Saturday, 31 January 2015

The party bus is coming: Eastern Europe Festive Party Trek - Part 6, the end

Tuesday, 30 December 2014
KRAKOW

Our hostel in Krakow was interesting, to say the least. The stairs continued for centuries, with most of us on floors 3 and above. I finally saw the benefit of my backpack after watching many of the group struggle up the stairs with their wheelie cases. Hot water was temperamental, as was the heating system. The decor, while not to everyone’s tastes, was interesting (and frankly, I kinda liked it). Each room, instead of a number, was named after an actress or character from the Art Deco era and was subsequently decorated with images of said actress, usually involving full frontal nudity.

Who doesn’t like their walls adorned with boobs?

We arrived in the afternoon and relaxed a little while before it was time for dinner. My roommates and I whiled away the time looking up Taylor Swift’s romance history and which song related to what fling. It was educational.

On the first day of the tour, I realised I had cocked up the dates thinking it ended on the 2nd and had booked my flights for that day. Upon realising that I needed one more nights accommodation, I had tried to book into this hotel but the online system wouldn't accept my card. Quite out of character, I decided I'd figure it out when I got there and that's what I did. Turns out I wasn't the only one who needed a room for the night, and so Peter and I grabbed the last available room which housed 4, and decided it was so cheap that if we have to pay for the extra beds then so be it.

Phew. So now I was sorted.

It was then time to head out to dinner. We put on ALL THE CLOTHING (because it was a little bit on the chilly side) and set off into the centre of Krakow for the first time. What we saw was the centre square, raving - a New Years Eve Eve party, apparently in preparation for the festivities that were to happen the next night. This started to get us excited - the music, the lighting displays lit up the sky. 

On the menu tonight for me was traditional Polish dumplings. The service was questionable (Sasha: May I have mushrooms with my vegetables? Everyone else got mushrooms. Waiter: What do you want me to do about it?) but the food very nice. Harry kindly bought our table a round of vodka and the night got started.

Na zdrowie!

Following dinner some of us wanted to see a little bit of the Polish nightlife (although gently, of course, being that we were saving ourselves for New Year's Eve). We landed in a club, grabbed some more vodka and apple juice and sat down. Sitting down is not what we wanted to do, so we stood awkwardly on the completely barren dance floor.

Later, I was told that some of the more enterprising members of our tour bribed the DJ with a glass of top shelf whiskey to stop playing his dreadful music and to put on GirlTalk instead. Needless to say, the dancefloor was instantly packed and hopefully the DJ felt like a twat.

The niggle was starting, though. The scratch at the back of the throat. I knew I was getting sick and was both surprised that I'd made it this far without getting sick earlier and annoyed that it was about to be as NYE approached. I downed some more of my Vitamin C tablets that I had thoughtfully packed in anticipation and tried not to think about it.


***
Wednesday, 31 December 2014
KRAKOW

Next morning we started the day with a very early walking tour. I again had struggled to sleep - and the members of my room had slept in their coats as our heating was so awful. It was difficult to get up, but I didn't want to miss out. My throat was burning but I tried my best to ignore it.

Never worked out what the little symbol
on Thursday meant.

The temperature this morning was something along the lines of fucking cold. We had been warned, and so we all donned, again, ALL OF THE CLOTHING (for me it meant 2 pairs of pants and 3 pairs of socks and 2 pairs of gloves). Krakow, in the "early" morning light (it was 9am but the sun was only just rising), was beautiful. It had a lovely pastel haze to it like a fairytale, and when we were up high looking over the Wisła River, the pale blue sky seemed to sparkle. The ground was covered in a fine layer of snow, both eerie and peaceful in the parklands around the city centre.

That morning glow...

At the conclusion of the tour, we made our way to the Jewish Quarter but the lack of sleep, partying and cold finally caught up with me. I left the troupe in a cute little cafe - where we had ordered hot chocolate and cake, being 11am, but the locals were lining up the vodka - and made my way back to the hostel for a much needed lie down and nap, in preparation of New Years Eve that night.

Time to get ready. Happy Hour had been extended by an hour and so we were meeting earlier than originally planned. Pretty dress, donned. Two pairs of pants, on. Coat, multiple gloves, beanie, camera. Set to go. 

