Here are some pictures… okay a lot of pictures, from my jaunt to the mountains, a couple weeks ago.
This will probably be my last big bicycle trip for a while, since my bike was stolen last week. It was my own fault; I left it chained to a lamp post on a major road for 5 days. Stupid. I’m not too busted up about it; it was a cheap old bike. I’ll get a better one eventually. I do generally prefer walking for exercise anyway.
But back to my little adventure. My first stop was the Rybnik train station, where, due to misreading the schedules, I had most of a day to kill.
Which turned out to be a happy accident, because I finally found myself in the diner during its limited and unpredictable operating hours. It was everything I had hoped it would be, exactly the kind of thing I had hoped to find in Poland. Shuffling old gents in raincoats and a stocky, be-aproned matron, serving greasy fries and instant coffee.
I will be back there, you may be sure.
“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”
More fine Polish vegetarian cuisine.
The passageway to the platforms at the Rybnik train station.
I think I’ve posted enough pictures from trains, so I’ll spare you. (For now.) It’s only a little over an hour’s ride, anyway. I got off the train, hoisted up my pack, looked at my handwritten directions, and hit the road.
I didn’t get off to a real super start. Between backtracking, missing turns, and stopping for coffee and a look at the map, it took me well over an hour to reach the edge of town, only about 5 km from the train station. It was pitch black and beginning to rain. I wasn’t sure I should try to cover the remaining 17 kilometers to the hostel, in the dark, through the mountains, on unknown roads. Difficult bordering on dangerous.
As I was about to leave town, I passed a hotel. Shoot, I thought, face reality. I swung back around and went up to the reception desk.
Showing up soaked in sweat, dressed like a roadie for the Dead, obviously a zero-budget backpacker, does have one advantage; they don’t waste their breath trying to upsell you any luxury packages. I got a room for about $55—far and away the most I have ever paid in my life—but still cheaper than any of the rates on the board. They let me bring my bike into the security office. I went upstairs, ready for a luxuriously hot shower and some fresh towels, which came through so smashingly they were almost worth the money.
View from my hotel in Bielsko-Biała. Doesn’t it look like a lovely day for a 17 km bike ride up two mountains?
The next morning it was pretty rainy, so I took my time slurping coffee and double checking my route on google maps. (Generally accurate, though a bit scant on information in the village.) During a pause in the precip, I loaded up and lit out to get some lunch. I figured if I left town around noon, I would have more than enough time to get there by dark. Turns out that was true, but just barely.
Pack that mule and hit the trail.
Imagine several hours of this. Beautiful? Yes. Steep? Even more so.
After a few hours, I made it over the hump of the first mountain. I figured I had done the most of it.
I descended into a village, where I stopped for a meal. I then crossed a lake on a bridge and began to ascend yet another mountain. The map showed that it was only about 4 km, but it was much steeper than the first mountain. I got a good ways up and it seemed like I had passed the level at which people had settled. I rode back down a bit to the last area with houses, stopped and looked around. Nope. The numbers were too low. I got my notebook out of my pack, looked up the number, and called the hostel.
The woman who answered spoke little English, but she was able to tell me I had a ways to go, another 30 minutes to an hour of pushing my bicycle up the mountainside. ”Up, up, up!” she said, laughing.
Hostel Gora Zar/Góra Żar. It’s completely unmarked, except for the address, which wouldn’t have been visible in the dark the night before. (Or any time it was dark, I guess.)
There you go… number 64. And that’s how you know this is a hostel.
In a final laugh of fate, I had to climb these steep stairs to my room.
I got to the hostel around an hour before dark. I had meant to get out and explore, but I was pretty tuckered out. I laid around, read, checked my email, like that.
Looking out the window of my room… DOWN on clouds.
I got to bed pretty early. I was the only guest. It was wonderfully quiet.
ON MOUNT ŻAR
The next morning I walked up the road toward the mountaintop.
A shrine to the virgin Mary in a Polish mountain village.
Wouldn’t mind if these were the steps to my house.
Towards the summit, I got off the road and hiked into the misty forest.
Around here, the going got rough; more like climbing than hiking.
Who’s a hippy in the woods? Me.
I found this dirt road out of the forest because I heard some voices.
In the evening, the proprietress, Kamila, invited me into her quarters for a home-cooked meal. It was absolutely fantastic. I didn’t want to make a fuss about my vegan diet, so I ate what she served, which was roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, slaw, salad… I can’t remember what all. It was amazing.
