Daily Wanderlust: Krakow, Poland

I thought I’d never make it to Krakow. Under the cover of night, I boarded a van which took me across the border into Hungary, dropping me off back in Budapest before the sun rose. Then, at 6 in the morning, I got on a bus to head to Krakow. It was 24 hours of Romanian sunsets, Hungarian mornings and Polish afternoons.

When I arrived to Krakow, before I even got to my hostel, I managed to walk straight into the funeral procession for President Lech Kaczynski and many of the political and military leaders of Poland. To be a part of that historic moment, as tragic as it was, is something I will never forget.

That evening I took some solitary time and headed to the city’s main square in Old Town and was absolutely delighted by what I saw. As the sun set and the moon rose behind the historic church, St. Wojciech, little lights began to twinkle in the windows of the old buildings. Horses giving romantic rides clopped their hooves against the old stones. It was a magical moment as I prepared myself for my next adventure, exploring Krakow’s Jewish District the following day.

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Escape of the Week: Krakow Sunset

Krakow is an easy city to fall in love with, and one of the most underrated. The old portion isn’t too large, so it’s easy to navigate. There’s tons of kebap shops. Clubs and bars make the nightlife one of the best in the region. And, well, it is just plain gorgeous.

I spent a few days in this city, just wandering. My first night in Krakow, after a hellish bus ride that began at 10 p.m. and ended at 2 p.m. the following day, I longed to just sit and relax over some comfort food. Down a few minutes from Tutti Frutti, the hostel where I was staying, was the town square.

I sat for more than an hour with a glass of wine, a little pizza, a book and my camera, just eating, drinking, reading … and most of all, watching as the sun sank and the moon came up.

In this moment, with the old buildings, the  square and the horses and carriages, I was transported to another period of time. Plus, if you stare at the sky and buildings for a moment, it looks like the clouds are moving … which makes me feel like I am almost back in that moment.

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Some place with a view

I sat in the back of Brock’s SUV, looking out into the nighttime desert landscape … flat and black, giving way to the Strip a few miles ahead of us.

It had been an emotional six days in Las Vegas. I had arrived days earlier and spent my first night with Kyla, showing her photos of my trip and drinking copious amounts of wine before we finally decided to call it a night.

In between then and that moment in the desert, I had gone through a multitude of emotions.

Why am I loving this town so much?

There’s a funny thing that happens to you when you decide to take your life, turn it upside down and then attempt to turn it rightside up.

You grow. You change. You are no longer the same person you were.

I found myself back in the town I had come to adore. And hate. And then love to hate. And then … love?

I had become mesmerized by the city.

It looks different after finding yourself.

My third night in town was my birthday. I had assembled my normal crew of amazing people for my birthday celebration at the old haunt, The Tuscany Casino.

Through my years in Las Vegas, the center bar at Tuscany had been my lifeline. Friends, lovers … they all had been initiated at Tuscany. It was our spot for “emergency drinks” which happened to be three nights a week back in the day. I was on a first name basis with the bartenders. When my favorite bartender had his baby, I dropped off a present for the baby. When a bartender we knew had passed away, I cried. It was my spot.

And, on my birthday, so many of the people I loved were there. My old family.

My comfort.

The next night, Kyla I went out to see my Bulgarian Travel Buddy, Abby, at a party at Gold Lounge inside of Aria at City Center. Abby had just returned from living the ex-pat life in Costa Rica to the pulsing Las Vegas as an editor of a magazine.

Seeing her was amazing. Refreshing. And then, beyond the ropes was my old co-worker and friend, Aimee, and her husband (also my friend), Ben. And then, another old friend from my previous days in Las Vegas, Jason.

I miss this life.

And then, after that, the five of us journeyed to Town Square to grab drinks and catch-up.

“Aimee,” I said to my friend as we sipped our IPA, “I think I may want to move back.”

Admitting it is half the battle.

“D,” she began, frowning, “You were miserable when you were here. I  am so afraid if you come back you will be the same way.”

I knew where she was coming from. I LIVED my misery. But, I also lived my misery in Atlanta, and coming into my own in Europe.

“This is what I want … I think.”

It wasn’t until two nights later, in the middle of the desert, with Brock, that it really hit home.

I love my friends, never misunderstand that. But, when you are traveling you lose touch. You know when you get home, the friendship will pick-up where it left off. However, there are a few people who I actually grew closer with when I was traveling.

Brock was one of them. He became an important person in the last month of my travels.

When I felt like my world was falling apart, when all I wanted to do was come home, when I needed anything, he was  there. We would talk on IM and he would help chase my sad away.

