Sunday, March 16, 2014

in Krakow

We live in a simple world of warm and cold, likes and dislikes, of comparisons and categorizations.

It's raining in Krakow. Cold, winter rain -- making its way in cold trickles down your face, hands, from all sides really. Because it's windy, too. I don't like the weather here right now.

I know! Unfair! How can I love my visit (and it is only for a day) when the weather is so rotten, especially since it was so grand in France?

It doesn't help that I had no breakfast today. I left Paris before 5 and the terminal from which Easy Jet flies at CDG airport (That airline again!) has no cafe to help you out. A fast food counter and a vending machine, that's it. Gee, thanks.

So my first meal isn't until after 2, in Krakow. Forget breakfast. I walk into an old world cafe-restaurant on Market Square. Oh, let's admire first the Market Square -- arguably the nicest such square in all of Europe.


Now to the cafe -- called, as many old world establishments are called -- Europejska. Of Europe. I guess once it imparted an aura of worldliness. Now it just feels old. In a nice, traditional way, if you can get yourself out of the mindset that everything in Poland now has to be modern and hip.


I dislike Polish mineral water. It tastes like minerals -- medicinal almost. Yuk. So I order Perrier, but I'm uncomfortable doing so. I carry the burden of thinking that ordering foreign foods or drinks is bourgeois. In a bad way. (Times have changed here and most young people would think this to be sort of strange, but I am born of a different epoch.)

I do like Polish mushroom soup. And Polish cheesecake (it's less sweet than other cheesecakes and it has a wonderful delicate texture, if done right). So I order both for my breakfast that's past lunchtime. And the Perrier. And coffee. Two cups.

(with bread cubes and lots of parsley)

(with whipped cream and orange rind)

(cup no.2)

But I still don't like the weather here.

(one of the prettiest streets in Krakow)

(my generation)

By the way, this is my first ever flight into Krakow. I don't think international flights actually landed in Krakow until recently. The airport is tiny - it makes you feel like you're at one of those island airports in the Caribbean or Greece. But the weather has you face the reality that you're in neither Greece nor the Caribbean.

I look around at the flights that now come into Krakow: there's a daily Lufthansa (German) and a newly established (discount!) Norwegian, and there are a handful of Ryanair flights -- from cities up and down Great Britain. Oh, I get it! Krakow has become the next Prague. A cheap party destination for German and English men. Yep, I see them later in town. Groups of men, walking around like bands of boys ready to take on the city. Here's one band.


Ugh. Sorry, but this city deserves better than to be the gateway for an all night drunken brawl. Loud -- they're so loud! And just a tad disrespectful. A street vendor is handing out promotional leaflets. The young party guy, the one with the monkey draped around his shoulders (see above) takes it, glances at it, tosses it over his shoulder.

I want to pick it up and run after him and shout -- you are a fucking guest here! Litter your own back yard please!

But I say nothing.

[Of course, you could argue that they "fit in." We have, unfortunately our small share of drunks in Poland. I pass three  inebriated types sitting on the street behind a collection box and a sign, printed in Polish and English: FOR BEER -- it reads. So that maybe the Englishmen will chip in and share? Double ugh.]

I like my bus ride into town. There are only two ways to come in from the airport: the expensive and quick way (cab), or the long and cheap way (city bus). It's raining hard and I am so tempted by the waiting cabs (especially since I'll have to walk to my hotel after I get off the bus), but, I respect public transportation and I want to stop the leak from my purse and so I follow the frugal crowd of Poles to the bus stop and I actually nab a seat on the bus, right next to a fellow traveler from Paris -- a Polish man about my age.

I learn a lot about entrepreneurship and Poland in the hour I am on that bus.

My seat mate has a company that operates in France, though he uses Polish materials for it (he is in the business of renovating old houses) and so he travels back and forth between the two countries. His wife and daughters live in Poland. That's the set up.

I listen to him complain about labor protections in France and smirk at the work obsession of Americans and so I have to ask -- so what about Poles? Are they good workers?
No hesitation there: Yes. But that's our generation. You know why? Because say what you will about communism (he assumes I left to escape it), it gave us two things: we're very well educated and we have the smarts: we know how to make much of very little. I worry about the Polish kids being born now.

