Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Mikołajki)
The next morning we sheepishly awoke, had Polish coffee (which is a fine coffee you place in the cup and cover with hot water then stir and wait till the grounds settle, and then drink between pursed lips), along with bread, cold cuts, and cheese … a rather typical Polish breakfast. We went for a drive and explored the nearby area before settling back at our campsite for the afternoon. As one might expect, there wasn’t a lot to discover – the attraction really was where we were camped so, after picking up some sundries, we returned to the campsite.
We spread our blankets on the grass and talked and read. I believe I was reading some Polish reprint of a non-copyrighted classic like The Count of Monte Cristo when Magda who had been petting and grooming Aida, swore.”
While rubbing her hand over Aida’s rump, Magda had discovered a bump in the short fur over her hip. It took a bit of effort to find the translation, but eventually we learned that she had found a tick and I knew from my childhood growing up in the interior of BC what danger this presented. Magda expertly dug her fingers through Aida’s fur, grasped the tick close to the skin, then gave it a twist and then, with a pull, out popped the tick, whole and angry … and also quickly dead, or so it was once we had all inspected it and its blood swollen abdomen and then Ryszard smashed it with a rock. A thorough search of Ben revealed nothing, but we kept a watchful eye on them both (and ourselves) thereafter.
A short while and a piwo later, Ryszard suggested, “Let’s take out the canoes.”
I looked to Andrea for a sign of reluctant approval before I nodded and answered, “Sure.”
“Not too far, though,” said Andrea who remained nervous with canoes since her uncle, I believe, tipped her out of one when she was young.
Magda left Aida with her friends but I didn’t trust nor want to leave Ben with these strangers, so we thought what the heck, let’s take him with us. Ben, however, had never really experienced water yet – not unless you count the forced baptisms of his baths. He’d touched a toe to the lake the previous day but had otherwise skirted it. If there was any doubt at all, it was clear there was no lab in this mutt.
Andrea took a seat at the front of the canoe and after chasing Ben around the shoreline, I niftily scooped him up and carried him to the water and then put him behind Andrea, in the middle of the canoe, before pushing us out into the water. Ryszard and Magda followed in their own boat.
We paddled side by side with them for a hundred metres or so and we were having a wonderful time talking and Ben was relatively staying put, though his paws were on the gunnels of the canoe as he kept a watch on Magda.
Intending to follow the shoreline for a bit, we turned our canoes to the right and in the process, our flotilla of two slowly separated until we were probably 25 feet or more apart.
“Not too far,” Andrew whispered to me.
“Ahoy,” I shouted, and waved my arms to them.
Ryszard waved back.
Ben’s anxiety piqued. He started whining and crying for Magda and then this very quickly turned into full-on barking.
Before we really knew what was happening, before we had a chance to bring the drifting canoes closer, Ryszard called to Ben – and then it happened …
Ben, who had been moving along the gunnels, whining towards Magda, found traction on the bottom of the canoe and he bounded, over the side, and into the water ….
As long as I live, I will never forget the video in my head of the first time Ben hit water.
If Ben had a human brain and memories, I don’t think he would forget it either. It was surely pure shock an amazement as he prepared to land with his feet but they caught nothing; his legs were bracing for land but instead they broke through the surface of the water and he dived through its skin and disappeared.
Andrea and I both turned in slow motion with him, not really knowing what was happening, not really sure what to do, but in the process, we just about capsized the canoe. Without really thinking, I put down my paddle and prepared to launch in after him.
Meanwhile, Ben’s feet never stopped ‘running’ even as he took in what must have been more than a few snoutfuls of water; and before any of us could respond, his body bobbed back up and in a total surprise to us all, not the least of which was himself, he started swimming!
He was five or six feet from the boat at this time and as precariously leaned the canoe towards him, calling him, he set off in the direction he started: towards Magda.
Have I mentioned that Ben is a stubborn dog?
Magda and Ryszard both started calling for Ben, encouraging him to them: “Come on, Ben! Good boy. Come here. You can do it.”
I turned out canoe towards them and started to follow Ben, holding my breath as I cut the water with my own desperate strokes.
“Come on Ben. Come here,” they cried.
… and do-it, he did. Over the course of an anxious minute, Ben dogpaddled his way to their canoe where Ryszard reached down, and grabbing him under his armpits, lifted Ben into their canoe where he immediately shook and soaked them both.
Andrea and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Ben was okay and once he was in the other canoe, he quickly forgot the ordeal behind him and jumped on Magda and covered her in kisses. “Greetings” dispensed, Magda waved and Ryszard gave a thumbs up … and so Ben spent the rest of our canoe excursion with them … and without any more water stunts.
Back on the shore, however, Ben was more courageous to explore the water. While he never did become a water dog, he did more than dip a foot in the water now. Back on the shore, I thought we should practice a bit more, so started by playing fetch onlong the beach and he ran through the water and, then, gradually, I started to throw the stick further into the water, and he unflinchingly chased it and showed that his dogpaddle was no fluke. Clearly many hundreds of years of breeding and instinct had locked the knowledge of swimming in his brain somewhere. And so, with a bit more swimming and bit more play with his little friend back at the campsite, Ben was soon totally and thoroughly exhausted.
The next day, we had lunch at the campsite before packing up the car and heading back to Warsaw. However, what had been a rather relaxing 4-hour drive north was more like 10 hours heading back. The reason is purely the result of an underdeveloped transportation infrastructure, an infrastructure built to service a socialist Poland where cars were fewer and those that dominated with the ubiquitous and underpowered communist-era mały Fiat – this “small Fiat” (aka Polski-Fiat) was the Fiat-126 which possessed a whopping 30 horsepower, if had a good tailwind behind you. In the eight years since the fall of the wall, however, there was an influx of cars into the country with every family and professional scrambling to own their own status symbol. While the cars coming into the market were still extremely small by North American standards, they nonetheless came with considerably more power than their socialist forefathers and neither the roads nor the drivers were prepared for this change. The result was a Polish epidemic of road accidents and death. As I recall, nearly 100 people died on Polish highways that afternoon alone … including many on the gridlocked highway we were traveling back. And after many suffocating hours on the road, I saw firsthand why when an impatient Ryszard pull his prized Renault onto the shoulder and race down the side as he followed a brazen Cinquecento driver who did the same. Others flew into the centre of the road and pretended the narrow centreline was a laneway itself periodically skirting oncoming traffic that emerged going north. I now understood the events that led up to a fatal bus accident the spring before I arrived that killed 32 when a bus for the national carrier crashed into a tree near Gdańsk. In 1997, more than 7000 people died on Polish roads. However, if that is a staggering number, in the 15 years the followed the fall of the Berlin wall, more than 98,000 people were killed on Polish roads … and more than one million were injured. A deadly postscript if ever there was one.
Continued next … Chapter 3: Canadian Soil — Decisions