KRAKOW, Poland -- The train, en route to Krakow from Warsaw, is traveling 147 kilometers an hour.
I know this because the LCD screen at the front of our car is scrolling all of the train's vitals: date, time, speed, temperature outside and distance remaining. The digital interface is just another reminder, along with the iPad on which I'm typing and the Kindle on which my mom, Kathy, is reading, that life moves at a breakneck pace.
We are in Poland for UEFA's Euro 2012, the European soccer championship, co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. Our used tickets to Thursday night's semifinal between Germany and Italy are tucked into the pocket of my mom's Kindle case, and she just turned to me, pointed to them and said, "We'll be saving these."
We're also here to celebrate Poland's renaissance, its re-emergence on the European stage. Reminders of the country's painful past -- a plaque honoring a fallen soldier, a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, a train ride to Auschwitz -- are important interruptions, but they don't overshadow the excitement of the present. These soccer championships, which conclude Sunday with the final between Spain and Italy in Kiev, Ukraine, are a catalyst for reintroducing Poland to the world, just as the 2006 FIFA World Cup did for Germany and the 2010 World Cup for South Africa.
In the same vein, attending Euro 2012 with my mom isn't just about watching soccer (she brought her Kindle to Thursday's match, in case "the pregame became boring") as much as it's about reintroducing ourselves to each other. Soccer just happens to be the catalyst.
Thursday's match was the only one we had tickets for, so I insisted we arrive 90 minutes before kickoff, because the festivities create as many memories as the game itself. We crossed the river Vistula with streams of soccer fans, then sat perched on a hill outside National Stadium, with its red-and-white-checked facade. We watched as the local train dropped off load after load of Polska, Deutschland and Italia faithful. Whenever I glanced at my mom, which was often, her face was hidden behind her Nikon camera. (This is how I found her for most of the trip -- an unapologetic tourist.)
Later that night, while sharing a plate of potato pancakes, I asked her what she would remember most about the match. Was it seeing Pirlo play? Was it the pregame filled with Polish dancing? Nah. It was the relentless, determined singing of Germany's fans. She admired their persistence, trailing two goals to the Azzurri and still attempting to inspire their squad through song.
We'll probably watch Sunday's final on a big screen in Warsaw, sipping house wine while sharing pierogies and our favorite moments from the trip. Although we boarded the plane in New York thinking of all the big things we would do -- attend the semifinal game with 55,000 people, visit the national museum in Warsaw, take the train to Krakow -- the scenes that have struck us most are so simple, we would have missed them if we were looking the other way. Or, rather, we would have an entirely different set of memories if we'd been looking the other way.
Instead, we have ours.
The white cat perched in the window of the bookstore. The afternoon my mom disappeared, only to emerge from a local shop with a cone filled with Belgian fries and a side of mayo. The local taxi driver whose favorite English word was "Lady," which he used at the beginning and end of each sentence (and yes, I now address my mom as "Lady"). The lone German fan, the morning after his team's defeat, still wearing his Deutschland jersey, sleeping on his back in the Warsaw park, snoring, legs crossed at the ankle and hands resting gently on his chest, like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle. And the beautiful benches in Warsaw's old city, which allow visitors to sit and -- at the touch of a button -- listen to the compositions of Warszawa's favorite son, Chopin.
Our second day in the city, we walked into a local bookstore next to Warsaw University. My mom eventually found the English-language shelf and called out my name. I turned to see her holding a coffee table book with an image of the city on the cover. She pointed to the title, "Warsaw: A city to grow fond of." The two of us found this interesting, as if the city itself was acknowledging it still had some work to do. Warsaw isn't Rome or Paris, which attract visitors already enthralled with the wonder and beauty of those cities. This is a place formerly draped under the Iron Curtain, which conjures an entirely different set of images.
We have repeatedly referenced the book's tagline, because we are in fact growing quite fond of Warsaw.
My mom and I were close while I was growing up, basically until I went to college. But like a lot of kids who've left home, I got caught up in my new life and didn't stay in touch as much. I thought of time as an endless expanse in front of me; I was sure I'd get around to rekindling relationships.
Then my paternal grandmother, who was born in Poland, died last fall. She had visited her homeland in 2000 and confirmed for us that the kielbasa was, indeed, better there. I probably wouldn't have felt compelled to attend Euro 2012 if not for her. She was 79 when she died and had been battling dementia for several years, but of course I found myself regretting not calling and writing home more, not visiting often enough.
And so on June 12, I texted my mom and wrote that I was thinking about booking a flight to Warsaw. Then I sent a second message that said, "And I thought: You know who would join me in that craziness? Mom."
She quickly responded, "Smart girl! Let's!"
I get my sense of adventure (and also my impatience) from my mom. We both love seeing new places, yet this was the first time in my adult life that we'd plotted something spur-of-the-moment together. We booked the flight that same night, and for the next two weeks we repeatedly sent each other this one-word text: "Warsaw!"
And now here we are, on a train to Krakow, rolling through the countryside. Outside the window, it could be any year. It could be 1939, when Poland was enjoying its final days of freedom before Nazi Germany invaded and destroyed the country. Fields of golden wheat and stretches of dense forest give way to the occasional farmhouse, but there is no technological time stamp in this view. We're just riding a train heading south, as people here have done for more than 150 years, and I'm busy imagining what Polish life must have been like in the early 20th century, when my grandma's family headed for America, or in the 1940s, when Poles hid in these forests to escape terror and worked the fields for men wearing swastikas.
Of course, holding these images is like trying to project a movie onto a speeding target. But that's OK, because short bursts of the past should be balanced with scenes from the present: in this case, beautifully rebuilt cities, singing fans wrapped in flags, and my mom winking at me as she peels off to take yet another photo.
The train is now 18 kilometers from Krakow. Our speed has slowed to 67 kph. The long stretches of field and forest have slowly morphed into towns with looming electrical towers and paved roads filled with compact cars. I'm about to power down my iPad, my Mom is finishing a chapter on her Kindle, and we are very much in the present.
Thanks to Euro 2012.