Photo © Theresa Wong

Oh, Olsztyn

In a strange Polish town in the middle of the night, who can you trust?

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By Theresa Wong

Travel Writer

30 Aug 2018 - 5 Minute Read


I wasn’t having a very good day.

My attempts to “be chill” and “go with the flow” – two major goals I’d set for my burnt-out, perennially stressed self during this gap year – had already backfired spectacularly when I’d bullied myself into not double-checking my flight time to Krakow earlier in the day. A round of histrionics in the streets of Southwark, another in the back of a cab, and finally a knee-jerk decision to purchase “the only other flight to Poland” because “the gates had just closed and I’d better decide quickly,” and here I was: sitting in the back of a rickety taxi on my way to some place called Olsztyn, listening to Ariana Grande, and wondering all the while how much it would suck being eaten by wolves if I ran out of zlotys and the driver threw me out into the blackened forest around us.

Maybe my fears were a little irrational, but I was 18. I was alone, with a broken phone and very clammy hands, and unbeknownst to my parents, I’d just used their credit card to buy a tear-jerkingly expensive flight to somewhere I’d never even heard of before the ticket agent pointed it out on the dingy map he kept under his desk.

So, yeah, I was a tad nervous.

When the taxi finally creaked to a stop, I found myself staring at a deserted train station, lights glowing eerily in the dark.

Getty Images / Konrad Poswiata

“Hotel,” my driver said, stabbing a finger at a building across the street, and then another across from it. He looked at me expectantly, and, after telling myself to grow a spine, I paid, clambered out of the back seat, and watched as the taxi left me behind in the cold December night.

Gulping, I wandered over and found that the first “hotel” was in fact a conglomeration of closed shops and businesses. The other was apparently abandoned, plastic sheeting fluttering in darkened windows. Dramatic images of sleeping rough and dying from exposure flashed through my mind as I walked aimlessly around, passing too many signs labelled sklep, which I desperately hoped meant “sleep” but in reality was simply the Polish word for “shop.

I tried to think of what my mother would tell me to do, but quickly dismissed the idea – calling the police probably wasn’t the best option. Trying to think practically, I remembered the 24-hour McDonalds we’d passed in the taxi and decided that if all else failed, I'd simply sit myself down at a booth and cry over chicken nuggets until morning.

I stepped meekly into the only open business. The convenience store looked more like a liquor store, and after realizing that none of the customers buying vodka spoke any English, I decided I’d better just try miming “sleep,” saying “hotel,” and looking pitiful.

Whether I get murdered or find a hotel, at least either way I'll get some rest, I mused, trying to be optimistic.

Hotel? echoed a man who was about to leave. He waved his hand towards the door and strode out, gesturing for me to follow. I hesitated and threw the female cashiers an apprehensive look. They shooed me out, and making my second knee-jerk decision of the day, I trusted these strangers’ judgement of another stranger, and followed the man out into the night, every warning I’d ever received about “stranger danger” blaring in my head.

Whether I get murdered or find a hotel, at least either way I'll get some rest, I mused, trying to be optimistic.

We walked largely in silence, though, nonsensically, there were times when he would speak at length in Polish, and I in English, even though neither of us understood a word of what the other was saying. For some reason, I found myself unloading everything that had gone wrong that day, and to his credit, he gave me sympathetic looks and nods.

I had no idea how far away the hotel was, or where exactly he was leading me, but as we walked and “chatted,” I became ever so slightly less concerned about the possibility of being kidnapped, and a smidge more grateful that despite all the concrete and hard liquor, Poland was turning out to be much less scary than it had seemed from inside the taxi.

When we reached the promised hotel, I thanked him as earnestly as I could, and he shook my hand before kissing it, saying a few words in Polish that I didn’t understand but appreciated anyway.

As I watched him disappear into the night, an immense feeling of glee bubbled up within me; because of the stranger that had just saved me from sleeping at McDonalds, myself for having finally “gone with the flow,” and, perhaps most of all, that ticket agent and his dingy little map, which managed to guide me in the right direction after all.

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Travel Writer

Theresa is a Canadian student with too little means and too many travel plans. She was a finalist in the World Nomads 2018 Travel Writing Scholarship.

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  • Emily Tyler said

    This reminds me of the time I was backpacking Europe with a friend. We were having a horrible time in Italy (probably also a result of trying too hard to "go with the flow") and wanted to redirect our trip elsewhere. When we got to Venice and saw there was an airport, we booked the first and cheapest flight out, and that's how we ended up in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, a place we'd never heard of before. We got in on a late flight and were noticeably different from everyone else unboarding as they openly stared at us. Fortunately, we had enough know-how to get some cash before leaving the airport and not take the first price a taxi driver offered.
    Cruising through the dark night of an unfamiliar city, the taxi driver kept alternating between telling us it was a safe city "but don't go out at night" warnings that left us confused and more than a little scared when he left us on the street across from an abandoned garage. We eventually got a hold of our airbnb host who even brought us some snacks for our first night (the best cheese and tomato sandwiches I've ever had) and to this day, Romania remains one of my favorite countries. But eesh, rough start that really adds to the roller coaster that is travel. Also, it's pretty great to see how many people the world over are willing to help us when we're vulnerable. Glad it all worked out for you in the end!

  • Elena said

    I am from Olsztyn and I feel flattered that someone found that rather boring place so amusing, and even scary. Wolves, murderers, kidnappers? Naaah... But a guy kissing your hand for goodbye, yes, I totally see that happening. :) Glad you've survived the dreadful Olsztyn. :D

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