Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reunion at Juan de Bilbao

"Couchsurfing camps are the places where you meet your future hosts." This was the conclusion we reached at Budapest Winter Camp 2009/10 together with two great people I met there: Giulia from Italy and Unai from Basque Country. Giulia didn't wait too long and without any notice decided to be my surfer. We spent 5 excellent days in Toruń seeing the old town, cooking Italian and Polish meals and talking talking talking. Unai planned to visit me in Chamonix but this plan never came to fruition. What else could I do being in the south of France and having lot of free time in my hands? "Are you in San Sebastián these days?" "PLEASE COME WHEN YOU WANT AND THE DAYS YOU WANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The right way to wrap up 2009 is to get drunk at International Night...

Unai (or rather his raging need to have some beer) chose a great place to share thousands of stories about what's happened to each of us since Winter Camp. Juan de Bilbao, street in the old town, lined with pubs. In this place we're gonna spend 3 out of our 4 evenings out.

Before we start talking ourselves out about Perus, Equadors, Icelands and Frances, we get drinks and my wine tastes divine. One more country where I can drink alcohol for pleasure.

The most noticeable thing is the fact that so many people are drinking outside, inside pubs are almost empty, some of them have only two tables. I can't imagine a picture like this in Poland - people walking around with their drinks, drinking in ANY place, not just designated area close to the pub.

Unai says that this place is one of the most nationalistic streets in Donostia. With this remark, I have a look around and notice numerous signs saying "You're neither in France nor Spain. You're in Basque Country," crossed out Spanish flags and Basque flags on the flagpoles.

I learn many things about Basque Country in the past and now. I learn why people feel so connected with the country, why they feel Basque and not Spanish and why they want independence so much. Part of me admires the vast knowledge Unai has, part of me also feels a little envious because I don't think I've ever had such feelings about Poland. He feels proud when he can speak Basque outside his country; for me Speaking Polish is just comfortable in some situations. It's not a shame, but it's not a pride either.

I want to learn a little about Basque. I like the fact that Unai is so proud of his nationality and speaking the oldest language in Europe that has nothing in common with other languages and is known by few who are not Basque. In a library we find a book with Basque grammar and Unai tries to explain how the language looks like. The thing he shows me is declension of some verb, meaning "to go" but used more as an auxiliary verb in different situations. In every person the form of the verb in no way resembles the other forms, you could think they're all totally different verbs. Any explanations are very coherent and look like a puzzle to me but undoubtedly would be a challenge to learn, especially if similar vocabulary and grammar rules can't be found in any other language.

One day Unai tells me: "Let's go for a walk now, it's a high tide and I want to show you something special. You'll see." The ebbs and flows have a difference of around 6 meters and when the tide is high you can see peculiar waves making a huge splash when they reach the concrete platform and sculptures on the shore. But there are also some holes in the platform so when a massive wave comes, water finds its outlet through them and ejects as if from a geyser. We feel like kids during this wave-watching, Unai exclaims "esta, esta!", "oh my god, this one will be bigger!" Just looking at the waves, people getting drenched, people who stand very close to the shore and start running away when the wave comes, keeps us occupied for 1,5 h.

My plan is to leave for Zaragoza on Monday but Unai's brother, Etor, calls on Saturday and offers to take us for a trip to nearby villages the following day. Why not? I love when things happen all of sudden and this one will be a chance to see more of Basque Country and meet another person from Unai's really friendly family.

Together we have a great time, Etor shows us Hondarribia, right on the border with France, and Lesaka, farther south, from time to time telling about the architecture and little about history, points to the most beautiful, colorful fishermen's houses. The second village, Lesaka, is a place where everybody speaks Basque, we go to a Basque pub and once again drink typical Basque wine. At the end of the day Unai goes to a concert, I go to another pub with Etor, drink more wine and meet some of his friends. We go to new apartment of Etor and his wife, designed by Etor but made entirely by some workers.



Staying with Unai, I can't not take advantage of his musical knowledge and learn to play an instrument, or rather learn how to begin; one more thing to scratch off my bucket list.

Learning doesn't come reluctantly. I'm surprised how easily I memorize tones and how quickly my fingers move on the keys when I play short sequences. Unai shows me that while playing "do,mi sol, mi" with one hand, you can play any melody with the other and the overall result will always be good. So I focus on the easy thing, changing the tones from time to time, and he plays some melodies, one is made up (but very nice!), the other is the anthem of European Union. I love the learning aspect of CS and feel that once more I've learned something. I'll try to practise more, as soon as I have a chance.

