Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Monday 9/28: Bicycles and Sunflowers

If I don't have an alarm clock, my body will sleep until the end of time. Even if I want to get up at noon, I still have to set an alarm. A very frustrating way to function. I love sleeping in, but I hate wasting the day. So when I woke up Monday morning at 8am without an alarm and feeling fully rested, it was a fantastic surprise. I tiptoed out of the hostel dorm room and into the kitchen to eat the (free!) breakfast they provide. This is when it hit me that I was in Poland. The breakfast/kitchen area was bathed with bright morning sunlight, fresh and cool. A wooden picnic table occupied most of the space, covered in a pale blue, hand-embroidered tablecloth. Polish music gargled from a dying radio on the windowsill. A bouquet of wildflowers sat in a jar in the middle of the table, and the second-story window opened into a courtyard of beautiful old apartments. Breakfast was laid out on the table--hard boiled eggs, cereal, bread, cottage cheese, and an assortment of fruit spreads. The whole scene was incredibly fresh, bright, clean, and comforting.

We spent the morning exploring the neighborhood on foot. We had a map of the area that showed how to get to the river, but a map is no good if you have no idea which way is north. So we ended up slightly lost and completely disoriented. We meandered through markets and thrift shops, hiding in phone booths and playing on playgrounds. We found a dewy green walkway/park down the middle of a divided road, so we stopped to play a few games of ping-pong. Ping-pong is a lot easier when no paddles or balls are involved.

There was a market-place in front of our hostel, so we found the wrinkliest old woman in the whole place and bought fresh fruit from her for lunch. We had a fresh-fruit and not-so-fresh-bread feast in the hostel's backyard. I don't know if it was just my happiness oozing into the fruit, but the apple I ate that day was the best I have ever had. It was about the size of my face, perfectly crisp, and sweet as sugar. The four of us each bit into our apples, then had a moment where we looked at each other and understood: Eve did the right thing. I don't think I will ever be able to eat an apple again without comparing it to the ones we had that day.

The hostel had two free bikes to use, so we snagged those and rented two more. We got better directions to the river and headed down to check it out. First of all, the weather report for the day said that it was supposed to be cold and rainy. It was anything but. The sky was clear and blue, and a warm (but not too warm) breeze brushed against my face as I pedaled. The city opened up to a wide, lazy river bordered by green lawns on both sides. A small hill rolled from the upper lawn down to the the river and a paved bike path. This place was the city's heartbeat. The path was busy with bicycles, scooters, roller-skaters, runners, walkers, and mosey-ers. The lawn was covered with people sitting, reading, kissing, and laughing. The big castle (and tourist favorite) Wawel watched over the river and its people from it's perch on top of the hill.

We pedaled through the town, trying to avoid hitting pedestrians or getting hit by cars. Not a bike-friendly city. The main square was a hive of people and street vendors, surrounded by a wall of tall buildings. We bought each other sunflowers from the market, and checked out an open-air photography exhibit in the middle of the square.

On the way back, I was the designated sunflower carrier, since I brought the only backpack. Pedaling through Krakow with the breeze tousling my hair and sunflowers poking out of my backpack, I could only think of one thing that could possibly make the day more perfect: the clouds could have been playing music from the sky.

After a nap, Jess and I headed down to the river to watch the sunset and read our books. We ended up just talking love and photography until our bottoms were freezing on the lawn. We left after dark, but the grass was still covered with people. At the front door of the hostel, we ran into Jessica, Camille, and three other hostel guests writing us a note with directions to dinner. We went to a Polish restaurant to try pierogi. We ate in the restaurant's backyard, surrounded by plants and lit by white lights and candles. The evening was still warm, and the company we shared was even warmer. We ate, talked, and laughed until the waitress told us that she needed to close.

At the hostel, the owner, 24-year-old Anna, showed us the downstairs den. She plans on making it into a common room, but for now it looks more like a cave. I think it was originally a wine cellar. The four of us, Anna, the hostel guests, and the workers (Anna's friends and brother), sat around in the den and talked until people fell asleep on the floor. The hostel property belongs to Anna's father, and it used to be a homeless shelter. It's located in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, called Kazimierz. I'm really glad we ended up in Kazimierz instead of downtown tourist central. Everything about it seems more sincere, from the people to the architecture. Anna opened the "Balloon Hostel" on the fourth of July, themed from the classic "Around the World in 80 Days" movie (Jules Verne, anyone?). Each room is decorated like a different place visited in the movie, with a colorful hot-air balloon painted in the hall.

Anna runs the place with two of her friends, Barbara and Karolina. All three girls are in their twenties, and are incredibly cool. They run the place like a hang-out for friends, while still remaining hostesses. There is a couch by the front desk, and if one of them needs to run out for a bit, they will ask whoever is sitting on the couch to watch the desk for a while. They make running a hostel seems less like a job and more like a lifestyle. Karolina paints in the hall during her shift, and Anna sits and talks with the guests, often ending up with them at the pub. On the first night, we met an Australian guy named Tom. He is an astrophysicist, but his job lets him take time off for extended periods of time (he's been travelling for a year, I think). He intended to stay at the Balloon for a just a night or two, but he's been here a week, hanging out with Anna and just doing nothing. I think they're in love. That's the kind of place this is, though--reserve a bed for a night, make good friends, and stay for a week.

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