The alarm went off at 3 a.m.. Because my alarm doesn’t usually go off at 3 a.m., I was already wide awake ready for it, having kept myeslf awake most of the night with the anxiety born of thinking I would probably think through anything beeping at such an obscene hour of the night.
I slapped it into instant silence, so as not to wake my partner, who had staggered in from work at midnight. The room was hot and muggy, smelling of late summer, drawn curtains and overdue rain. My clothes were in the kitchen already, so I could dress without disturbing the house. I was up in ten minutes, which left twenty to spare before I needed to leave the house. Even that was paranoid in terms of being punctual; my bus wasn’t until 4.30 a.m., and though I knew in my heart it was only a half hour walk to the bus stop, I left with an hour to go. Unlike my attitude towards the flight, where I was being mildly cavalier, by Stansted standards, arriving at the airport at 5.30 for a 6.45 departure. “That’s dangerous, isn’t it?” demanded my Italian friend, but the idea of my alarm going off any earlier than 3 a.m. sorta voided the meaning of sleep.
London at 3.30 a.m. was a strange place. The lack of sleep made it stranger. The night buses were full of people, their faces illuminated too bright by the whiteness inside the buses. The streets were empty apart from the odd rushing car or truck. One man stood by a bus stop, waiting a very, very long time. As I headed into the city, there were buildings were lone security guards were on duty, guarding empty foyers. An off-duty night bus driver had a secret cigarette next to the silent lumber of his vehicle.
At the bus stop, I arrived so early I could have caught two other buses. The business of getting people to Stansted never stopped, it seemed. A few people were waiting outside the railway station, who hadn’t slept at all. Half-dozy revellers, eating hamburgers, falling asleep on each other’s shoulders. A few anxious travellers, eager to get home. As I passed by, the first of the gates was opened by the railway staff, and these wanderers shuffled inside to the strange, vast empty whiteness of the concourse.
The bus pulled away at 4.30 a.m.. “My flight is at 5.50,” mused a woman sat on the other side of the aisle from me. “Do you think I’ll make it?”
“Sure!” replied a chipper loon. “Of course you will.”
Of course not, you plonker, I thought quietly. You total numpty what on earth are you doing on this bus?
I couldn’t afford to miss my flight. It was the only one to my destination all day. There was literally no other way to get there, unless I got a plane to Warsaw and took the train. Which, upon a little reflection, would have been deeply more awesome than this current course of action, but hell…
Stansted was in full swing, even at 5.30.. The queues were long and bad-tempered. Passport control was brisk, in the determinedly amused manner of all stressed-out British professionals who, torn between laughing or crying at their work, have chosen the former. (On the way back, this was not the case. After spending half an hour waiting beneath jingoistic signs about how this was GREAT Britain I struggled through to the e-passport gate only to be shouted at by the man on duty who couldn’t have organised a cat’s cradle in a string factory, but who still felt obliged to be rude to people.)
Duty free was open, and people selling maddeningly over-priced perfume tried to catch the eyes of the unwilling passengers streaming through the system en route to their morning coffee/bagel or, in my case, a deeply random box of sushi, that being the nearest, quickest thing to get by my boarding gate.
I arrived as the gate opened, and joined a queue of almost entirely Polish-speaking travellers, already wondering what I was doing here. The sky was turning pale blue-grey, threatening dawn.
“Djein dobry,” I recited, headphones in. “Pshe… phsheshawprashe… oh bollocks….”
Polish, it turned out, was not going to be an easy language to master in a 2 hour 45 minute flight.
We were bused out to the plane as the sun came up, the land bursting into golden orange and white sprayed out across the sky by a low, cold mist.
“Djenkoooo… koo… ya…”
I was in the emergency seats by the middle exit of the plane. I resolved to learn Polish, and was asleep by the English channel.
