I joined International Penfriends (IPF) a few years ago and soon began corresponding with fourteen people in England and Spain, excepting Leszek who lives in Poland. While my other penpals wrote occasionally, Leszek’s long, witty letters appeared in my mailbox every ten days. He discussed books, movies and travel – my three passions.
A mutual attraction developed between us over time, and when Leszek invited me to come to Kraków I jumped at the chance, although, deep down, I worried that our friendship might end if we didn’t get along.
I knew that we lived in two different worlds, but at least we had common interests. I knew he couldn’t afford to travel, but, after some thought, I persuaded him to let me treat to dinners and the hotel if, in exchange, he would act as my guide and translator. I thought it would be a pleasure to have Leszek show me around without worrying about money. We could get to know one another face to face. He could communicate in Polish with the locals, and I’d learn about Poland from someone who’d spent his whole life there. It seemed like a win, win solution. He agreed, reluctantly.
Leszek met me at the airport. I was pleased to see that his tall, blonde, good looks matched his photos, especially the delightful twinkle in his blue eyes. Shyness overtook us both, though, and it soon became apparent that the easy camaraderie of our correspondence was missing.
That afternoon we sat under a crimson umbrella at one of the cafés lining Rynek Glówny, Kraków’s medieval town square. Leszek tugged self-consciously at the visor of his Mets baseball cap, and I tensely gazed around at other tourists happily feeding the pigeons in the square. I yearned for a comfortable friendship but could not think of a thing to say. Despite two years of detailed, intimate letters, in person, Leszek seemed like a stranger to me, and we sat together in silence.
Suddenly a trumpet blared from the tallest tower of St Mary’s Church. Shaken from reverie, I listened as the mournful call sounded for a few seconds then abruptly cut off in mid-measure. "What’s that for?" I asked, breaking the silence.
Leszek replied slowly, flipping through his Polish/English dictionary to find the right words. "It is a performance," he explained, "to commemorate an important moment in Polish history – to honor a brave trumpeter who sounded a similar alarm centuries ago when he saw the approaching Tartars, only to have it cut short as an arrow pierced his throat."
I began to relax as I listened to him. Here was the intelligence I had admired and found attractive in his letters. Learning English on his own, Leszek had used a dictionary to look up every word in my letters.
Shortly after that, we paid the bill then strolled a few blocks to the Planty, a refreshing green park that circles Kraków’s Old Town. Gradually, conversation came easier as we passed the hours until dinnertime ambling in and out of art galleries and shops at the edge of the park.
By then we were hungry. Through the window at Restauracja U Pollera we could see plates piled high with potato pancakes, and we went inside. I remembered Leszek’s promise to act as a translator, but when the waiter arrived he sat silent. Surprised, I asked, "What’s wrong?"
"You order," he whispered.
When the waiter left us for a moment, I said, "But you speak Polish!"
"Yes, but if you order in English, they will charge us less, because they like tourists."
This explanation made little sense to me, but I passed it off with a slightly exasperated laugh, and ordered for us both. What, I wondered, was his problem? Was he embarrassed to order, not being able to foot the bill? Then I felt guilty for putting him in an awkward position.
The afternoon had been fun, though, and we had had a full day by the time we turned in at the Hotel Saski, in the Old Town, where we’d reserved rooms ahead of time.
Next morning we were both more at ease. He knew of my love for castles, and said we shouldn’t miss a visit to the Renaissance Wawel Castle and Cathedral. A fifteen-minute walk brought us to this romantic palace worthy of Cinderella, situated high on a hill above the Vistula River.
After exploring the castle for a half day, we returned to our hotel and checked out. Leszek’s mother had invited us to stay overnight at their house in Piekary Slaskie, two hours away near Katowice, and I looked forward to meeting her.
When we arrived, Felicia, Leszek’s mom, threw open the door and gave me a cheerful smile and a warm hug. She seemed thrilled to meet me, and I felt the same. In this apartment where white lace curtains billowed in the breeze and delicate vases overflowed with daisies, Leszek seemed confident and content. I realized that he was happy here because he could offer me hospitality without worrying about money.
On a delightful walk through the town, he showed me the highlights of his childhood – the school he’d attended, the hospital where his mother worked, the town’s movie theater. Then we returned home for Felicia’s tasty Kielbasa (Polish sausage) dinner.
Later, Leszek showed me a large, neatly bound pile of letters. My letters. He’d kept them all. Touched, I didn’t know what to say. I thought of the letters he sent me, tied with a scarlet ribbon, sitting on my desk at home.
Sadly, the mutual attraction we’d felt through our letters didn’t exist in person, and we both knew that our friendship would never be the same. It was a painful good-bye at the airport the next day.
On the brighter side, I realize that Leszek and his mother helped me experience the richness of Polish culture on a much more personal level than had I been traveling solo or with a group. And although the letters between us have dwindled to none, I still think of Leszek often. All in all, I’m glad I took the chance to meet my penpal. It was a worthwhile adventure, and I hope Leszek also feels good about the experience.
International Penfriends was established in Ireland in 1967 and is one of the largest penpal organizations in the world. Contact: International Penfriends
Full of architectural treasures, Kraków’s Old Town has been placed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's – UNESCO – list of protected World Historic Sites. But Kraków is also a modern city – the third largest in Poland.
Travelers of all budget levels can find something to suit. One of the nicest areas to stay is in the atmospheric Old Town, where traffic is minimal and most sites are a few steps away.