In Poland, bikers and motorists greet one another with the phrase “szerokiej drogi,” which translates to “wide road.” As we hit the wide road out of Warsaw, I become acquainted with forces more powerful than I have ever previously encountered. What follows is an account of our first few days on the road in which we are tested by the elements and learn to cope with adversity in many forms.
Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019
My first day of long-distance motorcycle travel begins with heavy winds. The massive force of air being displaced by the velocity of this machine thunders through my helmet like an incessant roar, my head and body buffeted by the crazy current of air. As we hurtle across the surface of the earth I consciously counter my instinct of tensing up, and fight the fear that tries to force its way into my mind. I will myself to relax and very intentionally NOT think about what could possibly happen if we take a tumble at this speed.
I thought I was ready for this. But, that wind. Oh, the wind! Despite the armored jacket and full-faced helmet which both make a huge difference, I’ve never ridden in wind like that, I’ve never gone that far, and I’ve certainly never gone that fast on a motorcycle.
We had made it out of Warsaw somewhat uncertainly, not sure if the bike would make it. It was late in the afternoon when we finally hit the road, and as we set out through rush hour traffic leaving the city, I kept waiting for The Professor to pull off the freeway and get onto a smaller road like we had agreed to.
After half an hour of getting hammered by the wind at top speeds, passing semi trucks at 145 kph / 90 mph, I frantically tap The Professor’s shoulder, signaling I want to pull over at the upcoming service station.
“That’s one of the scariest, most tense half hours I’ve ever experienced,” I burst out as soon as I pull open the visor on my helmet. “What happened to avoiding freeways?”
“I thought we decided to go the fast route since we got started so late,” he replies, genuinely bewildered.
I repeat how tense I had felt on the freeway, and that my preference is to keep to smaller roads for now.
“Give it a few days and you’ll be snoozing back there,” he retorts.
We find a different route, and are soon surrounded by ripening wheat, swaying corn and even spot a peaceful sunflower patch. The bucolic Polish countryside shows itself at it’s finest.
Then, it gets cold.
For some odd reason, I have not expected this. The last several days in Warsaw had been so hot, I had had a hard time imagining it could be any different. I am incredibly grateful to retrieve the two removable insulating layers for my sturdy Dainese motorcycle touring jacket. Up until now, they have been stashed away in the luggage, considered complete overkill.
I do not have gloves, however, and I have also not imagined how cold my hands would get. I solve this problem by sticking my hands into The Professor’s back pockets. My knees are another story altogether. They get the worst of the beatings from the wind. Cold and stiff, I feel like an old lady as I get off the bike to stretch on a break.
When we finally roll into Poznań around 9:30pm, and enter a cozy brick basement apartment for the night, my body goes into some kind of aftershock. I am shivering, at times shaking almost uncontrollably. I get into bed and even buried under two blankets, I can’t seem to get my core temperature back up.
A warm meal and a hot bath is what it finally takes for my body to relax again, and in the completely dark, hermetically quiet, and comfortably cool apartment, I sleep the best I have slept on this entire trip so far, which is almost three weeks.
Trial by Fire
Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019
The next day, we head north for Szczecin after breakfast. Or rather, as soon as we stop and get me some gloves. The Professor is highly motivated to get me gloves now, and we pull up to a motorcycle shop.
“I’m tired of having ice-sickles down my butt,” he says.
I pick out some super comfy Rukka all-around gloves. I don’t think I have ever fully appreciated gloves before. What a difference they make!
We stop for gas, and to stretch and warm up at a service station near a small town. Back on the road, an emergency vehicle with sirens and blinking lights pass us, then another. We don’t think much of it, and continue down the road.
A few minutes later, we see the cause of the commotion. Smoke is billowing across the road, swallowing up cars as they drive into it and disappear.
The smoke seems to originate from somewhere in the field to our left – literally out of left field. It could perhaps be a grass fire fueled by the wind and getting out of control. The fire trucks and several shirtless young men are working on putting it out. The smoke is so thick we can’t see through it, and I can’t tell where it ends. I don’t know where the flames might be either.
We inch closer and the smell of smoke is overwhelming, pricking my nostrils like angry bees. Another few feet forward and i feel my lungs revolt. Warning signals are going off in my brain and I tap The Professor frantically on the shoulder, signaling I don’t want to continue forward.
He backs up the bike, and we turn around so we face downwind from the fire. We park on the side of the road and wait it out.
About ten minutes later, the smoke clears enough that we can see the road in front of us, and we drive through without any trouble.
When we get in to Szczecin it is later than planned, and I am just in time for a coaching call with a client at 6pm. We still smell like smoke when we arrive.
