I got an “overnight” train from Budapest to Krakow, via Katowice, which unfortunately meant I had to get up at 4 in the morning to transfer trains, so I’m sure I was not a happy camper. Still, I was excited about visiting Poland. I’m of 75% Polish descent, as far as I know (my paternal grandfather was Slovenian, but everyone else was Polish), so, like many Americans, I had weird fantasies about visiting the land of my ancestors, like I’d somehow instantly feel like I was among my people. Not so much. Instead, what I mostly felt like was an outsider, especially when old men would stop dead in their tracks when they encountered me in the street, make the sign of the cross, and start ranting in Polish at me. I’m still not sure what that was about, but it freaked me out. Could I somehow be a vampire without realising it?
Having been raised on my grandma’s pierogi, chrusciki, paczki, and various other stodgy Polish foods (though I wouldn’t eat the weird meaty ones), I was very excited to try the Polish versions to see how they compared. So, I went to a restaurant that only served pierogi and eagerly ordered a platter of potato and cheese ones. Unfortunately, what I was served was basically a platter of unadvertised fatty bacon chunks, with a few pierogi around the edges. Being a vegetarian, this was very much not ideal, but I don’t like to waste food, so I tried my best to scrape the bacon off, but the strong meaty flavour tainted the entire dish and I ended up just dumping them all in the bin. Undeterred, I decided to try an all-vegetarian place next, where at least I didn’t have to worry about surprise meat finding its way on to my plate. However, when the pierogi arrived, they turned out to be filled with this disgusting sweet cheese – they were literally full of sugar, and whilst I made a valiant effort to eat them, after a pierogi or two, these too found their way into the bin (I know sweet cheese pierogi are a thing (my uncle really likes them), but that wasn’t what I thought I was ordering; even without the sweetness, I hate the gross curdy farmers’ cheese they’re made from. I just make potato and cheddar ones normally!). And I quickly discovered that they only sold chrusciki just prior to Lent, so I struck out there too. I did manage to find a paczki-esque doughnut, but instead of being light and pillowy and filled with my choice of delicious jam, nuts, or chocolate, it was dry as a fart and contained a tiny plop of some kind of unidentifiable red jam, with some shrivelled chunks of dried pineapple that looked older than I was glued to the top. At that point, I just gave up, and for the rest of my time in Krakow, I subsisted almost entirely off these delicious bagel-esque breads coated with sesame seeds that street vendors would set up shop to sell every morning (you had to be early though, because they disappeared by noon), and Polish soft serve ice cream, which was surprisingly rich and delicious. It barely even melted, maybe because the butterfat content was so high, and a giant cone only cost about $1, so I was not totally unhappy with this turn of events, nutritionally void though it was.
I wasn’t doing well with either the people or the food, and my choice of hostel wasn’t much better. It was basically a party hostel full of French people. I tried to go out on one of their pub crawls one night, but it involved doing shots of strange colours that I knew would make me puke, and since I could barely speak to anyone there, apart from this Australian guy that worked at the hostel who kept trying to take his clothes off, I gave up trying to befriend people from the hostel pretty quickly, and resigned myself to spending all my time alone and open to harassment from strange old men. (There were some Irish girls in my room, but they just ignored me because they “thought I was Spanish,” as they told me when I finally tried to initiate a conversation. Weirdly enough, this wasn’t the first time in my backpacking adventures when people told me they thought I was Spanish, which I really don’t get since I don’t even speak Spanish.)
I felt like I should probably see Auschwitz whilst I was there, but the bus tours left very early in the morning, and I’m sorry to say that at that stage in my life, my sleep was far more important to me than visiting the scene of one of the worst atrocities in human history, so that was out (Jessica of the past was really kind of a jerk, but in a slightly different way to the way I’m a jerk now). I didn’t even make it to the famous salt mine that had a salt statue of John Paul II in it, even though I love salt mines, because again, you had to get up early. I did make it to Wawel Castle though, as that was in town, and open all day. I don’t remember much about it apart from the grotto and fire breathing dragon statue, but I do like a dragon (I don’t like the giant dragon tattoo on my thigh that I got when I was 18 from a heroin addict who would shoot up whilst he was tattooing me, but it’s far too big to remove, so I live with it, and compensate by having super cute tattoos on my other leg). I even bought my brother a little ceramic figurine of a dragon eating one of those bagel things I loved so much, which he attempted to “return” to me years later when he finally moved out of my parents’ house (the ungrateful little turd) by leaving it in my old bedroom.
Actually, it seems like most of what I did on this trip was shop. Although my face apparently isn’t very Polish looking, I guess my body must be, because the clothes they sold there seemed to fit my body shape oddly well, and I ended up buying some jeans that were my absolute favourite pair for years afterwards. My mother wanted me to bring her back a nativity set, and I did look, but they were all big and expensive, and when I got home and found out she never bothered to tell me that the transcripts I had ordered from my former uni had never arrived, delaying my already very late Master’s applications by another week, I was glad I hadn’t bothered.
I guess I must have done something other than the above, but I don’t remember what it was at this stage – I think mostly I was stressed out about having to go back home yet again, since I didn’t know if my MA applications would work out at that stage, and of course the applications themselves, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. Sadly, the weird experiences with old men and the sub-standard food (apart from the bagels and ice cream) have put me off from returning to Poland – frankly, by the time I left, I could see why my great-grandparents got the hell out, but I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I should give it another go eventually, though if anything, I probably look even more like a vampire/witch than I did back then (if that was the issue with the old men!).