Joann is a new guest on Polandian. She’s an American with Polish roots who recently made the very sensible decision to visit Krakow, amongst other places.
God love ‘em, my parents did try to make their American children at least passably Polish.
They had us painting pisanki at Easter and breaking oplatek at Christmas. As soon as we were big enough to fit into Polish folk costumes, they had my brother, sister and I three-stepping at weekly polka dance lessons. And every Saturday we miserable three sat through a morning of Polish School, pretending to understand what the teachers and their mostly fluent, freshly-immigrated pupils were saying.
But try as they did to give us an appreciation of the culture they left when they came to the United States in the 1960s, my siblings and I had a pretty limited view of what it all meant. Best as we knew, these were the ingredients that made us Polish: Our parents had thick accents and fed us kielbasa and pierogi; We listened to bad polka music on Sunday morning radio; We wore red sweatshirts printed with white Polish eagles on the chest; And come the holidays, we hunkered around the dinner table and listened to relatives dressed in dark glasses and pilled sweaters talk, in between shots of vodka, about how hard their lives were.
Through my parents, aunts and uncles, I had a one-dimensional view of the culture; a 1960s view of Poland, with all our cultural reference points frozen in time.
Then came Krakow.
Twelve years ago, the city lifted for me the curtain on an entirely different side of Poland – the side that had moved on after my parents left. I saw dance performances and music concerts (of the non-polka variety). I wandered into galleries and learned about modern Polish artists. I studied the Holocaust and current Jewish-Polish relations at classes in Kazimierz. In my free time, I sipped coffee from under the rynek’s café umbrellas, watching the bohemians and academics and hipsters rushing to who knows where, and wondering: Kurcze! Why hadn’t I been exposed to all this sooner?
And so it was that at the age of 18, I fell hard and fell deep for Krakow. Twelve years later, and just last month, I had the chance to fall in love with it all over again.
I took a three-night detour through the city during a two-week trip to visit family. And oh, what a reunion it was. So much was exactly how I remembered it. Yet, on a subtle, energetic level, so much seemed different. The square was more vibrant, it’s people more colorful. There was an openness and ease about town that I hadn’t experienced the first time around. Whereas Poles seemed obsessed with all things American a dozen years ago, I sensed this time a more pronounced cultural-assuredness and Polish pride. It was rather like coming home to find your gawky nephew had finally grown into himself. And quite nicely, too.
So what did I find?
Well, here’s what’s stayed the same:
Krakowians still love their “Lady with an Ermine.” I swear, she’s everywhere. And everyone is eager to let you know she’s “the most beautiful” and “in the best condition” of all of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings – Right here! In Krakow! The Most. The Best. The city still loves to traffic in these superlatives. (“Ul. Florianska? Why, it is the most beautiful street in all of Krakow.”)
Chimera is still a nice gastronomic break if you’ve had a few too many Polish meals. Try the green pokrzywy juice, and don’t be afraid. All I had known of the weed was the burning sensation it leaves after contact with the skin. Turns out, it makes a nice drink. Who knew?
Polish coffee is still an acquired taste. What’s with the inch of sludge at the bottom of the glass? And why is it poured, scalding hot, into a clear, handle-less glass? That’s just asking for all kinds of trouble. But then again, I come from a country where coffee shops have taken to marking their cups with “Hot Beverage” to avoid lawsuits from spill-prone customers who are shocked to find their hot coffee is, indeed, hot.
The Sukiennice is still tempting shopping, even if it is the Disneyland of Polish folk art. Meandering through it, I inexplicably felt the urge to buy linens, carved wooden boxes and paintings of Pope John Paul II. Then I snapped back to reality. We’ve already got piles of this stuff collecting dust in my parents’ basement. Call it the Maly Sukiennice of New Jersey.
Krowki candies are still like Polish crack. You think you can eat just one, and before you know it you’re sitting, numb, amidst a litter of empty, scrunched up wrappers. I was basically free-basing the stuff for two weeks.
The obwarzanki. They’re still as tasty as ever, but I swear the Polish pretzel-bagel got super-sized over the past 12 years. They’ve got to be at least twice as big as before, no? What gives?
Kazimierz. The progress is unbelievable. I know there’s debate about the direction it’s moving in, but I recall how anxious we students were to walk those streets alone, especially after dark. It was desolate, sketchy and, quite frankly, dead. To return and find it alive and buzzing with activity was fantastic.
The main square. I swear, it’s been given some sort of subtle facelift. Everything looks the same, only it’s cleaner, brighter, more vibrant. Flipping through old photographs proves my theory, showing a drab, dreary main square. So, high five to the rynek.
When did they start charging to snap pictures inside St. Mary’s? I can understand limiting photographs of the triptych. But hounding tourists to pay up for shots of other nooks in the church? On top of the general admissions fee, it seems kinda greedy, no? (And besides, WWJD?)
So, those are the ramblings and impressions of an American girl who has a pretty big crush on Krakow. So much so that I’ve got designs to move there next year, short-term, and drink it in for a little longer. Three nights? That’s only long enough to be enamored with it. I’m thinking a stay of 6 months or longer is in order so that I can experience the full arc of emotions, just like a proper relationship: fall in love with her only to be disappointed by her; make-up with her only to threaten to walk out on her; see all her warts only to rediscover the beauty that pulled me to her in the first place.
Because, like the Lady with Ermine, I think Krakow is one of the “best kept” secrets, and “most beautiful” cities in all of Europe.