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September 02

Old Man Pole
"You need a room?" the voice said again
Christian Trokey

Our train arrived at 6:05 a.m., an over-night from Budapest traveling through Slovakia and ending at our stop, Krakow, in southern Poland. My travel companion, a good friend from high-school, and I departed the train with yawns and stretches, our bags thrown haphazardly over our weary shoulders, our muscles tired and lean from weeks of carrying heavy packs. This was the sixth stop into our European vacation but we still felt timid every time we boarded a train. A few days before, we had narrowly escaped missing our stop, having foolishly thought the train conductors would tell us exactly when we arrived at our destination.
It was just one of many mistakes we had made along our trip.
As we stood on the concrete platform, I pulled a bunched pack of stapled papers from my bag and unfolded them. On the papers were a list of hostels I had printed off an internet website a few months before ( The list had served us well, as almost every hostel we had visited from the list had been very good. However, now in Poland, I was dreading this moment. The internet website had almost nothing about Poland, and so what I had printed on the paper were at best a few crummy leads.

I offered the stack of papers to my buddy, but he was in no mood to play group leader today. Our camaraderie had started to wear thin a few days before in Budapest, as we wandered aimlessly around the city trying to find things to do without killing each other after we had exhausted all of the sites. I opened the list and began to read.
"Well um…" My eyes, straining to focus, weary from the constant early a.m. passport checks throughout Slovakia and at the border in Poland, quickly scanned the list. "There is this place called The Mondrian. Let’s find a map."
From behind me, I heard footsteps. They were close. A voice followed.
"You are looking for a room?" a low, coffee stained voice asked.
I was a bit on edge. The previous night on board the train we had sleep on pins and needles, sharing a train car with several Slovakian football team members and fans who evidently, it seems, won the match the night before. At one point we had awoken to a team member beating his head against our car door. It was so early in the morning, I didn’t want the bother. I pretended not to hear him.
"Let’s look for that map," I said to my friend, hoping the stranger would take this as a kindly "get lost please." "There must be a tourist center nearby."

"You need a room?" the voice said again, this time a little more pronounced, the polish accent stretched like rubber bands on teenage braces.
As American tourists you are constantly bombarded with shell-shocked guests from Good Morning America who retell tales in tearful rants about kidnappers, wild boars and gypsy children baring razor blades. I’m not like those people. I don’t want to be like one of those people. I’m friendly. I’m a nice guy. I don’t mess with people. I looked back at my list, continuing to ignore him.
"You are looking for a room," he said again, this time with a little more boom in his voice.

There was no shaking him. This problem had washed up on my beach and it was going to my responsibility to get rid of it. I gave a quick glance at my friend, bit my lower lip, and hoped he’d take charge. He didn’t. I turned towards the voice. There was just no getting around it.
He was in his late seventies, maybe 5’1. A small black coat hung on his feeble frame, worn 70’s brown pants and dirty shoes. His hair was thin and sparse, parted to the right exposing an oily scalp that was littered with yellowed sunspots and bruises. He had probably grayed thirty years before, his eyebrows too, which were large in size but bushy and wiry, like mini tumbleweeds that had collected on his forehead. On his face and neck were large boils with purple tips, hard like tiny grape seeds. In his right hand was a small notebook with writing on it, something he was fidgety with, like those surveyors with clipboards who hang out in shopping malls, pestering large women in dresses with questions about movie previews and home computer use.

"You are in need of a room? I have a room for both of you. Two beds." His voice was very assuring and calm, and he spoke as though he were an uncle or a good family friend. But I was one up on him. I had heard these stories too, those of the wary traveler who is promised a room and lead into the back of an alleyway then mugged and knifed.
I looked around the platform, realized it had completely cleared except for the three of us. We were all alone, myself the assistant, my buddy, a customer service rep, and our friend, the polish knife.
"What kind of room," I found myself asking. "A hostel?"
"Large. Two beds. Look see," he pushed the notepad in his hand up to my face. His hand smelled of a mixture of soft talcum powder and burnt oil. Written on the yellowed, stained paper was the following:
This is a great place to stay. You’ll really have a great time. Oh, and it’s really cheap too!
Joe Kim – American Traveler

