We got gassed on the way to a concentration camp.
It happened on the way to Oświęcim, more commonly known as the region that contained Auschwitz. You really couldn't make this up, nor would I in the interests of good taste. (Surprisingly even I have a few boundaries where the death of a million people is concerned.)
In a turn of events that upholds truth as being far stranger than fiction, it emerged after we made it to Zakopane that there was a hole in the underside of the bus we were travelling in, venting soot and fumes. At first we'd thought the black stuff rubbing off on our fingers was perished felt from the upholstery. Which would also be dangerous in your lungs, but isn't in the same ballpark of poisons as carbon monoxide...
I'll get back to that in a minute, though. All talk of partially oxidised hydrocarbons aside, the first day of the tour passed pleasantly. I should perhaps also go back over how APASS camps are structured; three weeks of teaching is followed by a week touring Poland. The ministry of education frames this as a cultural exchange, so staff aren't directly employed—they're given "pocket money" (that's the term APASS use) and the tour is a thank you for the exchange. The money is given out at some point in camp worked out between the director and team leader, so I picked the end. A bit autocratic, but I figured it'd be the point people would probably most welcome an injection of funds.
To recap, we started off on Wednesday morning, bright and early (sans bright in a few cases, but you get the idea.) The tour would take us through to the following Tuesday morning when we'd depart for London, though some people had plans to travel further to various countries and make their own way back.
First impressions of the coach were that it wasn't going to fit all of us. A twenty-one seater minibus including driver, luggage space was a trailer that took some finagling to shut before anyone even thought of buying anything additional to take back. If we'd had our original twenty-member team at that point, perhaps we'd have got a full-size coach—journeying from Nysa in 2003, one we'd taken kids on trips in was used, and a group of Polish staff and various offspring came along. Anyway, we all got in, but didn't really fit; two seats were over wheel arches and didn't have foot space for adults.
The drive for the first leg of the trip passed uneventfully. A few people noticed black felt rubbing off the seat covers, but thought nothing of it. There was a bit of singing, but most of the group were still sleepy or hungover and time went quickly. I borrowed Glyn's copy of Fear and Loathing for the remainder of the trip, it being an excellent book to dip into and re-read a few pages of for the umpteenth time.
Whilst most of the party went round Auschwitz, those of us who'd been previously (in some cases more than once) decamped for caffeine. There's something that feels a touch wrong about an eaterie being run on the site, but I digress... anyway, two years earlier we'd had lunch there. Then we sat out to enjoy the weather and view of the car park, smoke, spraff a wee while and wander over the road to check the party booking menu for where we'd be eating later. It looked very cultured inside.
People returned looking about as cheerful as could be expected, though Glyn had picked up the first part of his present to Stella from one of the historical bookstores on-site. Food was nice (I opted to be vegetarian for the day and go for cheese steak) and Magda did a great job in situations like these of keeping track of people's preferences. Over dinner we talked about teaching courses and her eventual plan to emigrate to such as the UK and run a hotel with bar and other tourist type stuff attached—as she said, she enjoys organising and seeing people enjoy themselves, so it seems a natural match. Judging by her enthusiasm and solicitousness on the tour, she'd be great at it.
There was a rumour we'd be meeting up with Mr Palka (our APASS organiser) when we got to Zakopane, but this turned out to be a miscommunication; we were meeting up with Mr Smyrgala (our camp director) and his wife, who were taking a little vacation now that camp season was over. They'd also be meeting up with us when we got to Kraków.
Much singing took place on the way to Olcza, where we'd be staying at a private boarding house for three nights. Elly fell asleep on the way, prompting a time-killing entertainment where people tried to keep her from falling off the seat. The really good photos came when we were almost arrived; one moment she was running her hands through her hair, the next her face was black. At first we thought she must have run her hands along the fabric, and felt had rubbed off through contact. "Hmm, that could be a bit dangerous," we thought.
Of course, things are rarely if ever that simple. It took a while for the details to click into place—felt would come off in chunks; carbon adheres to fabric and especially to hair, and Elly had run her hands through it—but when they did it was like a bulb lighting up. That pic above is after she'd smeared some of it off, by the way. With no exaggeration, we had people such as Geoff blowing out black snot after the main haul from Puławy to Zakopane. I coughed up tinted phlegm the next morning, and when Paul pulled a t-shirt over his face the next day to breathe through it stained visibly. There was no question of there being a problem, nor of it being raised after there'd been discussion at dinner.
