A Polish Wedding 2, or: How to Find a Friend in the Wilderness

The next morning brought more food than I could possibly want in the form of the breakfast bar.  Filled with processed meats and cheeses, the thought of it rolling over my tastebuds and flopping down on top of last night's partially digested feast, it turned my stomach, so I went back upstairs and put on my jogging gear.  Generally, running on a full stomach is asking for trouble but I was desperate for some fresh air in my lungs.  It would also take away some of that sickly bloat that I had imposed on myself the night before.  Wanting to try something a little longer than yesterday I looked at the route on google and traced a possible alternative - heading out of the other side of town and meeting up with the road I was on yesterday to make a loop of about 10k.  The roads all looked pretty obvious, so I decided to go for it.
Heading out of town down a long, straight road, I felt much better.  The fresh morning air was filling the lungs and the quiet scenery settled the mind into the day ahead.  But soon, the rain began and quickly strengthened.  I didn't mind as the temperature was mild and a bit of rain while running keeps me cool.  I kept on the back road; the map suggested I just stick to that and I would eventually reach the road I was on yesterday.  As the miles went by I was expecting to see signs for neighboring towns, but the turnings came and went and none of them resulted in anything familiar.

An hour or so in and the rain stopped.  So did the road.  The tarmac ended abruptly and a dirt track extended into the fields beyond, obscured by an old tractor.  By this point, I had been up and down several turnings without luck and I was getting nervous.  I stopped and looked around the area - a remote rural road with a couple of houses either side.  The garden at the end was the site of a work in progress.  The shell of a house, little more than a pile of breeze blocks was guarded by a large, barking dog in a kennel.  Fortunately he was on a lead and the garden was surrounded by a high wire fence.

Then came the puppy.  We have a puppy back home who was staying with grandparents while we were away, and so my first reaction to this bounding ball of cute was along the lines of 'awwwww'.  He wobbled towards me; a black retriever of some kind who had just found a new friend.  The wire fence separating us was no match for him, as he burrowed his way underneath and came to give me a personal greeting.  This was nice, I thought.  I petted him and gave him plenty of fuss for a short while, before turning back and jogging up the road.

But the little mutt was not for losing his new best friend.  I ran and he followed.  I ran further and he sped up.  This was getting worrying.  I couldn't have him along for the ride; he'd eventually tire and then be as lost as me, and at this moment I was taking up his full attention, so he had nothing on his mind beyond seeing what new adventures I would take him to see.  As the rain started to pour again, I trotted back to the garden and lifted him over.  He burrowed under again and looked at me with his tongue and tail wagging.  I repeated, and tried to weigh the fence down with stones, then ran for it.  I got thirty yards down the road and then heard the scamper of wobbly claws on tarmac behind me.

I was getting desperate.  Wherever home was I needed to get there soon.  I went back and scanned the houses - every one seemed deserted.  After trying to fool him to get stuck behind a gate, I came across another house a few doors down with a sturdily fenced garden.  I listened for dogs and scanned for warning notices, but found none.  This was his best chance.  I picked him up, and through the grateful licking, placed him down over the fence.  He looked at me forlornly, his best friend had double-crossed him, but I had to go.

I jogged away trying not to think about the possible fate that I had given him.  The owner of the house would find him a few minutes later and give him some food before handing him back to his owner.  Yes.  I choose to believe this is what happened.

It had been a couple of hours now since leaving.  I had given up on the idea of making the circle back to the hotel and instead tried to retrace my steps, but there were so many roads I had been down unsuccessfully I was unsure at each junction.

Then a ray of hope.  In the driveway of a house was a bicycle next to an open door.  Maybe someone was there.  What was the name of the town I had come from?  Come on, brain!

Just as I was about to try the gate, a woman came outside.  Praying she understood me I waved hello in as unwierd way as I could.  Just so she was aware, I said 'English' early on so she knew I'd have no clue what she was saying.  I guess seeing an English jogger in Poland must be unusual (I didn't see any joggers anywhere my whole time in the country) but one popping up in the pouring rain must have been even stranger.  So when she spoke a little broken English back to me it was a huge relief.  It was at this point my brain kicked in and recalled the name of the town - Międzybórz! - and my pronunciation was good enough to give her an idea of my predicament.  Surprisingly there was no way through even though Google Maps lied and said there was; my only way there was to go back the way I came, which fortunately she gave me directions for.

It is down to that strangers' great generosity that I made it back about an hour after that.  She actually came to see my progress on her bike a mile or so in to make sure I was on the right track.  The first signs of the familiar town through the gloom and the rain felt like coming home and I finally made it through the door, shortly before my partner sent out the search party.

