Woodstock Festival: Poland

When was the last time the world’s had a proper Woodstock Festival? Was it the stage-burning disaster of 1999? NOPE – it was LAST WEEKEND – far, far away from the States!

Little-known fact: The peace, love, rock-n-roll, and smelly hippies have lived on here in Poland for 21 years!**

Picture from: WoodStockPoland on Instagram

** The dream of the 60’s is alive in Poland, (Poland, Poland)… Anybody? Anybody?

The annual 3-day festival is absolutely free and takes place near a small village by the German border, Kostrzyn nad Odra.

Last year, over 750,000 festival-goers camped out all over the grounds – officially the largest open-air festival in Europe! The music lineup includes mostly Polish hard-rock bands and a few well-known nostalgic acts: last year The Prodigy headlined, and this year I sang along to “Wasn’t Me” with Shaggy  and threw a few punches to Flogging Molly! (Not quite Hendrix-status, but still.)

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Of course this is a festival for music fans, but the highlight is undoubtedly the atmosphere. Imagine nearly a million dirt-caked Polish people drinking, smoking, dancing, making drum circles, amateur-tattooing, yoga-ing, constructing tree forts, body-painting, mud-wrestling, laughing, cursing… This place was faaaar out man!

In spite of the mounds of trash and broken beer bottles, reeking toi-tois (or “port-o-potties”), swirling dust, smoke, stench, and general debauchery – it was actually a surprisingly family-friendly environment. Everybody’s welcome, from suburban parents to the homeless guy with his pants half-down. Truly a celebration of peaceful coexistence! (Well, aside from the hourly ambulance sirens and a few broken noses I witnessed.)

Woodstockwarts

Woodstockwarts

The party begins on the train ride to this remote village. Hundreds of backpackers are crammed in the compartments like sardines, hollering and cracking open beers. I was sandwiched between 3 German guys recapping their survival plan for the festival: Buy WATER… Beer… hm, that’s it. By the time I arrived I already needed to shower about 7 times, but instead I opted to embrace my inner flower child all weekend… “When in Rome”, eh?

A ‘shower’ is possible, though, if you want to fight the swarms of half-naked people crowding around some spigots shooting water from the ground. Which usually prompted some more mud-wrestling – a signature of this festival.

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It was a miracle I found my friend Basia among the thousands, and I followed her like a lost duckling to her friend’s camping area. I tried to orient myself in the sea of tents by counting rows of toi-tois. (I got lost in pitch-black darkness about 3 different occasions, after which Basia somehow appeared out of nowhere to my rescue.) Sat down with her crew, passed around some vodka, sang a few tunes because obviously somebody brought a guitar, and felt a bit like the novel Token American.

woodstoocckkkk    woodstock tents

Never a dull moment here: Every ten minutes a group would break out in a raucous chorus of “Stoooo lat! Stoooo lat! Niech zyje zyje nam….!” (the Polish happy-birthday shanty), swinging $1 beers and waving their proud Polish flags (or some peace-sign posters or whatever).

During one concert, a guy in our group was sporting a unicorn costume, which apparently inspired his friend to scoop him up and pass him over the crowd like a beach ball – never to be seen again. (‘Til morning.)

woodstockstage

Anyway, if you’re ever near Poland or Europe for that matter in the beginning of August, you cannot miss this festival. The village is about 6 hours from Warsaw and just a 1.5 hour train ride from Berlin! Speaking of trains…

Post-Festival Train Fiasco:

Since Kostrzyn nad Odra is so close to Berlin, I decided to delay my long arduous return to Warsaw and visit this popular city for the first time. Dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and caught the 11 am train to Berlin, once again jam-packed with stinky people (much stinkier this time around). I’d gutted through about an hour of hangover-induced nausea before the train suddenly stopped.

At first I was a little too bleary-eyed to notice, but after a half hour the heat got so unbearable that people started climbing outside for a smoke. Not a single announcement from the conductor. Chatted with some German students (who’d been hanging out in my armpit most of the journey); we were all equally confused.

