September 2018, I’m flying to Kraków, my bag is packed, I only have to get myself to the railway station and get on a train thus committing myself to the conveyor-belt that will deliver me to southern Poland. Most of the day before and well into the night it was very windy but now the winds have subsided and the day is dawning cool and bright, there are fleeting clouds but not enough to obscure the blueness of the sky as the sun slowly peeks above the horizon.
Hmmm, it was very windy last night and I think back to an occasion last year when my planned trip (to Łódź on that occasion) was scuppered because of a tree across the railway line to Stansted Airport somewhere around the Roydon area. On-line I check the status of the Metropolitan Line and the Stansted Express; everything seems to be running normally so I set out for the railway station. It’s a nice day, maybe a little cooler than it has been heretofore but not actually cold.
I’m getting the 08.40 departure from Chesham which should be devoid of the zombie like characters that seem to catch the earlier trains and will deliver me to London Liverpool Street Station where I will transfer to the Stansted Express for the run up to the airport. There are people on the platform but thankfully not a lot. The train arrives and its northbound passengers disembark; we happy band of south-bounders get on and I take my seat. After the few minutes it takes the train driver to walk from what is now the back of the train to the front, we set off, down the slight incline to the bridges over Waterside and Moor Road and begin the climb out of Chesham’s valley to reach the Metropolitan main at Chalfont and Latimer.
Blinded by the light?
As we rolled along up the hill towards Chalfont the low sun was flickering through the branches of trees, I closed my eyes and let the sunlight play upon my eyelids. I was treated to multi-coloured geometric patterns. I often wonder, am I the only one who enjoys this?
Phosphenes, biophotons emitted from inside the eye apparently – I’ve had to look this up – and these biophotons are no doubt augmented by the flickering of the sunlight on my eyelids; either way it’s a nice spectacle.
I opened my eyes and looked around me, nobody else seemed to be indulging, the chap opposite me has a small tablet device on his lap with earphones plugged-in, on the screen I could see a representation of a piano keyboard and moving waveforms, he was poking at the virtual keys; behind him a young woman was talking into her mobile ‘phone, and talking, and talking.
I turned to the window again and closed my eyes…
We arrived at London Liverpool Street in good time, 9 minutes until the Stansted Express departure so I made my way through the ticket gate and walked along the platform to where I judged the exit from the platform at Stansted would be and got on to the train. After an uneventful run up to Stanstead Airport I found myself in the queue for the bag drop. It still amazes me how un-prepared some people are for the realities of air travel in this day and age. Just ahead of me in the queue for the automatic bag weigh and tag machines there was what I took to be an Italian couple. Once through the initial passport and boarding pass check the woman opened her case and began taking things out, a large cafetiere amongst other things and her partner was remonstrating with her. I don’t understand much Italian but the language sounded colourful.
With my Bag weighed, tagged and set on its way I went through to the security check and as I wound my way through the zig zag course towards the security scan conveyor belt I was presented with the sight of a woman opening her case to remove all her cosmetics and put them into the small plastic bag they provide – one bag per person – she had filled three and was still going. As I got closer I could see at least two people on their knees in front of the conveyor belt frantically rummaging through their cases.
As I’d checked my bag into the aircraft hold all I had was the contents of my pockets, my belt, jacket and boots to remove. As ever, I was wondering why these people must insist on carting everything into the cabin with them, struggling up the stairs into the cabin, cramming everything into the overhead lockers, arguing with the cabin crew about putting smaller bags under the seat in front and so on. It was my turn; I emptied my pockets, put my belt, boots and jacket into the tray and breezed through with just a hint of smugness only to be jolted back to reality by the beeping of the body scanner. It was indicated to me that I should take a step to the right and assume the position, arms held out, palms up – swab, swab – palms down – swab, sawb. And then after a very few minutes indeed I was told that everything was alright. I don’t know what the machine thought it had sniffed but it was wrong.
The flight was scheduled to depart at 13.00, at 13.20 we took to the air, the Captain had informed us prior to this that we would be flying at 38,000 feet; just over 7 miles up, strapped into a tin can hurtling through the air at about 500 mph… I love flying.