Showered and dressed, we headed out for a look around the nearby town of Sycow, a relatively bustling place a step up from our sleepy hotel haunt.  A long road split the town in half, and represented the commercial 'district'.  National supermarkets pushed their way into the spaces where corner shops once were, squeezing aside those left from an earlier time.
Beyond the curiosity of greengrocers selling unusually shaped vegetables and the weird and wonderful things lining the shelves of the supermarkets, the place had little to entertain the passing tourist, and why should it?  We sat for a short while in a pleasant little cafe and then headed back.  After all, today was round two.

The general idea is that the wedding guests are assaulted on day one of the wedding with a near infinite barrage of food.  The food not eaten, rather than being scraped indignantly away into a nearby bin, is recycled.  Sometimes over several days, depending on the amount of animals slaughtered and the number of mouths willing to have bits of them repeatedly pushed inside.

And so it was that we provided two of those mouths.  Come midday, the onslaught started again, with familiar friends around the table, and on it.  But, there was something new put in front of us.  A curious-looking soup was being passed around in a big silver bowl.  As an aperitif, it sounded like a good stomach liner, so I beckoned the ladel in my direction.

The thin stock was full of what appeared to be vegetable strands, something like the seedy central bit of a courgette left to boil for a few hours and added to give a little variety to an otherwise boring soup.  Nevertheless, it was quite nice.  It was only after I placed down my spoon that I noticed Ms. Plants and several others had passed on the idea, knowing full well that the stringy stuff was offal.

We ploughed through the reheated food given to us, as much as we could.  It was still pretty good although the once-pristine square cakes had a definite look of being handled a few times, and thus nowhere near as appetizing.

The band was back once more.  They had little sleep since the previous night but were fresh and raring to go, belting out a number of Polish and western hits, which periodically we got up and danced to.  We sat and chatted and alternated between the food and dancing as the day turned to night.

Sometime late on, our attentions turned to John.  John is a part-time helper at the local church, who was invited along to take part in the wedding ceremony.  Now firmly out of his cassocks he had been sitting quietly and it was only now that we noticed he was a bit too quiet.  Unfazed by the banter around him he sat nodding off with his eyes closed.  Initial amusement turned to concern as we clocked the beads of sweat on his head.

Ms. Plants gave an immediate diagnosis, based as much on common sense as from her nursing experience.  He was an elderly man who had lived a sheltered life.  This was his first time abroad, and his normal alcohol intake was usually a sip of sherry on an evening.  For the second day in a row, his liver was having to accommodate the large amounts of beer, wine and vodka that an unrestricted drinking environment was providing him.  He needed to lie down.

We persuaded him to leave the chair and four of us helped the semi-conscious, apologetic man to the cooler lobby where a sofa was conveniently waiting.  We opened the door and sat with him for a while and slowly he started to feel a little better.  Insisting he was fine, we were not so sure, and so with some persuading, we were able to head upstairs, supporting him under his shoulders.  Just prior to reaching his room, the inevitable happened and he puked all over the floor.

We hoofed him onto the bed and after giving him a little water and checking he was okay, left him to sleep things off.

The remainder of the night involved more games and music, and of course, eating.  The last thing I remember from that night was being whirled around in a giant circle of people, sweaty hands holding me to the left and right, getting down to a Polish rendition of 'Yes Sir, I can Boogie'.  It will not be leaving my memory any time soon.

The next day was our last wedding-related day in Poland.  The morning brought with it third-hand foodstuffs, and then in the afternoon we visited the grooms' parents again and they took us all out for a meal. Thankfully, this was at a nice restaurant in the adjascent town, so everything was fresh, and we had no social pressure to wolf it all down.  We spent the evening packing.

The beginning of the new week was also the beginning of our holiday proper.  Up until this point, we were pretty much at the mercy of the meticulous arrangement of the bride, but now we were free to do as we wished.  The bride and groom were staying on a few days;  some of our English contingent were heading home, others doing like us and visiting other parts of Poland and beyond.  We had a room booked in Krakow, but first we had to get there, and that meant a bit of travel.

Marko very generously volunteered through his hangover to get us to the centre of Wroclaw, where the bus station would give us the best way of getting to Krakow before sundown.  Suggestions that maybe we could take a train between the two cities were frowned upon by those in the know; the Polish train system, we were told, was not very useful if you wanted to travel from one place to another in comfort or timeliness, so the car it was.

