Monday, June 23, 2008

Adventures in Family History, Part 2

By train, by bus, by foot, by thumb…
On Friday morning I woke up at 5:30 AM to catch my 7 AM train from Warsaw to Toruń. Toruń is the closest major city to the village of Wąpielsk, where the Kotwickis are from. As it turns out, Torun is also a beautiful town. I didn’t have much time to enjoy Toruń when I arrived around 10 AM, though, because my main task was to try to get to Wąpielsk. The young woman at the Tourist Information Center (TIC) was extremely helpful in helping me find a way to Wąpielsk (though she had never heard of the village herself – bad sign? Hmmm…). The trip would take about 1.5-2 hours by bus and I could leave at 2 or 4 PM, but it appeared that there was no way I could catch a bus back to Toruń that night. Since there were no listed accomodations in Wąpielsk, the TIC woman found a hotel for me in a town near Wąpielsk (the town is Golub-Dobrzyn). And the hotel was in a castle!

I spent some time walking around Toruń until it started raining and I decided to find a restaurant. The restaurant was quite crowded and I ended up sharing a table with a Polish woman and her granddaughter. I had my first pseudo-full conversation in Polish, which was quite difficult, though I managed to at least find out that she was from Toruń and that she had a colleague from Wąpielsk, but had never been there herself (she also made sure I wasn’t planning to stay there, since she didn’t think there was much in the town – another bad sign? Hmmm…). In any case, they were very nice to try to speak with me!

At 2 I headed to Wąpielsk. About 2 hours later, I was the last one on the bus and the driver dropped me off at a bus stop on an intersection of two roads and not much else. I managed to confirm with him that another bus should be able to take me back to Golub-Dobrzyn (to the castle!) around 6:20 PM. Another bus would also come by at 9:30 PM, but after a quick glance at the so-called “village” of Wąpielsk, I was pretty sure I wanted to leave for the castle earlier, rather than later.

As best as I can tell, Wąpielsk is an intersection with 3 stores, a post office, some kind of government buiding, and, ummm…. that’s all. Surrounding the intersection are farms, mostly, plus one small Soviet-style apartment building, and a few more modern-looking houses. I walked a bit in each direction from the intersection, looking for signs of life. I found some life - people and cows. The people seemed to being doing one of two things – going to one of the stores by foot, bike or car for beer (or bread), or else standing in doorways chatting. Some other people were working on their farms, but it was difficult to get good pictures and not look like a spy. Here’s a picture of the "downtown":

You can see more of the wonders of Wąpielsk in the photo album. It’s basically just a farming area, and I don’t think there is much else. I suppose that if our young ancestors, the Kotwicki children, didn’t inherit a farm, they probably couldn’t have done much in this town. Thus they set off to live with relatives in the new world.

By 6 PM I was very ready to go to the castle. I went to the bus stop early to wait, but got a bit bored waiting so I took out my iPod and computer to charge it and load some more songs. Then, at 6:05 – 15 minutes earlier than the time I had gotten from the TIC woman – the bus came. I saw it, was in shock for a split second, then waved to him and started packing my things as quickly as possible to hop on the bus. But he drove away. I raced after him, dragging my half-packed things behind me, but he did not stop. Then I wandered back to the bus stop in a daze and sat in shock. Maybe it was the wrong bus? Why had it come so early? What if I missed my bus? What would I do?

Then maybe 5 minutes later, before I even managed finish packing up my things, I saw another bus. It was coming from a different direction, so I stood up and squinted to read the sign for where it was going. It was going to Golub-Dobrzyń, to the castle! I finished packing my things very quickly and just as I started to run over to catch the bus, it had already turned the corner and was gone. That’s right. I missed TWO buses to the castle. Mind you, it was still only about 6:10/6:15, so, I thought, maybe neither of those buses were right and there will be another bus at 6:20, like I had written down. I waited quite alertly, all packed and everything (!) at the intersection, ready to jump on ANY bus that came from ANY direction. But by 6:30 I knew that those had been my last chances. I had missed my bus(es).

