Sunday, February 24, 2013

Krakow part three - This Single Life part five

The liberation of loneliness

 I needed some time away from the stress of work (following a very intense couple of months) and to get away from everything I took a long weekend away - in Krakow. I have no idea why I chose that destination, but I seriously needed some 'me' time.

Going to a completely foreign country where I didn't have a clue about the language is not everyone's idea of 'stress free', but I really enjoyed myself.

I arrived at Krakow airport and came out into the airport lounge to a dull grey day and not a clue about the language. I could say one thing 'thank you' (dziekuje - which would come in useful) and decided to get to my hotel by bus. I found a bus stop eventually and bought a ticket from the Bilety machine. I realised that I could read some Polish - though the sounds were unfamiliar to me. 

By taking the bus into the city I saved money and I got to saw much more of the city - taking the bus route through the wealthy suburbs, and the less wealthy areas too. From huge houses behind iron gates to the massive newly built apartment blocks. Flying in over Krakow the apartment blocks looked like huge dominoes all stacked round the city.

I found my hotel and booked my trips (the salt mine and the Jewish Quarter), and with the whole day ahead of me still, thanks to an early flight, went exploring. I felt perfectly safe in the city. It was a typical European city, though more Eastern European than I had even visited. The weather was grey, the snow was piled in un-melted heaps by the side of the roads and my exploring took me all over the city - mostly in circles. I found the castle and cathedral and after an enlightening afternoon headed back to the hotel.
The clapper is the 'heart'

I was not with a group, and the only conversations I had the whole time were transactional - enough to get what I needed. I walked in circles quite frequently, I got lost in some strange parts of town, I went the wrong way on the tram and walked a five mile route to the Schindler Museum instead of a half mile.

There was no one to chide me for a wrong decision, no one to pressure me about time, or activity, or about what to do. I could climb high in the cathedral tower to visit the heart of the bell, descend into the depths of the salt mine, wander the streets aimlessly and was totally at liberty to please myself. I went back to the hotel when I wanted, I ate at small Polish cafes (where my lack of Polish was matched by the owners' lack of English) and I survived, eating wonderful traditional local cooking.

So the liberation was that I had nothing and no one else to worry about. No foibles or preferences of anyone but myself to consider. And yet I had no one to share the story with at the time. But you know - that's fine - because I have more tales to tell since my return.

I think my next trip may well be in a group, because I want to go whale watching in Iceland, but if it isn't, I really don't mind. I like pleasing myself. And I'm sure the whales won't mind at all.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When creative writers go wrong

I go to a writers circle most months, and for February we had a 'write beforehand' exercise. We were given three titles and I started writing about 'The Betrayal'. It was pants. The next choice was 'Thursday morning, 4am' but it also left me uninspired. The final choice, 'Shoes in a charity shop' didn't exactly excite me, but some whimsy took my mind last night as I was thinking about this challenge, and this is what I wrote.  Best read aloud, with a suitably regionalised accent for the shop assistant:

Shoes in the charity shop

“Excuse me,” I said to the lady at the counter, “but these were on the shelf over there”. I pointed towards the shoe rack, and put the two bananas down in front of her.

“Oh my, they are lovely, aren’t they?” she said. I looked at her, a little confused. Well, yes, I liked bananas, but that’s not what I expected her to say.

I looked down at them, and then up at her.

“Well, aren’t you going to try them on?” she said. “They are just your colour.” I looked at her as if she had just landed from another planet. “Go on!” she enthused. I paused, and a small frown creased her brow. “It’s OK, we do spray everything. They won’t smell or anything. They are perfectly clean.”

I looked at the bananas again. Two long, slightly curved, and somewhat wide yellow fruit, delicately scored with black. Actually, the black was rather nicely symmetrical. I looked at the bananas again, turning them round on the counter, to view them from every angle. They were bananas.

“Not too high, are they?” the assistant asked. She nudged them towards me. “Go on. They aren’t expensive, and they are so lovely and soft. I bet they’ll fit like a dream when you put them on.”

Sighing at the complete impossibility of it all, I took the bananas from the counter and put them on the floor. I slipped off my burgundy court shoes and … stepped into the bananas. They felt soft, squidgy. The fruit seeped between my toes, a not unpleasant feeling.

“Walk around a bit, see how they feel.” I walked across the shop floor. The bananas moulded to my feet. The gluey fruit flattened, the slippery skins buttered themselves across my instep. “They do look smart on you.” Said the girl. I decided to stop looking at my feet as I walked. I crossed the shop and went to a full length mirror that hung next to a huge vase full of walking sticks. The bananas felt strangely comfortable.  I looked at myself in the mirror, there were my feet – neatly encased in … mashed fruit.

I went back to the counter and slipped them off. Putting my feet back into my own shoes, my toes still sticky with squashed white flesh, I felt rather silly. “I don’t think they are really for me.” I said. “Shame.” The assistant sighed, and as I put the pulped bananas back on the counter her face instantly clouded. “Look what you’ve done to them!” she said. “They’re ruined – I can’t sell those!”

“But…” I started, and then realised I had not one iota of defence. She looked at me. I looked at her, and then down at the ruined bananas. “I tell you what,” I said. “I’ll take them, but I’d like a handbag to match.” The girl smiled.

