Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Travels to Berlin Marathon - Warsaw, Poland

Hi everyone, I am writing to you from Warsaw, Poland where I took a break from walking around in the cold and drizzle to come warm up and relax a little before going out for dinner. I left on Monday afternoon for Warsaw, the first leg of my trip to Europe for this Sunday's Berlin Marathon! For a while, when I was traveling more often than I am right now, I would put together really detailed descriptions of my travel and I thought that would be something worth doing at least for this portion of the trip, since it is a new to me country and culture!

When planning out my trip, I knew that I wanted Munich to be a part of the visit following Berlin, and I then added two other cities that were both locations in countries I have been to before. I really wanted to be able to check a new country off of my list so settled on tacking Poland on to the beginning of my trip since Warsaw was a city I could get to Berlin from via train/car. I didn't want to have to do an inter-Europe flight, so when just looking at maps and seeing what major cities were closeby... Warsaw it became!

My travels over here were to be as expected. I always say that the worst part about traveling is actually traveling. I am not a huge fan of flying and some of the logistics that go along with it - however, I have done it enough and enjoy exploring new places enough, that it is just something you have to go through.

I left Atlanta at 3:00 p.m. which, at that time of day, I wasn't too tired so didn't get a whole lot of sleeping done on the flight. I did read my book, watch the movie Moonlight and some episodes of Silicon Valley, and listened to a number of podcasts that I had downloaded beforehand about the Berlin Marathon and got some helpful tips.

The route I traveled had me connecting through Amsterdam, where I arrived really tired and ready to go to bed, but it was actually 6:00 a.m. there. My flight was scheduled to leave Amsterdam at 9:45 a.m. but then got delayed to not leaving until 12:00 p.m. I ended up with about 6 sleepy hours in the airport that I spent napping in various places including a table in a food court area and across two chairs near the gate for my flight. It wasn't the most pleasant of times but I was glad I was able to sleep at all. It is significantly harder to sleep in airports than on the planes and I am always paranoid I will sleep through my flight or have my luggage stolen!

Arriving in Warsaw, I took a taxi to my hotel. My taxi driver gave me a mini tour of Warsaw as we drove through the city. He shared with me his opinions on which hotels were the best in the city, showed me where Donald Trump stayed when he was recently in Warsaw (the Marriot - on the 42nd floor - nobody was allowed on 10 floors below him while he was there!), where Al Pacino stayed when he visited Warsaw years ago, and pointed out to me when we drove by a supposedly famous Polish actor getting out of his car. He also shared his opinion on American actors such as the fact, "I first thought that Brad Pitt was just a good looking guy, but then I watched his movies and he is really good!"

His was my first experience of interacting with the Poles here and them really just being very blunt and straight-forward, not holding back at all with what they share with you. Our conversation turned interesting in the small times that it turned political. I couldn't quite figure him out - but concluded at the end that maybe he is just racist and an Islamaphobic - so that was great! He mentioned to me that he did not like to go to many parts of Italy because there are "too many immigrants," specifically mentioning from Africa and "Arabs."  Later in the conversation though, he pointed out where the nationalist party in Poland has their headquarters but mentioned he was not in favor of nationalism for Poland. His belief is that the country is not strong enough and that they need to be partnering and collaborating with the Germans and Swiss, etc. I didn't ask too many questions further on these topics, but he seemed very comfortable just sharing away. I thought to myself that this is a form of white privilege. Maybe one that I don't necessarily want to have, but, regardless, this guy saw me as someone he could share his views with. I was wondering what he would have talked about had one of my friends who is black had gotten into his cab that afternoon.

The hotel I stayed at is called the Castle Inn, it is a tiny "art hotel" whose entrance is hard to find off of a pedestrian only portion of the city in a really perfect location in Old Town area of Warsaw. There was a big creepy door that opened when you hit a buzzer and every room is different, the one I ended up with being a flower/garden type theme. It was pretty cute. And the location really was amazing.

I didn't stick around for too long, wanting to get out and take advantage of the time I had in Warsaw. I also wanted a real meal. However, first, I cleaned up and showered and relaxed a little. When I was checking in, I grabbed 3-4 of the brochures/pamphlets they had out with things to do in Poland. The girl working the check-in eyed me and goes, "Woah..." I was like, "Oh. Haha. Yeah, I just want to do some research." She totally rolled her eyes at me, which was my second interaction that made me feel like the Polish people really just hide how they feel!

Right outside of my hotel is the Castle Square. It reminded me of the squares in so many little European cities and I love sitting outside and eating in places like this. Since I was in need of lunch, I sat down right away and enjoyed some Polish perogies and a beet and goat cheese salad. The food was all really good - the salad was great - and the perogies were a bit greasy but still yummy. I was expecting Polish food to not be too high on the health meter so that was to be expected.

