In February 1999, I was studying in Prague. Our tourist visas expired after thirty days, so we had to leave the country each month. My first out-of-country trip was to Krakow, Poland, with some friends from my study abroad program. It was an interesting trip, starting with our overnight train ride, during which we shared a compartment with three or four grizzled older Polish men, guest workers who were on their way home and found our phrase book hilarious. This was followed by our attempts, upon our arrival at 6.30 in the morning, to find food, a warm place to hang around until things opened, and a place to stay. We somehow found our way to a strange McDonald’s—hey, it was the only thing open that early!—with, as I recall, an actual tree in the basement. Then we found a taxi driver who spoke some English and knew some people who ran a pension. He called them to make sure it was available, then drove us there while blaring the Polish version of “Pretty Woman” on his tape player.
I don’t really remember what we did for the rest of that cold Saturday, though I know there was Nutella involved, and at some point we went to the Sukiennice, or Cloth Market, saw a little girl covered with pigeons, walked around on the river promenade, where we saw a novice nun, probably no older than us, hanging out with her non-nun friends. At about 18.00, we discovered that everything was closed except for a Chinese restaurant, so we had dinner there—the best sesame chicken ever.
The next day, Sunday, was also very cold. I wanted to go to church, but didn’t know where it was or how to ask, so I instead wore a long skirt just in case. We did visit the castle, including the church part of the castle, so maybe that counted. Later, we walked down a lovely tree-lined mall towards the old town.
After it got dark that evening, it got very, very cold. We were trudging around with our backpacks and coats and hats, trying to stay warm and still take advantage of our last few hours in Krakow before we got back on the night train. It was so cold. Did I mention it was cold? I was so happy to have these super-warm, triple-layered fleece mittens made by some company called puffin fur, or something like that, that I believe I had found at JCPenney in Cottonwood Mall in Salt Lake. They came all the way up my wrists, so they weren’t leaky like most mittens, and inside my fingers were so nice and toasty, unlike the rest of me.
As we walked down a crowded pedestrian zone, I saw a man kneeling on the sidewalk next to the curb, holding a sign that I couldn’t read, wearing a thin jacket, no hat, and no gloves. I walked by at first, and then changed my mind. “Hold on,” I said to my friends, and ran back to give my mittens to the man. He said something that I didn’t understand, and I probably said something that he didn’t understand, and then I left to rejoin my friends. I didn’t look back at him, but one of my friends told me he had put the mittens on and seemed happy.
A few blocks later, we saw someone making some amazing paintings using spray paint, and we joined the crowd that had gathered to watch.
This article appeared on page 9 of Issue 13 | January 2014.