16th July

At ease by now with the navigation we head out on the road from Poznan. Although we’ve been in Poland for some weeks now – more time spent than in any other country – we’ve flown solo for only one or two of those days

There’s a safety being around people, in cities or other populous places. The infrastructure is there, access to the essential materials of life is easy: food, healthcare, protection and shelter. As much as crime rates increase in cities, we are on the whole safer when we cluster – it’s why we do it. But I yearn for solitude and nature and control of my own path without worrying about its impact on others. This conflict is something I’ve never quite been able to resolve within me. With the release that comes upon following my heart, that small voice of anxiety that I won’t be enough to take care of myself, always comes knocking insistently at my contentment. The only answer I’ve come up with after a lifetime of turning the problem over is that I want more than to survive, I want to challenge myself, to light my soul afire with living – this means I must carry the anxiety. Like a mosquito buzzing around my face, it causes me frustration, it may cause me pain and discomfort but there’s little I can do about it if I insist on sharing the same space with it. As simple as it may sound, this surrender took me many years to learn and still I practice it every day. In a world that tells us we can control everything, the art of surrender takes frequent and careful practice.

I route us off the main roads onto country tracks. We’ve been deprived of the wind in our face for a couple of weeks now and we’re both keen to make the most of it. We’re not disappointed. I can’t get enough of this country. It seems, to an outsider, to have the perfect balance of modernity and old world charm. The tiny house concept is very much in effect here, so much so that it can barely be called a concept. Small footprint, square bungalows with steep pitched high rooves and plenty of land around. Brilliant blooms in the gardens, sometimes chickens or ducks too. Tiny shops with men sat outside minding a child who stops to gape as we pass, sometimes a wave. Old men walking on the grass verge stop to turn, grinning as we go. Youths killing time take a second look. A slower way of life. No-one seems too busy or pre-occupied for curiosity or friendliness as they share fleeting moments with us. It fills me up and mirrors my frame of mind. I have nothing else to do but soak it all up.

We stop to fill up at a garage run by a family who are all present. As we take a coffee and a bite to eat locals stop to chatter with them. It gives a nice feel to the place. They’re friendly and my attempt at Polish is rewarded with equal effort in English. It amuses me how often I find myself inexpertly speaking another language while the recipient inexpertly speaks my own tongue back at me. The facts of it sound ridiculous. But the abstract experience, which is no less real, is closer to sublime. A mutual effort spent willingly for the sake of a stranger, simultaneously confers respect, humility, willingness and connection. In this disconnected world where we each struggle to assert our individual identity I think these simple, fleeting interactions contain what many of us crave, often without even realising its lack.

Not for the first time we reach a diversion in a town. The direction we need is shut off totally and we’ll need to loop around. The diversion isn’t too explicit so we pick a road by chance. It quickly narrows and then the tarmac disappears as we head out into fields towards forest. We’re not sure if it goes anywhere. Potholes increase in frequency until there’s more pothole than road, most filled with water and rocks. The bikes are built for this but still I hesitate and it takes me moment or two to remember it and begin to relax. Mickey sees my hesitancy and takes the lead – better. “Come on!” he hoots from in front grin beaming, “you’ve done this before, you’re better than this!” His enthusiasm is infectious as is his belief in me and I drag my head from the future and its buckled wheels, broken coils and root it firmly back to the present.

Up ahead we see a car struggling with the potholes – at least the road goes somewhere then, no-one would take a Golf down here without a destination! The road heads into the forest and as quickly as it degraded the tarmac is back again, winding through villages a few houses big and populated by locals who look like they’ve never seen a motorbike before, let alone motorcycle travellers.

It’s getting on a bit, the late start and the getting lost in the riding means we’ve not made massive ground today but that’s OK, it’s not what it’s about. The enjoyment and freedom of the day is priceless to me and has been worth every second. Mickey spots a sign for a hotel, the first in while, so we jump on it even if it is mainly child-populated and on the outskirts of a town that we never really found the centre of.