As soon as the seat belt sign is switched off there’s usually one, maybe two people get out of their seats and make for the toilet or start faffing around with stuff in the overhead locker. This time there seemed to be an inordinate amount of people suddenly queueing for the toilet, idly I wondered why but my gaze was drawn, as it so often is, to the window and the vista of the earth below.
We arrived at Kraków more or less on time, 16.25 or thereabouts. This was the first time I’d flown into Kraków, I’d been here before but had arrived by bus the first and second times and by train the third time so this was visit number four and I’d flown in, very definitely flown in… Why am I getting the feeling that I’m paraphrasing something from The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy? Hmmm, flown in…
The language trap.
Passport checked and bag retrieved I went to find the taxi rank, okay, that was easy, got into a taxi and said „Dzień dobry” to the driver and then asked him, in Polish, if he understood English. I always find this a bit of a dilemma; I know a little bit of Polish and, if I may paraphrase Alexander Pope, that little learning may be a dangerous thing but the quandary is, when in another country and asking if a person understands English do you ask them in their language or yours? So anyway, I asked the driver, „Czy pan rozumiesz po angielsku?”
He looked at me with a slightly nonplussed expression on his face, „Ale pan mówi po polsku…” (“But you’re speaking Polish…”) he said wryly. I’ve been caught in this trap before, another taxi, another town; “Do you speak English?” “No, but you speak Polish…”
I explained as best I could that I only understood a little Polish; he told me that he did understand some English, but not much. We got along like a house on fire and soon I was deposited outside my Hotel on Hospital Street, Ulica Szpitalna.
After I’d checked in to the hotel and divested myself of my bag I popped out to enjoy the afternoon; the weather was warm but overcast and I strode off to buy a ticket for the trams and buses. There’s a small office just outside where the main bus station backs onto the railway station. I know it’s possible to buy tickets from machines on the buses and trams themselves but I still baulk at prospect of being thrown about by the vehicle as I try to understand the on-screen instructions and insert the correct coinage. Which leads me onto another thing, a small gripe. Most tickets here in Poland are sold as “timed” tickets, you buy a ticket valid for so many minutes which is all well and good if you know a) where you are going and b) how long it takes to get there. It was some time before I cottoned on to the fact that the timetables do show in a little inconspicuous column, way off over there somewhere, the approximate times between stops. So here I am at the ticket and information office to buy a day-ticket and have done with it. The good thing is, you can buy these tickets in advance and their validity starts as soon as you validate the ticket on your first journey – swings and roundabouts then.
My ticket purchased and safely tucked away I set out to find some beer. I know a pub on Floriańska Street, not far from my hotel and like so many good places in Poland it’s hidden away from the sight of the casual observer. Floriańska Street runs from the Florian Gate in the wall of the old city to the main market square and is therefore a tourist street, filled with tourists most of the time, as you walk down Floriańska towards the main square there is an archway on the left which if you turn into it leads you past an antiques shop, amongst others, into an open courtyard with a large tree growing in the middle of it. Past the tree is the pub, Viva La Pinta. Not a very Polish name I’ll grant you but it is what might be termed the Brewery Tap for the Pinta Brewery (Browar Pinta).
Pinta brews one of my favourite beers, Atak Chmielu, a very robustly hopped ale in the American IPA style. I went in and ordered a glass of Atak Chmielu then went out into the covered veranda like area outside of the pub proper. I sat there and sipped my beer, at 6.1% ABV sipping is a good idea, it’s definitely not a “session pint” or even half litre. There was a loud Thunk! Rrrr-rrr-rrr as something hit the roof and then rolled down the slope of the roof towards the far end. It made me jump, slightly, but nobody else there seemed to have noticed; hmmm, my attention turned to Facebook and I posted the obligatory Friday evening picture of a glass of beer.
What was making that sound?
I’m sitting here in this pub in Kraków because as I described in the prequel to this piece (Przed Koncertem), tomorrow there is a concert in town and I intend to be there. I sat for a while, dividing my time between people watching and Facebooking. I was just considering moving on to another pub when I noticed that Jerzy Antczak had commented on my earlier beer picture.
