Monday, December 13, 2010

from Krakow

We have a leisurely walk from our Krakow hotel to the train station. Even with suitcases (yes, both!) it’s not a struggle. Twenty minutes along the pretty streets of the old town, down the passageway, up again and we’re at the station. With twenty-five minutes to spare. In train travel there’s such a thing as too much time. Without a place to sit and stay warm, you can easily regret an early arrival.

And so, with time and nothing else to occupy me,  I get into a line. It’s easy in Poland. Lines were part of my past – I’m used to them. This time I want to ask if there’s a chance they’re selling reserved seats. The German ticket agent had said (back when I bought these particular tickets from Krakow to Warsaw in Berlin) -- no. The Internet also said no. And being Polish, I distrust both. So I may as well ask the agent here.

I wait. And now it’s only fifteen minutes until the scheduled departure. I notice the man before me is holding tickets to Warsaw as well.
For the 16:05? – I ask.
No no, the 15:55.
But the schedule said 16:05.
That was yesterday. They changed the schedule. Don’t worry – we have six minutes. Just go to track five after this.

But he has a change of ticketing and I have my question about seats (“Yes of course we reserve seats. You want two?”) and now we are just two minutes before departure. Run, daughter, run! I shout. But it’s not on track five after all – they changed that as well in the last five minutes. Track four. No escalator. Up the stairs, with suitcases clumsily bouncing after us.

We get on, panting, and the door slams shut behind us.

We have a jovial young crowd in our compartment. They complain about the heat in the car, about the sudden standstill, about the winter. They, like so many Poles that I know, find comfort in making fun of systemic shortcomings that are beyond their control. We laugh until tears roll down my face. My daughter looks at us and I want to remind her:  Polish is an impossible language. Don’t worry about not understanding. In three days, the disquiet that comes from not knowing what those around you are saying will disappear. But I say nothing.

Even though every time she and I pause at places where I switch from English with her, to Polish with the sales clerks, they ask me – your daughter? Yes... Why didn’t you teach her Polish? Ah, born there, dad doesn’t speak it, sure, that’s understandable. Still, did you teach her any of it?

We had arrived in Krakow the previous day to a delicate snow and a still and cold night. We hauled our bags up to the center of the city, avoiding, but just barely, the slip and slide of the inclines.


It is a gorgeous way to reenter the city.


Krakow is beautiful. Really. True, I see it these years in, I think, its best seasons – spring and winter. In the weeks just before Christmas, the Main Square opens up to a holiday market and my daughter tells me that it is a far far more authentic experience than the Berlin market we visited just a day ago.


On the night of our arrival, it’s quite late and we are quite hungry. We pick a place that serves Polish food (Miod Malina) and we study the menu. Pierogi. Yes, there must be those. But also something to start the meal. Something to nibble on with the first Polish beer. Maybe a small portion of potato pancakes with mushrooms and grilled smoked sheep’s milk cheese, with cranberries.

So, the starters and then one shared order of pierogi. The cheese ones (always called Russian, for no reason that I can think of) and the sauerkraut and mushroom ones.

Then we’ll go to the main course – short ribs for her, and a meat with chanterelles for me. Because I love chanterelles so very much (yes, that’s right: fond memories, this time of hunting for them each summer in the forest at the edge of the village where my grandparents lived; after a good solid rain they were easy to find – in clusters at the base of trees).

All this with good Polish beer.

But wait – what’s with the plates of starters? Nibble food indeed! It’s a meal onto itself!


And the pierogi – good thing we ordered only one portion. The full one has ten of them.


By the time we have the main courses placed before us...


...we’re swimming in butter dribbled dishes and heavy cream sauces. I tell the waitress that the portions are huge! She beams. I know! You go to some restaurants and you finish your meal and you’re hungry. We don’t do that here!

We stagger back to the hotel. It’s good to walk after such a meal. Perhaps this explains a Pole’s love of a spacer – a promenade – to help process the food that seems not to have lightened over the years.

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I stay up late, attending to emails, to my photos from the day. When I look up, I notice the snow. It’s very delicate – nonthreatening. Even though I know that in a few days, Poland’ weather will turn bitter cold. Gentle one day, harsh the next. It’s the way December progresses here.

The next day we walk the city. We have maybe six hours and we use them well. In and around the old city center...


...and the Christmas market, too, with the foods and stalls of regional products, some solidly dusted with snow...



Indeed, there is snow everywhere.

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You can't stop it. Who would want to stop it...


We walk the cobbled ways on,  down to the Wawel Castle....


...and finally on to Kazimierz – the old Jewish blocks, where we pause for a cup of warm soup.


The temperatures are starting to drop. The snow is pretty, but a constant cloud cover means that you never have a chance to take in the sun’s warmth. We head back to the Main Square and pause at a cafĂ© for a warm beverage and a shared szarlotka – apple cake. Yes, with cream. Whipped cream this time.

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And now we are speeding to Warsaw. The Krakow – Warsaw train is nearly always very fast and the compartments are full.  But my mind is on Krakow still. What can I say... the city leaves an afterglow.


Three hours later, we are in Warsaw.