The thought of waiting there three more hours to potentially miss another bus was enough to make me want to run all the way to the castle. Suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling of being totally and completely trapped. I was in this tiny village that wasn’t even really a village, but an intersection. There was not even one restaurant, where I could sit for while, if I waited.

So I had one more option - to hitchhike. Why not? These people all seemed pretty nice. Maybe somewhat reserved, but nice. So I began walking in the direction toward Golub-Dobrzyń and got ready to try hitchhiking.

But no cars were coming in the direction I was walking. I had the sense that I was re-performing the exodus of our ancestors 100 years ago. I know, a bit dramatic, but I was overwhelmed with the need to get out of that place. That must be why I found this sign to be so symbolic:

I walked for an hour and 10 cars passed going in my direction. Not one stopped. One even had a taxi sign on it. Couldn’t the taxi have picked up one more desperate passenger? My shoes were not the right choice for the trek, sort of like business casual short boots (my only covered shoes for this trip). I was determined to throw them away if I ever made it to my destination. Fortunately I had left my suitcase in a locker in Warsaw, which I would pick up on my way to Krakow the next day, and so only had a backpack and purse. Based on what I knew from the trip out there I tried to calculate how far Golub-Dobrzyń was from Wąpielsk in my head. At the very best I estimated 10 miles, which is walkable, but certainly no fun.

Then I approached a fork in the road, and before the fork was a man in front of a house. He was closing the gate in front of the house and I noticed he had a car parked outside of the gate. In my wretched Polish I asked him how far it was to Golub-Dobrzyń. He said maybe 20 km (12 miles) more. Remember, I had already been walking for an hour. I was so disappointed, I think it must have been obvious. Then I asked if he maybe was headed in that direction. He said something about the bus, and I tried to explain that it came earlier than expected and so I missed it. After a few more exchanges, he agreed to drive me about halfway there - to another bus stop where I could try to catch a different bus. I was so relieved to have any help that I quickly agreed.

This extremely nice man was named Andrzej. He ended up driving me all the way to the castle. I think he decided to drive me the whole way after I explained that I went to Wąpielsk because my great grandmother was born there a century ago. He is from Wąpielsk himself (but now lives in the neighboring village). He said that there are no longer any Kotwickis in Wąpielsk, but the name sounded familiar to him – people long ago had the name, but they had likely all moved since then, or else there were only women left with the name and they would have lost their name when they married.

So I failed at hitchhiking, but I did get a ride with a stranger to the castle. I know, I know. This was unsafe. I shouldn’t have tried to hitchhike and I shouldn’t have begged a stranger for a ride. But don’t you see that I was desperate? And it was really interesting to meet and speak with someone local, especially someone from Wąpielsk.

Both the castle and town of Golub were beautiful. Here’s the castle where I slept:

And a here's the view of the town from the lookout area of the castle:

I was also relieved because the guy at the reception desk spoke some English, so I could finally stop pretending to speak Polish (until I went to town to buy myself a much deserved beer).

Here’s to Poland!


Sandra said...

Bravo! See, most people in this world are good people! What a story! I love it! And this you will tell to your great grandchildren (or grand nieces) someday.

iwanagain said...

I feel like sending you a pair of very sensible sneakers. My feet hurt just reading the story. I love the part about you chasing the bus and the part about the ride. And also, why is there a town sign with a big red slash mark through it? Weird yet appropriate.

But what a rewarding end. Kind of like having a baby, or earning a PhD (I'm guessing). It's a huge pain in the ass, but you're rewarded with a baby/advanced degree/night in a castle. And, on all three accounts, beer!

cg said...

It seems to me that you would do well in a town like Wąpielsk, considering you did grow up in Grayling. (snicker, snicker). Glad you made it to the castle deserved the royal treatment after that trek!