Sunday, December 10, 2006

from Rynias, Poland: hiking the muddy paths

I am in Krakow. Most anyone would find this a destination in and of itself. And it is. But after a day, I say:
I want to go to the mountains.
And how is it that we get from here to there?

Ed and I are reviewing Sunday options. I know what I want. What I do not know is how to explain to an American that what I want is entirely reasonable.

Well, you can take the bus, then a cab, really not too bad… One hundred kilometers (60 miles) and you are there.
How long is the travel time?
Ed is beginning to understand that with me, you need to ask the right question.
Seven hours. Round trip!
It is dark for 23 hours of the day here
(an exaggeration, but I get the point). Is this a reasonable plan?

But the bus and train schedules will not permit this and so, like helpless tourists that do not know which way is north or south, we turn to the sweet young women at the hotel front desk. Help us, help us…
We can offer you a car, with driver.
How can a car with driver be cheaper than a rental car, without driver? Please, do not ask me to unravel the deep mysteries of Polish life. Reality is a confusing thing.

We accept the offer.

It’s Sunday morning and the weather has turned…awful. Rain, mist, dark clouds, sharp winds. Ahhhh, central Europe in December. Hi there, I am home again.

Ed waffles (oh how the mighty crumble when the weather turns bad).
Maybe we could pay our driver not to take us to the mountains.
I say nothing, which says a lot.

We climb into the car and head south.

It gets worse the closer we get to the village from which I want to hike to Rynias.

Rynias… A longtime reader of Ocean would know this place.

In the middle of an Alpine valley, three homesteads cluster together. It is a place of unexpected quiet. The nearest paved road is nearly an hour by foot. Okay, it is not a total silence. The mad stream pounding the rocks just to the south is loud as anything. Cross the waters and you are in Slovakia. The high peaks of the Tatra mountains frame the entire meadow. There is no place like Rynias. I say this because, of course, I am biased.

I had first gone to Rynias, with friends, as a young university student. We stayed in the home of highlanders, who farmed the land and grazed their sheep in that pristine valley in the middle of nowhere. Soon after, I became a statistic: one of those who moved to the States and was never heard from again. Except, some five years ago, I came back to Poland and again made my way back to the mountains and the hidden cluster of homes by the Slovakian border.

The driver, a young Krakovian whose motto has to be “I speed because I am” follows my directions to the village nearest Rynias.
Leave us here and come back in several hours.
Really? Thank you!
He tells us we are a very undemanding pair of Americans.

Am I an American? I speak Polish to him. Still, he calls it as he sees it. I am a Pole who has neglected her roots. Worse, I am a Pole who is traveling with an American. One of those. A Polish woman seeking a way out. A Polish woman who (bingo!) has found her entry card to the great America. God, I hate the inscriptions and attributions that come with being seen around town with an American.

Ed and I leave the warm, dry shelter of the car and set out deep into the forest. I use an umbrella. Ed gets wet (he does not believe in umbrellas). But we persevere.

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The clouds hide the mountains. There are no jagged peaks framing the Alpine valley this time. There is the forest, there are meadows and there are the fat drops that so want to be snow flakes, but for the one degree that keeps them in the state of rain.

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And then, magically, there is Rynias.

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Pan Stas (83) and Pani Anna (75), the highlanders who are happier to see me than my own mother would be...

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... usher us into their tiny kitchen hut. They had been setting out to church, but are now insistant that we come in and sit for a while on small stools, warming up with glasses of tea.

This glass of Lipton is as familiar to me as the cup that I make for myself back at the Law School, thousands of miles away, every day before class. And now Pani Anna is boiling water. [Ed smiles as she places the pot of water on top of her wood burning stove, still hot from the morning fire and sticks an electrical coil into it to speed up the boil.] She cuts wafer bars to eat and she searches for strings of dried mushrooms to stuff into an old plastic bag for me to take back home. Think of us when you cook with them, she tells me.

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We talk, intensely. About my daughters, about their nephew. Never about the son they lost in a motorcycle accident. Never about all that can go wrong between now and the next time that I will see them. But when I leave, the strength of the kisses says it all. Good bye. Who knows what stories will be laid down the next time we meet. Good bye.

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Ed and I take the short cut back to the village: we follow the steep path up the mountain, through the forest, until it crests…

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... then shoots down, on the other side, into the village of Brzegi.

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Brzegi has two tiny grocers, one volunteer fire station, an elementary school and a church. Half the village is at a mass right now. The church bells peel. What does that mean? I don’t know. I am ignorant in the ways of my home country.

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Ed and I hike down to find our driver. Where to now? --he asks. I shrug. Me, I am finished. My day is done.

Still, we have one or two daylight hours left. You do not throw away daylight hours when there are so few and far between. And so we head higher up, toward the mountains that have yet to reveal themselves from behind the dense clouds.

But the further up we go, the foggier it gets. Only here, the rain is changing to snow. Wet and cold snow. Hiding reality, soothing the agitated girl, no, woman now, here from Wisconsin, here only for a minute, before her face turns back to what is now home, so far, so far, from this place.

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Enough. I ache from the cold, from the fullness of the day. We drive to Krakow, the road terror boy at the wheel, passing six, seven cars at a stretch, because maybe if he gets us there, to the main square before too long, his woman will take him into her arms again?

Good bye peculiar Americans, he is thinking. Good bye mad but ultimately sympathetic driver.

I find comfort in the grilled sheep’s milk cheese at the holiday bazaar.

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Children are singing Polish Christmas carols and I sing with them, even without the aid of hot spiced wine.

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