Thank goodness for the Polish professor who sat next to me on the plane trip to Warsaw. He was returning to his university in Poland’s capital after presenting at an energy conference in The States. We had a very pleasant back-and-forth conversation. Even though I knew nothing about his field, I thought I asked pretty good questions. It was great to have an ally and my anxiety about being a 52 year old woman traveling alone eased a bit.
I had borrowed a relative’s guide to Warsaw compiled by the Polish Tourist Bureau. It offered a frank depiction of the city. I skipped over the section on the red light districts and the suggested fees but read and reread the part about a black market selling everything “Rolex” watches to other items of questionable quality. The market was located around the top perimeter of an abandoned soccer stadium across the river from the old city. I scribbled it out of my map with a red marker.
The guidebook also warned of cab drivers who took advantage of naïve travelers. What did that mean? What would they do to me? And how would I be able to tell them from the good guys?
As the plane prepared for landing, I asked my professor which taxi company was the best. He must have sensed my nervousness because he offered to share a cab with me. During our ride through Warsaw, I noticed the gloominess of the dark grey sky and the patina of dirt that covered the streets and buildings. My protector made sure I was dropped off at my hotel first and told me not to worry, he would take care of the fee. As the cab drove away, I desperately missed him.
A Polish-American travel agent had created the itinerary for my first week. After my solo adventure, I would be joined by my aunt for a bus tour of the country’s southern region. As I stood in front of a tired looking hotel, I wondered if I had planned wisely.
“Hello, I have a reservation for tonight,” I said to the black haired woman with bright red lips sitting behind the hotel desk.
“What?” she shot back. I repeated my information.
“Passport!” She copied something down and then tossed a key at me.
I dragged my suitcase to the elevator and into the room. I was longing for a comfortable refuge but found a shabby room and a bathroom that looked like a graveyard for old porcelain. I turned on the TV and it barked at me in Polish. I slipped out of my clothes into my pajamas and laid my head on the hard pillow.
Then the barrage started. Over and over again I heard the crinkle and swish of pieces of paper as they passed through the space under my door. I ignored the first few, thinking they were menus for food delivery. But they didn’t stop. How many pizza parlors could there be in this neighborhood?
I got out of bed and turned on the light switch. The overhead lamp revealed a small pile of brightly colored slips of paper and I started to read them. Words about hot women, fun sex, young boys, extreme pleasure, and a variety of phone numbers drove away any thoughts of pizza. What kind of place is this? I will sttay locked in this room until Aunt Emily gets here. But will that woman downstairs let me? How will I get food? Should I call the American Embassy? The pieces of paper kept coming. I finally fell asleep until I was jolted awake by male groans of passion from the room next to me. I guess the man got a delivery.
In the morning the sun was shining and I was starving. Like all the other animals on this planet, my need for food overpowered my fear of danger. I left the hotel, found a place that served breakfast, and then walked down the street a bit. Not too bad. I can do this. I went across the street to the train station and with help from a young clerk who spoke English I bought a ticket for my next stop. I packed my big bag and took it down the street to be stored for a week at the much better hotel where I would be meeting my aunt.
Carrying a much smaller bag now, I returned to the station and found my seat on the train. Looking out the window at Poland, I remembered what I had always told my son and daughter when they wanted to give up on a new venture. Beginning is the hardest part.
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