I talked quite a bit with Kamila and her teenage daughter Olga. Her two-year-old was hilariously terrified of me and would not sit at the table while I was there. I’ve opted out of family life myself, but as a traveler, when people invite me into their homes, I do enjoy the warmth and comfort of domesticity.
The next day, she let me ride into town with her. I felt honored to put some groceries in the trunk. That’s one hard-working Polish innkeeper.
DOWN THE MOUNTAIN, UP THE MOUNTAIN, DOWN THE MOUNTAIN, WITH NO HELP FROM THE BUS DRIVER
Sunday morning, I set out at 9:15, which is quite an early start for me. But it had taken me most of a day to get to the hostel, and I didn’t want to miss my train, which left at 4:47.
This is a school for hang-gliding. It’s a couple hundred meters down the mountain below the hostel.
I’ve gotten to where I can mostly read stuff like this.
At the bottom of the mountain, I found a bus stop. I checked the schedule and sure enough, there was one to town coming in a few minutes. I unsaddled and waited. There was an old man there, waiting, smoking a cigarette. I asked him in my bad Polish if he thought I could take my bike on the bus. He seemed at first to say no, but then just shrugged. I waited.
When it came. I stepped up and asked the driver, reading from a slip of paper the difficult word przewozić the question, Can I transport my bicycle? He gestured around the interior of the bus theatrically and said, with an air of exasperation, “Gdzie?” (“Where?”)
Thanks, buddy. Not the greatest customer service I have ever received. But I said thank you and got back on my bike.
Back to the mountain we go.
Looking across the lake, back toward the mountain village from whence I came.
The long, slow ascent begins.
Hey, it’s ulica Piękna! I know all about this place from my Pimsleur Polish mp3s. Plac Zamkovy must be nearby.
I was surprised to reach the summit at exactly noon. I guess the overall slope is much less steep going west. The descent down the mountain into Bielsko-Biała took me a whole 8 minutes of high-speed coasting.
BACK TO CIVILIZATION: BIELSKO-BIAŁA
I made it to the train station easily and by 1:00, I had bought my ticket and chained my bike to a post, right by where I would board. I had a few hours to wander around the city and drink a couple of beers.
Didn’t make it down to the square named after the Utopian language Esperanto.
Lody means ice cream. Polish people really dig ice cream.
I sat in a pub called The Dog’s Bollocks for an hour, drank two beers and wrote in my journal, looking out the window on the square..
THE TRAIN BACK TO ŻORY
Kawa czarna = black coffee. I had exact change, but the machine wouldn’t take my smaller coins. It also wouldn’t give me back my money.
Sorry, can’t get through a travel post without a couple of train pictures.
Back home. The most people I have ever seen at the Żory train station were there on this Sunday afternoon, meeting returnees from Bielsko-Biała.
I’d like to go back. My neighbor says she’d like to go. I want to give Kamila some more business. I really hope her business strategy of hosting vacationers in the mountains allows her to live the life she wants to live, out there in the country. And I’d like to climb some more in the woods.
I had to pay 179 złoty for a night in a real hotel in Bielsko-Biała, something I only do in extremis, but I’m really glad I didn’t try to get to Hostel Góra Żar that first night. There’s no way I would have found it. Aside from being 22 km from the train station, it’s completely unmarked, except for the address, which wouldn’t have been visible in the dark. I reached my mountaintop destination yesterday evening.
Yep, that’s right, it’s on top of a mountain, 1000 meters above where I started. Maybe I should have read the description on the website.
Hostel newly opened on the mountain Zar in a stunning surrounding with scenic hiking routes, water and mountains.
(Emphasis mine.) But no, I just did what I always do, which is book the cheapest hostel, (in this case the only hostel), in my target city, and then figure out how to get there later. Lesson learned: read everything and look at the map before booking the room.
Oh, and did I mention there was another mountain in between Bielsko-Biała and the little village of Międzybrodzie Żywieckie, which I could see right now in the valley far below me, if there weren’t clouds in the way. That’s two mountains I had to ascend on my beat-up old bicycle, with a pack weighing 20 kg (44 kbs.)
And yet, as often happens, it was a happy accident. Yesterday, I called to ask for directions. It looked like I had reached the limits of civilization atop the mountain, but no, I still had a good ways to go. ”Up, up, up!” said the woman on the phone, laughing.