"You can come, I will take you to my place, I will give you directions to Auschwitz, the salt mine. I will even write a note for you so that the bus driver knows exactly where to stop. Right before the gates. Not inside."
He sounded very well rehearsed, as though he had studied up on everything an American traveler would want.
"How much," I inquired, and felt a sudden tingle of self-assurance creep up my spine. I didn’t want to be on Good Morning America.
"About thirteen American dollars," he answered. "It’s cheap, right?"
"Thirteen," I responded, trying to not show too much interest (although deep inside me I was salivating for just such a deal!)
"Yeah thirteen. For two of you, thirteen each."
The next question rolled off my tongue. I was no longer in control of my own responses. "Where is your place?"
"Not far. I’ll take you. I’ll give you directions. I’ll write a note to the bus driver."

I had said it. I had taken us this far. It would be awkward to back out now. I turned to my friend. He was tired, the large pack once thrown over his shoulder now leaned against his legs on the hard concrete, and his hands were tucked deep inside his pockets in a sigh of "here we go again." He was obviously in no mood to follow the old guy. He kept looking towards the stairs, as if to convey to me his desire to leave. But what would it hurt to see it, I thought, )besides being drugged and stripped of our packs and our clothes). After all, I had also heard stories about how friendly Europeans were, and how they often opened up their homes to travelers and cooked them authentic meals. One American I met had been invited into a family’s home late one evening after he learned the only hostel in the town had no vacancy. They cooked some kind of game bird for him, the owner of the house gave him shots of home-brewed distilled liquor made from potatoes and the family and the traveler exchanged stories until the wee hours of the morning. These were the kind of opportunities you were supposed to seize as a back-packer. If not now, when? My friend wasn’t the kind of guy who strayed far from the path. If we were going to have those moments for ourselves, it was going to be up to me to grab the reigns and carry us forward.
"We’ll see it," I said to my friend. "If we like it, great, if not, we won’t take it." His eyes were saying no but he slowly nodded his compliance.
"Alright. Take us there. We’ll come see your place."
"Great. Come see it. If you like, I will give you the key and you can go and come as you please."
He turned and lead us towards the stairs and off of the platform. As we walked through the cool concrete tunnel that ran underneath the train tracks and housed produce vendors, kebab makers and a used book-seller, I took notice of the faces we were passing. Everytime I stepped off of a train in a new place, it was all about taking in the people you first saw, the very first experiences that helped shape whether this was going to be a worthwhile stop or not. All of the many faces, those coming and going on commuter trains to and from work, seemed slightly more aware of us and the old man then I liked. I wouldn’t say everyone was staring, but there was definitely some keen interest we had sparked from the local color. I felt a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach but shrugged it off and continued on.

Out on the street, the old man lead us to a small, makeshift shed. He mumbled something inside a small window, then took a few steps back. My friend and I, unsure of what to do, looked into the booth. Standing inside was an older woman, probably in her late fifties, hair tied in a bun, her face weathered and tired. She spoke something to us in Polish.
"Do you speak English," I asked, playing the typical arrogant tourist who doesn’t know a word of Polish. She frowned, shook her head and turned away. We instinctively turned back to the old man.
"Pay for your bus tickets," he grumbled.
He had flanked us almost immediately after we had gotten off the train and I hadn’t had time to find a cash machine.
"I need a bank machine. I don’t have any cash."

He turned and led us to the nearest bank machine. A few minutes later we bought our tickets and boarded a large bus in front of the train station. As we climbed on, I took a seat directly on the left side of the bus, my friend and the old man took a seat together across the isle. For the duration of our trip, which was about fifteen or twenty minutes, the old man yakked and yakked. Because of the noise of the engine it was difficult to fully hear what he was saying. What words I did understand came in small pieces. He was overly calming and reassuring and kept repeating to my friend everything he had told us on the platform.
"I will write a note, you’ll get to Auschwitz no problem."
My friend only nodded. His mind was still clearly on a night train traveling somewhere through Slovakia.
"Where are you from, the States?" the old man inquired.
My friend told him we were from Saint Louis and that we were traveling for a month.
"Ah Saint Louis, yes, near Chicago. I have friends there. Chicago. They want me to come but . . .," he smiled, his voice trailing off. "I am in no condition to travel."

