Last Friday - upon the completion of a 23-year light labor sentence served in the suburban gulags of the American Midwest - I caught a one-way flight to Krakow with no set plans to return. Equipped with six words of pidgin Polish and not a day of teaching experience to my name, I enrolled in a program to teach me how to teach Poles English. The course lasts four weeks - and then what? More than likely, I will hobo around for a few months and then instantly freeze to death when winter blasts across Poland like a liquid nitrogen cabbage fart.
For now, I live in an apartment two blocks from Krakow's thousand year-old Stare Miasto ("old city," in typically understated Polish) with two shimmering she-Britons in their early 20s. This has necessitated eliminating several personal quirks from my daily routine, such as walking around in the buff, ritualistically clogging the toilet every hour on the hour, and leaving half-empty glasses of milk sitting on windowsills for weeks at a time. By the end of my stay, I would like for my roommates to believe that America is a utopia of curly-headed mumblers who on Tuesdays and Thursdays wear t-shirts promoting bands that probably don't exist.
In the meanwhile, I have expanded my Polish vocabulary to include sixteen words, two of them profanities. This may not seem impressive considering that I've been in Krakow for nearly a week, but any linguist with an associates degree will tell you: Polish is not derived from Latin or Greek, but from the hissing and frothing of the dreaded Polish Baby-Eater, a baby-eating forest opossum whose centuries-long reign of baby eating and unprovoked pranking forced 13th century Poland - out of sheer terror - to adopt the beast's spitting cacophony as its official language.
On my fourth day here, I witnessed a massive anti-gay demonstration. Several hundred Christian soldiers turned out in the main square, marching and chanting "Krakow is not gay!" - "Man + woman = A true couple!" - "Men can't have babies!" - "Eliminate the deviants!" But even this must have gotten boring after a couple of hours, because many of the protesters skipped out early to pelt homosexuals with rocks. Long live Catholic Poland.
This weekend was Labor Day. Everyone in Poland will be drunk until Christmas. My roommate Sara and I were walking back from lunch when we were caught up in a potato farmer parade. A pair of gigantic black amplifiers two feet from our heads suddenly exploded with polka music thumping offbeats loud enough to knock Belarus into the Baltic Sea. Several men in straw hats darted past with wheelbarrows full of potatoes. A throng of boy scouts swirled around us, executing perfectly synchronized pirouettes. A herd of moped drivers sputtered about in listless figure eights. I will never understand those ten minutes of my life.
But for as bizarre as it is here in Poland, it is never hard for me to find some out-of-context American garbage that makes me want to seek exile in Kyrgyzstan. After class on Friday, my British mates and I were aching for a pint, so we walked across town to a joint called Rooster. Not long into the meal, it occurred to me that we had passed through a transatlantic wormhole and that we were eating at the Hooter's in Omaha. The waitresses were wearing lycra shorts and lycra tubetops and I'm pretty sure the burger I ate was made of lycra, too. Rusted out mufflers and American license plates hung from the woodgrain walls and if I weren't served a side dish of very oily cabbage ... if the TVs weren't playing Premier League matches ... if the name on my waitress's trampy dogtag weren't "Bożena" ... I swear I would have pulled my hair out and eaten it right there and then.
My friend Peter - in all respects a fine Welshman - remarked, "Ay, Keith. I really like the atmosphere in this place. Look at all those license plates on the walls!" I could see his enthusiasm was genuine. He'd never seen anything like this before. I nodded sadly and glanced down at the menu. Maybe I'd order a Bud Light.