(Side note: It dawned on me with horror that this heavy pack is actually only 4/5 of the weight I used to carry in my body, before I started my diet in November 2011. Yikes. No wonder I can do 15 push-ups now and then I could do none.)
Can’t post any pictures yet because I forgot the cord for my camera. But take my word for it, arduous though it was, my bicycle trek across the mountainous forest was worth it for the stunning views. Even in the stop-and-start rain. (For once, I thought to pack my poncho and lots of plastic bags. I do sometimes learn, eventually. With spaced reptition and very clear reinforcement.)
It’s a holiday today, Constitution Day, so everything is closed. I’m pretty tired and sore, but it’s a good kind of tired. I’ll go hike in the woods a bit later if the rain lets up. Right now I’m going to take a little nap. This evening, I’ll be having dinner with the proprietress, a charming woman with both a teenage daughter and a two year-old.
All I can hear right now is the whirring of my laptop and the birds chirping in the mountaintop mist. Life is good.
I hiked to the top of the mountain. It was awesome. It took me back to being a kid, clambering around the mountains in west Texas and southern New Mexico, but what it really reminds me of here is the Smokies, which I visited once when I was quite young and never forgot.
Then my hostess, going way above and beyond, invited me into her quarters for a fantastic home-cooked meal with her and her two daughters. She offered to pick me up tomorrow evening if I get back to the village late from my jaunt into town. (On the bus, not by bicycle!)
Poland, you are AWESOME.
I hit a personal milestone today in my study of the Polish language: I finished the 30th and final lesson of Pimsleur’s Polish I, which I started, I think, back in early December. I’ve had a few lazy spells, but generally, I kept at it every day. It has definitely helped me. I’m able to pick up on things my students are saying in class, to ask for things in shops, sometimes to make the barest small talk. I’ve managed to buy a train ticket and to get some medicine in a pharmacy from people who spoke no English, though gesturing is still a big part of my communication.
I’m in no position to compare it it to other systems, but it seemed like a good introductory method for me. There’s a lot of repetition and the vocabulary is introduced slowly and methodically. If you’re a quick study, or are familiar with another Slavic language, it might be too slow for you, but it was paced about right for me. I generally have to listen to a lesson about 3 times before my response rate is good enough to move on to the next one.
Partly, I think that’s a function of my age. I’ll be 50 this year and I’ve never seriously studied another language. I know bare conversational Spanish from high school, a bit of sign language from a job, and smatterings of French from listening to chansons. But I’m basically your typical American monoglot. Unpleasant as it is to acknowledge, the ability to acquire a new language definitely drops off as we age. It just takes a ton of raw processing power, juice that I need these days to find my keys.
(UWAGA: Some of the things I will say hereafter about the Polish language will almost certainly be wrong. Please excuse my ignorance. I mean no offense.)
And then, too, Polish is not easy for English speakers. For me, most of the words are not all that hard to pronounce, (though there are a few real stinkers), it’s that they’re so hard to remember. Take the word przyjechałem. (How I, as a man would say I arrive.) You say it something like p(r)-shuy-uh-HOW-em. (I put the r in parentheses because it’s almost inaudible.) I was able to repeat it the first time I heard it. But something about it makes it very hard to remember, probably that it’s a combination of syllables that just wouldn’t occur in English. I listened to that lesson three times before I was able to produce it as a response, meaning it took me 10 or 15 tries to recall and say it in an appropriate context, even a very structured one. Other words, like osiem, (pr: OH-shem; eight), I got the first time and never forgot. It’s not so different-sounding from an English or Spanish word.
And then we have the practice of changing the words all around all the time, technically known as declension (nouns), inflection (adjectives), conjugation (verbs), and a whole bunch of other stuff based on gender, time, who you’re talking to… whether you’re wearing a hat? I don’t know. A Polish dictionary, by itself, is not much use, because knowing the basic form of a word doesn’t allow you to use it. Only toward the end of the Pimsleur lessons were many of these changes introduced. You just have to build some basic vocabulary and learn to parrot some common phrases first, I guess.
So where I’m at now, is that I have a vocabulary of maybe 1000 words. I’m able to make a few changes based on gender and tense, but generally I get that wrong with every fragmentary sentence I speak. I recognize a lot of words but I can’t make sense of sentences. Sitting in the pub the other night, listening to people speak, I wrote down every word or phrase I understood, over the course of about 10 minutes. (Some of them came from the TV.) Here’s what I caught:
ja mam (I have)
nie mam (I don’t have)
masz (you have)
dziękuje (thank you)
ale to nie (but it’s not)
na razie (a common phrase with several meanings)
sto złoty (one hundred zlotys)
smacznego (bon appetit)
…and that’s it. I had no idea what they’re talking about. I felt kind of like a dog, listening to the humans talk.
“Blah blah blah blah blah SPOT blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah WALK blah blah blah blah.”
If you ask me a question, all I can tell you is “SPOT WALK YES WALK YES SPOT YES WALK.” Still, a talking dog is pretty cool, right?
So what’s next? One thing I know about myself is that I do best with some structure. Having all those lessons to do, in order, was really good for me. So I need to have a plan.
The next phase of my campaign will be two-pronged.
First, I’m going to review all 30 Pimsleur lessons, completing and correcting my written notes and creating vocabulary flashcards for words that give me trouble.
Second, I’m going to alternate that with going through the materials we use at our sister school in Rybnik, starting at the very beginning. This material was developed by Scott & Paul (my bosses) specifically to teach English to Poles, and it has Polish translations. This will help me fill in the holes in my basic vocabulary and will also aid in my teaching.
There are a million other resources out there and my buddy Stuart is a fantastic resource for locating and evaluating them. (He turned me onto the Pimsleur lessons.) So after this is done, I’ll plot the next leg. I need to get my Polish into some kind of rough operability as soon as I can, for many reasons. Basically because I’m living in Poland, duh.
At the invitation of my friend Ewa, I took the train to Wodzisław Śląski last weekend. It’s about 30 km from Żory. The train costs 6 złoty.
Ewa met me at the train station. We walked to her flat, where she had made some fantastic vegan pierogies. We went out for coffee later. I saw most of the town, which is pretty small and not what you’d call hopping with street life. I didn’t take pictures because I was talking with Ewa.
Later we went ice-skating in Rybnik. Well, the girls went ice-skating; I knew better than to try. I went to the roller rink a few years ago in Texas and found that I have the balance and poise of a landlubber in his first heavy seas. And at my age, falling down hurts. So I took pictures.
Liwia, who organized the skating trip, was a hardier soul than I. She got out there and skated, even though she isn’t exactly a gazelle on the ice herself. I respect that spirit.
We all went to a cafe afterwards to chat. I then met up with Widdop for a proper Polish Saturday evening, expat English teacher style, which to be done properly must feature repeated tankard hoistage, obscure running jokes, and meditations on the strangeness of the profession.
I crashed on Widdop’s couch, rousing my cotton-mouthed near-corpse the next day to walk across town and see if I could find a bus home. Strangely, against all the known laws of nature, I felt quite sprightly. I got some vegan sushi in the food court at the mall.
It wasn’t the most exotic outing of my Polish adventure so far, but I had a great time. Poland is still magical to me. I just look around me, anywhere I am, and notice things that are… a little strange. I could take 1000 photographs a day.
I must apologize for my failure to finish reporting on my holiday travels. As a musician, with a typical musician’s brain, I live in the eternal present, with an event horizon that extends neither very far into the future, nor back into the past much. Things either get done as they happen, or else they sink into the still waters of the not-now. So I may eventually write about Budapest and Ukraine, or more likely, I may not. But while it’s on my mind, I will jot down a few notes on the cities I have most recently profaned and/or honored with my presence.
Last weekend I joined another party led by John Widdop, who Pied-Pipered us to Wrocław last fall, this time to Łódź, (pronounced Woodge) which is something like the Detroit of Poland, a former manufacturing center that is now rather empty and desolate.
But, as I have heard about Detroit, there are surprising pockets of vitality and culture. Widdop, who loves the city with the passion of one whose beloved is misunderstood and dismissed, was the perfect guide. He took us to the coolest bars and especially to the coolest tea room in this region of the Milky Way.
It was a whirlwind trip, made all the more whirlwindy by my genuinely Polish vodka intake on Saturday night, which resulted in me being refused entrance to the last club of the evening’s crawl, not to mention indecorous public behavior on my part with a statue of Arthur Rubinstein, about whom I know nothing and have no opinions whatsoever. The less said about that, the better.