By the time an hour passed, everybody was grabbing their bags and setting off on their own. Eventually the staff let us know we were stuck and they couldn’t send any alternative transportation for us.

So I’d guess around 200 smelly hippies were left stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Why didn’t I demand a refund? Well, truthfully most of the passengers – myself included – just kind of piled onboard without a ticket, knowing full well no one would dare climb over all these stinky people to check tickets. I suppose we got what we deserved! (In fact we probably should’ve thanked them for as far as we got.)

The nearest train station was about a 5km walk, which wouldn’t have been so bad without all the baggage. Must’ve been quite a sight for the locals: hordes of disheveled backpackers lugging camping gear through this little German village, as if we’d wandered off the Camino de Santiago. Loud German drinking songs kept our spirits up as we trudged along. (Worst-case scenario, we’d set up camp in someone’s goat farm.)

Ages later, we made it to this tiny stop, without a clue when the next train would arrive. (At this point we were 20 km from Berlin.) We waited around another hour and a half, losing heart – when finally a train appeared!

We leapt to our feet, cheering and waving our arms. The train slowed to a stop and opened its doors, but it was completely brimming with people. As we tried to squeeze inside, the conductor peeked out the window, shook his head – and closed the doors again! The very last train had taken off without us.

Shizen. We would have to either camp here or hitchhike; I knew it would be difficult for such a large group of us to flag down a car. We resolved to spread out a bit, in groups of three or so.

Another hour had passed when finally a few kind ladies pulled over to our rescue. (Not sure if the other groups ended up with a ride!) We were dropped off at the next nearest station, just in the outskirts of Berlin. My new friends were heading to Leipzig so I bid them farewell and hopped the next train!

At long last I rolled up to my hostel, a tired smelly mess after these 6 hours of adventures. The journey may have been a little longer and rockier than I’d gambled on, but I’m happy to get a story out of it!

“But… what are you doing here?”

Countless people ask me this (myself included). Sometimes I’ll shrug, sometimes I’ll launch into an exhaustive play-by-play on all my adventures from last September until now.

Hostel Oki Doki Crew!

Some of the Oki Doki Hostel crew!

IMG_1727I’m a recent grad from Seattle, USA, now working and living indefinitely in a hostel in Warsaw, Poland. In exchange for accommodation (in a 6-bunk dorm), I lead nightly activities for guests from all over the world, who wonder why on earth a random American became the “Warsaw guide.” By day I work as an English teacher for Berlitz Co., without any prior experience, certification, or Polish language skills. What began as a 1-month post-grad holiday turned into 8 months (and counting) of adventure – all on a shoestring budget.

I’ve made it my mission to work and travel as long as I can without breaking the bank. It’s possible if you don’t mind a bit more grit than glamor!

OK, here comes the “play-by-play”:

June 2014:   Graduated very confused about pursuing anything to do with my undergrad degree in speech therapy. Worked at a pizza place in West Seattle over the summer. Lots of thumb-twiddling.

July 2014:  Read blogs on solo backpacking.   Decided to embark on a cliché Euro adventure before settling into some “real job”. (Ha.) Saved up and budgeted a max of 2k. Figured I’d stay no longer than a few months… but still booked a one-way ticket!

August 2014:  Spent sleepless nights researching European cities and planning an itinerary for the first two weeks (“Oh that’s what a hostel is!), browsing travel blogs and price-comparing all sorts of trains, planes, and buses. Purchased an epic carry-on backpack and obsessively downsized my packing list (as advised by the travel blog gurus).

Prost!

Prost!

prague

September 2014:  Landed in Amsterdam, joined by my best friend Kelso, and we took Europe by storm. Crashed in party hostels and night trains to Prague, Munich (bigger-than-face beer steins at Oktoberfest), then Paris. After two outrageous weeks, she flew back to the States and I was off on my own!

