Monday, January 31, 2011

What A Difference A Border Makes

I’m afraid someone is going to have to drag me out of Poland kicking and screaming.  It’s been three days since I arrived in Krakow and since then I’ve been in a constant state of euphoria that doesn’t seem to be subsiding.  But before I dive into my new home-away-from-home, let me first say a couple of things about the places I’ve left behind.

First, after not-much thought, I have placed Russia and Ukraine firmly at the top of my list of difficult foreign-solo slogs, edging China from its perch.  And so it’s no wonder that the relative ease of Poland has me spinning.  At the same time, Russia and Ukraine have decidedly claimed special little places in my heart and you certainly haven’t heard the last of them.

And second, if anyone within a position of authority in Ukraine’s Ministry of Transportation is reading this blog, I beg of you to do something about the stretch of highway between L’viv and the Polish border.  That road is nothing but an hour and forty minutes of white-knuckle, pothole-swerving hell and it’s a damn good thing I remembered to pack my motion-sick preventive wristbands, or else someone would have been cleaning up a big Linda-Blair-Exorcist mess on that bus. 

Now—Poland!   As the blog title suggests, I feel like I stepped across an arbitrary line and entered a different universe.  Three things jumped out right away.  First, people here actually smile.  (More on this later.)  Second, I’m able to throw my toilet paper into the actual toilet rather than into the bin next to it.  (If you think it's gross just hearing about it, think about how I felt doing it.)  And third, Poland recycles, so the environmentally-conscious Californian in me no longer has to throw glass and plastic in the trash alongside the used toilet paper.

But perhaps most important, suddenly I am literate once more.  I mean, it’s not like I know a lick of Polish beyond just the one word—that being kielbasa—but since our respective Latin-based alphabets are very similar, half the battle’s already won.  Take the word “restaurant,” for example.  In Russian-Cyrillic, that word looks like “ресторан.”  I saw it everywhere and kept thinking, what the hell does pectopah mean?  Finally, about 19 days in, I spotted an establishment in Moscow with a sign that said “Thai pectopah.”  And that’s when I finally realized that the “p” is really an “r,” the “c” is an “s,” and the “н” is an “n.”   So, “ресторан” transliterates to “restoran.” 

Perhaps I’m just slow.  But in Poland, even the slow Americans can make their way around when a word like restaurant looks like “restauracja.”  It requires no extra mental gymnastics to figure out that that’s a place where I can get some chow.

Of course the return to a Latin-based alphabet also makes it exponentially easier to find places on a map.  I found my hostel straight away, even in 6:00 a.m. darkness, and after a long nap and a strong cappuccino, I followed the map to a place called Plaza Nowy where they sell a delicious pizza-like concoction called zapiekanka.  Basically they take a foot-long slice of fresh, french bread, smother it with cheese and any combination of fresh vegetable and meat toppings your heart desires, and bake it in the oven while you wait to take it on the run.   And the whole thing costs on average about 6 Polish zloty, or $2 US dollars.  A pure delight.

I guess the best way to describe how I've been feeling is to say this:  it is as if Russia and Ukraine worked me like a dog for 49 days straight and Poland finally gave me the day off.  And when I have a day off, I like to go to the movies.

I had attempted to go to the movies in both Russia and Ukraine. I wanted to see The Little Fockers, but the movie theaters in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev overdub the films in their languages, and don’t provide English subtitles.  This differed from my experiences in Bolivia, Nepal, and Latvia, for example, where movies are played in original English with subtitles, or, as in the case of Argentina, the film is dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles added back in.

As soon as I confirmed that movies here in Krakow are shown in original English with Polish subtitles, I high-tailed it to a nearby, indie-type cinema in the city center and plunked down 17 Polish zloty (or $5.86 US) for a 15:45 showing of The King’s Speech.   Excellent.  Even all that frustrating stammering was music to my English-deprived ears.

In fact, many locals here can speak and understand English.  This is the best news ever, because it means I can once again blather to strangers, as in the following post-King’s Speech conversation I had with the teenage girl behind concessions:

Me:  You guys don’t sell popcorn at the movies, huh?
Girl:  Well, not at this theater, but the other theaters in Krakow do.
Me:  I really like this theater.  I’m thinking of coming back tomorrow to see The Black Swan.  Have you seen it?
Girl:  Not yet, but I want to.
Me:  I just saw The King’s Speech.  Have you seen that?  
Girl:  Yes, I saw it this morning.  (Smiling.)  I love Colin Firth.
Me:  Oh my God—you don’t even know how much I love Colin Firth!  Do you know the movie What A Girl Wants with Amanda Bynes?  I love him in that.
Girl:  Yes, I’ve seen it.  (Smiling bigger.)
Me:  I also love him in Love Actually.  Do you know that movie?
Girl:  Yes, of course.  (Suddenly beside herself.)  I love that movie!
Me:  Me too!  I think I’ve seen it 20 times.
Girl: I think I’ve seen it more than that!
Me:  You know he’s nominated for an Oscar for The King’s Speech?
Girl:  Yes, I know.
Me:  Yeah, I think he’s going to win.  Well, he should win.  He is just the best.   
  (Man comes up to buy drink.)
Me: Well, it was nice talking to you.
Girl:  Nice talking to you too.
Me:  Bye.
Girl:  Bye.

I left the theater exhilarated and decided to make the day an even more splendid one by splurging on sushi.  I’ll be writing a specific report on the sushi in these parts, but suffice it to say here that I would have given the sushi at Edo in Krakow at least a B-plus (as compared to the sushi in Los Angeles) had that jalapeno-laden spicy tuna roll not set my mouth on fire.  It really should come with a warning.  On balance, though, I left the sushi restaurajca with a palate thoroughly pleased. 

I finished the evening with a visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow, where several old synagogues and other buildings of Jewish origin are uncharacteristically left standing.  Because it was Friday evening, admission was free, and the exhibits—primarily commemorating Holocaust victims—were in both Polish and English, so I was actually able to follow along. 

The new place where I rest my head.
I finally walked back to the hostel alternately people-watching and window-shopping as I cut through the town square.  And to top off my already-glorious day, I had my $7-per-night dorm room all to myself.  

And that’s just the first day.  I did go back to the theater the next day to see The Black Swan (interesting and freaky), but I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to see The Social Network at the theater across town (the one with popcorn) until I make some serious writing progress.  Of course, the beauty is, I get to define what serious writing progress means.  I think finishing this post should qualify, don't you?