As I walked through a DIY store at the weekend, by myself, examining flooring and assessing the costs and benefits of double glazing compared with triple glazing, I was struck by the realisation that something in my life had changed. Since I moved to Poland, I have gained some weight, I spend more time at home, and my girlfriend and I have been looking at a lot of apartments – we’re planning to buy one of them.
As I walked through the DIY store, I was not only struck by the fact that I was educating myself on essential property maintenance, but also that I was enjoying it. I asked myself, Have I been domesticated, or was I always this homely?
A quick examination of my life up to this point showed me that no, I was not always a homebody, and that in the past I was carefree and sometimes cavalier in my attitudes.
Worried that my move to Poland had somehow tamed me, and to cheer myself up, I compiled a list of some of the things I have done that perhaps few people in the world have done. Over five instalments, I will detail them one by one. I was surprised that only one of those things was on my long-term to-do list. For the most part, my most amazing experiences were not orchestrated by me – I just went along for the ride. In any event, these experiences were unexpected, eye-opening, and above all, amazing.
Here is the first strange and amazing thing that has happened to me:
1. Gatecrashed a nightclub in Warsaw with the US marines
I was backpacking through Poland in January 2007 when I landed in Warsaw for a few days. I was couchsurfing, and I arrived at around 6pm on a Friday evening. I met the person I was to stay with, a student called Chris, on the 18th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science. Chris took me to eat at a fast food joint and recommended some Polish cuisine; since I was in Poland, he said, I should try Polish food. I agreed, and then I turned down everything he suggested. The reason was that I am a vegetarian, and Polish food is heavy on the meat and fish. Eventually, he spoke to the kitchen staff and they grudgingly agreed to create for me something without meat or fish. I ate pierogi. Pierogi are stuffed dumplings, and are very nice when fried. They are also very unhealthy to the skinny cosmopolitan man – Polish cuisine is designed for the hard-working man who needs a solid meal at the beginning of the day to set him up for a day of backbreaking labour, and a solid meal at the end of the day to recover from his backbreaking labours.
After dinner, we went to Chris’s apartment and opened a bottle of vodka and we began to drink.
“To your travels,” said Chris and we swallowed our drinks.
In Poland, you drink vodka straight. You may follow it with a soft drink to dilute it in your stomach, but you may not mix the two in the same glass. After the second shot, Chris set down his glass and sighed.
“There’s this new nightclub opening tonight, really exclusive, and I really want to go, but I have no idea how to get in. You need a ticket to get in tonight.” He looked at me as if I knew how he could get into a venue I had never heard of.
“It’s really exclusive?” I asked him, as the vodka played with the lining of my stomach.
He nodded. I looked at myself: I had not had a shower since Thursday; I had not washed my clothes since Monday; I was wearing thick, durable hiking boots – the kind of boots that will take a person anywhere in the world, except into an exclusive nightclub. I shrugged and held out my glass. Chris refilled it.
“Never mind,” he said, “something will come up.”
I doubted it, and I settled down for a short evening of rapid drinking followed by deep sleep.
About half an hour later, Chris’s phone rang.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah, okay, I got it. See you in thirty minutes.”
Chris ran around his apartment and switched off appliances and lights, and grabbed his coat.
“I don’t have anything to wear,” I said.
Chris looked me up and down and said, “Don’t worry, you look great. My friend Jonny says he can get us in to the club. Let’s go downstairs and get a taxi.”
“Are we going to this club now?” I asked him on the way down in the elevator.
“Yes,” he said, “but we have to make a quick stop first.”
He walked outside and waved his arms at a passing taxi.
“Where are we going?” I said as we climbed into the taxi.
“We have to pick up Jonny. But he’s on the way.”
At this point it was only around eight-thirty – I am not a nightclub expert by anybody’s standards, but even I knew it was too early to go to one.
“Aren’t we a little early?” I said.
“Yeah, but we’re going to hang out at Jonny’s for a while. You’ll like his place – he’s got a pool table, a drum kit, and all the American beer you can drink.”
“Is Jonny American?”
“Yes, he works at the American embassy.”
“What does he do there?”
“He’s a marine.”
A few minutes later, the taxi stopped outside Jonny’s place, the barracks of the US marines, and we stepped out. Waiting for us was Jonny, who led us inside where we saw a few other marines. Their haircuts were so short that I estimated that, even after the haircut I had received in Krakow a few days earlier, I had more hair than all of them combined.
“Here you go,” Jonny said as he gave me a Budweiser from a fridge stocked full of Budweiser.
For the next few hours we sat and talked and drank. I am not a great fan of Budweiser, but I was grateful I didn’t have to drink any more vodka. I cannot handle spirits in large quantities – they do not sit well inside me.
Jonny and most of the marines at the barracks had arrived in Warsaw about nine months before. They were on a one-year tour of duty, after which they would be reassigned to other parts of the world. Jonny hoped to go to somewhere more exciting. Warsaw was fine, he said, but he had been trained for more active duties, and he wanted to make use of his training. Apparently, there were not many incidents at the United States embassy in Warsaw that required the intervention of a soldier capable of killing a person with a toothpick.
At around eleven o-clock, an armour-plated SUV with small American flags on the hood pulled into the drive.
Jonny stood up. “Our ride’s here. Let’s go, everybody.”