As we neared a corner, the old man stood and the bus came to a grinding halt. We both grabbed our packs and followed.
His place was only a few feet away from our stop. Out front, a small, rickety metal gate surrounded the property. It was a one story home, although gave the impression that it might be a split-level, because of a small hill the house was built into. On the side of his place, a few drab shrubs clung to life. Most were just weeds, with very little grass or potted plants. Across from his house was a large green open field.
The old man reached into his coat and came out with one of those old looking keys, the kind that was used around the turn-of-the-century to lock cellar and attic doors. He put it in the door and we heard the twist of the lock. He then turned to my friend.
"Here is the key. You can go and come. Stay out as late as you want. I am usually not here."
"Do you live here?" I asked, but the old man gave no response and continued up the steps.

Inside, the house smelled of old books and moth balls, both packed away for years inside cardboard boxes. The air felt musty and used. Piles of clothes and rags were thrown on top of mismatched furniture. In the living room was a blue couch with missing pillows, the exposed frame underneath, browned from years of abuse. Odds and ends were everywhere -- a bucket in this corner, a few old newspapers stacked in that one. We continued through the living room into a small hallway. There, a bedroom door was partially open. I could make out two beds inside and a woman with long curly hair moving around.
"This is one of the bedrooms," he casually remarked, then continued down the hallway.
"Do you have a lot of people staying with you right now," I inquired.
"Some left this morning on the train. There is a student from Canada staying here. A young woman"
At the closest wall, a small cockroach walked into plain view, then spying us, quickly scurried back to someplace dark. I turned to my friend and the old man but neither had seen it. At another door we stopped.
"Wait here for just a second," he told us. "I need to clean up for a moment."
The old man ducked into a room and closed the door behind him. Outside, we stood in the hallway and listened as things were tossed about inside. My friend and I exchanged a brief grimace. A few moments later the door reopened.
"Come in. I have tidied."
Inside the room was more mismatched furniture, some covered by mildewed sheets and blankets, others exposed to the partial sunlight that was leaking through a pair of broken blinds on the far wall.
"This is your room," he exclaimed, a wide toothless grin across his face. "You can pay me now, you can come and go as you please. You’ll be staying three nights?"
I told him I didn’t know how long we would be staying. "At the very least two nights."
"Oh. I thought you said three," he said, puzzling over the thought for a short moment. "That’s fine. I’ll start writing that note."
"I wanna keep looking," my buddy suddenly piped up. I met his eyes and could clearly see he didn’t like the look of this place. I myself was on the fence a bit. I had accepted long before I ever stepped off a plane here that my accommodations might not exactly be three star class. But there was definitely something not sitting well with me about this place, about leaving my pack here while I explored the city all day. Fortunately, it was only 6 in the morning. We could always look around and come back later if we didn’t find anything else.
"So you can pay me now and do as you like," the old man repeated.
"We’re going to keep looking around," I told him. "We’ll keep this place in mind."
The old man stood there for a few moments, silent, letting this sink is, as though the air had just been knocked out of him.
"We’ll come back if we don’t find anything better," I followed up.
"What?" He sounded surprised.
"If we don’t find any other place, we’ll come back. We’ll keep this place in mind, We’re going to keep looking." I repeated.
"What? But I showed you this place. You said you were looking for a room, this is a room. There are two beds. This is not what you want?"
"My friend isn’t so sure," I told him. I felt like I was singling my buddy out but at this point, I wasn’t so sure we shouldn’t just bite the bullet and stay.
The old man turned to my friend.
"What? Isn’t this what you want?"
"I want to keep looking," was all my buddy responded, then turned to me. "Let’s go."
"But I told you, I’ll write you a note. You can come and go as you please. I do not understand this."
"We aren’t sold on your place, sir." I didn’t know what else to say.
"Yes but now you have wasted my time. I have lost customers. You said you wanted the room--."
"Sir." I tried to interrupt.
He continued rambling. "You said at the train station that you wanted this room. Now you are saying that you do not. I do not understand. You have lied to me."
"Sir, we never said we would take the place. We only said that we would come look at it."
"But I have lost money. I have lost customers. You owe me money."
"Sir." I was trying to keep my composure but felt my patience starting to slip. "We said we would see it, not that we were definitely taking it. That’s what we told you."
"No –
"Sir," I immediately interjected. "That’s what we told you."
The old man, sensing our sudden eagerness to leave, took a side step and moved in front of the door to block our path.
The room was turning colder by the second.
"Alright. I don’t like where this is going. Step aside, old man."
I didn’t know what else to say. I suddenly saw our bodies buried underneath the floorboards of his house, our luggage added to a pile of thousands in the attic.
He was silent, standing there, trying to assess the situation. In front of him, two twenty-four-year-old males were doing just the same.