I flew into Bydgoszcz. Yes. You try pronouncing it. Just try. I can pronounce it. And that’s because I spent five days being taught how. I now say it, whenever I can, just because it felt like that much of a triumph. As is often the case, from the air everything felt deceptive. I knew we were descending to land, but as we swept past the runway before turning to come back at it from the east, I tried to work out if this was it. I couldn’t see a terminal building. I couldn’t see much, really. A single road led to one end of the runway, on which was parked a single car. Some odd blobs of tarmac led off to grassy areas before a forest enclosed the whole thing. The runway looked the right length for a jet plane but surely not, surely it was….
We turned, and no, it wasn’t a mistake. This was where we were landing. The town spread out to our right; endless medium-density apartment blocks painted in a patchwork for pastel colours, trees scattered continually between that made the whole place look like someone had started zoning in Sim City, started making a profit off their residential areas and never mustered the courage to expand further. As we hit the runway I realised why I hadn’t seen anything from the air; the runway was lined with small, fighter-plane sized bunkers, all covered over with camouflaging grass. Hey! And the camouflage worked! Satisfying, if nothing else.
As we banked round towards the tiny terminal building, we passed the parked car. By its yellow flashing lights, it had to be something to do with safety. One woman was half in, half out of the open passenger door, her bare legs stretched to the sun, tanning herself as the jet plane grumbled by.
Small airports. 300 people arrived; two passport control officers checked each document like they’d never seen it before. Sometimes they looked at their third, smiley colleague for advice, and he interrupted his merry chat on his phone to say yes, this was an acceptable proof, and off you go. Clearing customs was slow – so slow that the man who had a sign with my name on it on the other side of the gate opened our conversation with, “I can’t believe that took so long my God why was it so slow?”
“Hi,” I mumbled. “Sorry. Thanks for meeting me.”
My saviour was in charge of logistics for Copernicon, the convention in the nearby city of Torun that was there to attend. He was also, in no particular order, a barber/hairdresser, an entrepreneur, inventor, businessman, creator of an internationally renowned razor blade, historical re-enactor, event organiser, photographer and rally driver. This latter was made very apparent first by his car – #5 of 9 in the world! declared a proud dashboard sticker – then by the roar of the engine, as fruity a sound of thigh-wobbling power as you’ve ever heard – and finally by the drive, which was by turns exhillarating and a teensy bit scary. Awesome. But that oncoming cement lorry yes that one there no it’s still oncoming are we gonna….?
Yes. Is the answer. Yes we are.
“In 2012,” he mused, as we knattered about the world, “Our President died when his plane blew up on the way to a memorial service for the officers killed by the Russians in Katyn. Many people think the Russians did it. People have tried to make this film about it, but it has been too expensive, but now our government they have come to power and they are very… so they make this film, and I went to see it and it is propaganda, pure propaganda it is… at the end the ghosts of the President and everyone on the plane meet the ghosts of the soldiers of Katyn and… politics is fucked, yeah, it’s fucked.”
We got on.
Torun, as well as being the host of Copernicon, is a city of two halves. “This is the bad side,” he explained, as we headed towards a curving iron bridge across the river. “There is nothing good for you here.”
On the other side of the river, a Gothic citadel. UNESCO has nabbed it as a world heritage site, and that makes sense. Once a capital of Teutonic Knights, the remnants of their castle has been surrounded by an early modern city of gothic points, faded frescos, endless sculpture and churches. It is very beautiful, and even the less beautiful sprawl that rings it was framed in autumn green and criss-crossed by trams that dinga-linga-linged as they rattled off to the suburbs of easy Euro-sprawl that’s fairly ubiquitous within the EU.
I was dropped by my rally-driver rescuer outside the hotel, before he gunned off to go fix something else, and met by another host, a charming, funny woman with flawless English who said, “Let’s go have cake!”