Jerzy plays lead guitar in „Albion” the band I’m going to see tomorrow, he’s asking me how long I’m going to be here. I tell him I’m thinking of going to another pub, called Poli Pub. We agree to meet there; Jerzy says he has something for me. Curious… Albion is one of three bands playing tomorrow, the event being an anniversary concert for the Polish record label Lynx Music who have been supplying music of a progressive nature for 20 years.
I finished my beer and took the empty glass back to the bar, a courtesy I’ve always been in favour of and walked back out into the courtyard, past the tree, the horse chestnut tree.
Conkers! So that’s what’s been making the Thunk! noise, conkers falling from the tree. Mystery solved I walked back out onto Floriańska and down into main square turning left past Bazylika Mariacka (St. Mary’s Basilica) past the small market square and off in the general direction of where I think I remembered Poli Pub to be. It was indeed a warm evening and soon I was at the major dual carriageway I had to cross to get to the pub. Well, when I say dual carriageway I mean three lanes of traffic, two tramlines and three more lanes of traffic. I waited for the green man to appear and managed to cross in one go. Shortly afterwards I was at the entrance to Poli Pub, another inconspicuous doorway but I already knew this was here so I had no qualms about ascending the staircase within.
Are there any Poles in tonight?
I went to the bar and ordered my beer in Polish, even managing to keep up when the barman asked me if I had the odd 40 groszy, I had the odd 40 and I handed it to him and took my drink to a table in the smoking section. I didn’t want to smoke you understand but the pub wasn’t very full and the smoking section wasn’t full of people smoking. I sat at a table between two occupied tables, took a sip of beer and checked my ‘phone. Ah, Jerzy would be here in about half an hour.
I sat and gazed out of the first floor window and then I heard an English voice, or somebody speaking English at least. Almost involuntarily I cocked my head to listen. There were four guys sat at the table in front of me, American by the sound of it. I eavesdropped for a bit and then I realised that there was English coming from the table behind me too, surreptitiously I looked behind me three people, mother, father and son I reasoned, talking quietly with a slight west-midlands accent. I smiled, reflecting that I’d done my best to order in Polish but everyone else in hear appeared to be speaking English.
I got a message from Jerzy, he’d shared his location with me, he was on a tram and he’d be at the pub soon. Scary stuff sometimes all this technology. On and off I watched his blue dot move across the map, closer and closer. I looked out of the window and there was a tram stopping at the tram stop. That’s why they call them tram stops, obviously. A few minutes later Jerzy was with me; the last time I’d seen him was nearly 21 months ago in Łódź. We greeted each other and more beer was procured. Jerzy handed me a plastic carrier bag and inside was an Albion t-shirt, the same as the one Jerzy was wearing. I thanked him and we settled down to a good old chat. I was telling him that I was really looking forward to the concert tomorrow, Jerzy kept apologising that he couldn’t stay long as he had to get back for rehearsals. Then, as we got towards the bottoms of our glasses of beer Jerzy said, “Do you want another one?” indicating the near empty glasses. I reminded him that he had to get back to rehearsals and realising that discretion was indeed the better part of valour he agreed and we said our goodbyes, until tomorrow.
I stayed in the pub for one more and then went out onto the street in search of kiełbasa. Just around the corner from Poli Pub is a bit of a Kraków institution, „Kiełbaski z niebieskiej nyski” (“Sausages from a blue Nysa”, Nysa being a make of small van).
Out of the pub, turn right and up the street a couple of hundred metres, under the railway bridge and there is the small blue Nysa van parked at the side of the road with two chaps tending a wood-fired grill set-up on the pavement. One of the guys grilling sausages over the flames; the other guy setting out paper plates with a bread roll and a good dollop of mustard. I got into the queue and very soon I had one of those paper plates, complete with bread roll, dollop of mustard and a freshly grilled sausage. I found a place at the table set out nearby and consumed my tasty treat before taking a slow walk back to the hotel and bed.
Znów Nowa Huta.
The next day started with rain showers, it was cooler but the sun was making an attempt to come out. After breakfast I went out and when I’d figured out which tram stop to stand at, I got on the tram to Nowa Huta. I’d been there before and the place had intrigued me so I thought I’d go again and have another mooch around. Nowa Huta is on the eastern outskirts of Kraków and was in essence a town built during the Communist era for the workers at the newly constructed steel works. An enterprise construed by the Soviets to show the world the merits of the Soviet way. The architecture, described as Socialist Realist, is striking. Back in the day these people may have had it tough but they lived in marvellous buildings.