Later we go hunting for food. The only place we’ve seen so far had a table of twenty children in it. Despite several other empty tables the waitress didn’t seem overly welcoming when we asked if she could accommodate a table for two, looking around the restaurant with an expression that said the answer was self-evident and telling us to come back in 50 mins in a tone that suggested she thought we were simple. As hungry as we are we decline the offer and head off again, settling on the only other place we can find, a sports bar that serves food at the counter. To our delight, it’s cheap with a solid Polish menu. Ordering shouldn’t be a problem, I think naively! The young girl behind the counter wasn’t well equipped to deal with my lack of Polish. I’d hoped that simply going up and giving her the names of two dishes and then saying two beers in Polish would get me through it easily but she needed questions on the dishes answered. Questions that I have no way of understanding. Later, after the girl hastily retreats into the kitchen to entreat a companion out to deal with me we get there via the use of props. It seems the girl wanted to know what accompaniments I wanted with the dish. I’ve taken to compiling a list of useful phrases as I find that phrase books rarely have the ones you need to use in real life…I must remember to add – “please don’t worry about what sides to include, choose them randomly, I’ve spent all day on the road and I’m ravenous”. I have a hunch that this would be a well-used phrase!

A couple of dangerously drunk men walk in. My hackles raise. They’re jovial enough but there’s a quality about them that puts me on high alert. They remind me of jackals from a Disney film. Mickey wonders why. I take the implicit warning and force myself to relax and smile, I won’t be attracting what I expect if I can help it. After milling around the bar a while, they flop down next to us, one pretty much landing on Mickey’s knee. We’ve barely finished our food. “Are you English?” barks the first one, then, aggressively: “What do you think about Brexit?” before we have chance to answer his initial question. Excellent, I sigh to myself before upping the niceness of my smile. I let Mickey answer. I watch their micro-expressions, being careful not to let the poker face slip. His friend grins silently next to me, letting out a giggle every so often – disconcerting or more laid back? I don’t know yet. I engage him in chat, keeping it superficial. “Where are you from?” he asks. I’m aware that the staff are milling around more than previously but as yet no-one approaches. The first guy is barely coherent but repeatedly tries to steer the conversation to politics. He tells us not to trust the current government in Poland and seems utterly dissatisfied with his lot, I’d say he’s about our age. It’s sad I think, when dissatisfaction turns to resentment and aggression, it’s one reason I needed a change, I’ve been there before myself and seen it happen all too often to others. I was determined not to slip down that slope again. His take on his country is an interesting contrast to the favourable impressions I’ve had so far which I offer to him. These mollify him temporarily, I get the feeling he thinks we have a superior attitude and look down our noses at his country, although it comes from nothing that we’ve given him. There’s the sniff of an inferiority complex I detect. He tells us he works abroad often…I guess travel doesn’t open everyone’s mind. It seems sometimes that few are truly happy with their lot in the world. Maybe humans are just built this way to search endlessly, ineffectually, never satisfied. It’s horribly destructive.

He picks up our breadbasket and throws it across the room. “Hey, hey” Mickey says “There’s no need for that”. I jump up and clear the debris strewn across the floor. “Leave it” he barks “I made the mess, it’s not yours to clean” making no move to clear it himself. “It’s not the staff’s mess to clean either” I say continuing to pick it up. If he wants a fight he’ll pick one regardless and I will not sit and watch staff be forced to clear his mess. He’s not so intoxicated he can’t feel shame, I think as a flash of regret crosses his face. He calms a little.

His friend is more open and easy but confides that today is one day in a long and consecutive line of days and months that he’s drunk to this extent. He tells me this with no shame, no pride, no emotion really at all other than a hint that he knows something is not right. I wonder what his story is. Mercifully, their food arrives giving us the distraction and space we need to slip out of the other end of the table and hotfoot it out of the place with hasty goodbyes. We keep an eye behind us as we head back to the hotel, I doubt they’ll come after us but still… As we walk, I mull over how different things might have gone with them if we hadn’t been so relaxed and friendly, hard to say, but aggression is usually met by aggression in my experience. As we approach the hotel, we relax and laugh about it all. The road certainly gives us some surreal experiences at times. We discuss plans for the following day.

We’d wanted to head to Wroclaw and Oswiecim but the evolution of yesterday’s route made the decision for us. Time is getting limited again against the deadline of our Iranian visa and we need to make ground. As much as I feel a duty to see Auschwitz I know it’ll take a few days to recover from it and possibly a few days more to arrange it. Mickey has a friend in Kraków who he hasn’t seen for years and we’re now pointing in the direction of this city, so we decide that it’s a good opportunity to head there and see her and meet her family.

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