Monday, November 16, 2009

From Here to Kraków

I’m happy to report that I have had my very first visitor, the estimable Alice (of French extraction). She arrived October 29 in Katowice, which meant that I had to go and collect her. This was to be my first time using the train here, as well as my first time taking the airport shuttle from the Katowice train station. As we will see, one would prove significantly more difficult than the other.

Prior to leaving, I used the internet and one of the Polish secretaries to draw up an exact itinerary for the day’s adventure. Train times and shuttle times, both coming and going. Key words translated into Polish. I felt confident and keen to get out on the tracks, as well as excited to see Alice for the first time since I left France.

Come the big day, I was, naturally, running late to catch my train to Katowice. I also left my sheet of key Polish words on my dining room table, along with my Polish dictionary. My rudimentary explanation of “train station” to the taxi driver seemed to work, until he started going in the wrong direction, wasting precious seconds. I got to the train station with about 2 minutes to spare, ready to make a running leap onto the train if need be. Thankfully, the train was still humming in place, and I was spared the humiliation of a failed jump and messy death.

Unfortunately, I was not spared the humiliation of needing to buy my ticket from the train conductor. No electronic pre-purchased tickets available here, sadly, and I was too late to buy one at the station. I had plenty of money, but no small bills because it just didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem. All I had was a 50 złoty note ($18) to pay for a 9 złoty ($3.25) ticket. Of course, the guy didn’t have adequate change and kept questioning me in increasingly colorful Polish. Just when I thought I was going to be hoisted from the train at the next stop, he started shouting something in Polish to all the other passengers. Fortunately, he was asking if anyone could break a 50, and one of the teenage girls was able to help out. Whew! Crisis averted, but my status as a foreigner was revealed, and I hate that. When I use public transport abroad, I keep my mouth shut and try to blend in. Having the conductor shout, “Can anyone break a 50 for this ignorant foreigner?!” doesn’t really line up with that goal.

The rest of the train ride was uneventful, and soon I was at the station in Katowice. I had heard that the station would be thoroughly wretched, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a bomb shelter coated in graffiti and soaked in the urine of thousands. Once I scouted out the airport shuttle pickup location, I retreated back into the building to kill 30 minutes until the next bus. Starving and cold, I decided to order my favorite Polish soup from a dismal-looking food stand. After I placed my order, the woman looked at me in surprise, but quickly retrieved a frozen bowl of żurek from her dorm-sized fridge to warm up. I was dubious, but honestly, it was the best I have yet had here. I love this soup…it’s made from a base of fermented rye flour, so it’s a bit tangy. Plus, it’s got potatoes and kielbasa in it, which lends a lovely smoky flavor. It occasionally comes with half of a hard-boiled egg in it, which is vomitous. Thankfully, this one was egg-free and lusciously thick, as well. Pure yum.

So, I ate up and scurried out to the shuttle bus as soon as it arrived. The man, despite being charged with the constant transport of foreigners to the airport, spoke no more than 5 words of English. I already knew from the shuttle’s webpage that the price was 25 złoty for a roundtrip ticket, so I thought I was good to go. He said the price in Polish, which I only recognized as containing the number 2. So, I started to take money out of my wallet, and he said OK once I got to 20 złoty. Uh, what? I asked for a ticket (to have for the return journey) and he basically said he couldn’t give me a ticket. At this point, my tourist bullshit detector was going off, but I paid him the money and got on the bus anyway. Then, using his remaining 3 words of English, he attempted to tell me that the bus would not be leaving for another 25 minutes, 25 minutes later than stated on their official website. I was really wishing at that point that I knew the Polish for “What the fuck??” I wasn’t worried about getting there on time since I had deliberately chosen an early time in case things didn’t work out as planned; I was, however, worried for the return journey because we had a very tight window in which to make our train back to Gliwice.

I was pissed and felt like I was getting ripped off in the bargain, so I phoned school to have one of the Polish secretaries speak to the guy. I explained what was going on and then handed the phone to Mr. Driver. He seemed very confused, and soon started getting pissy. We had to pass the phone back and forth a few times, and each time, he got madder and madder. Eventually, he printed me out a receipt for my payment, but made me pay him 5 złoty more. He refused to budge on the return ticket thing, so I ended up having to pay 25 złoty each way. Assholes.

Anyway, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Alice’s flight arrived a bit early, so we were able to catch an early shuttle bus back to the train station. It was really nice to get caught up on the journey home. Once back in Gliwice, we went back to my place to put our faces on, then it was out to my favorite bar, 4 art, to have drinks and dinner with Magda and Georgina. Good times!

