Having never lived in a dorm, I find myself slightly frightened by the prospect of hanging out with in a living room indefinitely without an acoustic guitar to occupy my mind and shield me from social pressure. But I recognize that one cannot travel almost halfway around the world just to read a book and occasionally gaze out at a mostly unchanging scene out the bedroom window.
By the second shot of Polish vodka, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than that smoky living room with my new friends. We settled into that couch like an old Żabka receipt (that’s the convenience store with the cartoon frog mascot) and had a blast playing Charades and listening to Youri’s very eclectic music playlist. In fact, it turned out that, as native English speakers, we were TOO good and therefore had to keep getting off of that comfy couch for our next turn. We eventually started holding back and letting other people win.
I knew I was in trouble when I’d correctly guessed “mitochondria” AND “transmutation.”
I retreated to my new notebook with its weirdly heavy, water-resistant paper and drew a self-portrait. My eyes look, indeed, a little tired and fucked-up, but they are wide open and taking in all sorts of information in all sorts of accents. Around my face, I wrote in various words I heard around me - people’s names, answers from Charades, brands of vodka. Then I poured drops of water, orange hand sanitizer, and polish vodka on in and smeared the ink in various directions. I called it “HAPPYSLEEPYUSATRAVELERINPOLAND.”
Day Eight - Neo and Dani take us to Bistro Narożnik, a cozy restaurant offering anything from breakfast to booze. I resist the urge to buy a bottle of John Lemon, a brand of Polish lemonade. Candles are burning on a disused piano in front of a wall with a map of the local neighborhoods as its wallpaper.
Neo and Dani then take us to a very dark movie called “The Singing Napkin” that left me thinking, “have I peered TOO far into the Polish psyche?” Like a dream in which two realities are blended together arbitrarily, the movie theater’s halls were also a very active craft fair.
We go to a small restaurant for kielbasa and bean soup and, as is my new custom, I go to the bathroom sink to collect some of the perfectly fine tap water that is never offered in restaurants. My water bottle proves to be very popular.
We go to see flamenco music at CASA De La Musica, but it’s too crowded to see the band. We settle into a table in the back. A Turkish friend of Dani’s is there, Jülide. As it tends to do, the topic of rooster sounds comes up. We share the sounds a rooster supposedly makes in our native languages. In Turkey, it’s “ü ürü üüüüüü.” In Macedonia, it’s “kukurikú.” In U.S.A., it’s “cock-a-doodle-doo.” In Korea, it’s “GGO GGEE OH.”
Next, Niebo Cafe. George and a slightly different band are playing. The transient Mexican drummer we saw last time, but a different bass player.
Earlier in the trip, we’d been advised to accept every drink that we are offered in a Wrocław bar. An excitable man comes in with a carton of orange juice and demands that I partake. Being very experienced with both crazy people and drunk people, I drink the orange juice and inform everyone within earshot that it is ABSOLUTELY the BEST orange juice that I have EVER experienced.
I have some Polish vodka. Then, I have some Polish vodka. After that, I have some Polish vodka. I realize that I’d be content to spend the rest of my life at this table watching George and his friends play blues rock while I cuddle up with my girlfriend.
An old man in a suit jacket is moving erratically - alone - on the dance floor. In his eyes are the eery leer of a man who is either thinking and feeling far too much or far too little. After he’s glanced over at my girlfriend and I for the seventy-eighth time, I smile, raise my shot glass, and give him a thumbs-up.
This turns out to be an error.
He comes over to us with energy that suggests we’re the first people to communicate with him in several years. He is determined to now tell us his life story and is not in ANY way deterred by the fact that I, as I’ve left him know, only speak English and I don’t understand what he is saying.
Each word is shouted over the loud music with PURPOSE and FERVOR. But we don’t understand ANY of them. Until, like a saxophone melody emerging from a free jazz improvisation, we hear traces of recognizable words. “FOUR. SON.” “I HAVE A FOUR. SON.””SYDNEY.” “SHEFFIELD.”
We feign understanding until he is satisfied and he returns to the dance floor. By now, there is also a carton of grapefruit juice on our table. Soon, he is on-stage with George and his band - not making a request, not singing; just being on-stage.
Day Nine - Last day in Wroclaw. My camera and I go dwarf hunting. I photograph all the interesting, confusing murals. Nicky and I pick up souvenirs. Vinyl Cafe. I get my Mom and sister some fancy candy made in a fancy candy shop. I get myself a small snowglobe and a great magnet for my Dad.
I put “Slovakia” into my GPS and find that I am about six hours from the ancestral homeland of the Vojnik side of my family. I’ve heard there might even be a little royalty in that branch of my family tree. On this trip, I’ve been simultaneously the furthest I’ve ever been from home and the closest I’ve ever been to my ancestral roots.
The sun returns after what feels like a fairly lengthy absence as Neo, Dani, and George walk with us to Cathedral Island.
I spot an unattended blue balloon traveling slowly across a big green field and start filming it. Neo runs over and picks it up and presents it to his girlfriend who accepts it gratefully.
We crossed the Oder River on the Tumski Bridge after stopping to check out the thousands and thousands of love locks.
“Chumps,” Neo proclaims.
“Why, because they wasted a perfectly good lock?” Nicky asks.
They take us to Hala Targowa, a large indoor marketplace that looks like a train station and dates back to the period when Wroclaw was part of Germany. Birds are hanging out in the rafters and we are hanging out in Bar Karmazyn. We knew the perogies would be amazing based solely on the fact that the place was so packed with locals that we could barely find enough chairs for ourselves.
Dani almost leaves the blue balloon behind. I reclaim it for her.
On the other side of the indoor market, we spot a nondescript cafe with a very tempting rotating pastry case.
(It should be noted: one of the pastries looks a LOT like an aerial view of twenty-five Donald Trumps standing in a courtyard.)
We place our coffee and pastry orders and then wander into the back, expecting to find a few mangy chairs. Instead, we find ourselves in a surprisingly ornate, two-level dining area with fresh flowers on the tables, chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings, sepia-tinted historical photographs and collections of tea cups on the walls, and drawers of dried fruit built into the wall for some reason. Another dreamlike moment where it’s all a little more fantastical than it seems it should be, but you just go with it. We go to the upper level and sit around a table on a couch and plush chairs while our food is delivered to us. Nicky reports, “the banana one is my favorite.”
It's like the green room for a talk show hosted by European royalty.
Neo walks us to the bus station and sets us up with hot dogs with rolls that are enclosed on the bottom - weird yet highly practical! We say goodbye to this funny, kind character and his sweetheart of a girlfriend and get on the bus back to Berlin which, after a few days in a city with less English speaking and signage, feels almost like home. (London, then, feels like it might as well be an island right off the New Jersey coast.)
As our Polish friends told us, the road OUT of Poland is smoothly paved. By now, there’s a bit of travel fatigue setting in and I don’t know if I want to scream or laugh at the fact that the fella sitting in the front of the upper deck of the bus is playing - through a cell phone speaker for everyone to hear - “Johnny B. Goode.”