I knew there was never any chance I would get to the centre of the action, but I wanted to be on the streets sampling the mood and eavesdropping on conversations on what was surely the biggest day this city will see in a long while. It felt like we were at the centre of the world for a few hours, a rare enough feeling anywhere in Poland and even more so down here in sleepy Krakow.
Saturday: the day before
The plan for Saturday was to see how the preparations were going for the big day, to walk the route the cortege will take, and to visit the crypt under Wawel where the Kaczynskis will be interred.
The television was on as we prepared to head out. After slowly slipping back into the routine of movies, soap operas and ads as the week of mourning progressed, most channels suddenly reverted to the wall-to-wall coverage that characterised the first two days after the disaster. Live footage of the commemorative event in Warsaw was interspersed with still more scenes from the lives of the Kaczynskis. It’s amazing how slowing down video and turning it black-and-white can make anyone look statesman-like and pivotal. The guy who composed the score for the movie Katyn must be making a fortune this week, it’s played every five minutes over yet more slow-motion images of Kaczynski saluting or having his tie straightened by his wife. Dimly overheard from my neighbour, who is obviously watching the same thing: “NATIONAL HERO! HA!”
The main square, 3pm
On any given Saturday you will find gangs of mustachioed men setting up stages, lights and camera platforms on the square. The almost weekly concerts, pageants and commemorations are the bane of city-centre dwellers. Today was no different. Giant screens, stages, floodlights, camera cranes, and serried ranks of seating were everywhere. The only difference today was that everybody was taking pictures of the scaffolding rather than tutting at it.
There was a shuffling stream of people filing in and out of the Mariacki church—the scene of tomorrow’s funeral mass. My wife went inside and reported that a wedding was about to take place. Mariacki is the administratively-favoured venue for mixed marriages, where ‘mixed’ means ‘between real people and foreigners.’ Walking past the side entrance we overheard a stressed-looking English bride in full regalia asking: “Will you be my witness?” Volcanic ash at 30,000 feet must have taken a serious toll on her guest list. I hope her parents made it at least.
Wawel is to Krakow what the Tower of London is to London; if you live here, you never go. I’ve walked around the free parts but never bothered to buy a ticket. I’m glad I finally did. The cathedral itself is not exceptional, it’s small and cramped compared to Europe’s great gothic examples, but the crypt is well worth a visit. It’s an extraordinary experience to walk among the sarcophagi of some of the greatest names in Polish history. They look as if they’re been there a couple of weeks rather than centuries. The chamber containing the Kaczynskis’ tomb was, unsurprisingly, closed to the public.
The tomb of Władysław Sikorski–seeing names like this at first hand and how few of them there are raises questions about the Kaczynskis’ place down here that I didn’t have before.
The climb to the Sigismund Bell is an experience in itself. Don’t attempt it if you’re not capable of squeezing into the cupboard under your sink, there are a couple of places where you have to perform a similar manoeuvre as you climb among massive timber beams on a series of wooden staircases. It’s not a scary or long climb, but it is tight. The bell itself is just a big bell, albeit a very old one. I had always believed that it was only rung at moments of exceptional national grief or celebration, so I was surprised to discover that, in fact, there are at least 29 days every year when it sounds: three extra occasions this year.
The Sigismund Bell
More photos of preparations from Krakow Migrant
Sunday: the funerals
I learned two things about Historic Events today: they hurt your feet and the rattle of camera shutters is deafening.
We woke to the news that 14 delegations had been grounded by rampaging volcanic ash. “Poland is on its own again; our allies have been frightened away by smoke from a mountain.”
A photogenic mourner
Only Poland could have this kind of luck. From an international event it turned suddenly into a very local affair. Medvedev was still coming and the president of Georgia who, apparently, insisted on taking off from Rome volcanoes or no volcanoes; “That’s how you lose presidents,” I thought to myself.
The first hour and a half was taken up with vain attempts to get near the main square. People were drifting from street to street in the hope of finding one that would miraculously provide a grandstand vista. None of them did. We even popped into the second floor office of the Krakow Post with vague thoughts of a window seat, but the view was no better. The crowd was chatty and lighthearted. The most common overheard phrase was “Chodżmy gdieś indziej” (“Let’s go somewhere else”). It was the very essence of milling about.
Cameras held high and kids on shoulders were the order of the day
With little hope of success we decided to try our luck on the procession route along Grodzka. Jostling along with the crowd I heard a young student complaining to his girlfriend: “Miał być Obama, miał być czad…” (Obama was supposed to be here, it was supposed to be buzzing…”)
A street plugged with people, just like all the others
At 3 pm, half an hour before the funeral mass was due to end, we made our stand in Mary Magdalene Square (opposite the Church of Saints Peter and Paul) just two rows back from the barricade. Loudspeakers were relaying the service. Most Poles in the crowd knelt at the appropriate moments, much to the surprise of the few tourists around.
With the end of the mass we were expecting the procession imminently. Instead, Komorowski launched into an extremely dull and worthy speech. The guy next to me under his breath: “Dobra gościu, nie jesteś jeszcze prezydentem” (“Alright mate, you’re not president yet”). Then there was something in Russian and, literally, a dozen words in English. BBC World reports that the service was conducted in Polish, Russian and English were wildly overstated.
Brief flurries of entertainment were provided by people attempting to get a better view and, more importantly, a seat by climbing on top of a wall across the street. The pioneers were chased off by the police, but that didn’t stop a new bright spark trying it every 10 minutes. Us pavement people hated the wall people and murmured approvingly every time they were deposed.
We hate wall people
After two hours that I would never have knowingly volunteered for, the thumping rhythm of the procession finally approached. It was one of those uncanny and disturbing moments when TV-reality becomes right-here reality. The military police Humvee rolled past two arm’s-lengths away and the gun carriage bearing the president’s coffin was right where I had seen it the day before on TVN. What you don’t get on TVN is the sense of a very real wooden box containing the broken and burned remains of a very real human being, and then another one containing his wife, and then his twin brother walking right behind looking utterly exhausted and horribly vulnerable.
Cameras and coffins
There is a strange contradiction in human behaviour on occasions like this. We want to experience it in person and will stand on hard concrete for many hours to make sure we do, but as soon as the occasion happens, the coffin passes by, or the King waves, or the superstar blows kisses to the crowd, we immediately place our camera screens between our eyes and reality. We want a record. There must have been tens of thousands of photographs taken within five metres of where I was standing. The clacking of computer-generated shutter sounds was like hail. There were no tears, there was no sobbing, there was just a raging hunger to capture the image.
And then it was all over.
There was a certain amount of chaos on the way home because the main road through the centre of town (Franciszkańska/Dominikańska) was sealed off to allow more important people to be whisked to the airport. It’s one of my undying ambitions to be whisked somewhere, preferably to the great annoyance of thousands of lesser mortals. It was impossible to get from the south of town to the north or vice-versa for 45 minutes. People passed the time sitting on the planty flicking through their photos. A shrill-voiced woman passing by said: “Wszędzie tajni agency Secret Service” (“There are Secret Service everywhere”), even though there weren’t.
Memories of 20-minutes-ago
Some more photos:
Armoured vehicles pelted with carnations
Commemorative posters everywhere
The Polish flag at half-mast over Wawel Castle
Outside-broadcast units on every corner
It’s 2 am as I post this. There is a profound and absolute silence over the city. The story is over. What is next for Poland? Somehow, this week, the country became part of Europe in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Iconic Polish images of a new kind have become part of the modern European story.