Marcin popped the question on a Tuesday, while we sat in the Alexanderplatz stereotypically eating Döner from the shop at the base of the Fernsehturm. "Want to go to the Baltic tonight?"
We were in Berlin. A trip to the Baltic meant driving 3 hours, across the border into Poland and up to the northern coast. I had never been to Poland and I knew hardly any Polish, except for the few curse words Marcin taught me the first night we went drinking. Did I want to get in the car of someone I'd only recently met, to visit a country whose language I didn't know, just to get a new stamp in my passport? Hell yes.
We started the trip around 6 after picking up our friend Ursula. Ursula was a Spanish transplant bumming around Berlin with the two of us. She and I had gone from being acquaintances to friends when we walked around Prenzlauer Berg one day looking for a piercing parlor on a whim. She got a nose stud. I got a tragus hoop. (A word to the wise for anyone who wants to get pierced in a foreign country: point at the spot you want pierced. Don't want anything to get lost in translation.)
By the time we hit the interstate, it was already dark. If I've learned anything about driving on foreign interstates, it's this: once you lose the visual cues around you, you might as well be anywhere -- Pennsylvania, Thailand, or the Czech Republic. For a while, it was a mostly silent ride, punctuated by the wind coming in through the driver's side window. (Marcin was a chain smoker and would not take a three hour trip without nicotine, so he'd rolled down the window an inch or so to ash his cigarette. Every once in a while he'd ask me to light him a new one. I never could figure out if this was his way of flirting.)
As we reached the border, Marcin asked us to hand over our passports. At his suggestion, Ursula and I stayed silent while Marcin spoke with the patrolman. There were a few tense minutes and looks, but eventually stamps were issued and we drove on into the dark, looking for a gas station to convert Euro to Zloty.
When we pulled in to the first station we saw, it was midnight. Marcin winced when he noticed a white van parked in a dark corner. He whispered a warning -- "don't look at them!" -- before heading inside. Ursula and I stared at our shoes, out of our element, and I couldn't help but smirk. In just a few hours, I'd gone from eastern Germany, reclaimed by the west for over a decade by the time I was living there, into the edge of the Eastern bloc. Of all the things I had expected to see upon entry, the Polish mafia was not one of them.