the walls, and the siding and roofing materials are made from plastic, metal, or rubber.
Regardless of what a house is made of there is always the problem of heating and cooling. In my region it is very common to have a wood stove. These can be small and in living areas so that they are more like a fireplace. They can also be large and in this case they usually go in a basement or outside but close to a home. My Grandmother has two wood stoves in her basement and my Uncle has a large heating sytsem connected to a woodstove outside of his home. If a house does not have wood stove then they have a heating system that is powered by gas. However, burning wood is very common in my region. In fact, my cousin and I sold firewood when we were young to make extra money. My uncle and my cousin are also quite crafty because they burn their garbage in the stove that heats their house. Of course this is not very good for the planet and it would be better if they recycled, but they have done this for years. My own family also burned their garbage for a time when I was young, and it was even one of the chores which I had to do. Now, we try and recycle more, but since most people live in the countryside there is not a great recycling or trash system in place.
Walking around the neighborhoods of Lebork I am happy to smell the wood-smoke in the air. It reminds me of my own home and there is something primal about using a wood fire to heat one's home. Maybe one day in the future humans will come up with some new super-effecient way to heat homes, but for now I appreciate and like the old traditional way of burning wood. As the saying goes, if it isn't broke then don't fix it!
I feel very fortunate to be in Poland right now. Everything has been going great. I have good students and am continuing to enjoy Lebork. I believe that I have been enjoying myself so much because of the great weather that we have been having. In English, we don't have a specific word or phrase for when Autumn or Fall is so nice but the Polish term 'Golden Fall' perfectly describes the current weather. The trees are just starting to turn color and the weather has been amazing. No rain, No clouds, nothing but sunshine and warm temperatures. I was worried that it would already be cold and snowy here, but this has not been the case at all.
I have been bragging to my family about the weather here because where I am from in America they have already had snow three times. My cousin has been very upset because he has to get up early and drive to work and when it snows he has to spend time cleaning it off of his car. He has sent me a few photos of him doing this and I have sent a few of me sitting on a park enjoying the sun in return, just to rub it in. I hope the weather continues, but I know it has to get cold sometime.
Besides enjoying the weather I have also been seeing the many billboards, banners, and advertisements that have been hung up throughout the city for the upcoming elections. This has been quite the phenomenon to witness. I like the banners for many reasons. Firstly, it is a good exposure for seeing many different Polish names other than Jan Kowalski, and I have enjoyed practicing the pronunciation of the more interesting ones. Secondly, it has been good to see the different political parties that are being represented in the elections. I know of some of the parties from following Polish news but there are some that I had not heard of before. Lastly, I have been getting a kick out of some of the photos that have been used for the billboards. Most of the photos are very nice and the candidates look very professional in them. However, there are a few that I can't help but laugh at because the photos just aren't that good. On some of the billboards, the photos look rather funny. Whether it be the candidates' facial expression or the general theme of the advertisement. Either way, I know it is not nice to poke fun at the hard-working local candidates, but I can't help but see some humor in the billboards. I have also been impressed by the lack of vandalism and defacing of the billboards. I know that in America if there were as many billboards and advertisements for elections that most would have fake mustaches, colored-in teeth, or some sort of other abuse put on them. Here in Lebork, it seems that the general population seems to be more refined or else the young people are more mature, I am not sure on either account, but either way the general respect given to the political advertisements is impressive. Best of luck to all the candidates running and may the billboards and advertisements stay up as long as they need be.
For my first weekend get away from Lebork I decided to explore a strange peninsula that I always found interesting on maps of Poland. This peninsula is the Hel peninsula and on maps of Poland it looks very skinny, almost to the point where if the Baltic sea level rose just slightly then the peninsula would turn into an island. The train ride looked like it was only going to take 2 or so hours to get there with one transfer, so I figured: 'why not?'
I booked my train tickets to get to Hel and back. I left Saturday morning very early and got to Hel at about 9 a.m. I checked-in to my small guest room, got a map of the town, and began exploring. Hel was a very nice town and reminded me of some seaside resorts that exist in America. At first I did not want to seeme like a 'stuipd tourist', but then I realized that just about everyone in the town was a stupid tourist so I might as well embrace it. I started with a walk around town and the pier. Then I went to the fokarium and watched the seals there as they performed tricks and received fish for when they performed well. After the fokarium it was straight to the Fisherman's museum for me. The museum exhibits were well made and I learned a lot about the fishing history of Hel and the surrounding region. After this I stopped for a coffee and Gofr.
