Looking back, the summer of 2011 was one of the craziest times ever of my guidebook-writing "career." Around that time, I switched over to working mainly for Lonely Planet -- just as the company had embarked on the highly challenging process of remaking and updating their main line of guidebooks (a change-over they dubbed “product re-launch.”) Lonely Planet was responding to reader feedback by adding new sections (and deleting old ones) in order to make the books more user-friendly. For us writers, it meant reworking reams of existing text and learning entirely new formatting and filing procedures.
I must have been feeling pretty confident at the time, because that summer I applied to work on two separate guidebooks: the Lonely Planet guide to Poland; and their multi-country guide to Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania. For the Poland guide, I would be updating content for the capital, Warsaw, as well as several regions situated all around the country. I would also be responsible for writing the background essays -- on topics like Polish culture and food -- that come toward the end of the guidebook (the “backmatter” in the biz.)
For the Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania guide, I’d be responsible for researching and writing up the Lithuania part. Lithuania is a relatively small country (compared to Poland, at least), but I’d never worked on a guidebook in the Baltic countries before. In fact, it would be my first-ever trip to Lithuania. I’d have to do a lot of prep research before heading out on the road.
The Polish materials were due by the first week of September, and Lithuania in early November. I figured if all went according to plan, I’d be able to manage the load.
But that wasn’t the whole story that year. That spring and early summer, I was seriously considering a career switch -- a return to journalism, in a sense, but this time not as a reporter or editor but as a developer of news and entertainment apps for smartphones. In May, I flew to Zurich, Switzerland, for some intense interviews with my prospective employer, Ringier AG. They kept dragging their heels on a final offer, though, and in the end I informed them I'd be staying with Lonely Planet.
Unfortunately, those weeks of back and forth with Ringier ate up acres of precious, potential on-the-road research time. I didn’t actually set out for Poland until June.
One of the reasons for feeling so confident going in was that Poland was a country I knew pretty well. In addition to visiting several times as a tourist, I’d written a couple of Poland guidebooks in the past for the travel publishers Fodor’s and Frommer’s. I’d also written a Kraków guide for the Automobile Association of Great Britain. And Poland’s right next door to the Czech Republic -- so getting there would be easy.
My memory of that Poland 2011 research trip is something of a blur (I’ve posted some photos here, but more to look at than to illustrate the story). Looking back at my photos, I see that I started out in the southeastern part of the country, around Lublin, and then made my way slowly west and north, passing through places like Kazimierz Dolny, Częstochowa, Kielce, Radom, and Łódź along the way.
As I normally do for summer research trips, I drove my own car and carried my bike on the car’s roof. The plan for each stop on the way was essentially the same: I’d find a place to sleep, stash the car and carry out the in-town research by bike.
By the time July rolled around, the trip was going pretty well (almost too well, in retrospect). I’d managed to cover a lot of ground and find some promising new spots for the guide. I’d still have Warsaw in my future and large parts of northeastern Poland to research before starting on Lithuania, but the butterflies in my stomach had eased.
I spent July 2, a Saturday, relaxing in the tiny town of Łowicz, before turning the car northward early the next morning for the short drive up to the river-port town of Płock on the Vistula. I’d never been there before, but our guidebook described it as follows: “Płock, dramatically perched on a cliff high above the Vistula, has a long, varied history and a spruced-up old center. It also can boast the remnants of a Gothic castle, a glorious cathedral, and the finest collection of Art Nouveau in the country.”
It sounded pretty promising on paper.
One of the main downsides of driving in Poland -- besides the sorry state of the highways -- is finding a place to park. Most city centers are blocked off to car traffic and parking is usually restricted to residents only. I found that Płock was no different as I nosed my car down the narrow lanes that led to the Old Town. After circling around the block a few times with no luck, I found a place about a 1km or so away in a secluded gravel lot. I didn't see any other cars parked there and the area looked a little seedy, but at least there weren't any “no parking” signs around. I figured the car would be fine for a few hours. (What could possibly go wrong in the city "with the finest collection of Art Nouveau in the country”?)
I wasn’t sure yet if I was going to stay the night, so I left the bike behind, locked to the roof rack, and set out on foot. After checking out some sights and eating a late lunch, I decided to head back to the car and figure out the plan for the rest of the day: would I stay the night or do some more research and try to make it to Warsaw before bedtime?
In the end, that was a moot question. As I rounded the corner for the gravel lot and the car, I noticed instantly that something was wrong. The bicycle had been pulled down from the car's roof and the locks had been splintered open. The bastards had stolen my bike!
