We board a morning bus, amidst an open-air market of vendors hawking all sorts of produce, flowers, and meat. We found an Uzbek food stall and purchased some flatbreads for the road. This was to be a long trek. We decided it would be more effective to skip over Lithuania for the time being, as we were flying out of Vilnius and had to see that city regardless. Over ten hours we spent on the bus from Riga to Warsaw, making brief stops in Kaunas, Vilnius, Augustow, and Bialystok before stopping in the western part of Poland’s capital.
After half a day of in-seat movies, long beyond sunset, I was happy to reach the geographic endpoint of the trip. We hopped into a restaurant, which was about to close, and bought two to-go lamb kebabs. These were the only things they’d sell us, as the moment we sat down the last customers left and the staff began locking the doors. Thankfully, the kebabs were portable and our hostel was less than a block away. When we arrived we met a kind couple of teenage girls, one of whom was sitting and clearly keeping the other company while she worked her shift at the hostel. The employee gave us our key and walked us into the other building, up the stairs and to our room. It was a room full of 4 or 5 bunk beds, which we were lucky enough to have to ourselves. I quickly plugged in my phone and jumped into bed, quickly dozing off to the quiet and surprisingly clean-smelling room. A hostel without at least a vague scent of sweat or mildew is a fortuitous thing, and should be appreciated when one comes along.
The following morning, we left our bags with the receptionist, who had now morphed from two teenage girls to a short-but-skinny bearded man with black hair. We had a few hours until we were to start our noon tour of “Jewish Warsaw,” which I simply had to take instead of the general Warsaw free tour out of obligation to the Judaic studies courses I have been taking over the last two semesters in college. I also felt I had to take the Jewish history tour of Warsaw because I had always wondered what remnants there were of Jewish life in a place like this capital, nearly a century after German occupation. In the time before the tour, we spent nearly an hour looking for the bus station we were to leave from that night on our way back to Lithuania. After wandering around just one of Warsaw’s many bus stations (which are, thankfully, at least numbered) we came upon a small sticker, about half the size of a bumper sticker, pasted to the back of a sign post with the name of our bus company depicted on the front. We were not technically in the bus station, but on a street leading from it to the highway, and while my dad still wasn’t convinced this was the place I was positive. What young hooligan would, instead of promoting his new Soundcloud mixtape, would instead graffiti a sign post with the name of a low-cost bus company? Who knows.
Once we confirmed the ‘station’ coordinates with several websites, we stopped at a cafe and bought breakfast on our way to the city’s Old Town. There, we snapped some pictures by Polish flags, before realizing the tour began in a half hour on the complete opposite side of town. We walked briskly, though I found this difficult as my foot had begun aching the day before and didn’t show signs of healing. It was also a struggle because this was the first picturesque part of Poland we had seen, and it being the warmest, sunniest day we had had thus far, I simply wanted to rest on a bench, read, and take in the sun.
At the meeting place in front of a historic church, we came across two groups: a Spanish Jewish tour (Spanish language, not Sephardic) and an English Jewish tour. When we arrived, the Spanish tour was nearly twice as big as the English tour and I had to ask why there were so many Spaniards in Poland. According to our guide, Poland was one of the cheaper E.U. destinations so much of the typically younger and unemployed Spanish population was staying in Poland for the lower cost of living.
The tour passed by quickly, though we made fewer stops and stopped longer than typical. We stopped by the pre-Holocaust Nozyk synagogue, which was the only synagogue to survive the war. It served as a stable during the Nazi occupation, and was damaged somewhat in an air raid on the city. It was fascinating to see how Warsaw functioned in the Nazi occupation. The Jewish ghetto in the city had actually been bisected by a major thoroughfare, so a bridge was built to connect the two parts of the ghetto, as depicted in the film The Pianist. At the tour’s conclusion outside the Jewish Museum, we decided to walk back to the Old Town and get some pierogi and kielbasa for lunch. The restaurant our guide recommended was a Polish restaurant that made over a dozen types of pierogi and served “sausage” on sizzling skillets atop sauerkraut. We ate ravenously as the waitresses in what I assumed to be traditional Polish folk dress flitted from table to table.
Having checked off both food and cultural requirements, I had officially seen Poland, and the sun was hanging low in the sky, but still visible over the city’s three- and four-story buildings. It was the first sunny and warm day on the trip, and of the year, so we purchased ice cream at a bodega and sat in the park near our hostel until sunset after retrieving our bags. We still had several hours until our overnight bus to Vilnius left, so we decided to wander the mall near the station. Ultimately, my dad grew bored and suggested we go see a movie. We found the only appealing English movie was The Mule, the new Clint Eastwood movie where he becomes a drug mule because his wife leaves him or something.
When the movie ended, we cashed in all of our leftover Zlotys at the Burger King in the food court, had a quick dinner, and went to meet our bus. It began to grow cold as our bus pulled in about 15 minutes late, and we boarded one at a time after confirming with the bus attendant that we were who we said we were. There was a Russian woman in my seat (or at least a woman who was speaking Russian), and the attendant had to move her to the seat behind me, giving me and my dad each a whole row adjacent to one another. I finished watching La La Land, which I had started on the bus into Warsaw, and closed my eyes long enough to make myself believe I had slept.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.