July 6, 2014: Found in Translation

Just spent five days with Adam’s extended family in Wrocław. We arrived late in the afternoon after a surprisingly pleasant three hour bus trip via PolskiBus. It felt like a cross between flying and bussing -- large plush seats combined with PolskiBus provided snacks and drinks. I’d give them a try if you ever get the chance.

We cabbed from the bus station to a large complex of brightly painted Soviet Era apartment buildings with shady green parks nestled between them. It was nerve wracking. We’d never met the people we were about to spend nearly a week with, and our interpreter, Magda (Adam’s second cousin, who we’d also never met, though Adam had spoken with her over facebook) wasn’t going to be around till later in the afternoon. Adam slung his duffle over his shoulder and approached the entrance, I followed suit. After a moment of confusion (brought on by nerves) about whether or not Polish apartment buzzers worked the same as North American one’s, Adam pushed the apartment number and we silently prayed we hadn’t just bothered some stranger. Seconds later the speaker said “Hello? Adam?” Nervous giggles bubbled from our lips.

Inside was a tiny landing and some stairs. No sign of the kind of apartment lobby we're used to at home. Just mosaic floors and stairs. We walked five steps up the the first landing and realized we didn’t actually know what floor the apartment was on, as, at this level there were two un-numbered doors. Adam flipped his phone back on to look for more instructions and I cased the joint. Two apartment doors, one on either end of the landing, and a door in the center of the stair-well. I peered through the glass window in the door just as an elevator slipped downwards. There was an elevator! I was ecstatic. The thought of carrying up our luggage (however small it was) up what could be 12 flights of stairs had me feeling a little overwhelmed. I pushed the call button and waited for the door to open. I could see the elevator lights, but the door remained closed. I pushed again. This was when I noticed the pull on the door. Not a drawer pull, but something halfway between a drawer pull and a door knob. I pulled and, voila!, there was a tiny elevator. Maybe a 4’x6’ room, if we’re being generous.

We got in and, again, remembered we had no idea what floor this place was on. Adam, always the thinker, pointed out that if there were two apartments on each floor, then apartment 12 couldn’t be any higher up than the sixth floor, so we punched the corresponding button and prepared to search from the top down. Unlike elevators at home, this elevator had no door on the inside preventing you from seeing your progress up the elevator shaft. You could reach out and touch the doors of each floor as they went by. As we passed the fourth floor we heard a woman’s heavily accented voice calling Adam’s name. We took the elevator back down to that floor and there we met Basia, Magda’s mother and Adam’s first cousin, once removed. She smiled wide when we stepped out of the elevator and pulled Adam in for a hug and kissed both his cheeks, while telling us, in broken English, how happy she was that we were there. I was given the same greeting, and we were led inside their home. Basia, having exhausted her English, pointed to a side room and made it understood that we were to put our bags in it. I can’t quite describe how she conveyed that. Mostly gesturing and Polish, and some assuming on our part.

Aside from our initial apprehension, it was a great visit. Basia and Janusz (Basia’s husband) kept us fed with some of the most delicious Polish food I’ve ever had (sour cucumber soup, żurek, and more) and we spent our evenings attempting to converse. Adam, in Polish with Basia, and me, in a combination of French and Spanish with Janusz.

Magda made sure we got out and saw the best parts of Wrocław, primarily the Panorama racławicka and Wrocław Rynek. Panorama racławicka is an huge 360 degree mural of the battle of Racławice, one of Poland’s many battles for independence.

Entering the panorama room felt a little like entering a battle that has been frozen in time. The way the piece is painted, combined with lighting effects and artificial terrain, makes it easy to forget that this scene happened over a hundred years ago.

I pressed the English audio-tour to my ear and tried to find the part of the painting it was describing. I didn’t have much luck catching up to the narration until it directed me to the portion where a large cross dominated the scene. Up until then, it had been trying to direct me to various leaders of the battle (all similarly dressed) but with different kinds of hats and additional regalia. Despite my inability to keep up, it was an experience I’d gladly try again.

Later in the week, we spent the morning touring Wrocław's old town, and the evening with Magda at Wrocław Rynek, also known as “the Meeting Place.” It’s the main square in Old Town Wrocław, where people go to meet up and socialize over a few beers. The building fronts were all illuminated to accentuate their undulating rooftops and show off their decorative flourishes, and below candles flickered on outdoor tables of the numerous pubs, cafes, and restaurants lining the square. After a lap around the square, we settled into a table in front of a brewery and drank the evening away, exchanging stories of travel and explanations of our respective cultures.

A day later, Magda, Adam and I piled into a car borrowed from her parents and left for Warsaw. But not without many hugs and a kisses, along with invitations to return to Wrocław to visit.