The last few weeks spawned a number of densely packed and somewhat unconventional shifts in my travels. It started at the beginning of the month as I transitioned from Berlin to Copenhagen. I can’t state much from my experience in Copenhagen beyond what I wrote in the previous post, which was next to nothing. Copenhagen served as my introduction to Scandinavia and confirmed some of my suspicions: the incredible average height of Danes, the impressive command of the English language, and the heavy reliance on the bicycle network as the primary mode of transport. Having said that, my few days there were marked more by writing, research, and introspection, than heavy exploration of the depths (and heights) of Copenhagen.
Stockholm, Sweden, my next destination, left a more notable impression. With regard to communication, it is the one non-native-English-language environments possessing the command of the language in the most transparent and ubiquitous manner among society, more so even than Copenhagen. Per my past observations among younger Swedish tourists, many spoke with an almost native North-American accent, which fits given the large extent of undubbed American programming available and actively consumed.
The Stockholm old town impressed me in ways I would struggle to adequately describe. Maybe it was the endless complex of narrow streets not only providing the needed protection from the imposing Scandinavian sunlight, but basking in the uniqueness of Scandinavian traditional architecture, in contrast to the Central European or the Latin American I’m more accustomed to. Maybe I was simply more attuned to the surroundings. Yet, in spite of the vast quantity of Old Towns previously experienced, this one radiated with me the strongest.
In addition, the presence of some amount of sunlight late into the night, or rather, the absence of complete dusk, was an experience I long yearned to intake, having never previously visited Scandinavia or other regions to the likes of St. Petersburg or Alaska. Beyond the novelty of the natural phenomenon in itself, the healthy balance between the extent of narrow shaded streets in the afternoons and the light presence throughout the night, provided much energetic foundation.
The light ambiance somewhat reminded me of cinematographically manipulated lighting. Well lit street scenes generally don’t appear too bright or dim in quality cinema, and on the streets of Stockholm, I felt such lighting naturally, at least in the Summer season. I could only imagine the harsh, spirit-crumbling reality the non-Summer climate manifests, characterized generally by perpetual dusk. Cinematic visual marvels such as The Crow or The Dark City come to mind in that regard, especially the latter, with the heavy noir ambiance Stockholm too can inspire, in contrast to the largely Gothic influence of the former.
Gdańsk and Łeba
Speaking of Gothic influence, I next transitioned to my much-beloved Poland, this time commencing with Gdańsk on the north, close to the Baltic Sea. Gdańsk remained under the German (and Prussian) influence for a large part of history, and the Old City architecture attests to that respect. Explore Długi Targ (Long Market) for an exposition of the Gothic-Renaissance architectural roots.
Gdańsk impressed, a lot, but didn’t inspire a natural yearning to remain there long-term. It was a combination of heavy tourist presence in packed regions, but in the confines of what felt like a sprawl of disconnected neighborhoods throughout a larger city.
I’ll also comment on a smaller town Łeba, situated along the northern coast, a 3-hour train ride away from Gdańsk. The town itself featured nothing spectacular, but it falls in the proximity of Słowinski Natural Park, a region housing an unusual combination of natural phenomena, marked by the lake Łebsko to the south, forest land all around, the beach and the Baltic Sea to the north, but most impressively, the famous moving sand dunes in one segment of an extensive desert-like region adjacent to the beach. The contrast between the “desert* and the sudden downhill transition into the forest left me in awe.
The quest to reach the sand dunes was not among the lightest. As already mentioned, Łeba is situated a 3-hour train ride away from the Gdańsk central station. Once in Łeba, the dunes require another 10-km hike (not including exploration of the actual dunes), which I undertook by foot, although bike rentals are aplenty. On the way back, fairly exhausted by that point, mini-buses made rounds to cover at least a 6-km portion of the distance.
I stayed briefly (for three days) in Lublin, a city in the South-East, not too distant from the Ukrainian border. My goal consisted of briefly exiting the country for visa-related reasons, and shortly returning. Lublin itself provided much charm and also a fairly notable Old City, although by this point, I felt severely weighted from so much transitory movement over the previous couple of weeks to fully embrace what it had to offer. Rather, I spent much time interacting with the hosts during my also unconventional act to stay via Couchsurfing.
I next arrived in Lviv, considered the most “Ukrainian” of cities. Despite the strong presence of Russian and Polish similarities in the Ukrainian language, even casual attempts of communicating in Ukrainian crumbled as a consequence of lacking experience in articulating those words with the right pronunciation. As such, I would automatically resort to either pure Russian or Polish, never mind what disposition a native might exhibit towards the carrier of any of those languages, given the turbulent history with the respective neighbors.
I found Lviv to be one of the more beautiful Eastern-European cities I had seen, but again, didn’t much explore beyond the basics, catching up on various affairs and still overcoming the oversaturated few weeks of active travel. Were I a Ukrainian-speaking digital nomad, I would probably settle in Ukraine for a longer period in lieu of Poland, but alas. It’s an unsettling affair, really, how the process of choosing a longer-term residence can narrow down to a handful of cardboard-cutout parameters.
All the transport, border crossing comedies, and logistics planning (or improvising) aside, I found myself in Kraków, where I plan to spend the next three months, and finally enjoy a sense of “stability”. Upon arrival, I signed up for the city shared-bike system first thing. Not having approached a bicycle in over two years, and with only North-American city experience in shared bicycles, this system provided some novelties.
One was the ability to remotely reserve a bike at a given location for the course of 15 minutes. Two, rather than an unlimited amount of timed, but typically shorter trips before having to re-dock the bicycle, the membership plans provide a total of either 60 or 90 minutes of daily riding by means of a monthly or yearly plan. Beyond the allotted time, a fairly modest per minute charge for additional riding applies. Three, and for me the most unusual, is the ability to return a bike not necessarily at a hub, but anywhere in the designated system (secured at any bike rack, light post, bench, etc), for a penalty of 3 złoty (~0.82 USD). On the flip side, returning one of these “renegade” bicycles to an official docking station results in a 1 zł reward credited to the account. Regretfully, even upon securing an already renegade bicycle at another (or same) renegade location, the account still receives the penalty.
I can rationalize the model, which probably aims to avoid the harvesting of city bicycles, that is, avoid someone at a more isolated location storing the bicycle in the proximity for largely exclusive personal use.
To conclude, I will make one final remark. After nearly 10 years of familiarity with the international organization Toastmasters, but no action, I finally ventured to attend a meeting in Kraków in my very first day. I’ll report on this experience in a separate post, and in this case, I think I mean that sincerely.