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Trip Start Jul 2008
Trip End Dec 2008

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We have been feeling a bit isolated in Czech Republic and Poland.

The language barrier is probably largely to blame. We obviously do not speak Czech or Polish besides the very basics, which I cannot seem to pronounce correctly anyway. And while we certainly do not expect everyone to speak English by any means, we are finding that folks are pretty shy about it, even though they usually speak beautiful English after all.

There could also be some cultural factors, as well, as it seems many people are generally quite reserved.

So we were feeling a little disappointed, wishing for some deeper human experience.

Enter James, a retired college basketball coach from Arkansas. We met James at Auschwitz (where he directed me to a non-overflowing garbage can of all things). I recognized his accent, and struck up a conversation with him. At first, he did not come across as our long-hoped-for cultural ambassador. For one, despite being married to a Polish woman, he had never learned the language, stating proudly that he was "part of the resistance movement." For another, he was waiting for his wife to show some friends around Auschwitz, but refused to go in himself. This I could understand, given how terrible the place is.

But when we found out that we didn't really know where we were staying that night, he offered to let us join them for dinner and stay at their home. Their town was pretty much NOT on our way to Krakow, but we gladly took him up on the offer. He gave us directions and even offered to come pick us up in his car, but we figured we could cover the 40 km in a couple hours so we set off.

Of course as soon as we hit a roundabout we got lost, because we ALWAYS get lost at roundabouts. And intersections. One of the less charming things about Poland is their highway signage, which generally identifies 1 of the 4 roads involved in an interchange.
So we got off route, but between some pantomimed directions, the location of the sun, and some intuition, we got back on route.

Then, as the sun started to sink in the west, we started to climb up the forested hills to the east. And climb. And climb. After about an hour (of climbing) it was getting dark enough and the forested road was narrow enough that we needed lights. Just as we pulled off the road to light up the bikes, a car pulled in behind us. It was James, with his wife and her friends! This time we did not turn down his offer to come back for us for the last few kilometers.

When we arrived at their home, we found a Polish feast spread out on a candlelit table. We gathered around the table with James, wife Ewa (a PhD, professor, and diplomat), daughter Aneta, Aneta's 11-year old son Kamil, Ewa's Italian friends Marina and Luciana (also academics), and the family dogs, one of which was the largest dog I have ever ever seen in my life. The evening was an absolute delight, with flowing conversation (various degrees of English, Polish, and Italian) and several wonderful traditional Polish dishes complemented by several wonderful bottles of Italian Montepulciano. We ate, we drank, we laughed, we shared stories, talked Polish customs, talked American customs, and even had the unique experience to discuss the events in Georgia with academic diplomats.

Sometime during the 2 hours between our arrival and the last sip of Grand Marnier, it had started to rain, and before we could protest, the sofa bed was made up for us. Needless to say, it had been a big day and we slept very very well.

We woke the next morning when James came down to let the dogs out to pasture. He made us breakfast in their sunny kitchen and then we all watched the Americans play in the gold medal Olympic basketball game. By the time the game was over, we had done some email, packed up our stuff, practiced shooting Kamil's air rifle, and worked on our bikes, it was nearly lunch time. So once again we gathered around the table for more food, more wine, and more hospitality than we knew what to do with. While I helped wash dishes, Bill played ping-pong with Kamil (who is on track for 2016 Olympics if you ask me.) Finally, we headed off for Krakow, but not without many hugs and goodbyes and even a bottle of Montepulciano for the road.

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