|Oct/Nov 2010 Travel|
I thought the pale sky above Wawel Castle (the hereditary residence of the Polish Jagiellonian Kings) looked a little sick. The factories pumping smoke on the periphery of this legendary Polish city, which I had noticed unfavorably on the train ride in from Czechoslovakia, had turned the clouds the color of colostomy bags.
Still, Krakow, Poland, here in the Rynek Glowny (Old Town) felt like a fable—part Christmas carol, part Gothic ghost story. Wandering around the cobblestones leading to the Medieval "Cloth Hall," looking for a café serving pivo polska (some of the best in the world) and greasy kielbasa, I couldn't believe I was here as an independent traveler. There didn't seem to be any tourists, except for one East Bloc tour group from Bulgaria.
At a restaurant on a side street, I was handed a laminated menu with a large selection, which resembled something you'd get at a Polish-Ukrainian diner in the United States. I thought I would order blindly.
"We don't have," said the waiter, somehow realizing I spoke English, as I flipped through my Berlitz phrasebook, trying to order.
"We don't have," said the waiter again after my second selection.
"We don't have," was the result of the next selection.
"Well, what do you have then?!" I inquired peevishly. I thought he was making fun of me.
"Just beer and sausages. Our government is responsible. There is nothing in the stores. I am a supporter of Solidarnosc (Solidarity). I think someday Lech Valensa will be president."
The beer was excellent and came in an oversized bottle, but the sausages sucked—little more than glorified hot dogs. Unlike Magyarorstag (Hungary) where the food was fantastic, Poland, I realized, would force me to downgrade my ethnic culinary expectations.
After buying some little plastic pins of Lenin at a little shop for a laughable amount of zlotys (apparatchik chic was cheap), I wandered around the city with my backpack, taking in the solid 19th-century buildings and pleasant leafy boulevards that make walking in stately European cities so pleasant. In front of a beautiful church with ornate statuary of the Apostles and scary gargoyles, I saw a drunken workman with paint-splattered overalls cross himself as he passed.
There was only one problem: I needed a place to stay, and there didn't seem to be any hotels.
Still, I had a discreetly scribbled phone number of a dissident writer named Jerzy Krasicki, which I had gotten from a peace organization affiliated with the UN, so I decided to try it. What the hell.
"Stupendous! Come right over," came a clarinet voice of reprieve.
Easily finding his centrally located apartment, I marveled at the building, which I can only describe as bearing "baronial splendor." I was grateful Krasicki didn't live in one of those ugly Stalinesque concrete block buildings in Krakow's suburbs. After ringing an affable bell, Krasicki came to the door looking vaguely like a French philosophe with his red fez with its long tassels and his impressive Prussian mustache.
A well-known writer in Poland, Krasicki had a number of books on the shelf. But he told me his best novels were all stopped on the press—suppressed. What followed for about fifteen famished minutes was passionate invective against the communist regime: "Communism is a cancer!" he kept repeating like a mantra.
At the time, I was an editor at Simon and Shuster Inc. Somehow I had convinced my boss to let me take a month vacation in the mysterious "Other Europe" of the Soviet sphere. I was then very interested in Central/Eastern European writing in translation (such as Milan Kundera), so I wondered if Krasicki might have a manuscript to sell?
His book, The Island of the Sharks (an obvious allegory), was available.
"Could you get it translated into English and mail it to my office in New York?" I asked excitedly.
"Of course not," he said. "I would be arrested. You can take it with you and smuggle it out of the country!"
Though this sounded exciting, like playing a spy in a Cold War suspense novel, I had to bow out. "I don't want to get into any trouble. Independent travelers from capitalist countries have to register each night with the police. In fact, I should probably go now to tell them where I am."
Krasicki's face paled with fear. "You can't tell anyone you are staying here."
I agreed to come up with an alibi later.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in esoterica, exhausting various subjects of inquiry. I could tell from the 18th-century European paintings and museum-quality tchochkas hanging in his living room that Krasicki came from the barely tolerated Polish nobility that during the communist revolution were put to work in factories fulfilling Five Year Plans. And then he showed me one of his own artworks, a stone carving of "The Spirit of the Mountain," which had a vague forlorn figure, resembling Gumby, trying to break free from the stone. All of a sudden, without warning, Krasicki fell asleep in his chair.
