Saturday, July 5, 2008

Welcome to Poland. . . and all its challenges.

The best thing about living in foreign countries is that they test your limits in a big way. However, the harder you try to live a normal life, the more complicated everything becomes. Sometimes, the things you need appear quickly and seemingly by coincidence, miraculously. Then, everything goes wrong…reminding you that miracles can test you as well. This story can be separated into three parts: the car, the flat, and the money.

Part 1: The Car

One of the things I wanted the most when I came back here for another season of training was a car. For Americans, and especially me, a car is equivalent to freedom. Day-to-day existence is much less complicated and all logistics are made 100% easier. With a car in Poland, to go to the sailing club doesn’t take an hour. It takes 15 minutes, and I can bring all the gear I need for sailing, and for campaign work. I’m not dependent on the bus schedules, and my computer and I don’t get drenched with rain biking home that happened last year. Also, I can take short trips and get out of the area if I’m feeling burned out. I’ve always said to my friends here that in order to survive, I needed either a car or a boyfriend (with a car). The benefits of both are obvious, but they’re approximately the same amount of trouble. However, the car doesn’t talk back.

Upon arrival, my German friend who works at the sailing club, Klaus (who looks just like the Terminator), called a friend of his, Lukasz, who had a car for sale. It was a 1995 Ford Escort hatchback, pretty beat up with 135K miles on it, but the conditions were right (the seeming miracle). The insurance was paid through the end of the summer, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the registration. Also, it has a conversion to run on LPG, which costs half the price of normal gasoline. To give you an idea of how much the Polish pay for gas, LPG is about the same price as American gasoline (even at the current high). Normal unleaded is twice the cost. The car runs on both, but a new tank for the LPG was added where you normally find the spare tire. You can’t tell how much LPG is in the tank because there is no gauge on the dashboard, but you can lift up the tailgate and see a gauge on the actual tank, sitting in the tire well.

After a few test drives (in one of which I nearly killed both Klaus and Lukasz in Polish traffic), I bought the car. I had fun for a few nights zipping around town and learning all its idiosyncrasies, quirks, and habits. I am normally delighted by used cars as they have lots of personality, and this one is no exception. The steering wheel is crooked by 45 degrees, but it tracks straight. The bumper is cracked, there are dings all over, and the hubcaps are gone, but it takes the roads well and blends into the rest of the Polish traffic. The little 1.3 liter engine is driven by a chain, not a belt, so the motor has a different sound to it. The engine also has two different sounds running with the LPG and then fuel. However, it did have a disturbing habit of stalling while idling at lights. Then, the morning before the departure to Kiel, the car did not start. I drained the battery trying to start it, and it sat dead in the sailing club parking during the regatta.

Upon our return, Klaus summoned Lukasz to revive the car. Lukasz is a big blue-eyed car mechanic with tattoos on his arms. He is a nice guy but doesn’t speak English so we have some trouble communicating. I understand most of what he says in Polish, but can’t speak back to him very well, so Klaus acts as a frustrated translator. Lukasz jumped the car back to life and, racing Klaus, drove like a maniac back to Karwiny, the suburb of Gdynia where I live. I then took the car and raced around in the parking lot of the Real superstore in Gdansk to get the battery charged up again. I put the car to bed, then tried to start it the next morning: nothing. It was trying, but wasn’t starting no matter how much I stomped on the gas pedal and swore at it in English and Polish for good measure. I was so mad I tore out its ugly tiger-print seat covers and chucked them in the dumpster.

Part 2: The Flat

After settling down, I again called Klaus. We had one errand to run before once again reviving the car: obtaining a washing machine for my flat. Upon arrival here, I immediately began to look for a place to live. I wanted to live in Karwiny again, because it is just far enough from Sopot that it is a good retreat, and is surrounded by lovely forest. So the second miracle of my arrival was finding a beautiful flat quickly. One very sweet girl that I sail with has a father who owns a couple unused flats, and he offered me the use of one for a very reasonable price. He went out of his way to prepare it, and although it wasn’t ready before we went to the Kiel Week regatta, I was able to put a few things inside so I wouldn’t have to drag my whole kit to Germany. However, it doesn’t have furniture except for a table and couch.

