Friday, October 23, 2009

Sunday 10/4: Mass and Bus Rush

Even though I didn't go to sleep until past five, my body woke up before nine. We got dressed in the cleanest clothes we could find, and walked to mass at the cathedral. Earlier in the week, we watched a concert here and the church seemed like something of a tourist draw. Now it was filled with devout church-goers. I have never attended mass before, so all the standup-sitdown surprised me a bit. But it kept me awake, which I think might be the intention. I didn't understand a word, since the service was in Polish, but the music was beautiful. The choir and the giant pipe organ resonated through the church, stirring up souls to repentance (I assume). At one point, the guy at the pulpit must have instructed everybody to meet their neighbors, because the wrinkled grandmas and grandpas in the row in from of us turned around and gave us the biggest smiles. I may not agree with everything their church teaches, but I do agree with people who are doing their best to be their best.

We spent the most of the day tired and ready to go home. On Sundays, a market fills the square in front of the hostel, so we burned some time poking around there. There were booths of fresh produce, clothes, antiques, junk, and old books. I bought a beautiful old book from the same stand earlier in the week, but it was still my favorite to dig through. We ate our favorite french-bread pizza (for the fourth? time that week) and I took a nap at the hostel. Our beds were already made for the next guests, so Andy let me crash in his.

I woke up with just enough time to grab my bag, and we headed out the door for the bus station. One of the front desk girls showed us how to get there on a map, but she couldn't get any more specific than saying that the bus and train stations were next to each other and that a shuttle bus to the airport would be waiting. We set off walking, and realized that the bus station was much farther than we anticipated, and we had no extra time to compensate. We broke into a fierce power-walk, taking turns carrying the two bags. Our bus was scheduled to leave at exactly 5:00, and we were afraid that if it was a big charter bus on a schedule then it wouldn't wait for us if we were late. With five minutes left on the clock, we found the bus/train station. We had a sticky note from the hostel, who arranged our reservation, but it just said "Bus Station, Platform 15&16, 17:00." We couldn't see platforms anywhere and started to sweat. I showed a woman working at a stand our sticky-note but she spoke no English and just brushed us off. We were all sweating, stressed, and grumpy. We had no idea where to go and our bus was leaving any minute. If we missed our bus, we would most likely miss our plane. If we missed our plane, the next one wouldn't be until tomorrow, and then we would miss a day of teaching. If we missed a day of teaching, we would be dead meat. I accosted the next person who walked by, "Excuse me, do you speak any English?" The boy, about our age, replied with "A little," so I showed him our sticky-note and asked him if he knew where our platform was. He looked at it and said, "Oh, you're looking for the bus station. This is the train station." Please visualize four girls with looks of utmost horror on their faces. Time was nearly gone. We still hadn't paid for the bus nor had tickets of any kind. Only a sticky-note from the hostel and a promise that our names were on some reservation list. We frantically mumbled something, asking if he could give us directions to the bus station. Instead of just pointing the way or explaining, he personally marched us across the train station, through crowds, outside, to the adjoining bus station, and then showed us exactly where we needed to be. We made it to the shuttle exactly on time, and had the whole van to ourselves. We never found out that boy's name, but he went above and beyond the call of duty and saved our foolish skins. Yet another person on this trip helping to restore my faith in humanity.

We made it to our flight on time, and Ukraine even let us back in the country. The passport inspection lines, which were such a nightmare when we came from America, were uncrowded and took less time than it took to fill out the forms. A shuttle bus was waiting right outside the airport, and dumped us off right exactly where we needed to be. The metro shuts down at midnight, so I called my host mom and told her that I was back safe and would be sleeping over at Jessica's apartment. We walked into her apartment tired and starving, but Jessica's roommate, Jo, had a homemade cake waiting for us. The three of us ate the entire cake in one sitting, and slept in till noon.

Saturday 10/3: Jump-Rope and More Australians

Saturday morning brought us a quiet goodbye to the Ginger Monkey. We woke up late, and I walked to the market/gas station to buy a map. If and When I ever have my own place, I intend to cover the ceiling above my bed with maps. Old maps, new maps, places I've been, places I want to go...fuel for dreams. Zdiar, in the High Tatras, would be a lovely place to dream about after I'm gone. And that morning, we left. They hugged us goodbye like we were family. And it really did feel like we were leaving behind family. We had been with these people twenty-four hours a day, and in more than one country with some of them. When Sean first persuaded us to check out the Ginger Monkey, we planned on staying one night. We stayed three, and would have stayed longer if we didn't have a plane to catch in Poland.

While I was in Slovakia, my dad emailed me this and it just seemed to say it so well:
"The good memories are all of stopping and staying awhile. I realize I've always driven too fast through life, carrying in my baggage too much impatience and apprehension, missing too many chances, passing too many good people in the dust." Charles Kuralt, from A Life on the Road.

I like to think that, given the brevity of our vacation, we did a pretty good job of "stopping and staying awhile." Before we left, Sean gave us one of his signature glitter tattoos. The four of us got them on our wrists (I got a purple seahorse), Ashleigh got a gecko on her cheek, Kate got a dragon her chest, but we all opted out of the breast-tiger like we encountered our first night in Poland. Delightfully tacky, for three to seven days.

Sean drove us back to the Balloon hostel, and it was less-than-fun saying goodbye to him. I get the feeling that he is one of those people that I'll run into a few years down the road when I'm least expecting it. We'll see. We immediately met another Australian (shock!), Andy, and went out to lunch at the Momo restaurant. Before Slovakia, we walked by this place and the smell alone reeled us in and we promised one another that we MUST eat there before the end of our trip. We finally made it, and it turned out to be one of the most scrumptious meals ever to tickle my taste buds. Everything is vegetarian, which isn't a selling point for me, but I don't think we had a better meal the entire week. I think I had something called the "Masala Dosa," which was simply incredible. And whoever invented mint lemonade, I tip my hat to you.

We took a power nap and then sat at the picnic table in the kitchen, groggily playing cards to wake up. We learned how to play @$$hole earlier in the week from Eric, and although we are all quite bad at it, it's a lot of fun. Andy, and two new Australians, Chris and Ryan, eventually wandered into the kitchen and sat down with us. Almost immediately after sitting down, one of our new Australian friends told us, "We can tell you're American, but your accent is really, really neutral. You could almost be from anywhere." A week ago, Sean told us that we had harsh American accents. Now, after just a week of hanging out with Australians, our accents were "neutral." Sweet. We sat for a couple hours, just talking and playing cards. We decided to move the party away from the kitchen and out where we could dance. The seven of us walked to a packed pub and danced to eighties rock and weird music. Some guy there thought he was James Bond, and he showed us all how to dance like him.
(James Bond, in the red shirt)

Once we got sick of the eighties, we went upstairs to a place with different music. Around two, Jessica and I were done and so we left Jess and Camille with our three Australian friends/bodyguards. We walked out into the main square, where we bought sunflowers earlier in the week, and walked around a bit. Even though it was the middle of the night, there were still a lot of people around. In front of a big statue, about fifteen Polish kids (roughly our age) were playing jump-rope with a 25-foot-long rope. We wandered over to watch them, and they quickly waved at us to join them! We took our places in line along the rope, and everybody counted to three for the rope-swingers to start. We all made it over the rope a couple times, but soon somebody got caught on the rope. We did it a few more times, and a crowd started to form around us. A short, plump man old enough to be my father came up to me and asked, "Is it okay if I try?" I laughed and told him, "I don't know! They invited me, so I guess it's fine!" Pretty soon, the rope was so crowded with people that we could barely jump because our knees hit the person ahead in the line. A crowd stood on one side, counting for the rope to swing, and a big, formal statue stood on the other side. Getting invited to play jump-rope with fifteen Polish kids at 2am in the main square--I love my life.

We met up with the other two girls and went back to the hostel, showered the pub smell out of our hair, and went to bed at five in the morning. We had the whole room to ourselves, with a view of the little market-square from our window. The moon was perfectly full, and it shined brightly through the string-curtains. I lay awake for a long time, just watching the moonlight and citylight, thinking about the week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Friday 10/2: Hike and Piantballing

Friday morning, after the party, the four of us were by far the happiest people in the hostel. While everybody else nursed hangovers, we set out on the River Walk: Take Two. This attempt was more successful, and we actually made it to the trailhead without too much distraction. It had rained the whole night, so the road/trail was thick with mud. I think somebody told us that it's a cross-country ski trail during the winter. We followed it along the river and through the woods. We passed Slovakian lumberjacks in the forest. Maybe I've been sheltered my whole life, but I have never before seen Slovakian lumberjacks. It was almost religious. A good friend of mine once educated me on the Evolution of Manliness. He told me it goes like this: Caveman, Barbarian, Viking, Pirate, Lumberjack. Now you can understand, and appreciate, that to witness lumberjacks in their natural environment is to witness the culmination of millions of years of evolution. Amen.