The driver, understandably, was rather defensive about the bus, though he did go and confer with his boss (the same guy who'd driven people to the Ukraine.) I managed to piss Katie off, talking to Rich after she'd suggested we keep quiet until we knew more (with a view to not panicking people.) Having established that no action would be taken—except to ensure that journeys would be kept short to minimise exposure, and the front windows and roof vent not closed—we went to tell the others. Rich, obviously, wasn't one of the ones I was worried about... some of the others were chemists, aware of exact dangers, or could be counted on to have watched at least one crime drama in which someone covers up murder by trying to make it look like sealed-garage suicide.
The story we were getting from the rental shop and its representative went through some changes; the owner initially claimed it was a known fault, caused by air blowing over the engine when it went from cold to hot. (I can only guess he wouldn't have been hugely bothered to be breathing in black rot, being a chain-smoker.) The next day, the driver claimed to have found and put right a hole in the interior... and indeed he had found the source of the problem, a gap worn in the back-right wheel arch. None of us noticed the 'fix' for another day—a section of carpet taped over the wheel arch—which cut out much of the soot but didn't seem to make a huge difference to fumes wafting into the vehicle or the biting metallic taste and sore throats people were getting...
All this put Magda in an uncomfortable position (by the end of the tour she'd learnt some new English swearwords through dealings with the driver) but we thought at very least that people should be aware of the situation so they could choose to not participate in any non-essential journeys. Or try to evolve chloroplasts, etc.
In the UK, there's no question that a private hire firm would lay itself open to a public prosecution—in Poland, I suspect likewise these days, though any checks may be being phased in given the high proportion of older vehicles still on the road. For the rest of the trip, no-one was keen to sit towards the back (where the air collected the most) and several of us tried to keep faces covered, somewhat filtered whilst travelling. Not good.
Equally, most people took the attitude that they were buggered if they were going to let it affect their enjoyment of the trip as a whole...
Early on Thursday we set off for Morskie Oko, which I'd been looking forward to ever since I saw the tour schedule. "Magical" and "back to nature" aren't thoughts that often pass through my mind, but this mountain-top lake and its surroundings are wordlessly beautiful. Of course, to get to them you have to walk for an hour-and-a-half, which makes you appreciate them a bit more when you get there. In doing so you get clear views of other mountain ranges, forests and rivers, preserved by keeping tourists to the artificial surface you're walking.
One of the few off-putting things about being at the top is the near perfect mobile reception (which claims you're in Slovakia, as the range behind the second lake forms a national border.) Civilisation has definitely come with the concrete track and the eateries close to the top, but it's amazing how unspoilt the place feels in spite of that. It must be truly glorious outside of tourist season, out there with maybe one or two other people rather than one or two hundred. Or maybe I'm just too attached to the idea of being alone in remote areas.
The second lake is called Czarny Staw, and offers a spectacular view of Morskie Oko. We hadn't been able to climb up to it last time I'd been here, due to an arsey guide who probably would have struggled a bit to haul himself up the tourist trail. When Vicky, James and myself got up there, we met up with most of the others, who'd also spotted the path. The weather held out for us, only starting to drizzle at about this point, so we started back down pretty soon after. Owing to some wrong-end-of-stick grasping (we were supposed to meet at a certain time at the bottom of the mountain rather than the top) we got back to the coach in dribs and drabs. (Those of us who ran down the entire thing were only twenty minutes behind the lot who queued for a horse-and-carriage ride, who themselves were about forty minutes late. I suppose if you're going to piss people off, it's best to do it once and do it for something that worthwhile, although no-one seemed to mind too much as Magda had taken the opportunity to introduce people to the smoked cheese and mulled wine that are specialities of the Zakopane region. All in all, it was lots of fun.
That was enough fresh air and exercise for me for a while, so I hung with the others who were staying in rather than head into Zakopane in the evening for bars. Between four of us, the conversation shifted through "hey, we have seventy or eighty balloons" (which I'd thrown in my suitcase rather than bin at the end of camp) —> "wouldn't it be fun to fill a corridor or something?" —> "do we have the keys to anyone's room?" —> "no, but we can get onto any of the balconies" —> "hey, how about we stick them on Anj's and tell her that Mateusz came by and asked us to help him put them there?"
Besides, it was safer than watching Mark set fire to himself and Glyn flamethrow things.
Five blown, Paul threw in "let's write 'love Mateusz' on them," at which point everything fully aligned in our heads and it became A Good Idea. Another quick recap: Mateusz was a kid who'd taken a fancy to Anj on camp, slightly freaking a few people out with a habit of appearing silently behind them. It got the aimed-for shriek when everybody got back drunk, although I hope they didn't disturb anyone else with the popping... we did basically have the boarding house to ourselves, otherwise we wouldn't have even contemplated doing it. The rest got let down quietly next day with sticky tape and a pin.
Friday had a later start and a bit of a lie-in, with some people opting for a very long lie-in to recover and skipping the morning excursion to Butorowy Wierch. Butorowy is one of the gentler peaks of the Tatra mountain range (and if you haven't heard of them, you may recognise the range as a whole—the Carpathians, which extend through several countries... think Vlad Tepes, vampire legends, etc.) Zakopane is a tourist town both in summer and winter, offering climbing and skiing when weather is suitable. And of course there's the market, which you pass through to get to the cable-car up the mountain. Some of those who'd decided not to come may have missed that last bit, still thinking in terms of the walk up to Morskie Oko. There's a fair amount of market at the top, too, so we did a bit of souvenir shopping, sat with coffee and enjoyed the view for a while, then went back down to finish shopping in the market and town.
Getting the tack-buying done in the morning freed us to split the party two ways in the afternoon. Our driver had suggested a short excursion since we were so close to the Slovakian border, where alcohol is appreciably cheaper than in Poland. People were agreeable, so we dropped off others (mostly who'd passed on town before) and proceeded the quick drive to a checkpoint. There, it was simply a case of walking across the border, showing a passport, walking over a bridge and around a corner, straight into a cash-and-carry loaded with bottles. You could tell this was quite a common thing for people who lived nearby to do, and the guards were friendly (although things were relaxed enough that they didn't keep a passport stamp in the office, which was a bit of a shame. Still, we got photos.)
In the evening there was a party laid on in the boarding house, which I suspect was at least in part to keep us sweet on the matter of the coach. I think that if the setup had been explained, people would have gone downstairs (there was a shop underneath the hotel part of the building) and got more alcohol whilst places were still open. I'd bought vodka in Slovakia to test out my hipflask, but as it cost me about two quid, I put it in with the warning I wasn't going to take responsibility if anyone went blind afterwards...
Someone had (I think) been paid to DJ, which involved turning up and putting the radio on. When the station switched to news for half-an-hour, we decided to put some music on, but the guy whose equipment it was got very arsey. Considering we had two sober people doing stuff, one of whom DJs semi-professionally, this seemed a mite better than the situation as it eventuated, which was that the guy finally disappeared and Anj— pissed as a fart—took over. She did a good job, though I'm sure it was a blatant lie that the guy had come back and said she was the only person allowed to touch stuff; that woman couldn't fail to walk straight into a leading acting role... in A Touch of Frost...
Magda didn't seem too happy being an R&B fan amongst indie kids (they were bothered enough by the radio to switch to a boombox when it looked apparent that we couldn't use the Pioneer decks.) As there was a small break-away party forming in rooms, I decided to retire and listen to Glyn play guitar, whilst Paul wandered around with the large knife he'd bought in Zakopane and night-attired ladies tried to steal into our beds. It all sounds terribly debauched, but it really wasn't...
Several hours later I was dozing and listening to the mingled sounds of chatter, moans and crying, feeling slightly like Hunter S. Thompson with a pig's head in his hands. The feeling passed once I'd established that someone had gone after someone to make sure they were alright, tried to guess how many people were sleeping in their own bed, and the sounds of music blurred into a snug grey haze and I finally nodded off.
I got most of my packing done before, so Saturday morning was mostly a matter of shutting the suitcase and wandering out to see what others were doing. Partaking of more kids' TV, which Paul's room had discovered a day or two earlier, seemed favourite. Cartoons and suchlike in foreign language versions are great, both for the learning and reinforcement of simple vocab, and the surrealness of characters you know speaking different words in different voices. There's nothing essentially amusing about "Cześć, Pani Goggins!" and people mimicking after watching Postman Pat, when you get down to it, but the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar make for a right old giggle-fest.
