First Stop: Krakow
Krakow--why, many have asked, would a fall vacation lead one into the cold, distant, and rather foreign land of Poland when the beautifully warm sands of the Mediterranean lie but six hours south? Good question, I'll get back to you.
Poland pulled for many reasons, and in the end it came to this: if not now then when? Krakow is a beautiful city, the medieval cathedrals and castles joust the sky with the whimsical feel of ancient European charm, but there is something else in the air, stained on the streets, and writ on the faces of the inhabitants, something forced and unprovoked that lingers even after the wounds have closed and the patient discharged. Evidently this reference is to the German invasion in 1939, and though Poland was not alone in twentieth century home soil suffering as every nation was pained during the course of the Great Wars on this continent--but Poland appears different. True Paris was leveled, and rebuilt, but there is no lingering aura of torment, whereas once in Poland one is invaded by a sadness made only more poignant by the contrasting beauty of the land surrounding.
The nation's years of occupation by Nazi Germany that were followed by Soviet rule have left Poland a rape victim conscripted to forever carry her scars while yet make attempt at forward movement. Perhaps it was after all just the effect of the rather low temperature, and the eerie notion of a non-warming sun, but either way the nation of Poland is due its admiration. It shoulders its legacy as an extension rather than as a separate past. Slowly the nation recovers--made member of the European Union two years past, though not yet strong enough to carry the euro, adoption of modern and western forms of culture and materialism with four-story shopping malls and corporate eateries, but all the while never masking the omnipresent scent of being Polish.
The journey from Paris by plane was taken in rather French strides I must say--cheep mini bottles of Bordeaux alongside cheese, crudites, and dried fruit. H--my stalwart accomplice on the voyage--and I toasted to our narrow French escape and anxiously chirped our anticipation and excitement for the East. Upon arrival in Crakovie (the French will tell you how your name is spelled too, do not worry) the change in atmosphere was paramount--it goes without saying that yes, Poland is different than France, but it is a sense that has to be experienced in order to understand these circular and prosaic words I give here that futilely attempt to induce comprehension. Standing outside the airport, the temperature drastically lower than the energy-spiked air of Paris, we found ourselves finally completely alone and without direction, a liberating notion despite its apparent gravity. Cab, of course--but 70euros to get downtown? Rape for the non-Polish speakers. Ironically it was the French language that saved us; a French-Polish Speaking Pole called a cab and split the fare, 5euros each. He translated our French to the Polish-speaking driver and we all landed safely at our respective destination. Alright French, you win this round. Our schedule kept us in in Krakow the first night--where a shared hostel with two Brits and a Welsh-man left us with our first taste of Polish vodka and a sleepless night of bed-rattling snores. Morning was greeted early, as our first adventure took us an hour and a half north by bus to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. An experience I've anxiously awaited since my decision to study history. The visit was an exhausting and empowering experience, one that is best left for another time and another form of communication.
Metropolitan Krakow is a bustling tourist center full of the quaint tourist shops, sleigh rides, and cluttered cobbled avenues of authentic restaurants and novelties. Exhausted by the previous days excursion to Auschwitz and awaiting our night train, H and I passed our last hours in Krakow in an underground Polish pub. A shared bowl of sauerkraut and red cabbage soup accompanied by what else but Polish vodka quickly began to lift our sobered spirits, enhanced only by the arrival of a traveling gang of businessmen from Ireland whose generosity toward fellow English speakers provided H and I with myriad rounds of free drinks. As we will shortly discover through our journey, it is the other foreign travelers one meets abroad who provide the best company and warmest memories. Our Irish blokes commenced their introduction as a pair of Toms--one from Dublin and the other from Waterford, yes like the crystal, whose employment in the porta-loo business brought them to Krakow in an attempt to monopolize the market. Slurring Irish-men at times are difficult to follow, as such it took a few moments to discern that what they referred to were portable toilets, porta-potties for we Americans. "The cleanest rims you'll ever have the pleasure to place your tush on." Only in Poland, we told ourselves, would we find ourselves in animated conversation over porta-loos. It is the people one meets abroad--as I will be repeat in phrases to come--that remain in my thoughts of voyages and adventures. Streets will always be there, the castles and walls have been stationary for years and will remain for years to come, but people are chance, and that is the real thrill of adventure abroad.
Aboard the night train from Krakow, we left the breathtaking and proud country of Poland behind in the thick settling nocturnal mist, a fitting shroud for the melancholy first stage of our journey. Poland's past creeps into ones pores, a tristess forever embedded in the nation's identity, though one does not have to look far to find happiness--good people willing to help lost travelers, affordable sausages, the worlds most homely cat, and of course the fecundity of losing oneself in harmless conversations on porta-loos.
History is a treasure to learn, but it is even more so to feel. I have been to Poland, and porta-loos and chilly streets tucked safely in my memory, I anticipate my return someday, perhaps to a city with the cleanest street toilets ever found.