Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Krakow Poland, July 30, 2009, Part II

Krakow, Part II, 29-30 July, Michael reporting...

One thing we were sure of in Krakow, it was that we were not on, nor were we interested in, nor do we ethically, morally, or florally support what this gentleman was advertising.

¡Viva Irregularity!

We also saw this small group of musicians, and a couple enjoying the music…

And then there was this… not only have we seen a rash of Michael Jackson biographies in bookstores throughout Europe, but even the puppeteers are getting into the spirit:

One notable event which we were happy to see was a long-standing Krakow tradition. Every hour, a trumpeter opens a window in the tower of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary and plays a melody, the same one since the Middle Ages. The trumpeter stops abruptly, to commemorate when a bugler was shot in the throat during the Mongol invasion of 1241. This same melody, by the way, was played on Radio Free Europe at the beginning of every broadcast.

After our meeting with Monica, we had a little time so headed to the south side of Krakow, to the old Jewish quarter. In a sadly familiar pattern, the Jews were kicked out of Krakow proper in the fifteenth century and forced to live in the Kazimierz section, a far less grand area. By the early twentieth century, however, Krakow had become a thriving center for Jewish cultural and spiritual life, where they were even given their own house of parliament. When the Nazis occupied Poland, they also forced the Jews out of the city and into a ghetto, this time on the other side of the river, but then of course most were sent to the worst of the death camps, which happen to be close to Krakow: Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oscar Schindler's factory is near the Nazi Jewish ghetto. Kazimierz, which now holds very few actual Jews, is now a quaint and fashionable area with comfortably dilapidated buildings, large leafy courtyards, and an obvious cashing-in on the Jewish past. We walked around, exploring the small streets, noting that many of the cafes and shops had Jewish names, displayed in huge letters on the storefronts. A few of the grand old synagogues still stand, where a tiny population of Jews still worship. We skirted the edge of the Jewish cemetery, but could not find a way past the high walls, so high we could not even see inside. Our problem was solved when Kevin cleverly spotted a bar/café bordering the cemetery that had a terrace section on the roof. We promptly went inside and up, planting ourselves at a table high above the street allowing us to see down fully into the cemetery. The tombstones were all inscribed in Hebrew, and many of them had metal “hats” that allowed visitors to deposit the customary rocks (out of respect, for you non-Jews out there) without damaging the tombstones. The graves were quite crowded together, particularly in some sections, reminding me a little of the Prague Jewish cemetery, where the bodies are stacked fourteen deep and tombstones crowd the hillocked earth so tightly that earth is barely visible. For some reason, though, in Krakow the area in the center of the cemetery is just a blank green hill… perhaps an area where the stones had been removed or destroyed (it is amazing the Nazis left anything standing here at all), but judging from the crowdedness of the rest, it is probably still an area with many souls.

Krakow Poland, July 30, 2009

Krakow Poland
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kevin here.

Mike and I have seen a lot of beautiful town squares on this trip, but nothing compared with the majesty and elegance of Krakow’s central square. It was huge and colorful--and I’m pretty sure Mike will put up his traditional Cinema-360-Pan of it in the next blog. This city, so beautiful in every way, has an especially sophisticated and cool edge to it. The cafes where we rested, and sometimes wrote, were relaxed, shady, hip and chic. The lighting and lamps were often distinctive--indirect--and from unusual sources. In a number of bars and cafes there were hanging gourds, from which a thousand tiny holes had been drilled, and filled in with colored glass. Here’s a couple:

On Thursday the 30th we met Monika Wozniak in one of these ultra-relaxed urban bookstore cafes. Monika does academic work for the journal Przeklładaniec, which is dedicated to the academic discussion of translation. Her specialty is Italian-to-Polish translation and she is doing research currently on children’s literature. Monika confirmed for us some of the leading names in Polish literary nonsense and introduced us to a few new authors as well. She told us a few fascinating things about the connection between politics and nonsense in Polish literature. She described, for example, the communist attempt to introduce a new way of talking about ‘things’ in the 1950s. In what sounded like a very Orwellian plot, the Soviets required that writers in this era use, what the communists referred to as, “New Speak.” What exactly “New Speak” was, was difficult to describe. I asked Monika if “New Speak” was something like political correctness, or was possibly manifested by an Orwellian insistence on euphemisms. She said it was like those things, but that it was MORE than them too. According to Monika, New Wave Polish writers in the 1950s, such as Mrozék and Baranczek created what they described as a “new special language” and this new language rebelled directly against “New Speak,” and the result was often a rather sophisticated nonsense. In this Communist era, Monika explained, “Either you drink vodka, or you write nonsense.”

Monika also introduced us to the Polish nonsensical cabaret acts of Olga Lipinśka, which, in the 1970s, were also directed against communism. Lipinśka’s productions were carnivalesque, and reflected folk tradition, classics, New Speak, and slapstick. She noted that after the revolution of 1989, the nonsense featured in the cabarets lost its edge, because the oppressive government, and its oppressive language, was out of power.

I mentioned dragons before in this voyage, and I need to return to that subject briefly, because no visit to Krakow would be complete without mentioning Krak, the great flying lizard-beast that, tradition tells, lived in a cave beneath Wawel Castle in Krakow. If you go to the castle today you might notice the drainpipes, which are shaped like dragons: (click to enlarge)

From the castle’s edge there is also a mysterious entrance into what is known as, “The Dragon’s Den.” This spiral staircase leads down along the outer wall of one of the highest ramparts, and then disappears into the bowls of the rock below. Bravely following this dizzy staircase you are eventually emptied out into a surprisingly chilly and gloomy/roomy natural rock cave, far far below the castle. There is a creepy dungeon here, and more than enough room to park at least two mid-size dragons. Because there is a light at the end of this tunnel, you follow it, and eventually you break out into the open air under a small grove of trees nestled along the banks of the Vistula River. Then, just when you think you are now safe from dragons, there is the sound of a flame thrower, and you look up to notice that, yes, in fact there is a statue of Krak here, and yes, the statue is shooting great balls of orange flames out of its mouth. The maw of the dragon bursts forth flames for about five seconds, once every couple minutes. Quite remarkable. Remind me not to climb on this statue. Here is a picture of it:

Although it was tricky, Michael managed to catch a quick movie of the statue actually breathing fire: