‘Come,’ Antosia said to me later on. Delphine and I were in her bathroom. I was helping Delphine strip off for a wash.
I looked back at Antosia. Owl-eyes, the girls say about her. Thirty years ago I’d negotiated myself around dark furniture in the middle of the night. Opened the bathroom door. Antosia was inside washing her hair. She must have been naked. I can’t remember that part though. I just saw the bucket and long, long brown hair. Mortified, I’d started to move backwards. She smiled at me. I stopped. It was the most beautiful smile. Crazy and funny wrapped on her face. Now I realise the girls are right. Owl eyes.
‘Hold on,’ I said to Delph. I had no choice. I left her and followed Antosia through the corridor that used to be the cowshed. We went out into the garden; beautiful now, part-manicured and part-tall grass meadow past the place where the outside toilet used to be. Before I caught Antosia in the newly-built bathroom, we’d all had to squat over a hole surrounded by four spidery walls.
Next, I passed the piece of grass where I’d pitched my tent twenty years ago and lived for a month. I was heartbroken at the time. Dumped. Again. I refused to come out of my tent even when my mum knocked on the door in the middle of the night during a halny, a mountain wind storm.
We went past the large white stones toward the top of the garden. Was one for Marysia I wondered, her older sister who tended the cows when a younger Antosia went to work, before dying suddenly despite her ruddy, healthy looks. Was the other for Michał, her nephew who died as a young adult in a fire? A year younger than me, he used to show me his rabbits when we were kids. He’d walked up mountains with us. Once, he’d weed into the wind at the top. He was gracious about it when we rolled around in bad-taste laughter and pointed at his pants. My grandma laughed so much she peed herself.
Nope. Antosia passed the two stones. ‘Here.’ She pointed at a patch of grass. A circle of orange. It was a mushroom. ‘The first one of the season,’ she said, smiling the same crazy, funny smile she’d smiled all those years ago in the dead of night. A dark wave pointing at the floor.
It’s twenty whole years since I’ve last been here. I’d forgotten that I’d wanted to live here. I’d wanted to work for the national park and be a biologist up in the woods. Instead I’d packed my tent up, gone home that summer and never came back. Until now. And now, just like the rest of Poland, like me, everything changed. I recognised Zakopane’s train station and the post office. That was about it. Glass lifts take you down to the market. The market I remember was full of Russians changing money on the sly. Today? Surely the Russians are still there. Harder to see them past the sheep toys, sheep’s cheese and sheepskin rugs. Zakopane has become boom town.
At least the restaurant bar in Zakopane. They’re called Bar Mleczny or Milk Bar. One person still stands in a queue so long it would make the free world sweat. The other still lingers in the dining area and waits for somewhere to sit. My first steps towards speaking independent Polish were formed here by asking, ‘Is this seat taken?’. I’d sweat with fear. Always my grandmother came after winning her way to the front of the line. A tray full of soup, sausages and potatoes. She’d scan the large room. I’d always be watching her, protecting our new spaces. The white flag of surrender had nothing on me.
‘You stand on that side,’ I barked at Lu. Then I turned to Delphine. ‘You take the middle. I’ve got this end.’ They looked at me at first without a sliver of understanding. After some gesturing and interesting facial movement on my part, they spread out through the dining area. Lulu bit her nails and lost interest. Delphine gave everyone the stink eye. I found a young couple sitting by the door.
Armed with menu orders, my mum went to stand in the queue. I promised to join her. Five bowls of soup to carry required someone to walk ahead and clear the crowd.
‘We wont be long,’ the man said in an American accent.
‘Is this your first time in Zakopane?’ I asked.
They nodded. Lulu, Delph and my grandma had sat down in a line opposite them and stared at them as openly as yokels. There’s not that many non-Poles in Zakopane.
‘Well,’ I said, eyeing the door and noting my my mum inch forward, ‘you’ve chosen the best place in town to eat.’
They smiled at each other. ‘We know. We read the reviews. It’s got the best ratings.’
‘It does?’ Internet ratings? This kind of relic exists on almost exactly the same terms? Long queue, nowhere to sit, amazingly good value, huge bowls and pure heartiness. On the internet. Duh! Why wouldn’t it?
‘What are you eating?’
‘Pierogi. It’s the only thing on the menu we understand.’
I scanned the room and pointed at the table behind me. A family were tucking into steaming plates of food. ‘These are nice.’
‘What are they?’
‘Kotlety. A kind of pork schnitzel.’
‘Do you know if the weather will hold?’ the woman asked. Since we’d been in Zakopane, it’d been beautiful sunshine every day.
I got out my phone. Checked Windfinder. ‘Until Saturday it says. Then it becomes quite mixed.’
The American woman got her notebook out. ‘Can I write that down?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Windfinder is W-I-N-‘
‘No, not that.’ I followed her jabbing finger. It was pointing back at the kotlety on the plate. ‘The meal. What was it called again?’