Seeing him was important to me. I wanted to tell him how much he helped me smile when all I wanted to do was cry in Bosnia, in Croatia. When I was dealing with my grandmother’s sickness, and ultimately her death, he was there … a simple click away, saying what I needed to hear.

And, there we were, six weeks later … and I didn’t so much as whisper it to him.

Everything changes when you come home.

The two of us sat, side by side, in the back of his car, looking out into the desert while he strummed his guitar.

We sat there for hours while he played some of his original tunes. Note: Brock is a super talented singer, lyricist and guitar player.

Then, he played a song that hit home. About changing your life. About taking a chance. About going “some place with a view.”

He sat on the bumper, singing that song, and I looked out as the haunting chorus began. Above, at the twinkling stars. In front of me at South Point’s flashing marquee, at the lightning blinking in the distance, at the spotlight of Luxor extending towards the sky.

Thoughts of my trip came flooding back to me … learning Irish locks were tricky on St. Patrick’s Day Eve, teaching English in Spain, not taking it off in Budapest, stumbling onto the massive funeral in Krakow, experiencing Auschwitz, trekking for gorillas in Rwanda, falling in lust in Granada, wandering through Marrakesh, being a spectator at the F1 race in Valencia, Spain, taking it off in Barcelona, falling off a cliff in Turkey, Abby and I joining forces in Eastern Europe, Katie and David in Bosnia, touching my fingers into the water in the Adriatic, sitting by boats in Trogir and crying when I lost my grandmother, coming home.

I sat there, listening to his lyrics and matching them to the vast memories I had tucked away.

My eyes began to well up as I went back and forth between my past and my present. Between knowing what I wanted and having no clue. I sat there, bundled in a jacket, avoiding looking at him because I thought one look would give too much access to my soul.

And then, as he picked the last chords on the guitar, I realized something.

Las Vegas is my home.

“What do you think?” Brock asked, turning to me.

I wanted to turn to face him. To bury my head in his shoulder and cry. I was suddenly overcome with emotions, with feelings I hadn’t expect to have on that chilly October night in the middle of the Las Vegas desert.

You just made my mind open up. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t want it. Oh, you lovely little mind f#$%.

“It … I … I listened to that song and I really related to it,” I said, trying to sound like I at least kind of had my shit together.

Chicken.

I kicked my foot around as it dangled off of the bumper. Uneasy. Unsure of what else I could say without completely losing it and having mascara drip down my cheeks.

I didn’t want to look at him. There was too much of everything pulsing through me at that moment to make sense.

We sat awhile longer as he played me some more music, but by then I had already come to my conclusion:

I am HOME.

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Being Jewish in the Krakow Jewish District

On my second full day in Krakow, I decided to do my walkabout. I knew there were places I wanted to go — mostly the locations on the map marked with a Jewish star, also known as the Jewish District.

I know Poland is seeped with a terrible history as it relates to Jews (and many other religions, cultures, etc.), and it makes my heart heavy to think that such a beautiful place has such sad stories behind it.

The Jewish District is one of those places. Lined with kosher and Jewish restaurants and shops, the area oozes charm, personality and beauty.

And, then there is the darker side. The side that hurts me and makes my chest feel tight.

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A Polish funeral and Krakow

When someone questioned me as to why Poland, my answer back was “why not?”

When I first decided to go to Krakow, it was because of the city’s close proximity to Auschwitz, as someone who identifies myself as Jewish it was a place I felt necessary to visit.

I had heard mixed reviews about Poland. Some people had said the country seems sad and a gloom permeates the air continuously. Clearly, those people have never actually visited the country, because I experienced nothing like that at all.

My time in Krakow came on the heels of the tragic plane crash in Russia. In fact, as I walked up to my hostel I careened into one of the funerals.

My hostel, Tutti Frutti, was on one of the main drags in Old Town. Across the middle of the road were lines draped with the Polish flag and black flags  of mourning, hanging solemnly.

But, despite all of this, people remained upbeat.

My first day in Krakow was mainly about catching up on sleep. In the evening, I walked around a little and grabbed dinner, and then met a crew of Serbians in town for a pharmaceutical congress. A group of about 15 of us headed out for sheesha, clearly chasing other patrons out of the cozy Middle Eastern bar with our loud voices.

For hours, we sat there, enjoying the sweet concoctions — cappuccino and milk; mint and water; apple and rum — and singing Serbian songs. Well, they sang, I watched and smiled, thinking to myself how lucky I was to be in the moment with them.