I think this was the point at which I landed heavily on an ankle whilst running up some steps, which didn't hurt much at the time but became a bloody nuisance later on.
Now, either APASS or the Polish ministry recommend places for tours to be led, or actually have some way of block-booking tickets ahead of time, because rafting on the Dunajec seems a popular excursion for parties travelling Zakopane to Kraków roads. Being a river, the trip is naturally one-way, so your coach will deposit you at the start and drive on to the drop-off point. With good weather (which I've been lucky enough to experience both times) it's an enjoyable hour or so, although a waterproof hat or a very tolerant sense of humour help: some raftsmen greatly enjoy dripping water over their captive audience. This should also be borne in mind with regard to cameras; use a case or take a disposable.
In the event, the raftsmen weren't very irritating, nor did they seem much inclined to get people to have a go at the punting, enthusiastic or unenthusiastic about the water fight that inevitably erupted with the second raft, or anything else... just nicely chilled and inclined just to get on with things. People took lots of photos, waved at various people on the Slovakian side of the river, did the Geoff Dance at any rafts of strangers we encountered, and listened to the occasional bit of commentary about the mountains.
You can get photos of your raft (the time it takes to sail down gives plenty of time for processing) but it's still manual to the extent you order before you get on at the start. Potentially an easy way to get photos of all your group if you order both rafts', though, or you can wait until the salt mine (a trip you're likely to make from the Kraków area.)
At the other end we stopped for a bit of a snack, then the minibus picked us up and we drove on to a traditional restaurant. Most of us had a traditional hunter's dish, which consisted of meat in gravy, layered between two thick savoury pancakes (this likely has a specific name as we had a similar meal later in Kraków, but I don't recall what it was.)
This seems as good a point as any to mention dietary choices common to foreigners may be less understood in Poland, and I shall try to explain without giving offence to anyone. Two main reasons are evident; first, Poland has a long Catholic history (which is part of most traditions even if people aren't themselves religious) and not eating types of meat (or meat not prepared in specific ways) as a religious dogma isn't something that will be widely anticipated. Second, many people lived through communist era shortages, and because of this vegetarians are less common—it's part of culture that to have meat is to live and eat well; a related observation is that many will understand vegetarian food to be "food that isn't meat", rather than "food that isn't meat and hasn't being cooked with animal fat." If you don't have dangerous allergies, I suggest blissful ignorance.
Mental note to self: next time you're in a Polish restaurant, try czernina.
The next three nights were to be spent in lodgings on the outskirts of Kraków. When we checked into Hotel Alf—yes, that was the name, and it got funnier after we'd visited the city centre a couple of times—we got handed a sheet to register people, neatly divided into male and female rooms. We naturally ignored this; room allocation had been "this one's got two/three beds, here are the keys" and we had couples. So we gave them surnames and initials. No point in provoking unnecessary confrontation, is there?
Later on we discovered why Hotel Alf probably has that general policy of single-sex rooms—besides doing a lot of business with convents and wanting to keep them sweet, of course: the bathroom facilities. The rooms were arranged in little cloisters, with two rooms on each side of a communal area containing a toilet, two sinks and a shower. As most us were split between two of these mirrored arrangements, we'd two of these areas between us. With an older group, this could have caused more problems, but it'd been communal facilities in Puławy and we hadn't killed each other. For us, the only issue was numbers assigned to each toilet, and people who reflexively locked doors to the whole area—the showers did have curtains. Luckily the locks weren't only effective from inside, else eight or nine other people may have gotten a little grouchy.
Having unpacked and had some ham and cheese in the bar area, it was early enough to drive into Kraków and enjoy an evening in the market square. This is another excellent example of an area with rich history and a booming tourist trade that still feels relatively unspoilt by all of the activity. The square contains numerous old buildings (some original, some rebuilt after conflicts) and many are lit up by night. It's a good opportunity to switch flash off, balance your camera on things and take photos—when I went wandering with Mark to do just that, we saw more than a few people carrying fullsized tripods for the purpose. You should get a few decent pics with a smaller tripod and/or the plentiful litter bins, though; a digital camera will handle exposure, you just have to frame shots and keep it steady.