Łódź means boat in Polish, which is ironic, given that it is landlocked and has no river. I could say a few other interesting things about it, but I would just be stealing conversational riffs from Widdop, so I’ll just say that if you’re in Poland, you really ought to give Boat a chance, even though Polish people will try to talk you out of it. There’s a bar with a helicopter inside it and there are far fewer 10-story Calvin Klein advertisements draped over the buildings than in say, Warszawa.
This brings me to the city from whence I actually write these words at this moment. Katowice (kah-toh-veets-uh) is only 30 kilometers from Żory and is a contender for the city I might like to live and teach in next year. Or it was… until I visited it with that in mind. See, I need to find a city where I can play music in clubs, like I’m used to doing; it’s generally been the central organizing principle of my social life. I thought maybe Katowice, having a metro area that hosts over two million souls, might have something to offer in that regard but, having shown up on a Saturday night, having done my homework, and having done my best to find a music scene, I’m pretty convinced it ain’t happening here.
Wikitravel.org, a reliable source, tells us that Mariacka Street is where it’s happening, so I headed over there. Uh, like, wow. If that’s Katowice’s Bourbon Street, then we’ve got a problem, party people. It’s basically a sort of grand alley, extending a few hundred meters. Most of the buildings are vacant and boarded up. There are a couple of bars, but no live music. Looming over it all, at the eastern end, is the cathedral, which tolls the bells on the hour, in a ponderous baying of grim Catholic dominion over this sad little stab at a nightlife district
I kind of like the KATO bar, but it’s not what I would call a scene, just a cheap place to grab a beer and talk. The decor looks like it was scavenged from a demolition site: particle board; cinder blocks; ancient, tattered, vinyl booths. The art on the walls looks like it was photocopied and stuck up with papier-mâché.
A little after 8:00, which feels rather late on a Polish winter night, I went to see a Polish film at Rialto: Drogówka. Having recently learned the word drogo, (expensive), I thought the title was perhaps a form of that word, which would have made sense, since it started off with cops extorting bribes from motorists. But it actually means Highway Patrol, or Traffic Police, depending on which translation you favor. It was impressively, forcefully, grim in its portrayal of the punishingly numbing lives of boozing, whoring, Warsaw traffic cops. My Polish is still so limited that I was only able to understand numbers, very common words, and a few sentences like It’s not him, Where is it? and How much do you want? But I caught the gist of it; the language of cinema often transcends language barriers. It was interesting to see what got laughs. Polish people apparently have a pretty dark sense of humor.
I went back to my hostel after the film, booted up the laptop, and tried to find someplace cool to go for a late night drink. I know I haven’t written about it here, but in Budapest, I met a fellow musician in a “ruin bar;” we played piano, sang, and had some wonderful conversations. I thought perhaps I could find something like that here. I’m not prepared to say it’s impossible, but I think it’s much harder to find. I finally settled on a bar that looked like it might have some personality.
I hit the street again and hoofed it a kilometer and a half eastward. As I got to what I figured was the street I was looking for, I heard a commotion, the unmistakable sound of street violence. Interesting how you know in a split second whether it’s serious or not; the inherited keen attenuation to primate troop dynamics. I saw a guy chasing another guy across the street, saw the savagely precise arm movements of the trained fighter, your Russian-security-guy type of assault. There was a crowd in the street. A woman was trying to placate the assailant. “Well,” I thought, “that is not the street I want to turn down.” I kept walking, but it became clear that the road was dead; I had passed the last outpost of friendly lights. I turned and went a block south, then headed back west, thinking I could pass by the street I was looking for from another angle, on my way back.
I came back to the same street. The fight was over. I walked up towards the lights and sure enough, it had taken place in front of the bar I was looking for. It was packed, standing room only, spilling out into the street. Across the street, a guy was laying motionless on the ground, surrounded by half a dozen people crouching down around him. And what do you suppose was the music blaring out of the bar? Sweet Home Alabama. I hate that song, I hate that band, and together they’re sort of a reverse shibboleth that tells me where I’m not wanted. I have learned that it never pays to enter into an establishment where that song is playing. So I strode past.
I found a bland, overpriced, faux-Irish joint and paid 8 złoty each for a couple of Zywiecs I could have gotten for 4 in my neighborhood dive in Żory. Katowice was not winning me over. If I was really a writer, perhaps I could find inspiration in the desolation of this place, but I only write on the side; I need a music community to nurture me. I could enjoy this place for what it is, but I didn’t think it was a good place for me to live.
