It was Easter. I was off on my hols from that monstrous monastery. It was the sort of religious institution to turn even the most passionate believer into an ardent atheist. I booked a ticket to Krakow.
I had an early morning flight from Stansted to Krakow. I later found out that it was pronounced ”crack -UFF”. Anyhow, it was shortly after mass immigration from Poland to the United Kingdom had commenced. I was flying on one of this cut price airlines like Ryanair.
I was drowsy and when I stepped onto the plane I was desperate to get some sleep. I flung my knapsack into the overhead cabin. A large bearded middle aged man growled something at me in Polish. Someone read the incomprehension on my face. A Polish woman told me that he was saying I should not put my bag on theirs like that. I do not think I apologised. Once I sat down I fell asleep. The next thing I knew we were landing. Three hours had passed. That was the good thing about these peep o’day flights – I slept all the way.
Out of the plane’s portholes I saw that winter had hardly passed. The trees were bare and there was snow lying around. This was odd since it was March.
Into the terminal. I was miniature considering Krakow was such a big city. Is it the second city of Poland? It is surely the second most renowned.
As I passed through the terminal building I noticed scores of people in the airport chapel. The throng was so great that they could not all fit in there. I knew this was a religious country but this level of observance astonished me. Why were so many people hearing mass that day? Then I realised. It was the first anniversary of the obiit of Pope John Paul II.
I stepped out of the terminal and into the chilly air. I found out where the airport bus was going from and headed thither. I met a few young Spanish tourists and spoke to them in their language. They were surprised that someone from Ireland was there. Was it because Ireland is quite far away? Nearer to Poland than Spain though – so I should have told them. Maybe it is because there are not many Irishmen. I was so sleep that I was almost somnambulating.
It was not too long before a small dented bus came along. All aboard for the ride into town. The land was undulating and the road was smeared in silt. We passed some unprepossessing villages. Soon we reached the outskirts of the city and storeys began to rise. There were a few of those gruesome tower blocks in which Eastern Europe specialises. They were not as lofty as I have become used to.
Finally I got off somewhere near the centre of town. I got a taxi to Nathan’s hostel. This is a famous hostel in the old city. I checked in no problem. It is pokey but very good. I got myself into my dorm and into bed. I had had a few hours of disjointed sleep so this was very welcome. I awoke a few hours later. It was the afternoon. A shower refreshed me no end. Then out to explore the city! I stepped onto the cobblestone streets. There buildings were in various colours and all built with some care and artifice. This was very different from the ugly Communist era districts.
I was ravenous. I found a fast food stall.I ordered a burger ‘max’. I had deduced that this meant big. In fact that is not the Polish word for big but in any country with a language somewhat related to Latin this was a fair guess.
There were some threadbare buildings but also some handsome ones. I noticed that there were plenty of cars and quite a few of them were new and flashy. There was little refuse around but still any mysophobe would be best advised not to come here. It did not seem to be as poor as I had been told. I knew Poland was nothing like Third World. But I had a Polish friend named Tom who was always telling me how most people were worse off than under Communism. Tom was a contrarian. For example, he maintained that the EU was a tyranny. Maybe because he is gay he dislikes his homeland which is somewhat homophobic.
I had a wander into the Jewish Ghetto. In this tiny area – a half mile by a half mile – tens of thousands of Jews were immured by the Third Reich. Conditions were insanitary and very overcrowded. Thousands of people from malnutrition and disease. It was totally avoidable. This was before the Nazi authorities decided to send the survivors to concentration camps and extermination camps. There was a poignant memorial on the main square. A few boutiques and restaurants were there. It showed that Jews had triumphed in the end. Though many buildings were rickety some were in a good state and well painted.
I got to know the city well – the centre is. The river that runs through it once formed the border with Austrian territory. Southern Poland was part of the Austrian Empire for a long time.
There was a pedestrian street leading to the main city square. It was a gorgeous streets and full of tourists. The church on the right hand side as I walked towards the square caught my eye. The church was sumptuous inside. It was glittering with gold. It made me reflect on how strong a force the Catholic Church was. How could the Catholic Church ever be suppressed by the Communists. The Communists did not try to suppress it as such. Churches remained open and most priests remained free. This was not like what happened in the USSR and many other Communist countries. They spied on the Church and successfully recruited quite a few clergy as agents. They even had a Catholic dummy opposition party – Pax Christi (”peace of Christ” in Latin) to support the Communist dictatorship. Only recalcitrant priests were locked up.