The trial eventually twisted up higher into the mountains, and opened onto a giant field, Sound of Music style. We stood at the top of a grassy hill and wanted so badly to roll down it, but the grass was soaking wet. The soaking wet grass wouldn't normally have stopped us, but washing machines are scarce, dryers don't exist, it was freezing cold, and we brought hardly any clothes on the trip. Instead, we did the next best thing and jumped around like fools, taking pictures in front of the mountains. Also, a mushroom fight.

The trail looped back across the main highway, and connected with another trail. We hiked past the paintball field (argh! We were within five minutes of it yesterday!) and into another, thinner, forest. Our trail, which was supposed to loop all the way back to the hostel, quickly petered out so we blazed our own. Everything sort of dead-ended, so we sat on a log on a grassy hill overlooking the town, and pretended to be a Jamaican bobsled team (If you've never seen Cool Runnings, please do so immediately). When our bums were cold and sore, we ran straight down the hill and back into town, through somebody's backyard/farm.

Jess and Camille walked up ahead, while Jessica and I walked slowly back home. We stopped to play on a rope swing over a creek. The swing was tied between two trees, with a small piece of wood in the middle to sit on. The wood wasn't even secured; the weight of your bum held it in place. The swing was on a steep incline, so it was a bit tricky getting to it, but once you sat down it swung far over the creek below. With the town below my feet, it felt like I was flying through the yellow and red-leafed trees.

We made it back to the hostel with just enough time to turn around and gather our group for paintballing. We made the trek through the town the way we just came, and found the paintballing place with no trouble this time. The field was on top of a hill overlooking the town on one side and with a view of the mountains on the other. Not a bad location for our first time paintballing. This was hardly a commercial paintball arena; the place had one small sign indicating the company, and no building or office at all. A German guy met us there in a car and brought out boxes of equipment and clothing from his trunk. We put on scrubby pants and army jackets over our clothes, and left our stuff in the make-shift lean-to. The field was full of bushes, trees, wood barricades, and ditches. I know hardly anything about paintball, but this field seemed to be awesome. We played 4 guys against 5 girls, all hostel guests/staff. None of us had ever gone paintballing before, so Slovakia was a pretty fantastic place to try it out. The first round, the girls soundly slaughtered the guys, but after that we were pretty much toast. Please note that most of these guys were huge, burly, Australian beefy men. They made for quite the formidable enemy.

By the time we finished, it was freezing and almost dark. Since we arrived at the hostel, we had been giving the owner a hard time about not making good on the flyer's promise of free hot chocolate. He told us he would get some, but it never happened and just turned into a running joke. So when we finished paintball and started on the cold 45-minute walk home, somebody jokingly said, "Hot chocolate sounds sooo good right now." Jimmy, one of the paintballers, volunteered to run back, stop at the market, and have hot chocolate waiting for us by the time we all got back to the hostel. We thought it was a joke, but he was quite serious and took off running. When we walked into the hostel, Jimmy had homemade hot chocolate waiting for us on the stove. We each got a mug full of the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. The stuff in Poland was delicious, but Jimmy's hot chocolate was something else altogether. The town doesn't sell hot chocolate mix, so he bought bars of dark chocolate, melted them on the stove, and made his own concoction. We now call him Saint Jimmy.

More people arrived at the hostel that night, including two girls who just came from Greece. By this time, there were 23 people in the hostel, and nearly all of them were Australian. We all went out for pizza together, and completely packed the restaurant. The two girls had Australian accents, so I was pretty shocked to learn that one was from...San Jose, California! She graduated from college and has been travelling for 15 months, mostly bartending. The Australian accent is pretty much inevitable when you travel that long, because Australians are everywhere and are probably taking over Europe one hostel at a time. She went to Willow Glen high school, and I went to Piedmont Hills--same school district at the same time. We know some of the same people. Of all the places in the world, I ended up in Slovakia sharing a room with a girl from San Jose. Small world.

Thursday 10/1: Abandoned Hotel and a Party

During the snowless off-season, the Ginger Monkey's main attraction is a collection of awe-inspiring hikes in the High Tatras. One hike goes up to the top of a ridge along the Poland/Slovakia border, but our shoes were sadly insufficient for such a trek. I really want to do that someday. (Nic, are you down?) Instead, we settled on doing the shorter "River Walk" through the low forest, a 3-4 hour round trip walk.

