It's Polski Piątek, so unless you click away, y'all have to read about how I met the ancient city of Kraków, about which I don't remember hearing a single thing before I was informed that Homo Dei wanted to buy the Polish translation rights to Seraphic Singles. Since then, of course, I have discovered it is a top tourist destination for cash-strapped Britons who want to go somewhere pretty and drink themselves blind. So I am exceeding smug that I have always gone there on business and never gotten drunk.
When I first went to Kraków--which is pronounced KRAK-oof, not KRAK-cow, incidentally--in October 2011, I was very nervous. I would have been utterly terrified, but I had spent some months learning such basic Polish phrases as "Dzień dobry", "Dziękuję" and the all-important, to a Canadian, "Przepraszam", which is what I thought you were supposed to say when you stepped on someone's foot on the bus. (In reality, people outside the British Commonwealth say either nothing in this circumstance or "Sorry", having caught the habit from embarrassing English-speaking tourists.) The sheer effort involved in mastering the pronunciation of "Przepraszam" gave me some confidence.
When I landed at the Jan Pawel II airport, I was surprised by the warmth of the October night. Tomek, who came from Homo Dei to meet me, said that the phenomenon is called "Golden Polish autumn." He turned out to be as nervous about speaking English as I was about speaking Polish, for once we were in the car he turned to me with a look of abject humility and entreaty and said, "Please speak very slowly." Much later, I discovered he is completely fluent in Italian, and I could have saved him a lot of effort, poor man.
I was surprised by the excellence of both the airport and the roads to Kraków, for being a child of the Eighties, I assumed Poland would have its old ghastly Soviet-era infrastructure. It actually does, in parts, but I hadn't found that out yet. In fact, my first trip to Poland was a dream of convenience and simplicity because my Polish hosts never let me out alone and treated me like a precious, innocent being from another planet who knew nothing of wicked earthly ways. The first bit of evidence I saw that there had ever been such a man as Stalin was the poorly constructed toilet seat in the minute łazienka in my room at the Redemptorists house: it kept falling off.
Early in the morning I was awoken by bells in the neighbouring red brick church, and I wondered if this was just for my Redemptorist hosts, or if all Poland rose as a body at 6:30 AM. When I craned my neck out the window, I saw a city with low roofs of black, red or grey, church spires and round white satellite dishes. There was only one high-rise, and it stood on the horizon, beside a crane. Beyond it was the shadowy outline of hills. A haze covered the entire city, and above it the sky was palest blue.
Tomek knocked on my door at 8 and took me down to the dining-room for breakfast. Breakfast was ham, tomato and cheese on bread and instant coffee, which I have since discovered is the standard Polish breakfast. The bread was fantastic--famously better than British bread--and the instant coffee was ... instant coffee. That said, I dream of the taste of that coffee because I drink instant coffee only in Poland, if that makes any sense. I also dream of the taste of German coffee because it reminds me of my Frankfurt adventures. Can it be that I experience the world as one great variety of coffees? (Naturally, the taste of Canada is sold by Tim Horton's.)
After breakfast the day was divided into two parts: Homo Dei business and a tour of the city. The Homo Dei activities were quite exciting. I met staff--all women except Tomek--and toured white-painted, sunny offices. Then I sat down and signed a stack of books. This, naturally, had been my life's dream, and I thought about the child I used to be, imagining this moment. Of course, that child was a total anglophile, so she had imagined the scene in London. However, I was not complaining: I just cheerfully signed each book as Tomek handed it to me.
When Ula, then the general editor of eSPe magazine, arrived to interview me, Tomek skittered off to get us properly brewed coffee. We drank coffee and had a splendid chat, Ula being fluent in English (and German and goodness knows what else). She had dedicated an entire issue of her magazine to the Single Life. Then Tomek took photos of the staff, Ula and me, and I took a photo of them all, and then Tomek and Ula took me for a walking tour of Kraków.
I think I could write a book just on that one tour. In fact, I think "My First Day in Kraków" would make a good book, although completely different from Ewa Lipska's book Sefer, which is about an Austrian Jew's visit to his father's native Kraków. The contempt of Lipska's hero and his glitterati Kraków acquaintances for the average Catholic Pole is jaw-dropping, and when Lipska was in Edinburgh last summer, I asked her if perhaps the book could not be deemed rather anti-Polish. The translator communicated this to Sz. P. Lipska, and she replied that she had learned to appreciate Kraków through foreign eyes. Well, bloody hell, I have foreign eyes, and I would not write about Cracowians like that.
