Friday, December 14, 2007

Krakow pt. II. and Attendant Adventures.

I've returned to Krakow to find the same cast of familiar faces and places, and it's been nice to see the same people more than once, especially with the longing for home that accompanies the holiday season setting in. My Krakow adventures have been pretty extensive, so this may take a while.
The tournament was three games and very informal, but we did well, and it was amazing to see the team again. It just so happened that my return to Krakow coincided with my French-Canadian friend, Melanie's return. Melanie, Krakow Pawel, Pawel's flatmate, Mateusz, and I had lots of adventures in my prior stint, but none could match our mountain adventure. Soon after landing in Hostel Yellow again, Pawel suggested he, Melanie, Mateusz and I take a little Polish-style weekend vacation to the mountains. I was excited about going back to Zakopane, so I said "yeah, Zakopane would be great!" Pawel responded "Polish people don't go to Zakopane. We go to cooler, cheaper places." I'd been spending notable amounts of time in Pawel's flat. Pawel has a cat, and we all know how well cats get along with my lungs. I was out of allergy medication, so before we left for the mountains, we went to three different pharmacies to find something chemically similar. At last we found a place staffed by these two sweet, stern Polish ladies who did more than say "we don't have it." They looked in pharmacology books and found me something just as good, and whereas the medication would cost upwards of $30 in the states, it cost a whopping five dollars in Poland. As though Americans needed any more proof that U.S. health insurance is a racket. So with my lungs sorted out, we set off.
The place we went had no real name to speak of, but I'll try my best to describe how we got there. We rode on trains for four hours (we had to change twice) until we got to Rajcza, which is officially the middle of nowhere. From the middle of nowhere, we took a bus for another half hour to the edge of nowhere. And then we walked straight off the edge of nowhere and trudged through snow for 2.5 kilometers in pitch dark. At long last, there was our little chata for the weekend. The snow was waist-deep by that point, but when we got to the place, the owner of a few years, Darek, greeted us warmly and showed us around. Since it was pitch dark, I couldn't infer much about the place except for the interior. He showed us the shower, the kitchen, the laundry...he even showed us the 4'6" eightysomething grandmother who came as part of the sale of the house. My only real question was "where is the toilet?" The toilet was in a separate building--the one with the goats. And it wasn't so much a toilet as an outhouse. He also reminded the gentlemen not to pee on the seat, or else the next sitting user might end up frozen to the seat. I mean, this place was RUSTIC.
We proceeded to drink the beers we'd brought, and Melanie wanted something else to drink, and, audacious girl that she is, she asked Darek if he had any vodka or anything we could buy from him. Perhaps not surprisingly, he did. He brought us a rather suspect-looking bottle of bimber, or honest-to-god Polish moonshine. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Soviet space program hired men like Darek to mass-produce fuel for Baikonur launches, because the stuff tasted like Slivovice on steroids. It was only ten o'clock, and the logical inebriate thing was to explore the snowy woods on the hill above the chata. And so we did. We ran into a group of folks from another chata in the forest and talked to them for a while, and then the bimber ran out, so it was time to go home. I resurrected my quarterback skills and pegged people mercilessly with snowballs on the way down the hill, which made our cozy, heated room a delightful reprieve from the soaking cold. My boots, pants, jackets, and gloves were waterproof; my companions weren't so lucky. The next day their things were still soaked and cold, so we stayed in and got to talking. We were essentially confined to a single room, since it was the warmest in the house, and from there we talked about how unfeasibly stupid climbing the mountain in the dark was. It sure seemed like a GREAT idea at the time, and we all had fun, so I suppose all's well that ends well. When three people are in a room together for hours at a time, strange topics of conversation come up. We talked about the possibility of wild snow hamsters awaiting us in the woods, and how we could have been tied to the ground and eaten, Gulliver-Lilliput style. Lots and lots of redneck jokes were made, and not just in my direction. Quebec is just as much a cultural backwater as Arkansas, it seems. The redneck jokes culminated in the obvious implication that, since I am an Arkansan, I seek livestock for sexual satisfaction. Instead of getting offended, I ran with it. I told them about my new lover, Daisy, who was out in the barn and white as the driven snow. A few hours later I told them we were engaged, and I'd given her a lovely ring, but I was pretty sure she'd eaten it. *sniff* Daisy, I pine for thee. My finest moment of cross-cultural vulgarity, however, was turning on my camera's sound record feature and belching "JE SUIS...RED NEEECKKKK!" I still have the file, in case any of you are curious. The price of the room included dinner, which was enormous and delicious. We had homemade mushroom soup, chicken thigh, fresh plum compote, apple, carrot, and cabbage salad, and brownies for dessert. And get this: dinner and lodging put together came to eight dollars a night.
