Meeting the returning photographer in the underground bar
Yesterday morning we checked out of our hostel and into a new place to stay - a very moderately priced hotel with a room that is brown. Very brown.
I had given myself the mission of spending the whole day looking for leads for people we could talk to - something we should have done before this trip even began. But I figured a full day would allow me to send a lot of messages and find some leads.
But before I could start the important work, I got sucked into the wormhole of finishing this website (it had to be done), and writing the first blog entry which I stupidly allowed to take much longer than it should have. The problem with that is, that by the time you feel like you are finished and you hit publish, you are mentally too tired for about anything else.
I needed to just rest my head on the pillow for 30 minutes and find my energy again. In the background Rita was at the table editing photos. "Are you just going to sleep.It's sunny. We should go out."
With my eyes closed I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that needed to be done for this to be any type of project that I would be proud of. In the end I figured some air and some food might be just what was required for me to be productive again.
We wandered out into the surprisingly bright Krakow. I had a desire for some croquettes and borscht soup which I had just a little taste of when I visited Warsaw 3 years ago. I had an urge to taste it again, and to see if the taste was what I remembered. And so we walked - aimlessly. We all know that feeling of walking around a city for the first time - in a place that is completely alien to you.
My first impressions walking around Krakow were that there were not as many restaurants dotted around as I would have hoped for. Certainly not in our immediate area. And further more...very few seemed to be serving traditional fare.
Eventually we came to quite a picturesque market.
The Market / Photos by Rita Ansone
There was a pretty girl sitting at a table close to the entrance. She looked to be studying. I decided to ask her where we could find this food I so craved. It was clear by her reaction that we were total tourists - and it was quite likely that not all Polish people ate croquettes and borsht everyday.
Claudia studying at the market / Photos by Rita Ansone
Still, the girl was very nice and gave us some directions which I have to admit went in one of my ears and out the other.
I asked her what she was studying. Italian.
Trying to get a bit of useful information I asked her about the refugee situation in the city, and she told me we would probably be best going to the train station which was nearby.
Walking on we came to a bar/ restaurant which was serving the food we wanted. It was called the Stop Bar. I became frustrated with Rita wanted to take a photograph of the interiors - which I did not feel was particularly worthy. (But as I write this I'm messaging her to ask if she has any photos).
The Stop Bar / Photo Rita Ansone
The food was fine, but not quite what I hoped for. The croquette was huge. The borsht was too sweet. It was fine... if a little bit of a let down.
We decided after the food that we would venture to the train station to have a little look and get a sense of the atmosphere. The main train station in Krakow is in a giant busy shopping centre.
In the glass doors and down the elevator was your usual train-station vibe - with people busily rushing about to catch their trains. People pulling their bags behind them.
I did then notice a table where they were serving free soup for Ukrainian refugees. There was only one or two people availing of the soup when we were there.
The Soup Stand / Photo Rita Ansone
Close to that stand there was a much bigger queue - where the volunteers (?) seemed to be giving out much more essential supplies. I caught a glimpse of a lot of baby nappies for example. Rita suggested maybe we should try and speak to people there - but I felt uncomfortable. You need a certain gut check before putting a camera in someones face - and the moment just did not seem right to me.
Rita wanted to ramble around and take some more photographs of the train station. But in my mind I realised the clock was ticking. This project - 10 Days In Krakow - is starting properly tomorrow, and little is organised. I decided I needed to get back to the hotel and leave Rita to the photos.
The train station in Krakow / Photos by Rita Ansone
Back in the hotel I went about trying to connect with people via social media. I simply used the hashtag Krakow to try and make connections.
Out of the blue I got a phone call from my friend Tom in Dublin. Tom told me that another mutual friend and photographer - Allen - was actually in Ukraine taking photos for the charity Goal. Incredible. Although it made me feel that what we were doing was decidedly uninteresting.
I messaged Allen over Facebook
Stephen - Yo
Allen - Yo Yo
Stephen - Hello from Krakow. I am here with Rita.
Allen - So am I. I'm just back from Lviv.
Stephen - No way!
That was the nights plan made. We would meet Allen and hear his story but not before I decided to attempt a short run (I've been on a 7 day streak). I put on my shorts, and a shirt and told Rita I'd be back in twenty minutes. She was on the floor of the hotel room at the time doing some yoga.
The moment I stepped onto the dark Krakow streets the rain fell on me - Icey cold rain. I took a pause. Should I? I did. Of coarse I got lost on the return. Getting back to the room eventually Rita commented on how sweaty I was.
"It's rain Rita."
Rita found a bar for us to meet Allen at called Black Gallery Pub. The bar was a 15 minute walk from our hotel, through the nearby park - which allowed us to admire some of the classical buildings that surrounded the old town.
The bar was very cool - down a windy stair case - filled with sofas and cosy levels. There was an upright piano, exposed bricks, and dusty pictures on the wall. It also had a slightly grungy feel - with the music pumping on the speakers featuring Guns and Roses, The OffSpring and ehhh... Britney Spears. It was an interesting spot.
Allen was already sitting there when we arrived. It was good to see a familiar face.
Allen is a bit of a dashing fellow. He always looks tanned, he always looks windswept. To me he resembles a young Richard Burton.
Allen - the returning photographer - in the underground bar / Photos Rita Ansone
Allen proceeded to tell us all about the photo and video mission he undertook in Ukraine. By the way he recounted details it was clearly an assignment like no other he had before. In-fact Allen joked that he is not that type of photographer at all - usually doing corporate commercial work. He admitted to being nervous during the trip, where he was to visit a refugee centre with the aid organisation who were delivering supplies. He also spoke of the difficulty taking photographs of people when they were in the hardest moments in life. That sparked a conversation between Allen myself and Rita - and the overall ethics of what we were doing. We spoke about more hardened war photographers and the impact of their work on their minds.
Allen also spoke about some interesting characters he encountered from around the world who had taken it upon themselves to travel to Ukraine in order to be a hero. He felt some were doing it for the right reasons, and others were just a bit mad.
The bartender listening in / Photo Rita Ansone
Come 12.30am it was time to go home. Rita said she was hungry - so a McDonalds pit stop was made.
Back in the hotel room eating regrettable food I flicked through 100+ TV stations in all manner of languages. I stopped on a station showing the American preacher Jimmy Swaggart in 1986. I fell into a trance trying to digest what I was watching.
"Why are you watching this?" Rita asked.
I couldn't quite explain it. I tried. But I couldn't.
Soon later we fell asleep - knowing that tomorrow was the first official day of 10 Days In Krakow.
- Stephen O'Regan