Monday, December 12, 2011

out one and into another

Warsaw is home -- it's where it all began.  It's not a choice, a preference, but the reality. Even if once, a long time ago, it was a very sweet reality.

First though, there is the morning in Krakow. A busy one: a dash to the station to pick up train tickets, a run to the Main Market Square to consider a few gift items, a pause to listen to the trumpeter blow his horn out St. Mary’s tower.

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He’s not the only one blowing horns. Two musicians are collecting coins playing traditional stuff in their Krakovian dress.

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There is so much that’s traditional and appealing about this city, even though you can’t help but notice the salute to tourism. English speaking tourism. (I had not known that there are those who would drink their beer “hot.”)

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On the Main Square, I pass the stone lions at the entrance to the old Town Hall tower. Lions in Poland always remind me that my last name once had the letters "Lew" in it which, in Polish, means lion. I have associations here in Poland that I never once think of when I am in Madison.


Rays of sun hit the side-walk, but it’s a misty sunshine. Gentle and understated. It creates what I so regard as the trademark of a Polish winter – a constant thin, wet layer of mud on the streets and sidewalks, with patchy stretches of ice when the temps fall significantly below freezing. A Wisconsin person would find this odd: how could you have drenched sidewalks on a sunny day? Amazing, isn’t it.

Finally it’s time to leave. [Truly, I found the Unicus to be the perfect little hotel in Krakow. Oh, and did I mention that the only city where I’ve seen more nuns in habit is in Rome, and only on the side of the river that has the Vatican?]

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I suggest we walk to the train station. Sometimes I think I put my friends through too much. But I’m doing it for no other reason than wanting to not fake dress Poland in any way. I want her to be seen the way most Poles would see her – with their feet.

The train is on time and our compartment is empty. Monday noon. Who travels this time of day besides tourists? And what tourists are there in Poland in the middle of December? Odd how I’ve grown accustomed to traveling then.

And now we are in Warsaw. And the very first item on the agenda is for me to see my sister and for Diane and Ernest to meet my father.



As we get ready to leave the apartment where my father now lives, where I once lived, where so much that once seemed important transpired and eventually expired, Ernest and my father exchanged glances as if to marvel at it all -- at the absurdity of having gone through so much and being in this place now.


... a theme that Diane, Ernest and I continue over dinner at the Jazz Bistro. Over a glass of Grzaniec Galicyjski.

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After, I spend a long time on Skype calming one person on the other side of the ocean and jovially giving a hard time to another (Really? You haven't checked the mailbox in four days? Really? Ed!)

Rynias revisited

Every year, when I return to Poland and, too, to Krakow, I consider it: should I go back to Rynias?

It’s a tiny hamlet, nestled in a clearing, just at the foot of Poland’s high Tatra Mountains. There is a brook at the southern edge of the hamlet. If you cross it, you’re in Slovakia.

I wont repeat the story of how I’ve come to know and love the place – it’s all about youthful exuberance: those years when you relish your emergent independence and take excursions with university friends in search of adventure, friendship, courtship. For my friends and myself, the place we found and returned to again and again was Rynias.

In this last decade, when I’ve had the time, I’ve gone back to it. It’s not an easy trip. If you use public transportation from Krakow, you can’t turn around and be back within one day. Brzegi is the nearest village that has a paved road. From Brzegi, you still have to hike on foot to Rynias for an hour each way.

So my Rynias trips have been infrequent. And I never wanted to schedule any Rynias visit in advance. You don’t want to schlep out there if it’s raining or sleeting or snowing. And if it’s overcast or foggy, you can go, but you wont see the Tatra mountains that frame the place so beautifully.

The last time I went, in 2006, I took Ed with me. The highlanders welcomed us into their tiny kitchen hut and as we sat, drank tea and reminisced, I understood that these visits mattered to me. A lot.

But I haven’t gone back since. Isn’t that just so typical – we figure out what’s important and then we proceed to ignore it.

Not this year though. I knew early on that Rynias was on the table for me. And when Diane and Ernest voted a resounding “let’s go!” I called Pani Anna from Madison and told her we were coming.

Pani Anna. She’s alone now. Since my last visit, her husband, Pan Stas, has passed away. More milestones: her nephew, who has helped them farm the land and mind the livestock has married, has had kids and has taken over most of the farming operations.

We hired a car for the trip to Rynias. (It's a two hour drive from Krakow.) And not just a simple rental. We took one with a driver – a fresh graduate from the university who does this now for a living while trying to figure out where his life is really heading. He, too is from the mountains, though he lives in Krakow now because the dancing’s good here. (And he is, at his telling, quite the modern theater dancer.) I am still running on way too little sleep and I did not want to drive with droping eye lids, along curving icy roads.

So, after a hearty breakfast (which ended with another Polish favorite – a doughnut with rose petal jam)...


...we set out.

Ah, the drive south to the mountains!


