15 Apr 2010

Couchsurfers say hello by walking. So I step off the 6am Stansted Shuffle in Krakov and go exploring with Anna - a flooded ex-quarry, a medieval fair on Krakus mound, a fortress built just outside the city walls. At drinks with conference attendees that evening we successfully derail a discussion of web applications into one about Venezuelan butterflies, leave them over hot chocolates in a cafe, then slip off to a smoky bar. It's the first of many late nights, but that's just how this goes.

We play Crazy Taxi on the way to the Wieliczka salt mine, cutting a 30-minute bus ride in half with an unlicenced cab I pick up in the train station. I spend the whole trip more worried about being ripped off than killed in traffic; the situation trips all my scam heuristics. I'm thoroughly confused when it fails to turn into one. This isn't Vietnam.

Kopalnia Soli is a palace, not a mine. I'm not disappointed. We catch the bus back.

Then it's two nights at the Park Inn for the Agile Central Europe Conference. It should really have been three, but I skip the post-conference party in favour of heading out to my second couch at Kazimierz.

Language is shared experience, and as I travel, common phrases take on a new richness. "Roared to life" seems overblown until you've kickstarted a classic bike. "The man on a Clapham omnibus" doesn't mean much until you've met one. Maja is "stunningly beautiful". That is, I'm actually stunned, and our first few moments of conversation in the doorway are stilted.

But that's just how couchsurfing goes. Within half an hour we're comfortable. Nine hours later, at three am, we're still talking but I'm fading fast. We've been joined by half a dozen other couchsurfers by then, both hosts and guests, swapping stories and places around the table.

Krakow does pubs really well. Every place I saw was on a level with the best of London.

It's a rough morning. Not because I have a hangover - contrary to stereotypes, everyone's too busy talking to get really pissed - but because of the phone call that wakes Maja at 8am. The president and most of the government have been killed in a plane crash. I make her a cup of tea; I don't know what else to do.

You don't realise how important your downtime is until you don't have any. The tram to Nova Huta is almost the only time I've been alone in five days. I expected utilitarian concrete nightmare; I got well-planned but unimaginative metropolis. It's funny how the cities people claim they want - well planned, easy to commute, plenty of housing - aren't the ones they want to live in.

I navigate through tramline suspensions (public transport failures aren't unique to London, after all) to the Bunker Art gallery. Art gives you new filters; once you've seen it done, you can apply it to your vision in realtime. Dark Rooms was an exhibition of darkened spaces, the absence of detail providing more room for the imagination.

I'm back in time for a basement birthday party. The language barrier prevents me from casually joining conversations - a much bigger barrier than you'd expect, and one that affected me just as badly at the conference - but they take turns to speak to me one on one, in English. I never get the feeling that it's a chore.

I'm down at 2:30am and back up at 7 sharp to get the plane. My grip on reality is starting to slide. It doesn't help that, for background, I'm reading a book set in Krakow, the narrative slipping between two periods in history. That gives me three, all up, and walking through the Rynek I see echoes of other times.

Other times that never even happened. Sleep deprivation is biting hard. The third day feels worse than the second, but the fifth day doesn't. I don't feel impaired, just slightly .. disconnected. It's an altered state of consciousness, not entirely unpleasant. If I just slept less all the time - many people do - I wonder if I'd get used to it?

I'm back on a plane in less than a week. It looks like I'm going to find out.