Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Beskid Business

May 1st and 3rd are state holidays in Poland. This year they fell on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, so most people got a whole week of vacation (or at least 3 days like we did). The first of May was the Communist Labor Day (a day off work to honor the proletariat), and although the city streets don't host the parades and festivals they used to during the Communist days, people still get the day off. May 3rd is the day the Polish constitution was inacted. The two holidays aren't really connected, as far as I can tell. Polish history has been so tumultous, and it's consolation prize is lots of days off work. Not too shabby.

During our vacation, we went hiking in the Beskidy--the mountain range south of Katowice, on the Slovakian border. Bhads, Booster, and our friend Grant, joined me on the longest and hardest hike of my life.

31 kilometers (about 20 miles) stretched over two days. I'm pretty proud we did it. I'd never tried or succeeded in doing anything that hardcore, so I was fairly skeptical that I could get over that next ridge in one piece. Some of the mountains were very steep, but I did my best to let all my anxieties go. Even after the hostel at Mlada Hora turned us away two hours before sunset (they were booked up, but generally turning people away at all is frowned upon), I still knew we had nothing to worry about. They'd made us tea to keep us going; it was good tea, too, so that was kind of them. But images of shelters in ditches, covered with evergreen braches for warmth, flickered through my thoughts (and funnily enough, through Bhad's thoughts at the same time!); I knew we'd survive the night whether we found beds in Soblowka, the village at the bottom of our mountain, or if we had to rig something up in the hills. I was all just a part of the adventure.

The hike was really wonderful. Day One we ended up in Soblowka, after taking the emergency detour down the mountain in search of warm beds and a cold beer. Of course, everything always, always works out. Always. We arrived in Soblowka, and were a bit stunned. On the map the community looked like a veritable town, but when the trail turned into cement and opened up our view, there was no doubt: Soblowka is a village. Maybe 25 houses scattered across the side of the hill, smoke billowing from chimneys, horses neighing, cats scurrying. We checked out the map at the trail's end and saw no hostels or guesthouses or hotels on it. We started to walk down the main drag, and found ourselves knocking on the door of a short, plump woman's house. A sign read: Noclegi, Zapraszamy! and a telephone number. Having no clue what "noclegi" meant, I knew "zapraszamy" was "we welcome you." So our chances of finding a place were getting better. I didn't catch her name (something like Babcia?) but her sparkling eyes and pink circles of cheeks left an impression. She asked where we were from, we answered, and she responded by clutching her chest and exclaiming with gusto, "America! Ah, America." We were in.

Unfortunately, she said, she didn't have any rooms available. Holiday week. But she would happily call her friends and they come and give us a lift to their place for the night. "Jedno noc, tak? Tylko jedno noc?" She wanted to make sure we needed to stay only for a night.

Accomodation was being arranged and priorities had shifted to, well, beer. What's a hike in the mountains if you can't have a local pint at the end of the day? So, knowing that the village shop was open for just another 10 minutes, Bhad jetted down the street in search of Tyskie.

A few minutes later, Grant and I, standing on the old wooden porch deciphering a guest's map, saw Bhadri sprinting down the road, beer in tow. He kept running and running, passing the driveway to the house. Grant yelled to him with a hey-you-idiot-we're-right-here tone, but Bhads screamed back--still running--"Shut up!" As he jogged up the houses' back entrance, Bhad swore something in between breaths about a crazy drunk man, shaking his head and saying "what the hell?" He told us that the store was being "guarded" by ten liquered-up, mountain men. One of them took it as duty to chase Bhads down, stumbling after him, clenching his fists and yelling after him in a gruff Polish tongue. Bhad successfull alluded him, the reason for running past the house, and avoided a mountain brawl.

We waited for our accomodation beholders to arrive, and the sweet woman with the pink cheeks served us a most delicious three course meal. Veggie soup with noodles, kompote, meat cutlets with mashed potatoes, gravy, and bigos, and a majestic apple dessert. Confession: I ate the meat. The whole meal had meat in it, bar soup and dessert, and I was starving. Yes, I'm making excuses because I feel slightly guilty, but to be honest I wouldn't have had it any other way. The meal was perfect and thank you, a hundred times blessed animal, for the nurishment!

The door of the basement eating area opened as we were rounding off the dessert course. Bhads face twisted confusedly as a short, balled lumberjack walked into the room, a clean-cut man with a character-filled moustache by his side.

"That's the man who chased me down the road!" Bhad whispered to me out of the side of his mouth. "What is going on?"

The moustached gentleman approached our table and extended his hand. He was the shop owner who, notified by our lovely pink cheeked host, came to apologize for the hostile encounter. Piotrek, the owner, shook our hands, said a sturdy, "Przpraszam," and let our small lumberjack take a turn. The little man shook Grant's hand, kissed mine (!), and then took Bhad's hand, placed it on his forehead and bowed, repeating "Przpraszam, przpraszam..." Standing up, bowing, standing up, bowing. He was like a scolded puppy, he seemed so sorry for his behavior, trying to make amends through his intense and sorrowful eyes. In his confusion as well as his good nature, Bhad echoed the guesture and said, "it's really not a problem..."

As it turns out, the village of Soblowka is really much smaller even than it looks. Piotrek ended up being the man who our pink cheeked host had called to put us up for the night. He waited patiently for us to finish our meal, then gave us a ride to his family's home.

A crew of smiling Poles, in varying sizes and ages, greeted us at their door. They were so cheerful and quite inquisitive. Hannia, the mom, Ola, the teenage daughter, Tomek, the boy, Marysia, the Grandma, and Bronek, the Gramps. We put our things down in our room (wow! 3 beds and a table in a real home in the mountains!), and went back downstairs to chat with the fam. As we plopped down at their kitchen table, the family gathered 'round to talk. Hannia made us hot cups of coffee and placed a tray of fresh local cheese on the table in front of us, saying, "prosze!", here you are. We pieced together a lively conversation in Polish, lots of charades and laughter to accompany. Marysia and Bronek had lived in the same village their whole lives, Tomek knew a few words of English, and Piotrek not only owned the shop in town, but was also the fire chief (or fire chef as he liked to say). Later in the night, he brought out his fireman's uniform for me to try on! The family was so incredibly kind to us, even invited us back, and we felt honored to spend a small part of our lives with them.

The next day we tried to catch the 8:50am bus to Ujstron, a bigger village down the road, but it was May 2nd--smack in the middle of the holidays--and the bus driver was probably sleeping in or eating a hearty egg and toast breakfast. Either way, after 30 minutes, it was clear that the bus wasn't coming.

We walked along the road towards Ujstron for a few kilometers, savoring the fresh pastries we'd just bought and exchanging "Good day"s with the men plowing their fields and the women hanging their clothes on the line. Grant was at the back of our single file line and had been sticking his thumb out to every car that passed. A car actually stopped for us, much to Bhad's surprise. He was at the front of the line and had never seen Grant's hitching thumb. So we hopped in the man's super clean car, and he gave us a smooth and pleasant 10 minute ride to Ujstron. From there, we started the ascent up, up, up into the mountains to the eventual oasis of Hala Boracia--a cozy and bright hostel perched on the side of a mountain. We laid out on the grass with our cold pints of Zywiec, ate oscypek cheese, read, snoozed, and giggled at Booster's man sun-soaking positions. It wasn't a tough walk from there to Wiegierska Gorka, the town where our evening train would leave from. The hike from the bottom of the trail at the edge of town to the train station a mile and a half away was a killer, though. My body sensed the end was near, so it started shutting down prematurely. It was a brilliant feeling, despite the pain: we'd just done a challenging two-day hike, Booster was still prancing, we didn't go hungry, and I couldn't've felt more alive.


Kara said...

amazing!!! much love!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for interrupting such a beautiful encounter with a true Polish hospitality my phone call.....:) -Patrice-