Monday, April 18, 2011

Zapraszamy do Polska!

So here it is.  My first title not in Italian.  The occasion?  The first time I've left Italy since arriving over three months ago.  This past weekend, I went to Poland!

What a weekend it was.  I went with my friend Jaclyn, and while we only had three full days to spend in Poland, we managed to pack in quite a lot.  The adventure began in, well, Bologna.  We met an adorable little Polish toddler named Miko in the Bologna airport.  He was learning to walk and was fascinated by us and wanted to hold our hands.  Adorable (it's worth repeating).  Once we arrived in Wrocław (pronounced something along the lines of "vrotsh-love"), however, things took a turn for the, not worse precisely, but certainly more confusing.  After having repeatedly assured Jaclyn that we would be fine changing our money from Euros into złoty at the Polish airport, I reached the ATM there only to find that Bank of America had apparently forgotten that I was abroad and had cut off all access to my accounts.  Just as I was beginning to panic slightly about having no access to money or a phone to call the bank in a country where the language is completely incomprehensible to me, Lukas appeared.  Lukas was returning to Kraków, where he was from, from Manchester, where he had been living the past few years, and for some reason decided to take us two lost American girls under his wing.  He helped Jaclyn buy a map and figure out the bus schedule and gave us his phone number in case we ran into trouble or were looking for recommendations later.  This enabled us to save quite a lot of złoty on cab fare and to reach our hostel without too much difficulty.

This is not to say that there was still no difficulty involved.  At one point Jaclyn and I ended up lost in a closing mall, where we were directed by a guy working in a coffee shop there to "go strange," which, as this was accompanied by pointing (in, of course, the direction from which we had been coming), we took to mean "straight."  

Eventually we did find out hostel, which apparently doubles as a marriage bureau, and I was able to use the computer there to send a text message to my mom asking her to get on g-chat so I could explain the situation and she could call the bank.  Ahh, the wonders of technology. 

Marriage and honeymoon all at the same time?

That night, Jaclyn and I did a bit of exploring right near the hostel and ate our first (of many) Pierogi of the trip.  Pierogi are basically dumplings that can be pan-fried or boiled and come with a variety of fillings.  My favorite were the Ruskie (Russian) pierogi with a potato filling, but we also tried spinach and cabbage and (in Jaclyn's case) meat.  

Church by night in a square near the hostel.

Boiled Ruskie pierogi with cabbage.

The next morning we left early to catch our train to Kraków, but we did manage to see a bit of Wrocław on the way to the station.

The view from our hostel in Wrocław.

The train station/castle.

Our interpretation of this sign: "Danger! Robots!"
Jaclyn's Polish friend Piotr's reading of the sign: "Caution! Work at heights"
Our conclusion: "Danger! Flying robots!"

The five-hour trip to Kraków constituted the first leg of our sixteen-hour train tour of the Polish countryside.  It was also by far the most miserable, largely because it had occurred to neither of us to pack food and the slice-of-bread breakfast at the hostel disappeared rather quickly.  Consequently, our first stop in Kraków was a restauracja (restaurant) where we ate delicious potato pancakes topped with mushrooms and sour cream.  The abundant and hearty Polish fare we enjoyed this weekend certainly provided a welcome break from the by-now-repetitive Italian cuisine in Bologna, and Jaclyn and I enjoyed every bite (and many, many bites there were)!

The Kraków train station.

The view from the station.

The teatr (theatre) we passed on the way from the station.
They were currently playing the Wizard of Oz!

After dropping our packs off at the hostel, Jaclyn and I again struck out to explore Stare Miasto (old town) of Kraków.  We were lucky enough to find an Easter fair in the Główny Rynek (main square), which was full of local crafts and even more delicious eats.

The Główny Rynek.

Animal-shaped bread.

Women grilling oscypek (a traditional smoked cheese).

Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs).

The stand where we ate the best pierogi of the trip...twice.

There is a nearly-identical sculpture by the same Polish artist in
Citygarden in downtown Saint Louis.

"Free Beer"

A cotton-candy stand in the Rynek.

After thoroughly exploring the fair, Jaclyn and I headed a little further afield (although we stayed in the Stare Miasto the whole time).  Our random wandering led us to the Wisła (Vistula) River, Wawel Castle,  and a lovely park that circles the old town.

Doing my best to fall into the Wisła.

A bit of Wawel Castle.

Gorgeous park.

Eventually our wandering led us right back to the Rynek (ah, the wonders of a well-designed pedestrian city).  There we enjoyed some "hot wine" (grazne wino, or mulled wine) and people-watching before heading back to the hostel to grab some sweaters before coming back into the square for dinner (we just couldn't resist the thought of more "hot wine" and those delicious Ruskie pierogi from the stands.

Hippie drum-line in the Rynek.  Note the digirido.

Feeding the pigeons.

We met some Romans on vacation while eating dinner in the square.
This guy wanted a picture with us.
After dinner, the adventures really began.  Jaclyn and I decided to head to a pub for a bit before going back to the hostel, and we ended up choosing an Irish pub right off the square.  After chatting a bit with the heavily-accented and oh-so-very-Irish bouncer ("Can I see some identification, girls?...Oh I'm just kidding.  You all should be flattered!  They make me stand by the door so I'm just trying to do a good job of it), we went in....only to find that everyone in the pub was 1) male and 2) wearing a skin-tight, brightly-colored spandex "SupaSuit."