Only thirty minutes off a train in Krakow and already I was prepared to throw down with a man three times my age. This wasn’t the good-natured European story I wanted to tell.
In the silence he relaxed a bit. "I don’t understand. I thought you wanted a room."
We both moved towards him and he stepped aside, defeated, and let us pass. Outside, my companion laid the key on the front step and we anxiously walked down the concrete walkway that led away from the house. A few times we glanced over our shoulders to make sure we weren’t being followed, but we never saw him again.

Later that afternoon we found a small, inexpensive hotel that at one point had been a hostel, and checked in. The following day, we were retelling our story to a cab driver we had hired to drive us to Auschwitz. Our driver was very pleasant, in his mid-to-late 40’s and spoke conversational English with little trouble. His name was Bob. It turns out our old man was no stranger in the city after all. At one point in his life he had been considerably wealthy, just before the Second World War. After the war, however, his business bottomed out and he never fully recovered financially. His family later left Poland, leaving him penniless and alone. Bob went on to say that many travelers who have visited Krakow have also met our friend at the train station, and some have even decided to stay in his dilapidated place. One group of Japanese travelers got a nasty surprise when the old man never returned with some money that was due them. They later went to the police but the old man never surfaced. It wasn’t until days after the travelers had left that he eventually showed up. There was another story about a group of Australian travelers who left their luggage in his place only to find it missing when they returned.

A few weeks later I was traveling in Florence by myself and was again approached by a man at a train station, this time a younger fellow with long hair and a New York Knicks basketball hat on. He was full of questions about America and was both charming and unthreatening. He was offering a room as well. I had already been turned down by three hostels and was beginning to wonder if I would have to sleep at the train station that evening. (A word to the wise, go to Florence with reservations!) I decided to follow him, and he took me to a decent sized place with four bunk beds in a room and a graffiti scrawled wall from travelers in the main hallway. I must admit that the graffiti seemed like a ploy. Hundreds of different names and messages, all thanking him for a good night’s stay, but all similar in hand writing. He pointed out a few that were good comments, then pointed out a few others that weren’t so nice and explained each individual situation. Despite the decent look of the place, I told him I would consider coming back but that I was going to continue to look for another hostel. The man was very pleasant, wrote his telephone number down for me and asked me to call him if I decided I would like to stay. A few hours later I found a small place across the river that was just right.

I hope you haven’t taken this as a warning. In today’s world, America’s especially, we are so jacked up on crooked foreigners, bombings and terrorist-doings that we are slowly isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. My experience in Krakow wasn’t a great start, but by the end of our stay had been a very worthwhile and beautiful city to visit. As a side note, should you be visiting Krakow and on a bus heading towards Auschwitz, go, run, and tell the driver immediately that you wish to stop at the concentration camp. Otherwise, he won’t. We found that out the hard way - two hours later.

© Christian Trokey
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