Saturday, December 09, 2006

a Krakow saturday

Can a Pole get a fresh perspective on her homeland by staying away for a while? You think you can, but it’s a myth. You get off the train, you see X, Y and that’s it. Say no more, you, dear country, are as good (or as quirky) as I remember you.

But when something hits you ever so forcefully, well then, you’d have to be rock iron steady not to falter.

Take the weather (but anything can be considered here). I come here with my warmest woolies in the winter. That wetness, hovering just below freezing gets to me every time. I expect this: I will be cold here in the winter in ways that I am not cold elsewhere. Not indoors, mind you. Wisconsinites with their bravado take the reigns there. Poles crank their furnaces to a toasty high. But outside, you are on your own. No toasty interior can ever take away the chill of a Polish December evening.

Except, today, when I step out for my first full Polish day and see this:

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Off with the coat, off with the scarf, man, it is warm here! I talk to a waiter later in the day, he shares my confusion. We go outside and it’s warm. We don’t know what to do. What do you wear on days like this?

Not much of anything. No problem bringing out the accordion today. You don’t need the woolies or the mitts.

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And the sky! The mist is gone, the heavens are pure cornflower. Look at the detail from the castle (just up the hill from where I am staying), against a template of blue.

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I walk with Ed to Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Krakow. It’s not as if Ed is insisting on this (even though his roots are very much in the Eastern European Jewish culture, or at least as it was relived on the streets of New York City, post immigration), but I feel most people from the States are interested in what happened to the Jews of Krakow. I’m not sure a walk to Kazimierz answers all their questions (though I am able to say that this indeed is where Schindler’s List was filmed), but it’s a start. If you keep your eyes open, there are triggers for a conversation: the tiny proliferation of Jewish stores and eateries and an empty Square that once was the epicenter of local Jewish culture.

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It is rather stupid to visit Kazimierz on a Saturday. Or maybe it’s not. The cemeteries are closed. I am spared the heavy weight of having to read the inscriptions on the tombstones, of seeing the wall of mourning, of reeling back to a Krakow of sixty-five years back.

Just at the periphery of Kazimierz proper (mind you, we are within a half hour stroll of downtown Krakow), we come across a market. Foods, yes, of course. A woman sits and waits for someone to buy her eggs. Her pears aren’t a draw, even though they are the only fruit at the market.

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There is more interest in the pots of cooked cabbage and pickled cucumbers. At the core, Poland is as I remember her from my childhood.

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The flee market next door causes a greater stir. The sellers insist their items are absolutely authentic. And why would you want to question this anyway? You can make a killing here. Imagine the real value of some of these treasures. Had I spare coins, I would have definitely put up the cash for the smirking woman in the portrait below. A steal at any price.

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Walking back to Krakow’s main square, I pass a most familiar sight. I am a young kid, in post war Poland again! This is my world, the world of lines spilling onto the sidewalk. The lines you join first and ask why they have formed later!

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Only this is different. This line is born of a lightbulb going off that there is a week-end ahead, with guests coming for supper and not much time to bake and so here we all are, standing at our local bakery to pick up a cheesecake or a fruit square, or those rose-jelly doughnuts covered with orange glaze. They’ll do, more than that, it is what we like, it is familiar and good, baked fresh and honest on the same way, for decades now.

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Such a day. Did any Krakovian not walk through the main square, slowly, purposelessly, indulgently today?

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I stop at a favorite café to get my pretend latte (or, is it that I get my pretend cappuccino back in Madison?).

I want to show off Krakow in its rosiest tones because if you, Ed, the visitor, cannot understand it at its best, then you may think us inadequate or somehow lacking (which is only slightly worse than the indifference that the outside world has otherwise shown us) and our complex runs way deep (can’t you tell from this paragraph alone?) and so here, take a look, we are doing it right. Believe it.

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mirror mirror on the wall, who is the rosiest of them al?

The holiday fair is at its peak on this afternoon, but really dusk already, because it’s 3:30, December, in northern Europe, for God’s sake, the sun is done with. Thank goodness we have food.

The grills can’t keep up with the demand. Lines, jovial lines of people looking forward to that plateful.