“No problem,” she said, and reaching below the counter, pulled out a large yellow melon. She unzipped it and pulled out something not unlike a very ripe mango. “Look,” she said. “Even got a matching purse.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Krakow - Eposide Two: Above the salt

From Wiki: "The word salary originates from Latinsalarium which referred to the money paid to the Roman Army's soldiers for the purchase of salt."

White gold, below the salt, salt of the earth, worth his salt. Salt has been currency both in physical and literary terms for thousands of years. And though I was familiar with salt harvesting from the sea, I never really thought about rock salt or that it required mining. I never imagined, for example, that beneath the ground the prehistoric seas had left such huge salt deposits as those that give their name to places like Salzburg and Salzach.

My visit to the Wieliczka salt mine was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Poland. There is a lovely story of how the mine was found, through the dropping of a ring by St Kinga (she dropped the ring in a salt mine miles away, and it turned up in Wielicza). St Kinga is the patron saint of salt miners, of course.

The mine itself is an amazing place and certainly worth visiting. 101m underground and you are in a huge chamber that equals that of many a stately home. And it's all made of salt - from the tiles beneath your feet to the crystals on the chandelier. The salt miners (who lived longer than their non-mining contemporaries, due to the 'benefits' of salt) made the most amazing statues and underground chapels - carving out of the salt not only the chambers and passageways, but detailed statues of saints and heroes.

The mine was awe inspiring - in fact it is one of the most extraordinary and intriguing places I have ever been. A mix of nature's wonder (the varying colours of the salt and the way it crystalises on the ancient props) and the ingenuity of humanity - carving not only a living from the salt, but the amazing chapels too.

From the Pope to gnomes, all along the tourist route you get to see the craftsmanship of carver-miners. The tour I went on was around two hours and we walked a long way, exploring three levels of the mine that are open to the public. And the amazing thing is that we saw just 1% of the mine - it must be absolutely huge.

St Kinga

The main hall

One of the tunnels

The floor tiles - simply carved out of the salt floor

One of the carvings in the main hall

Carving detail

I was there! 
The salt mine alone was worth the trip to Poland. I wish I could have taken better photographs, but those I do have don't even begin to do it justice.

Photos: All (C) Carolyn Sheppard 2013

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Krakow - episode one: Too fat for a Pole

The town and the places I visited were full of young people – healthy looking, with their distinctive defined features and lean figures. I did, however, notice a distinct lack of middle aged people (and have no explanation for this). The older people were the retired generation (and didn't tend to hang around tourist haunts, understandably), but I was disappointed at the lack of impressive facial hair across any generation. This may be a stereotypical expectation, but one fulfilled in the past (in an adventure in Spain, but that’s another blog post). There’s no denying it, if I hadn't been wearing a big coat with a fur collar and the most ridiculous (but warm) ear-flap hat, I would never have been mistaken for a native, not at my weight.

St Adelbert's
I enjoyed my visit to Krakow and the people were friendly, especially the ones on the market square. These fell into three distinct categories – firstly the tourists, of whom I was one and blatantly wandering about with a camera taking pictures of churches and architectural detail; secondly the visiting Pole who is confident in the language but unfamiliar with the city. They were disappointed when I couldn't direct them to their chosen destination or tell them which tram was going where. Finally were the panhandlers; those individuals (of all ages) who were asking for money or food, with the catch phrase ‘I'm hungry’. One rather elderly lady in a fur coat told me she hadn't had any lunch (but she did have cigarettes).

I adopted a technique for dealing with the latter group – a simple and safe one. Speak complete gibberish. If I spoke English, then they had a way in to conversation, and being British and polite, we hate saying no. But, if I spoke complete rubbish, they gave up and went away, heading towards the next likely looking mark. Now I may sound insensitive and there are definitely those in need in Krakow as in many places, but I am not wise enough to know who is deserving and who is not. Nor am I foolish enough to get out my purse in a market square in front of a person who can (fur coat lady aside) no doubt run a lot faster and further than me.

If you know me, you know I am not a Christian or a great believer in any formal religion, but I do believe that the basic ideas (of nearly all religions) are a good moral guide overall, where they are about mutual benefit. I also understood that Jesus was a man (if he really was, blah blah, nothing deep here, save that discussion for another time) who stood for helping those worse off than yourself and in being humble in this life. So whilst on the freezing streets of Krakow young and old are asking for handouts from strangers, in the churches there are the most extraordinarily gilded statues I have ever seen.

I understand that churches were built to impress and convey the might of god (and the ceiling of St Mary’s is wonderfully impressive), but of the little I know of the Bible, I don’t think the apostles went around in huge gold-laden cloaks. Perhaps just one statue from one church would have yielded enough gold to feed everyone in the square that day.

Oh I know that’s simplistic, but it’s not so much about the money or aesthetics as about the conflict with what I understood Jesus to represent, and then how he is represented. In St Adelbert’s (where I attended a wonderful chamber concert), the painting of Mary and child had silver crowns stuck on top of their halos – an obvious later addition. It looked like a kid had got the silver paper and jelly beans out. Probably real silver and amber, probably worth a small fortune, yet to my mind they detracted from the impact of the painting itself. Mind you, the churches were very impressive and as a visual feast I certainly enjoyed visiting and photographing them.

It was cold in Krakow so I spent most of my time in my coat and well wrapped up. I ate wonderful food at Polish cafes and enjoyed local fare. Still, I didn't over eat and didn't drink much (apart from the delicious mulled wine) and I walked miles and miles. But if I had visited in summer and worn the local fashion of rather hideous check, they’d have still known I was too fat for a Pole.