Face Bóg

Facebook is truly becoming ubiquitous, to the point that it can be used in Polish religious advertising.

Below was a poster at the entrance to one of the many churches in Krakow.

“Bóg” (“God”)  is pronounced much like the English “book,” but with an obvious “g” instead of “k.”

“Dodaj boga do twoich znajomych” literally means “Add God to your acquaintances,” but a more Fackbook-eque translation would obviously be, “Add as friend.”

Basilica of the Holy Trinity (Krakow V)

“You know what I’m looking forward to?” I asked K before we left for Poland. “The smell of an old church.”

“Oh, me too,” she replied.

It’s an odor of slightly metallic dampness, old incense, leather, wool, and a thousand other notes that probably only a sommelier or blender of fine pipe tobaccos could notice and describe but which merge for us mere mortals into “old church.” It is to be in the midst of history: the structure is older than America. It is to be in the midst of profound calm: even in the most tourist-filled church there is reverent silent.

A day in Krakow, responsible only for myself. I decide there is only one thing to do: go into churches. I begin with one of K’s favorites: the thirteenth-century gothic Basilica of the Holy Trinity.


With so many churches in the Old Town of Krakow, it’s surprising how many masses the Basilica has. There are more on a weekday than on a Sunday at an average Catholic church here in the Old South, a clear illustration of the difference in relative demand. Then again, this particular church is popular among university students in Krakow.


So many of the churches in Krakow — they begin to blend together after a while. That’s the tourist view, I’m sure. To parishioners, there’s a history and a relationship.

Yet, there are little details in each church, little architectural touches that set each one apart. The basilica, for example, has a small upper chapel.


The view provides a little different perspective. Instead of looking up — a common action in gothic churches, and very much by design — one has the opportunity to look down. Somewhat blasphemous in a certain sense: we mortals are to be looking up to God, and here I am looking down. And on what?


A young monk explaining an upcoming ceremony to four young men. I can’t hear what they’re saying, and every picture I take turns out later to be completely, irredeemably blurry. I make a logical assumption: these young lads are about to become monks themselves, but I’m not certain. I can’t eavesdrop without making it obvious, and something prevents me from simply walking up to them and asking. What’s stopping me?



The conspicuousness I always feel as a tourist certainly has something to do with it. Walking around, snapping pictures, changing lenses, taking more photos, changing lenses again — I’m simply a cacophony.


What’s worse, unlike the Catholic tourists, I don’t genuflect as I pass the altar, and I don’t cross myself on entering. I surely stand out, but what’s the problem? We all stand out.


Is it false modesty or simply an overactive ego?

Ну, погоди

Ну, погоди (Nu, pogadi) -- Just You Wait!

Ну, погоди (Nu, pogodi) — Just You Wait!

Every time L meets Babcia (here or in Poland), Babcia turns L onto a new cartoon. This visit it was Wilk i Zajac (Wolf and Hare). In the classic tradition of the Roadrunner, Tweety Bird, and Tom and Jerry (to name but a few), it is the continuing attempt by a mildly evil character to capture (and presumably consume) an innocent character.

It’s not a Polish cartoon, though. It’s from the Soviet Union, with the first being created in 1969. The Russian title was “Ну, погоди¸” (pronounced “Nu, pogodi” Ну, погоди” is translated “Just you wait!”). It’s easily translated to other languages (I’m sure Poland wasn’t the only Soviet bloc country to have this imported) because about the only words spoken in each episode are “Ну, погоди¸”. The Polish versions translate that as “I’ll show you!”

L watched the DVD so many times that she basically had them memorized. She wasn’t the only one in the house who came to have the cartoons seared into memory. By the end of our stay, I could tell which cartoon was playing just by walking by the living room.

Up (Krakow IV)

Krakow, like all European cities, is a mix of the old and the new. Young people walk along ancient cobblestone street checking email and updating their Facebook status on their cell phones. McDonald’s sits on an ancient street in a building that is at least twice as old as the chain itself.

Often both are present at the same moment, in the same building. Visiting such an old city is a reminder that often, what’s at street level is the least interesting sight. Or, perhaps more accurately, that which is above is at least as interesting as that which is at eye level.


As I strolled along, taking a meandering walk from the rynek to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, I began to pay attention to the balconies.


In an urban setting, balconies are often the only part of one’s property that has anything at all to do with the out of doors. Parks, beautiful as they are, are after all public property. A balcony is the only “yard” a city dweller might own.


A few flowers and it’s positively garden-like.