I ended up in Krakow for nearly four days … taking in the city, its charm and beauty and doing some exploration mixed with some intense “getting to know me” moments, some of which took me by surprise.

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Romanian sunsets, Hungarian mornings and Polish afternoons

I stood outside at 22h 40 (I know, very European of me), backpack strapped tight to me, messenger bag slung across my front and purse on my arm.

Whew.

It was time to depart Cluj and head to Krakow. Via bus. Back to Budapest.

When Arpad first told me I had to take a bus to Budapest in order to get to Krakow, I immediately tried for other options.

“Why don’t you want to stop in Budapest?” he had asked.

Aside from backtracking, Budapest and I were still at odds. Only a little, but still. I would have rather trekked from Ukraine like I had originally planned.

But, bus to Budapest it was.

So, there I stood, in the dark outside of a hotel, looking for the bus that would whisk me back to Hungary and then on to Krakow via an Orange Ways bus at 6 a.m.

I was actually a bit bewildered.

I didn’t see a bus. Anywhere.

“Miss, miss,” called the cab driver who had dropped me at the lot. “Here, follow me.”

I picked up step behind him as he walked me away from where I was standing and towards a tiny cluster of people smoking outside of an overgrown white minivan.

“Here,” he said, gesturing for me to stop at the van.

Right. This isn’t a bus.

“Hi,” I said to a man standing at the van door, who seemed to be the driver. “Budapest?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, motioning me to follow him to the back of the van. “Luggage?”

I took off my backpack and placed it on the ground.

Where was it going to go? The van wasn’t like a bus that has the storage underneath.

Then, I saw it. The U-Haul-esque attachment to the van, hooked at the back. My luggage was going to go in there.

“Thanks,” I said, handing him my backpack and keeping my other two bags as pillows. I got in the van and grabbed a seat, trying to fathom the next five hours of driving to get back to Hungary.

Once we departed, I noticed there were only six or so people riding, so I took over two seats, trying to balance myself on the cushions that seemed a few inches too short, and trying to keep the arm of the  seat out of my back.

I slept on and off as we drove through the still of the Romanian night, waking up when I got too hot, when we stopped and at the border.

When we arrived in Hungary at 4:30 a.m., I was glad. Only seven or so more hours of driving until I could get to a bed and catch some real sleep.

The bus to Krakow from Budapest was nothing like the van ride.

Orange Ways is a machine. They pipe in movies. They have wifi (although it wasn’t working on my trip). They even have coffee and hot chocolate. And, they have packed busses. Packed.

I sat in the second to last row of the bus on the aisle, ready to pass out. I could feel the exhaustion seeping into my body, my head growing heavy, my eyes fighting to stay open.

And, that’s when three drunk-from-the-night-before Brits walked onto the bus, past my seat and sat behind me. Smelling like a bar and lots of liquor. Ready to party.

I heard beer cans crack open and ignored it.

I listened as they talked on and on about partying and then put my headphones on to drown them out.

Then, they decided they want to have a party on the bus. So, they opeedn up their laptop and put on some techno for everyone to listen to. At 6 in the morning.

Now, I’m a pretty chill person. There are very few times I will ever ask anyone to stop doing something. Those times are:

– Having sex in a dorm room. C’mon on. I don’t need to hear/see it.

– Talking loudly in a dorm room in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. It takes two moments to go outside.

– Playing loud and crappy techno at 6 a.m. on a bus with a captive audience.

When I could hear the thwackthwackthwack above my music, it was time to turn around. Luckily, they were cool about it and turned it off.

About 30 minutes later, they were all passed out.

And, six hours later, I was walking through the streets of Krakow.

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A BRIEF intermission: Chasing spring … two months in

Today, May 7, is my two month anniversary of traveling. It is the longest time I have been away from home. The longest time I have been away from family. The longest …

For two months now, I have chased spring. It started in Spain, with the first buds on the trees, the first field of little yellow flowers, and has followed me since then.

Spring is an amazing time of year. It is about birth. About starting new. And, it signifies a lot to me, since this trip is a birth of sorts for me. I have literally taken my entire life’s work, my dreams, my desires, and washed them from my mind and here, have begun to reconstruct the wheel, to re-identify what my dreams and desires could be/are.

A year ago, when I lived in Atlanta, I remember marveling at the city’s sheer gorgeousness with the changing of the season. The pink flowers that would sprout from the winding trees. The bright green grass that would pop up overnight. The light wind that would gently blow during days spent at Piedmont Park, taking in the South’s spring.

I would never in a million years have imagined spending my spring 365 days later in Europe, living in a prolonged (and amazing) spring for nearly two months.

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