I have taken many bad trips in my life. My friend Colleen and I almost fell off a cliff in Guatemala trying to go north when we should have gone south. I once had to rebook an airplane ticket as we rolled down the tarmac of a layover. These are the kind of stories that are fun to talk about now, but at the time were so stressful that they probably took years off my life. The worst, though, was recently when my friend and I decided to take our two 3-year-olds to Poland.
We live in Malmo, Sweden. My friend Lara proposed that we take a several-day trip to Poland while both our spouses were away on business trips, via an overnight boat to Gdynia, the port of Gdansk. We could visit Gdansk’s famous Solidarity Museum and learn the history of Poland’s workers’ movement. The kids could explore the Maritime Museum and eat pierogies.
As with many parents, I had some ideas about what it would be like to have a kid before I had one. When I was a teenager, I joined a medieval re-enactment group; people with kids threw them in wagons to pull them around events at night, sleeping next to the bonfire drums, or staying up late to watch commedia dell’arte. My mother also took me on long road trips to visit grandparents; I sang, slept, and read in the car. I expected my kid to be like that, a child of the open road, who enjoyed traveling as much as I did. What I got was a tiny, inflexible chaos baby. To those parents whose kids can stay up occasionally, or happily sleep in a car seat or stroller, I salute you. That has never been my kid. She needs routine and gets manic, violent, and loud if she doesn’t eat and sleep at exact intervals. Her bedtime is 7 pm for good reason.
““There is a… what do you call it… a hurricane.”
We took the train from Malmo to Karlskrona, arriving at 5:30. During the trip, we discovered that our boat actually left from a surprise second ferry terminal, a 20-minute drive from the train station. Swedish winter is descending, so it was total darkness when we stepped off the train. We walked to the area marked “taxi stand” to find no cars at all. We called a taxi company; the next one was 20 minutes away.
When we got to the terminal and checked in, we asked when we might be able to board. Probably not until 8:30, maybe 9, she told us. “There is a… what do you call it, a hurricane all over northern Europe,” she told us. “The boat is late.” We asked where we could go to eat. The mall, she told us. We went outside to see a bus to the mall pulling away, and the next one was in an hour. We called the same taxi company back. The only thing open at the mall was Subway, so they dropped us off there with a promise to come back at 7:45 to take us back to the terminal. We got almost all the way through dinner before the first overtired meltdown happened and we had to carry a screaming kid out horizontally, into the deserted mall.
When we got back to the ship, more meltdowns followed. Eventually, they let us on the ship and we went immediately to our cabins. My kid fell asleep right away, which was good because the storm over the Baltic was intensifying. Our boat started to pitch and roll dramatically, tipping violently from one side to the other. Bags and garbage cans rolled back and forth through the cabin. Next door, I heard something fall off a wall. I tried to sleep, but had fitful dreams of being on a sinking cruise ship; my husband and I had just nostalgically rewatched “Titanic”, and it wasn’t helping. The boat shook with loud booms every time it smacked into the trough of a wave, so it wasn’t really surprising that my kid woke up at 4 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was around then that I also discovered my iPad had fallen in the night and shattered its screen.
“I no walk anymore, mama. I too tired.”
We weren’t due into port until 9:30 am, but breakfast was served at 7, so I took her upstairs to wait. By 7:30 am, there was no breakfast and no announcement; the doors to the buffet were locked. There was nowhere else to eat on board. My kid gets enormously cranky if she doesn’t eat first thing in the morning, so I took her back to our room and tried to shovel some train snacks into her. Eventually, they offered a very basic meal for anyone who could make it there and back before docking. I asked a steward what happened to the planned buffet. “Big waves,” he said. “Everything fell over. Food, coffee machines, stove, everything.”
The aquarium in Gdynia was the only thing open when we arrived. It was a long walk, but the kiddos managed it; tiny legs can only do so much, though, and they started to break down a little when we couldn’t find somewhere to eat lunch. The third place we tried had pizza and pierogies, and a view of the souvenir shop next door. On the windy trek back to the train station, my kid gave up. Tears rolled down her face and she walked slower and slower until she said, “I no walk anymore, mama. I too tired.” I had to carry her after that — she weighs 35lbs and almost immediately fell asleep, which made her even heavier. I was staggering when we got to the train. By the time we got to the Airbnb, it had started to snow. One cheapie pasta dinner later, both kids were out like lights by 6:30 pm and Lara and I were in bed by 8:30 ourselves.
After an unwelcome 5 am wake-up, we walked around the old town, trying to find a museum where kids got to drive remote-control boats. We were able to locate and purchase tickets — our entrance slot was 1 pm. We found a friendly cafe with a corner full of toys and ate lunch, then headed to the museum. At 2 pm, they threw us out. Maybe we can go see other things in the museum, we said. But every floor had a separate entrance fee; you needed a new ticket every time. Defeated, we decided to head to the Solidarity Museum. We’d checked the website for opening hours, everything looked fine… except when we got there, they said the entire museum was closed for maintenance. What about tomorrow? Oh, tomorrow it was closed too.
We walked slowly back to the Airbnb. My kid loves jumping in puddles and making a huge splash; at one point, she misjudged puddle depth and ended up faceplanting directly into the icy, muddy water. Her little steps squelched along more and more slowly until she started to sob. “I miss dada,” she told me. “I very tired, I want go to bed.” It was 4 pm. I had to carry her again, mud all over both of us, while she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Mama, we home yet?”
It was too early for dinner, and she was too tired for eating out. Being the old town, there were no grocery stores. I quickly grabbed a few microwaveable meals, and Lara and her son left for a nearby restaurant. While my daughter ate and stared blankly into space, I did some more research and discovered that literally everything we wanted to do was closed tomorrow. In fact, it was a holiday: All Saints’ Day. This holiday is one of the biggest in Poland, and entire towns are known to shut down since the only employees required to be at work are emergency and public transit workers. We had to be out of the Airbnb by 11 am and we had nowhere to go after that. It was supposed to rain all day.
Frantic googling led us to believe that the zoo might be open. We couldn’t find public transit listings, so we called yet another taxi to deliver us to the most Soviet-style zoo I have ever seen. Rather than creating habitats that resembled each animal’s original locale — like, say, African veldt for the lions — all of the animals were outside in pens that just looked like Northern Poland. We found some parrots; they were shivering with cold. We also found the angriest looking crocodile I have ever seen, and I’ve been to the Australian outback. “He’s watching us,” Lara’s son said, “I’m a little scared.”
We ate some hot dogs and caught the only bus of the afternoon to the local tramline. On the tram, minutes from our stop, my exhausted kid started to cry; she’d been awake since 5 am today too. As we were standing up to leave, an old man roared “SHUT UP” directly into her face, which made her scream. I yelled at him in English. He yelled at me in Polish. Everyone else looked like they wished they were anywhere but where we were.
With that, Lara and I agreed that we were done engaging in cultural activities. We walked to the child-friendly restaurant we’d had lunch in the previous day and sat there for three hours, until we could reasonably head back to the boat. Our kids were exhausted and refused to eat. We left a big tip. The boat passage was uneventful, except for when they played a ship-wide wakeup call at 6 am to prepare us for docking at 7:30. On the way back from Karlskrona, we stared bleakly out the windows. “Mama, we home yet?” my daughter asked. Finally, the answer was blessedly yes. Important lesson learned: I’m staying home until my kid is 10.