Monday, March 17, 2014

to Warsaw

Well, they said it would be a blustery day and it turned out to be just that.

An early breakfast at the hotel...

Krakow to Warsaw-2.jpg

...and then a walk to the train station in Krakow. I neglect the camera. It's too hard to dig it out in the rain and frankly, not much between the hotel and the train station inspired a reflective moment.

Krakow to Warsaw-4.jpg

Well, maybe this one thought: it used to be that you'd approach the train station past stalls of highlander goods brought in from the nearby mountains. Smoked ewe's milk cheese in wicker baskets -- that kind of thing. Is it a sign of better times that you no longer see that? Or maybe it's just too cold now?

What you do see at nearly every corner of Krakow is the stand with the traditional pretzel. I don't really like it much -- it's just lots of doughy white bread to my taste, but I'm always tempted to buy one, only to make the load lighter for the seller. Imagine -- standing outside all day long and selling what? A few dollars' worth of pretzels? That can't pay the bills. It seems to me to be, especially in the off season, a miserably cold and tedious set of hours. Here's one such stand -- she still dresses like a highlander. Behind that umbrella you may catch a red, flowered scarf over her head.

Krakow to Warsaw-5.jpg

The other notable thing about the train station is that it is beautifully new inside. Modern, well marked, gorgeous! But the approach now is through a mall. See the old building below? No longer in use. You go in through that glass piece of crass commercialism to the left and make your way through there.

Krakow to Warsaw-6.jpg

The walk through the mall is, of course, convenient on a rainy, blustery day, but it is a walk through a mall. Hello, Krakow. And McDonalds and Cinnabon and racks of clothing and shelves of creams. Now, which way to the old town?

Today, of course, it's good-bye Krakow. And McDonalds and Cinnabon... and hello train.

Krakow to Warsaw-8.jpg

The connection to Warsaw is actually slower than it was just two years back. They're changing over to fast speed trains and so the work on the rail lines slows things down a bit, but I don't mind. I find train rides very calming. Though I am surprised that these cars are still the old models: we sit in compartments. I don't know that there is a country in Europe that still has these in service. It's very intimate. For three hours, what you read, say, eat -- is on full display. I'm thankful that  I have a quiet gentleman in my compartment. A helpful type who explains to me why it is that we come to a stop in the middle of nowhere. (Work on tracks.)

I alight in the early afternoon at the Central Station in Warsaw and I turn the wrong way and again I alight at a mall! I so dislike malls and here I am -- leaving and entering cities through mall space!

I should not complain. It's dry there.

My suitcase -- light on most every trip I ever take -- is clunky right now. I threw stuff in at Krakow and now I have to pay the price of lugging it up and down stairs as I make my way through the underpasses to what should be a bus stop.

But I come up the wrong stairs and I have no great desire to go down then up again so I decide to walk the distance to the next bus stop. Can't be far.

It is far. And it is raining. The suitcase is wet, the camera stays hidden, the umbrella twists in protest with every gust of wind. And here we go again: next intersection and I still have to go down to the underpass and up again.

At last. The bus stop. The bus. And the short ride to my new home in Warsaw.

I'm using an AirBnB this time and it is a complete gem. Perfectly situated just at the edge of the "old town." [Remember: Warsaw is a city that suffered almost complete destruction 70 years ago. The foundations may be old. But every building is either a laborious reconstruction of something old that once stood there, or  a hastily built post war housing project, or a brand new statement on what it means to be welcoming in capitalism; those are your three choices. That's Warsaw for you.]

Inside, Bartek, my AirBnB host is waiting for me. Just one glitch -- the elevator is not working and I am on the fifth floor, but truly it doesn't matter for the three days I am here. Besides, he's the one carrying the suitcase for me.

The apartment inside is lovely. Probably the best one yet of all my Airbnb rentals. A tall, spacious studio, carefully restored. And less than half the price of a decent hotel room.

Krakow to Warsaw-17.jpg

But I don't stay in it for long. My friends (my most solid Polish friends from days of the university) are hosting a dinner tonight and it's a bit of a walk from here. And I have to pick up some wine.

And it's raining. And the wind keeps blowing in all directions.

And I am both surprised and pleased to see a car pull up and an old chum -- a guy dating back to my high school years, comes out and greets me and hustles me into his car. (He'd been warned that I was en route and he set out to rescue me from the elements.)

Not much of the evening will be properly commemorated here, on Ocean. Age-wise, my friends here are on the cusp of the new reality -- few (none?) participate in social media, no one blogs or reads blogs and we have an awkward history of me trying to explain my different take on all this, only to realize that it just can't be done and so now I just avoid mixing the two worlds and I rarely post more than one general photo or write much about our times together. Here's a general photo:

Krakow to Warsaw-25.jpg

Except this time, I want also to insert a comment on what it's like to rejoin a group of friends who were once as close to you as members of your own family. Before, that is, at 18, after two and half years of university years together (I was a very young student -- they're all older than me), I decided to move to the States. On the occasion of this dinner, another couple joins us -- friends whom I hadn't seen for forty years. Forty years!

But here is the crucial point: you'll nod your head and say --- yes, yes, with old friends you can just pick up where you left off and it's as if nothing's changed.

It's not that way for me. We are so close, so very very close, we adore each other, we hug and kiss and talk for hours. But, I am so aware, so very aware of the fact that I have a whole chunk of life back at the farmette, back in the Midwest, back in America, that gets omitted from the equation. I'm not who I was then. I try to explain that right now, I am more American than Polish. I'm sure they have their own interpretation of what this means. I cannot fill that text in for them.  Instead, during these rare meetings, we share reflections on what it's like to be now in our sixties, on how it feels to be retired (out of the seven that were there, only two are still going at it full time, though retirement was thrust upon some for idiosyncratic reasons). I listen to them talk about books they've read, about political figures who have blundered and stumbled their way to power. We discuss children (some of theirs come to the dinners), they tell me how they perceive Obama, and they ask why the hell the Americans still require Poles to get a visa.

And so this is the difficult part for me and maybe you have experienced it as well if you have returned to a place that was once your home: you fit in because this was once you, too, and so now there you are, laughing and talking, but some small corner of you is trying to rise to the surface and say -- hey, remember me? The Midwestern farmette person who retired from teaching on January 10th but still is on the mailing list of the Law School and who has Paul's cafe just up the rural road and a friend who moved to Florida and another to New Mexico and who has two daughters, two daughters who are 100% of another world, having not even an iota of a personal connection to the world that you now so brazenly call your Polish world?

At the end of the evening, I am exhausted. And yes, it's all the travel and, too, a five hour dinner is intense at any level, but once again, here I am in Warsaw and it's midnight and I cannot sleep.