This was an excellent idea, although I could feel my brain gently threatening to dribble out of my nose already. Off we went into Torun for cake. “The trams don’t sound right sometimes they keep putting in these new ones that don’t make the proper sound… so this street there’s the prison (gothic tower), the university and my favourite cafe, it’s the Bermuda triangle because you can’t ever really escape it and you must see the singing fountain, here is the town hall it was built in the 1800s and you should go up the tower there the view is beautiful but actually when you get a chance cross the river and look at the city from the other side at night, the lighting you’ll love the lighting it’s so beautiful I feel my heart lift whenever I come home….”
We had cake, and it was delightful, and at the end of cake I wandered back to my hotel and lay down for a 30 minute nap. Two hours later I woke, and ambled.
It’s a good town for ambling. A long main road surrounds the old town, bordering it as effectively as any medieval wall, while a river to the south completes the pen. You can’t really get lost, though to my surprise many of my hosts constantly worried that not only I, but they could get lost in a place roughly the size of my left thumb. Thankfully, if you do get lost, odds are you’ll wind up in a garden or on a bench beneath a medieval wall or in an arts centre, so hell, it’s not like it’s a bad fate.
I spent my first evening eating alone at a recommended restaurant, trying the pierogli. These are Polish dumplings and Are The Business. I hadn’t bought much cash with me, figuring that on previous trips I’d bought loads and always been left with spare cash that I hadn’t spent; in Poland even the meagre sum I had was too much, as I could (and did) buy dinner for two and spend approximately £7.50, even with a bad exchange rate. Pierogli was probably my chief buy. I did go looking for kitsch to get my family – my Gran had specifically requested a wooden spoon, which turned out not to be a metaphor – but most of the kitsch was either too kitschy, or tricky to get through customs. (Halberd, anyone?)
I had bought two books to read: an intelligent text about brains (far too tired to read it) and a fiction book which was… ok. Without being brilliant. Always a bit frustrating when you get those. I wandered, read a while, then collapsed back into the hotel room and turned the TV on.
Excitement! On the first channel I turned on, an episode of a soap drama I recognised as Golden Century, a huge best-seller out of Turkey which told the story of Hurrem Sultana, the chief wife of Suleyman the Magnificent. This is right up my street, despite the somewhat dubious acting and deeply dubious historical… well, most things. It’s my era, it’s a story I already know, characters I’ve studied for years – and sure, it’s in Turkish, but you get the gist. “You she-wolf! You will never be queen!”
“You say that, but the Vizier has betrayed you! Already he comes to me from the battlefield and soon you shall be banished from Topkapi!”
“I hate you! I wish the Hungarians had killed your son!”
And so on and so forth.
I was fairly knackered when I started watching, so it took me a moment to work out was wrong. There was Hurrem Sultana, there was her nemesis, the two of them shrieking blue murder at each other, and yet… a single male voice calmly spoke over the turned-down sound track, translating everything they said into calm, deadpan Polish.
“The Christian king is routing,” he intoned. “Soon we shall be at the walls of Vienna. Oh. Oh my love. I am so proud of you. My love. Do you love me too my love.”
My mouth dropped open, and I flicked through other channels. And there – blessed there – Guardians of the Galaxy! With exactly the same thing.
“We must save the galaxy from Thanos. I am Groot. I am Groot. Well that is stupid. Why would we save the galaxy. I need his leg. I just need it. Come on. It would be funny. I am Groot.”
All delivered by one male voice, without inflection, as the low soundtrack of the initial actors blazed away underneath.
Thankfully, there were also some German-language documentaries, which helped lull me to sleep.
Language. So as established, my ability to speak Polish was pretty crap. And I was the only foreign guest. So for many days, I wandered round, pointing at things and exclaiming hopefully, “Anglieski? English? Deutsch? English? Deutsch?”
“You shouldn’t use German!” exclaimed one young man I had dinner with. “I have two friends, academics, and they were speaking German because one of them was German, and they were attacked by these – I think you’d call them skinheads – because they spoke German, I am worried for your safety.”
