On the second day in Krakow, I begin to see and feel a way the city and its people move that gives me a fluid outline of impressions. I can’t help make connections and inferences all the time, some right, some wrong, some way off target. But more often than not, the character of a country is both rooted in its own history and pulled and stretched by its present political and economic climate, challenged by the desires of newer generations, secured by the skeptical aging generation. Since the 1400s, give or take a century or two, Poland’s independence was hardly what one could call stabile or secure, getting nibbled or gobbled up by either the Germans, the Russians, and the Austrians, taking turns or all at once; after regaining their country following WWI with Germany’s surrender and support for an independent Poland from US President Wilson, Poland was still fending off the Russians and Czechs in the early 20s, overcame an assissination and secured Danzig as way to the sea to avoid being landlocked, so they were always working to protect what they had. After a brief 20 years of independence, Poland once again suffered under massacres, destruction and attempted obliteration. The countries that were once part of the Eastern Block of communist rule since the end of WWII have had to reassert an old identity or create a new one; Poland’s release into democratic ideals in 1989 allowed it to breathe and to grow as a viable economic force and now it behaves as a toddler in the wake of an EU: feisty and at times unwilling to compromise, seeing what it can get away with, what they like or don’t. Of course, no individual walks around the city with this load on his mind, but collectively, the country inherits the stories and an old culture, and they become the tell tale weave on a fabric or painted designs on pottery that line the shops along the Old Town streets.
I’m digressing, so why not continue. The taxi cab driver (a yong guy born after 1989) who takes me to the airport for my flight to Warsaw strikes up a conversation that helps me understand a little bit more of how Poland works. He tells me more about the generational differences that he has gleened from family conversations. His grandparents remember the economic security afforded every family under the communist regime: that jobs were available for everyone, and as a result, see that as a better time. His parents are open to change and willing to try, but they see that a democracy requires people to be competitive, and the let’s say “older Poles” have no training or mindset in competitive ideas. The younger generation, in their 20s, are complacent and for whatever reason, don’t feel the urgency to start a career or forge their way forward. As a result, many ambitious Ukrainians, Czechs and Hungarians are coming to Poland because of all the work opportunities that Poles are deliberately avoiding. Disregrding the complacency of Poland’s younger generation, many EU companies are moving to Poland (similar to American companies moving to Mexico) for cheaper labor and apparently bringing their labor force with them. Our talk in the cab then moves to a current conversation the EU is having about changing the currency from Zloty to Euro, and here I keep some thoughts to myself about what Poland should work on before the value of its currency: a) make sure public restrooms and those in buses have toilet paper b) get an organized train system like the Germans, Austrians and Swiss. There is no possibility, for example, to take a non stop train from Warsaw to Frankfurt or Berlin, Germany, or from Vienna to Warsaw or even closer to Krakow. This is quite inefficient, it seems to me. Coming in to Poland from Vienna, I needed to take a bus because the train required three transfers and I didn’t want to deal with dragging my suitcase around.
I fly on a delayed, small propeller plane from Krakow to Warsaw; once ascended, the stewardess gives everyone a glass of water and a chocolate wafer and by the time the water is drunk and the wafer eaten, we are ready to descend; the 35$, 45-minute flight is well worth it compared to a 16$, 6-hour bus ride. The small propeller plane comes to a halt on the tarmac where a bus was waiting for us. I have seat 1A, and I had never had the first seat before, and feel myself quite privileged until of course a few minutes later. As the first one off, I board the bus right away, and then I notice that the baggage is coming off the plane and is being transferred to the baggage carts. Passengers are pulling their bags off the cart and bringing them into the bus. I thought this is quite smart instead of waiting at baggage claim. So I get off the bus and wait for my bag, and by the time I see it being loaded into another cart, all of the passengers are on the bus and it is ready to go. So some passengers got their luggage, and others don’t and have to wait for it to be transported to baggage claim. The few remaining passengers, the five of us, have to wait inside the terminal at baggage claim. Weird, if not inefficient. But it does give me time to google help for getting from the airport to the Old Town, and by the time my bag rolls around, I’ve found the way: the 175 bus will take me right to the edge of the Old Town, very close to my hostel, and those courteous ambitious Poles who the taxi cab driver was not talking about are found next to the ticket machines helping tourists get a ticket.
On the bus I notice the city: wide streets and modern buildings, electric trams and electric buses and the occasional baroque building. The sun shines in a way that lightens and welcomes. I feel I have emerged from the medieval ages, and the fear that Warsaw would be like Prague and Krakow in terms of confining and overcrowded has disappeared. The hostel is on a large boulevard close to Kolumna Zygmunta, the tall column with a bronze statue of King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved the capitol from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596, the Royal Palace, and the almost exactly reconstructed Old Town to pre-war design, which received #2 on the UNESCO heritage site list. Incidentally, the Salt Mines outside of Krakow are #1. I will get to them in a later post. I find the hostel and it, too, is as modern as the city: key cards, an elevator, newly painted walls without graffiti, laundry facilities that include an iron, wooden IKEA type bunk beds with privacy curtains, and above all, a quiet atmosphere. It’s a dream really, compared to where I’ve randomly selected to lay my head lately, and no small coincidence that the name of the place is actually Dream Hostel.