The SUV was an official diplomatic car from the embassy. It was my first time in an SUV, diplomatic or otherwise, and I was surprised by its spaciousness. Even the extra thick doors and glass did not make the car seem any smaller.
As we approached the nightclub, I saw a long line of people waiting to get in. They were dressed like typical clubbers – dressed for summer despite it being January. Two heavyset bouncers stood behind a rope barrier and selected people for entry, seemingly at random. Jonny turned around in the front seat to face us.
“When we get out of the car, just pretend like you own the place, okay?”
Chris nodded and I gulped. In the armour plated SUV with its little American flags, I felt special. I felt confident. Up to this point, I had been under the impression that Jonny had tickets for us all, and knowing that his plan consisted of looking like we owned the place, I lost all of my confidence. I had never been granted access to a place to which I was not supposed to have access, so even if Jonny and Chris managed to get in, I knew I would not. My stuff was in another part of the city and I had no way of getting it without Chris, and I did not relish the idea of waiting for him outside a club in Warsaw on a cold January evening. But if it came to that, I thought to myself, at least I have warm boots.
The SUV leapt noisily onto the curb and everybody in the line, including the bouncers, turned their heads to look at us. Together, we opened our doors and climbed out. Jonny made a big show of slapping his palm on the hood and Chris and I followed him up to the bouncers. They sized us up in turn, and I felt small. The rope barrier was between us and the bouncers. As we neared the bouncers, the rope barrier remained in place and I felt the eyes of everybody in the line on me. I wondered what they thought of my shabby backpacker clothes.
With only a few steps before the barrier, Jonny was not slowing down. Chris and I were behind him. I looked at Chris – he was enjoying himself. I was nervous. I imagined that everybody could see me for how I felt – I felt like a penniless transient with no business inside an exclusive club.
As we reached the barrier one of the bouncers took a last look at us and lifted the rope. We walked past and four seconds later we were inside the club. Another four seconds later I had a stamp on the back of my hand and somebody was offering to take my jacket. I was thrilled. Chris was thrilled. Jonny was already further ahead inside the club.
Chris and I followed Jonny and we caught up with him just as he found the rest of the American embassy. It seemed that we were not the first people to use the official car this evening. After we got drinks and settled down, I talked with the staff, only to learn that they were a little blasé about living and working in Poland. While Poland is certainly not the diplomatic short straw, especially compared to Baghdad or Kabul (although these were two places Jonny wanted to be in), it is not exactly glamorous, like Paris or Tokyo. One embassy staff member told me she would rather have stayed in the US – she did not like other countries. I nodded and wondered how many US embassies were in the United States.
From my observations, there was not much difference between this exclusive nightclub and other, non-exclusive nightclubs I had visited, though throughout the evening, I was aware of a slight feeling of grubbiness on my part. My clothing was warm and comfortable and practical and not garish or trashy – I looked out of place even from a distance. I later discovered second nightclub adjoining the one I was in, with more bouncers at the door. Occasionally people tried to get past the bouncers but were turned away. I went to them and learnt that a stamp from my club allowed me to enter their club, but a stamp from their club did not allow them to enter my club. I did not go to their club; it was enough to know that I could if I wanted, and I felt strangely elitist knowing they could not come to mine.
We left the nightclub at about 2am, because I had to catch an early train and Chris was a good host. Back at his apartment, I got four hours’ sleep and then I was out the door and walking to the train station with my backpack. I had decided to travel to Minsk, and I found the train that was stopping in Minsk on the way to another destination. I was surprised that Minsk was not the final stop, since I estimated it to be about eight hours away.
On the train, I told the conductor my destination. He did not speak English. He stamped my ticket and the moment he left I fell asleep.
I was wakened by somebody gently shaking my shoulder. It was the conductor. The train had stopped.
“Minsk,” he said, pointing out the window. I looked out.
“Minsk?” I asked.
“Minsk,” he nodded. I got off the train.
I was surprised that I had slept the entire journey. I was also surprised by how tired I was, considering I had just slept eight hours. I was also surprised by how small Minsk, the capital city of Belarus, was.
I walked around the train station looking for information. I needed accommodation and food, though I was not as hungry as I expected I would be, and I needed to plan the next stage of my journey (I was travelling north into the Arctic, I was on a self-imposed deadline and I was running out of time). I was a little worried. Belarus is not a member of the European Union, which meant I needed a visa, or at the very least, a stamp in my passport. I did not want to be caught without these things. I wondered why the border patrol had not woken me.
After ten minutes of searching I found an information board beneath a station clock. The train station was small and so was the information board. On it was a map. On the map was marked Minsk and Warsaw. Minsk was closer to Warsaw on this map than on any other map I had ever seen. It was also smaller. I looked up at the clock. Thirty minutes has elapsed since I had left Warsaw. I was standing in a satellite village of the city of Warsaw, called Minsk Mazowiecki.
I had to wait an hour for a train travelling to Warsaw, and when the conductor saw my very short day trip to the village of Minsk Mazowiecki, he looked at me quizzically, trying to figure out the mystery. Since his English was as bad as my Polish, I couldn’t help him.
Back in Warsaw, it was still morning, but I was too worn out to try to find another train to the Belarussian Minsk. Besides, I was having second thoughts about trying to leave the EU with my funds running low. I was also too embarrassed to go back to Chris’s, who had so enthusiastically toasted my adventurous spirit the night before, so I checked into a hostel and went to bed. I slept well.