“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Ah ha! Check that! Bloody Kierkergaard! I got that from a Russian Submariner. I can tell; you’re impressed. As before, it’s got nothing to do with the text that’s going to follow but, you have to admit, as a way of starting a new blog entry, that’s pretty bloody good.
Krakow. September 4th. 10.
I’m going to start with sounds. I think sometimes sounds can describe a place better than whole volumes of texts.
This is also because I am very pretentious.
First, some background. Two and a bit weeks ago I crawled off a long and much delayed flight from a rainy and overhung Liverpool to arrive here. Walking into the evening’s heat after leaving the airport was like walking in to a wall. The taxi from the airport took me through lush green countryside, with the occasional baronial chateaux cropping out from the ridge to my left. From there, we entered Krakow, it’s long, winding streets, shrouded on either side by medieval turrets and spires, all shimmering under the full force of the evening’s heat. I’m sorry if that all sounded a bit wanky, but I’m trying to set the scene. Otherwise the bit about sounds isn’t going to make any sense. Maybe I should have started with the dank industrial grey of Liverpool? Done a sort of contrast thing? No? Oh well…
The next day saw me awake in my apartment here and, as is my habit, lie in bed staring at the ceiling, concentrating very hard on not doing anything. The balcony doors were wide open from the previous evening, letting a heavy warm breeze drag its way in and sort of half way make its way round the room, before giving up under the effort of its own carriage. From the hall outside, you could just hear the sound of a family watching TV. It had that special sort of resonance, which can only be gained by echoing off the hard concrete walls of a rundown apartment block, of ricocheting off the craters in the plaster that line the stairs like pock marks on the face of the afflicted. I can’t put my finger on exactly why this was so significant to me, but, as I lay there, I must admit that, listening to that garbled and entirely incomprehensible Polish TV show, felt pretty close to heaven. Another sound before we move on. Just as now, last weekend saw me sat at my desk with (just as they are now), the balcony windows open with the competing sounds of the square making their way into the apartment from the open roofed centre of the block, when, through all the other sounds; children playing, women talking, television’s playing, radios crackling, I heard some old swing music. You know the kind; they always use it in TV shows to signify that something is taking place DURING THE WAR. Anyway, there it was. That, plus the mosquito net blowing in the breeze just kind of struck me at the time as something really quite special. Again, that was pretty close to heaven, too.
I suppose I’d like to tell you about all the amazing things I’ve done and the truly outstanding things I’ve seen whilst I’ve been here. Sadly, the workload is such that the only bit of Krakow that I have any real knowledge of is the bit of it that lies between this apartment and the school where I’m studying. Though, I must admit, this is hardly a terrible thing.
The British Council school here sits on Rynek Glowny, which is the city’s main square. I’d love to give you dates, but I’m afraid the details must have passed me by. Look, if it’s really important to you; Google it. This is not a Travel Guide. When I first arrived, two weeks ago, the square was packed to the gunnels with tourists dragging themselves around its giant stone walls in the boiling summer heat. At one end, they have horse carriage rides around the city’s many historical landmarks. However every time I’ve seen someone in the back of one of these horse drawn sharabangs, they always seem to be trying to shrink in to the back of their seats with embarrassment. I suppose some things must always seem like a good idea ‘till you do them. In the middle of the square there’s a watchtower that’s, again, ancient. It’s from here that on the hour, every hour, a trumpeter sounds out the hejnal. It’s essentially a four chord tune that cuts out half way through. The story is that this was the warning sound for the invading Mongol hordes, which blasted out its dread warning across the city before being cut short by a well aimed arrow. Ever since, in honour of that brave trumpeter’s noble sacrifice, the hejnal has always been cut short. It’s a nice story, but, frankly, I have my doubts. And I think that’s fine. Sometimes, things are just better without explanations. I always had a greater appreciation of the Bumble Bee before they worked out how it flew.
The weather has now turned, almost on a pin, and the start of autumn has begun to make itself felt. It rained pretty much consistently for the whole of last week, massive, thudding rain; the kind that gets Noah reaching nervously for his toolbox. Someone told me that the Vistula burst its banks, causing acrid stinking flood water to cover the paths along its banks, but I didn’t see it.
That was an exciting piece of information for you.
It says something about the state of my head that even the rain seems to be contributing to my good humour. Every morning, I wake up and make my way along a rain drenched Lubicz , before heading onto the lush green Planty, (the gardens where once the city walls stood) and on into the city centre. The pavements are covered by an ever moving canopy of umbrellas and the lights of the cars and the bright blue trams, whose lines run like veins throughout the city, glisten in the grey, rain sodden morning’s early light. I’ll be honest, I’ve never felt so European in my life. I keep expecting a trench coated Michael Caine to leap out at me at any moment.
What social life we have is generally turning out to be centred around Plac Nowy, the small square at the centre of what was once the Jewish District, the sides of which are now lined with the kind of self consciously and determinably bohemian bars where only the self conscious and determined bohemian can feel at home. Either way, I like it well enough. Let’s be honest, I like anywhere that’s going to sell me beer. In the centre of the square is a reasonably sized red brick rotunda, which once served the kosher meat market that was the square’s original purpose. This is now home to, what I am assured, is the finest zapiekanka outlet in Poland. Truth be told, Zapiekanakas are becoming a bit of a diet fixture. They’re really just toasted open sandwiches, with mushrooms, cheese and a topping of your choice. In last night’s case, this was Polish Salami and chilli sauce. I’m making myself hungry just typing this. Evidence of my Zapiekanaka fixation can presently be found on the cuffs of every shirt I own. Prior to this was my fixation on boiled cabbage and kielbasa, which I would buy most evenings from a stall in the main square in the cool shadow of Mariacka Basilica. As fine dining experiences go, that’s not bad. It’s only the sound of muffled German and British voices congratulating themselves on having located the ‘real Poland’ that detracts.
In other news, the contact I had in Budapest has gone very, very quiet. Rats. However, on the flip side, a girl here has told me about a decent school that’s currently hiring. Winter in Krakow? I think I can handle that.
We’re heading out later today to visit the reason why Zapiekanakas are now sold at what was once a busy and thriving centre of Jewish Culture. I’ll be honest; I’m a bit nervous about that. I think I’ll leave it for another entry. It deserves it.
However, right now, I can hear a kid playing some weird imaginary game, known only to him, outside in the square. That’s a pretty nice sound too.