It was a gorgeous night and I continued to just walk around and explore Old Town, before starting to walk down Krakowskie Prezedmiesce street stopping into various shots and cafes along the way, checking out the trinkets, clothes, and ice cream flavors at each stop.

I've been very much debating whether or not to have ice cream while in Poland. I promised myself no ice cream before the marathon, but ice cream stops are EVERYWHERE in Warsaw and one of my favorite things is to try ice cream from all around the world. So far, no ice cream, but making no guarantees that will stick.

After walking around and shopping, I eventually made my way to meet up for dinner with colleagues of mine that are based in Poland. I have been working on a project to support the team in Poland for the past year and we have weekly calls but never met in person. A nice surprise on this trip was that the team was all in Warsaw this week for trainings, so we were able to connect and meet in person!

Dinner was an interesting experience! The group was very welcome and talkative and curious about my trip to come to Poland - as well as my decision to run a marathon! I let them know that I would eat/try whatever and wanted to experience some of the Polish cuisine.

As a first course, the waiter brought out essentially a jello mold with meat and carrots inside called Galaretka. This picture is not from the restaurant because I was too nervous to take a picture and didn't want to be rude, but this is pretty much exactly what it looked like.

You drizzle vinegar or lemon on top of it and then eat it, finishing it with a shot of vodka. The shot of vodka is part of eating this, so in addition to taking 2 bites (I felt like I needed to prove I could do more than one bite!) I also took the shot of vodka. I let the team know that it was not really a texture I was used to. Cold meat stock jello with chunks in it?  Not so common in the U.S. One of the things most people know about me is that I have a very expressive face. I did my best to not have my face show exactly what I was thinking but I was glad that the table seemed satisfied with my only 2 bites of the jello meat dish!

Thankfully, the rest of my dinner was delicious and ridiculously filling. As an "appetizer" the team ordered me a bowl of soup that came in a sourdough bread bowl. This was really, really good! I believe it is called "Ryemeal" soup and it was a light broth with brown specks in it, white sausage, and hard boiled egg. It was pretty tasty and the best bites were eating the parts where the bread soaked through into the soup.

For a main dish, they ordered me more perogies, which I only ate 3 of - I was way too full from the soup! They also had me taste the dishes that they ordered, which is usually my favorite thing to do, but in this case, I could have passed probably and been okay. I tried some beet root and cabbage as well. The soup definitely stole the dinner for me though!

The other notable thing about dinner is that after that first shot that went along with the jelly meat, the shot glass in front of me continued to be filled up by the waiter. He was tending to it similar to how waiters at nice restaurants continue to fill your wine glass when you order a bottle. I wasn't sure if we had ordered a whole bottle of vodka or not, since all of the ordering was done in Polish, but it made me feel like we did. Even when I would signal to him not to fill it up again, my colleagues would respond back in Polish and then my shot glass would be full again. Mind you, there is also no water or other form of beverage at this table - except for a beer that was also ordered for me!

I was sipping that beer super slowly, not wanting to risk it going down to the bottom and someone ordering me another one. Plus, I had started to only drink 1/3 of the shot every time someone proposed a toast/cheers (which was happening routinely) and needed the beer as a chaser. Super smart moves for someone prepping for a marathon in 5 days, right?

Eventually I asked for water and had some ordered for me, and just stopped with the shots of vodka all together. Getting really drunk in this situation was not a part of my game plan, and for someone who doesn't really drink liquor, I could feel what I had been given going to my head.

Dinner wrapped up at about 9:30 and since I didn't want to go to bed too early, I opted to join the group as we head to a venue for live music at a bar with an open mic / featured artists night. A beer was promptly ordered for me as soon as we walked in, which I held on to for the rest of the time that I was there, which was about an hour or so, before heading out. The rounds of vodka still kept coming even at this second place and I was just amazed at how much everyone could stomach. I was really glad that I went to the venue, because the live music was really good and the venue was very cool. I was happy to be able to experience it and it actually reminded me of my trip to Nigeria, where I also attended a live music / open mic night with colleagues!

The whole night made me really happy to have been able to see a side of Poland culture and Warsaw that I normally wouldn't have. I am so thankful for my job and my colleagues that introduce to me to different cultures around the world. This wasn't a work trip, but that doesn't change that work put me in a position where I even know people in Warsaw, Poland to give me that experience. I was a little worried about having multiple drinks so close to my race, but it was also a cultural experience that I didn't want to miss out on. I am really appreciative to my colleagues for taking me out and today, I was even more focused and committed to treating my body with the food, water, and sleep it needs for the next few days before the race!

