With my Ukrainian residency papers safely filed at the consulate in Kraków, Poland, my travel companions and I head immediately to the city’s old town. We don’t have much time here – only a few hours to get a taste of the city before we board a plane and head back to Kyiv – but the afternoon is young and our wanderlust is antsy knowing our time here is limited.
The day’s forecast is questionable. My phone’s weather app indicates the temperature will ebb and flow, with chances of rain and a breakthrough of sun every now and again. I carry a small shoulder bag packed with a bottle of water, an umbrella and sunglasses. I’m wearing a winter coat.
I’m learning that fall in Eastern Europe is a temperamental beast.
Though I’d prefer to explore on my own, I’m somehow put in charge of navigating our path on the map I’ve brought along for the day. Coordinating dining preferences and sightseeing interests among four people who are relative strangers is no easy task, so over lunch I suggest we designate a meeting place in the center of town so we can each go our own ways.
Separate from the group, I am free to look around at my leisure. In the center of Kraków’s main square, Rynek Glowny, is a long, closed pavilion with shops peddling souvenirs. I touch the small jewelry boxes and wool slippers, and am surprised to discover how much easier I find deciphering the Polish language than Russian. English language acquisition seems to be a bit more prevalent here than in Kyiv as well.
Lined up on one of the sides of the main square are horses and white carriages, which take people on a scenic tour of the old town. I’ve read that these guided excursions are well worth the money. This is something I’ll do when I return.
On the hour, a trumpet player begins playing a tune from the top of the cathedral tower. He cuts off abruptly mid-song in memory of a trumpet player who was shot and killed in 1241.
Cafes along the periphery of the square have tables, chairs and umbrellas set up outside, ideal for people watching. I’m horrified to find a Starbucks tucked into one corner.
Finally, I pick a winding road heading out of the square and start walking.
I am eager to take in everything, resigned to see almost nothing and, finally, content simply to go where the afternoon hours take me.
The streets are narrow and lined with a mix of local flavor and international brands. KFC hangs out next to a hole-in-the-wall beer pub. H&M mingles with small boutiques selling glassware and nesting dolls.
The bookstores are my favorites. I stop in perhaps half a dozen small shops throughout the afternoon and browse the shelves even though I can’t read the titles. I recognize some of the covers, and I flip through children’s picture books. I buy some painted postcards and stationery, the only souvenir I pick up in Kraków.
Ultimately, I end up on the far side of the old city at Wawel Castle, which is made up of several buildings – a church here, a castle there and various other buildings. The location is enviable with a spectacular view overlooking the river below. Various tour groups huddle around group leaders throughout the grounds, but I simply wander by.
In a courtyard surrounded by one of these buildings there is a photographer and a couple in wedding garb. I watch them as the photographer guides their movements. Then I notice an older couple, perhaps in their 70s or 80s, standing off to the side, hugging each other and watching the couple as well. Young love and tried, true and happy love collide.
It is one of my favorite moments of the day.
I’m not a religious person, but I like to step inside local churches and cathedrals when I travel. I find them almost as revealing as local cemeteries. Tour groups meander through the larger buildings, but my favorite is a small church tucked behind a gate and down a set of stairs. There are only six rows of pews with a walkway down the middle.
I choose this church to take a quiet moment to myself, because the day is not only about me.
While I’ve been walking around Kraków , seven time zones away, my parents are with our 15-year-old cat, Abby, as she is euthanized before she slides into complete renal failure. I am so appreciative to have this day to myself to explore Kraków, but while my body is in Poland, my thoughts are in Wisconsin with Abby.
All day long, my heart is heavy. While I look through storefront windows, I think about her and my chest is tight with sadness. I order a cappuccino late in the day and sob in the cafe, my tears dropping into my drink. Looking back now, I feel bad for making the wait staff feel so uncomfortable, but at the time, I can’t help but cry.
Life is unfair. I am here in this incredible city. Cory is on a school trip in Western Ukraine. My parents are with Abby. Soon she will be in a place where I can no longer pet her and hold her and snuggle with her.
The weather mirrors my mood.
It is cloudy and dark but there is no rain. Just as the sky is at its darkest, I walk past a cathedral at Wawel and the sky opens up to reveal the sun. There isn’t a rainbow painted across the sky, but I wonder if this is the moment that Abby has crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.
She may not be in this life any more, but her spirit will always be a bright light in my memory. And even in this sad, somber moment when I have to let her go for good, I try to remember there are happy, beautiful moments that surround me in this foreign city.