It was splendid 4 days in a great city with a great person. When Giulia visited me in Poland, it was heart-wrenching to let her go at the airport. This time I didn't cry because I know France and Basque Country are close to each other and we'll see each other again soon. Next time not only for "Idziemy do parku. Jest tu obok" but hopefully for "Jedziemy stopem do Paryża. Jest 800 km stąd."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Short lecture about marijuana on the road

Pouring rain. I'm standing at a huge péage outside Toulouse.

A truck with Portuguese license place is heading my way and I see the driver make a gesture that says "I wish I could give you a ride, but I can't." Surprisingly, when I look behind I see him pull over and rush to the truck. A tattooed man with a big grin welcomes me and explains "In my company it's forbidden to take hitchhikers because of high fines for additional passenger. But I thought, it's raining." So thanks to the downpour I'm enjoying my first ever ride with a Portuguese, all the way to my destination.

I've had conversations about different strange and less strange topics but this time the first thing Ricardo tells me about is his love for marijuana.

"I smoke cigarettes only when I can't smoke maria but I have to smoke something. When I finish this driving job in December, I'm moving to The Netherlands and I'm going to start selling marijuana there. Quite good business. Every time I'm there I spend a lot of money on the best stuff. My boss doesn't send me to The Netherlands very often because he knows I'll always stop at some coffee shop."

He tells me about his marijuana tree at home that is taller than him and I tell him about smoking marijuana with my hosts in Denver, fully legal "alternative medicine" in Colorado, smoking great weed at Woodstock and my Biology lessons in primary school when we used to go for a walk to collect some plants for herbarium and went to a place where, besides of some ordinary plants you could also find some marijuana. He shows me some seeds and asks me if I'd like to have some. I don't know if I ever make use of it but he gives me a small package anyway.

We take his regular break of 45 minutes. He lies down, I play solitary on his laptop but eventually fall asleep too. 45-minute break becomes two times longer but I feel much better now. After two hours of driving we have another break, this time for the dinner.

He pulls over once again, fills the bottles with water. When he fills the main tank, he points to some compartments: "Here I have everything for the time when I drive. I always take plenty of food, especially when I drive through France because the food in a restaurant is so expensive here. I'll show you."

Just at the moment he tells me about his supplies, I recall some stories of my friends and I'm happy that what I've only seen in their photos so far, I'll have a chance to experience right now. For the first time in my life I enjoy a meal with a truck driver.

It's a simple dinner, potatoes with eggs and canned vegetables. Ricardo pours some Italian wine he got from his friend and I'm happy that even on the road once in a while I can eat like a queen and not like a peasant.

From the very beginning I see we can talk like old friends so I ask him about his tattoos. He has 5 of them: map of Bermuda, where he lived for a year, a lizard, representing his football team, Sporting Lisboa, viking, the writing "Vive Vida" with some picture around it and a little tiger. Every tattoo has some meaning for him. I ask him what he thinks about tattoos a name of a partner and he says "Never. Kids yes, but I'll never get a tattoo with the name of my wife."

Just like with every truck driver, I'm curious to know what he thinks about his job. "I've been doing it only for the money for 8 years. I finish at the end of this year. I don't really like it, you drive from place to place but you never have a closer look at these places, you see the world just from the car and the world passes by. I'm at home every 8 days for 2 days and that's not enough for me. My daughter is growing up and I can't be with her during important moments in her life. I tell my boss 'I'm done with this s**t, I'm not working for you anymore'."

The ride itself was not the longest I've ever had but without a doubt one of the most interesting ones. During 6 hours, rolling or taking breaks, I never felt bored and wished I could go with him all the way to Coimbra. But my first stop in Spain came just 20 km after the border.

Friday, August 26, 2011

J'ai appri quelque chose aujourd'hui!

I pass my days learning new things.

Being surrounded by French people, French comes easily. I use some books and online resources but definitely memorize things better when I hear them from friends. Sometimes Jehane and Anaïs ask me something so I search for the right expression and with some help from Thierry I have the answer. New expressions come during conversations, I think of what I'd like to say and jot it down in my notebook. I learn new verbs and practise conjugating them. I memorize the numbers (on our way to another village; just from hearing). I have a closer look at phrases and sentences and try to understand them like Mathematics, make them logic like a puzzle, know where I have to put certain word, which form I have to use. Memorizing less important facts and odd words is something I'm good at and in this case it also does the job.

