Gained in translation

Why doesn’t translating ‘tomorrow week’ as ‘holnap hét’ work? Tomorrow = holnap. Week = hét. Admittedly, tomorrow week might be an Irish expression to begin with but hey, my brand of logic wonders why direct translations don’t make sense. I know they presuppose knowledge of English so that the hearer can translate the Hungarian directly back into English to see what I intended to say in the first place. It’s no wonder I’m linguistically challenged.

IMG_3297 (600x800)IMG_3320 (800x593)IMG_3325 (800x600)IMG_3308 (600x800)I was highly amused at the liquor stores, offlicences, bottle shops – call them what you will – in Kraków. Multicoloured shop fronts emblazoned with  the word Alkohole. What a great word. Apparently it translates into alcohols but all I saw was an alko hole. A little English is a dangerous thing.

The streets of Kraków have yet to be taken over by the chain stores so prominent in other cities in Europe. The slow creep is underway but so far, much of the area surrounding the main square is populated with cafés, bars, restaurants, and boutique shops that give the city its  charm. Elsewhere, unique fronts speak to the quirkiness that lies just beneath the surface and to the art scene that sets it apart. It’s a walkable city, with good shoes and decent weather. And once you have your bearings, it’s probably best done without a map. That way you get lost and happen across some of the more unusual streets and restaurants, the local elements that are still going strong in the face of relentless tourism.

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IMG_3348 (600x800)The city is full of remnants of times past. Places of interest are well signposted and signposted in English, too. Someone was thinking of the tourist dollar. It’s steeped in history. The cobblestone streets add to the sense of being in another age and the horse-drawn carriages ambling along are not quite as twee as they could be. They sort of fit. I remembered very little from my last trip so while there was a smattering of familiarity, it was like visiting for the first time.
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IMG_3311 (600x800) I could have spent  a whole day popping in and out of the various outlet boutiques selling off samples by famous labels. Or browsing through the bookshops. Or trying on hats in the milliners. As it was, I spent an hour in a bead/jewelry shop that had every possible sort of necklace and accessory you might want. And don’t get me started on the shoes and bags. I don’t remember Kraków as a shopping destination but it’s in my diary now as one to revisit when I have both time and money.

IMG_3455 (800x600)My guide recommended a restaurant in the Jewish Quarter – a local one that has been around for years. One her friends frequent. She much preferred a ribs joint near the main square that was popular with tourists – a qualification that was enough to send me in the opposite direction. She said it was ‘fatty’ which I took for having lots of meat on the menu. I ventured inside and was welcomed immediately by a complimentary bowl of sour barley soup with boiled eggs. It was an order-at-the-counter, pay, pickup and bring-your-dishes-back-when-you’re-done sort of place. And I was the only tourist. I can’t tell you how happy that made me feel. Odd, considering I was a tourist myself. I ordered a full serving of the sour barley soup to go with some breaded pork and buttered spinach. Excellent. Truly excellent.  One of many reasons to go back to Kraków. And go back I will.

Losing time

Many years ago, when I was living in London, I decided that the best thing about living in that particular capital was the number of cheap flights out of it. Every second paycheck, I’d pick a city I’d never been to before and take off. This wasn’t today or yesterday; it was long before digital cameras and blogging. I got holidays, too, of course, and one year I took a week or maybe ten days to visit Poland. I flew into Warsaw and then took the train to Kraków via Częstochowa. [I was toying with the idea of doing a series on the Black Madonnas of Europe and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa was high on my list. I have clear recollections of creeping around the shrine on my knees and feeling every inch of it.]

On the train to Kraków, I met an American woman (the lovely SvN) who told me about the chakra at Wawel Cathedral. That corner of the courtyard where time takes on new meaning.  She drew me a map and explained where I’d find it. Chances were that some yoga-head would be meditating there and would mark the spot.

IMG_3420 (600x800)IMG_3421 (800x600)I found it.  I can squat. I can’t sit cross-legged. So I compromised and sat with my back against the wall. I tried to tune out the world but nothing happened. I did manage to clear my mind for what seemed like a second or three and then the world came flooding back in. I got up, frustrated. Annoyed with myself that I couldn’t still my mind, that I couldn’t meditate. I checked my watch. Two hours had passed. Those few seconds were more than seconds. For two hours I’d been somewhere else – and I’ve no idea where.

IMG_3427 (800x600)This trip, I wanted to go back, to see if the same thing would happen. I took a taxi from my workshop and headed to the Cathedral. But it was closed. I got to wander the grounds for about ten minutes, before I was shepherded out. I didn’t make it inside the inner quad at all.