The main square was very large and imposing. There was an arcade with many souvenirs. Among them were Polish flag T-shirts. There were also T-shirts aimed at holidaymakers saying how he was very attracted to Polish girls and listing several Polish feminine names. The large church on this square was breathtaking from the outside and lustrous inside. The artistry was an amazing accomplishment. Its features are too numerous to describe.
I bought some traveler’s cheques on that main square. I was mindful of what happened when I had lost my card before. A middle aged woman with perfect American English served me. Was this lean woman a Polish-American, I wondered? I said I was from Ireland which is true. She sensibly enough said ”’… when you get back to Ireland” which jolted me since I do not live in the country of my birth.
I went into some synagogues in the old town. The were solid buildings but not showy. I suppose the Jewish community had been quite poor till not long before its near-destruction. Jews had been banned from many trades and professions until the late 19th century. I think one Israeli leader said that Poles drank in anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk. But it is racist to label any people congenitally antipathetic to any other. In a Jewish Museum I saw photos of Polish leaders greeting rabbis in the 1930s. So perhaps the Polish Government had not been as Judophobic as I had been told.
Two Italian men approached me and asked for directions. They were father and son. I was able to direct them in Italian as they looked into their guidebook marked ”Cracovia.”
I was walking around in my green and white striped Ireland rugger jersey one morning. It was not the standard Irish rugby shirt. I also wore my black and orange camouflage trousers. I felt I was just young enough to still be permitted to wear combats. There was a big tour group of Orthodox Jewish girls from the USA. These teenagers wore a uniform of ankle length black skirts and very modest navy tops. They all noticed me because of my curious attire and I imagined a few of them were perspicacious enough to realise I was Irish. I later saw a youth group walking towards me down a ratty street. I noticed some had baseball caps with the letters SCT. I realised too late this was the Security Community Trust. This is a Jewish security organisation in the United Kingdom. It provides unarmed guards for synagogues and other Jewish organisations. I thought that if I had cogitated in time I would have greeted them with Shalow chevarim.
I walked under the railway line to the Jewish Cemetery – a little away from the Jewish Quarter. There was a mortuary chapel. I thought it odd that they used the Christian word – chapel. There were thousands of narrow graves there. The sunken headstones were leaning over in many cases. They had Hebrew and Latin lettering. The place was melancholy as you can imagine but no – more than that. These graves had not been tended in decades.
I dined in a quiter kosher restaurant on the square of the Hebrew Quarter. It was the first kosher meal I had ever eaten. Some atmospheric music was on. I thought how odd it was to have these whacky dietary laws. How was that morality? If a rule had no moral basis then there was no purpose in keeping to it. What did that make me if I had always eaten forbidden food? Was I depraved? This policy of not evangelising seemed strange and bad. If you have the truth and you can save people then you should tell them. But I can see that Jews had enough heat as it was in the old days. It would have been foolhardy in the extreme to proselytise.
I saw the word ‘sklep’ on many small buildings. I later discovered it mean ‘shop.’
My hostel was tremendous. It is rated as one of the most outstanding in the region. Nathan, the owner, has several hostels. He is a short American chap. Nathan of the dark hair was there and I chatted to him. He is self-effacing and approachable.
There was a bar downstairs. I took part in a quiz. I was put on a table with others. We performed decently. Thank goodness I did not let on that I had appeared on University Challenge or my showing in this quiz will have seemed dismal. The quizmaster was a chubby American chap with a bald head. When he heard I was from Ireland he called me ‘Dublin’. I did not correct him.
There was a woman from Northern Ireland there. She was built like a lesbian. She was stocky and had very short hair. She was an equable sort. I might even say dull. So I shall say it. Dull. She was dull. She was doing a PhD in PE. Isn;t that a contradiction in terms? A thesis on playing sport? It is like running about philosophy. But I am flippant and there is sport science. She was traveling with a straight looking young woman. Were they more than just good friends? Propriety prevented my prying.
There was a youthful Australian who got out a porn mag and lusted over it in full view of us all. I am priapic but I still considered this to be a bit of a no no. Not everyone is as broadminded as I am and they should not be upset by seeing such beautiful pornography when they are prudish.