The hostel breakfast consisted of a giant loaf of fresh bread from the market and an array of spreads--chocolate frosting, butter, marmalade, fresh homemade jam, etc. A really good way to start the day. We set out on the river walk, but almost immediately got distracted by a giant, abandoned hotel/ski-lodge. I have a pretty intense fascination with abandoned buildings, and this hotel is by far the most gripping. The building is located on a corner lot, right off the main highway, but set back a bit in an overgrown jungle of bushes and trees. Including the basement and attic, it's five stories high.

Unlike most abandoned buildings, this one has preserved so many signs of its original life. We found a room full of identical books in the basement, all wet and warped. We found a full-size wooden sled, a room full of skis, blank hotel ledger books and stationary, aerobic workout books, old lipstick tubes, and more. I took an antique barbers brush as a small souvenir. On a table in the main room, we found a ledger book that fellow trespassers signed with their name, date, and where they came from. We had no pen, and it nearly killed me.

We climbed the decaying staircase up to the top, but only ventured out to one of the floors. All the others were sagging to the point that I could see the room below. The floor below the attic had one room with double doors opening out to the forest. Jessica gingerly stepped out on the balcony, but jumped back inside as it sagged beneath her weight.

On the first floor, we found the room-outlines of a commercial kitchen; tiles and swinging doors still intact. Unanswered questions: What did this place look like when it was full of people? How old is it? What happened to put it out of business? Why didn't they sell it? Who owns the property now? Can I please use the old skis to decorate? We ended up spending more than an hour here at the beginning of our walk, and a bit more time on the way back.

We continued down the road towards the trail, but realized that we didn't have enough time anymore to do the river walk and make it back in time for that evening's paintball appointment. We continued walking, and came across vacant soccer fields. Jessica, a lifetime soccer player, had an instant cow and went running onto the field, kicking an imaginary ball.

The other three of us decided that this was as good a place as any to hang out, since we couldn't do the hike now anyway. We poked around the field a bit, and ended up laying down in the middle of the grass, looking up at the sky. So far from any city pollution, the sky was a thick, bright blue, almost capable of dripping down on us. Cotton clouds sailed by, and we pointed out cloud-sculptures that seemed to get more outrageous the longer we lay there. The mood fluctuated between side-splittingly funny, and comfortably quiet. When our eyes watered too much from looking at the clouds, we created a new game: "I Love ____." Not very complicated; we just lay side-by-side in the grass and went down the line talking about things we love. The smells of home, sore muscles after a workout, winning a game at the last possible moment, boyfriends, family, hot chocolate, perfect waves, etc. Some were big and life-sustaining, others were hardly noteworthy but completely lovely. (Who doesn't love a good sneeze?)

(Jess wore one pair of my socks the whole week...)

Our hike abandoned, we wandered through the town and back to the hostel for paintballing. A bigger group was supposed to go, but it ended up just the four of us and our sole American friend, Andrew. We left the hostel with instructions to just follow the main road for about fifteen minutes. We walked the entire length of town along the main road (the only road, really) and gave up after 45 minutes. We couldn't find the paintballing place, and we had no phones to call back the hostel for directions, so we just gave up and enjoyed ourselves. The whole town is located on the one main road which runs mostly parallel to the highway, connecting at both ends. We walked to the top of the road, and could see the whole town. On the way back, we walked down the highway, moving to the side to let farm equipment and tiny cars go by. One tractor passed us both on the town's main road and on the highway, driven by a man with his bundled-up baby on the seat next to him. Not something I see everyday, and incredibly cute.

We failed on our paintball appointment, but it was Andrew's birthday and Ashleigh's last day working at the hostel, so we all went out to dinner to celebrate. Jimbo, the hostel owner, took us down to a restaurant by the hostel for Slovakian food. The restaurant owner and Jimbo seemed to be on really good terms, with Jimbo helping serve food and clean the table. We packed the entire hostel, 15 people, around an eight-person table. Personal space was thrown out the window, and we sat and ate for a long time, sharing food with people we'd just met, and singing loud birthday songs to Andrew.

