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Recounting a Trip to Poland: May 18-26, 2002

Flying from Atlanta to Amsterdam is about 9.5 hours give or take an hour for the jet stream. We got to Atlanta from Montgomery by 1 p.m. May 18 and were checked in. With about 45 minutes before flight time, Delta announced a plane and gate change and we had to check in again ... all on a full plane (Boeing MD-11). Luckily, we only had to get a new boarding pass with the same seat number, so we were only 1.5 hours late leaving. During the flight, the sun was down only about 3.5 hours as we left late afternoon and arrived at 9 in the morning May 19. The jet stream was with us and we actually arrived early!! In Amsterdam, we got on Polish Air (LOT) to Warsaw and then Gdansk. LOT has the most modern fleet of airplanes in the world so the flights in Poland were a treat. On plane service was exceptional. Unfortunately my main bag didn't make it from Gdansk, so I had the clothes from the trip and no toilet articles. (I bought a toothbrush and toothpaste in Kwidzyn). Then Gdansk to Kwidzyn by car (actually van) a 1.5-hour trek through the Polish countryside.

Kwidzyn is pronounced Kvid-zin. Polish isn't a Germanic language. It is more on the Russian side. So my German didn't help at all.

Driving in Poland is different. There are two lanes of traffic with a wide bike trail on each side of the road in the more populated areas. This bike trail is for bikes and whatever else decides to use it. You for example are expected to move into it to allow someone to pass ... either from behind or coming at you from ahead! The drill: Flash your lights, pull left and pass regardless of the traffic. Wild. Traffic tickets are different: you pay a percentage of your annual income. Needless to say, Americans in country don't violate many traffic laws.

Kwidzyn reminds me of Germany in the 60's. The economy is just developing. The political climate is hot with change as the leaders are a carryover from the communist era. However, looks to me that the country is the best of the lot of the pre-communist countries. I think it is because many of the people can remember what it was like to be free. Anyway it was a big surprise for me to see. Wages are low and the cost of living is also low for the day-to-day items. Autos are very expensive and the most popular are the very small Fiats, VWs, Opals, Renaults and Skodas. In Kwidzyn I only saw one larger car bigger than a Camry. Gas was 2.4 to 3.3 Zlotys per liter. A Zloty is about 25 cents.

Ten years ago, inflation was rampant. Things settled down and the government divided the old Zloty by 10,000 thereby creating the current currency. Poland is struggling with the decision to join the EU, along with Turkey and others. I think it's just a matter of time for Poland. It's in hot political debate.

Kwidzyn is a community of about 40,000 thought you wouldn't know it from driving through. The downtown has one major church and almost no buildings taller than 5 stories. The best restaurants are in hotels and we found three. Also found two pizza places that were great. The best thing about the area that I liked was the food. The restaurants served excellent meals that would succeed anywhere. Lamb, chicken, venison, pork, beef and fish were all great. Soups were outstanding; desserts were acceptable; and local beer above average. Meal presentation was at high standards. And they took American Express!

Dinner the first night, we were having a hard time finding a place that was both open and not having private parties (being Sunday). Finally the first place we tried came through as we were walking back to the cars. They opened a private dining room just for us. This was at the Maxim Pensjonat in downtown Kwidzyn, probably the most upscale restaurant in the town. The menu (as I learned through experience as typical) was in Polish, German and English. I had a Polish beef soup that I could have made my main meal. Then a beef main course presented in continental style with veggies, and a dessert. Add two local 1-ltr-draft beers and a tab of $18.75 US including tip. Not bad for the fanciest place in town in a private dining room!

Many people walk or ride bicycles as autos of any sort are beyond the reach of those making 1000 to 1500 zlotys a month ($250 to 500 American). The smallest new car is over a year's wages at these levels.

Manual labor is the word. Paving streets uses a maximum of human labor and a minimum of equipment. Sidewalks are hand laid bricks in many areas. The mill is a bit larger than Prattville's. While Prattville employs 640 people total, Kwidzyn employs 2000 operators and 1000 contract maintenance people, for a total of 3000. But with low wages, there is no incentive to reduce the workforce. This is the same situation as our mill in Russia, though I believe Kwidzyn will advance much sooner and therefore increase wages and reduce manpower.

Monday evening my bag arrived at the apartment so I could change clothes and lead a normal life. Happiness is clean shorts.

During the stay, we ate dinner twice in the Pensjonat Milosna, a six-bedroom hotel just outside town. A beef and then a fish dinner did not disappoint. Again the prices were around $18 US for soup, main course, dessert, beers and after dinner drink. Grand Mariner was less than a dollar US. My liver wouldn't last long here!