The kart van was nowhere to be seen, so we squeezed ourselves and another couple going to the airport, plus all our bags, into the old estate car Marko pulled up in.  Closer to the ground felt faster still, and the fields and forests went a blur past the windows until we reached the motorways once more.

An hour or so later we reached central Wroclaw, a bustling city with echoes of it's past.  Immaculate architecture stood on one side of a road, and over the other side stooped pock-marked wrecks of buildings clearly not cleared up from the worst excesses of war.  The buildings dropped away to reveal a dreary looking bus station which looked devoid of love, a metal and corrugated eyesore that was still in use simply because it hadn't fallen apart.

Marko helped us find the ticket booths and worked out the best bus to get on.  The tickets were dirt cheap, enough to make us consider buying several and going to random destinations, but we didn't have the time to reach the far corners of the country.  We stuck to Krakow.  Marko said his farewells and we were on our own to wait for the bus.  Flocks of pigeons and sparrows fluttered about stand 8 and we took turns having a walk about while the other went to the loo, or had a bit of a walk around in the half hour before our bus came.

The bus ride was pretty nondescript, as was the scenery outside.  Poland beyond the surviving pre-war architecture is not the prettiest place to view through a bus window; we were thankful for the functional roads but were looking forward to seeing something a little nicer - our fingers were crossed for Krakow.

We reached the Krakow bus station in early evening.  Compared to Wroklaw, Krakow was altogether more beautiful, less dusty, and much more vibrant.  We gathered our bearings and headed in the direction we thought the room was in.  It was warm and sunny, and after a few heated arguments about the correct road to take we started to enjoy the scenery instead.  The Planty park gardens are a thin ring of greenery around the inner core of the city, and we were able to follow them around to get most of the way in.  The well-kept cobble roads and the almost cosmopolitan vibe was a nice alternative to the remote, featureless view of Poland we had so far; it would have been better still without lugging a load of cases over it all.

We finally made it to our stopover for the night.  We had another three days to spend in Krakow but our original choice of hotel was booked up on the first day, so we found a top floor apartment to tide us over for the first night, on the south side of the Planty, next to Wawel Royal castle.  Definitely part of the old town, it was hard to tell whether we had rung the doorbell to the hotel or somebody's house, but an enthusiastic woman buzzed us in through the huge wooden doors, revealing a dark and cavernous entrance hall.  It looked like the entrance to the sort of apartment block that a french hitman from the a sixties noir film might be running through.

Murky, smoke-coloured plaster walls and old fashioned metal-framed windows looking out onto other apartments just a few feet away, made up the scenery of the first three floors, with a reassuring sticker sign on each level telling us the guest apartments were in fact this way.  At the entrance to the upper floors, the decor changed from old-fashioned to modern; a brushed-steel doorway held open by a slim, bubbly young woman who ushered us up a final flight of smooth wooden steps and into a contrastingly modern hallway.  We waited patiently while she took a call, thumbing through the Krakow tourist brochures, and then finally got our room.  A modern, open-plan kitchen/bedroom/living room with a recessed telly, gaudily painted walls and a selection of tightly-screwed down modern art paintings dotted around.
After getting our breath back and unpacking a little, we headed back out to the centre of the city.  We didn't have much daylight left so restricted ourselves to looking around the market square in the epicentre of the old town.  A wide open space compared with the tight and narrow shop-lined streets surrounding it, the square was the place to meet up with friends it seemed.  Large gatherings of people, some just idling around; others watching some of the open-air entertainment.  Others darting through between shops and restaurants.  A handful of men here and there were trying to sell luminous rocket toys as cheap kids presents for Christmas.
In the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall - a slender covered market made up of a single corridor with little shops either side, both inside and out.   We walked amongst the crowds and eyed up the various restaurants and then went inside.
Being September, the theme was Christmas, and many of the little shops either side were buzzing with people looking for something to buy.  A lot of it was just the same as the stuff you see in the German Markets we get around this time, but there were some other more bespoke items dotted here and there, and it still had that feel of selling locally-produced merchandise, even if some of it probably wasn't.

The market was closing up and the night was drawing in, so we spent a little time skirting around the edges of the square to see what choice of food there was (answer: just about everything you'd get in your average English city).  We passed on a rather nice looking Indian, just in case and instead took the advice of a slightly biased young man drumming up business for an Italian restaurant underneath a Christmas shop.  We spent a candlelit evening chatting about what we had seen so far and where we would go tomorrow, as the shadows flickered on the nearly pointed stonework above us.

Our holiday was finally ours.

No comments: