Experiencing the warmth of the locals
15.04.2012 - 17.05.2012
Ok, after a bit of a downer of a blog entry last time, now I get to chat about something fun. Through our travels, when sitting around camp fires or having a few beers, we are often ask where our favourite place has been so far, and its always a tricky question. The fact is we cant pick a favourite place. We can talk about which city was the most beautiful, for different reasons, which was the most unique, which had the best food, the friendliest people, or just where we had the most fun. Sadly, Poland was none of these. But, the time we had there was incredibly special, and every time I think about it I have a little chuckle to myself. And the strangest part, for some reason it always sounds like little 20 year old girls giggle.
In my last post I introduced Kinga, our young uni student CouchSurfing host who so generously invited us into her life, albeit for only two days. Well, she had organised for us to stay one night with her family in Oswiecim, then the next night in Krakow with her friends. Well we had stayed with her family before visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, and were now on our way to Krakow. Well, actually, I'm going to have a little bitch first, which could possibly pass as a lesson in cultural sensitivity.
So, after Auschwitz, Kinga and her mum so wonderfully picked us up, with our bags in the boot and dropped us into the train station. The three of us would of course go in together. As it happened, we were a few minutes late for the train into Krakow, so had about an hour wait for the next one. Coincidently, another tourist was also a few minutes late. We noticed the tall, grey haired American man purely cause we had no other choice. He was talking to himself loudly about train times and tickets and god knows what other crazy old man ramblings. Truth be told, I was still in a state on introspect since the camp not half an hour before, and I had barely spoken a word since. Well, seeing three young foreigners who had no escape, he started asking questions to us. Actually, he was probably just being friendly, and seemed a bit lonely. Anyway, he soon realised Kinga was a Polish native, as the girls answered his questions in the politest of ways, Mel speaking for me and Kinga providing some local knowledge. Well, the retired Colorado man proceeded to tell us all about his life, his opinions on certain countries, and general chit chat that is the social norm. It wasn’t until his next topic of conversation that I felt the need to interject. This old man, who I would normally respect for his time on the earth, assuming he had seen some shit and acquired a knowledge with which only experience can bring, this man proceeded to tell us how disappointed he was with Auschwitz. Now I feel I must point out here, that in the past I have made complaints about the insensitivity of other travellers, and in most cases they have been American. Let me state that I have nothing against American travellers. During our time we have met some really cool ones that we got along great with, and I am sure there were plenty more that just strolled on by unnoticed. However, the ones that have really shit me, have really just flawed me, have happened to speak in the great American drawl. Ok. Well when this guy told us why he was disappointed, it was a real slap in the face. Basically, his complaint was that he had to use his imagination. To actually have to think about it. He wanted there to be wax dummies, and re-enactments, and whatever else could facilitate in entertaining him. I may be paraphrasing, but he pretty much said that he wanted Michael Bay to direct “Auschwitz” complete with explosions and fake blood, and maybe a gigantic robotic Hitler that is finally taken down by an elite team of commandos sporting matching American flag jumpsuits. The reality of the place bored him. Actually disappointed him with how boring it was. He had snuck in his bag of potato chips and big gulp cola, he wanted to sit down and be entertained for christs sake! What an absolute fuckwit. I'm sorry to say, but here he was, sitting in front of a young Polish woman, and two other strangers who had just come from there, wishing aloud that the remaining evidence of the largest attempted genocide was more thrilling. It made me pretty mad. In fact, I was more mad afterwards, after I thought about it for a bit, but at the time it was enough for me to speak up and try and talk some sense into him. Of course it was pointless. Later Kinga told me that from a Polish standpoint, there was no way he should have said that stuff in front of her. She was absolutely correct.
Moving on, we got on the train and headed to Krakow, to Kingas friends place where we would be staying. At the tiny apartment that we were to call our home for the next night, we were greeted by the massive welcoming smiles of the three young girls who were to be our hosts. Marta, Magda and Ola prepared some tea for us and we all sat around, introduced ourselves and had a awesome chat. The girls werent too confident with their English, which was actually fine, but nonetheless it seemed effortless to communicate and soon we were all laughing and getting along great.
We found out that that night we would be invited for drinks for Marta's birthdays at their favourite bar. Seeing as there was still some time till nightfall, Mel and I got a head start into town to try and get some sightseeing done and get a feel for the city. When we got in, which was a short tram ride, the grey clouds that had been threatening all day decided to let loose. Not with a real heavy rain, more like a soft drizzle, enough to be annoying, but it give the old town a really cool misty atmosphere. It actually worked out ok, cause the girls suggested going to an underground museum that was in the main square. The museum was on the site of a massive excavation of the old medieval Krakow, so we got to walk through the ancient streets and get a taste of life from the old trade capital. Too be honest, it wasn’t a particularly spectacular museum, but it was different and had some neat interactive displays which made it interesting and ended up being a good change of pace.
Well, by the time we had to meet the girls, it was a little cold, we had eaten a kebab, and I was getting mighty thirsty. The place was called Indigo, and it was this funky, underground student bar hidden right on one of the main tourist streets. I would've walked past it ten times and not known it was there. When we got down, the party was in full swing.
