It was midnight when our train pulled into Krakow, the cold glass windows offering an empty view of the train yard. I swung my pack over my shoulders and tightened my hip belt as I stepped down onto the platform, my breath visible and my beanie pulled down over my ears. The girl I was traveling with just steps behind me.
I fished around in my pockets for the remnant of a flyer from a city or two before, the one I had jotted down a Polish address and hostel name on. Near the entrance/exit gate was a small booth, barely big enough for the employee sitting inside of it. I walked up to show him the address and ask which direction we should head, but before I could utter the few Polish phrases I had learned, he shooed me away, muttering under his breath.
I thought I heard the words, “Not my job” as I shuffled away from him, out of the gate and into the square.
A massive Christmas tree stood erected in front of the train station and as we stopped to admire it, snow began to fall. “The first snow of the year,” a lone man on a nearby park bench commented.
We began making our way across the empty square, and took a slight turn down a side street in the direction we believed our hostel was. Krakow, with it’s walls and watchtowers, old narrow cobblestone roads and dimly lit street lamps, seemed a place straight out of a medieval storybook. Full of knights and dragons and castles. It was a bit eerie, the feeling we had as we sought out our hostel somewhere among the ancient winding buildings of old.
As we walked through long patches of darkness between sparse street lamps, the shape of a person became visible up ahead.
It was coming closer.
It was coming straight for us.
The shape was moving with intent, although obviously having a hard time walking a straight and continuous line. As it came closer I could see that it was a woman; she was haggard and dressed in a mix of what looked to be rags underneath an unzipped overstuffed coat. She leaned into the wall as she made her way down the cobblestone street. She’d try to stand up straight, only to stumble over her own feet and fall back into the nearest building again.
She appeared to be drunk as she neared us, only a few yards away now.
I could hear her tired inhale, the sound of a worn out wheeze.
As she approached us I could see that her hair was thin and stringy. Her teeth were mostly missing, her eyes were sunken and her skin was pale and translucent. Her cheekbones protruded from her thin skeletal face. She wasn’t drunk, she was strung out.
Beneath the long shadows cast by the street lamps she looked nothing short of ghostly. She could have easily been a character from a child’s nightmare.
She stumbled into us with a weight I wasn’t expecting, and in an almost panic-like state she half whispered, half gasped,
“Help! Zlut eat my dok!”
Nearly out of breath she exclaimed again, “Help! Zlut eat my dok!”
Her appearance, tone of voice, and staggering demeanor were all cause for alarm. I glanced sideways at my friend, whose face portrayed the terrified confusion I was feeling.
The situation was surreal. The medieval backdrop, the solitary streetlamp and it’s long shadows cast on the cobblestone street. The legend of the Dragon that once ravaged this town. The cold air that burned at my lungs and the foreign dampness of this early morning hour.
This frightful woman, her harsh accent and butchered words. It was all feeling very Lord of The Rings-ish, a perfect place for The Dark Riders to be hiding out. I had to shake the chill from my spine.
“A slut ate your dog?!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked around, half expecting to see a hooded individual crouched over a fire, roasting this woman’s poor dog on a rotisserie.
“Yes! My dok! Zlut. Zlut eat my dok!” she kept repeating, frantically grabbing at my arms, her fingers were bone and skin and dug into me with an anxious urgency.
My friend’s eyes grew large, “A slut ate her dog! Is that what she’s saying? That’s terrible! What kind of slut eats another woman’s dog!?” We were both beside ourselves, speaking too quickly in English for the poor woman to understand.
Amidst all of the commotion we had forgotten what we had learned on the train ride just a few hours before. All of the Polish phrases that we had practiced, learning if tipping at restaurants is customary and if you can use a public restroom without making a purchase.
But specifically, and more importantly, we had forgotten the currency. The Zloty, commonly shortened to Zlot. Which can sound a whole lot like Slut to an American who thinks someone’s dog has been eaten during a snowy night in Poland.
After one of the most confusing 5 or 6 minute conversations I’ve ever had in my life, we both realized she wasn’t saying, “A slut ate my dog” but instead, she was asking for Zlot to feed her dog. A ploy, I’m almost certain.
Relieved that no dogs had been eaten this night, I put my palms up and shook my head, “No … I’m sorry…. I have nothing.” I hadn’t even been to an ATM yet, and I didn’t have any Zloty to give her even if I had wanted to. She grabbed ahold of my jacket, the weight of my pack throwing me a bit off balance. Prying her fingers off of my forearm and stepping backwards, I repeated that I had nothing, “No Zloty, I’m sorry” I said as I made a lateral move away from her and the wall.
