Rynek, center of town...
The Polish thankfully do not pay tribute to their dogs as members of their families, much like the French. At the same time, canines are, by and large, healthy creatures in Poland, though a bit aggressive if you approach a home without letting them check you out. Many homes have “Beware of Dog” signs posted in their driveways. Though, I often wonder if this is a security measure; no dog appears to be around, and there is no sign one was ever there.
Mysteriously, they come in two types: miniscule, or gigantic. The happy medium of a golden retriever, for example, just isn’t part of the landscape. On the one hand, Poles walk around with essentially no more than gerbils on a leash, the kind an irritable man gives a good kick to after a bad day at work. Otherwise, the pooches are the size of a small buffalo that can be saddled up and galloped from here to Warsaw.
Yet, many municipalities have passed a law requiring all owners to in fact muzzle their dogs in public. All dogs, no exceptions. Understanding that Poles have yet to take to the law completely, or have downright disregarded it, and the police’s
Where city folk come to forget the stress...
propensity to look the other way not wanting to be bothered with such a petty affair, here is what results. Take Fifi, a French poodle, three pounds when soaking wet that would easily pass as a fluffy floor mop, but no pole extends upwards from its pathetic neck. Fifi walks around like a prisoner in an Alabama chain gang muzzled and rather humiliated, no longer able to show its tiny pink, cardboard tongue that always sticks out anyway. Fifi is leashed and hates to go out. Fifi would rather just stay home and pee on the carpet, and take its punishment without a single shudder. Across the square from Fifi is Killer, a massive Great Dane, rummaging around for a tourist to terrify to death with its singular bark. Killer has a bark that would make anyone not its master soil his pants. Killer for some reason gets to go around unmuzzled, and for that matter, unleashed. His master is far too concerned with his backgammon game to survey what prey he is stalking. Killer could wipe out half a kindergarten class as dessert. If properly roped up, Killer could be the next Polish rodeo event.
Currently, Polish authorities see
The proprietress and I got along rather well. We could understand each other, but it was little obstacle...
no problem with this scenario.
The problem with Kazimierz Dolny is finding a problem with it. Hugging the sandy banks of the Vistula River two thirds of the way between Kraków and Warsaw, it might be a secret elsewhere, but not within Polish borders. It is where Poles come to get away from it all. Except for those who cater to tourists, work is the last thing on anyone’s mind here. A village of a few thousand, Kazimierz is a delight of a place. Children scurry about the splendid Rynek. It is a square of cafés, timber roofed houses, and arcaded shops. Sculpted images are engraved into the buildings’ façades and gables. Swallows flutter overhead from their nests tucked underneath gutters. From the main square to its streets, which spike into the forest, the town is spiffy, orderly, and even growing. Everything from the edges of roofs and the streetlight posts are trimmed in flowers. Let’s Go suggests Kazimierz Dolny as a daytrip from Lublin. This is a crime punishable by having to read a Brontë novel while listening to a George Michael album.
Nevertheless, Kazimierz is for tourists. An inordinate number of restaurants serve standard meals and fast
Why cycle to Lot when the Vistula serves just as well...
food. Postcard stands pop up next to souvenir tents. Multi-roomed houses double as pensions, such as mine. Getting a room here without a phone call (and good luck if you speak no Polish) is troublesome. It took me a good hour of running all over the place before I found a great place. I got lucky. Among its amenities is a fridge, endless tea and coffee, a small kitchen, a spotless and fierce shower, a television with four whole channels, and friendly ownership.
Elizabeth is the proprietress at Eleganckie Pokoje “U Śliwów”. Similar to most other pension managers, she knows not a word of English. But we get along great! I have learned her best friend lives in Maplewood, New Jersey. She has a daughter, and used to run a business in Slovakia. But now she is under contract to operate this pension. In dire need, she motions to the phone to have one of her friends interpret a portion of our conversation. Instead, I tell her to stop, and we go to pen and paper.
Martha, an American citizen with a thick Polish accent, is a girl in her late teens and a guest at the pension, also.
