It looks better than it tastes – I hear a British woman say to her friends. She’s referring to the sausages and meats that I am once again admiring at the Christmas Market in Krakow, Poland, this time by daylight and among the heavy crowd you’d expect on a cold but sunny December afternoon.
Don’t tell that to a Pole, I say to her.
But it’s tough meat! -- she defends her comment.
Well yes, that’s what I’d imagine for a pig’s knuckle. Not that I ever had one – it just looks difficult to eat.
We’re waiting for the Grzaniec Galicyjski – Gluhwein in German, Glogg in Swedish.
A drink for the people of cold weather nations.
Before me in line, I have a group of young Poles vocally anticipating the warm wine, laughing at the wait.
I suppose to someone coming from Wisconsin, drinking early and with zest should not shock the sensibilities. I need only to point to our pre-ball game beer sales. But I have to say, used to seeing (as I am) UW students carouse on State Street until 2 a.m. on week-ends, it pales next to the carousing that took place all night long on a cold December Friday night on Florianska (the street of our hotel). Charming, or annoying, depending how much you expect quiet in the center of a youth-filled city.
Me, I'm still denying the need to sleep. I'm up early. Of course. For a moment I consider going out before breakfast, for that glance at an empty square and a pink toned morning sky. But I tell myself -- it's time to slow down, not rush so much. Take the day as it presents itself.
Linger over the hotel breakfast. Consider the interesting possibilities. And yes, I know many other cultures heap pickled veggies and mayo salads onto the breakfast tray, but none of them are in Europe. Here, in Poland, you’ll see it all: the veggies, the salads, the fish, the cheeses, the lunchmeats, the cakes, the eggs, the sausages...
My friends love the selection. Me, I munch happily on a soft boiled egg accompanied by a smoked salmon sandwich.
We have a big walk planned for today and we set out fairly promptly. To the cloth halls, to Wawel the castle, to Kazimierz, the old Jewish ghetto. Krako-philes, don’t bug me about missing St Mary’s, or Collegium Maius or the Franciscan Church, please. We have Monday morning to work with still.
I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully blue the sky is on this day. As if mocking me for my grumblings about the classic Polish winter (damp, freezing).
Krakow in the morning. The shop stalls with the kielbasy, sheepskin clothing and ceramics begin to open. The kids feed pigeons, the women are out selling the delicious Krakovian round pretzels.
Okay, let me post a few photos from the castle and, too, of the Vistula River from the castle’s ramparts.
Satisfied? Let’s move on. To Kazimierz. Starting with the weekly food and flea market there.
I say to my friends that even on the approach, the smell is an absolute giveaway as to what we’ll find here – at least at the food section of the market. I give them a hint – Ed would recognize it out here in five seconds and he's not especially noticing of the smells around him. But they’re stumped.
I tell the kind vendor that we’d like to try a couple of the pickles. They cost pennies and they are fantastic (though Ernest tells me they’re not sweet enough... sweet? Eh, what do non-Eastern Europeans know about pickles!). The vendor is pleased at my praise and she tells me I really have to try her sauerkraut. I make it myself -- it really is special. She sticks out a wooden forkful and I look for ways to sample some. Should I just take it? (...as in with my grubby bare hands?) Yes, yes, of course I’m giving it to you.
I eat it, love it, offer to round up my payment for the pickles and the kraut to a whole 50 cents. No! She positively shouts this. Just for the pickles! The sour cabbage is from me.
We continue to the square with the old synagogue, but there, we’re to be disappointed. It is, of course, Saturday and we should expect services. But the place is closed to outsiders. It's reserved for the religious group that's just arriving. Young Jewish people. From Poland, you ask? No, from America.
In places that are sunny, we are warm. In shady spots, we are not, even though it remains just at freezing. I suggest a lunch at an old Jewish Restaurant and we have good soups there – matzo ball, beet root, with a latke on the side.
Ernest leaves us after lunch. Diane and I do the predictable – we’re back on the main square, shopping. Krakow is extravagant in terms of folk art...
...and the Christmas Market makes this place truly a shopper’s nirvana. You can't be surprised when I tell you that on this afternoon, the Square is packed: with people, with vendors, with horses...
We’re smitten with the ceramics, with the regional foods, with Christmas decorations. And with people watching.
On a stage to the side, there is live music. Holiday-like, but not altogether familiar. And the language? Russian. I have to say, there is in me, this feeling of the unreal. I am on this square of all squares with my good UW law school days buddy and we are taking in the smell of roasting kielbasas and hearing the happy sounds of Ukrainian holiday singing, in Russian, with a smiling and encouraging Polish crowd.
No, this isn’t the Poland I grew up with.
My friend Diane, is now fading. The toll of jet lag and of yesterday’s travels. She joins Ernest for a moment of respite. I persevere. As if I can’t get enough of this place. As if I should accept that this may be the last in the stretch of some dozen visits to Krakow. If no one asks to come here with me, will I keep on coming, alone? I have said to Diane that I am only in Krakow because of her (and Ernest). And this is true. I love the city, but it is, for me, a curious mix of tourism and half baked familiarity. I never came to Krakow as a kid. Warsaw was my home base and it offers enough disquieting memories that I know I’ll be pulled back there, if only to make sense of it all. And, of course, I have family in Warsaw. Krakow is Polish, and beautiful, but it’s not mine.
Diane rejoins me in the early evening and we stop at a café just on the main square. Szarlotka -- let’s order this quintessential Polish dessert. Americans claim apple pie is theirs, but szarlotka – apples, cooked in tiny chunks, between two layers of cake dough -- it's so completely Polish. We pre-invented apple pie.
And now it’s late evening and the three of us prepare to set out for dinner.
Quite unexpectedly, there is light hail even as the skies, up to know, have been so very clear. Never mind. The three of us walk to the Dominikanska Restaurant anyway, where we eat nalesniki (crepes) with sheeps' milk cheese and chanterelle mushrooms, there in a simple, honey colored room with old photographs on the wall...
... and for the second course, two types of pierogi (dumplings) – one with cabbage and mushrooms and the other with a peppered cottage cheese, both smothered with butter and pan fried onion.
It's wonderful food. The home made pierogi have a dough that is not too thick. The nalesniki, too, are the right thickness and for once, they're not smothered with cream. My glass of Polish beer – as always, perfect.
So the day ends, right? Well yes, true, it does. And on the walk back to the hotel, I encounter the moon again – full for this one last moment, half hiding behind thin clouds.
Hey moon, thank you for coming out tonight. Thank you for clearing the skies and pushing the clouds away. You hide most nights of the winter here, old slick moon that you are.
But for these two nights you’ve been here and I thank you for it.