Storage is another balcony option. I had a good friend in Warsaw who had a “balcony” at his apartment that couldn’t have been more than ten square feet: just a little spot to stand. He stored his bike and a couple of other items on the balcony. After all, what else could you do with ten square feet? As a non-smoker and non-coffee drinker, he couldn’t even enjoy a morning cigarette (if such things could be enjoyable) and cup of coffee on his balcony.


As in most urban areas, space is at a premium. Some decide to turn their little bit of outdoors into an additional room. Then neighbors get balcony envy and enclose theirs,


resulting in an alleyway of enclosed balconies.

Given the size of some apartments I’ve visited, it makes perfect sense.


Still others, with a more classic balcony, simply leave it alone. Then again, if one’s balcony is the size of others’ apartments (and I have been in apartments in Warsaw that tiny), one probably has enough apartment on the other side of the balcony to make such a conversion unnecessary.


Yet not everyone has a balcony, especially in the Old Town. This is not to say they haven’t carved out their own little outdoor garden. Some, more extravagantly than others.


It makes for a bit of color in an otherwise gray setting.

Many, however, just leave well enough alone. Perhaps they figure it’s not worth the time. Perhaps they reason that there’s not much use, given the state of the pre-war facade.


With all the renovation going on all over the city (thanks, European Union), it’s only a matter of time before such sights disappear. In a way, that’s sad: such decrepit facades bear witness to history. They show the gritty underside of Poland, and they serve as a reminder to visitors that, as with much of Europe, the city hasn’t always been filled with days of Italian ice cream and walks in the parks.


It also shows one of the paradoxes of modern Poland. The building above is literally on the rynek: the most prized location in Krakow real estate. Yet the roof is literally pathetic. It’s the same as in Furmanowa, the meadow overlooking the Tatra Mountains in Zab: prized real estate that’s used for cultivation.

Cousin It

Cousin It 9 July 2008

And yet the irony: so many Poles lament how so many of their compatriots have turned so materialistic in the last few years.

Top Floor

K’s parents have a large house. They have to: they run a little noclegi business — something like a bed and breakfast, but more often than not, without the latter.

This is the view from their highest balcony.


All the quirks of Poland, on display. The relatively rich live beside the poor. They both live next to an enormous flea market, where everything is available, and all prices are negotiable. All framed by the mountains that give the region its beauty and its culture.


Coming back to the States after a few weeks in Poland requires a few adjustments. Among them:

  1. Driving a car with an automatic transmission. My left foot is bored, restlessly searching for a non-existent clutch, and my right hand wanders to the gear shift every time we approach an intersection.
  2. Hearing English everywhere. This always surprises me: I get used to having to do a little, occasional mental work to understand what’s going on around me. Hearing rivers of voices that are all intelligible to me initially feels a little intrusive.
  3. Hearing other languages everywhere. I go to the grocery store, and I hear Spanish, German, Hindi, and Arabic.
  4. Seeing different races. In the passport check line at the airport, I saw all the colors that make America. In Poland, I see a non-white walking down the street, and it’s difficult not to stare.
  5. "Saggin' and Baggin'" by MalingeringSeeing boys’ underwear in public. On the way back home, we stopped to grab a little something for the Girl to eat because she didn’t eat too much during the journey. Waiting in the check-out line: two adolescent African American boys with their pants seemingly at their knees. I’d mentioned this style in Poland: it seemed incomprehensible to them. It seems incomprehensible to me.
  6. An entire row of paper towels in the supermarket. American consumerism is all about choice. What could possibly be the difference among the towels?
  7. Having someone bag your groceries for you. Perhaps it’s the ultimate sign that Americans are in some way spoiled, but it still surprises me when I go into any grocery store in Poland and have to frantically bag my own groceries before the next customer’s purchases start sliding down into the bagging area. Why not bag as the cashier working? That’s another thing to get used to:
  8. Not having to pay for the bags used in the process. No one provides free shopping bags. The cost is nominal, but the cashier always rings the bags up last. It doesn’t make sense.
  9. Not having potatoes with every meal. I don’t want to see a potato, in any form, for at least a month.
  10. Being warm. In the early morning, temperatures in Jablonka could be in the high forties. During the first week, the temperature seldom rose to the mid-sixties. The warmest it ever got was seventy-five. Back in South Carolina, it’s almost seventy-five when we wake up. It takes some getting used to.

Bags Packed

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. made the sentiment famous: bags are packed, and L and I are ready to go, next post from the States, yet mixed emotions linger.

“I want to go home” became L’s refrain a couple of days back, and talking to K on Skype only worsened the situation once. There were variations: “When are we going home?” “Are we going home tomorrow?”

I, too, am ready to go: vacation is great, but returning home is the true heart of any journey. K awaits, as do infected trees await, a likely overgrown lawn, a course to begin Monday, and a host of other things. One can only sit around doing little for a very short time before the feeling of uselessness sets in.