Later that evening I attend a Chopin concert nearby, at Chopin Point. The pianist, Piotr Nowak, is a young man who won many awards both nationally and internationally. When I hear him play, I am transformed; his passion and skill at playing Chopin’s most famous Etudes is stupendous. He plays every night apparently, and the venue is the same place Chopin played when he was in his 20s before he moved to Paris, giving concerts upstairs to visiting dignitaries. I can say that the small setting (seating for 40 max although tonight there are no more than 30), with proximity to the piano and pianist creates an intimacy with the music and the playing that would otherwise be missed on a bigger stage. The pianist and his skilled fingers on the grand piano transposes me, and probably all of us, to another plateau, or spatial realm; the sound from the piano keys vibrates throughout the salon and through me and at all the right notes, as Chopin’s playing is known for its diminuendo from forte to piano resulting in a very emotional and moving mood.
Feeling enlightened and inspired by the beautiful concert playing, I walk through the Old Town, which is now becoming more fully awake by the hoards of tourists coming out to late dinner; the lanterns are lit along each restaurant’s outdoor seating, street musicians are out in full force, also playing their Etudes on the accordion, the violin, the guitar. Kraków sold its amber for the Everyman, affordable and out on open markets; Warsaw sells its amber for the high end big spender, only behind solid glass window jewelry shops. Walking up and through the Old Town, taking in the sights and sounds, I get a feel for the place before I head back to the hostel and relax before bed.
The next day I meet the volunteer organization Angloville with which I am registered for the free city tour and complimentary lunch. As it happens, it’s not a city tour, but a history lecture in the full heat of a scorching day. Interesting, but it’s hard to compact 600 years into 2 hours even on a cool day in an air conditioned lecture hall, much less outside vying for spots of shade with other tour groups, trying to outspeak the other tour guide’s voice behind us who must have experience as a stage actor. Walking tours are often hard because of the amount of walking involved, but standing tours can be even harder. Get a bunch of travelers together who have been living out of suitcases and place them in an Old Town in 90 degree temperature where no air conditioning exits, and you can come across some pungent smells. I’d like to spare you of the history of Warsaw, as a) I’m likely to have forgotten it all, trying to concentrate on simply breathing, and b) most of it is pretty depressing. Every one’s spirits pick up when lunch is mentioned and we are escorted to a restaurant in the Old Town. There are tables outside under the canopy which experiences some soft breezes, but we are seated indoors without a fan. It’s ok, I think, as I am looking forward to a traditional Polish lunch which will introduce me to some of the menu options I’ve perused from menus on display in front of the myriad restaurants all through the Old Town.
But alas, the meal is an embarrassing let down; I could have cooked the meal blindfolded and hungover. Watery tomato soup with soggy noodles starts us off. I don’t know what the deal is, but there is no bread on the table to accompany the soup. More on that deal, or lack of deal, later. After the soup, the main meal arrives: a flat piece of chicken breast that looks semi processed and boiled potatoes on the side. The big man from Northern Ireland who could use a bath, a barber, and some new clothes shouts out, “I don’t eat chicken, mate! What else ‘ave ye got?” “I don’t eat meat, either,” states another young lady from Cork, and the two from Texas add, “And we’re vegans. Did anyone inform you ahead of time?” “Can I have potato pancakes instead of those boiled potatoes?” Asks a lady from London. The young, flustered Polish waiter returned to the kitchen as I and the remaining people stared at our flat, very lifeless chicken, bare and naked without sauce, gravey or even a sprig of parsley to add character. The waiter comes out with a cooked, head and skin intact fish for Northern Ireland and Cork, and put a heap of steamed vegetables on the plates for the Texas vegans. I’ll explain all about Angloville later, but if this is the first impression, it’s an insult.
After the quick lunch (no one was sure if we were to wait for dessert or not, as our subsititute guide had left us at the beginning of the meal to go to another tour) we get up to split up and go our own ways. I am headed for an umbrellaed cafe where I intend on imbibing a refreshing cider and eating a lovely dessert, and I remember just the place from previous walks. I find it right away, a little hideaway bakery with books inside and some tables outside in a quiet alley.
I drink two refreshing ciders and enjoy a mango cheese cake; I eye the amber through the window across the alley, catch up on my Instagram feed, and watch the tourists as they pass.