The party eventually moved back to the hostel, with a karaoke contest and an untalented-talent-show. (Four-string guitar, anyone?) As the only sober people in the place, we started a late-night dance party in the kitchen with our "socially-lubricated" friends. I don't dance unless I'm drunk, and since I don't drink, I quietly made my way to our room upstairs. I walked into the dark room, and only then did I notice the rain pouring down outside. Muffled music from downstairs wafted through the floorboards, and I sat in the bay window for awhile in the dark, just watching the rain. Tell me again, how did I end up in Slovakia?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wed 9/30: To Slovakia

The first night we arrived in Poland, we met Sean at the Balloon hostel. I don't even know how to begin to describe him. Physical first, I suppose. Sean is 28 years old. By birth, he is Israeli. By heart, he is Irish. He has one crazy eye that never looks the same direction as the other, so when we first met him it was very difficult to decide which eye to make contact with. He has a very thick Irish accent, but has only ever spent ten days in Ireland. The accent comes from travelling with Irish guys for five months, which also resulted in his official adoption as Irish. His adoption is quite serious; he really does consider himself Irish, and everybody else does too. Sean has been travelling for four years. I asked him how he does it, how he supports himself, how long he stays in one place, and so on. Sean is one of the truest people I have ever met. He sat down, looked me in the eye (not plural), and told me, "Go where you want to go. Even if you have no money and don't speak the language, you will find a way. Wherever you go, you will be able to find work. Anywhere. There is always a way. The most important thing is that you get up and go. After that, things will work out. Things will always work out." I can't explain how hard his words struck me. It wasn't just what he said, it was who said it, how he said it, and where we were in life as he said those words. Here I was, on the other side of the world. I got myself all the way to Ukraine. Then I got myself all the way to Poland, even though we flew into the wrong airport 112km away. And here I was, sitting in a hostel with a person telling me exactly what I needed to hear. It amazes me how many people are on this planet, yet we always manage to find the ones we need. Some answers to my questions: Sean mostly works in hostels. He shows up with a reservation, makes friends with the owner, and then works for room and board (or room and beer). Sometimes he just stays a couple weeks, sometimes he stays a few months. One summer he worked at carnivals giving glitter tattoos that last for 3-7 days (I asked. And that explains Kate's glitter tiger on her breast that she exposed to us the first night.). He's worked some other odd jobs, but mostly in hostels. If you aren't familiar with the character of hostelling, many hostels are staffed (except for the owner) entirely by travellers working for room and board.  These aren't travellers off for a week vacation, like us, these people have usually been travelling for months or even years. Every person we met the entire week had been abroad for at least three months (except for one American). We were grateful to be able to say that we are living in Ukraine for four months. Four months was the bare respectable minimum, without looking like travel-pansies.

At the Balloon, Sean told us about a "really great" hostel in Slovakia, just two or three hours away, called the Ginger Monkey. He was returning there on Tuesday, but said he would be willing to come back to Poland on Wednesday and drive us there if we wanted, just for the price of petrol. We hadn't ever considered visiting Slovakia (has anybody?), so he gave us his email and a flyer for the hostel and told us to think about it. We thought about it and couldn't decide. We had to email ILP headquarters with travel plan changes, and were worried that it wouldn't get approved. Tuesday night, we finally got our heads together and decided to just spend one night in Slovakia and then come back to Poland. We even reserved rooms at the Balloon for later in the week. So we wrote ILP a very persuasive and very vague email about a "sister hostel" in Slovakia with "provided transportation" where we would stay "for a day." Once again, the travel gods smiled down on us and ILP approved our plans, telling us to "be safe and have fun." We emailed Sean at the Ginger Monkey, and finally got ahold of him on Wednesday morning, the day we were supposed to leave. Even with such short notice, he said he could pick us up at 2pm at the Balloon. O travel gods! What good deed did we perform in a past life that makes you smile down on us so benevolently now? I don't know why, but everything just fell into place.

We woke up early again on Wednesday morning, got our stuff ready for a 2pm pickup, and then went in search of a morning adventure. We walked a new direction through the neighborhood, just exploring Kazimierz. We found old men selling pocketwatches and antique cameras. My heart spilled onto the floor when I saw old twin-lens reflex cameras. 50USD was way too much for a camera that probably didn't work, but I was so tempted. The streets were lined with cafes, antique shops, and quiet art galleries. One had a pad of paper outside for people walking by to draw on. We obliged.

I spotted a playground between two apartment buildings, with a huge graffiti mural as a backdrop against one wall. The bright colors of the playground equipment contrasted strangely with the somewhat deary dirt and weeds on the ground. We swung on the swings and took turns on the spinner-thing, like any mature adult would do.