Thursday evening May 23, the mill hosted us to dinner at a hotel several miles outside of town called the White House. The soup was excellent (getting the picture?). The host ordered a Spanish red wine, which was too oaken for my tastes. Then after dinner he ordered the same brand in Grand Reserve, which was much better. With two beers, three glasses of wine and a Grand Mariner, I wasn't fit to kill. I read till 2 a.m. knowing I didn't need to get up early. Finished Richard Patterson's "Silent Witness." A car picked us up for the trip to Gdansk at 9:30 a.m. Friday May 24. The exit briefing at the mill was at 10, but some of us had to miss it in order to get rides. The car was a relatively new Opal four door about the size of a Corolla. The driver was relatively sane.

Gdansk had a reunion celebration May 24-26. I never understood what the reunion was all about, but I figure it was a lot like our city fests. Gdansk, in contrast to Kwidzyn, was built up and one of three cities in a row along the river, called the tri-city area. Maps and tourist information linked the three together. Their airport was larger than Montgomery by a bit.

I walked around the city Friday afternoon. Had lunch at the Holiday Inn where I was staying at TGI Friday's. Yes I had a bacon cheeseburger and fries. I had to ask for ketchup. There were sights to see in Gdansk but nothing of note to purchase. The big jewelry item was Amber. But a call to Kathy told me the prices were not great, though we're not Amber experts by any means. I did buy a large Addidis athletic bag to consolidate luggage and avoid an excess baggage charge. Interestingly enough, the shops in Gdansk were unusually small. A jewelry store would be the size of a bedroom (10x12). One large house was gutted and made into a three story-shopping mini-mall. I walked right by it the first time because I couldn't read the signs. Most businesses work on cash only. Many don't have cash registers but instead use hand written receipts and make change from a metal box, you know, the kind you use for a garage sale. Needless to say, Poland is not a country one would visit without another reason, except for the historical interest and the food. Ya, the food. Soups and bread. I'd gain a ton in a month.

Our flight from Gdansk to Warsaw & Amsterdam Saturday morning was at 6 a.m. We figured 20 minutes to the airport by cab and 1.5 hours to check into the flight, since it was international. So we were up at 3:15 a.m., checked out by 4 and in a cab. At 4 a.m. all traffic lights are blinking yellow, so we got to the airport by 4:10 only to find no one there except one guard. At 5 a.m. the gate attendants arrived and checked us in. There we were at 5:10 all ready to go ...

The Warsaw airport is really two airports, one local and one international. We arrived at the local and had to go outside and back in to the international. So it was another round of x-rays and personal scans. Checked baggage however zipped right through without us seeing it at all.

We arrived in Amsterdam at 9:30 a.m. May 25. We checked into the Airport Hilton Hotel and were on a train into the city by 10:45, a 20-minute train ride for $5.20 EUs round trip.

Amsterdam is a city that could easily take a week to cover. It's actually 100 islands separated by canals. Water everywhere. Boats are like taxies but cheaper. You can buy a $14 EU excursion ticket for 24 hours and take a boat within easy walking of any landmark in the city. One-dollar American was 1.124 EUs last week. Love these exchange rates!

We boarded a boat near the main train station and rode to the first stop. Everyone was hungry so we had lunch at a local pub. One of us ordered the beef sausage sandwich listed as a "local specialty" but the waiter warned that it was raw meat that many don't like. Needless to say he changed his order. Afterwards, I got in line alone for the Anne Frank Huis (House) & Museum, as the other guys didn't want to go through it. I was there over 2 hours touring the house where Anne and her Jewish family of eight hid from 1942 until late summer 1944. It is an emotional experience to see the pencil marks on the wall where the children's growth was measured while in hiding. In the museum and shop were books for sale in many languages along with posters and other souvenirs. I abstained.

I wanted to take a boat to the Van Gogh Museum and exhibition, my only other planned sight. But I was off schedule and walked 15 minutes instead. Another line to buy tickets. The permanent Van Gogh museum is three stories of paintings & study areas. The second floor had paintings, books and computer terminals for research. On "tour exhibition" were hundreds of additional paintings with an audio tour in the basement. Unfortunately I spent too much time in the regular museum and only had 30 minutes for the exhibition, so no audio tour for me ... just a run through. And the place was jammed so I was lucky to get through and lucky not to have my pockets picked, a real danger in Amsterdam.

The group had arranged to meet at 6 p.m. for dinner at a boat stop just 5 minutes from the Van Gogh Museum. So I had an easy walk but had been on my feet for over five hours. Luckily we found an Indian restaurant within 100 yards. I ate soup, a curry lamb kabob with rice (that hit the spot) with one beer and a Grand Marnier for $35 EU including tip. Hey, we're in the big city you know?

We decided to walk back to the train station, a 30+ minute jaunt. Two blocks away we found restaurant row, two city blocks of every kind and type of eating-place you could imagine. And NO the walk back did not take us through the red light district.

So, I spent an entire afternoon in Amsterdam and only saw two sights. My co-worker boss visited Amsterdam with his wife for four days and said that they didn't have enough time to see all they wanted to. So I'd say a full week would do it.

Gene Canavan is a retired West Point Graduate and Paper Mill Utilities Manager and lives in Prattville, Alabama, USA.


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