After a good mooch I found myself in a restaurant where I had pizza for lunch, a good spicy pizza to boot. My initial forays into Polish restaurants had suggested to me that the Poles weren’t that keen on spicy food. Tasty food yes, no question of that, but spicy food? This pizza however was starting to change my mind on that account; I had to order another beer to wash it down!
I made my way back to the hotel and changed into my Albion t-shirt; I had been invited to be part of a small group who were planning to meet at a pub called Weźże Krafta for a few beers before the concert. Checking the map once more and sure that I had committed the route to memory, I set off through the main square and westwards. It wasn’t far and soon I was walking up to the pub building and there, sitting at a table outside the pub were two people I recognised. Greetings ensued and then the purchase of beer. I joined the two outside and before long others were arriving until we had a small group of maybe a dozen people all chatting away and frankly, as always, leaving me in my own little world, concentrating on the various conversations and trying to understand as best I could what was being said.
Then it was time to go to the concert venue and we all trooped off following the leaders of the group. Presently we were at the venue and as I entered through the main doors I had the realisation that I’d been here in this place before but the last time I was here, three years ago, I’d arrived in the dark and so had no real idea what the place looked like from the outside. Kino Kijów, the Kiev Cinema, is as its name suggests a cinema but also hosts stage productions and what I remembered from my previous visit was that it had large and very comfortable seats.
There were a lot of people mingling in the foyer, many of them queueing at the merchandise desk laden with CDs, vinyl LPs and t-shirts. The old dilemma rears its head; buy now and carry for the duration of the concert or trust that what I want to buy won’t sell-out before the concert has finished? I decide to buy later and if you are wondering, I bought a numbered, limited edition (No.22) on vinyl of Albion’s second release, “The Red Album” or maybe “Albion”, on the cover it simply says “Albion”.
Soon, people began to enter the main auditorium, the start of the concert was imminent. I had paired-up with one of the crowd from the pub, Marzena, who I had met the previous year in the city of Łódź; our skills in each other’s language were just about equal and so we decided to find a couple of seats about mid-house, which we did, just in front of the mixing desk with a good view of the stage. The seats were every bit as good as I remembered them from my last visit and we settled in for the show.
The first band on was called “Fizbers”, a group of youngish guys who have only been together since 2016, their music, a mix of ballad through to rock, was, I am happy to say, right up my street. Next on was “The Ryszard Kramarski Project” a side project of Ryszard Kramarski, keyboard player, composer and leader of the band “Millenium” (Ryszard also just happens to be the owner of Lynx Music). I know and like the music of Millenium and the music of TRKP is in a similar vein, a sort of melodic/symphonic rock, a little softer here, a little harder there. TRKP perform their debut album in its entirety – it’s all good.
Then it was the turn of Albion, this was the band I had come to see. As I have written elsewhere, I have known of and liked Albion for about 5 years now. As I have also written in other pieces, musical appreciation is such a subjective thing and I always get some sort of writer’s block when I try to write about music, especially the music I like. I know what I like, it’s something that happens inside my head and heart and the first time I heard the music of Albion it just connected with me, I knew I liked it.
I never imagined that I would ever get to see Albion live in concert but now here I was, in a theatre in Kraków and the lights were going down, shadowy figures walked about on the darkened stage, a backdrop film started on the screen behind the band and a battery of red spotlights came on, shining out into the auditorium; there over on the left I spotted a figure with long hair and a guitar, it was Jerzy.
I had to pinch myself; that guy down there was the same guy I’d been chatting with yesterday evening in Poli Pub, but tonight he was on the stage and I was in the audience. They kicked off with the epic “Sarajevo” from their first album, slowly the music, the sound, the ambience built… A rhythm of drums sounded louder and louder until there was the unmistakable sound of Jerzy’s guitar filling the hall. What had already been a brilliant day had just become that little better. Inwardly I sighed a small sigh of relief and settled incrementally further down into my seat, into my big comfortable seat; I had done it, I had come from Albion to Albion.
As an addendum, here’s a link to a couple of clips of the concert on YouTube: