With a free day last Friday, I decided to take a walk to Kraków’s Rynek. An umbrella was required, due to the showery weather at the time. While walking, my wife and I encountered two distinct groups of Polish youths representing different stages of their young lives.
Firstly, we met a small group of young people walking towards us. They were all dressed very formally. The guys were wearing suits and the girls had formal dresses on. Initially, I thought that they were attending a wedding or some other occasion. However, my wife informed me that they were probably going to their Matura exams. I was also reminded of a similar experience at the beginning of September last year. All the kids I saw on the tram or bus were also dressed very formally. That had been for the first day of school of the year. Last Friday, completing the Matura exams signalled the end of the school year, and it required similar formality.
One hour later though and the scene had changed hugely. We were crossing the Rynek again, and the university students had invaded. A crowd had begun building around a stage set up near the Sukiennice and music was playing. Groups of students were arriving from the streets adjoining the Rynek. Most were dressed in various costumes, styles and colours. It almost seemed like a delayed version of a gigantic Halloween party. This was Juwenalia!
As I had not encountered it before, my wife briefed me again. Basically, it is a few days of partying by university students in May of each year before they sat exams. Most universities of Kraków were represented in the hundreds of students we could see. They moved in groups singing songs and occasionally shouting the name of their university. We saw AGH, Uniwersytet Jagiellonski, AWF and Uniwersytet Pedagogiczny represented. The mood was light-hearted and was not dampened by the rain falling.
However, despite the fun and frolics, the police were also on the lookout for public drinking and were checking for illegal substances. We saw a few examples of cans of beer being hidden on someone’s body or within a costume before going past police on patrol. One male student was being particularly energetic and bouncing around a lot. He annoyed one policeman enough for the cop to chase him and slam him against the police car. But the student laughed it off and seemed fine.
Juwenalia did remind me of a similar tradition in universities in Ireland. Rag week is celebrated in early spring, in late February or early March. RAG can stand for ‘Raise A Grand’, meaning that students would perform fund-raising activities to raise £1,000 or more for charity. However, recently Galway Rag Week 2009 resulted in rioting and car damage and hospitalisation of students. Thankfully, I did not see any examples of such extreme behaviour on Friday. The party on the Rynek broke up after a couple of hours and most students seemed to move to other locations or house parties to continue the festivities.
I have to admit that seeing the students having fun made me feel like a grumpy old man, and I’m not grumpy or old! I only finished university myself 6 years ago…