I am reviving this long-dormant blog in the hope that I can do some reflecting while we are in Poland next week. Susan will be teaching a two-credit course (Psychology of Religion) in the English-language psychology program at the University of Warsaw, and also giving a lecture to medical students. My job is to make Susan’s life work, so I am in charge of equipping the kitchen of our apartment, navigating the culture, etc. Most people do not take a break from Wisconsin winter by fleeing to Polish winter, but if you are going to be cold you might as well take comfort in pierogies and vodka.
It was not part of the plan for this stage of life to be traveling to Europe or the U.K. several times each year, but we have made at least two such trips annually in recent years, none of them for vacation (although we generally try to stay at extra day or two to enjoy the setting). Flying overseas on our budget is never pleasant, and it becomes ever more complicated. Our last trip home—from Malta—involved three different airlines that do not play together nicely. We arrived in Vienna with 50 minutes between flights and no boarding passes. Our luggage could only be checked as far as Toronto. It required 26 hours to get home, and it was actually one of our better experiences.
When you book through an American carrier and come home on a European one, you are nobody’s problem if a flight gets canceled (as happened to us in Edinburgh, leading to a miserable travel day). International travel requires many coping skills and for those who, like me, simply cannot sleep on an airplane, the ability to spend ten hours in Zombie Mode.
Booking a flight has also become remarkably complicated. There is, for example, a direct flight from Chicago to Warsaw, but the tickets cost more than $3,000. By starting from Appleton, we are taking that same flight for $1,400. Pricing has become increasingly counter-intuitive, based largely on what seats they need to fill. When we left Milwaukee for Malta, our first flight was to O’Hare. I met a nice couple from Chicago who were on their way to Paris. They drove to Milwaukee, flew back to Chicago, then on to Paris, saving a bundle by doing so. Travel agents are making a comeback for good reason—sorting it out yourself just isn’t worth it anymore. Plus it would be wonderful to have a Real Human Being to call when things go awry, as they sooner or later will.
Everyone who travels overseas develops their own survival strategies. I cannot imagine flying without noise-canceling headphones, for example, and Susan loves her comfy pillow. To combat jet lag we try to leave late in the afternoon, arriving at our destination on the afternoon of the following day. We take a long walk, eat a nice dinner, then (if our bodies cooperate and the meds work) sleep for ten hours, starting the next day on local time. It works except when it doesn’t.
Essentials – toiletries, clean socks and underwear—travel in our carry-on. When our luggage (along with that of all the passengers on the plane) went missing while passing through Frankfort (one of my most dreaded airports) in October, we looked rumpled the next day, but were at least presentable.
From our European friends, who regularly hop between countries, we learned the value of maintaining a Currency Box, with “starter money” for any country we will be passing through. Sure, there are exchanges in the airports, but usually your first need is for small bills and change to board a bus or tip a taxi driver. For this trip we will take zlotys, of course, but also tuck away a few Euros in case we get rerouted on our way home. Our box also has British pounds, Swiss Francs and Canadian dollars—we try to come home with the equivalent of about twenty dollars for a future trip. If we never return, well, it becomes part of our estate.
We try to sort out the local public transportation as quickly as possible—it is almost always the cheapest way to get around, and service tends to be very good. Learn where to buy tickets (often from a tobacconist) and assume that the bus driver will only accept correct change. Also learn how to have your ticket punched or stamped, because the fines for being caught without a valid ticket are expensive and must be paid on the spot.
While Susan is teaching, I hope to do a lot of walking, a lot of reading, a bit of writing. We will spend time with our Polish friend, Kasia, about whom I will write next week. We once set up a week’s housekeeping at a villa in Italy, but ten days in a Warsaw apartment will be a new experience. Stay tuned.