Day 1: Finding my Way. I ran around the house at top speed to get ready to leave before my Uber driver showed up.
Eat breakfast? No. Park my car in the garage. Put away the keys.
Eat breakfast? No. Take out the trash.
Eat breakfast? No. Wipe down the bathroom counter.
Eat breakfast. No? Pack the computer and the cord and the surge protector.
Eat breakfast. No.
I was out of breath when my driver showed up.
He told me his name was Jim as he lifted my suitcase into the trunk of his car. I asked him several questions then sat back to hear his stories from being a family court reporter/stenographer before he retired and started driving.
I love a good story.
What were the courts like? Aggressive fights. Terrible stories. Kids crying. Such sadness. Sometimes he would stop the testimony to get people with heavy dialects to repeat themselves.
I love collecting strangers’ stories when I travel.
He said the unruliness and fighting got worse as years went on and they could expect a fight every single day in court. He dropped me off at the Trailways bus terminal when his GPS said, “Drop Holly off here.”
I think it’s the first time a GPS knew my name.
The Trailways bus terminal is usually my first stop before I venture out. The shock of dirt and germs in that bathroom always help to prepare me for the germy life on the road.
We all lined up politely for the bus, but the bus didn’t come and was far from fashionably late. It was over an hour late due to a mechanical problem. I was torn between feeling lucky that I wasn’t on the bus when it broke down and annoyed that I would still make my flight, but would have less time at the airport.
A diner breakfast? No. I talked to a lovely woman. Was her name Anne? I think so.
She told me about books she’s written, organizations she supports now that she’s retired and her husband’s medical scare. She was on her way to the city to visit him in the hospital.
I worried that he wouldn’t be okay.
“He’ll be fine.” She said. “He’s built like an ox.”
Anne was right: there are no longer buses from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City to the JFK airport, thanks COVID. So rather than paying twenty dollars for the bus, I hopped in a taxi for a hundred dollars. I know. The only deal in town.
The driver was delighted to have an hour long ride; I was glad to have a driver who could drive.
Jose said, “I got you, you got me. That’s how things workout for the both of us.”
He told me the story of the public defender lawyer who helped him out when he was fifteen; I reminded him of her. She saved his life and kept him out of jail. Then I heard about the courtship, marriage and divorce from a woman he had known for five years before they dated and later married.
“She’s psycho.” He said. “How was I to know?”
He’s been married to his second wife for over thirty years and never lets a woman ride in the front seat of his taxi out of respect for his wife.
He asked if I believed in God, then went into his life’s dissertation on how he firmly believes that every thing you do comes back to you energetically. So If you want good things in your life, do good in the world and good things will come back to you.
I told him that I subscribe to this ideal and that his reasoning explained how I was lucky enough to have him as a driver today.
On the security line at JFK I met Kassandra who was also flying to Amsterdam for the first leg of her flight. She was unsure how to go through security, so I gave her tips. Take off your jewelry. Take off your belt, now. Get ready. Take off your shoes.
She recently graduated college with a degree in psychology. I tried to buy her a congratulatory lunch—because I didn’t want to eat alone—but Kassandra said she didn’t know me well enough to let me buy her lunch.
No. She wouldn’t explain this reasoning. But she did tell me stories about commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan for classes. She said I shouldn’t worry about eating in front of her, because she loves those videos that people take of themselves eating.
“That’s the whole video? You watch someone eating?”
“Yes.” She said. “Where are you from?”
“Woodstock, New York.”
“Never heard of it.”
While I ate my very first Shake Shack gluten-free cheeseburger, I gave her a lecture on the Woodstock Festival: the music, the hippies, the times.
She laughed and said, “I remember now. I had this in a class at college. All about the festival.”
My uncle Rudy who was a hippie and attended the Woodstock Festival all those years ago, would probably say that it was “trippy” that the Woodstock Festival is now fodder for college classes.
She snuck off and bought me a bottle of my favorite kind of water: a larger bottle than she bought for herself. She wouldn’t accept any money for the water.
I tried to tell her that we didn’t know each other well enough for her to buy me a giant bottle of the most expensive water at the airport especially when she was a “poor college student.”
“Too late.” She said as we headed to our gate. She had a seat on the left side of the plane, mine was on the right side. I didn’t see her again, but we connected on WhatsApp so she can tell me about her very first time in London where she was meeting her sister for a visit.
For me travel isn’t only getting to my destination, it’s all the people I meet along the way.
Day 1: Krakow
After many hours of waiting, standing in lines and flying, I arrived in Krakow.
I managed to figure out how to find the train from the airport to the city center and even bought the train ticket with my credit card, no small feat when the process was mostly in English but used terms like “End to end” for one way.
When I gave the conductor my ticket, he told me in broken English that I wasn’t holding a ticket. It was a piece of garbage that was a part of the ticket.
So I left the ticket in the machine and carried the garbage. Good thing it was only a two dollar ride. I paid again.
I walked all over the central train station in search of the tram, but gave up when I figured out the tram system has many lines that go in many directions. I had somehow thought in my preplanning that there was one tram line that went in one direction: from the center of Krakow to my hotel.
I took a taxi. The driver didn’t tell me any stories: he didn’t speak English.
Day 1: Hotel
My hotel is a three star hotel in an American hotel chain. Clean. Modern. Air conditioned. Roomy. It is the only recommended hotel on the list given by the organization I am volunteering for. I paid for the first week and hope that I can find a Polish hotel after so I might help the local economy.
The good news is I didn’t fry the electricity in the whole hotel when I plugged in my surge protector, only in my room. When I told the front desk clerk that my lights wouldn’t work, she insisted I didn’t put the card into the wall slot correctly.
“You must do it again and again.” The woman said, unapologetically. “You must do it again so we know you really tried.”
My obedience comes in spurts. I ran up and down the elevator as the clerk demanded until she decided the electricity was, in fact, truly not working.
It wasn’t a surprise to me, but sometimes you have to wait for people to catch on to what you already know.
Someone fixed it with a flip of a switch.
Day 1: Area
I tried to familiarize myself with the area around the hotel, but it’s tough. The city planners from long ago—for this northern side of the city—must not have liked the typical grid system for laying out roads.
There are a series of parks that are gated off and roads that stop at houses or the parks or for no reason at all. The GPS sent me down sidewalks and dirt footpaths as I navigated the neighborhood.
Since all roads lead to the park, I went and sat in the shade of the Vistula River. I’m in Poland. I’m in Krakow. I’m staying at a hotel. I start volunteering tomorrow from 9 – 4:30. I don’t know what to expect.
The breeze cooled me as I acclimated myself to this very moment and relaxed.
I have arrived.
I walked past a group of refugee women who might have been in their thirties. One woman wore a long, fancy dress – likely a dress worn to dance a traditional dance from her country. It was covered in flowers and tiny bells. The bells tinkled as she walked and provided a magical “Tinker Bell” sound to the conversation she was having with a few other women who were wearing long pants and short sleeved blouses.
The fancy dress was dirty from many days of wear. The woman wearing the dress didn’t seem to notice that she was wearing something special, or that the dress was dirty.
I walked past a soup kitchen. It smelled savory, like meat. There were two signs in English that read, “Free Food.” Inside an enormous tent were picnic tables with food on them. I couldn’t see for sure what people were eating, but I saw piles of rice and piles of bread. There were apple cores and banana peels in the garbage.
It was mostly quiet as people sat at more picnic tables outside the tent and ate quietly or chatted with the people around them. There was a TV crew interviewing people as they ate. That’s why I didn’t take any photos there. Let them eat. Let them eat.
I heard several babies wailing from their baby carriages, slow sad cries. When babies cry on the plane, it doesn’t bother me: babies are tired and gassy and want to be in bed with their soft crib sheets. And you can tell that the parents are embarrassed that their babies are bothering everyone. We know that their cries are temporary.
But the babies crying around this food tent unnerved me. Their cries weren’t hungry cries or angry cries or even tired cries. They were sad, slow cries against this sudden change. Of living in this place without their known comforts. Of wanting to go back to their own soft crib sheets. The people around the children didn’t seem bothered or embarrassed by the continued cries nor did they try to soothe the babies. It was impossible to fix these tears.
I wanted to do something to help. Hold a baby? Feed a baby? Buy crib sheets for a baby?
I can’t stop a war. I can’t help the 7 million displaced Ukrainians. But I can be a witness. As far as I can tell, I am a ten hour drive from the border of Ukraine. I am one day’s journey from a war zone.
Right now, at the end of this very long day, the sound that I hear echoing in my head isn’t the rushing sound of airplanes from my travels, the stories from strangers or the bells on that dress. I hear those babies crying.
Thanks for reading.
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Holly Winter Huppert hollywinter.com Kington, NY
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