But language exchange works in both ways. After I had learned French numbers, Viviene wants to know how to count in Polish. I write the numbers and Thierry tries to come up with their phonetic transcription, sometimes struggling to find the right letters to describe difficult Polish sounds. When we have a look at a little book with pictures, Viviene bursts out laughing when she sees that "brosse à dents" is "szczoteczka do zębów" in Polish.

Driving gives me so much enjoyment. I'd never suppose I'd feel this way but now I want to know more and more, I feel much more comfortable when I drive then I was in April, learning new things comes easily. I can't wait until I start giving rides to hitchhikers.

Besides, I make improvement in swimming and it's still beginner-style but my fear of water has vanished.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done...

Some photos from my first week here:


Along Canal de Carpentras:

Just walking here and there:

Simple pleasures and random acts of kindness:

Recalling Woodstock

Anaïs and Jehane

Another small gift from them

Diligent students

Almost destruction

Tomorrow I'm saying goodbye for now to France and leaving for the south, to see a good friend for the first time after almost 1 year and 8 months. I eventually didn't manage to find a host in Barcelona, but becoming quite impatient I decided to send requests to other cities and here I come, what I didn't find time to see in April, I'll see next week - Toulouse!

My backpack is light as feather; having so little is delightful. Now 1,5 month on Iceland with 2 backpacks and heavy burden are just a distant memory.

Wake up time for tomorrow is around 6.30 and my plan to have more rest backfired but I couldn't say no when Anaïs asked me to make another stitching pattern for her, so she chose a difficult pattern with a cat and I carefully marked every dot for her but eventually finished making the holes myself. We start with the thread tomorrow on our way to Salon-de-Provence, unless I fall asleep, tired with the extensiveness of last days.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rich life with less stuff

I've always preferred to spend my money on doing things and seeing things than having things. While living in Chamonix this lifestyle was connected with owning as little as possible, just things you can carry in your backpack. But Chamonix was not the end - followed by Iceland, Scandinavia, Balkans and now again France, I still continue to carry my little home with me. I can't take a house on my trip so I take my home and this home is the content of Quechua Forclaz 40.

More than two years ago I moved to my new room and immediately started arranging it my way. Shelves quickly became full with favorite books, albums with art, souvenirs from my trips, walls adorned with hitchhiking signs...

I thought this would always be my place to return and that’s why I wanted to make it so cozy, but recently I realize more and more that I won't to do this as often as I thought I would. As you don’t make a place where you only stay for one night look like "yours," so I don’t make a place I where I stay for just a month during the year (with breaks) look like all my life is gathered there.

Honestly, I somehow get used to places, people and things. I leave a part of myself in them and believe that my possessions remember part of my life for me, and if they don’t they are a good supplement of it. There are books that always offered me consolation in difficult moments in my life, helped me give up my worst addictions. There are postcards that remind me I've seen the pretties of the world in the east and in the west. There are weather-beaten maps that carry me back to places and people met on the trails. So many objects backed up with stories and emotions.

But what if you move so often, if sedentary life is not your cup of tea and lingering in one place for too long makes you itchy? My decision was: get rid of whatever I won't be able to carry with me or don't need anymore. Tidy up my room and at the same time, my life.

While tidying up I came to a conclusion that surprisingly many things I have hoarded over the years don’t have any value for me. Why have they been here at all for so long? Clothes too fancy for my lifestyle, some disgusting rags I had no idea what they were doing in my wardrobe, travel guidebooks I never looked at because I prefer to explore a place when I get there instead of drinking up all the knowledge before arrival, books I read just once and never came back to, encyclopedias that slowly became less useful because Internet is always at hand.

I was most surprised when I opened some boxes I never had a look at since moving. I never wanted to get rid of them, always saying "I might need it later." And what? I found old letters, CDs I listened to when I was 13 years old, notebooks from high school and other scraps, some mascots, crayons, games. Things that haven't served me for years! Part of it went straight to the trash. Part of it was given to kids in my family.

Getting rid of books was most difficult. Starting from my childhood, books have always been one of most important parts of my life, most treasured possessions. I'm a voracious reader, 5-6 books in a month is something normal for me. While my friends came back from holidays in the USA with new dresses, trousers, purses, shoes, mobiles, I came back with tons of books. But for this there was also a solution.

If I don't need something anymore, why shouldn't other person be happy with this? I thought about people in my life who would put my items to a good use once again. And now not only I benefit, because every thing less is one burden less, but also my friends who are constantly craving for something to read or want to practise their English.

Gifts for Thierry. Also last chance to have a peek at them before I finally abandon them at the Provençal countryside.

