Friday, September 8, 2006. Krakow. I’m going to backtrack just a bit. Wednesday at 7:00 PM all the ISEE conferees and their guests caught charter busses outside Hotel Cracovia. We rode out into the countryside to a lodge. On our way inside we filed past a receiving line of Polish folks in traditional costume: colorful, embroidered vests and skirts on the women; tunic-length vests and poofy red-and-white striped pants tucked into black boots on the men. They also wore caps with tall peacock feathers sprouting from the band. The first woman in line offered each guest a soft bread cube and told us to dip it in a little bowl of salt. Next we stepped up to a men with trays of shot glasses containing a strong, sweet apertif. At the end of the line a quartet of musicians played lively polka music on violin, oboe, accordian, and upright bass.
I started to sip my drink, but an American woman next to me named Sherry said you’re supposed to throw it back in one shot. So I tossed my head back and downed it. Then I choked and sputtered and coughed, much to the amusement of one of the young Polish guys in the receiving line.
They ushered us inside where we sat at long, heavy wooden tables. An army of waitresses served platters piled high with traditional Polish foods: pickled beets, cole slaw, buckwheat salad (similar to couscous), turkey, baked apples, ham, and saurkraut, mashed potatoes, etc. We passed the platters family style along with an endless supply of wine. While we ate, the same quartet played and three couples danced and sang. The dances were fast and intricate and looked like loads of fun.
After dinner I was deep in conversation with Sherry when I felt a tap on my right shoulder. One of the dancers, the young man who’d laughed when I choked on my shot of liquor, was asking my to dance! Of course I jumped right up midsentence. He led me through a simple little polka step as the other five dancers also gathered partners from the crowd. After a brief whirl around the floor we formed a circle and they led us in a kicking, skipping, stomping series of steps. Then one of the lady dancers broke the circle and led us around the room gathering more people into the line as we went. Some of the worm crowd were quite hammy–or perhaps it was just the wine having its way. We skipped in and out of the rows of tables. I loved it!
In Europe people linger over meals, sometimes for hours. By the time we left, rode back to the city, and walked back to our hotel, it was pushing 1:00 AM. George and I had to pack because we were changing rooms Thursday (something we knew was going to happen when we confirmed our reservation), so we didn’t get to bed till after 1:30.
We got up at 6:45 to have time for breakfast and the 20-minute walk to the bus. The university is a half-hour drive from town. I went with George this time b/c the entire grouup would be departing at 11:00 AM for a day-long excursion. Everyone was a little fuzzy on the details of this outing, but they knew it involved “rafts” and mountains. We boarded busses having no idea the ride would last more than two hours and take us to a river on the border of Poland and Slovakia. Conference staff passed out bagged lunches as we got on the bus, so we ate while rolling through towns and past farm lands. Some of the farming methods we observed were quite primitive. Men raked their mowed hay by hand and loaded it onto wooden wagons drawn by sturdy little ponies with long flowing manes. Whole families dotted fields, picking potatoes. It was like a snapshot into the past.
When we reached the launchsite we boarded the rafts. Each was comprised of five long narrow canoe-type boats with straight sides, lashed together into pontoon boats with three bench seats spanning the full width. Four people sat on each bench and two boatmen drove it using poles. The river is never more than a few feet deep. Our front driver was a gregarious man who chatted incessantly in Polish-flavored German, which was then translated into English by Bart, a Belgian conferee. We wound our way past idyllic Alpine houses with flowers in the windows. Poland was on our right. Slovakia on our left. It was an 18 km trip through canyons and past villages. Toward the end we hit a particularly unruly patch of rapids, and water splashed over the side, soaking my jeans and filling my right shoe. George was seated directly in front of me and he also got baptized.
We derafted and squished our way to where the busses waited. It was almost 5:00 PM and no one knew what the dinner plan was (or if there was one at all–communication is a challenge at these international gigs) so lots of people bought snacks, ice-cream, and drinks at a road-side stand before boarding one of three charter busses. Once we were all loaded and accounted for we drove less than a mile to a smallish lodge-type restaurant for dinner. 🙂 This time a quartet of three violins and cello played, and all four musicians sang in harmony. It’s a bit of a trick to play violin and sing at the same time, so I was duly impressed. They served trout (the whole fish–skin, head & tail) with french fries, shredded carrot salad, and slaw. A sweet horseradish sauce tasted delicious with the trout. More free beer and wine. Then a layered dessert–very light with a crust, a creamy filling,, pineapple, more crust, and chopped pecans. George and I sat with Franck (a quiet Frenchman George befriended at the conference), “V-Eleven” (that’s not the right spelling, but how you pronounce it; he’s from India), and Bart, our Belgian boat translator. Bart speaks five languages: Dutch, German, English, Spanish, and French. His wife is from Barcelona and speaks even more languages. They’re raising their children (aged 3 and almost 1) to be bilingual in Dutch and Spanish (for starters). Europeans make me feel so uneducated!