Nobody home at the time...
She lives in Chicago and summers with family in Poland. Upon my arrival, I asked her to interpret for me. She helped me, but with an aloof attitude as if we were inconveniencing her. Martha came off has downright unfriendly. So, I killed her with profuse kindness. This irritated her even more.
“Ah, Chicago! Are there any Polish in Chicago?” I figure this sarcasm and rhetorical question would get her to warm up to me a bit more. Nope. Martha was displeased with the question, and felt obligated to answer.
“How many? Six? Nine?” She frowned in disappointment at my feigned ignorance.
“Thousands!” You stupid ignoramus, she thought. I was ready to ask her Cubs or White Sox. But I backed off. I arranged my belongings in my room while she looked on. I made more than one attempt to get along with her. Good mornings. “Hi Martha!” I’d wave to her from across the square. I got nothing from her but the faintest recognition that I barely existed. No matter what I did, the little brat paid me no attention.
On my third day here, Martha came back from the corner shop and saw Elizabeth and
The bicylce was a perk. It came with the room...
me under an apple tree, each of us sipping colas on a bench. We were both animated with body language and over-enunciating trying to tell stories about who knows what. She came over and before she could open her mouth, “Hi Martha! We’re doing just fine without you.” She had a look of consternation on her face. She liked to be needed, yet preferred to express that, thanks to her, things could move forward. I turned my back on her and kept flailing my hands in the air, speaking Rusukrish with a smattering of Polish. Elizabeth and I looked pathetic, but we smiled. All without Martha.
The best advantage of where I stay is the complementary use of its fleet of bicycles. All of a sudden, I am no longer bound to local buses or trains. I can go where I please and when. Given the surrounding villages, pubs and eateries on the riverbank, and ideal weather, it could not be better. Americans and Europeans fantasize about bicycling the Dordogne or Lot in France, or point to the brick townships in the Netherlands. Both are delightful, but also packaged with the Neckermans, Thomas Cook’s, and Liberty Travel’s
To the other side...
of the world. I bet you no one has ever suggested the Vistula River valley! A bona fide sliver of Poland, cycling this region introduces the unsuspecting vacationer to manicured fields of vegetables, wildflowers, bucolic farms, tree-lined country roads, and silent villages. Of course, the whole experience is new to many locals in the area. So, some cycling is harrowing given the speed at which Poles drive, the lack of any shoulder on the roads, or facilities for cyclists to frequent upon arrival in the next hamlet. I have already had a few white-knuckle moments. Even so, while pedaling along the Vistula, Kazimierz Dolny fading out of sight behind me and with dense woods ahead of me, wind in my face and mosquitoes in my teeth, the moment was supreme bliss. For the first time since crossing to border on the way to Kraków, I felt like I had arrived in Poland.
One excursion took me along the Vistula, about one kilometer upstream. There a ferry shuttles passengers across by way of a system of steel cables. I met two very courteous couples during the crossing. They told me of their work, a daughter who lived in London, and
how Poland is becoming a better place to live. At least twenty years older than me, all tried their best English, which improved with every sentence they constructed. The captain of the vessel spent six months in the Toronto area years ago. He picked apples and his wife joined him. He did not care for Canada, homesick for Poland. Now, he navigates the River with a relaxed attitude that is easy to warm up to. Seeing him with his partner waving on cars, motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, one cannot help to think that they are the Skipper and Gilligan of Poland: kind of goofy, not too intellectual, but very likeable. I’ll bet the ferry captain got his maritime navy hat from a flea market so he would look more official. It doesn’t work. But no one cares. On the opposite ferry landing, it is a leisurely ride into Janowiec nad Wisła, a typical village with nothing to offer but pure, uncommercialized authenticity. Above Janowiec is a castle in ruins by the same name.
