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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