There was a middle aged Australian whom I shall call Bruce. That is from the Monty Python sketch. Bruce had thick brown hair and glasses. He was in good shape for his age. He seemed like a real world traveler and wore a fleece. He was very convivial and I wish he had been my traveling companion. Later I was dining in a restauarant a few doors from the hostel. I saw him pass by and ushered him in to join me. He sat with me as I munched but did not order a dish. I spoke about that luckless Australian Vuong Tran Nguyen who was caught trying to smuggle heroin through Singapore and had been hanged. Bruce said, ”I respect the Asians because they do not fuck about.”
I made friends with two Americans at the bar. I shall invent names for them. Let me dream up some apposite names for these two youngish men. Lewis was the taller chap with red hair. His mate was Travis and he had jet black ruffled hair and a goatee. Travis was very smiley. In a nice sort of a way he had a devilish grin. Lewis was the more phlegmatic of the pair. They worked together. I cannot remember why their boss had sent them to Europe but they took time off their business trip for this side trip. They talked about their time in Las Vegas. Travis said it was a tax on people who are bad at Math. He said Math or course not Maths. I used to say Math when I went to an American school.
There was a free Polish lesson in the bar. A slender brunette receptionist gave us the lesson. She had narrow eyes and very fair flesh. She taught us a few words and phrases. We would repeat them as she wrote them on a flip chart. We were several beers into the evening. We chuckled and spoke over her. Our ribald wisecracks were unfair on her. It made me feel a twinge of guilt when I remembered how infuriating it was to attempt to teach a class of ingrates who were forever interrupting.
There was a cinema room. I watched Dumb and Dumber in there. Some Americans came and joined me. I had not seen it for 11 years. I laughed myself silly.
Next morning I was in the reception area. A chao greeted me by name. I did a double take. Then I recognised hi. It was Travis. He had shaved off his beard. He told me they were going to Auschwitz. He was Jewish so he felt duty bound. I had seen enough mournful things in Krakow. That concentration camp was the last place I wished to see.
Nathan was good and let me use the facilities the day I was leaving.
There was an exhibition in an ecclesiastical building near the river. It was a photo montage about the late Pope John Paul. I perused the hundreds of photographs of his enthralling life. I am also a sucker for splendour. He was decked out in his regalia in many shots. He was also a man who was a true believer and was patently utterly dedicated to his cause. The immense masses who gathered to greet him and to pay tribute to him moved me deeply. It made me feel very sentimental. When someone is obviously so adored it it difficult not to admire this person. I felt choked up with a sense of bereavement. I took me all my manly self-control not to weep. My rational self has little time for him. On a raw emotional level I realise that he did a lot of harm by preaching that contraception was sinful. I do not even believe his religious message.
There was even a sex shop near the railway station. I had been hesitant about visiting it fearing it was some sort of ambuscade. It had no video cabins.
I left some clothes in the laundry by accident including the Italy shirt I had just bought. I am so absent-minded.
I caught the sleeper train to Budapest.
Aboard the train I met a Frenchman with a bald pate. He was sharing my sleeper cabin. He was in his late 30s. He had thick black rimmed glasses and a commanding air. We spoke in French. He was a professor but did not act professorial. That is a compliment. He was taking a group of undergraduates to a French language drama festival in Bratislava. The night was yet young so it was not time to bed down.
He headed out of the cabin for a while. Then he returned and said in English, ”You would like to drink vodka with some Polish girls?” Is Paisley a Prod? Of course I would. I noticed how he phrased the question in a French manner. He did not know how to do the interrogative in English, ”would you..,.?”
I followed baldy a few cabins down to meet a bevvy of beauties. They were all nubile aged 18-22. What a delight. They mostly wore shiny boob tubes. I did not fancy my chances of porking one of them in the bunk whilst Frenchie was below but they made for agreeable eye candy. We spoke in French. I sipped vodka which I in fact detest. After a goodly session of chit chat it was time to fall into the arms of Morpheus. I was rudely awoken by the Slovak border guard demanding my passport. The Frenchman descended from the train. I carried on as the train crossed into Hungary.
THE SECOND TRIP
I took the train from Vilnius to Warsaw. It was Eastertime – a year after my first trip to Poland. I was working in Berkshire.
I saw a slender girl getting into a certain apartment. She had dyed blonde hair and a fake tan. She was hot. I struck up a conversation with her. She was Lithuanian and was heading back to Austria where she worked as a barmaid. She was 22. She then showed me a photo of her 38 year old Austrian boyfriend. Damn!
There was scoutmaster with several boy scouts on the train. He seemed to take his job very seriously. It made me think how dissimilar things were here. In the British Isles there was absolute hysteria about child molestation. There was the perception that this crime was very widespread. An adult would not be allowed to take an overnight trip even of just a few children on his own. I would hate that responsibility.