We crossed a bridge over a section of the river that we had never seen before, into a different part of town. More old buildings and impressive churches filled the neighborhood. We followed a set of stairs into a quiet, green park that looked something like the Shire. We sat on a bench in the middle of a lawn, surrounded by trees so thick we couldn't hear any sound from the city. Utter silence.

We made it back to the hostel where Sean was waiting for us. We grabbed our bags and got in his car. I had a moment of confusion and then delight as I climbed into the front passenger's seat--on the left side! Hooray for British cars! We drove away from Krakow and into the Polish countryside, completely enchanted by the winding highway, the little villages, and, of course, the sheep in the front yards. We sat in a comfortable silence, just staring out the window at the unfamiliar world. Unlike Kiev and Krakow, the horizon was completely unobstructed and I felt like I could see over the rolling green hills into The Great Beyond. We stopped at a small supermarket right before the border for food while Sean picked up hostel provisions (aka beer). Poland and Slovakia are both part of the European Union, so the border was basically non-existent. No buildings, no traffic, no stopping. We drove right through without slowing down.

The Ginger Monkey is located in a tiny town called Zdiar. It is nestled in the cupped hand of rolling hills, at the foot of the High Tatras mountains. The hostel is basically a big cabin, tucked right behind the only church in town. From our bedroom bay-window on the second floor, you can look out over the church and its cemetery, across the main road to the mountains. The Tatras are some seriously big mountains, making the small town seem even smaller in comparison. Zdiar has a startling blend of past and present; it was common to see horse-drawn farm equipment or carriages clopping down the road with a car honking behind it. The town is full of ski-lodges for the winter, but we came in the off-season so all the lodges were vacant and quiet. With no tourists around (besides the strange handful of travellers at the Ginger Monkey), the town went about its business without showing off for tourists or trying to please their wallets. It was nice to see people just being people.

The Ginger Monkey welcomed us like old friends, introducing us to the hostel dog, Wally, and all the guests. In order to end up in a tiny Slovakian ski town in the off-season, you must have either a fierce sense of spontaneity or a lot of time to travel. This made the Ginger Monkey full of some of the most interesting people I have met. The owner, Jimbo, is an Australian guy who seems to know everybody in town and treats his guests like friends. That first night, we cooked dinner for ourselves and Sean in the warm kitchen. Kate, another Australian we'd met at the Balloon, served everybody homemade blueberry pie. Even though is was down to freezing outside, we went to bed warm, full, and happy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tuesday 9/29: A Rainy Day

I forgot to mention, on Monday night a new guest arrived at the hostel. Eric. He quickly established himself as "One Who Behaves in a Most Ungentlemanlike Manner," being unnecessarily rude to other guests and acting like an all-around tool. So when I wandered into the bathroom on Tuesday morning and heard him singing in the shower, I executed a most devious plan while brushing my teeth. There are four sinks and four showers in the bathroom. He was the only one in the shower and I was the only one at a sink. While he sang, I quietly turned the sinks on, one by one. On hot. Full blast. It only took a moment before he yelped, "#$%^% &*^%*@ that's cold!!!" I let the sinks run on hot just long enough to draw out the suffering, and then I quietly turned them off. He began singing again, and I let him shower in peace. For another minute. Then I turned all the sinks on cold, full-blast. More howling from Eric. He never even knew anyone was in the bathroom. Devious plans do not often arise while brushing one's teeth, so one must take full advantage of every opportunity. Eric was a lot nicer after that.

The only set item on our agenda for Tuesday was a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Not exactly a chipper excursion, and the weather was kind enough to set the appropriate somber mood. It took about an hour on a tour bus to get to Auschwitz, which was worth it just to see the Polish countryside. Oh heart ache, it was beautiful! I really could see myself moving to somewhere in the greater Krakow area for a few years. Everything is lush and green (a dangerous sign of cold and rain, according to my mom) and the houses are painted bright colors with sheep hanging out in the yard. It's very different from the America I've seen so far, but not extremely "foreign" and insane like Ukraine is. Auschwitz, I found, is a bit on the Disneyland side, as far as tourism is concerned. It's free to get in and walk around, but if you want any information a guided tour is very useful. Everybody walked around with a headset, and a tour guide herded us from building to building and room to room. Our tour guide would walk us into a room, give her speech, and then quickly usher us out the door so the next group could take our place. Often there were several tour groups in a room, and the headsets were really helpful in hearing the guide's voice. The mood was quiet and respectful, but not dramatically sad and grave (I was worried somebody would burst out in tears or something). At one point, an old British gentleman interrupted the guide to ask, "Excuse me, but why did they want to kill the Jews?" I really liked that man. He was very curious and sincere, and his English accent interruptions kept me from floating away in the Polish guide's grave speeches.