After a fabulous weekend we returned to Krakow and I started back on my training/hockey regime. which has gotten substantially easier since they set up an outdoor ice rink five minutes' walk from my hostel. I skate between one and two hours a day, and it's been really good for me. The only day it was otherwise was last Friday, when I skated from six to eight and came home only to discover in my email box that I had a game two hours later. And it wasn't one of those tournament games, either; it was a "it's on the small rink and we don't have a goalie, so play until everyone gets tired" game. So I skated about five hours that day. Lord was I sore on Saturday, too, but in a good way. I had just enough time to rest up before my game on Sunday night, with the big boys on the big rink. One of the goals in my inital checklist was, as mentioned, "score a hat trick in any game." I checked that off and replaced it with "score a hat trick in any game against a goalie." Well, I broke my goalless streak on the big rink in a big way: I had four goals (incluiding the game-winner) and three assists in our 9-7 win. It was the best game I've played this season, easily. And dammit, I may need new shoulder pads soon. I creamed this guy on open ice, and when I was hanging my equipment up to dry after the game, I discovered I'd cracked the shoulder cap I'd used to hit him. The pads have lasted me since my second season, so they've led a long, full life. One of my presents this year is decidedly the game sandwich that comes immediately before and after my birthday: I get the last game of my twenty-first year and the first game of my twenty-second within a day of each other. I'm stoked, especially with the way I've been playing recently.
But since hockey can't fill up all my time, I've been going to museums and taking in Christmastime Krakow. They do a thorough and beautiful job of decorating the city, from the gorgeous tree on Rynek Glowny to the outdoor rink to the lit christmas bells lining the main boulevards. There's even a seasonal outdoor market on Rynek, so I went and ended up buying what will someday be volume three of the Journal Cycle; it's a leatherbound book with blank, unlined paper, and it has the cloth hall (Sukiennice) painted on the cover by a local Krakow artist. I paid less for it than I did for either of my current journals, and it's really one-of-a-kind. I've also been watching pretentious movies with Pawel. We generally trade selections--for instance, he'd never seen "Dr. Strangelove," but now we say "MEIN FUHRER! I CAN VALK!" to each other at least four times a day for no real reason. But of all the new movies I've seen here, the one I'd especially recommend is a documentary called "When the Road Bends," and it's about four gypsy bands from very different parts of the world who come together to travel across the U.S. on a "Gypsy Caravan" tour. It's a fabulous film with great music. The best way I can summarize it is this: it's what would happen if you spliced "Buena Vista Social Club" with "Borat."
So here I sit listening to Polish hip-hop and fighting off the cold with a cup of Grzanie Galyciskie, hot Polish mulled wine. To an extent I'm starting to feel like "one of the guys" in Poland, which may be a sure sign it's time to leave this place. Between discussing the intricate usage of Polish swear words and knowing Krakow more or less like the back of my hand, it really is time to move on. One obstacle keeps me from leaving and has done so for over a week: the chaotic and nonsensical entity that is the Russian visa regime. I had initially heard and read that new regulations prohibited the would-be traveller to Russia from applying for a visa if outside his own country. I've since talked to several people who say that it's a simple matter of knowing whom to bribe and which travel agency to use. How very, very Russian. When I returned from the mountains, one of my first stops was the Russian visa agency I'd noticed in my previous Krakow stint. They had me fill out some forms and turn in my passport, and they said that I could come back in five days with payment and everything would be fine. As you've probably inferred, Krakow isn't an awful place to be stuck; I have reliable hockey here and a place to skate every day, as well as numerous friends in different walks of life. Furthermore, since Moscow and Petersburg were removed from my itenerary, I have a little extra time in case something like this popped up (which I knew it would, in some way, shape, or form). So I waited with a naive and blissful conception that I'd be in Kaliningrad soon enough. On Tuesday, however, I went by to pick up my visa, only to discover that "we can't issue visas to non-Polish tourists unless they have Student identification." Would they had told me that the preceding week. I seriously considered lying, telling them I was studying at Jagiellonian, and showing them my ISIC card, but thought against it since I'd be caught with a couple of quick phone calls. So here I am, back at square one, trying another approach. Lodging places can send you invitations, but not individuals. The hangup here is that all the hotels listed online in Kaliningrad are ungodly expensive ($90 a night minimum? Are you kidding me?) Hence I'm digging around trying to contact student housing places in Kaliningrad to see if they'll sponsor me. My deadline for something resembling luck is Monday. If nothing happens by then, Kaliningrad will off the menu, to my dismay. And if I have this much trouble with my Russian visa, I'm really dreading getting one for Belarus. It's actually geographically necessary to get a visa if I'm to transit from the Baltics to Ukraine without a significant detour. Wish me luck, for I am but a lone man surrounded by imposing bureaucracies, piles of papers, and rubber stamps.

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Love and miss you all, and have a blessed holiday season.