This was my key to leave his energetic hospitality for a short while. Going outside for a little sightseeing, I wandered into an attractive wooden bar and encountered a lad with soft, Polish, almost-English-looking features, wearing a sweatsuit and running the tap. He would not have looked out of place in industrial Union, New Jersey.
I asked if I could buy some bottles of wine. At first he looked uncertain and apologetic, then he saw the two American dollar bills in my hand (a trick in communist countries to get whatever you want). Before you could say "Gdansk with me," the bartender had two bottles of Yugoslavian red on the counter. Ah, I was elated: the "black market" worked wonderfully well for all!
Back at Krasicki's apartment, sitting at the dinner table, he apologized for the humble meal of bread, butter, and jam. "That was all I could get with the long lines," he sniped at the unfathomable distribution process in socialist countries.
Like a magician, I pulled the two bottles of Tito's-ville from my Jansport daypack.
"Where did you get those? Unheard of. Yugoslavian wine! Thank you, but I don't drink!"
Somehow I convinced him to open the bottle and try a glass. I ended up enthusiastically downing the rest of my own gift. I drank far into the night.
The next day I took a hungover daytrip to the most terrifying placename on the map: "Auschwitz." I was horrified by the concentration-camp museum with rooms full of human hair, teeth, and eyeglasses (barber, dentist, and optometrist). There was an Israeli tour group in tears marching around with a flag. I dutifully watched the Soviet propaganda film painting the Russians (who were originally on Hitler's side) as "The Great Liberators." Since my background is Anglo-German, both Allied and Axis, I had to stifle conflicting urges of guilt and shame for my own people as I viewed the atrocities. That didn't mean I'd insist on eating "Liberty Cabbage" on my next visit to Germany, though.
Back at Krasicki's, I related how scary visiting the site of WWII atrocities was for someone born in the groovy psychedlic 1960s. He agreed, voicing vociferously, "It was worst time in our nation's history! Terrible!"
"Are you Jewish?" I ventured.
"No, everybody is Catholic in Poland!" He looked slightly offended but covered it up well. Then apropos of nothing, he said, "Once an important Polish-American professor came out here to visit me. It was hysterical. He spoke Polish like a simple peasant!"
Time was running out. We both reluctantly agreed that in order to avoid getting caught by the dreaded "secret police," I should leave right away, under the cover of night, especially when my visa was almost up and his patience with me seemed to be flagging. Rule one: never overstay your welcome. So we shook hands, then hugged warmly, and I left for the train station, feeling a little wistful.
On the fast train from Krakow to the Czechoslovak border, I had to sit on my backpack in the vestibule. But at least I could smoke. Luckily I had enough butts to outfit the group of three drunken football hooligans there with me. They had been smoking Russian Cosmos cigarettes, so the chance to try a real American brand, Winston, apparently was too good to be true to them. Capitalist decadence, I showed them, can be a lot of fun!
One of them said he had been to Chicago O'Hare Airport once for a job (though he couldn't leave the aiport). His unruly friends, like good-time charlies the world over, made him the laughingstock, mocking him and accusing of him lying. Strange, they all spoke perfect English, which made me wonder if they might be undercover somethings, trying to extract semi-classified information from me about the West. Things were getting interesting.
Eventually, I got a real political thrill (read: scare) when a military guard wearing a resplendent Soviet greatcoat asked me for my passport. Obviously surprised I was American, he asked me in an emotionless voice where I had stayed the last two days.
"Oh, I was just traveling," I lied. "In transit."
One of the drunken hooligans pointed at me good-naturedly and explained helpfully to the border guard, "Chicago O'Hare!"
Unconvinced, he smiled wryly, obviously enjoying his authority for such a young man. "Don't worry. I think there are a lot of Poles in America." He winked at me conspiratorially. I realized how Polish I probably looked.
"Yes, everywhere!" I enthused in a too-loud voice, proudly implying myself as well.
With that, the communist gent handed me back my passport, saluted me gracefully, and addressed me with perfect respect. "Thank you, sir." Although we were from opposite sides of the political, economic, and social poles, he ended with an indication that, despite the tensions between our cultures of capitalism and communism, we were by no means enemies—in fact we were really brethren. Comrades.
"I hope you enjoyed your stay in my country: Poland!"
In response, all I could do was laugh out loud.