The second time we went to Poland was when arrived in Europe to live this past year. Handling my jetlag better this time, I was able to stay awake for more conversations in the car and in the bus, learning more deeply about the history written in the cities and towns.
It truly is jarring to realize you’re staring at a building that was built in this lifetime under communist rule. It’s one thing to learn about communism in school, but a whole different thing to hear from someone you know about how communism affected where they chose to live in college and why they chose to leave their home.
This trip was a trip of many firsts, the biggest of which was going to a country where nobody in our group spoke the language.
Originally, this was what I was the most nervous about in coming to Eastern Europe. I imagined flying down a highway with Kevin driving, me shouting, “I don’t know what it means!” as he asked me what a sign says, resulting in our car and our lives smashing into oncoming traffic.
Luckily, it turned out to be not as difficult as that.
Our first first time traveling to a country where no one in our group spoke the language was when we were in Poland this second time. One morning, Mary, Kevin and I decided to take a little road trip to Slovakia to see a castle a couple hours’ drive.
I think one of the most magical things about Europe, especially for us plain, US folk, is that if you say, “I want to see a castle!” The response will be, “Which one?” This castle was supposed to be beautiful in particular not because of the castle itself, but because of the views from on top. We really were only about 20 minutes from the border, and then it was just about an hour and a half through some Slovakian towns and rolling hills to the castle to reach the castle. Sounded like a nice, casual castle outing.
We planned the journey, since none of us had a phone or GPS that would work, and headed out. Mary was a bit worried that we might need a sticker on the car in Slovakia for, what it seemed like, a sort of toll system, but we decided just to head out anyway. Kevin drove and Mary navigated, and I manned the distribution of candy.
Crossing the border was about as ceremonious as crossing a state line in the US. It was also the moment where we learned how we were going to navigate signs in Slovakian. Answer: we weren’t. We weren’t going to navigate in Slovakian because nothing was in Slovakian. In fact, nothing was in any language, really. Just pictures and icons.
The first sign in Slovakia was a sign that said “Polska” (aka: Poland) with a single slash through it. This was not so tricky for our morning brains. We were able to conclude that this meant we had crossed the border, and were no longer in Poland. Done.
The next sign was a much bigger sign with much more detail. It was clear that, “Polska” may have only been a warm-up.
We pulled to the side of the road to study it.
It was a table with 4 rows and three columns. Along the top, it had an image of a car and a truck—which we expertly deduced to mean: “For cars,” and “For trucks.” Along the side, there were an assortment of images.
The first one was relatively simple: a line with a series of tall shapes emerging on top of it. This seemed like it meant, “City.” Under the car, it said, “50” in a red circle (thank goodness that numbers are the same symbols across Roman-alphabet languages), and under the truck, it said “50,” again. So, probably a speed-limit of 50 in city zones for both cars and trucks. Got it.
The next symbol was this same line + vertical shapes with a red slash through it, along with its own corresponding speed limits. This one, perhaps, meant non-city driving speed limits.
But then the next two rows seemed a bit more complicated. The city-symbol was included, though smaller this time, along with what seemed like a road and a car side-by-side underneath it.
The next line was an identical trio of images, though with the classic red slash through the city-symbol. In addition to this added confusion, there was a third column next to the speed limits with a tall red rectangle next to a car, and “7 s t” underneath both.
We were stumped, because it really did seem like “City” and “Not-City” covered pretty much any situation we could come up with in our past driving experience, so why the need for these additional triple-icon situations? All 4 situations had different speed limits, plus a red rectangle-small car “7 s t” restriction, so it seemed important to solve.
We started throwing out guesses.
“Maybe if you’re off-roading in the city, the speed limit’s 90, but if you’re outside the city, it’s 130?” I squinted my eyes at the triage of symbols. “That seems terrifying, but at least they adjust the limits.”
“No, I think that might mean highway.” Kevin said, referencing the road sign.
Mary nodded, “Yes, city highway is 90, not-city highway is 130, I think.”
I unwrapped another chocolate, “That makes sense. But what is that red rectangle icon in the 3rd column?”
“7 s t…what the hell does that mean…maybe 7 meters’ space between trucks and cars?”
We all squinted at it for a few more moments.
“I’ll go with it.” I popped the chocolate in my mouth and sat back.
The only two remaining icons were two at the bottom: one that could mean something about either a shower or a headlight, and the other seemed clearly to be an emergency number.
“Not sure what that headlight icon means, but I think we’re good. Ok!” Kevin said adjusting the gear. “That wasn’t so bad!”
As we started pulling away, Mary, still staring at the sign, said, “It says nothing about a sticker, yes?”
Kevin drove slowly past it and Mary and I studied it one last time.
“I don’t…think so…” I said.
If did say something about a sticker, we were not smart enough to know what it said. If police pulled us over, we’d just have to gesture. Perhaps we could point to our brains and making a slashing sign just like the “not-Poland” signs…