Last Friday morning I boarded a bus to Krakow. With all of my ignorance about this part of the world in tow, we began our 10 hour bus ride to Poland.
The northern part of the Czech Republic and southern Poland are very desolate. Tiny outcroppings of trees and 100-year-old homes dot the immense fields of snow. Narrow streams of smoke snake out of large brick chimneys that have been choked closed by years of built-up soot. Statues, churches, and immense communist housing projects have all been darkened by the relentless smog and acidic rain. The faces of the older generation have suffered this same fate; tired eyes set deeply into ashen faces gaze with confusion as our sparkling white bus rumbles through their neighborhoods.
As the fields open ahead and the town shirks behind us a conversation strikes up behind me. Some girls are talking about how drunk they were last night, how terrible they feel today, and how drunk they are going to get tonight; I am thinking about reclining my chair. The girl with the coat made of baby seal is starting to get under my skin. I think her name is Emily, and all I know about her is that she is from Arizona, likes to drink and talk about her sexual exploits behind me for hours on end, and that she has to pee. A lot of us have to pee.
We have crossed the Polish boarder and have been traveling for almost 7 hours. We begin to look for a place to stop. One thing that I have noticed about Eastern Europe: since communism ended, the service industry has not quite caught up with the rest of Europe. Other than tourist-oriented facilities, the attitude at most establishments is one of annoyance that you have chosen to patronize their business. A busload of people wanting to stop at your convenience store to use the bathroom and buy refreshments is not a welcome situation. Hence, it takes three gas stations before we are allowed to stop.
Many of us have reached “Code 5: Red Alert” when we are reminded over the bus’s loud speaker of a terrible truth. The bathroom costs 1 Zloty (Polish currency). We have no problem paying for bathrooms, we are used to it at this point, but we have crossed the boarder and none of us have local currency. One guy managed to procure 20 ZL before he left, and he bequeaths it to the girls on the bus. That leaves about fifteen with a challenge; this particular gas station has what I can only describe as “The Polish Pee Police.” There is this guy patrolling the outside of the building making sure no one goes behind it to pee. They won’t let us use the bathroom inside because we don’t have any money, we can’t pay with cards, there is no ATM, and we are at Code 5: Red Alert. Hence, we form a perimeter of watchmen to protect one another from the Pee Police. If the officer approaches, we agree to make a great fuss of whistling and shouting so as to alert our commerades of impending doom. After each of us takes his turn, and the most frightening bathroom experience of my life, we rejoice in our successful operation, and proud of our heroic resolve we board the bus for the final leg to Krakow.
Krakow is a city of striking beauty. The highlight of the city is the central square and market. The requisite basilica consecrated to the Virgin Mary sits familiarly in the corner of the square. Every hour a man sounds a trumpet from one of the basilica’s high towers; his song is the same that was played hundreds of years ago to warn the city of the impending attack of the Tatars (kind of like the Huns). The song ends abruptly and awkwardly because the first man to play this tune was hit in the neck with a Tatar arrow at that very point in the song. The square is a lovely place, and I find that Polish people are friendly. I exchange more smiles on the streets of Krakow than I have in the last two months in the Czech Republic. Even in the cold and snow, buskers line the streets hoping to catch the attention of passing tourists. Everywhere there are kebab stands and vendors who sell delicious circular pretzels, and I buy two just for good measure.
It is Saturday now and we go on a very long walk through Krakow. We walk through the central square and over to the castle. We cannot enter the cathedral at the castle because there is a wedding taking place, but castle itself is very interesting. I do not remember the story exactly, but apparently a Greek god threw seven massive stones throughout the world, and one of them landed on the place where Krakow’s castle was built. People who are in tune with positive and negative energy say that the castle is a place of great positive energy, and many people come to a particular place in the courtyard to meditate.
However, Krakow is not all buskers, castles, and cathedrals. If the castle is the place where the Greek god’s stone came to a stop, then the old Jewish quarter of Krakow must have been where it rolled and bounced its way along the ground, crushing everything in its path until it came to a stop. Devastated by the Nazi’s during WWII, I can see almost no Jewish people left in Krakow, and the Jewish quarter is falling apart after years of neglect. If you have seen “Schindler’s List,” most of the scenes filmed in the Jewish ghetto were in the part of Krakow that I am walking through. A once vibrant cultural, social, and economic center is now a cold slum covered with soot, gypsies, and small barred-up Jewish restaurants. It is hard for me to imagine that this place is so deserted because everyone who lived here was killed. When I close my eyes I hear the sound of my own shoes on the cobble stones and am reminded of how the boots of so many Nazis must have sounded 56 years ago. There are ghosts in the air, and I am anxious to get out.