As I walked towards the Contemporary Art Museum in Krakow where I would be meeting friends, I noticed everything.
A man carried a basket with handles like a purse. A child dragged an umbrella behind her in the rain; her parents didn’t notice. A man walked quickly, as if he were impatient with the day, the sidewalk and the rain itself.
Two Teens walked close together while jointly holding a blue, spotted umbrella and gazing into each other’s eyes. I slowed to watch them collide with a building, wondering if they would laugh in unison or be angry at the building for getting in their way.
They crashed and righted the umbrella, suffered a long and unbearably awkward silence, then reoriented themselves to the sidewalk and continued on their way. Now the girl’s eyes went from the boy’s eyes to the sidewalk in front of them. She was their protector.
I held my umbrella in one hand and kept my other hand against my purse as an extra layer of camera protection against the blinding rain. There’s something about walking through a city that makes me feel more alive. I smiled, then toned down my expression; I don’t want to look like the Cheshire Cat.
A bakery window held pastries. A shop window showed rust-colored clothing: the color of the fall. A barber shop had all 6 chairs filled with men getting haircuts; why was this shop so popular?
I paused at a crosswalk. This one had a signal. People in Poland never cross against a crosswalk signal. Even if they’re about to miss a tram. Even if there are zero cars around. Even if it is the middle of the night and there are no other people around.
I didn’t see the crosswalk’s stoplight, but I noticed that the mother pushing her baby carriage and the man walking with an umbrella and a cane were not crossing with me. I turn back after I’ve taken several steps into the street. They stared at me as if I were florescent.
I walked back to their side of the street and wanted to tell them stories about crossing the streets in New York City, or Vietnam, but refrained since I don’t speak Polish.
We waited together. We crossed together and then went our separate ways.
I love walking in cities.
I noticed how the water from the rain pooled on sidewalks and roads. I remembered the lesson I learned last year: never walk next to the tram tracks during a rainstorm. The tracks fill with water and spray everywhere when trams rush by. I walked closer to the buildings, like everyone else.
A woman with a white umbrella ignored her dog as it pounced into puddles as if they were alive. The rain dripped off my umbrella like tears. My GPS directed me to turn left, so I do, but after a few minutes I noticed that my GPS has taken me to a desolate area without many people or cars.
Not today, GPS.
I returned to the bustle of the street and continued walking in the right direction.
A handsome older man walked next to me without an umbrella but with a calm expression, as if he didn’t notice it was raining. He doesn’t appear to be wet. I want to follow him to learn how to stay dry in a rainstorm, but he is going the wrong way.
I crossed a bridge and looked at the Vistula River to see if it was appreciating this long multi-day drink of water, but I don’t know the river well enough to notice if it was different in the rain.
I noticed the sudden lack of party boats on the river this afternoon and thought about how wimpy the partiers of today are. I thought about the time my friend Teresa and I went camping in the rain and set up our camp stove to make soup and let the downpour provide the necessary water to our pot.
I’ve always liked the sound of rain on my raincoat, on my umbrella, on my windows, in my soup.
I feel poetic as I approach the art museum. The first building holds a sign of explanation in Polish and English that this is the art museum’s office. I follow the arrow to the right. The next building has many windows and two flags waving over the entrance.
I pull out my phone. Just before I text “Here” I get a text that says they are here too.
Then my phone dies.
Wait. That’s impossible. I had 77% battery available when we left the restaurant. My friends didn’t want to walk in the rain and took a tram. I felt like walking in the rain and arrived only 8 minutes later.
Good thing I got that text out to them before my phone died.
I stood in the rain next to the entrance. No friends.
I walked into the lobby of the museum. No friends. I checked the café, no friends.
Wait, were they out that side door? Nope.
I circled around a few times, this time searching the people who were there. I have trouble recognizing people out of place. My friends know this.
They both have brown hair. They are both wearing long, green raincoats. They will be easy to find.
I search the crowd again. No green raincoats. None.
I return to the café and search through the gift shop. No people wearing green raincoats there, either. I check the backs of chairs in case they took off their coats in the café. Nope. No green raincoats on chairs.
I head back through the crowd to see if there are people holding green coats. I walk slowly, studying each person carefully; my eyes are not good at scanning.
Nope. Nobody is holding a green coat.
There is a woman who looks like California, one of my friends. I stare at the woman too long and realize that she is younger, her hair is shorter, and she is not wearing a white sweater as my friend was wearing.
What if my phone died before they got my text?
I start to panic; I don’t like to feel lost. Usually, I don’t have to deal with my visual problems when I travel alone because I’m not holding anyone up when I can’t find them.
My breath comes in short spurts. Wait, how would I find them?
Maybe my friends texted me to join them in the museum, like in the first room. I peer inside, but the guard is gruff and says words that probably say something like, “Back Off.”
I back off.
I walk the circuit again. And again. Surely, they’re here and they are talking to each other, and they will see me passing by.
I go to the guard and pantomime that I need a charger for my phone.
He doesn’t like to play charades and waves me away, but now he is watching me as I circle the lobby.
I ask the woman in the ticket booth.
She says “No” quickly, as if she doesn’t care to help me look up the best recipe for macaroni and cheese.
