Anyone that knows me (or reads literally anything that I post on the internet ever) will know that I love taking part in language immersion programmes that help Polish, Czech and Slovak adults improve their English. Over the last 12 months, I’ve discovered a passion that I never knew I had, and I will more than likely spend a good portion of my life teaching English around the world. However, if I said that idioms, phrasal verbs and pronunciation workshops were the greatest thing about teaching English for me, I’d be lying. While I do genuinely love all of those things, the best part for me about travelling to obscure locations in Europe and hiding up in a hotel for a week helping people improve their English is not the English, but the people. The last year has seen me meeting some incredible people, many of whom I know will be friends of mine for a very long time.
It is because of four of these people that I am writing this post.
Back in early January, I participated in a programme in Eastern Poland, less than 20km from the Belarusian border. Like all of my programmes, I had great fun, but there was something very special about this one. Something so special in fact, that five months later, myself and four of the guys from the group (and my friend Nadia, but she wasn’t part of the initial programme) found ourselves on a yacht in the middle of Masuria (Mazury in Polish), singing Irish sea shanties, drinking mad dogs (wściekły pies – a dangerous concoction of grenadine, Tabasco sauce and vodka) and exploring some of the magical places that this ‘land of a thousand lakes’ has to offer.
Day 1 – Port Sztynort
Day one saw me waking up at Nadia’s apartment in the centre of Warsaw (Warszawa). After we’d quickly showered and got some things together, we met Paul, Tomek and Sasza in Sasza’s car downstairs and embarked on the four hour journey to Masuria. Despite its length, the drive passed quickly. It was lovely to see the boys again after such a long time, and we all chattered excitedly and sang along to Disco Polo (which is the only music to listen to when in Poland), taking a break halfway to eat lunch at a lovely little restaurant (I opted for steak tartare if anyone is wondering).
We arrived at Port Sztynort in the early evening and were met by the final member of our group, Marek, who had been eagerly awaiting our arrival since early afternoon. Port Sztynort is the biggest port in Masuria, and some say it was the first ever harbour on the Masurian lakes. After having a tour of our ten man boat (which was really no more than an 8 man boat but you know), our first task was to go and buy some food at the local shop. Marek had already been shopping, but being the quintessential Pole that he is, he’d stocked up on sausages, beer, vodka and not a whole lot else and so the slightly more sensible ones among us decided that we’d need a little more to sustain ourselves over the next three days.
Once we had the necessary supplies, we headed back to the boat and we were off – kinda. For the first night, Marek and Paul decided that we should have a little sail within the port to learn the ropes (YES LITERALLY LEARN THE ROPES – MIND BLOWN) and watch the breathtaking sunset before mooring up for the night and beginning our adventure properly the following day.
After spending a couple of hours sailing around the lake (and drinking a few beers of course), we headed back to shore and went to the on-site restaurant, where we ordered pizza, sank a couple more beers and made our way back to the boat to continue the party. Perhaps because it was the first night, most people went to bed relatively early, and so Marek and I polished off a bottle of vodka between us (god damn you wściekły pies) before hitting the hay ourselves.
Day 2 – Wolf’s Lair and Kietlice
On our first proper day, we rose at around 9:30 and enjoyed a traditional Polish breakfast of cold meats, cheeses and bread, accompanied by lots of coffee. After a long, lazy breakfast, we tidied up and we were off! As our captain and helmsman, Marek was the one in control, but with his years of experience, Paul took on the role as teacher to the less experienced sailors, taking advantage of the opportunity to teach the boys some technical sailing terms in English. Luckily for us, it was perfect weather for sailing, with the glorious sunshine accompanied by a light breeze that was more than enough to sail, but not so much that we were cold. In fact, Nadia and I were surprised at how warm we actually were – Paul had prepared us for Baltic conditions!
We spent a few hours enjoying the beautiful scenery, teaching Sasza sea shanties (what shall we do with a drunken sailor?!) and drinking cold beers before mooring up at our second port, where a surprise was waiting – just a short walk through the forest was the Wolf’s Lair (Mamerki Bunkry). The Wolf’s Lair was Adolf Hitler’s first Eastern Front Military Headquarters in World War 11, and despite the high security that once surrounded the bunker, the most notable assassination attempt was made against Hitler there on the 20th July, 1944. During a three and a half year period, Hitler spent a total of 800 days in the Wolf’s Lair, taking his dog on daily walks through the surrounding forests and watching films in the in-house cinema every evening. As we walked around the bunker, it felt sobering to know that we were walking across the very same floors that Hitler and his entourage had done all those years ago.
Something that made our exploration of the bunker especially bone chilling was the condition that it was in. While certain parts of the bunker had been renovated in order to form an exhibition, the vast majority of it stands untouched, with crumbling walls, dripping pipes and ghostly echoes. Despite the Red Army using tonnes of explosives to try and destroy the complex in 1945, most of the buildings were only partially destroyed due to their immense size and reinforced structures.