We passed through interminable flat countryside and many lacklustre small towns. They were made of brown brick and sometimes had unpaved streets. There were some fir tree forests. We passed by a large lake in the midst of the woods. It made me guess that this was one of the Masurian Lakes.
It was late in the evening when the train rolled into Warsaw. The station was virtually deserted. There was not a single taxi outside. Idiotically I had no guidebook with me. I headed out onto a very wide road. Scarcely a car went by. It seemed that everything was shut because it was Easter weekend. There were mammoth sombre blocks of flats lining both sides of this road. I turned left and walked. It seemed to me that the centre of the city was that way. In the distance I saw some lights winking on skyscrapers. Besides I had come from the opposite direction – that was the countryside to the north. I did not have a backpack – I had a bag that I had to carry. I must have gone a mile when I happened to catch sight of a taxi. I hailed it and fortunately the driver came over. I told him I wanted to go a hotel. He spoke scarcely any English. I had to indicate that I simply wanted the nearest one.
The kindly cabbie pulled up at a four star hotel a couple of miles from where he had found me. I asked him to wait there whilst I checked availability. I went in to the shining reception area. The bored looking receptionist yawned that yes there were rooms. The price was astonishingly cheap. But even if it had been steep I would have paid almost anything since I had nowhere to go. I went back out to the taxi to pay the driver and collect my main bag which was in the boot. The taxi was gone. What! He had scarpered with my bag. I reacted philosophically. There was little of value in that. Oh well. It had taught me a valuable lesson – not to leave the bag like that. Look on the bright side – I had not had to pay the fare.
My room was commodious. I went to have dinner. I was the only one in the dining room. There was a fierce looking waiter with very short hard standing there as if he was a soldier on guard. I felt I had better ask, ”May I sit at the this table please?”
”NO!!!” he yelled – as though I had asked to shit on him. He thrust his hand out to point to another one where I should sit.
The food was decent though.
Later I went to use the jacuzzi. I was chucking to myself about how satisfied I was with this place. No one else was around. I am an ambivert so sometimes having a place to myself is welcome. I am very sociable at other times.
Later that night my bag was returned to the receptionists by the taxi driver. Nothing had been stolen. How absent minded had he been to driver off without being paid. Or perhaps he miscalculated that there were valuables in it.
The next day I had time to go to the old city on the far side of the Vistula. I had a very brief walk around. It was glorious – full of very individual and colourful buildings. I should have spent another day there. The city was marvellously preserved. It must have been rebuilt after the ravages of war. I walked across the bridge over the river despite the biting wind.
I had a brief stroll around the hotel area. There was a huge red brick church.
Then I took a taxi to the station I had come from the night before. There were a few people pottering around. I essayed to buy a ticket to Krakow. The woman behind the glass counter did not speak English. I tried German – no luck. But I got the message across.
I left within th hour. I traveled first glass. I spoke to a young Polish man who spoke excellent English. He was a bespectacled, slim chap who worked as a computer programmer but was not boring. There was a Polish-American woman. She was about 50 and was very animated. She was due to meet a religious group in Krakow. An Indian priest would be tending to their spiritual needs. She did an impression of his accent.
The journey passed very quickly. The Polish-American suggested we meet next day outside the big church on the main square. I agreed.
I then headed to Nathan’s/. I met the man himself and his pregnant wife. He did not remember me. He was due to open a hostel on the Polish coast in a beach town. I said there was probably little market for it in winter. He said there was no market for it then. He also had a hostel in Sighisoara. I later found that one.
In the bar a balding Canadian was working. He was a quiet type and seemed very content. He told me he was paid a euro an hour. How could he stick it? Then he indicated the barmaid. She was fleshy girl with a pretty face and a very careful hairstyle. She was attractive.
I went backt o the square at the appointed hour to meet that 50 year old American woman from the train. No show.
I visited the castle. It was an almost awe striking sight. It was so historic and well kept. I walked around the courtyards and into the church. So many kings of Poland were buried here. There was the coffin of Pilsudksi – all made of melted down bullets.
I saw an exhibition of the Katyn Massacre. The Russian Government was contrite about this which is odd. The Soviet Government most certainly carried out this enormous massacre. But my point is that Moscow is shameless about almost every other atrocity.
I walked around the Jagellonian University.
I saw many of the same things as before.
I took the train to Bratislava.