That said, when I walked through the historic Jewish quarter, I did so with a tremendous sense of unease. Tomek and Ula were very chatty about the tragic history of the area and pointed out the old Jewish secondary school (closed 1939), the kosher restaurants for Jewish tourists, the "working" synagogue and the kosher ice-cream stand. It was clear from what they said that there is tension among the ordinary Poles of Kraków and the thousands of Israeli and American tourists who come to the city to mourn their own or borrowed dead. Apparently, it is not clear to many of these tourists that Catholic Poles also suffered horrors in the war, and Ula wanted to make sure that I knew it. I assured her that I knew it, although I certainly didn't know it to the extent that I know now. And, very unfortunately, some tourists carry a huge chip on their shoulders for poor Jan and Maria Katolicki, who often understand English very well, and so know exactly what the tourists are saying about them.
Anyway, I was very happy to get out of the historic Jewish quarter and look at churches: Gothic, neo-Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque. Several of the great religious orders have their "own" churches--the Jesuits (Baroque, of course), the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians. I saw at least two Franciscan ones. The second had lovely Młoda Polska (Polish Art Nouveau/Jugendstile) interiors, and fell totally in love with the Młoda Polska school of art.
We admired the Wisła (Vistula) river on the way to the great Cathedral at Wawel, and an iron sculpture of the "Red Dragon of Cracow" and its cave. Ula provided up such a detailed commentary about dragons, saints, blesseds, kings, queens, a girl king and John Paul II that my head was positively spinning. I thought it might fall off.
Really, I think we saw everything Tomek and Ula thought a foreign author should see on her first day in Kraków although they were surprised that I had no interest whatsoever in Schindler's factory. Apparently tourists always want to see Schindler's factory, but "I am not interested in Jews; I am interested in Catholics" said Seraphic with a bluntness that was positively Polish.
(I have always found it hard to explain to Central Europeans that my generation of Canadians already knows about the sufferings of European Jews because thousands of the survivors and/or their children came to Canada and by the 1980s were working very hard to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. Torontonians of my generation are extremely sensitive to anything that smacks of anti-Semitism, and any remark that might be construed as anti-Semitic leaves us quivering with horror. And by anti-Semitic, we mean anti-Jewish. Saying I was not interested in Jews was seriously thin-edge-of-the-wedge from a Toronto point of view, but it was necessary for my psychological health. I saw a lot of horrible footage when I was 18; seeing the actual tram stop--still in active service--from which Kraków's Jews were deported was extremely painful for me; imagine how it must feel for an actual Canadian Jew.)
So we saw theological faculty, and walked past the building where the Nazis shot all the Polish professors, and we must have seen the Wawel, although I didn't write about it. Or perhaps we didn't have time before we stopped on the ulice św. Tomasza (St. Thomas Ave.) for lunch in a self-service restaurant. I have since concluded that this joint does not provide the height of Polish cuisine, but at the time I found it all incredibly delicious, stuffing myself with żurek soup and stuffed cabbage leaves, having no idea how filling the żurek would be.
Then Tomek and Ula rolled me into the Main Market Square (Głowny Rynek), which they told me was the largest piazza in Europe, through the giant guildhall full of stalls of Polish crafts I promised myself to buy later, and past the wee round church dedicated to St. Adelbert (martyred by pagan Prussians, naturally) into Wedel, a glorious Viennese-style chocolate shop/cafe which had 16 different kinds of drinking chocolate available for 10 zl (£2) a cup.
It was in Wedel that I saw the super-model type of Polish girl the American manosphere (and homesick Polish men) go on about. She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a whole in a stained glass window, as Raymond Chandler would say. Maybe not a Polish bishop, naturally, but definitely a Polish altar server (who must all faint whenever she wanders into church). I imagined she would not be a waitress very long, for certainly a zillionaire would eventually walk in and carry her off with 2 kilos of chocolate.
My one encounter with the gritty reality of modern day Kraków, as Lipska's hero Sefer would have noted at once, was an altercation between the police and an artist. The artist had written the name of a saint in rock salt outside the Franciscan church with the Młoda Polska interiors, and two or three policemen were standing around objecting to this. The neighbours leaned out their baroque-style windowsills to watch and listen as the artist vehemently argued her case.
After that Tomek and I said good-bye to Ula and took the tram back to the Redemptorists' HQ. There I gave Tomek a bottle of Scotch and wrote in my room until well past dark. I see from my journal that I noted that there were no American, British or German chain-stores in the historic centre, that I saw no litter and very little grafitti (odd--I certainly have seen a lot there since), and that the overwhelming majority of tourists were white Europeans. Meanwhile, Kraków looked totally unique and, as I wrote, "wholly belonging to itself, not to bloody multinationals."
I had forgotten how intense that first day was, just as I forget how intense the majority of my Polish friends are until I am with one. Two-fifths of my Polish friends are incredibly right-wing, and two-fifths are so left-wing they greatly prefer the UK, and they are almost never British or Canadian, and therefore almost always foreign and surprising, as no doubt I am foreign and surprising to them.
Mostly I remember the beauty of the streets and buildings, which you can see for yourself in photos, and the food, which you can easily make yourself, if you lack a Polish restaurant or babcia.