I’m sitting alone at a hotel bar in Wroclaw, Poland. (what wonderful narrative doesn’t start with that line?). The bar tender is mixing me up an Old Fashioned, the electric red light behind the bar shining through his blond hair.
I’m three days in country, stabilized my sleep and eating routine.
I’ve found a walking route around the town. Each day, I expand my route just ever so slightly, pushing the physical boundaries of that which I am familiar. I walk a bit further every day, making mental notes of landmarks so bring me home again. I walk without a map. Just my phone and a small wad of cash and room key. Like a little kid, I become more ambitious with comfort. Day one takes me to the grocery store for food; day two takes me to a restaurant; day three takes me to small hole inside a tunnel where two people toast pizzas to order. I smile and say hello and point and smile and smile. We make do.
The city center of Wroclaw is beautiful, easy, friendly. Families and couples and strollers and hand-holding. Vendors shout their items; small kids run around pushing roses in the faces of couples who look away. Moms watch their kids play in sand boxes dumped in the city center beneath the shadowy wings of 400-year old churches. Vegan hipster burger joints find a home at the bottom floor of building erected before the U.S. had her first birthday. Hard Rock Café stands and finds patrons. Somehow.
I talk with a make who runs a screen-printing business. His design adorns a gray backpack I buy my son. Four raccoons—a mom, dad, and two babies. The text reads something like “family love,” it’s an idiom, a Polish play on words that doesn’t come across well in English. I ask if the love is the love I have for my wife or the love I have for me son. No need for my kid to have an erotic bag. The man laughs and says both. I smile and hand over 50 pln, about $20.
I walk further, and the tourist beauty of the city center gives way to the rest of Wroclaw, the rougher part that doesn’t make it into the guidebooks and the Rick Steves’s travel show on PBS. The cobblestone gives way to broken gray pavement, gray dust floating just above the pavement, brazen weeds stretching from between pavement breaks, stretching and stretching despite the constant foot traffic. Cars parked bumper to bumper on the sidewalk. Overhead, laundry lines stretch across balconies, old women peek outside, older men chew on dangling cigarettes. Old posters advertising something that happened some time ago break and peel and fade off of or into the walls, telephone poles. A dog stops, empties a load, limps on. The smell brings me back to the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. The movement of the street. The feel of the people’s faces as they move past brings me back to Russia. A capital 1500 km away through Latvia, Lithuania.
But it feels closer.
Polish is based on the Latin alphabet. A lot of it. But the language offers a cognitive overload for me. The letters, when all strung together into a word, don’t stick. I make up short cuts in my mind to remember street names. I know a café with cat décor sits at the intersection of Kuz and Nice. Both streets come with about 15 more letters, all constants. I know the Vinyl Café is behind the large glass foundation. Just take the alley and turn right. Street name? Don’t have a clue.
Like my wanderings in Athens, overwhelmed by the tangled streets with names in Greek, I wander by feel, visual landmarks, confidence that four left turns equal a rough circle. Here in Wroclaw, the Oder River keeps me centered. No centering in the mess of Athens.
The military van picked me up at 0845 hours today. I was taken to the Military University of Land Forces, given a tour of the grounds, dropped into a classroom of language instructors to give a 60-minute workshop—topic? TBD by me.
We talked assignment design; we talked TILT principles of purpose, task, and criteria for success. We talked metacognition. It went well. Without the aid of A/C, the room grew warm. The open windows let in a small breeze and sound of gun fire from the shooting range. The Colonel, my point of contact, lingered in the door way.
As the van dropped my off at my hotel, the cadet, who has served as my informal tour guide, offered a word of wisdom. Just walk under the street lights night, he told me, half turning in his seat up front to face me in the back. Poland has people who like to make trouble; they wear tracksuits. The door opened; I got out.
Went back to my room. Watched John Wick 2 on Netflix. And fell asleep. It was 1300 hours, but I was done.