First ever solo mission in Lyon, France!

First ever solo mission in Lyon, France!

October 2014:   Fell in love with the everyday spontaneity of solo travel. Met countless friends, hostel-hopping my way south through France and Italy. Time to reevaluate the budget; managed to live on just a few euros a day (lots of bread and cheese), avoiding restaurants and touristy areas. Opted for the cheapest, stenchiest overnight buses.

A dose of luxury in Sorrento, Italy.

A dose of luxury in Sorrento, Italy.

Made it down to Naples to stay with my friend Jaqi, whose father worked in the U.S. military base nearby. Confirmed cliches about Napoli: heavenly gelato and pizza di mozzarella bufalini, gesticulating Italians, and chaotic train connections (oh wait, that’s just our sense of direction).

I’d just been traveling for a month, but it felt like a year. Cheesy as it sounds, every day was a new adventure and growth opportunity—from orienting myself in new cities, scrounging for cheap meals, finding hostels in the black of night, deal-hunting for a ride to my next destination, and living in the same stinky boots and jacket every day.

But no matter how much I pennypinched, I couldn’t go on forever without an income. It seemed impossible to land a (legal) paying job in Europe, so I decided the best way to prolong my travels was to do some sort of work “exchange”. I emailed as many hostels as I could in my next random idea: Spain!

Luckily I found an opening in the fairytale-esque city of Granada. In exchange for accommodation, I’d make beds and do various cleaning at the Granada Inn Hostel. Jaqi and I parted ways in Barcelona – infamous for pickpockets – where predictably my purse and phone were swiped right under my nose.

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November 2014:  Continued via bus along the Spanish coast, through velvet-beached Valencia, and then a sweaty 13-hour journey to Granada. Finally arrived in this breathtaking city – snug in the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas by the ancient Moorish palace, the Alhambra! Spent a month bedmaking and getting chastised by the maids (“Más rápida, más rápida!”); in my off-time, I enjoyed 1 euro cervezas with tapas (jamon!), hiking through hills and cave dwellings, street-performing, hosting jam sessions with travelers, and slumber-partying in the attic with fellow volunteers from all over the world.

10891776_10153009954367437_8452586905860020586_n10888371_10153009946742437_5840955344782259092_nBlanka workin' it on the cello!Jazz jam session!

December 2014:  Sadly departed the hostel life – more sadly, with a plane ticket home. Figured I should return for the holidays and sort out a job. Had my last adventures in Málaga, Sevilla, buzzing Madrid, then Dublin via a $10(!) RyanAir flight. Clinked pints of Guinness with old drunks and fiddlers, then hopped a bus west to Galway and the Wild Atlantic coast. Reflected on how lucky I’d been this whole trip – then, ironically, back in Madrid I picked up the most God-awful zombie disease of my life (later diagnosed “Hand Foot and Mouth Disease” – yetch!). Switched my flight to return home sooner, skipping the last leg in New York where I’d intended to visit family on the way back west.

Nearly blown over by the mad winds of the Cliffs of Moher!

Nearly blown over by the mad winds of the Cliffs of Moher!

But there was some silver lining to rebooking my flight: Strangely, it was cheaper to buy a round-trip flight than a one-way ticket home! The adventure didn’t have to end after all – I could be back in Europe after Christmas! That is, if my wallet could stand it; I needed to find work right away.

Holidays/January 2015:  Devoted my month at home to furiously typing emails. If I could secure a job in Europe before my return flight in the end of January, I’d board that plane. Researched work visa requirements in European countries – options were limited, unless I chose an organized program, which usually cost money or had restrictive contracts. (I wanted to do my own thing.) Most countries required me to fly to the nearest embassy (L.A.) with a fat check and 50 kilos of paperwork. No thanks.