We met some more new friends and became grateful conversation partners for those wanting to practice their English. One of the strange things we noticed was that all the girls were drinking their beers with a straw. Apparently its just how the girls drink it, not the dudes, maybe it was more dignified or something. Well, choosing country pride over cultural integration, Mel put one away like the Aussies do. Man I love that woman. Maybe sensing the air of friendly patriotism that was floating around, the girls decided to bring out the Polish Vodka. It was pretty good. Apparently drunken on special occasions, of which they have many, the drinking of Vodka carried many traditions and customs, that we were filled in on on the fly, the most important of which was to have fun. And we really did. It is amazing how quickly barriers can break down between strangers and you can feel like your talking to long time friends. And what I found also amazing, was that we were at a party in a bar full of 20-22 year olds, and no one got stupid drunk. In Poland, the idea is just to have a few drinks and laugh and share good times. In Australia, parties like this end up in people passed out in their own vomit, maybe a fight, lots of loud mayhem, and waking up next to someone you shouldn't have. So it was incredible. I learnt a lot about Polish culture, both of the past and of the youthful present. I had great chats with a bunch of cool people, particularly a dude named Ruddick I think, who so please that I shouted him a beer, ended up going back and forth buying the next few, while regaling me the current state of Polish politics (cooler than it sounds), then insisted on buying me this crazy shot called “crazy bitch” if I remember correctly. I don’t know what was in it, I think maybe Tabasco and a bunch of potent spirits, but it was a yummy and a speciality of the bar, and more importantly, a gift from a friend I had just met. The whole night was just a great blast.
The next day it was still raining. We were having trouble getting in contact with our next CouchSurfer host in Warsaw where we had planned to head that night, so we decided to take the extremely generous offer from the girls to stay an extra night. I mean seriously, we had met like 12 hours before, and sure we had talked and laughed and drank together and it felt like we had known each other for way longer, they pretty much opened up their home to strangers. People are just awesome. So Mel and I took the opportunity to explore Krakow some more. We explored the Great Square some more then headed to the Castle, which was a great big structure housing several halls and living quarters and a cool church. The most interesting part by far though was the armoury, that had a great collection of weapons and armour spanning throughout the Atrso-Hungarian, Turkish, French, Roman and Persian Empires. Oh, and exiting the Dragons Den was worth it too.
After the Castle we grabbed some traditional Polish pork chop, then after walking past the main event office for it, decided to check out one of the films from the Independent Film Festival that was happening in town. Featuring works from all over the globe, we took a punt and went and saw the next one that was on. It was an American film called “Electick Children” and was quite good. It was in English with Polish subtitles, which meant that there were a few occasions where the audience would start laughing before the characters said a line, and vice versa, which was funny in itself. Oh, and despite them selling popcorn in the theatre foyer, you werent actually allowed to take it inside with you. No food at all inside in fact. Well, hypocritically ignoring my own lessons on cultural sensitivity, I violated the rules and snuck in some local handmade chocolate. I'm not proud of it, but it was delicious.
We went back and spent the night at the girls place. They hadn’t moved since we left them in the morning, still recovering from the night before. We talked for a while, had more tea I think, and another shot of this really nice Vodka. We talked local music, and I even pimped some heavy Sydney bands EP, Lomera, you should look them up. Mel then went to sleep as she was exhausted, I wrote some of this blog, and the girls all gathered around watching romantic girly clips on YouTube. This was all in the same little room I might add. Now my Polish isnt great, but I think Marta had some boy trouble the night before, so the girls were trying to get her to hold onto to the hope of love by watching clips from Scent of a Woman and other Hollywood junk. I say junk, but when they asked me if I knew any good movie dance scenes, I may have suggested the Dirty Dancing “nobody puts baby in a corner” bit. To my defence, they already watched Uma and Travolta in Jack Rabbits Slims Twist Contest, plus its Swazye, so don’t hate. Anyway, after watching it, I offered to re-enact the famous leap and catch part, but none of the girls were keen to catch me.
(Sorry girls, it had to go on)
Anyway, the next day we sadly had to leave. I say sadly, because in the short time we spent together we really felt close to the girls. They all had such amazing big hearts and were all beautiful people in their own way. To invite us into their lives the way they did and show us the kindness and hospitality they showed is beyond amazing. I will never forget the way they giggled and laughed and just enjoyed being themselves. It was super cool. I really hope they come to Australia one day so we can return the favour and back up my claims that they'd have a better shot finding a nice boy in Oz. I guess I better find some first. And a super big thank you to Kinga, she is an amazing person and we feel so lucky to have met her.
Well our tour of Poland wasn’t yet complete. The guy who said he would host us hadn’t come through despite our attempts to contact him, so we were heading to Warsaw with nowhere to stay that night. We posted a message on CouchSurfing, as it has a group where you post emergency or last minute requests on. We wrote the message saying that our host had flaked out, hoping that by the time we hit Warsaw, a few hours by train, that maybe someone had replied. Well we arrived in Warsaw station, its was raining and shitty, went next door to an awesome shopping mall, found some Wifi, and to our delight, several people had offered us their couch with only a few hours notice. Pretty cool right, to say “help, Im stranded in a new city” and have multiple people invite you into their lives. I'm still blown away. Anyway we ended up staying the night with a nice local dude called Mario, who had a spare bed and a shot of Vodka waiting for us at the untimely hour we arrived. The next morning, we got up early, said goodbye to our saviour host, and made tracks for the Warsaw airport. Our destination would be St Petersburg Russia, a place I've always wanted to go. Full of excitement and a little bit of fear for the unknown, we were ready for Mother Russian, but we almost didn’t make it.