Wait, before I say another word, understand this: the chance of getting good weather for the Rynias hike in December is pretty small. Indeed, all week long I’ve been staring at the forecast and seeing sleet/wintry mix plastered across the Sunday page.

But in fact, we had the most glorious weather you could imagine.

They had their first snow just a few days ago. True, the path to Rynias became a snow-covered sheet of hard ice, but who could mind – the sun is out, fully, completely, boisterously and everything feels crisp and, well, joyful.

I have trouble in Brzegi finding the path that veers away from the paved road,  up the hill toward the forest and eventually down toward Rynias. I knock on doors and disturb a highlander grandma putting a grandson to sleep to ask why it is so beastly impossible to pick out the trail. I'm glad to find her; all other Brzegi residents appeared to be at church, here:


But this is an insignificant issue. Everyone in Brzegi knows where Rynias is. The grandma type reminded me to count the houses. After the third one up, you’ll see it to your left.

At noon, we set out.

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The “road” is traversable if you have an ATV or something that can handle roots, rocks and ice.. Man, it's slippery! But even more important is this – it's a fantastic time to be out in the mountains. This hidden corner of the highlands isn’t just beautiful. It’s stunning.


Truly sublime.


And finally, Rynias.

Pani Anna is in her kitchen hut. The dog barks ferociously at us. That’s what he’s there for – too bark ferociously at visitors. You gotta have a dog with a strong voice.


I knock on the kitchen hut door. The cats scamper at the sight of me.

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Pani Anna throws open the door, excited, eyes darting from one to the other and she gives me, gives us, the greeting of a lifetime.

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She speak in a mountain dialect, but for me it’s not tough to follow. I think of it as singularly beautiful.

We sit down in her tiny kitchen. Her stove is going strong. She’s boiling stuff and the gurgles and hisses remind you that no matter what the weather out there, this little space will always be warm and welcoming.

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We talk. She spends a long time describing how Pan Stas died. It’s been almost four years now, but she is still suffering the loss.

And then she shows Diane and Ernest the big house.


The thick chords provide insulation between the heavy timber. It's an old house -- Pan Stas was born in in it. But she has kept it well and it feels fresh and clean.


To me, the place is a work of superb folk art. There are decorative carvings that are of a time when someone would go to the trouble of giving their own beautiful imprint to a home.

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Her nephew uses the rooms upstairs. She sleeps on the first floor. There, among photos of her husband, religious pictures and mementos and bags of kerchiefs and wools.

Pani Anna used to tend sheep with Pan Stas. They made ewe's milk cheeses and this brought some income for them. But she's too old for that now. She keeps a half dozen cows (and there's a wee calf to prove it!)...


...and a few chickens. In the past, too, she used to take in the occasional holiday renter (us!) but her nephew’s wife doesn’t like strangers in the house. So now Pani Anna has this small entrepreneurial thing going: friends of relatives (sometimes from the States!) send her wool kerchiefs – the peasant kind with the large flowers on them – and ask her to do the embroidery for the trim at the edges.


She is nearly eighty, but her eyes must be strong because this is delicate work.

Pani Anna is the kind of person who will never let a friend leave empty handed. Both Diane and I are handed kerchiefs to take home. And she insists on pouring us jars of homemade wild raspberry syrup.

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But we cannot leave without eating first. She has been boiling a chicken in anticipation of our visit and now she deftly mashes potatoes...


...and serves us bowls of hot chicken noodle soup, followed by pieces of chicken along with the potatoes and grated beetroot.


The meal ends with sour cherry tea. As we sip, she brings out the few photos that she has of her Rynias life with Pan Stas.


We can't stay long. Already the shadows are stretching across the snow covered hillside. We make use of the outhouse (probably a first for my Minnesota friends), give kisses and hugs and wave to her as we leave.

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One last look at the hamlet...


...with a good look at her homestead...


...and we retrace our steps. We take the shortcut from the back of Pani Anna's house, where the sheds are...



...then we rejoin the path that'll lead us back to Brzegi and the waiting car.

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Diane and Ernest rest, but I want to walk up Brzegi. The village winds sparsely all the way up the hill and at this dusky time of the day it is mellow and quiet. You can see bits of yesterday in homes here.


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The walk gives me time to adjust my senses. To give one last nod to a place and time that grow more and more remote, for me, for Poland too.

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It's really cold now, but I keep going. The wood burning chimneys are sending up puffs of smoke. Occasionally a dog barks. It is a good walk.



It's nearly dark when we get on the Krakow road again. That moon! It's there tonight as well. I know it can't be full three nights running, but it surely looks round. Orange haloed. Beautiful, even here, on the road leading out of the highlands.


We eat supper in Krakow. We pass the Main Square where street theater gives me pause. How is she doing this? Suspended, with only an impossible connection to the ground? I should know about being suspended between one place and another...

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We eat dinner at the Marmolada Restaurant. Polish foods. Herring, perch with mushrooms for me, pierogi and ribs for my friends. Followed the best hot drink on this wintry country day -- the mulled wine. Grzaniec Galicyjski.

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