Sunday, around mid-day, I wandered in the other direction, away from the train station, to see if I had missed anything off that way. Not that I could tell. The streets were about as lively as Salt Lake City on a Sunday morning. A few kebab shops were open, but none of them had falafel. I was in no mood to eat one more of those Polish wegeterianski kebabs, which are basically lettuce, cabbage, onion and tomato in a tortilla.
And so I went back to the vegetarian restaurant, which is really very good, except that I could not seem to convey my order, and so got way too much food. It was all delicious and though it was hearty, it wasn’t heavy or oily, so, taking my time, I worked my way through most of it.
Perhaps on the heels of a good meal, my mood turned for the better and I began to feel a bit more generous toward Katowice. I went to another bar on Mariacka, a sunlit window-fronted place that reminded me of Juarez, Mexico, except without the feeling that I could be murdered at any moment.
After that, I went to another pub, an underground place with rough-hewn wooden tables, the sort of medieval tavern vibe that makes me feel right at home. There I worked on my novel for a couple of hours and began to feel that perhaps I could learn to love Katowice, after all. The interior and the exterior, they are intertwined, yeah?
In any case, I caught the Bus Brothers minibus back to Żory, where I met up with friends at Czekolada, our neighborhood spot.
It was nice to be home, whatever that means. Maybe next year we’ll all be living somewhere else and dreaming of yet still somewhere else. No telling.
Over my winter break from teaching I took a trip with my friend Rachel to three cities.
- Vienna, Austria
- Budapest, Hungary
- L’viv, Ukraine
I took many photographs, which you can see on facebook. If you’re not my friend on facebook, you should be. (Search for davidmorrisonmusic.) In the future, I will continue posting most of my photos over there, while keeping this journal more text-centered. I know I’ve said that before, but this time I mean it. Entries with lots of photos are too much work; they cause me to procrastinate posting.
So I will throw up only a few pictures for each city, and dig through my skimpy notes for a few things to say about my experiences in each of these fascinating cities, which I saw ever so briefly. Today I will write about…
Vienna is not really my kind of city. It’s very nice if you have money and like shiny things. Me, I find affluence numbing; one of my main goals in life is to have as few possessions as I can possibly manage. There were some museums I would have loved to have visited, but, on this trip, I couldn’t afford that sort of thing. My main entertainment was just walking around and finding the cheapest food I could.
The first afternoon and evening of my three days in Vienna, I walked several miles up and down a brightly lit boulevard packed with Christmas shoppers. My boredom was only relieved when, along with a small clutch of fellow jaywalkers, I was lectured by a crossing guard. I actually enjoyed gazing down contritely, my hands behind my back, as we were scolded. German is the perfect language in which to be lectured. I caught the word kindergarten several times. After about 90 seconds, he waved us off with a look of disgust. It was the best part of my day in Vienna, hands down. Or should I say, “Hände hoch!”
Christmas kitsch… a pleonasm? Most people would love the Viennese Christmas market. I can’t say why I find it so monotonous, the endless cutesy little gnomes and pricey confections, but truly, it makes me long to stand in some Brezhnev-era queue with a ration card for potatoes. Given European history over the last century, it seems abominably small-minded of me to complain about the blandness of the German shopping experience. But I can’t help it, I’m cranky that way. It did help that Rachel thoroughly enjoyed the market. I was at least able to appreciate the delight she took in silly hats and hot wine. I’m fully aware that my dislike of Christmas is not my most appealing trait.
There are a few rough-looking beggars, but not many. I can’t imagine begging is easy work in a Germanic country. (Also, it’s cold and wet.) Begging has its fads. If something works for one, others will try it. In Prague last fall, the trend was to kneel, face pressed to the ground, with a cap outstretched, in what looked like the pose of perhaps a mendicant Buddhist monk. Sort of theatrically abasing oneself. In Vienna this Christmas, the fashion was for a grown man to sit with his legs splayed like a child’s, holding a ragged teddy bear. I saw it three times. Very odd.