Whilst we were in Music Bar 8—a little open-air place sandwiched between other buildings that advertised live music but turned out to be a looped set... it also had a Murphys drip tray, but no sign of the beer—a rep for Bols gave our table a bunch of shag bands. That's what thin versions used to be called at school, anyway. These days they've grown to look more like the ones swimming pools probably still use for rotas and are being distributed by various charities—plus companies cashing in on the trend. Apparently, Bols have also launched a reward scheme to encourage whole groups to order in various overpriced cocktails, with fabulous prizes for teh win!!1 —where for "prizes" you can read "other cheap merchandise made to advertise Bols". Later we walked past places selling every variety of fast food (except chips, seemingly) and found our way back to the coach pick-up point. It had been a longish but fun day.
Sunday there was a morning trip to Wieliczka salt mines. I'd been before, and probably should have taken the lie-in and given my ankle less to complain about, but I wanted to try to get a few photos this time. Lots of info and better photos can be found on their recently revamped website but the gist is that the mines are incredibly extensive and a miracle of engineering conducted over centuries. Tourism has likewise been going on for centuries, whilst modern events at the site have included windsurfing, sailing, bungee jumping and hot-air ballooning—all underground, of course. More normally there are concerts, weddings, and hundreds of thousands of visitors passing through each year.
Salt for consumption is no longer mined, though that's quite a recent development and it is still produced by condensing, a byproduct of the lowest levels needing to be pumped to keep them dry and stable. The guides generally seem to share a snarky and appreciated sense of humour, particularly impressive considering some give the same tour in several languages. Because we were waiting to go through to another chamber, ours even lent people a pen so that they could add their signatures to the painted walls. (A certain amount of graffiti is cheerfully tolerated, especially by school parties waiting on the big winding staircase to go down into the mine. It's only really noticeable on the modern tunnels, and everything else is kept as clean and preserved as a busy tourist environment can realistically be.)
The thing worth keeping in mind as you go round is that everything was dug and sculpted with hand tools, including vast chambers and statues. Those doing the carving were miners and local people rather than imported artisans. The results are both incredible and surreal, as indeed are most major construction works contemplayed without any of the machinery commonplace today. We don't pour generations into projects in quite the same way either, although I suppose that's a matter of perspective; not everything that endures is intended to do more than be there for the present. Still, there aren't as many people working in tough materials—rock salt, marble, wrought iron—actually, going off on a complete tangent, I wonder what long-term plans get made for dismantling skyscrapers? One to Google for.
After food we headed out to Kraków city centre, where we were quite surprised to see Alf, or at least a guy in a suit for the orange-furred alien from Melmac (some people had spotted him the evening before, in fact.) The guy wasn't doing a good job of explaining that he'd pose for photos for a small fee—some sort of sign might've helped. As there'd been at night, there were lots of other performers and sideshows, including dancers, flame-jugglers, musicians and sketch-artists. I'd received texts from Sally back in Puławy that she was after a large Oxford Polish dictionary, so I'd plans to search for one of those in the two days that remained, Glyn was on the hunt for porn for Stella, and I'd promised to point people in the direction of replica weapons.
The opportunity to shop was a bit at odds with plans for the evening meal. Originally we were going to head back to the hotel, which would have let people drop stuff off and either go back out in the evening or not. This turned into: get dropped off in town, meet up for food in restaurant, hit bars and get taxis back. Getting a taxi turned out in the end to be straightforward enough—we got whisked back by a hippy madman wearing an Haiwaiin shirt who was watching TV on a little portable he had in the front, for about 7zł apiece—but the den mother in me questions the wisdom of turning people loose to make their own way back in twos and threes, potentially the worse for wear, in a place people are unsure of language and don't recognise local taxi firms, towards the end of a tour when they're more likely to be skint. Hey, paranoia has kept me alive so far.
Paul and Glyn both got big axes at very reasonable prices; nice hefty pieces with dulled edges, no stainless steel—and I considered getting something small to go with the sword I bought from the guy last time I was in the area, and had a look for a couple of small battle-axes I could give as presents. Didn't find anything I particularly liked the look of at a sane price (he's mostly affordable large weapons, the woman running the stall opposite is mostly smaller and more modern stuff, plus dramatically more expensive.) Then we went looking for books.