Asking if I'm from Chicago (oh, come on!), he tells me that he once wanted to go to America, just to see it (you have such interesting construction tools there!), but after being "herded like cattle" outside the American Embassy, he went inside to learn that he was denied a visa. He came out smiling. You got it? asked the eager crowds outside. No, you fools. I'm smiling because now I don't have to go!

But he admits to me that he is bitter about the denial. The Americans think I want to immigrate? I got my business in France, my family in Poland, why would I want to immigrate?

A religious man, he describes to me his visit to the Vatican for the inauguration of John Paul II. He sees a Polish woman crawling up the steps to come closer to the Pope. Climbing on your knees, are you? He asks her.
No, I got a bad knee. I injured it twenty years ago and I never had it fixed.
Why not?
I live in America. I don't want them poking around in my leg... You know how I injured it? I had applied for an American visa and when I went to learn of the decision, I was so amazed that I got a "yes," that I wasn't looking where I was going. I tripped and fell on the sidewalk.
You lost the use of your leg for a visa to America! -- he tells her. Thereafter, he, himself, never again wanted to apply.

I walk the curvy streets of Krakow...




Peering into shop windows and, too, into milk bars, I see that there is an attempt to preserve something of what we once claimed as our own.  Look, for example, at the souvenir stalls in the Cloth Halls of the Market Square. They haven't changed much in the decades of change on the outside.


(painted boxes)


And here are the milk bars -- these were just about the only places where anyone would eat out when I was young. Cheap meals. Pierogi, and too, the ubiquitous grated carrot, cabbage, potatoes and a slice of pork. Cheap food. I didn't really like it (except for pierogi and then only my grandma's) and so when my mother handed me the few coins needed to pick up a meal there, I'd put the money toward a cafe date with a friend and skip the dinner. Here are two women still eating that same meal of grated carrot, cabbage, mashed potatoes, pork. Cheap, satisfying, and in my mind -- tasteless.


You can see the food better from this angle:


I see that I am by the Franciscan Church. I go inside. I like the stained glass here -- they're by a famous Polish poet/artist/dramatist from the late nineteenth century -- Stanislaw Wyspianski. Real Art Noveau stuff. Particularly lovely to me are the panels of wild flowers. I wouldn't mind seeing them again.


But there is a mass taking place. I stay quietly to the back.


And I think -- wow, this may be the first time in my life that I'm listening to a mass in a Polish church! The priest is a literary type -- I hear references to Dostoevsky. I look at ten other priestly men sitting with him at the altar. I count the devout. Also about a dozen. Twelve priests, twelve devout. The organ sounds. A soloist sings, in German. Krakow is filed with churches, nuns, priests. Can I say that I've experienced the city from all sides now?

I go to a store to buy some water. And chocolate, too. I like Polish chocolate. Not too bitter, not too sweet. And I love how in Poland now, the new generation, that one that didn't inherit our old "I can make something of nothing" smarts, also did not inherit something else: the "I don't care" attitude that was so common among those employed in the service industries. These days, hotels, cafes, stores -- are staffed (for the most part!) by friendly, energetic young people. The sour prune that chatted to her friend and ignored the customer is finally history. Except where she is my age: there, vestiges of prunishness remain.

All afternoon and evening, the rain comes and goes, catching me each time by surprise.


But, I'm staying at the lovely little Unicus Hotel, just off the Market Square and so I step out late, despite the weather, in search of food.

I eat dinner at a place that I've been to before (Cherubino). It's sort of Polish Italian -- which is a good combination. If you take Polish staples and Italianize them a little, it's a win-win. But in the end, I order a completely Polish set of dishes. Borscht with dumplings, trout, spinach. (At about a third of the price of a French meal.) I ask how come there are two prices given for the borscht.
Oh, it depends on how many dumplings you want.
That's easy: the small amount!
What do you want inside the dumplings? Cabbage and mushrooms?
I'm puzzled now. Aren't the borscht dumplings always with meat? Well now, let's go with what she suggests.


Ah. Not dumplings for the borscht. Dumplings -- full size pierogi, at the side. All this for about $3. I should have stopped there. But the trout was good too. Fresh and honest.

I walk the streets of old Krakow. And now the clouds have parted for a bit again. The moon shines very brightly between the church towers of St Mary's Basilica.


Tomorrow I will be back in Warsaw.