With my 6 kilo I took for this trip, I know I have everything I need at the moment. And talking about things in life that can't be bought, which money could give you as much happiness as...

...and cards from Jehane...

...seeing how Jehane and Anaïs learn from me.

...and eating sweet figs picked from the tree, lazying on a hammock, staring at the starry sky, climbing hills and admiring the view, cooking dinner for the entire family, being able to communicate more and more in French, becoming a better driver, waiting impatiently until you see a good friend after over 1,5 year. And there's much more to mention!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Roaming through the night

Three days on the road. First one with only three rides on the distance of 580 km, finished in Halle. Second and third were what recently became my new favorite thing about thumbing. Continuous hitchhiking for over 24 hours. At the beginning of my hitchhiking career I'd never imagine doing it during the night, but just like hitching alone, hitching alone with a sign indicating my direction, hitching with two males in a car, hitching with three males in a car, hitching with three shady-looking males in a car, time for night hitching came as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. What's interesting, I had an impression that people stopped quicker when it was dark. Even getting off the highway several times didn't give me much trouble, no more than 15 minutes and I rolled again.

Feeling totally no fatigue, I reached Switzerland just before small hours, saw splendid sunrise, night lights of Lac Léman, starry sky over Chambery. I haven't seen sky so dotted with stars since my last year's summer stay in Colorado at the elevation of 2428 m. Just looking at stars puts me in a happy-contemplative mood. Whenever I see them, I enjoy wondering about distant places that beckon temptingly, about people in my life and the future in store for us.
Add the feeling of being pleasantly tired... not having slept for almost a day but excited and drunk with life, with the road, with adventure, being happy with what I have done. Maybe I don't make 1000000$ a year, maybe I don't live in a villa with 50 rooms, maybe I don't spend each holidays on Hawaii, maybe my daily budget is pretty low, maybe some stranger's car is sometimes the only home I have for the night... But that's what makes life unique and that's what makes me happy.

I haven't came across any weirdos, haven't got robbed, raped or even got close to it. When people ask me if I am scared, I tell them that I'm just cautious.

Thanks to my drivers, especially:
  • Polish engineer living in Wolfsburg who gave me a ride from Bydgoszcz to Berlin, thanks to which I could save some time I'd probably spend trying to catch a ride on Polish roads;
  • young German businessman who shared his stories about cheap backpacking in Asia and expensive holidays in Maldives brought to him thanks to Eyjafjallajökull eruption;
  • Czech truck driver who, even though he accidentally dropped me off in a wrong place off the highway, gave me a chance to feel France over the border, around 7 hourse before I eventually entered this country;
  • a young French girl (also a couchsurfer) coming back from her interrail trip with 2 guy friends, who sparked me about India by describing its huge versatility in different regions, and whom I encouraged to see the western part of USA by telling her about extremely friendly people and magnificent nature;
  • truck driver going all the way to Marseille, sent to me at a very small péage before 5 am, who offered me a ride right when my wearied body craved for rest the most;
  • all French and non-English speaking drivers who forced me to speak French and gave a chance to use new words I have learned recently.
Bonne nuit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Celebrating life

After 3 weeks on the Balkans, I quickly left my town and stayed for 6 days close to the German border at Woodstock Festival. Great opportunity to catch up with some friends and meet new ones! What a healthy lifestyle you lead there! Walking many kilometers from tents to the scene to events to portable toilets to "showers" to Lidl to cash machine to yoga to Hare Krishna food booth to collect empty bottles and cans to exchange them for some gadgets. We broke the Guinness record for the biggest amount of energy produced with human muscles - by riding bikes, we could even mix our own cocktail while riding the bike, reaching certain speed that made the mixer work! The Hare Krishna food I've tried for the first time in my life was so delicious and filling, especially the sweet halava. It was so good that sometimes when we were finished with our portions we asked people who were about to throw their meal away if we could take theirs! Only cold water was available for free and we had cold showers every day, and that was the only thing that didn't do my health good. Another vivid memory is drinking sweet wine with friends and risings toasts... to dreams, to happiness, to travels, to meeting good people on our way, to finding joy wherever we are, but most important of all - to life... there's anything about it you can celebrate at Woodstock.

Concerts were great, especially the performance of some Polish band that makes a great show during their concerts, the guys are in disguise of some animals and the lyrics of their songs are such tongue-twisters that pronouncing them is a challenge but it's not impossible. I was lucky to see them live once more in my town, just a day before leaving.

In better spirits and more healthy than right after Woodstock (more or less), I decided not to linger in Poland anymore. That's been 2 weeks there, the longest visit since coming back from United States!