Getting the dictionary involved a fairly major screw-up, though in my defence I wasn't the only one to make it, and the rest of the language students we met up with going into the bookshop didn't notice at the time either. In fact, people actually queried why the books Paul and I picked up (he was after one too) looked slightly different—maybe editions from a different year, we reasoned. Luckily (if you can call it that) they turned out to be two halves of a set, one for Polish to English, the other—yes, your guess is right—English to Polish. We swear, kick ourselves and I give Paul the difference of the cost of the dictionary and money I lent him earlier to buy an axe. Before that, though, we had a good look around the rest of the bookshop, finding lots of comics and graphic novels, discovering Sandman is split into half-volumes in its Polish translation (if they'd had the second half of the first or some early Transmet or Hitman, I'd have got a book to compare and translate with the English stories, but the selection was mostly Batman...)
Later we lug books and axes around, eat, go out for ice-cream in a shop I know sells nice cake but did horrible ice-cream (abolutely tiny scoops buried under whipped cream, and in Glyn's several shots of spirits; we could only guess they were low on stock or had really crap staff on that evening) and get the aforementioned crazy-fast taxi back to Alf.
On Monday, our last full day in Poland, we had a tour of the Wawel Castle scheduled. I'd heard about this, but bunked the tour last time I was in Kraków in favour of finding an open-air museum featuring a rare jet-powered biplane with some other people. As I was hobbling a bit by this stage, I'd planned on maybe sitting out after a while, the only surprise being how many joined me—it wasn't our guide's fault entirely, although her lack of projection and explanations in fractured English weren't helping much.
After the cathedral, bells and rather airless catacombs, we left a message and buggered off, then met back up outside next to the fire-breathing dragon statue. Glyn bought a butterfly knife from one stall in the car park, before moving onto the next to spot a Pistols-esque flick one. Paul considered another curved dagger like the one he'd found in Zakopane, I weighed up the pros and cons of shuriken versus throwing knives, and Steph despaired at being surrounded by boys and their weapon fetishes. We shouldn't have rejoined the tour, which took us the long way around the town perimeter and then involved almost running back to the bus to meet with it in time for lunch. I suppose I may have enjoyed this if I'd been in slightly less pain, and although I did come to the conclusion I'd chosen well with the air museum, it gave us all the chance to buy knives and foreign-language Bibles. By that measure the day had thence been very productive.
Over dinner the director gave a speech including a joke about how well Magda had integrated (with) the group, which got the expected laugh. He also said something in passing about the team leader being mature, which could have been a reference to not drinking much, balloons or just sarcasm in general. Then again, he didn't seem to know my name, so it could just have been that I looked younger than expected; APASS tends to send retired teachers to fill the slot. He hoped to see any of us again in future years.
We went back into town later for last-minute souvenir buying, and so that people could get train times for a connection to Prague—their plan was to spend a couple of days in the Czech capital, then get a cheap flight back. Meanwhile, Geoff and Katie had plans to get trains around various parts of Europe, Jess and Joel to hitchhike somewhere, and James and Vicky had decided to head for Bratislava. Those of us getting the ATAS coach back were looking at having a welcome amount of extra space.
Eventually Paul, Glyn and myself found a tourist information office, having walked around the Hall of Cloth twice and failed to spot the one nestled inside one end of it, despite asking for directions (which I understood most of the reply to, apart from the word for "inside", obviously. Whoops.) We asked after a game shop Paul could buy a localised version of Monopoly from (not having had any joy in the bookshop the day before, which was very much like a branch of WH Smiths) and failing to pester the nice gentlemen behind the counter for directions to a sex shop (as Glyn was the only one really looking to buy, we were just tagging...) In the event we failed to find the boardgame place we were recommended, headed towards the station to see what kind of shops were down there, and found both. Heck, we found hardcore porn in the news kiosk next to the station... mainland Europe has far more enlightened attitudes to sex and realises that the sky doesn't fall because adults can see other adults dressed in silly make-up faking it badly with each other. The UK, conversely, had police raiding university libraries and art galleries as recently as the 1990s under the Obscene Publications Act.
European Monopoly was duly bought, and then we tried the sex shop... which seemed closed, but Paul tried the buzzer and someone came to open the steel-cage door before we wandered out. So, Stella got a set of presents running the full romantic spectrum: holocaust, weapons and humping Americans. (All of the DVDs they had seemed to be American or German—nothing Polish.) Paul claimed it was the seediest place he'd ever been, which may have had something to do with the extremely fake-sounding orgasms coming from the 'hot live show' in the rooms next door, or the swarthy old guy smoking in the shop area talking to the burly one tending it (and admittedly, both seemed to have arrived via an "Anglia TV Crime Drama Stereotypes" convention.) We didn't linger, emerging triumphantly into the afternoon sun to go and meet people in market square.