Day two. Sunday afternoon. Freezing rain. My beloved Vans sneakers are okay in the snow but they’re for shit in the rain. My coat isn’t waterproof, either. Rachel, in all respects a better-prepared traveler than me—who isn’t?—is fitted out in high-tech winter wear. I’m dressed for an autumn stroll in New York. Buying anything is out of the question, especially in Vienna. I duck into the underground to warm up a bit and maybe dry out. (Wishful thinking.) I would buy an umbrella, if I could find one. I thought perhaps there would be a shop in the underground catering to the common needs of travelers: aspirin, drinks, batteries, umbrellas… but there is only a bookshop—which happens to have quite a few English language books, so hard to fin in Poland, though I can’t afford them right now—and a sushi shop, which is closed. Traveling abroad, I find that I am endlessly searching for some common, simple item you would expect to find everywhere, only to be confronted in its absence by—in the unlikeliest places—bins full of whatever you were looking for last time, but don’t need or can’t carry now. Or perhaps it’s just poor resource-locating skills on my part. In any case, it’s why I am so obsessed with packing. Whatever you forget, you will likely have to do without. At best, you will be forced to pay more than you can afford for something that is not quite what you need.
Speaking of expenses and my inability to plan realistically, while checking on the price of the overnight train from Budapest to L’viv, I realized that I seriously underfunded this trip. I told Rachel that I might not be able to go to L’viv. She suggested that I ask my bosses to advance me part of my December pay. Well, duh, of course; I had already worked the hours. . They were glad to help, ’cause they’re good guys like that. Problem solved. I will be very broke in January, though.
Lest my Vienna post seem like one long-winded kvetch, let me sing the praises of the Cafe Hawelka. I am deeply indebted to Rachel for turning it up in her quest for the best version of some famous Viennese pastry. Totally made up for all the Christmas shoppers. It looks like nothing has changed in there, not a tablecloth, since about 1950. The coffee was fantastic. You could tell the regulars; they all had stunning old world style. Gauche and destructive of the ambiance as it was, I just had to snap a couple of pictures. If I lived in Vienna, I would go to the Cafe Hawelka every day to write. The decaying lampshades, the old wooden chairs, the faded sofas with their gold and red stripes… everything was perfect. But there’s nothing precious about it; it has the feel of a workplace, a no-nonsense quality rooted in the need to move enough coffee and cakes to make payroll and keep the lights on. I have no particular feeling for antiques; shops full of old beer steins and war medals depress me. But I feel somehow at home in old cafes and diners. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that things are made and done there by hand, as it is with the old jazz and blues music I love so well. I especially love mismatched decor, as long as it is functional And I like to see a bit of illogic in the workflow. Save me from scientific workplace management already, the too-perfect CGI arc of motion in the empty geometric space of the replicated model of efficiency. Give me a waiter with an interesting face, gracefully stepping over the same wrinkle in the carpet, day after day. It feels human.
So Cafe Hawelka, on our last night in Vienna, left me with a feeling of affection. Any city that can sustain such a place must have much else to recommend it, if only I had the time and money to explore it more fully.
But we were off to Budapest the next morning. It’s only a couple of hours on the train, but I wouldn’t have minded if it had taken longer. I was happily lost in Trollope’s Barchester Towers. Reading a great 19th century English novel, while riding a train across Hungary? Pretty much my definition of living well.
Budapest will be the subject of my next post.
I’m off on my holiday trip in a few hours. Here is what I have to stuff in my pack… Will it all fit? Long-time friends and blog readers know that I am obsessed with traveling as light as possible. I rarely wish I had packed more; I more commonly wish I had packed less.
Since we’ll be gone 10 days, I packed 5 days’ worth of clothes, plus one to wear while I do laundry, which I guess will be at the hostel in Budapest. I’ve made it possible to dress in several layers at all times. Other than that, I’m trying to keep it to the bare minimum. I am taking coffee, some sandwiches and breakfast foods; I guess those things are optional, but they’ll save time and money. I’m taking the two books Widdop loaned me on L’viv, but only one novel, a big, fat Trollope. I loaded a couple of Polish lessons onto my audio device. I have a notebook for my journal, fiction writing and the little data collection I do every day in support of my diet and meditation practice. There’s the camera, of course, plus medicine, hygiene articles… don’t see how could I could go a while lot lighter for 10 days.
Well, I got it all in there. Final weight: 7.3 kg/16.1 lbs. I have one lesson to teach, then it’s off to Rybnik on the bus for a pint or two with Widdop. We leave for Vienna tomorrow morning at 7:30. No telling when I’ll post next, but I expect there will be web access in the hostels.