One of the most important things one can have in a flat is a washing machine. Laundromats don’t exist here, and it’s not a good idea to hand wash everything all summer long. Once again, it was Klaus to the rescue, letting me borrow his old one for the few months. However, it was located at his old apartment in Sopot, so we had to go collect it. I gifted him some money for gas, cigarettes, and a Coke (more about this in Part 3: The Money) and away we went in his VW van. Klaus also had the idea to lend me his TV, so we would get this as well.

We rolled up to the apartment and parked in front of the gate. We located the washing machine and moved some furniture to get it out into the driveway. Then Klaus went inside the main house to get his TV, and the landlady greeted him at the door. Some pleasantries were exchanged and then the door slammed shut. Out of the windows came the sounds of arguing in Polish. Klaus came running out with the TV, and said, “Go, go!” The washing machine was thrown in the van, and we sped away. Klaus lit a cigarette and we drove back to Karwiny.

We unloaded the machine, dragged it up the stairs with difficulty (much to the delight of the neighbors) and put it in the bathroom. A part was missing, so we couldn’t set it up right away, so we went downstairs and summoned Lukasz to revive the car. He came zooming up with the jumper cables. After a few failed attempts to start it, The Car was rolled out of its parking spot and jumped back to life. The problem was determined to be the battery, and Lukasz would come tomorrow with a new one, plus Klaus would come back and fix the washing machine. However, I think they were both a little tired of me…because they never showed up! After a few polite phone calls, I made arrangements for the next day. If the boys don’t change the battery, I’ll do it myself. It’s back to the bus for me…hopefully I can get everything sorted before I leave in the fall!

Part 3: The Money

I normally do a good job of managing my money. I don’t like to lend money and I keep good track of my debt. However, I’ve unfortunately become the Polish ATM, through some forgetfulness on my part, and some unplanned events. When I first arrived at the sailing club where I was renting a room, I left my jacket with my wallet in it on a bench while helping the team unload the team gear into the storage hanger. I woke up the next morning and prepared to go to my first Polish lesson of the year, which I was really excited about. I dug through my stuff looking for my wallet…and all of a sudden started panicking, realizing that I had left it in my jacket on the bench outside (stupid! stupid!) and this being Poland, home of the best thieves in Europe, was sure it was gone. I ran down and located it, along with my soaked passport. I was late for the lesson. Credit cards…check. Wet passport…check. Drivers license…check. I ran to the commuter train and was gone to Gdynia.

After my lesson, I opened the wallet again to pay my teacher, and….nothing. All my cash had been stolen, including the money I received from selling my old board, which was to go to paying off some coaching debt. It was so much it made me physically sick. Once again I had been knocked back to my knees in getting out of debt. It was my own fault for being forgetful, but it had happened at a time when I was already stressed, not having any housing, and trying to organize my life here. Not to mention, right before a regatta. After a panicked phone call to my manager at 3:45 am his time, I settled down a little.

I realized the money was fully gone right away. Romek and I checked the security cameras, but there were none watching the bench where I had left everything. There was nothing left to do but move on. Even though it was a huge blow, it takes a lot more than that to make me give up (actually, I’ve never found the limit yet!).

Although I’m in the middle of my own financial crisis, it seems like everyone else here is as well. For example: Klaus. A deposit he was expecting didn’t come in, so he had no money, I mean, none. So all the time he was helping me, I was giving him money for gas, cigarettes, food, cash for his wife….to be repaid….at some point. I made a bit back in Kiel when I sold some computer equipment to my Slovak friend. However, then disaster struck. Although I had made it home fine, Romek hadn’t. His van broke down before he left Kiel with the equipment, boat, trailer, and 7 or 8 kids. The kids piled into other Polish vehicles (luckily, they have a huge team) and left poor Romek alone in Kiel. He was without money as well…so another chunk of change went to pay for his return trip (part of his coaching fee). It was a little stressful this week being the ATM, especially as the dollar is totally worthless in Europe now. I’ll pull through. And nobody else is borrowing money from me!

Now I’m basically stuck in my apartment, which isn’t such a bad place to be in reality. I’ve been trying to catch up with my work, and taking long runs in the woods. Next week, if Romek ever returns, we will have a training camp near Gdansk. I’m looking forward to it.

Comparatively, life here isn’t as hard for me as it is for some of the Polish that I see every day on the street. Many of them do an amazing job of getting by with very little, and it is inspiring. However, things are changing for this country, and I can see improvements even only from last year. It’s been an interesting week mostly alone and away from the sailing club, and I’m glad for the perspective.

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