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Part 3: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006

Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the entire old town area was a picture I noticed on the way out of the palace -- it showed the damage sustained by the area during WWII and the devastation was total. I found out later that something like 70% of the buildings in Poland's cities had been damaged to the point where they had to be rebuilt from the ground up -- the old town in Warsaw was no exception.

We stopped in a small town outside of Warsaw so that we could add some more time to our cell phone and have lunch. We wound up at a place where no one spoke English, but we were able to make ourselves understood by pointing and gesturing. Our lunch was fantastic! Charleen had a whole trout while I opted for a kielbasa and the kids ate soup and schnitzel.

We drove on towards Torun, a medieval town near Bydgoszcz where we were scheduled to meet up with a couple of Polish friends from my time in Iraq. We made contact with Adam by cell phone and he directed us to a home center (along the same lines as Home Depot or Lowe's) and we found the place without incident. Adam and family arrived in less time than it took Charleen to take the kids into the store to go potty.

We followed Adam over to his parent's home and found that another one of my friends was already there, waiting for us. We let the kids out of the car to meet everyone and they immediately spotted the chickens in the yard. They chased and chased those chickens until Lizzy caught one and Allison cornered one. They both came back from around the side of the house toting chickens. Of note: Allison is unwaveringly our sweet kid while Lizzy has a mean streak a mile wide. Nowhere is this difference more evident than in one of the photos of the two kids with the chickens. Allison was gently cradling the one she caught and petting it to calm it down while Lizzy had an iron grip on the one she caught, with a hand wrapped around its neck to prevent it from getting away. I guess that is just one more bit of proof that each child is different.

We left our car parked at Adam's house and we all rode in the two other cars. It was a refreshing change for me to be a passenger and I enjoyed being able to look around without having to constantly keep my eyes on the road and the other cars.

Adam and Jarek took us down to the old section of town and parked very close to the pedestrian area. Torun is significant because it was the home of Copernicus and there is a prominent statue of him right outside the town hall. Adam pointed out to us where he was stood during a pro -- democracy demonstration that he participated in during the 80's and also where he was when he was arrested, along with numerous other participants. We walked around the old town area for a while (it was raining) and then tried to go to one of his favorite restaurants. Unfortunately, they did not have a couple of the traditional menu items available and we wound up driving out to a rustic place out in the country called Chata Goralska. We did not discover this until the night before we left Poland, but Charleen somehow managed to leave her wallet at this restaurant.

With ten of us evenly divided between adults and children it was probably for the best that the place was not very crowded. I had the chance to try a traditional Polish winter drink as well. I was very put -- off by the name and the description, but tried it anyway. Warm beer. It is basically mulled cider made with beer instead of cider and it was really tasty. I was surprised that I liked it, but I guess that was due to the fact that the spices made a significant difference in the taste.

I let Adam order for me while Charleen requested something billed as roast beef. She wound up with tournedos of beef and her dinner was out of this world. I had a bowl of cabbage soup followed by potato pancakes with goulash and we all shared some pierogis. Naturally, Lizzy wound up eating a bunch of pierogis instead of whatever was ordered for her while Allison was too busy playing with the other kids to eat much of her food at all. Adam and Jarek had a teenager and two preteen girls between them, and the girls were fascinated with the big kids. They spent most of the evening holding one of the big kids' hands. They also had the big kids spinning them around in the restaurant, until we noticed what was going on and put the kibosh on it.

We had a very long and leisurely dinner and the kids occupied themselves quite well. They are both very taken with older girls and they had three of them to play with at the restaurant. It was wonderful for me to be able to spend some time catching up with friends who I had not seen for about 18 months, but who I worked, traveled, and lived with for a half year during my tour in Iraq. It was also very interesting for me to meet their families and have the opportunity to tour their towns with them. There is simply no comparison between visiting a place as a guidebook -- toting tourist and having someone who lives there show you around.

After dinner, we drove back to Adam's parent's house and said our good -- byes before leaving for the hour -- long drive in to Bydgoszcz. Jarek was going in the same direction and it had already been established that he would lead us right to our hotel. This was a real bonus considering that we did not have a map of Bydgoszcz.