I looked round at a teaming town square, tourists everywhere, coppers on patrol, well lit and affluent. “Mate,” I said, “I think I’ll be ok.”
I left out the part about my willingness to gouge at eyes and testicles. Fundamentally I didn’t think it was as useful a thing to discuss as just having good, common sense.
“I don’t know if men should write women,” added this same gentleman. “I think there’s just too many biological differences.”
“Yeah… you’re wrong,” was my witty response. “Just wrong wrong mcwrongface.”
Don’t get me wrong – much elaboration on this theme happened, most of it over pancakes, and I had a very pleasant time on this and other conversations.
“We wanted to give you a towel, so you’d always know where your towel was,” added the translator who met me on the first day. “To help avoid panic.”
Douglas Adams jokes – always a good sign.
As Copernicon got into full swing, the streets began to fill up with the excellent and awesome signs of an SF convention. Jedi knights began to crop up, along with various scions of House Lannister or dragon-afficienados, blue wizards, Witchers, elven princesses, superheroes and villains, including a very spectacular Joker and an elegantly done Death, of Sandman fame. I wandered around and glommed a bit, but fundamentally was crippled by the fact that everything was in Polish. Everything except the movies…. of which I only really found time to see two.
The Martian – competent, enjoyable and forgettable, pretty much like the book. But kudos to it: growing potatoes in poo in space has never been so much fun.
And then… please understand, I was in a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language, wandering around by myself for nearly five days… but I watched the Chronicles of Riddick. And if I could remember one goddamn thing about it, I think I’d probably be ashamed. But it wasn’t even bad enough to be memorably bad. But was in English. I hang my head in shame.
On Saturday I did some actual talking to several rooms of people with stunningly skillful English, including one man who’d taught himself using Harry Potter (“I’m such a muggle!” he’d exclaim, whenever anything went wrong) and as these things tend to be, it was wonderful and a bit uplifting. Say what you will for the community of SF fans, we’re global in our joyful geekery; we speak a universal language and that language is awesome. Just feckin’ awesome.
After that – more wandering. On a couple of mornings I went for a very half-hearted jog (the temperature could peak at 30C in the day, but mornings were often 12-13C at which temperature my lungs tend to remember that they’re asthmatic) – and I think it’s fair to say that Torun has never seen a jogger. On the Sunday I paused outside a church to listen to the sound of music, and remembered again that this was a very Catholic country, and I was an atheist running when I coulda been praying. The religion extended into various Papal Outlets, where you could buy posters of the Pope looking suitably… well… Papal… and also images of various cardinals doing what looked a lot like the walk from Reservoir Dogs. Votive candles, clothes for the kids to get confirmed in, endless crosses and images of the Virgin Mary, the shops were fairly ubiquitous and often next to the also fairly standard sex shops, for reasons that I didn’t really think about too much.
The weather being nice and the hotel room being a bit grey, I went down to the river a fair bit to sit and read. The weather was in fact so nice that a collection of elderly men had turned out to sunbathe. One sat on a bench, his trousers round his ankles, snoozing in the sun; another stood bolt-upright, hands by his sides, and faced the sun, motionless for forty minutes, until at last he turned 180 degrees and stood again, stiff as an oak, never moving or even listening to a decent audiobook, as the sun baked his other side.
In the centre of town, beneath Nicolas Copernicus, the town’s most famous son, a violinist played the same tune on a loop, his belly thrust out and chin down, a bird-like potato-man in braces and a blue shirt. Around the statues of musicians and beneath the shadow of clocktowers, couples posed for their wedding photos as tourists passed by licking not-great ice cream….
So I’ve mentioned the food, right? Pierogli are awesome. They are the best. But what the people of Torun do to a pizza isn’t right.
Get a circular slab of wet goo, about the size of your dinner plate. Put some white slime on it and a few raw onions. Wave it lightly at an oven in a half-hearted way. Remove hastily, set it down on a counter, then squeeze your own body weight in tomato ketchup into the centre of the pizza, so it forms an inland sea of gloop. Then get a bottle of mayo, and repeat, into the centre of the ketcup. Serve. Horrifically.
