Retired From Work, Not From Life
I enjoyed a few minutes visiting with Doc today. I don’t know his real name because he doesn’t speak English. My brain searches for the few Polish words it can string together, but he speaks faster than it can process. I assign nicknames to the ‘chlopaki’; Doc is neatly dressed like a retired doctor or teacher, which is why I call him Doc. And there’s Popeye, Little Dog, and ‘Bonjour no’ (because that’s how he addresses me… probably thinks I’m French). I think Doc is my age, but it’s hard to tell. Chlopaki look older than they are; it’s a side effect of day-drinking. But they’re less inhibited than the average citizen, will greet me when we cross paths in town, and Doc will usually come over to talk if he sees me on the bench outside the cemetery. It doesn’t matter that we don’t speak the same language; in some beautifully cosmic way, it works.
Almost every day, I wait on the bench while Ela attends to family passed. It’s a traditional behavior I respect and appreciate; not just in her, but Poles in general. The candle and znicze shops nearby have a steady stream of business from regular visitors to the cemetery. People of all ages stop to read the posted obituaries, modern people wearing modern clothes living modern lives but relaxed… a state of passive activity. Bicycles don’t whiz by; they cruise down the street with groceries on the handlebars and traffic stacked up behind them. Most everybody makes time to prepare their own meals. Busy, but not rushed; that’s how it feels. We are busy with our daily routine, but not rushed as we go through town. I have time to enjoy the little things… like visiting with Doc.
It feels odd to refer to this stage in my life as retirement because it’s an adventure in the truest sense of the word. It’s subtle, not dramatic, but adventure nevertheless. When I was young, I imagined retirement as old people sitting on the porch. Lots of time doing nothing… that’s what retirees did with the last parts of their lives. Now that I’m here, I am happy to report that it’s not like that at all. I don’t feel rushed with loads of work, but I am not sitting doing nothing. Still going to do what my lady asks me to do; that doesn’t change in retirement. And Ela is an active woman, which makes me an active man. Walking through town every day to buy cakes and groceries may not sound like work to you, but my muse maintains a quick pace for the two hour hike we share. Cake and coffee when we get home, then I take the dog on another walk. The only time I sit on a porch is when we leave town for a few days of recreation.
On the long list of adventures I’ve had (mountain climbing, shark diving, wilderness whitewater in winter… blah blah blah), old friends that know me consider my move to Poland pretty tame. But adventures can be any activity or experience that is unusual and exciting or daring. Risk is often part of it, but not a requirement for adventure. Really, it’s a matter of perspective. I don’t climb; we hike. I don’t explore; we site-see. It’s not thrill-seeking adventure, but it’s unusual and exciting to me.
Probably because it’s old. Everywhere this American goes, every village we bike through seems to unfold in layers of history. Not roadside parks with cheap signs and souvenirs; here, the sediments of history are stacked deeply, exposed by time, and easily witnessed. Poland is a modern country with every convenience, but there are stone walls standing along the streets in our little town dating from the 13th Century and lots of German architecture a couple hundred years old. Recovering and rebuilding from the destruction of WWII and subsequent Soviet occupation, Poland was disciplined with its finances, worked its way out of debt, and rejuvenated itself. Their good stewardship was complemented by support from the European Union. It rebuilt and repaired and refurbished with great style. It feels like old Europe but it’s fresh, not mouldy. Here, the old stuff blends in seamlessly with the new.
For me, it’s an adventure. Probably not to the locals that I pass on the street every day; it’s just home to them. No more fascinating or adventurous than a walk through Challis, Idaho seems to me. But from my perspective, retired living here is an adventure.
To most Americans, little is known about Poland. It gave the world pierogies and kielbasa and Pope John Paul II. But that’s not unusual; most people don’t travel outside their state and much of what we know about Europe is through television. Most of what we know about Poland is from black-and-white ‘World at War’ documentaries, and Boomers might remember Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Nothing since then, however. Most Americans couldn’t find it on a map. Without fail, my friends back home are surprised when I share my adventures in Strzelin, in Silesia near the Czech and German borders.
Poland is a developed market and a middle power; it has the 9th largest economy in the European Union by GDP and 23rd largest in the world. It provides very high standards of living, safety, and economic freedom, as well as free university education and a universal health care system. The country has over a dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most of them cultural. Poland is a founding member state of the United Nations, as well as a member of the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the European Union. It has a Crime Index under 30, thirteenth safest in the EU and measurably safer than Russia, Belgium, U.K., Sweden, U.S. and France (in that order, with France being second only to Belarus)… all with Crime Indexes exceeding 40.
There are dangers in Poland, of course. Calculated risks that require good decision-making. Flaki, for example; depending on who makes it and the quality of ingredients, it is a cultural dividing line that an outsider should avoid… because to some people, even Poles, gut soup cannot possibly be good food. And blood sausage; say no more. I knew that was dangerous by the smell of it, and blood isn’t appetizing at any meal. And the gelled meats at the butcher shop; the galaretka. I remember the grandmas in Texas making sous meat like that, and Ela loves it, but it’s a mystery food to me.
Most suspicious is the crew that stands outside the pierogarnia where they work making pierogies; a handful of grandmas on the shaded cobblestone street smoking cigarettes on break, still wearing aprons from the kitchen, marking their territory with eye contact and body language. I was outnumbered and it felt dangerous, but I risked it for their pierogies. It’s a different kind of adventure, and that’s my point.
Adventure is as much perspective as event.
Living in Poland isn’t as wild as moving to Poland was… you know what I mean? Who relocates in retirement to a country so foreign that English is uncommon? I can name fifteen countries with visa exceptions for U.S. citizens with Social Security and ten of them have beachfronts. The dollar is strong in Greece and you can live right on the Med. Many countries in Central America invested heavily in the construction of U.S. retirement communities. And all of those countries speak English as a second language. Not Poland; young people have it as an elective subject in high school, but my Polish peers more likely studied Russian until the 1990s. I suppose to some people, it’s an unlikely place to retire. But all things considered, my simple life in Strzelin is an adventure.
This is how it should work… retirement from work, but not from life.This is exactly the time that allows you to do everything that you didn’t have time for before.
This is true freedom. You perfectly conveyed the atmosphere of your new adventures, challenges and experiences in Poland and Strzelin.As you can see, Poland is an interesting country with a cuisine that can be a culinary challenge, just like climbing Mount Everest can be a challenge for a mountaineer. Thank you for this nice trip around Strzelin.
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