Missing two and three quarter hours of a three hour tour, followed by missing the bus the very next day had meant that my given first impression was, well, not ideal. I sat alone at a table that seated over twenty, eating strange tomato spaghetti soup and delicious mushroom stroganoff as I heard the start of the program outside. I wondered how long it would be acceptable to delay my next entrance or if it would only get worse. Outside the dinner hall, I heard people being arranged into two lines. A line of native speakers and a line of Polish participants. Each native speaker would speak to a Polish participant for five minutes before being shuffled down the line to speak to the next. And so on. I joined after a couple of switches and soon introduced myself to everyone, being asked the same questions and telling the same stories over and over again.
One night at the beginning of the program, I dreamt that there was a pregnant snake in my kitchen. It was relentlessly attacking me and I had to continuously throw it around the kitchen to protect myself and the others in the room. There was also a giant stag beetle with the face of a human that rather scared me. The snake was yellow with green spots and I don’t have a kitchen because I don’t have a house.
The Polish participants were diverse. From students and business people, to salt miners and actors. Each with their own personal reasons for wanting to develop their English fluency. Our program involved eating three meals a day together. We would arrange ourselves alternately, Polish participant, native speaker, so that we could interact naturally over food. Each day we had multiple one-on-ones in succession; an hour that you spent with an assigned person in which you could talk about anything or the pre-determined topics that were handed to you on small slips of paper at the changeovers. They generally involved finding a place to sit, walking through the fields, or walking around the lake. Once I even spent the hour on a pedalo, paddling across a lake while discussing life and all that would be. In the evenings there were group activities and a social game during which people would drink beer. Each day was filled with talking beyond a natural level and after the organised parts were over, we continued to talk over drinks. Cherry vodka shots and late night conversations ensured that for the seven days, we were doing nothing much more than power napping for a few hours a day. With the bar closing early, alcohol wasn’t a problem and it was only tiredness that we had to overcome.
There were exceptions of course. In the dining room of a nice country hotel, somewhere in rural Poland, the security guard once opened the door in the early hours of the morning to find a dozen people standing on a table, calling nozdrovia (Polish for cheers) and clinking their cans and glasses together for a reason that was far beyond him. He looked at us quizzically, before retreating with a brief gesture to indicate that we should be a little bit more quiet and also please stop doing whatever it is that we were doing.
One night, someone tried to teach me how to do a round-off. It’s kind of like a cartwheel, but better. Another night, an Irishman taught about hugging.
Once in Uganda, I had walked the fifteen minutes to a nearby ‘shack.’ The shack sold stale biscuits and warm coca cola in glass bottles for a handful of pennies. When your diet consists heavily of plantain, posha, cabbage, and yellow pump water, stale biscuits and warm coca-cola are a rare treat. Upon reaching the shack, the skies had darkened before opening to present a mid-afternoon storm. Each shack consisted of a loose arrangement of wood that served as walls, while corrugated iron served as a roof. For shelter, mainly from the sun, there were sections of corrugated iron on stilts. Like a wood-tin gazebo. We stood under this gazebo to shelter from the storm and watch the lightening around us. The thunder cracked and whipped, rumbling through the air around us. I like thunder and lightening. I enjoy storms. I was thinking this as the world exploded above me and inside me. The lightening had struck the single loudest sound that I had ever heard and I had dropped to the floor before I knew what was happening. My heart was racing and afterwards, everyone laughed nervously. Everyone laughed nervously after regaining their composure and picking themselves up from the floor. I have fired shotguns and spent time in offensively loud nightclubs. Those sounds do not compare to this. Minutes later when the rain had stopped, I walked away from the shack. A few hundred metres away we saw a lone tree that had split and caught on fire. I genuinely believe that we were nearly struck by lightening. Like many things, the rush of pleasure and adrenaline came afterwards. Bare with me. This story has relevance. In Poland, I heard the second loudest sound of my life.
In our ears we have inner and outer hair cells. Loud sounds are large pressure waves and when you experience these, they can bend these hairs (stereocilia), which are incapable of regeneration in mammals. When this happens, we suffer permanent hearing loss (to varying extents). Other vertebrates are capable of regenerating these cells.
The second loudest sound that I ever heard was in Poland. I had been standing outside in the sun as clouds closed in. The sky opened unlike I had ever seen before. Hours before, I had been strolling around a lake in sunshine. I stood as the rain became a torrent and soon developed into hail. Huge hailstones fell from the sky unlike I had ever seen before. Yet I was still warm. Then lightening struck once more. Once again I dived for cover along with several others. This time I didn’t hit the floor. Afterwards people gabbled excitedly. Like turkeys. The lightening had been very close. Not as close as in Uganda.. but close.
In Uganda, the shacks also sell grape soda. It tastes like delicious chemicals.
On the last night, we walked to the tiny shop in the nearby village and bought beers to celebrate. We bought a lot of beer and hiked it back. Only to find that hours later, it had all been drunk. Stolen beer resulted in the first hostilities that I had seen that week.
As it was the last night, we went out to the jetty and sat to watch the sun rise. When we arrived, the mist was so thick that we couldn’t see the other side of the lake. As the sun rose, people dropped off to bed. The sun burned through the mist and reflected off the lake in a way that I have never seen before. However, I am normally not sitting beside a lake at sunrise. It was quite beautiful. At 7am there were three of us left and we decided to go swimming. At 8am we all fell asleep. At 9am, we woke up and I was colder than I remember being for a very long time. After a quick warm shower, it was back to English conversations.
We headed back to Warszawa (Warsaw) for one last dinner and drinks together.
In that week, I averaged around three hours sleep a night. I lived 24 hours a day with people that I had never met before. Many of them, I will never forget.
My Dad phoned to say he would visit me somewhere. I told him that Croatia sounded nice and began my descent South.
When I was young, I used to think that our hearts could only beat a certain number of times. Of course, some people were unlucky and their time was cut short by unfortunate accidents or illness. For everyone else, they used all their beats.. then they died. I thought that my low heart rate might help me to live longer. I no longer believe that we have a given number of beats. Although a low heart rate can still indicate wellbeing, I love it when it’s racing and your body is pumping of adrenaline. Standing under a lightening storm makes your heart race. So do many things. We should do more of these.
Just don’t get hit by lightening.