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We ask for the sides without the meat. We are not trying to be odd. But I had just sipped a cappuccino and eaten pear cake with almonds. A dish of cooked bigos (sauerkraut with hams, sausage, etc etc) seems wrong.

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Yet, the smells are irresistible. We take another bite of the melty smoked cheese, a sip of the hot spiced wine and we want more. Can we please have the sides without the meat? Sure, sure, have it all, you Americans always ask for odd things, but you pay for it and so here you are – a dish of sides.

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…and to take back home, a sack of cows. Because they are the candy of my childhood. Krowki. Cows. Little candies, wrapped in paper with a picture of a cow. A forerunner to my eventual move to Wisconsin.

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A walk around the square, once more, covering all angles, all sides...

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And finally, the sun has set. Completely.

So is there room for dinner after this? Sure. I have a salad. Oh, and a whole trout filet. You can’t be in Poland and not have a local trout filet.

And late in the evening, we stop at a small bakery that does small cookies. Sweet endings to a very warm and rosy day.

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  1. Nice photos. How I long for Christmas markets! But Ocypek? Yech!

  2. Your photos bring back so many memories, like the time we went to see "Shindler's List" in Krakow on Easter Sunday, 1994. It was by far the most emotional I've ever been at a cinema. So many people openly sobbing, groaning. To be in that place at that moment was to truly experience a loud historical echo.

    We're even farther north here in Latvia, but the mild weather has gotten everyone a little confused, even the birds and the bears.

    Thanks for the wonderful little reverie you provided for me this Sunday morning.

  3. far too lovely a town to suffer the feelings of inadequacy.

  4. Nina: You are the best travelogue blogger around. Everywhere you go, I want to go, too.

  5. Try the plum strudels from the Hawelka store in the Sukiennice (it's the only one that sells them--exquisite!)

    Also, would you mind snapping a photo of the building at 24 ul. Sw. Jana? (It's the one with the Herbaty Swiata tea shop.) I used to live there and miss it so...

  6. TO: Whomever
    RE: Okay...

    ...I'm drooling. Especially over the meat grill and the pasteries.

    Merry Christmas to all in Poland!


    [Life is, despite what some people would have you believe, good.]

  7. Thank you for putting some images to the descriptions I had been given by people who had been in Krakow. Magnificent.

  8. I just ate but now I'm really hungry, Ms Nina.

  9. You like the krowki? You best get to Hamtramck.

  10. Wow... what a lot of great photos.

  11. David Samuel FrenchSun Dec 10, 10:15:00 PM

    You took me there! You showed me the beauty, the joy, the fun, and the sights. You told me about your feelings about the weather but you showed me the feelings of your heart. Thank You Samuel French

  12. Oh my. WHAT is that gorgeous confection in the center of your first bakery window photo? It looks quite delectable.

    And don't apologize for liking the food. Food is one of the languages of love and childhood.

  13. I second Ruth Anne! You have singlehandedly made my travel wishlist far more specific and more gripping than it ever was before.

  14. I am so delighted with your photos of Krakow, Poland that I think we might plan a visit there in the future. How explicitly different than Germany, yet still implicitly similiar. My Dad is Polish, and although raised in the USA, he's fluent in Polish and attends Polish Mass each Sunday. On my visits to the USA, I attend Polish mass with my Dad, and am truly inspired by the reverence of the people. Thanks for sharing your photos and your insights.

  15. My grandparents emigrated from Poland to Odessa where my dad was born in 1912. They came to the U.S. in 1914. I have wanted to see Poland for years. Thanks for the eye-candy to spur the plans.

  16. Wonderful photos. They evoke warm memories of my first and only visit to Poland, in 2002. The whole family went. Poland is the land of my ancestors, and I want to return again and again. The people were so hospitable. My kids had a great time.

    I was particularly charmed by Krakow, although my ancestors come from the Bydgoszcz/Torun area. I am sure there is much to see in Krakow that I missed -- even in and around the Wawel and the Sukiennice.

    The references to food remind me of a funny story of our first night in Krakow. We went to a very old restaurant on the opposite side of the river from the Wawel. My wife ordered the cucumber "salat." It was a wooden bowl full of pickles!

    It's almost Christmas -- must get some oplatki.


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