The next day it was off to Kraków, a city I had been dying to see ever since I knew I’d be coming to Poland. Oh, it was lovely…so lovely. Its architecture is similar to Prague, which happens to be my favorite city in the world. There was also a great vibe in the city, such positive energy. Since Gliwice could hardly be described as vibrant, it was nice to be in a place that practically thrummed with culture and history. We took our time walking around the city, heading slowly but surely towards the rynek (town square). Eventually, we went to a Georgian restaurant for lunch, where I had a traditional Georgian cheese pie and Alice had a chicken kebab. It was a cozy spot to rest for awhile out of the cold, and the food wasn't bad, either!

Mostly, our trip was spent just getting to know the place. Everywhere you go, the city invites you to take her picture. Picturesque around each twisting street, with colorful facades, leafy parks, and cobblestone streets, Kraków is genuinely lovely. I wanted to snap my fingers and live there instantly. I especially wanted to live there after visiting Massolit Books, an English language bookstore. What heaven! The warm beverages and homemade cakes, the decent selection of Bill Bryson books, what more does a girl need? I could have spent hours just loitering in the wandering rooms of floor-to-ceiling books. You would never guess from the outside that the small storefront hides a veritable maze of English treasures.

After hunkering down in a back room for an hour or so, Alice and I headed back in the direction of the train station. Once there, we did some browsing in the enormous attached shopping center. I was looking for a new purse, but the only ones on offer were suitcase-sized fringed numbers beamed in from 1987, so I declined to make a purchase. I did, however, strike gold in the pantyhose/tights store. Patterned tights seem to be a national obsession here, so I was keen to find a pair of my own. But, since most Polish women look more like anorexic giraffes than actual human beings, I was doubtful that I would be able to find a pair of tights in anything resembling my size. The saleswoman, not wanting to lose a sale, assured me that she had something which would be more than adequate. To demonstrate, she grabbed a pair of tights from a low drawer and pulled them out of the package. In loud English, she said, “SEE!” as she put both hands in the panty section and stretched them out as far as they would go. “BIG!” Well, I couldn’t disagree with her; they did seem suitably voluminous. So, I bought a brown pair to go with a couple of my skirts. Happily, once I got home and did some creative wiggling, they mostly fit. If I go back, I’ll make sure to buy the extortionately expensive patterned pair she tried to sell me.

By this time, my never-ending headcold was coming on full force, so it was time to go home. The train back was warm and cozy, much better than the drafty, Communist-era train on the way there.

Saturday was Halloween. In the morning, Alice and I helped out at the little kids’ Halloween party at school. Some of the kids went all out with their costumes and looked great. None looked better, though, than a student of mine named Viktor. Viktor is a total nut muffin. Just lunatic in every way. I don’t particularly enjoy this trait as his teacher, but it served him well on Halloween. In the midst of all the other kids dressed up as witches and vampires, here comes Viktor down the hallway, wrapped head-to-toe in gauze bandages. What a mummy! I have never seen such a skinny kid! He could barely move, but he looked great. Not so great later, though, as the bandages started to unravel and he was left wearing little but his tiny blue underpants. I took a bunch of pictures that day, but somehow managed to miss him, damn it.

In the evening, the teachers indulged in a Halloween Pub Club at NOT. I didn’t really have a costume, so I just dressed in a nice outfit, teased my hair up a bit, and put on a little too much makeup. Alice didn’t have a costume, either, so she decided to go as a man. We spent an amusing hour or so trying to get her pot belly just right, after which she oiled down her hair and drew on a pencil-thin mustache. Magda came over for dinner before hitting the club (my first-ever attempt at chicken piccata-yum!). She was going as a *really* desperate housewife, so she was mostly naked. We made a classy threesome. So classy, in fact, that we decided to take a taxi instead of show ourselves to the world by walking to the bar.

The night was pretty crazy. Some of my fellow teachers got very creative with their costumes, although I think Matt took the cake with his transvestite lumberjack zombie outfit. It was hilarious. I had a great time, as ever.

Sunday, we were supposed to go to Auschwitz, but I was feeling too ill. Plus, it was All Saints’ Day, which is an enormous holiday here. So, rather than deal with bizarre public transport changes, we just stayed home and relaxed. Monday was a full day of work for me, so Alice hung out at school in the teacher’s lounge.

Tuesday, I took Alice to the train station in Katowice to catch the shuttle to the airport. We each got a bowl of the amazing żurek and ate it, steaming, while standing in the freezing cold next to the shuttle bus. Her driver was much nicer than mine had been, although the bus did still leave 25 minutes late. With sadness, I waved goodbye to her as the bus drove away.

The days have sped by, and now it’s almost Thanksgiving. My friend Katie, from the States, will be arriving on Thursday. I’ll be hosting a gargantuan Thanksgiving feast next Saturday, the 21st. We’re talking a 22 pound turkey, people…with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and the works. Almost every single teacher from school will be there, about 15 at last count. Where will they all fit?? Anyway, I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Details to follow!

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