My surest option was teaching English; I’d met tons of American teachers in Madrid and heard about native speakers teaching and traveling. Besides, I’d always wanted to give teaching a try (something vaguely relevant to my speech therapy studies in university). I sent my C.V. to about 100 different language schools, crossing my fingers someone would take a visaless American without any official teaching certification. As expected, I got many rejections, mainly because I wasn’t an E.U. passport-holder and employers didn’t want any legal issues. (As some bloggers preach, it’s “no longer the 90’s”, when any English-speaking loser could roll up in a foreign country and be handed a job).

But finally – a positive response! Berlitz Corporation, a huge language education company, has schools in Poland that offer work permits for foreigners. I had a Skype interview with my future supervisor and we connected immediately. I didn’t need any official teaching certification, aside from a short online course provided by Berlitz. The school was in the Polish capital, Warsaw, which I knew virtually nothing about (besides, you know, WW2 stuff) – but my gut told me to just go for it.

As far as the hostel gig, I thought it would be a good place to start out until I got my feet on the ground. By now I was used to sleeping among strangers so I didn’t mind the idea of living in a hostel!  I emailed a few hostels in the heart of Warsaw and heard back from the city’s most famous backpacker destination, Oki Doki Hostel. I expected the same sort of cleaning-related tasks as in Granada, but not this time… My job was basically to party with travelers!

Better late than never, Hogwarts!

Better late than never, Hogwarts!

End of January/February 2015: Back in Europe with the same trusty backpack. Sweat my way through the Parisian border (I’d exceeded my 3-month limit in the E.U. zone) but faced no problems. Planned to avoid the E.U. and bum around the U.K. for a month until my Polish work permit was ready. Bantered with Londoners, tightened the reigns on my bank account, then picked up a 5-pound(!) bus ticket to Scotland.

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Edinburgh sunrise

Cleaned toilets in a Hogwarts-like hostel in Edinburgh for 3 weeks while I finished my Berlitz training. Hitched a lift north to the Highlands, where I befriended some local musicians and was basically adopted by a random family in a small village in the Isle of Skye. Ah, homemade flapjacks!

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Warsaw’s iconic stalinist building, the Palace of Culture and Science

End of February 2015:  Arrived in Warsaw (thanks again, RyanAir) to a proper Polish greeting from the hostel staff: “pierogi” dumplings, good laughs, and plenty of vodka. Started teaching shortly after, petrified and partially hungover. Thus began my current adventure!

Hostel-worker love!

OkiDoki staff love!

A day in my life today? At Berlitz, I teach mostly one-on-one lessons with Polish business people (and sometimes hilarious kids). I still feel a bit like I don’t know what I’m doing, but my students are awesome and appreciate working with a “native speaker.” I teach about 25 hours a week, a schedule which varies day-to-day, balanced with my evening activities at the hostel – at times taking a toll on my, um, teaching performance. I’m able to save money since the hostel takes care of my expenses (including beers).

Pub crawl gang!

Pub crawl gang!

Most of the guests are young party-going travelers, so I lead them around the city from pub to pub (“But… you’re not Polish?! At all?!”). Nightly events range from these “pub crawls” to dumpling-making workshops, karaoke nights, roasting sausages along the riverside, and more.   Then I crash in a dorm with 6-8 strangers – and scramble to class the next day!

Never made pierogi before, but figured I'd lead a workshop on it

Leading a Polish pierogi-making workshop…

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“KaraOkiDoki” night

Of course it’s easy to feel like a doofus when you’re suddenly a “teacher” who has to Google the names of verb tenses, and a “tour guide” in a city you can hardly pronounce (try it: “Warszawa”).

Every day is a brand new and borderline-ridiculous experience; my comfort zone is kind of like an… infinitely expanding supermassive black hole?

I may not know what I’m doing in 10 years (or 2 months), but I’m certainly not letting life pass by before I’ve decided. I’ve learned far more about other cultures, people, and my own potential than I ever could behind a desk.  And I won’t be stopping anytime soon – next adventure to be determined!