Oh dear.  Since we felt bad leaving immediately after having had a nice chat with the bouncer but we didn't particularly want to spend time with all of the SupaSuit-ed men, we decided to head upstairs to see if it was quieter up there.  As we were standing by the bar ordering our beers and deciding where to sit, a rather drunk British man came up to us and, after commenting on our selection, told us to come over and sit with him and his friends.  A night full of British accents and hilarity ensued.

It turns out that we had inadvertently crashed a "Stag party" (the British equivalent of an American Bachelor party).  As Rich (the one who found us at the bar) explained, the groom-to-be was "the one with the extreeemely white shoes."  Jaclyn and I began the night by slowly sipping our pints in the corner, but eventually we were drawn right into the middle of things and ended up singing karaoke to gems such as "It's My Life" and "Don't Stop Me Now" with Rich and his friends John and Frank.  The "lads" were all incredibly friendly, if somewhat repetitive.  They each asked us probably fifteen times where we were from, what we were doing there, what they were doing there, where we all were, etc.  We also learned that the group was from Yorkshire ("Yorkshire tea is the best!  I buy it by the boocketful!"/ "You wouldn't understand us if we were to speak Yorkshire") and that Prince William (surprise!) is about to get married (we were probably asked four or five times each, "Did you know that the prince is getting married?" It was cute how excited they all were, although we felt a bit bad for the actual groom-to-be in whose honor the party ostensibly was).  Furthermore, Rich kept insisting that he was "half-American" (to which his friend responded, "You're as half-American as Starbucks is!"  This was a slightly mysterious comeback, as we weren't sure whether the friend was implying that Rich was as British as Starbucks is American or whether Starbucks is secretly much more British than we had previously supposed).  

Eventually John realized that all of his friends but Frank had left, and a rather confusing situation ensued in which a still-quite-sober-after-only-one-or-two-pints Jaclyn and I attempted to take a very inebriated John and Frank home to their hostel (they didn't seem to have any idea where they were staying, but fortunately John had a card with the address in his pocket and Jaclyn had a map).  We made it downstairs with John only to find that Frank had somehow been left upstairs.  We sent John in to go get him and in the meantime made some Scottish friends on the street.  John returned, but Frank was still nowhere to be seen.

"John, where's Frank?"
"Oh, I don't know.  Upstairs?"

This time we sent in Jaclyn to fetch Frank, and he grudgingly came outside, but refused to leave his half-finished pint behind.  Used to Italy where open-container laws don't exist, Jaclyn and I decided to not worry about it.  Unfortunately for Frank, open container laws do exist in Poland and as we were walking down the street a police car pulled over, confiscated his pint, and wrote him a citation fining him 100 złoty (equivalent to roughly 22£).  His response? "What is that? I got arrested!"  No, Frank, you didn't.

We eventually arrived at their hostel, but they refused to go in, insisting instead on walking us home first.  However, after only a few minutes, both of them appeared to have forgotten this entirely ("Where are you taaaking us?"/ "Where aaare we?"/ "I've never walked this much in my entire life!").  Oh dear. Once we arrived, we had to spend a few minutes convincing a now-diagonal Frank leaning on our door and tiredly repeating, "Just let us in.  Come on.  Just let us in," that this was not, in fact, something that we could do.  Eventually the two of them agreed to leave if we would just give them the Italian-style peck on each cheek goodbye so they could "feel continental" (Frank: "I looove feeling continental!").

Once inside, Jaclyn and I had a fit of giggles and just shook our heads at the whole sequence of events.  The next morning, we spent a good bit of the eight-hour train ride to Poznań repeating some of the funnier statements of the night before to each other in our best British accents.  As Rich had reminded us, now we could say for the first time that we had spent a night "hanging out with a bunch of British lads."  

When we arrived in Poznań, Jaclyn's friend Piotr, a medical student at the university there, met us at the station, took us back to our hostel, and gave us a brief tour of the city center ("I think this was important somehow....I have a class in this building...That's the pathology department," you know, useful information like that) before bringing us back to the dorms to hang out for a bit.

Jaclyn and Piotr in the main square.

Colorful former Burgher houses.

A view across the (hidden) river.

After spending some time with Piotr and his friends at a birthday barbecue, Jaclyn and I headed back to the hostel for a bit.  There we met Tatsuya, a Japanese international relations student who was in the middle of a 5-month solo world tour.  He had just recently arrived in Europe after two and a half months in South America.  We were impressed.  He also told us about his ambitions to move to New York after graduating and become a professional hip-hop dancer for a few years before beginning a career doing something in IR.  Pretty awesome.  I also met another group of traveling Romans in the hostel.  One thing I was not expecting to do while in Poland was speak Italian, but there you go.  Twice.

That night we went out for a pint with Piotr in a very red communist-Russia-themed bar.  Jaclyn and I were fairly exhausted after the adventures of the night before and the long train ride, so we called it a night fairly early.

The next day we walked around Poznań a bit more before once again heading to the train station so we could go back to Wrocław to catch our plane to Bologna in the evening.  After enjoying our last meal of pierogi in Wrocław and sitting in the airport for a few hours (we vastly overestimated how long it would take to get to the airport/check-in/make it through security), fly back to Bologna we did.

The surprises, however, were not quite over for the weekend.  When I arrived back at my apartment a little before midnight, I not surprisingly decided to head straight to bed.  But when I turned off the lights and slid under the covers, I was very surprised to feel something cool and, well, leafy under there with me.  Alarmed, I leapt up and turned the lights back on to find a single, slightly squished, long-stem white rose in between my sheets.  I still have absolutely no idea how it got there, and I only have one day in Bologna to investigate before heading off to Berlin(!) tomorrow.  Che misterioso! (How mysterious!)

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