But I read up on it and it appears that sitting next to or even touching the wall is frowned upon.  In Your Pocket has this to say:

Castle staff […] consider the legend a nuisance and have done everything they can to deflect attention away from Wawel’s famous corner, including putting up a sign asking people to refrain from touching it (not working, fellas), roping it off, putting museum exhibits over top of it and having a guard stand nearby – as was the case during our last visit. Some people credit the chakra with protecting the city through its tumultuous history, but Wawel tour guides are stricken from speaking about the chakra stone, as you’ll quickly learn if you broach the topic with one. The Catholic Church and its firm followers also dismiss the legend of the chakra, despite the fact that its location at the most important spiritual site in the country (Wawel Cathedral), could just as easily be seen as a compliment. Whatever the case, there are indeed strange and powerful forces at work on Wawel Hill.

IMG_3432 (800x600)What I did get though was a lovely view of the city, an overview of a Kraków evening.  The boats moored on the Vistula River. The clubs and restaurants with their neon lights. The bridges that join the Jewish Quarter to the old Ghetto. And the dragon.

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IMG_3437 (600x800)Eons ago, when Poland was still a baby, there was a small village on the banks of the River Vistula, close to Wawel hill. At the base of the hill was a deep cave in which, rumour had it, a fierce dragon lived. The young people in the village didn’t believe the stories. They thought they knew better than their elders. One day some of them decided to go exploring. They found their way into the cave and disturbed the sleeping dragon who was rightly upset. Every day from then on, the dragon would steal a sheep or a young virgin and eat them. The village was in turmoil and lived in fear. But there was a hero – there’s always a hero. And depending on what you read, this hero was (a) a wise man, (b) the village shoemaker, or (c) the shoemaker’s apprentice. Whatever his job, we can agree that his name was Krac. Anyway, the clever chap mixed a thick yellow sulfur paste and painted it on some sheep. He then herded the sheep within sight of the dragon who did as dragons do and ate them.  The sulfur kicked in and the dragon, dying of thirst, went to the river and drank so much water, he exploded. The village was saved. Krac was the hero and the city that grew up around the hill was called Kraków.

You learn something new every day.

Chewing the cholent

It was a flying visit. I didn’t have much time. In Wednesday evening, work Thursday, fly out Friday morning. I wasn’t there to sightsee but it’d be a cold day in hell before I’d visit somewhere and not get to see something.

IMG_3283 (800x600)IMG_3289 (600x800)It’s been years since I was last in Kraków. I was looking forward to seeing how much, if anything, I remembered of the city. I had vague recollections of a large central square edged with expensive cafés. That time, I had taken the train from Warsaw with the sole of aim of visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the salt mines. All three were quite something with the first two taking all of my energy and most of my will to live. There is something quite unsettling about seeing mounds of human hair, piles of unmatched shoes, heaps of suitcases and knowing the fate their owners met. I remember visiting the bookshop wanting to buy camp memoirs written by a man and by a woman, so that I’d get both perspectives. The lady in the shop wouldn’t let me go before I bought a third book – written by one of the SS guards.

IMG_3348 (600x800)Having done the tour of the Auschwitz, I was dazed, upset, and not a little shocked. I went on to Birkenau and as I walked down to the end of the camp, the three books getting heavier and heavier in my backpack, I heard myself complaining and cursing life. No sooner had I vented did I realise that the hundreds and thousands who had trodden this same path before me never had the chance to curse again. I was a sobering thought. This was back in 2004 (I think).

I recall overhearing a young Polish chap explain to a couple of English nurses on the train that Poland didn’t have  Jewish problem any more. And so this time, when I visited, I saw that the Jewish community is making a comeback of sorts.

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IMG_3371 (800x600)There’s a square (actually a street but it looks like a square) at the heart of it all:  ulica Szeroka. Ringed by restaurants and cafés, it’s also home to the Old Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue. Today, it’s a hive of activity with plenty to do in the way of socialising.

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IMG_3355 (800x600)IMG_3374 (800x600)Tempted by the Hamsa restaurant that promised both happiness and humus, I couldn’t resist the Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (Once upon a time in Kazimierz), with its row of weathered shopfronts, its dark and its dark interior furnished as if it were someone’s living room. Billed as one of the most unusual restaurants in the world, I couldn’t pass it by. The menu was alien to me and yet familiar, a composite of foods that had featured in novels I’d read but had never eaten. Borsch  – a beetroot soup with kolduny (meat filling) or
uszka (mushoom filling). Gefilte fish (minced carp in jelly). Cholent (stew with beans beef, veg, potatoes and groats). There was even Israeli wine on the menu.  I ate well.

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IMG_3368 (800x600)Wandering around afterwards, I happened across a memorial to the
65 000 Polish Jews from Kraków who didn’t live to see the end of the War. It was cold that day – bitterly cold – and the streets were notably empty. I’d imagine though that in the summer, it would be heaving. How does it resonate with the partying masses enjoying their holidays? A thought.

I paid my respects. I stood a while until a recurring thought popped into my head about the millions of other lives lost in the Holocaust that go largely unmentioned. And then I wandered and I wondered.