Oliwia and I stepped into the first room of the National Museum in Krakow.
She (Oliwia sounds like Olivia.) told me to turn on my headset so I could learn about the artifacts.
“But if I listen to the headset then we can’t talk.”
She nodded. “It is good for you learn from their masters.”
I laughed and turned on my headset.
When I met Oliwia at the Szafa Dobra Free Shop in Krakow, Poland, where we both volunteer to help Ukrainian refugees, I asked her if she had any random Z’s in her name.
“No. But my V is spelled with a W.”
“Ok.” I said. “We can be friends.”
She laughed at me.
She is a Polish college student who volunteers two days a week at the free shop.
When I was working in the Kid’s Corner, she ran the dressing rooms and restocked discarded clothes. On her way back to her area, she’d stop by and play with a kid or two.
I told her that I wanted to visit a few museums and she offered to go with me.
“I can solve any problems because I speak Polish.”
I thought about that when I ventured too close to a stained glass door and a guard shouted out in dismay.
Oliwia calmly told the guard in Polish and told her that I was simply photographing the window.
This is a valuable friend.
I’d been wanting to visit the church with two towers, the most famous church in the city. Washington, another volunteer who has now returned home, and I walked around the church slowly one evening, but couldn’t find the entrance.
Sure, there were many doors but no doorknobs. How do you get inside the church?
Maybe there was an underground tunnel?
Oliwia and I walked towards the beautiful, old building and I saw a tiny, open door.
“Look.” I shouted. “A door is open.”
This was not exciting to Oliwia because she had not walked around the church, twice, as Washington and I did, in search of an open door.
Seeing a way in felt like a prophesy. A good omen. A lucky break.
My friend approached the guard at the door who said we had to buy tickets to enter.
Trust me. I never would have figured this out on my own. We need tickets? To enter a church? I go in 4 or 5 churches a day.
I had no idea there were churches that charged admission.
We found an enormous open door with a sign that read entrance, in English, on the back side of the church.
I tried to pull Oliwia that way, but she said that was not where the tickets were sold.
How did she suddenly become an expert in ticket sales? She didn’t even know we needed a ticket moments ago.
She led me into a different building, away from the church. It was the ticket booth for the church.
I asked her how she knew this was the place to buy tickets.
“Because I speak Polish, I know things.”
I guess that people who speak Polish have a greater understanding of the complexities of entrance requirements.
I wondered what my specialty was.
It was time to pay attention to the clerk selling tickets.
2 tickets, please.
Here is my credit card.
No. I must feed it into the machine. I don’t know why.
I want to pay in PLN-- Polish Zloty.
Yes. I know I have to sign the receipt.
No. I don’t need a copy of the receipt.
Buying things in Poland is like being a contestant on a game show. But rather than stating the answer as a question, you have to wait for the question and when it is asked, you must respond with a hint of surprise.
Next you pause for a moment—as if you’re thinking about the question for the first time, and then you answer.
The New Yorker in me wants to answer all of the questions before they are asked.
No. PLN. Yes. No. Thank you!
But that’s not customary here in Europe.
Actually, that’s not customary anywhere in the world.
It’s not a problem, I have a dose or two of charm stored inside of me that I let out when I must follow slow procedures.
To prepare for our day together, Oliwia watched reruns of Friends. Really. She did this to help improve her vocabulary so she could speak more freely.
I haven’t watched the show in years so couldn’t direct the conversation towards any particular vocabulary that she might have picked up.
Question: What five words do you think Oliwia was most likely to learn while watching the show Friends? Answer in the comments below.
(I just learned how to read and respond to comments. I know. Another writing milestone.)
(No. You don’t have to divulge your mother’s maiden name to leave a comment.)
(Do you understand the assignment?)
The church was spectacular. Blue ceiling. Pink and orange walls. Paintings. Sculptors. Sure, it was a tourist trap, but a beautiful one.
I dropped two zloty into the collection box and chose a candle. Just as I was lighting it, some people somewhere in the church started singing the song, “Let There be Peace on Earth” in English while Oliwia recorded it.
My arms broke out in goosebumps as the song echoed through the church. It's like the universe was suggesting my prayer. I lit the candle and watched the flame grow.
That is my wish. To let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
We snuck up on a tour guide as he addressed a large group of people who were holding cameras. He said that the stained glass windows in the front of the church were form the 14th century and that the church was an example of gothic architecture.
We were never offered a guided tour at the ticket office.
Maybe I didn't pause long enough.
Olivia suggested that we finish with the church and follow this guide outside. We did. He was gone.
When we walked through the National Museum, my headset was my audio tour.
The recording knew what room I was in through some star-fangled GPS technology. When I entered a room, the voice would discuss the collections in that space. It was both exhilarating to have a recorded voice know my whereabouts, and creepy.
At one point I wanted to listen to the voice discuss the next room.
The voice said, “Let’s save that for the next room.” It knew I was cheating.
The voice always knows.
We saw a lot of battle scenes in the National Museum, particularly the Battle of Venice painted and woven into tapestries. This is the battle that kept the Muslims from taking over Europe and Poland played a major role in the victory.
The jewel of the art galleries was the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine.
Do yourself a favor and don’t learn the story of the young girl who was impregnated by da Vinci’s boss, a duke who was to marry another noble-er woman, but still made to sit for this portrait with her pregnancy mostly hidden.
She was but a memento for his folly, I guess.
They didn’t mention if she got child support or some kind of alimony for being duped.
But many experts agree (including Oliwia) that the Lady with an Ermine is more beautiful than da Vinci’s other famous painting, the Mona Lisa.
And other experts (including me) think that this might be da Vinci’s best painting ever.
We took photos of each other with the painting in the background.
When I took Oliwia’s photo and looked at it later, it appeared that the painting and Oliwia were melting into the darkness around them.
(No filters here. I promise.)
(* I don't know how to use filters.)
Was the painting reaching out to her?
I’m guessing this melding of art and woman has something to do with the magic of speaking Polish,
but I’m not sure.
Thanks for reading.
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