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updated: Jan 02, 2010, 9:36 AM
By John McCafferty
KRAKOW, Poland -- I like THE "krakov" pronunciation better. So -- zum Krakov wir gehen, aus Praha. A daylong ride for about 60 bucks (about 2,000 zlotys). Funny word, "zloty".
The towns looked a little boring and battered through Eastern Czech that a.m. Nice looking farms, though. Turned down an English-teaching job here one time. Killer smog in the "eastern Bohemia brown coal basin". In some towns, they needed car lights on all day.
A definite chill overcame us when we realized we were passing the Auschwitz area. For how many thousands was this train ride their last? We'd seen several concentration camps on an earlier trip, and had no desire to find this one.
You know you're in Poland when:
• The signs say so, and when things get really battered. and it reminds you more and more of Russia. Po'folks, poor-looking housing.
• Two huge women shove their kids through the train car door and yell at you in rapid-fire staccato sounds.
• You give a WC woman at a rural train station some copper Czech coins (korunas) and she practically throws them back at you, with more staccato sounds. This is the land of zlotyz. The poor woman didn't know a deal when she was offered one.
• The girls have suddenly gotten bigger, but not more stylish. Just long-legged and, well, Polish.
• A tall handsome black youth swaggers into the train car with his dressed-up blonde and, like a cowboy entering a hostile barroom and drawing his six-shooter, pulls his cell phone from his pocket and is ready for a showdown. Hey, the train is ONE MINUTE LATE -- let's get the show on the road! On to Krakow!
• Your first-class train seats are 2nd class at best, a bit tattered and stained, and not as soft as you'd like.
But by mid-afternoon, we arrived. Krakov is fine! Some lovely old buildings, and it's much cleaner than what we saw of Poland on the way in. Not even much graffiti. (Have I mentioned that Euro cities are as bad as L.A. in that regard? Maybe worse. BIG colorful stuff, like cartoons, less like the gang-banger printing in Santa Barbara. It's hopeless. The dummies win.)
The following day, we worked hard to find the Jewish quarter and finally did, with the magical appearance of a Jewish woman from New Mexico looking for her roots. She found us lost at a bus stop on the wrong side of the city, and got us to Szeroka Street, which features restaurants with Klezmer music (very old Jewish folk music), so there was the evening's entertainment -- excellent music and fine dining. Complete with a taxi ride, since gramps was too beat up to walk much more.
In the HUGE new four-story shopping mall next to the train station, we were having coffee in McDonald's after SD changed some money. We were approached by an elderly, poor-looking woman muttering in German. She reached for my coffee and I withdrew. Then, since most of it was gone, offered it to her.
"Nein, nein", she said, and pointed at the side of the cup. Thereupon was a little sticker which, she explained, showing me a card she carried with a couple of rows of the same sticker pasted on, would entitle her to a free cup if she had one more -- MY sticker.
Her fingernails were dirty and she was a bit tattered, but I liked her attitude and handed her the cup. She scraped off my sticker and pasted it to her card. Everybody was happy.
As we were getting ready to leave, she came back and handed us a small bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley, a May Day tradition in Europe. They were, like her, kind of tattered; she'd probably found them in the trash, but . . . it's the thought that counts, isn't it.
Then I got an excellent haircut for 5 bucks from an old gal at the train station who could speak a little Russian, and really knew how to cut men's hair the old-fashioned way, with a razor around the edges.
We saw some outstanding art at a major museum, got our laundry done, and topped off our stay in Krakow with a Chopin concert. He, our favorite composer, was a Pole and it was a treat to hear him in his native land. I mean, of course, a local pianist playing Chopin's etudes and preludes; Chopin himself hasn't played anything since 1849.
Krakow was a good stop -- a very good stop.
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