I tell her, in English—since I can’t use my translation program with a dead phone—that I can’t find my friends…
She leans her head forward and repeats her first answer again, this time with more force.
I’m mostly sure I could find my way home from here.
I could take a taxi to Old Town and find my way from there.
Yes, I could find my way home.
But how would I tell my friends that I left. And where are they?
Why aren’t they here?
I check bathrooms; if they went there, they would surely return to the lobby.
I circle the lobby and café again. No friends.
I want to cry. This is why I don’t like traveling with other people; finding people in a crowd is biggest weakness. Well, that and finding my way. And recognizing the things I’ve already seen.
I begin to spiral downwards, internally. Why do I travel? What am I going to do?
It had been over 20 minutes since I sent the text that I had arrived.
As I continued to spiral downwards, I felt shaky inside. With my visual amnesia, most days are tough, but I have developed so many compensation skills that most people can’t tell my weaknesses.
Right now, the issue wasn’t that I was lost; I couldn’t find my people.
I took a deep breath but didn’t get a lot of air.
I walk outside and stood next to the entrance. I need to calm myself. I run my life by relying on intuition, but when I get upset, I can’t access it.
Several breaths later my mind wandered.
I thought about how my middle school math students would feel this exact same way when I assigned an unbearably difficult word problem and told them that it had to be solved by the end of the week. They could use each other. They could use calculators. They could check in with me, but only to show me their ideas and work; I didn’t accept random guesses.
These were the kind of word problems that brought tears to their eyes.
My first statement was always, “Don’t think about what you don’t know. Think about what you do know.”
I wouldn’t let the students take the word problems home, not because I thought they knew anyone who could help them solve them, but because they were intensely difficult, and I didn’t want anyone to stop me from giving my students these life lessons.
One student snuck out a word problem and showed it to her aunt who was a high school math teacher. Her aunt took a photo of the problem and sat up most of the night figuring it out. She called her niece early the next morning and said that the problem was too hard for middle school students and offered to call the principal later that day.
The girl returned triumphant and insisted I back down.
The principal promised to back me up when she called, and he did.
I reminded the class that they had until Friday and that not only did each person in the class have to solve the problem in order for anyone to pass, but each person had to explain their reasoning behind solving the problem to me for a pass/fail grade.
If even one student in the class couldn’t solve the word problem, they all failed.
Usually, the first day the students wallowed in pity for being asked to do the impossible. Then the second day someone would suggest they list what they knew. By the third day a few kids had figured it out and by the fifth day they had taught each other and then insisted that it wasn’t that hard after all.
It wasn’t a math lesson, per se; it was a lesson in logic. Once they listed out the things that they did know, they could tackle what they didn’t know.
I gave one difficult word problem every month. Within four months, the class skipped the pity day and got right to work; the whole class could solve the problem by the third day. By the seventh month, I couldn’t find a word problem hard enough for them.
At the end of the year, I showed them where I found their monthly word problems: in a college math textbook.
Since I couldn’t access my intuition, I decided to look at my puzzle logically.
What did I know? I knew my friends were here, or close by. I knew that they might be right in front of me and so busy talking and that I might not see them. I knew that I could communicate with them only by my phone. I knew my phone was dead. I knew I didn’t have a spare battery on me.
I took a deeper breath and approached the woman in the coat room and pantomimed that I needed to charge my phone. She spoke in Polish; I said that I only spoke English. She tried to speak to me in French. I suggested Spanish.
“No puedo.” She said in Spanish.
I nodded my thanks and made another round through the lobby.
When I passed by her again a few minutes later, she said to me “Coffee” and pointed to the gift shop and pantomimed me plugging in my phone there.
I thanked her and went to the café.
The young woman was up to her elbows in soapy water as she washed mugs.
I did my act.
She shook her head, “No.”
A young woman with long brown hair butted in and asked me in English what I needed.
I explained that my phone was dead, I couldn’t find my friends and I didn’t have a spare battery on me.
She said she could help me.
I looked at her phone and shook my head and told her I didn’t have an iPhone.
“I got you.” She said and called to a young man and asked for his android cord.
They handed me the charger and the cord.
Really? Really. Really!
She laughed at my gratitude and said they would be in the giftshop for at least fifteen minutes and that I should use the charger as long as I needed it.
After my phone played dead for a few minutes even when it held a bit of a charge, I was able to text my friends. Back and forth. Sharing pins and information on where we were.
The art museum was in a museum complex. I was at the right complex, but the wrong museum.
One friend asked if she should come and get me.
I returned the cord and charger to those angels and waited outside at the front door of this wrong museum. No green coat showed up. No woman with long, brown hair. No friend.
She texted me. “I am in the café, and I don’t see you.”
I rushed back inside and through the lobby. The guard watched me. The woman in the ticket booth watched me. The woman at the coat room tried to get my attention.
I got to the café. My friend wasn’t there.
My phone had a 10% charge. I spun around the lobby searching for a green raincoat. It had been 30 minutes since I sent my arrival message. I heard a voice.
“Holly. There you are.”
I turned and we locked eyes with Haley. She was wearing a yellow striped shirt.
My relief was enormous. I tried to calm my mind as we hugged hello. My words of greeting weren’t of gratitude, though.
I said, “You’re not wearing your green raincoat.”
She assured me it was safe in a locker at the art museum.
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