Elżbieta, our Airbnb host had been waiting for us. She is the sweetest Polish lady; we briefly met her husband too as she showed us up to the apartment. She talked The Professor’s ear off when she found out he is Polish, and showed us around like old friends.
Her place is epic. It is done in complete campy 90s style with some old-school Polish things that The Professor remembers fondly from growing up here.
“This place is everything,” he keeps saying.
It is sparkling clean, and has clearly been lovingly maintained. Everything works, and is in good shape. The Professor prepares a simple meal of sandwiches and soup; I finish several calls and emails and we tuck in for the night.
“Just Right” in the Rain
Thursday, July 4th, 2019
We get up relatively early and decide to eat breakfast and book it out of there, so we can make it to Swinoujscie and our ferry connection in plenty of time. We still have a couple hours of riding left before crossing the ocean, and we would rather be early, since neither of us have ever taken a motorcycle onboard a ferry before.
Open fields give way to lush, deep forests as we continue to travel north, toward the Baltic Sea. I become aware that I am much more comfortable here, on the back of the bike, than I was when we set out a couple days ago. I feel more relaxed, and I’m enjoying the dreamy landscape rolling by.
At the ferry terminal, we notice mostly trucks and semis boarding the massive steel ship. We are guided ahead of them into the gaping maw of the metal monster, down an empty lane all the way to the end of the cargo hold.
One other motorcyclist is in the process of securing his bike with the help of one of the crew. Ratchet ties are fastened to bolts in the floor and secured to each side of the bike. The steel hull of the ship rumbles with large vehicles loading into the deck above us.
The other biker, a Swede on his way home after a trip to Romania, strikes up a conversation. We talk about the weather, how cold it has been since we left our respective cities. He looks at our jeans and canvas boots and asks if that’s all we are wearing, and if they’re motorcycle jeans or regular jeans.
“What were you thinking?” he says when we explain these are simply our normal jeans with base layers beneath.
Obviously, we are thinking this is summer riding. It is July after all, and we are not planning on riding in bad weather.
“I think you need some better gear.”
The friendly Swedish fellow doles out some choice unsolicited advice when we meet back at the base of the boat at the end of the seven-hour Baltic Sea crossing. He gives us the name of a shop in Malmö that carries motorcycle gear. We nod and smile and don’t bother to tell him we are not planning on going the fast way through Malmö, but rather the scenic route up the coast.
The front of the boat opens up in a gigantic yawn, and we stare out at gray skies and a curtain of rain.
“This is a disaster,” our Swedish friend says as we head out into the downpour, undoubtedly pitying us. He’ll be home in a few minutes, he lives right here in the port town of Trelleborg.
The 20-minute ride to our room for the night is wet.
Through the dusk and steady drizzle we perceive a landscape that appears hauntingly beautiful in the evening mist and heavy metal cloud cover. We glimpse farm houses and open fields meeting ocean, with occasional rocks jutting out into the sea.
The place we are staying at is a bit outside of town, in a quiet, neat neighborhood with pristine Swedish homes and a Volvo in every driveway.
I am grateful for the space heater in our basement bedroom. There is instant coffee and an electric kettle, and our host has even left a couple beers in the mini fridge for us. There is a tiny microwave oven, two cups, two glasses and two plates. There is dishwashing liquid by the sink, with no instructions but an implied ask to please clean up after ourselves. The toilet is separated from the rest of the space only by a couple straw mats hanging from the ceiling.
Basic and clean, this place is not fancy but it has everything we need for a night.
We crank the heater up on full blast and hang our wet jeans and socks on it, and open up our boots to get as much air into them as possible. The bed has clean sheets and comfy blankets. We boil some water, which we sip from coffee cups to get warm before downing the beers, sitting in bed tucked in among the blankets.
The Professor is interminably irked by the Swedish rider from the ferry. The man’s know-it-all airs and need to tell us what is up with our gear rubbed him the wrong way, and he can’t get it out of his mind. We talk about it, and I explain that in my experience, this man wasn’t intentionally trying to be rude, but simply expressing the Swedish urge to do things in the “correct” way, and for everyone else to do so as well.
In Sweden, there is this concept of “lagom,” or “just right,” that is deeply ingrained into the national psyche. Paired with a strong tendency toward social conformity, this Swedish mentality may be one of the main reasons for the nice and neutral society they have created, one that so many people wish to be part of.
This is a welfare state on the brink of collapse as the system is overwhelmed by unprecedented numbers of immigrants flooding into the country. We have read the stories of veritable ghettoes getting out of hand, of increasing violence and restlessness as cultures clash and services once taken for granted are becoming less available.
Here, in this little room in a guest cottage off the main house in an orderly Swedish neighborhood, such troubles seem far away as we drift off to sleep, finally warm and dry.