Almost unphased she continued groping the wall as she made her way down the street, mumbling something in Polish the whole way, until she disappeared into the dark just as she came.
A little while later as I lay in my hostel bed thinking of that woman in rags, feeling the place on my arms that she grabbed onto so tightly, I felt an odd sense of compassion. Imagining what paths she had taken in life that led her here. The things those sunken eyes had seen, the stories that toothless mouth could tell. The sad truth that she seemed to be forgotten by everyone who had once been a part of her life. What had brought her to that very moment, when she held onto me as if she were hanging from a cliff and I was her last shred of hope?
I fell asleep with the unsettling feeling that she was out there, cold, alone, lost inside her own mind. Surely I would see her on another cobblestone street, falling against another wall, telling some other foolish innocent that a slut had eaten her dog. But then I would be prepared. I would have a few extra Zloty in my pocket for her. Perhaps I could buy her lunch or some warmer clothes, get to know this individual that had left such a frightening impression on me.
I spent five days in Krakow.
I never saw her again.
To the woman in rags, I won’t forget you.
*** I arrived in Krakow after a long, very very stoned day from Amsterdam. It was an absolute nightmare.
Read about it here!
Amsterdam – Joints, Space Cakes, and a Swift Kick in the Pants Part 1
Amsterdam – Joints, Space Cakes, and a Swift Kick in the Pants Part 2
Amazing story! You really are awesome at writing, I felt like I was there with you.
Good to see ya back, Deborah! So happy you enjoyed it and thank you so much for the compliment!
This story has touched me deeply. I am thinking about that woman who lives her life of misery and the impossibility to help. Even if you had some Zloty, you wouldn’t have been help to really make her life better. I am always so emotionally taken when seeing or hearing about human life on the shadow side of existence – and most of them are only concerned about their own life in luxury – while complaining how badly off they are. They are not, most of them. Who really is in misery has no voice, but comes up to ask… Read more »
Heidi, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this! I agree that I wouldn’t have really been able to make her life better … perhaps it would have just eased my guilty conscience a bit. Sounds selfish in a way. Homelessness and need are everywhere, you don’t have to look too hard. Especially when you’re out traveling and not spending your time inside the safety and comfort of your home’s four walls. Thanks for reading!
A very engaging story indeed!
You’re an incredible writer! This was amazingly immersive. I felt as though I was there. You are so descriptive! It reminded me of a chapter out of a Louis L’amour book. Absolutely beautiful. And although a bit scary, it has made me want to travel to experience those kind of encounters. Maybe I’m just tired of our societies all powerful automated response tendencies.
Thank you Vee for the compliment! Now I’ll have to check out Louis L’amour 🙂 Encounters such as this only enrich the experience for a number of reasons. I hope you do go travel!
The blog post is amazing however I’d love to see those images in a bigger size or slideshow.. I am a big fan of images Iguess 🙂
Hey Nipun, thanks for stopping by! If you click on an image is should open in a larger window and then you can click the arrow on the right side of your screen to scroll through .. sort of like a slide show 🙂
Yay for my heritage home!!! I’m a Polish American and I love visiting Krakow!!
Haha yes, it is a great city!
This is an amazing read! Thanks for your travel blog, it’s beautifully written. I definitely agree with always learning something on the road.
Happy you enjoyed the read! Thanks for taking an interest 🙂
You definitely know how to weave a tale! I could picture the street, the woman and of course the poor dog as you were describing them. We meet all types of people throughout our life, some for a reason, some for a season, and some for a lifetime, but we can learn something from each of them.
Thanks, David! Completely agree with you — sometimes timing is everything. I find it very important to take away something from every interaction I have, especially with strangers!
Traveling certainly can be a sobering experience in this regard. I know that I’ve encountered plenty of very unnerving and memorable situations while on the road, especially when I’ve been to India and China for work. There are a lot of different things that go through your mind when you come from a background totally unlike that of the people you interact with, especially when you have difficulty communicating with them on top of it. I really do believe traveling is one of the most impactful experiences of your life. Thanks for sharing your story!
I agree, Craig. It’s amazing how a single situation can be perceived and interpreted in several different ways. Always learning something on the road, even when you aren’t meaning to!
I loved this! You are a true storyteller, and I’m loving your travel blog. Very nice and engaging. Will definitely be back!
Thanks so much Adrienne! Happy you’re enjoying it and hope to see you around!