Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:
It saddens me to mention that my calendar year abroad will be one-half complete in two days. My second quarter has been a rollercoaster ride, a series of inconveniences, scary moments, bizarre encounters, and triumphs. Though my hockey possibilities have blossomed into dizzying profusion, the cultural experiences in the past quarter (hockey-connected and otherwise) have proven far more influential on my year so far. Here's a brief summary of my activities.
When I last wrote you, I had every intent of leaving Poland for Kaliningrad, the Baltics, and parts unknown. At the time of my previous report, however, I couldn't've possibly anticipated the kindness and generosity of the Polish people. After my fruitless scouting trip to Ukraine, I returned to Warszawa discouraged. The hostel had no room for me and I was in dire straits; I took a gamble and called a chance Warszawian acquaintance who'd offered me accommodation weeks prior in a smoky Krakow bar. The week that ensued dashed my negative initial impressions of the Polish capital against the rocks; Pawel Godlewski showed me the side of Warszawa that the tourists don't see: the side with a vibrant cultural event happening every night and loads of friendly people who aren't perpetually in a hurry. I spent my time there brushing up on my Polish slang, going to cultural festivals of all sorts, and speaking snatches of Russian with Pawel's female friends, who were enrolled in the Russian language master's program at the local university. I cooked a delicious Thanksgiving dinner for the whole crew and got them in on American holiday tradition.
I was just starting to get a little tired of Warszawa when I received an unexpected email from my team in Krakow: they'd entered an upcoming tournament and wanted me to play for them, if I were still in Poland. Though the tournament itself wasn't much to write home about, it opened a door to A) a much longer stay in Poland and B) perhaps the most rewarding experiences of my trip so far. I extended my Krakow stay because I was waiting to go home to Biskupice with my friend Pawel (Janik, not Godlewski). He and his family thought it would be a shame for me to be alone on Christmas, so he extended me an invitation to a traditional Polish Christmas extravaganza in his home. Though my family has its own traditions (snack food all day, cinnamon buns for breakfast), my holiday at the Janik household was something altogether different and extremely special. For a few days, I was a part of traditions that Poles have observed for hundreds of years, from the exchange of wishes and strictly-fish dinner on Christmas Eve to the Christmas Day twelve-course meal and drinkstravaganza. Said drinkstravaganza featured maybe a little too much of Mr. Janik's delicious homemade strawberry rocket fuel. Aside from the warmth and companionship I found in the Janik household, my best Christmas present involved fulfilling one of the goals on the master checklist I wrote at the beginning of the year: I got to play hockey on a lake as the sun set in the distance. I've been trying to send you pictures for basically forever, but hostel internet is unreliable at best, nonexistent at worst.
I went to Gdansk from Biskupice, and after I shrugged aside my cat-related allergy woes (the Janiks had three cats), I began to search out teams. It bears mention that at this point my Polish, though far from fluent, is completely functional. I sent emails in readable Polish to four teams in the area, and I got multiple positive responses. I was elated to actually have the ability to choose a team. One team was a bunch of showboating jerks who weren't nearly good enough to justify the bloodthirsty seriousness with which they approached the game. Another team was extremely disorganized and unfriendly. The team I've stayed with the longest on the trip so far, though (Gdynski Klub Hokejowy), has provided the most rewarding hockey games yet. They actually have organized tri-weekly practices and they scrimmage twice a week. Playing five times a week sounded like my idea of a good time. I made a big impact, and their captain asked if I'd be interested in staying on to play with them for the rest of the season. I was so enthusiastic I even emailed Watson central to notify them of my quandry and potential change in plans. Only recently did I find out, however, that it's not totally up to the GKH if I get to play. The league has a governing body that has to approve my place on the team. The league requires papers saying that you've never played professionally, and since my league in the US provided no such documentation, my chances are nonexistent. It came as something of a blow, but it's at least helped me reprioritize. Now I'm in the Baltics, where the hockey has been all but absent, but I'll go and reseat myself in Gdansk until my visas for Kaliningrad and Belarus come through.
I realize I've waffled a bit about whether or not I can go to Kaliningrad, but one of the most bizarre moments in my trip came after one of my hockey games in Gdansk. Two of my teammates are Kaliningraders of unusual background. They drive VERY nice cars, curse incessantly, and were so happy I spoke Russian that they took me and my Russo-Polish teammate to dinner at a four-star restaurant after scrimmage one night. I was curious what they did to put them in such comfortable financial standing, so I asked Sergei “so what do you do?” He and his friend had a healthy chortle and then there was a long pause. Sergei's friend, Erik, answered for him “Sergei is...a businessman.” Between that and their assertion that they had “friends who would be more than happy to help me” at the Russian consulate, I couldn't help but think, upon leaving, that I'd just had dinner with the Russian mafia.
The quarter had its share of mishaps too, unfortunately. Two near-miss muggings in Krakow put me on my toes, and the admittedly peaceful robbery in Gdansk's old town proved that walking on the street anywhere is just a roll of the dice. The robbery itself was nowhere near as irritating as the subsequent difficulties I had retrieving my luggage from the train station--before the thugs who took my locker key got there first. Strength comes through adversity, though, so I took the chance to use my Polish in a series of stressed phone calls with the luggage bureau. A few days and approximately 200 zloty later, I had my luggage back just in time for my first scrimmage with GKH. I think it may have been the only time I've ever enjoyed carrying my bag. Ultimately there are good and bad people everywhere, and sometimes no amount of careful planning and awareness can save you from a seedy situation. Managing the aftermath is decidedly the line between novice travelers and more advanced ones. For instance, unlike a gentleman I met in a hostel who wouldn't go out because he was afraid of getting beaten by Russians, I haven't let these little patches of scariness compromise my resolve.
Hence since Gdansk I've headed for points north, namely Vilnius and Trakai, Lithuania, Riga, Latvia, and I'm presently writing you from Tallinn, Estonia, at the end of my Baltic Segue. Though hockey connections have been sparse, the languages and cultures here are so quirky and isolated from the rest of Europe that I'm staying a little longer in the region before returning to Gdansk; I want to get more than just a cursory idea of what's happening in these fascinating places. To substantiate, though sandwiched between major hockey powers (Russia and the Scandinavian countries), the Baltic nations even express their eccentricity through their choices of national sports. Lithuanians play and watch basketball like madmen. Hence every Lithuanian student who tried to start a conversation about the NBA immediately ran into a roadblock of my ignorance on the subject of hoops. From my time in Riga, I've determined that the unofficial Latvian national sport must be organized crime. Estonia, finally and perhaps most bizarrely, boasts extraordinary skill in the field of table football. I'm not terrible myself, but I can't begin to enumerate the times Estonians have destroyed me at foosball.
My flexibility and adaptability continue to grow and flourish. I had no intention whatsoever of spending so long in Poland, but the longer I was there, the more I felt I had to learn before I was satisfied. I suppose I've been that way since I was small; I'd research whatever interested me at the time until I found out what I wanted to know. Having such a massive research/play ground to indulge my curiosities has been immensely rewarding, and my ability to keep my itinerary flexible has yielded some amazing experiences that would have been otherwise impossible. The longer this trip has gone on, the more I've learned to follow my instincts, and not just about where I'm going to find fruitful hockey options, but about people, places, and situations of all shapes and sizes. So while my second quarter has yielded some great games, some great friends, and a whole new pack of language skills and cultural knowledge, I can't really word a lot what I've learned. Traveling is just like any other undertaking in life; you meet good and bad people, and even though you evolve and adapt to circumstances as they present themselves, perhaps the most important thing of all is maintaining a stable core. I've tried to keep in touch with my roots while immersing myself in my surroundings as thoroughly as possible. One really trivial example illustrates my point very well: I met a group of Estonian students who took me for a really nice meal of all the national favorite foods. In return, I took them to the only place I've seen in in this part of the world so far that sells Dr. Pepper. They'd never had it, and I thought that a terrible shame. On the surface, it was a fairly unimportant exchange, but the small things we exchange with others add up. And as we learn from each other, we grow together and perhaps bridge the gaps between individuals and nations. Our Dr. Pepper festival began a lively and fruitful discussion about Estonian culture, international politics and the ideas of America. I won't be so presumptuous to say that I changed anyone's mind about my country, but I planted a seed, and maybe someday, with a little nurturing and positive interaction, that seed will grow into something great.
Whether in rink, locker room, hostel, or bar, I have so much to learn from everyone I meet. Last quarter I was so concerned with finding a team that I'm sure I must have missed some really fabulous opportunities along the way. Now that the hockey's coming easily, though, I've been filling the interstices learning how different we are, and, more importantly, learning how much we all have in common. It's my sincere intention for this all not to sound...fruity. It bears mention, though, that I'm continually amazed, because that even beyond the uniting power of sport that I mentioned in my initial application and last report, there's something even deeper: the simple fact that there's always something to discuss, something to learn from others. It just takes some words in another language, some mutual patience, and a healthy dose of goodwill.
With fond regards and sincere thanks to all involved,
P.S. Pictures are forthcoming; I PROMISE.