After taking in as much as we could of the bunkers and exhibitions within (including an exhibition dedicated to the Masurian Canal, complete with a 25m long submarine replica), we headed back outside where we were confronted with a huge metal staircase that seemed to climb all the way to heaven itself. Climbing the hundreds of steps all the way up to the top of the 36 metre-high tower was tiring (and not for those with a fear of heights!) but so worthwhile and allowed us a phenomenal view over Mamry lake and its surroundings.
(A small sidenote that I would like to make here is that the on-site shop of the Wolf’s Lair is filled with Nazi memorabilia, and many of the visitors were posing and laughing with the German weapons that were on display. To say that this was in bad taste is of course a huge understatement. I am working on a more detailed post about this kind of behaviour at sites such as this, but for now, let it just be said that while it is certainly an interesting (and even important) place to visit, the Wolf’s Lair is not a ‘tourist attraction’ and should not be treated as such.)
Following the Wolf’s Lair, we made our way back to the boat and set sail once more. I am no sailor by any means, and the complexities of the wind and the ropes are way beyond my comprehension, but I still very much enjoyed the experience of being on the boat, taking in the beautiful Masurian nature, and getting excited whenever Captain Marek shouted ‘ready about!’ and everybody sprung into action. A couple of hours passed and we moored up once more (check me out and my technical language, aye aye cap’n!) at our home for the second night, Kietlice.
At Kietlice, we headed to the restaurant where me and Nadia met the loves of our lives. Mine was a cat with ticks and Nadia’s was a little bartender that looks like Frodo. I feel as though my relationship with the cat was the more fulfilling of the two but Nadia’s flirting (telling the barman he was handsome in Polish) got us a 20% discount off our beers, so there’s that. We all ate generous helpings of hearty Polish food (dumplings, meat and potatoes galore) and drank yet more beer (are you beginning to understand why I enjoyed this trip so much?) before I said an emotional goodbye to my new love and we trooped back onto the boat.
That night everyone stayed up later and there were more mad dogs, more laughing and more sea shanties.
I kissed a frog.
Not one of the men. A literal frog – well actually it was a toad but I’m saying it was a frog because I was half hoping it would turn into a prince. It didn’t, and this, ladies and gents, is a 100% factually accurate representation of my love life.
Day 3 – Piękna Góra, the Beautiful Mountain
I’m going to be really upfront with you – this heading is misleading because I didn’t see a mountain, especially not a beautiful one, but this is the name of where we went and so this is the name you’re getting. Okay? Okay.
On day three, we rose a little later and enjoyed a cooked breakfast of boiled eggs, parówki w cieście (hot dogs), and of course more coffee. Unfortunately, today was cloudy and so we wrapped up warm and set sail for our last full day in the land of a thousand lakes. Feeling brave, I decided to free Marek of some of his helmsman responsibilities, and succesfully managed to steer us through two narrow passageways and under a bridge to the applause of my crew. Just call me Captain.
However, before long it started to rain and the mood on the boat flattened a little. Paul was disappointed that he couldn’t teach Nadia more about the technicalities of sailing and the rest of us were tired, cold and hungover. Fortunately, the weather didn’t stay bad for long, and so once we got to our destination, Piękna Góra (or Beautiful Mountain), our moods lightened. While the men talked about a possible BBQ, Nadia and I decided that we would head to the on-site restaurant (Nadia is a vegan so she wouldn’t have been able to eat anything at the BBQ).
Accompanied by Marek, the two of us headed to the restaurant and Nadia tucked into some pasta as Marek and I enjoyed a couple of beers (and of course, more mad dog shots).
Once she’d finished, Nadia headed back to the boat for a nap and myself and the boys relaxed on land with some beers and barbecued sausages. After the sun had gone down, we all trooped back onto the boat for our final party, and what a party it was. The vodka began to flow, the Disco Polo played and Nadia and I decided to teach the boys how to play Ring of Fire, which of course is guaranteed to end messily!
We had many shots, sang many songs and there was a lot of dancing. When we ran out of alcohol at 2am, Marek commissioned a taxi driver to actually go to a shop for us and bring bags and bags of beer to our boat (needless to say, he didn’t remember this in the morning). It was a crazy and beautiful night and I felt so lucky to have met such fantastic people.
Day 4 – Time to Leave!
On the morning of our final day we woke up with fuzzy heads but in great moods. We gulped our coffees and set sail. Almost as if just for us, the sun had returned and we wanted to enjoy a few hours at sail before mooring up for good.
This time, we blasted our Disco Polo for all to hear. We sang, we danced, and some of us even jumped in the lake for a swim!
Unfortunately, we had to give the boat back, and so when mid afternoon came around, we moored up and headed to the restaurant for our last supper before leaving Mazury.
Despite the 2000+ words I’ve shared with you about this trip, my true feelings are impossible to articulate. The love that I have for my little boat family is out of this world and I am so happy that this trip was the first of many. I would also like to say a huge THANK YOU to Paul, Marek, Tomasz and Sasza who were kind enough to pay for the boat and all of the food and alcohol that we enjoyed on board. You guys will never know how grateful I am.