Our first stop was an open bar and buffet. Both delicious and dangerous, and probably a multitude of other words beginning with 'd' ("drunk" being a good one). Straight to the bar: vodka. Then some more vodka. Then a bit more vodka. Then SHOTSSHOTSSHOTS of vodka. Then a buffet dinner. Then SHOTSSHOTSSHOTS. How about a vodka? Wait, is that a tray of shots? I'll have one. Ok, I'll have 3, thanks. What? We're leaving? Quick, SHOTSSHOTSSHOTSSHOTS.

Did someone say Pub Krawl?

Too hard, too fast was the order of the evening. Our next stop was a trendy but expensive club with a raging dance floor. Our arrival shot, poured directly into our mouths as we walked through the door (could have been stronger, just sayin') set the tone and we sweated and wiggled the next little while away. It was getting close to midnight, so the next stop was: fireworks.

We pushed our way through the crowd. The crowd forced itself back against us. As I have wont to do, I managed to get myself separated from the rest of the group. I found myself up against the barrier, with hundreds if not thousands of Polish people behind me, pushing me against the barrier. I pleaded with the severe Polish policeman to let me through the barrier as my friends had gotten inside the square. He looked at me, and turned away.

"Climb under!" said the young Polish man behind me, as I turned to watch another climb under, get grabbed by the throat by the policeman and pushed roughly up against the barrier. "I don't want to get arrested in Poland!" I yelled back to him, and stayed firmly on the barrier.

Then the pushing began. From behind, I was being shoved. At first, I was terrified, then I realised what was happening - the crowd was trying to break through the barrier. I stood on the edge and let the wave of people behind me push until the barrier collapsed - and I ran through, right into the centre of the crowd, just seconds before midnight.

I heard English spoken behind me, and I turned to the strangers. The countdown was on (in Polish of course:

Dziesięć
Dziewięć
Osiem
Siedem
Sześć 
Pięć
Cztery
Trzy
Dwa
Jeden

(N.B. I clearly just looked them up..)

The stage erupted with fireworks as the crowd went crazy. Fireworks, let off - I imagine illegally - were blasting from my left while the sky lit up to my right. I hugged the strangers behind me and, after the lighting display, turned to find my way back in the hope of seeing someone I knew.

Happy New Year!

Low and behold, I managed to run into everyone and gave big hugs all around.

The next part of the evening, frankly, was not so good. Our final club didn't have that same happy, welcoming vibe and instead felt sinister and angry, and after a short while inside I had to find my way to the ground level and some fresh air. Emotion overcame me here, and it wasn't long before most of the group felt the same and we decided it was time to return to the hostel.

At the hostel, we sat around chatting for some time and were regaled with possibly the most impressive Anaconda rendition I've seen (was this filmed?). It was soon sleepy bed times, and thus it was New Years Day - and 2015.


***
Thursday, 1 January 2015
KRAKOW

Ouch.
Not surprising really, I wasn't functioning at my highest potential the next morning. Many of the group were leaving first thing that morning, and I thanked my lucky stars for my unintended cock up and that I didn't have to face a train/car/bus/plane ride right at that moment. I looked at my phone and spotted a message from Harry saying he'd be heading off soon. It was 8.30am, so I hauled myself out of bed and decided that I would say farewell to those who were on the way to leaving.

Feeling rather poorly and bleary, I hugged quite a few goodbye, many with promises to catch up in London, others with well wishes and a hope that we might meet again one day on our travels. The tour was over, disintegrating, vanishing. No formal so long, adieu or goodbye, just…dissolving.

About half remained in Krakow, and so it felt like the tour could kick on just for a little longer..it wasn't over quite yet, was it? Today I took it desperately easy. After shifting my things out of the room, I went out for a walk. Krakow, quite simply, was a ghost town. The snow had melted to brown sludge and slippery ice, and my shoes filled completely with freezing water. My hungover self found its way to a Polish Maccas (honestly guys, Maccas is so cool in each country, they all do it differently!). I ordered something I couldn't pronounce, and slowly chewed.

That was enough fresh air for now. I returned to the hostel, feet almost numb, and thankfully my room was ready. Straight for a lie down.

"Dinner at 7 tonight if anyone wants to join?" was the shoutout in our Busabout Festive Trek's Facebook group. Sweet. About half had stayed at the Hotel Deco, and the other half had ventured elsewhere around Krakow. Unfortunately we all couldn't get a table in the one place (the strangely empty restaurant being "full") but half ate there, and our half wandered around til we found a place that would seat so many. We settled on a restaurant named Chopin (that played beautiful..you guessed it..Chopin music the whole while), followed by sundaes at Maccas. Of course. Best way to end an evening.

And that was my New Year's Day, folks. It was the first NYE that I had celebrated in a number of years. And now the first day of January was complete, my cold was well and truly set, and I had one more day to go before returning to reality.

The city was gently covered in icing sugar.


**
Friday, 2 January 2015
KRAKOW

I had intended to get up at the butt-crack of dawn and go to the salt mines, but my cold and sheer exhaustion led me to decide that "I'll return to Krakow one day, I'll do it then" and so I spent yet another morning at leisure. After checking out, I joined Nicola and Tamara for a yummy soup lunch with the most incredible hot chocolate I think I have ever tasted. I went to pay, and realised that I still had no memory of my PIN, and that I had run out of cash.

Naturally, I panicked a little, as I realised I had to somehow get from the hostel to the airport. Tamara kindly paid for my meal (for which I owe you, and I promise it'll get returned! It's in writing now) and we bid our adieus. I stood in the square and wondered what the hell to do. I started dialling my bank. I was on hold for 6 minutes. I was panicking, time was ticking away, I had no money and I was freezing cold. I suddenly had the brain wave to pool the remaining money I had in other currencies into Polish money so I could pay for my transfer to the airport.

Go me! This worked perfectly and so I rushed back to the hostel, said so long to the remaining lovely folks and then jumped into the waiting car.

I could relax a little now. I had plenty of time, enough money to pay for the fare, all of my belongings and I was on my way to the airport. Once there, the remaining Polish money went towards a bottle of the honey infused vodka and a sandwich that I promptly dropped onto the floor. While in the airport, I booked my Stansted transfers (again, stupid me hadn't done it previously, but thankfully it was only my PIN that was locked and not my whole card). With little ado, I popped out the other side of Stansted and made my way home (not without the Circle line actually changing direction on me, though, which resulted in me scurrying out at the next stop and getting back on again, in the original direction).

The depression was overwhelming. I knew how silly it was to be so sad, but it had been such an epic whirlwind of an adventure - my first proper tour - that to stop, still, on the tube, watching the same ads flash by, with the same weirdo staring at me in in the corner, and the haughty girl opposite, just made me sad. I reminded myself over and over that I was in London, for fuck's sake and that perked me up a little. 

I was homeward bound, and home was London.



***
CONCLUSION

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the things I learnt on the trip, both about myself, my interactions with people, what I like, don't like and how I like to travel. I think it is good to look at an experience and see what you have learnt from it, good and bad, so you can be better prepared for the future.

Things I learnt:
  • Socially, I'm a strange creature. I love people, and love talking to people, but I found the sheer number overwhelming. This is something I look forward to working on (rather than limiting myself to small groups). I also found myself hanging back and just watching.
  • Tours are a lot of fun, but you don’t spend enough time in any place. Luckily, I have the luxury that I can pop back over to Europe any time I like and revisit any cities that I found particularly appealing.
  • Budapest is beautiful and my favourite city.
  • I never will be able to ski again.
  • It is possible to eat too much meat and too many potatoes.
  • I'm too old to drink that consistently. Nah, who am I kidding, that ain't gonna stop.
  • I’m gonna make London’s winter my bitch. After so long at minus temperates, London is positively balmy.

Finally, thank you to our tour guide Carlos and driver Chris, for getting us around safely, securely, informedly and drunkenly. Thank you to the people I met, the friends I made: those that I will see again, we'll chat over a bevvie in a London pub, yeah? And those that are far away and may never see again - I wish you all the best with all your adventures. You'll always have a couch to crash on wherever I am.

Be good. Hugs and kisses,

xx

Morning light photography boner