Feeling refreshed from my snack and coffee I walked the 1 km out of town to see the museums about the defense of Hel and the peninsula during WWII. The museums were well made and I again learned a lot. There are many old battlements and artillery batteries in and around Hel and I saw a few of these throughout the day. It was about dinner time and since I was in Hel and near the sea I figured that fish was the obvious choice. I tried a very tasty fish soup and ate herring in the Kashubian style. After dinner I went to the very tip of the peninsula and watched the sunset there. Since, I was on vacation I thought a beer would be good. I went to a local restaurant and saw on the menu that they had a beer with cherries. This sounded good to me and I did not think much about it when I ordered it. However, the beer came out with a straw actualy cherries in the bottom of it. This was very different from what I thought it would be. You see, I had translated poorly from Polish to English because in English when we say a beer is 'with' something it usually means that the beer is brewed or made with that ingredient. So, I thought I was ordering a beer that would have cherry flavor, not actual cherries in it. However, I had already bought the beer so there was nothing left to do but drink it. Although I would not order it again, I must admit that the beer with cherries was not that bad.
Sunday morning came and I was anxious to get my day started. I saw the lighthouse in Hel, got a coffee, picked up some food for the day, and began my journey of walking along the peninsula. I planned to walk from Hel to Chalupy. I looked at this on the map and the distance said only 25 km. Now, I knew that 1 Km was less than one mile. So, I figured that it would be a nice walk and would not take me that long. I was wrong. The walk took all day, and although the scenery was nice I was very very happy when I finally reached Chalupy. Once there I only had about an hour before I had to catch my train. So I sat on the beach and looked out at the vast expanse of the Baltic Sea. I caught my train and was happy that I did not walk anymore during the day. After an uneventful train ride I was back in Lebork and happy that my exciting weekend was over. Hel was a great time and it certainly was no Hell, but walking 25 Km in one day was more of an undertaking than I thought it would be.
Lębork has proven to be quite an amazing town. Everyone who lives here says it is small and that there is not much to do, but I couldn't disagree more. Although, if I was asked about my small town I might say the same thing. (I am originally from a very small town that numbers about 1,500, so Lębork is not small to me at all!)
A few weeks into my stay here and I have already done so much in the town! The museum helped me to learn about Lębork through the ages and they even had a visiting exhibition from the National Museum about the movements of peoples across Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As a lover of History, I was very happy to see this. The Museum also provided me with an audio tour as I walked around town. Through this, I had the opportunity to learn about the original Medieval walls and towers of the city, the Town Hall, The Gothic style Post Office, the Old Brewery founded by a rich 18th Century merchant, and the Castle that was originally built by the Tuetonic Knights!
The Old Town and Town Square are also a spot I am coming to enjoy and there is something new that I had not noticed before at every turn. Other than the rich history I have been enjoying the food as well. The many bakeries and shops offer a wide variety of sweets and tasty breads. I treated myself to pizza for lunch one day, and of course I had it with ketchup as this seems to be popular in Poland.
I have also had an opportunity to explore the many markets of Lębork. There are many options for supermarkets, whether it be Biedronka, Tesco, Lidl, Kaufland, or some other small shops as well. I have concluded that Biedronka is a store that I will try and avoid. It is always so busy! I have also had the pleasure of meeting with many Polish Grandmothers while I have been testing the new stores. I am a fairly formidable opponent as I am tall and fairly fit, but I would not want to mess with any of the Older Women that I have seen. They have a certain attitude about them and they know their business, especially while they are shopping. They go into the store, do what they need to do, and don't care if anyone gets in their way. There have been a few times where I have been cut in line, or cut in front of while I was trying to see what I wanted from a shelf. The Older Women here wait for no man!, myself included. It has been fun to see how they carry themselves and I must doff my cap in respect as they have a feirce attitude that demands respect. I look forward to more adventures in Lębork and across Poland as I keep exploring more and more.
Born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan David was raised by his parents with his two sisters and brother.