The good weather didn't hold out, so once people were gathered we followed Steph to a little café she'd been introduced to last time she was in Kraków, which did extremely nice hot chocolate. Their toilet was enclosed by the shell of a huge fireplace water boiler like the ones we'd seen whilst touring stately homes and palaces, the staff were very helpful—especially considering the size of the place and over a dozen of us packing into it—and it really served to underline how friendly the whole area is to visitors. That and we were probably feeling a touch sentimental, anyhow. After the sheltering, people got some last minute snacks and cigarettes, and headed back to the hotel to pack.
It didn't take long, though those who were leaving that evening for various countries had to do it a bit quicker, and there was plenty of sitting around and not wanting to start. At some point I offered to marry Steph to someone, although we might have to be in the US for it to be legally binding. (I've been a minister of the Universal Life Church for ages now, in which sacred duty I take spiritual cues from Pastafarianism and various people quoted at length here. It's my humble contention that living is the highest form of worship we can offer any theoretical creator. Don't agree? Go watch some more sunsets, and aim to do the right thing, whatever you work that out to be—but put it this way, I don't think many core religious texts aim for more than circular self-justification.)
Feeling a bit aimless, some of us took a walk down to the service station at the end of the road for provisions, whilst others settled in for games of pool and beer that the hotel staff had been persuaded to open an office for and sell. This was also the cue for last-minute bad photography, then it was time to see people off and wish them safe journeys. Then to bed, as we needed to get up painfully early the next day.
Tuesday involved more suitcase lugging, Glyn paying off Mark's property damage, and the ploy of handing over all our ATAS tickets to the coach stewardess (minimising the chance of losing the comfy double seats—APASS had paid for twenty places, even if our actual numbers were down to seven.) Final farewells were said, and I decided to skip trying "dziękuję bardzo po wszystko" as I wasn't sure if wszystko could be used in that context... by my reckoning it should convey "thanks very much for everything"... anyway, I opted for "bardzo mi miło, cześć" (nice to meet you, bye) which seemed to fit enough.
On the way back we did get stiffed by ATAS and lose some of the allocated seats in a coach switch, but persuaded one set of coach staff to put on Glyn's Blues Brothers DVD with Polish subtitles, which slightly made up for it—jesteśmy na Bożej misji—and the kids in front really seemed to enjoy the car chase and Nazis getting hammered at the end. This actually involved guessing parts of the manual, as Blues Brothers is one of those irritating Universal Pictures discs that manually checks for an age rating with the player. I had another takeaway omelette at the castle place, and failed to get comfortable in any position enough to sleep, but it was an uneventful journey that seemed to go much easier than it had on the way over. Well, apart from Paul freaking out at a wasp and us being unsympathetic bastards, the coach switch and unexpectedly getting back hours before our connecting National Express coach to Birmingham.
Wednesday therefore saw us queuing in London because the NatExp computer system and its backup had both failed, Glyn couldn't find his ticket and neither Elly nor myself fancied waiting around for hours and decided to get new ones. Paul was off in another direction, and we'd already lost everyone else shortly after getting into London during the baggage melée. The ferry over had seemed particularly quick, though we managed to fit in breakfast—the ferry prices seem steep until you realise the pound-item menu includes as many chips as you want; mayo and chips was something I'd been pining for for the last few weeks, so that was nice, even if it was far too early and I hadn't slept.
Back in the UK, I was struck by how heavy and large British coinage is, how ineffective the plumbing (one flush and refill cisterns, which is incredibly wasteful) and how much email I probably needed to catch up with. Last time I'd checked had been in Zakopane.
As far as the tour went, having been to most of the places we visited before (even though very briefly in some cases) had been really useful.
As far as Poland went, knowing the very basics of language had been incredibly useful, and I felt I'd grasped a bit more this time around.
As far as the people went, we'd had the advantage of friendly staff in Puławy, an excellent translator, and hands-off management. My "staff" were fantastic; I couldn't have wished for a more willing or able bunch.
Huge thanks to everyone,
x x x x x