Bart was great–super polite and interesting to talk to. He looked about 30, but the more he told us about his education and job experience, the more we realized he couldn’t be that young. “You don’t look old enough to have done so much,” I said. He grinned. “No one wants to tell his age, so in Belgium we just tell what Tram we’re on. Tram 3 is your 30s, Tram 4 your 40s, etc. I am already on Tram 4.”
Well, tomorrow is my birthday, but at least I still have one more year before I have to get off Tram 4. 🙂
I dozed on the bus ride back to Krakow. We reached our hotel around 9:00 PM and stepped into the reception area to learn our new room number and get the key and a.c. remote control. Room 305 was 4 flights up, so we climbed. Thankfully our luggage had been moved earlier by housekeeping. We opened the door to find a cubby hole of a room just big enough for two twin beds, a small cabinet, two little chairs and a corner table. Our first room had large windows overlooking the street. This one had two eensy windows about 1 foot square, set deep into the thick wall. It also had a sky light window. After our initial surprise over the contrast between rooms, I decided I really liked this little hobbit hole. 🙂
We awoke Friday morning to a gentle rain pattering on the skylight. George left 7:00ish to make the 5-flight hike to breakfast in the basement. I slept another half hour, threw on some clothes, and joined him, Coenrad, and Frana as they were finishing. C. & F. would be leaving that night and sleeping in an airport in Warsaw before catching a 6:00 AM connecting flight to the UK. They were both dreading the long trek ahead and also trying to figure out how they’d manage meals. I suggested to Coenrad that he make a sandwich from the breakfast bar, wrap it in a napkin, and take it for later. He laughed and said, “I think I’ll pass on that idea. It sounds too . . . South African.”
“It sounds American, too,” I said.
A few minutes later G., C., and F. left to catch a bus to the university. I finished breakfast, then made a sandwich from the breakfast bar for lunch. 😉
It was still raining so I climbed back up to our cheery attic nook and wrote in my journal for a couple of hours in the muted, water-colored light. Most pleasant! The rain let up around 9:45 so I put on my jogging clothes and hit the street. If there’s such a thing as a perfect jogging temperature, that’s what greeted me as I joined the masses on the always bustling street. I turned onto the freshly washed path encircling Old Town and padded along under dripping tree branches. I passed a dancing fountain and happy flower beds. I think I could jog for hours in these conditions, but after 30 minutes I headed back. I could barely find enough floor space to do abs and pushups but managed after moving one of the chairs in front of the door. By 11:30 I was showered, dressed for adventure, and out the door.
I browsed in shops a little then headed back toward the fountain and gardens I’d passed earlier. I sat on a bench overlooking the fountain and ate my “stolen” lunch: kaiser roll with two slices turkey, white cheese, fresh tomato and cucumber, mustard and bbq sauce. (Does that sound like breakfast food to you?) Then I scouted photo ops, finding them at every turn. I also went on a reconnaisance mission. Tomorrow we fly to Frankfurt, so I located the train station, determined the schedule, and scoped out where to buy tickets, etc. After familiarizing myself with the station operations I headed back into Old Town in search of dessert. I found a little cafe with decadent confections and ordered a slice of chocolate cake and a cup of cappucino. The cake had various layers of icing, mousse, crunchy chocolate, and a flaky crust. It probably contained about 4000 calories. I ate the whole thing. 🙂
The 24-hr internet cafe was right next door, so I bopped up there. I had an e-mail from our neighbor informing me that our sprinkler had doused the electrical box igniting a small fire. Thankfully it was contained in the box area, but he called an electrician who came out and disconnected the damaged wire, cutting off power to our den and master bedroom and bath. The a.c. and refrigerator weren’t affected. On the whole much to be thankful for, not least of all alert, dependable neighbors.
When I left the cafe I discovered another rainstorm had blown through while I was inside. A rainbow spanned the sky from the central market to the south side of the square. I took several pictures before it disappeared, then made my way back toward our hotel. George returned from the university and we went to dinner. Tomorrow will be George’s final day at ISEE8. He’ll return to the hotel noonish and we’ll catch a train to the airport at 1:42 PM. (Ahem. I have my schedule.) Then it’s off to Heidelberg and the beginning of our German adventures.
(I’m writing from the home of friends we’re staying with in St. Leon, a small German village not far from Heidelberg. We’re about to head downtown. Already having amazing adventures here, so hopefully I’ll get caught up to present soon. To those who are enduring these rambling entries, thanks so much for reading! See you again soon!)