We had called the Hotel Pod Orlem from the road and discovered that they did not have any adjoining rooms, even though that was what had been specified on the reservation. They had not bothered to contact us to let us know that they were unable to give us what we requested. As a result, we wound up with a suite instead. It turned out that the suite was on their executive level and was enormous. Not merely big, but enormous. So enormous that the living room included a dining area with a table that would seat at least 8 diners. Our bedroom was not that large, but the living room/dining room really made the place. It was tastefully decorated and very comfortable. When in Bydgoszcz, stay at the Pod Orlem -- $140/night goes a long way.

April 1st (Day 15)
We had a good breakfast at the Pod Orlem, albeit not as good as we had at Jan III Sobieski and then met my friend Marcin at our hotel. He had his wife and his daughters with him. The girls are identical twins and only a few months younger than Allison so the four of them were instant friends even if there was a language barrier. It is simply amazing to me how adept our children are at making friends and using non -- verbal communication to start playing with children from other countries. I doubt that a statistically relevant number of American children ever experience this, but I do believe that it is a positive experience that we are enabling our children to have.

The kids' shoes got saturated with water in Torun, so Charleen decided that we should try to buy them some European shoes that same morning. There is probably no better way to go about something like that then to go shopping with the mother of two similarly aged girls in the area where she buys a lot of their clothing. Unfortunately, it turned into a bit of a fiasco because the kids were being excessively picky and the shopping experience is a bit different than it would be in the US. In this part of Poland, you select the shoes you want from the displays on the wall and an employee will rummage through huge bins of shoes (no boxes) trying to find that style in the size you request. Sometimes they have them, sometimes not. This was very frustrating for our girls and it took a few shoe stores before they wound up with new shoes. Allison got a pair of blue leather sneakers and Lizzy got some pink, sparkly shoes. Naturally, she managed to ruin them within an hour of walking out of the store. Charleen bought a total of three pairs of children's shoes (Lizzy got a different pair also) and the total bill was less than $20.

With the shoe debacle behind us, we were finally able to see some of the old town area in Bydgoszcz. We went to the main pedestrian bridge across the river and Marcin pointed out a very unique statue. It is a tightrope walker suspended above the river and the statue is actually balancing on a tightrope. We continued on to see a mountainous sculpture commemorating the site of a church that was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII and Allison managed to catch a sickly -- looking pigeon in the town square. That led to a rapid decontamination before we continued on with our sightseeing and an admonishment about touching pigeons. Our walking tour took us to a church that was more than 1,000 years old after the town square and then we continued on to see an area known locally as the Venetian district because of its' canals. There were numerous ducks and white swans in the canals and I had to be stern with the children to ensure that they did not slip on a bank and fall into the water because they saw an opportunity to harass some indigent wildlife.

We headed back to the hotel to pick up the cars so that we could drive out to a place in the country for another traditional Polish meal. This time, Charleen and I both had a rye soup served in a bread bowl. It was scrumptious and Lizzy took an immediate liking to it as well. She told Charleen repeatedly not too eat too much because she wanted more bites. What a character! Naturally, she had pierogis and ate a huge portion of those as well. It is astonishing that she is 5 years old, weighs less than 40 pounds, and eats like a longshoreman. The kids found a playground outside and spent a lot of time playing with their new friends.

Our next step after lunch was at the local botanical gardens. Charleen was exhausted, so she took a nap while we took the four little girls for an hour  --  long hike. They were so excited to be out in the fresh air that they ran all over the place and climbed on everything they saw. At one point, Allison slipped and skinned her palm a little bit. She was crying when she asked me to look at it for her and I told her that I thought she was probably done climbing on things for the day. The tears disappeared instantly and she ran off, telling me over her shoulder that she was feeling much better.

The botanical park was filled with statues, rocks, and hills and I think that it was an excellent idea to bring them out there to run off some of their energy and also to do something more enjoyable for children then looking at old stuff. Again, another advantage to seeing an area with someone who lives there.

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