We saw hundreds of prison portraits, and I paused to read their eyes. Some of the young men stared with burning defiance, some looked out with small smiles. Most of the old men just looked tired. There were whole rooms filled with shoes, glasses, suitcases, and human hair.  At the end of the Auschwitz tour, we saw the gas chambers. I stood a little bit away from the group and watched the horrifying irony of a group of healthy people lining up to enter the gas chamber by their own free will. We went to Birkenau, and saw the train platform that received incoming prisoners, before they knew what was even happening. A whole field of mostly-destroyed barracks showed how many people were packed into the place. It was miserably cold outside, and we were only there in September.

It was not exactly cheerful, but it was not as sad as might be expected. Throughout school, I've read first-hand accounts about concentration camps and watched movies that made my body react to the sadness before my brain could even figure out why (Night and Fog, Professor?). Books and movies made it more real to me than actually walking around the camps. Maybe it was the headphones and the guide's monotone narration, or maybe it was just too much to take in. I don't know, but we were exhausted afterwards.

The bus dropped us off in Krakow right by the castle, Wawel. (W's in Polish are pronounced like V's. Think "Krakov" and "Vavel.") We had seen the outside when we rode bikes, but we never had a chance to go inside and check it out. It cost money to go inside the actual rooms, but the grounds inside the walls were free and beautiful. We spent way too long jumping off a bench and taking photos.

At the hostel, I ran into one of the guys staying in our dorm room. A quiet German boy (very good-looking), travelling by himself, but we had never actually seen him awake. We talked for a bit and he said he was going to listen to some live classical music that evening in a cathedral. He gave me the flyer for it, but the four of us were really tired. We zonked out for a couple hours and woke up just a few minutes before eight, when the concert was starting. Nobody really intended to go, but at the last second we all decided that it sounded cool. We power-walked to the cathedral, but we were twenty minutes late and the gates were closed. We must have done something really good earlier in life, because luck was on our side: We arrived at the cathedral just as the one stage-hand/ticker-taker/worker for the concert came outside to take in a sign. I quickly asked him, "Is it too late to get tickets?" He looked at us for a bit, rolled his eyes, and sighed, "Fine, follow me. You're a little late, aren't you?" I barely managed to mumble more than a thank-you. We headed for the front door, but he shook his head and led us around to a small, side entrance where all the props and supplies were stored. We paid admission straight to him, and he let us into the main cathedral through another small door. The concert was much smaller than we expected. A string quintet stood on the floor, not even on a platform, in front of fewer than a hundred folding chairs. Our obvious late arrival was a bit embarrassing, but four chairs sat vacant right by the entrance. We quietly sat down, and let the music suck us in. Saint Peter and Paul's church was built in the 12th century, with every arch and adornment expected of such a building. The musicians were relaxed, and at the end of every song they smiled at each other like old friends. The high vaulted ceiling made the music hit me from every direction, like a tangible force trying to knock me over and fill me up at the same time. The concert ended quietly, without a "Thank you for coming, folks" or anything like that. The music simply ended and everybody stood up and walked out the front door. The church lights were off before I made it outside, and the music still swam through me.

To get out of the cold rain, we took shelter in a funky cafe. Hot chocolate is one of my favorite reasons for being alive, but this was not like any I had ever tasted before. Instead of a milky mug full of cocoa, this was more like somebody melted a bar of dark chocolate into a cup. Rich, intense, and sinfully scrumptious. We sat and talked until our eyes drooped. Outside on the street, the rain was coming down harder than ever. Two of us had umbrellas, but two of us did not. The umbrella-less gave up on staying dry, and took to jumping in every available puddle. I had an umbrella, but I soon joined them in running down the street, my hair plastered against my forehead. All four of us breathlessly sang "Singin' in the Rain" as we ran down the cobblestone street, twirling our umbrellas over our heads and jumping in puddles (or avoiding them in my case; I only brought one pair of shoes). The other pedestrians trying to stay out of the rain smiled and waved as we jumped, danced, and ran by.

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