For anyone not into cycling, it's hard to explain what a punch in the gut it is when someone steals your bike. For most people, I suppose, a stolen bike might rate as a bad day, but hardly worthy of even a blog post. Me, though? I liken bike theft to horse-thieving in the Old West -- "hanging's too good for 'em!" I'm opposed to capital punishment, in general. Push me too hard, though, and I might just make an exception for bike thieves.
For a guidebook author, I suddenly found myself in the strange situation of not quite knowing what to do. I didn't have any friends in town and had no idea where the Płock police department was located. In the end, I retraced my steps back to the tourist information office and asked the woman there to call the police. The police then instructed me simply to drive over and talk to them in person.
So that's what I did. I found the police station on my car's GPS and reluctantly moved my vehicle from the crime scene (the bike lock was broken and roof rack scratched, but otherwise the car was in good working condition). The station was located in a depressing building that looked to be part of a run-down, '70s-era housing project. I had no idea what the language situation would be. My Polish is rudimentary (and Czech, though fairly close to Polish, doesn't help much in moments like this). Fate turned out to be on my side -- sort of -- in this one. After the duty clerk told me she didn't speak any English and none of the other cops in the lobby could help, they finally pushed forward a reluctant young officer, Łukasz, to deal with "this foreign guy and his bike."
Łukasz actually spoke pretty good English and listened patiently as I told my story. After hearing me out, however, he expressed only the vaguest interest in taking down an official theft report or returning to the gravel lot (or even riding around town with me to look for the bike on the street). I still remember the exasperated look on his face as I berated Płock's finest: "What kind of cops are you guys, anyway?"
And his chilling response: "Mark, your bike isn't even in Płock anymore."
And so it was, July 3rd marked the end of the summer of 2011 for me. Oh sure, not in any real way. There would still be plenty of sunny days and fun things to do in the months ahead. But the mood had clearly shifted.
Those "on the road" mishaps, even relatively unimportant ones like a stolen bike, mark out inflection points in a sense. Before then, my summer had been largely pre-planned and busy, but I still felt in control of my own time. Sitting in that depressing Płock police station, though, I felt that freedom slowly ebb away. From here until the Lithuania deadline in November, I knew it was going to be a race against the clock.
Here's how it went down.
Poland being Poland (or simply, I suppose, bureaucracy being bureaucracy), the police informed me that because I wasn't a native Polish speaker, I was prohibited by law from making out a theft report without the presence of a licensed interpreter. The next available date for the interpreter was July 11 (a week away). I weighed the pros and cons and figured if I had any chance of recouping the loss through insurance, I would need a police report. I made the appointment and then headed off to Warsaw for the week to continue my guidebook research.
I showed up back in Płock on July 11 at the appointed hour, but alas the interpreter did not. After hanging out in town a couple of more days waiting on that elusive translator to show, the police decided to take my report without one. Actually, Łukasz served as my "interpreter," something he could have done on the very first day (but I digress).
From Płock, the next order of business was to make an unscheduled return to Prague to have my car's roof and roof rack repaired, and hopefully buy a new bike. All told, that bike thing cost me at least two weeks of squandered time, and it wasn't until the end of July before I could finally resume my Poland research trip.
I'll spare you the ins and outs of that hectic second leg of the journey. Suffice it to say, every day (and every minute) was scripted to the last detail. I wound up exhausted on the last day of August in the town of Augustów (fittingly), in the far northeastern corner of Poland, where I holed up for a week in a cheap hotel to be alone with my research and write-up. (I only came out into the sunshine for pierogi and beer). After collating my notes, banging out those essays, and learning all of those new formatting and filing procedures, I finally submitted my Poland draft -- a day late but it was done.
From there, I made the short hop across the border to start a new country (and a new deadline): Welcome to Lithuania!
It was stressful and a learning experience (and of course I never did see that bike again), but everything turned out okay in the end. The Poland book was published on schedule (find a link here); Lithuania was far more interesting than I'd ever imagined (book link here). And after -- finally -- convincing the Płock police department to mail me the bike theft report (not as easy as it sounds), I managed to recoup a fair bit of insurance money for the bike. Turns out that Lonely Planet writers are covered for these kinds of mishaps, and to their credit, the company bent over backwards to help me cover the loss.
I’ve mellowed in the intervening years and I'd like to hope that someone, somewhere is still enjoying that bike. Just don't get me started about Płock, please.