This morning, I let myself sleep until I woke up - which happened to be pretty late for me, around 9:00 a.m. I felt like I could sleep for much longer, but wanting to get myself back on a normal schedule, I forced myself out of bed. I couldn't tell if my lethargy was due to the drinks or the jet lag, but most likely both. However, I put on my running clothes and went outside to get in an easy 3 mile run. My plan for my coach for this week was to do 2-3 2-3 mile runs. The point of the runs was to start easy and then find race pace for a short bit.

I'd scoped out where to run the day before and not far from my hotel was a path along the river that runs through Warsaw with a bike/running path. I head there to do my 3 mile run, then stopped to get some water, and returned to the hotel. I wore capris and a t-shirt to run outside and it was about 55 degrees. I definitely could have gone with another layer but also didn't feel terrible once I was actually running. I am starting to feel a bit nervous about the temperature for the race and what layers I should manage but thinking I will figure that out later. It was funny though because this morning everyone was walking around in long coats bundled up and I was out in a t-shirt and capris. There were other runners out as well, but I was less dressed than they were.

After showering and stretching, I head out in search of getting something to eat and exploring the Old Town a bit more. As I head out of my hotel and started to walk, I very quickly came past a tour group that was walking through town with an English speaker. I didn't initially intend to crash it, especially if it was an organized thing people had paid for, but then I realized that he was carrying an umbrella advertising that they are one of the "Free Tour" groups I have done in various cities that basically just operate off of tips. I decided to hang about for just a little and walked with the tour group a bit.

We saw the home where Marie Curie was born and heard more about her story (yay female scientists!) and then walked to the memorial for the Warsaw Uprising as well as the Memorial of the boy soldier. A number of these things have somewhat controversial opinions from the Polish people and I thought that the tour guide did a good job of explaining these topics in a transparent and honest way.

The tour guide also reiterated that the Poles do love their ice cream, explained that the two main rules in Warsaw are to not walk in the red lanes designated for bikes and do not drink in public, and shared other small lessons in both Polish history and culture. We saw the gates to the city, learned about some of the stereotypes of Polish people, and learned the history of the Polish constitution. Eventually, my need for food won over the last stop on the tour and I ducked away when I spotted a coffee / sandwich shop that I thought looked cute.

I had a long leisurely lunch of a spinach wrap and a coffee at a very cute shop that tempted me tremendously with their delicious looking cakes and cookies as well.

The afternoon was still cold and rainy and I decided to spend it at an indoor activity and made my way to the POLINE: Museum of the Polish Jews. The museum talked about the ancient history of the Jewish traders traveling through and later settling throughout Eastern Europe, their perception and place in society through the 1300s - 1900s and eventually went into much detail on the Holocaust.

The Warsaw ghettos housed more than one hundred thousand Jews that had been deported to there throughout World War II. Later, the ghetto was deported again and this time sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz. It was really disturbing and unsettling to read through the conditions of how people were treated and knowing that this took place in the streets and areas I was walking through at that moment. It made me sick to read and think about the numbers, the sheer volume, of individuals and people that went through this, as well as the individuals who enforced it and allowed it to happen. It really wasn't that long ago and there are so many things going on today that draw parallels to some of what happened during this time period. I am currently reading the book "The Nazi Officer's Wife" and this as well has made this top of mind to me lately.

The picture above is the only picture I took at the museum. I took one more photo of a quote I liked but it came out blurry so I will just rewrite it here. I felt it was very fitting and relevant to today.

"Should equality be the reward for social change or the condition for achieving change? "Jews say: Let us live where we wish adn do what we wish. Give us an opportunity to improve our economic and social position and soon you will realize that all the faults you ascribe to us and see through a magnifying glass of prejudice inherited from your fathers are not congenital."

I walked around some more following the museum and made my way back to the hotel to warm up and relax a bit before dinner. I hope that you are having great weeks and enjoy my recap of my trip so far! As I mentioned, I haven't done a true travel blog such as this one in a while so thought it would be fun to do. I love looking back at this stuff in the future! I didn't really know what to expect when I came to Poland but I have been totally charmed by Warsaw. I really enjoy the Old Town part of the city, the riverwalk is amazing, there are so many restaurants and bars that seem inviting and that I would like to try out, and the people have been really hospitable. Plus, the music we saw last night was amazing! I don't know if I would normally have had Warsaw high on my list of destinations to visit but I am really, really glad that I have been able to see the city and look forward to the rest of my time in Poland!

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