And yet, leaving Poland is always bittersweet. “Would you want to move back?” friends and family asked. Or “When are you all moving back?” Would we move back? Yes, and no. When are we moving back? Soon and never.

I wonder if other countries produce such mixed emotions among its ex-pats and virtual ex-pats?

Dolina Kościeliska

“Bolą mnie nogi,” was L’s chorus. Aching legs was something to expect: after all, taking a little, semi-city girl for a walk in the mountains is no walk in the park, if one will excuse the obvious pun/cliche. Especially when she’s the kind of girl that wants to climb every obstacle she encounters.

A beautiful morning with no other plans, though, called for an introduction to the Tatra Mountains.


We set out with two rolls, a container of strawberries, and a bottle of apple juice. And a plan: walk as far as we can up Dolina Kościeliska (Kościeliska Valley). With a prognosis of rain only a couple of hours away, I wasn’t terribly optimistic, but even a twenty-minute walk would have been worth it.


The two rolls lasted only a few minutes.

“Can I something to eat?” the Girl asked shortly after we started walking. Immediately after finishing the first roll — obviously not even pausing for pictures — she asked for a second. The strawberries lasted through the first two breaks.


Surprisingly, and proudly, the complaining about the legs didn’t happen until we’d almost reached the point at which we actually turned around: a small chapel situated between two large pines. Up to that point, it was all fun and smiles. Horse-drawn carts traveled up and down the road, and the Girl only expressed regret that we weren’t travelling in more style.


It seems to me that a three-and-a-half-year-old stomping her way up a small incline toward an unknown reward is style enough. Still, the Polish idea of recreation is different from the American idea, and the Girl wasn’t the only, or even the youngest, child heading up the valley. In fact, it was from another three-foot sojourner that the Girl got the idea of aching legs.

“Bolą mnie nogi,” a young girl said as she passed us with her father. Shortly thereafter, L declared, “Bolą mnie nogi.” Coincidence? Definitely. At the same time, certainly true, considering how far she’d already walked.


We took a break at a small chapel, and while L polished off the strawberries, I snapped a few pictures and glanced at the sky. The wall of gray that characterized the Polish sky during most of my years in the country was bearing down on us. Literally a wall: sunny, blue sky on one side, solid gray sky on the other. Behind, the sky was an ominous dark gray that strongly hinted at rain. It was two hours later than forecasted, and for that I was thankful.


And so was the Girl.

“You want to head back now?” I asked rhetorically.

“Do babci?”


She slammed down the lid to the container and declared, “Tak!”

Krakow III

I first made the journey to Krakow in the summer of 1996. I took an 8:00 am train from Radom, an industrial city just outside of Warsaw, to Krakow along with a compartmentful of co-volunteers from the Peace Corps. An industrious group took a train leaving at five something in the morning, but valuing my sleep more than sightseeing, I waited for the next train.

In ’96, Krakow Główny was an average Polish train station. There was a parking area in front, and across the street from it was the main bus station: a sad, dirty affair that I came to avoid at all costs. Krakow Główny wasn’t much better, particularly the waiting area.

These days, it’s somewhat more spectacular.

Krakow Glowny

The approach to the market square is much the same as it was fourteen years ago.

Out of the station, a broad walk leads to a passage under Westerplatter Street.


In the mid-ninties, this was where the “shopping” started. The intended clientele here was not the few Westerners who might, in comparison, be relatively rich. These small shops and kiosks sold things for Poles; by and large, they still do.

Emerging from under Westerplatter Street,


the walkway passes beside the Juliusz Slowacki theater.


The walk to the rynek continues down ulica Pijarska past the only real tobacconist  I could find in Krakow.


It was here that I first bought what became my favorite pipe tobacco: Dunhill’s Mixture 965. Dunhill no longer produces the blend, and even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to buy it here now: no real tobacco blends to speak of.

The walk continues by the Florianska Gate,


turning left onto Florianska street.

The MacDonald’s on Florianska has been there since my very first visit. Whenever I was in Krakow, I dropped by. Not for food, but for the one thing that American chains did better than just about anyone else in Poland at that time: bathrooms. Only at McDonald’s could I count on clean facilities, and apparently others discovered that as well: within a year, McD’s had switched to a pay bathroom, something seemingly unthinkable for many Westerners but common at that time (and still quite common). One had to be a customer to use the restroom, so I bought a small order of fries.


My first visit, I was completely unaware what awaited me at the end of the street.


Stepping onto the rynek (main market square), it’s difficult not to stand motionless in awe. But that’s for another day.