Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Soviet Side Of The Tracks

Earlier this week I left Krakow and went 117 kilometers up the road to a town called Kielce.  All of a sudden Poland got all iron-curtain on me, at least architecturally speaking.  I’m talking about concrete-monstrosity after concrete-monstrosity as far as the eye can see.  It’s the kind of drab, cheerless landscape where even thoughtless grafitti-scrawls can markedly liven up the place.

I could tell right away that Kielce was a far cry from the picturesque, cobblestone streets of Krakow, whose charming architecture was largely unaffected by the war.  The two-hour bus ride through the Polish countryside was quite pleasant and had me eagerly anticipating some small-town quaintness.  But then I was dropped in front of Kielce’s bus station, which, oddly enough looks like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I emerged from the bus to find a fairly dirty city with a faint smell of something chemical-industrial in the air.  

I also quickly learned that, for the most part, I’d lost access to English speakers.  Gesturing and pointing began again in earnest as I went in search of my room.  There are no hostels in Kielce, so I settled upon a budget hotel, which the kind staff member in my Krakow hostel helped me book ahead by telephone.  Partway through the search I found someone who was able to tell me that my hotel was located in the northwest part of town; more specifically, on the “other side of the tracks.”  Perhaps that’s not an expression widely used in Poland, but in my American mind, I found it slightly worrisome.

I set off with my backpack in the direction of Urzednicza Street and, after a twenty-minute slog that took me through a long, underground tunnel beneath the railroad tracks, I found the address amid some of the most depressing, Soviet-style housing projects I’d ever laid eyes on.  My building wasn’t the worst on this particular street—which had been crowded with high-density, concrete apartment buildings—but it was quite stark and characterless just the same.  And, I might add, a tad bit scary-looking.

I went inside, handed my passport to the man behind the front desk, paid the 100 zlotys for two nights (about $17.50 a night), and received my key.  The man—who did not speak a word of English—pointed to the number on the key, 607, and then gestured for me to go toward a metal, blue “Kabinet,” which I assumed was the elevator.
After some fumbling with the doors, I got out on the sixth floor and walked down a long, barren hallway lined with 20 or so nondescript doors.  I opened number 607 with curious anticipation and let out an audible gasp.  All I can say is that this room gave new meaning to the word Spartan.  It was completely devoid of anything that could offer a modicum of comfort—no TV, not a clock radio, not anything that would even so much as emit a sound.  Apart from the simple furniture, the room’s only moveable objects were a glass ashtray on the bathroom sink (just a sink; the toilet and shower were shared down the hall) and one wooden hanger.  It actually made me long for the tacky decor of a Motel 6.  Would it kill to hang a picture on the wall?  I wondered, as I dropped my pack and headed back out.

On my way into town I had spotted an uncharacteristically-bright, M-shaped American icon in the midst of the bleak, gray skyline.  Yes, it’s the Golden Arches of which I speak, and that is where I was now headed.  I don’t know what it is, but there is something about being surrounded by relics of communism-past that makes me want to gorge myself on McDonald’s.  It’s like I get scared and need reminding that nowadays, in places like Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, the capitalist-pig in me is free to shovel in as many french fries as the button on my pants will allow.

The restaurant was crowded—as has been the case with every McDonald’s I’ve encountered thus far—and most of the words and sounds seemed to be in Polish.  I knew I was off the tourist trail, and so, going with the trend of the day, I just assumed that the girl about to take my order did not speak English.  I greeted her with a friendly “hello” and a smile, pointed to a picture of a cheeseburger near the register, and held up an index finger; meaning “one cheeseburger, please.” 

Before I could finish gesturing the rest of my order (which was to include french fries and a small strawberry shake), the girl shot me the nastiest look and said, all snotty and indignant-like, “I speak English,” as if to suggest that I was some sort of miming dumbass.  I was taken aback.

Oh really?  Then you’ll understand perfectly when I tell you to get me a cheeseburger and fries, pronto, bitch!  And whip me up a strawberry shake while you’re at it!

Of course I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.  Perhaps my now-lengthy and tiresome struggle with language barriers had left me a touch oversensitive, but I still think her attitude was uncalled for.  I mean, considering that Poland’s lingua franca is Polish and not English, I think it was entirely reasonable for me to present my order in the way that I did.  Indeed, my effort was meant to avoid the “ugly American” stereotype that presumes everyone, everywhere speaks English, or should speak it anyway.  In fact, when in the past I’ve presumed English speaking where there is none, non-English speakers sometimes have gotten quite salty.  Often, after making some initial inquiry in English, I’ve had information windows coldly shut in my face, and countless frustrated hands thrown in the air.

So, no, I didn’t appreciate the tone.  And just to make one further point in my defense, the next morning I found myself back at the same McDonald’s for breakfast (with the sound excuse that I had not yet tried an Egg McMuffin abroad).  I approached the counter with the intent to order a “Jajko i Bekon”—or an Egg McMuffin with bacon—and this time I did so unhesitatingly in English.  Of course, the girl at the register—a different one—didn’t understand a word I said, and asked me to point overhead to what I wanted.  I cannot win, I thought, but at least I can report that Egg McMuffins in Poland are just as, if not more, delicious than the ones at home.

I was initially drawn to Kielce for some research on a future writing project and accordingly spent a good amount of time wandering through town, looking at things of interest in that regard.  This brought me back to what I will call the “good side of the tracks,” where I discovered a city center that stood as a delightful exception to the prevailing architectural rule in Kielce.  It wasn’t exactly Paris, but the main strip—Sienkiewicza Street—was both aesthetically-agreeable and pleasantly inviting.  Nearby sat a splendid cathedral, and even a tree-lined park with a sweet, little frozen pond complete with a topiary swan.

But, continuing a short way down Jana Pawla II Avenue, I found myself back in dreary, urban blight.  From the looks of things, it appeared that Kielce did begin as a quaint Polish town.  Then—sometime after its so-called “liberation” by the Red Army following World War II—it was remade into a hideous mass of utilitarian concrete.  I don’t know much about architectural design, but I know what I like, and when I think about what kind of buildings please me, I think of Boston’s brownstones, or San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, or Florida’s bungalows.  Perhaps I was just missing the beauty inherent in Kielce’s concrete.  I certainly hoped so, for the sake of the people living there.

And to be clear, it’s not so much that I’m complaining about Kielce, but rather expressing sympathy for it.  In fact, I walked around imagining ways it could possibly be improved.  Fanning out from the center, I kept thinking, someone at least ought to slap a coat of paint on this cement.  Then I spotted an 11-story, fluorescent concrete monster that practically burned my retinas.  Apparently, others before me had had the same idea.   The paint didn’t exactly help, at least in my opinion.

Thankfully there is some good news on the horizon, according to the town’s tourist publication.  Kielce has reportedly obtained a billion euro from EU funds and is “becoming prettier and prettier, increasingly friendly to inhabitants, and more and more attractive for tourists.”  That makes me feel good because I really did meet some lovely people while in town, including the friendly barista at the Cube Café on Sienkiewicza Street.  He spoke great English—perhaps honed from the brief time he lived in and around New York a few years back—and was therefore an immense help in my effort to find my way around Kielce.  He even offered to show off some parts of the city on his day off.   Unfortunately I was scheduled to roll north to Radom, but I thanked him for his generous offer.  When I put my coat on to leave, he came from behind the counter and hugged me goodbye.

So in the end I left Kielce with more fond memories than expected.  But I still think someone from the tourist bureau should have a sit-down with that unfriendly girl at McDonald’s.  I mean, really.