The two couples I met on the ferry had gone ahead by car. So, they were arranging film in their cameras and locking up their vehicles by
Make No Mistake
Pretty clear what lies ahead...
the time I had made the alpine climb up to the parking lot. Try ascending a 13% grade on cobblestone. I arrived with their adulation. “Go Lance Armstrong!!!” they cheered. Then the applause. How humiliating. Heaving for air, welcoming death, and blind from the gushes of stinging perspiration in my eyes, I dismounted nearby, bent over, and waited for the stabbing pain in my kidneys to subside.
“You strong American”, one of them mentioned.
“No.” I was still begging for more air to get into my lungs, even two minutes after I got off the bike. I finished my thought with one arm on my hip, mouth gaping wide open for oxygen. “Stupid American.” They all laughed at me. I deserved it.
The view from the castle is the kind of superb sight you’d expect from one that overlooks a river valley from a bluff. Tentacle-like roads cut through fields and reach their nucleus at tiny hamlets. The Vistula winds and a few oxbow lakes are clear to see. The whole panorama is a treat.
Cycling back through Janowiec village, locals smile at me. Try getting this to happen in New Hampshire. Diverting off the main road, I
Atop a castle...
saw a family take flowers to the cemetery. Cemeteries are hardly where I like to spend my time, but I greatly advise a brief look. They are unlike anything in the States. Almost down to the last one, gravesites resemble thrones of honor to the dearly departed. From one edge to the others, flowers cover every open surface area. But the flowers are fresh, no more than a few days old. All the graves are lined, in neat rows, with roses, gladioli, daisies, extravagant bouquets, perennials, and annuals. You name it. Many graves’ platforms support lit candles. But when I strolled through, I was alone but for two families. How do candles stay lit when thunderstorms douse the area? One family in particular tended to their plot and scoured their family memorial with fine toothbrushes. Impressive.
And what of the florist in town? This must be quite the business, no? None go hungry, I presume. And what is a florists’ reaction to the news of a fatal accident on a winding road outside of town? Sorrow, or the sound of the cash register going “ching-ching”?
While sipping on my Okocim and laboring to scribble notes in my spiral binder,
A Connecticut T-shirt...Who knew...
I surveyed the simple lure of Kazimierz’s Rynek, and came across the most peculiar sight. I dismissed it as an anomaly; it just would be too weird to happen here. But then I stopped to recall of all the strangest coincidences that have shocked me in the past. Once in Saratoga, I worked as an usher in the grandstands and wound up seating the father of the former owner of the house in which I grew up after the age of twelve. I met students in a park while studying in Spain that were from a preparatory school in my hometown. Once, during my time in the Netherlands, I met a young lady who told me about the year of high school she spent in the United States. She darted upstairs above the pub and retrieved her yearbook to show me as evidence. I opened it up flippantly and the first face I saw was that of a college roommate and loyal friend to this day. That is still the most fantastic of all coincidences.
Anyway, this peculiar site across the square was nothing more than a man in a white T-shirt. But on the shirt in read in large yellow letters, “KC 101” and under it, “Connecticut”. He was walking my way and I did a double take; perhaps it was just my imagination. But, it wasn’t. I sprung up from my chair and waved at him, almost dropping my beer. (That would have been tragic.)
“Proszę! Czy pan mówi po angielsku?”
He stopped frozen and stared, unable to produce an intelligible word. Suddenly, right back at me, “Sorry, do you speak English?
“Yes! Don’t mean to be a bother, but your shirt.” He looked down at his chest, also concluding from my accent that I was an Anglophone. “That radio station, I listen to it every day. I am from Connecticut.”
“No!” He was amazed.
“Do you know Connecticut?”
A young lady was with him. “My sister does. She was there.”
I got them to join me, after which time I learned they were in fact French, spoke English very well, and goofing around Poland like me. Véronique had given her brother the T-shirt as a gift. She had spent a year of high school in New Milford. I explained that I knew the school, that a new one had been built, had a colleague who once taught there, and a top friend whose daughter graduated from New Milford High one month ago.
Small world. A few drinks later, they were on their way to the next town. I remained on the square pondering what silly fluke would happen next.
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