Day Five

8 09 2006

Monday, September 4. Krakow. We descended to the hotel’s basement for breakfast around 7:00 AM. The food was wonderful. An espresso machine stood ready for make-your-own-coffee drinks. One might expect to find several juices, hearty cereal, a basket of crusty breads, and the plate of sweet breads, pastries and cakes on the first table. But another table held platters of ham, turkey, cold sausage, hard and soft cheeses, pates, fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, fruit and fruit salad, and a variety of condiments. Come hungry, y’all.

After breakfast we strolled through the aforementioned archway to explore beyond the brick wall. It led to paved pathways that encircle the entire Old Town area, winding their way under the shade of tall, black-trunked trees. Green benches at regular intervals allow couples to flirt or commuters to enjoy lunch in the park. We strolled past cathedrals, statues, the college where Copernicus studied, flower gardens. Locals walked their dogs and mommies pushed their babies in strollers. Sunlight barely penetrated the thick leafy branches over our heads. A cool, just-right breeze ruffled our hair and teased my skirt as though special ordered to complete the scene. Beautiful.

We located the street that leads out of Old Town to the bus stop where George will catch his ride to the university each day. He won’t have much sight-seeing time after the conference commences, so we decided to visit Wawel Castle where we toured the old Senate Rooms now housing famous paintings, tapestries, and historical furnishings. As in Venice, we were amazed by the intricate artistry and craftsmanship.

All over town groups of students in “uniform” roamed the streets. The highschool-aged boys wore suits and ties, and the girls wore mostly white blouses and black skirts, or variations on that theme. The weird thing is they all seemed to be wandering freely as though it were a holiday, but they were all dressed as though going to class. Younger children also in uniform were everywhere, too, some with their parents and some in groups of friends. We couldn’t figure out what the deal was. To make matters more confusing, the clothing conformity (esp. re. girls) appeared to be limited to color pallette only. Some of the outfits were pretty skanky. Lots of mini skirts, tight tops, and midriff skin. We also noticed many girls and women wearing high-heeled shoes–very uncomfortable and impractical on the cobbled streets. It seems their love affair with the West overrides comfort. I’m a fan of democracy, too, but I’m wearing Tevas. 😉

A rainstorm blew through while we were at Wawel, but the sun quickly returned, as though apologizing for the brief inconvenience. This is a very accommodating city. Even the weather cooperates. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch and both ordered broccoli and salmon quiche. It was listed as an appetizer, so I expected a single, smallish slice, but the waitress brought us each two hefty slices with a lovely salad on the side tossed with a delicious light dressing. Two still waters. One beer. (We’re developing a pattern.) Total price: 55 zl, or $18.30.

We asked the hotel desk where to buy bus tickets, and she said at any newspaper/cigarette kiosk. I accompanied George to the opening session of ISEE8, so we both bought tickets and walked to the correct stop about a mile and a half away at Hotel Cracovia–a communist era eyesore that is one of the most famous and least loved landmarks in Krakow. Once on the bus we weren’t sure how we’d know when we’d reached our stop so George asked two Polish girls and they told us when to get off.

The university is a sprawling complex a 30-minute ride from the city center. We saw no signs outside announcing the conference but once inside, the reception area swarmed with worm folk hailing from the far corners of the globe. We spotted a young couple we’d seen at breakfast in our hotel and again at Wawel Castle. Frana is a grad student and her husband, Coenrad (an electrical engineer), came along for the fun like me. They’re from South Africa and have tasty British accents. I asked Coenrad what he plans to do while his wife attends the meetings. He said he’s going with her but will bring along a book in case the wormfest fails to enthrall him. (He didn’t say it in those exact terms. I’m interpreting.)

About that time we were all ushered into a lecture hall where conference organizers made welcoming speeches. A Polish professor spoke first then introduced the Director of Environmental Sciences, who presented a power point in broken English extolling the virtues of Jagiellonian University, including its square footage and number of students, PhD candidates, professors, and yada yada yada. Next Stephan Shue, a prominent German megadrilologist, presented an introductory lecture that spanned a wide variety of earthworm topics. The scope seemed pretty ambitious to me for a one-hour speech, but then I hadn’t the foggiest what trophics, micro- and macroaggregates, detritus, etc. meant anyway. He showed graphs and statistics, and he spoke with passion about food and trophic structure, bottom-up and top-down regulation, earthworms as regulators, and links to above-ground systems. He was sure we were all surprised that introducing carbon, not nitrogen, produced such-and-such effect. Yeah, boy. I was shocked. Or in shock. Or in some kind of trance.

We dismissed for refreshments, the wormers all abuzz about these topics they’d be delving into more deeply in the days ahead. I sidled up to Coenrad. “So, did that give you some idea about what’s in store for you in lecture land?” He grinned. “I’ll bring two books.”

We filled our plates with fruit and cheese and gourmet hors d’ouvres, grabbed a glass of wine, and sat with a group that had congregated around one Dr. Cooper, another star shining in the earthworm sky. One of his students sat beside me. Balash is a tall, soft-spoken Hungarian with long, straight brown hair, serious brown eyes, and a shy smile. A young woman from India dressed in a sari sat beside Dr. Cooper. A dashing dark Egyptian sat across from him. People watching (and listening) is one of the things I love most about attending these international meetings with George.

A little later we ran into Sam James, an American George has worked with and considers a mentor. He introduced us to Bruce and Kristina, students from Atlanta, Georgia. Bruce’s research resembles George’s so they were instant best friends. Kristina is working on a masters degree in landscape architecture. On the bus back to Old Town we discovered that she went to TJ Rusk Junior High in Nacogdoches and had Mary Neal Grimland for English. I did my student teaching under Mary Neal back in 1980. Crazy small world!

We returned to our hotel and opened the windows to an evening breeze and the sounds of a boisterous party crowd “singing” robust Polish songs. I expect the ubiquitous Policja will come along and put an end to their concert soon. Krakow strikes me as a city discovering itself. They broke free from communism in 1989. The vibe is much like an adolescent boy testing his manhood yet still feeling a bit insecure and unsure of himself. The people are friendly and helpful–welcoming visitors to a city they love–wanting those visitors to fall in love, too. I hope they find their footing soon and grow beyond the confusion of youth to a gentlemanly elegance worthy of their history and setting.

But I also hope they never lose the winsomeness of their blossoming freedom. It’s endearing.

(Whew! If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. I’m only four days and a mere 26 handwritten pages behind. 😉 To be continued . . . )



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