SOURCE: The Atlantic, May 12, 1999
It is near to midnight now, and the woman next door is having a good time. So is her companion, although he does talk a lot. I met him earlier at the snack counter downstairs. He is a furry Ukrainian with a wide chest and oddly thin biceps. He spoke just a few words of English and, like everyone else in this place, was astonished when I told him I was American. He was alone at the time. I wonder where he met his woman.
Downstairs, the woman who showed me to my room this morning is talking; her voice is barely distinguishable against the background music. When I checked in, she was surprised. “Tourist hotels are in city,” she said, leafing curiously through the pages of my passport. “Why here, American?”
Why here, indeed? I am in Hotel Alf, an anonymous hostel at the edge of Krakow, far from the ancient buildings, the cafés, and the elaborate tourist infrastructure at the center of town. When I arrived in town at 5:30 this morning, every hostel within my price range was closed. I was tired, it was cold, and there was a terrible fog. I stood shivering outside a shuttered tourist office for half an hour. Then a skinny man with liquor on his breath told me about Hotel Alf. “It may not be what you want,” he said. “But it is quite cheap.”
I took a bus, crossed the Vistula River, and found myself outside an imposing concrete structure, fenced off from the surrounding flat landscape. A group of women in flower-patterned dresses sat amid a sea of children on the steps of Hotel Alf. Sturdy plastic bags filled with sweaters, wool caps, and other knitted articles of clothing were strewn everywhere. The bags were striped; they reminded me of the bags used by the street vendors who would set up shop every Sunday during my childhood in India. It was only later that I learned that Hotel Alf is situated near a large weekend market. The market is a gathering place for merchants from across Eastern Europe.
The woman at the check-in desk was inexplicably rude when I walked in. She refused to look up from her newspaper. A group of burly men sat sipping beers on a sofa facing her desk; they eyed me suspiciously. Finally, I cleared my throat and asked in my most humble voice if there was a room available. The woman looked up with a start. “You are American?” she asked when she saw my passport. “But you are so black!” she said. “I thought maybe you were Romanian, maybe gypsy. We have so much trouble with Romanians.” Then she called her co-workers over and they all huddled around my passport.
On the way up to my room the woman warned me that the place would not be to my liking. “Rooms not made for Americans,” she said. “Here, we have Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, Poles. Last year, one French. But no Americans.”
In fact I can’t complain about my room. It is a little narrow, there are some odd red stains on the walls, and my neighbors are a little noisy, but it is really no worse than anything I would find in a hostel near the center of town. Likewise for the bathroom down the hall: if the men I saw there hadn’t sported tattoos in the Cyrillic script, and if they had spoken English or French or German, I could easily have mistaken this place for a regular backpacker’s hangout. In many ways this feels like a parallel universe — one with the shapes and contours of a familiar traveler’s world, but one from which I am barred by language and culture. In months of solitary travel, I now realize, this is the first time I have been alone. Until now there has always been someone down the hall who spoke English; always someone in the restaurant or coffee shop with whom to trade travel stories.
My search for companionship — and the ruckus next door — draws me to the music downstairs. At first it seems I am not to be disappointed; I find a party in the restaurant. Approximately thirty men and women are dancing around a table. The table bears signs of a feast: it is laden with plates and vodka bottles. Every now and then a dancer leans over the shoulder of his partner and brings a bottle to his lips. Many of the bottles are soon drained in this way. The dancing picks up pace and a chorus of drunken voices is singing along with the music in some unintelligible Slavic dialect.
I do not know any of the songs, so I cannot sing. No one notices me, and even if anybody did, there would be precious little we could say to each other. So I stand by myself for half an hour, watching from the edge of the room as the party heats up. Everyone is very happy and red-faced. I watch the middle-aged woman who helps her drunken partner to a sofa and then, as his head slumps onto his shoulder, leaves him to join the dance again with another partner. I notice the man from upstairs, my noisy neighbor (who has evidently finished with the bedroom for now), dancing intensely with his companion. She is young, she is slim, and she is very pretty; none of the other women in this room can match her leopard-print T-shirt and her purple leotard.
Then I decide that this is someone else’s party, and someone else’s world. And if my neighbor is dancing downstairs, then at least the upstairs will finally be quiet. So I go back to my room and get into bed. Tomorrow, I think, I will visit that Dunkin’ Donuts I saw this morning in the center of town. Someone there is bound to speak my language.