The moment I hear it, I smile.
It’s familiar opening pulls me in like a warm embrace.
I have tears in my eyes.
And feel a change, within.
Six months, it has taken me. Six months.
Just myself. With a guidebook, backpack and a travel journal.
I have traveled through many countries, alone with my thoughts.
‘Where will I go next? What will I eat next? Where will I sleep next?’
Day to day, I lived only for the moment. The present.
Running from my past.
“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon
Running from my yesterdays.
And I feel a shift, within.
It is dark and foggy, yet it is only early in the afternoon.
The sun began to set at three thirty. Now at four thirty, I can barely see twenty meters ahead.
It is the first of December, the year two thousand.
I am cold. Freezing even, though I dare not complain.
Every breath I take I see before me. White mist.
I have a jacket, a jumper. I have gloves and a wooly beanie too.
I wrap my hands around a hot drink, bought from a man sitting in an oversized wine barrel. The sign above said ‘grzaniec galicyjski’.
Of course, I couldn’t pronounce that, and had no idea what it was he was selling. I just queued up behind the others, when it was my turn I asked for ‘one of whatever it was that everyone else was buying’ and handed over my zloty.
I am passed a white plastic cup.
In it, hot dark red liquid.
That is what it was. What they were all holding.
Hot dark red Polish mulled wine.
Yes, I am cold though I am extremely conscious that, sixty years ago, less than fifty kilometres away, millions of people had been without the clothes I have.
I dare not complain.
I take a sip.
I cannot pick it. Blackcurrant? Cranberry?
(At the time, I didn’t know ‘grzaniec galicyjski’ is mulled red wine.)
It is so sweet.
I take another sip. Do I like it? I like it.
It is so sweet.
One more. Oh, no I don’t.
I don’t think I could possibly take another. It is so very sweet.
One more. Oh, I do. I do like it.
It warms me from within.
Oh, I think I am getting drunk!
I am alone, yet I don’t feel alone.
I am one with the crowd.
Huddled together, surrounding a busker playing acoustic guitar.
He has gloveless hands. How he can play, I don’t know.
From all different nationalities, different languages, different religions, we are all singing, together, as one.
‘Hey now, hey now …’
I smile. I feel joy.
Pure joy. Perhaps for the first time this year. Or maybe two.
‘Don’t dream it’s over.’
Perhaps it is over for me.
Perhaps I am ready to return home and face my yesterdays once more.
Yes. I am stronger now. All over Eastern Europe, I have witnessed the yesterdays of millions of others, suffering far more than I could ever imagine.
What of my yesterdays? I dare not complain.
‘Don’t let them win.’
Where is my favourite city?
There are too many.
Paris, Barcelona, Sarajevo. Havana.
Or is it Berlin, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, or London.
I really couldn’t say.
I have magical memories from each and every one. Many others too.
But it is Kraków I settle on, and, how could I not?
It amazed me.
It amazed me that the very moment I decided that I wanted to watch the movie ‘Schlinder’s List’ again, can you believe it, it was at the very moment, I later discovered, that the ‘Schlinder’s List’ (the original paper lists from 1945) had just been put up for auction.
Not only that, the very next day while tidying up, something fell out from the bundle of papers and magazines I was holding.
I looked down and there it was, the postcard from Kraków that I had written thirteen years ago to my parents. It had been in amongst my travel journals, along with many other postcards.
Yet, there it lay on the floor.
My favourite city is Kraków.
I spent three days in Kraków, arriving after a terrifying welcome to Poland by a neo-Nazi skinhead a few days earlier.
Waiting patiently in a shop to ask for directions, this angry looking guy came over to me, snatched my map out of my hand and proceeded to yell abuse at me, in Polish.
No. I don’t speak Polish, but glancing around at all the other Poles in the shop reveals to me that he wasn’t simply welcoming me to his country.
He was telling me to get the hell out.
What was his actual problem?
I guess I will never know, but will forever marvel at my courage to stand up to him. When he stopped ranting and raving, I simply snatched my map back and said ‘can I have that now?’
But in Kraków, I was welcomed at the station by a lovely man, the complete opposite to ‘Skinhead’, offering me a room not too far from both the station and the Rynek, where I now sit, Europe’s largest market square.
It was just magical.
Behind me, the lights on the wooden Christmas market stalls faintly glow. Crowded House lyrics about walking again to the beat of a drum and feeling of liberation and relief unite us all.
Don’t let them win … we sing, don’t let them win.
Today I had been walking around the Jewish Quarter, followed by the Jewish Ghetto, and tomorrow, I will make my way, as millions have before me, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a camp liberated over fifty-five years ago.
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have first hand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins
Kraków changed me.
I will never forget it.
Nothing has ever been black and white since.
And I dare not complain.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy
Originally written in July 2013.