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excerpt from translation of travel feature by Paul Smit - click on Dutch flag for source text

Polski Blues

article and photography by Paul Smit

Witold has nothing to do with kayaking. Nevertheless, he provides the starting shot to this jaunt through Mazuria, the land of the 3300 lakes. He is the lining of insanity that surrounds any trip to Poland. A silver lining, mind you, and a reason to make many more trips east.

Gdansk is one of the most beautiful cities in Poland. The tourist information office has just closed when we arrive for our one-night stopover. On the door a poster is affixed, warning against people on the street recommending accommodations. "Gutenabend!" we hear behind us, "I bet you are looking for a room." A man in an ill-fitting suit looks at us belligerently. "I have one to rent, several even, but only one is still available." He introduces himself as Witold. Our eyes nervously go from him to the poster. He takes a ring binder from his worn-out shoulder bag and opens it to a picture of a house that shows virtually nothing. Then he reads us a letter from a very satisfied customer. "We'd rather look around a bit more," I say. "Don't take too long, there's competition," he responds. With mounting amazement, we watch him wait until two backpackers have read the warning poster before approaching them. "Can you believe that?" he asks of us, "A beautiful room, dirt cheap by western standards, and probably the last one available tonight!" His eyes don't look the least disappointed, sooner taunting.

"Come, I will walk you to where your car was." "WAS?" "Yes, I see. You do not know Gdansk. A beautiful city, by all accounts, but a car full of luggage you know will disappear in fifteen minutes. Russian Mafia you know, and the Poles are quite helpful." Quickly we walk back. Witold sees our relief at sighting the car. "That white one there? You are lucky! I will take you to my house, where you can park your car safely, even with all the stuff in it." Travel buddy Mick, half Polish by birth, sees my growing distrust and whispers, "Don't worry, this is a typical Polish character like I've been telling you about, there's no harm in it." His fascination for the huckster wins over my suspicions. Besides, we want to still go out in Gdansk this evening.

We enter his house. A guy in a shiny gym suit looks us over. "My son, nice guy! He works at a car junkyard." He shows us the room. Actually very neat, good beds. We come to an agreement. Before we leave for town, Witold approaches us again. "Are you leaving the car here? No? Oh, then I will tell you exactly where to leave it, across the road from a friend of mine, he can keep an eye on it." I am burning with suspicion and feel like running away. Then he pulls out two free tram tickets for us. "I can tell, you don't like the thought of your car alone in the city. You know what, you can put it in the garage!" His son comes over and opens the garage door. Again we are about to leave when Witold asks, "Surely you're not going to take all that photography equipment with you? It is almost dark. You can leave it in the room, no worries. And put your wallet, credit card and passport under the mattress, just take the money you'll need this evening. There are so many pickpockets!"

We get onto the tram with our photography equipment and wallet.