Poland also hasn’t discovered the chilli pepper yet. On my last night, when it was all winding down, I reunited with the translator I’d met on the first day. She was exhausted; for three days she hadn’t been off her phone, running around trying to get 59 guests to their various rooms and events across a sprawling events campus while thousands of guests and hundreds of volunteers passed in and out of each other. Finally it was done; finally her phone was silent, and so we ate pancakes together.
I ordered the burrito pancake. It didn’t feel authentically Polish, but after several days of pickled things I fancied something with some kick to it. “You’ll need some more water,” she warned, “It’s very hot.”
I took a nibbled corner, just to check this theory.
Dear reader: it was not hot.
Poland doesn’t know what spicy means. You’ve got the dumplings thing nailed, and the city was beautiful and the people were kind and welcoming and fluent and funny and passionate, but mate…
…you ain’t met spicy yet. Come to London. We’ll try some vindaloo together.
Only one question remained, when all this was done.
“So… I’m on a flight tomorrow back to London at 10.20 from Bydgoszcz (see how I pronounced it? I learned that!!!) … and I have no idea how I’m getting there.”
“Ah, yes,” mused my host. “I have no idea how you’re getting there either. But I’m sure we’ll work something out!”
At 11 p.m. I went to bed, alarm set for 7 a.m., still without any idea. At 2 a.m. I woke, nervous and uneasy, and checked my phone. A text message – a taxi would meet me at 8.30 a.m. and take me to the airport, meeting one more person en route. The driver wouldn’t speak English, but hell, what was the worst that could happen?
I considered this question, as I tried to go back to sleep. The worst that could happen was that I’d miss the flight, and there were only four flights a day from Bydgoszcz and the next one was to Frankfurt and did I mention my meagre money? Well I’d tried to spend it on dinner with my hosts because honest, I couldn’t convert it back when I got home so if I had to suddenly spend it on changing tickets or getting to Warsaw to try and find a different flight and also I had a site visit on Tuesday I needed to be back in England and…
It’ll be fine, I decided. It’ll be totally fine…
At 8.30 a cab arrived. “Christoph,” explained my driver. “Cat,” I replied, and that was the full extent of our linguistic interaction.
We drove through flat, scrubby planes, past the end of the tram lines and out into a land of straight-branched, thin-leaved trees, heading, I hoped, towards Bydgoszcz. At 9.10 we pulled off the main road (I’m calm) and into a village of little roads without signs. We arrived at a house next to a large sculpted garden where a small waterfall flowed down over carefully placed rocks, and the driver went to knock on the door.
Knock knock knock. No answer. Knock knock knock. It’s 9.15. (I’m calm.) No answer.
On his third knocking, a man opened the door, in pants and a t-shirt, confused. A conversation. The driver returned to the cab.
“Sleeping!” he exclaimed, holding up ten fingers. “Sleeping.” He offered me a cigaratte.
“Thank you, but no.”
A shrug, and he lit up.
We waited ten minutes (9.25 I’m very calm very very calm) and out emerged our passenger, a young man with a plan and many Xboxes in his bag, who’d been part of the gaming strand of the convention.
“You’ll be fine!” he exclaimed. “Polish airports not like English.”
At 9.45 (extraordinarily calm) we arrived at the airport and I ran to the customs desk (5 yards) and checked my bag in with 30s to go. Clearing security, I stepped into a crowded waiting area (there are only two) to see the plane that I had come in on, pulling up at the gate, ready to turn around in 20 minutes and take me home.
Two Brits were sat on a plastic bench, waiting.
“Mate my head god that stuff it was just….”
“Yeah, I’ll see if I can get some….”
“Oh mate would you it’s…”
“Wedding, I mean it was great yeah it was great like I got smashed it was…”
I was going home.