My first visit to Poland was when I was 8. The second visit of this place that I would come to love so truly didn’t happen until 13 years later. I had been learning Polish for two years and was excited and curious for this country that I had but a dim and distant memory of. After all, I had decided to make it part of my life by studying its language, culture and, above all, its literature. I signed up for a four week language course in Kraków.
Back then, one rather chilly day in early March, I got off the bus from the airport at the main station just by the Planty, a green belt, a little park that encircles the old town. Looking up to a grey sky and breathing in Polish air for the first time as an adult, I was full of anticipation and a giddy nervousness, as though I was going on a first date. The church towers led the way, and I walked towards them in the direction I supposed the old town’s center to be in. I walked down Floriańska Street towards the Rynek, the main square. I didn’t know that Floriańska was a famous street. I didn’t know it led to the Rynek. My legs carried me on as if they knew they way, as if they’d walked it a hundred times. A feeling, nay, a certainty came over me that I had been here before. There was music everywhere. Pictures flashed in front of my inner eye, pictures of heavy red velvet curtains that I would see at Cafe Singer in the Jewish quarter Kazimierz later during my stay. My soul seemed to recognize the city from a former life. Until today I feel sure that this first visit to Kraków wasn’t actually the first. Instead, I was coming home in many strange, yet very natural and sensible ways.
When people ask me today why I love Kraków, this experience is really the only answer I have for them. To be quite honest I don’t understand the question. Kraków was the first city I ever really fell in love with. I have been there many times since, and every visit just makes my love for it grow.
A collage of memories:
Sitting bei Wisła (Vistula) River, just below Wawel, which is the castle hill. A sunny day in early April. The river is making a large bend here, and it runs calmly and proudly as though it couldn’t ever run wild and burst its banks. In this moment I realize that I have never felt like a stranger in this city.
Or having my first Zapiekanka at Plac Nowy (New Square) in Kazimierz. Zapiekanka is the Polish version of fast food: a baguette, essentially with mushrooms and cheese, grilled in the oven and topped with lots of ketchup and chives. Yum! And there’s no place in all of Poland where they are better than at the Okrąglak, the funny looking round building inmidst of the square that used to be a market hall. So say the locals, and so say I.
Running across the Rynek, hurrying to meet someone or other, and from the tower of Mariacka, St. Mary’s church with the two unevenly high towers, the melody of the Hejnał is sounding out to my ears, falling right into my heart, and I have to stop and listen to it. „Hejnał“ (which funnily enough is pronounced something like „hey, now“) is derived from a Hungarian word for Dawn. It is a very old Polish signal melody. Legend has it that when the Mongols tried to invade Poland in the middle ages, a guard was keeping watch on the tower and sounded the Hejnał to warn the people of Kraków when the army approached the city. He was shot mid-melody so that he couldn’t finish. Until today, every full hour an interrupted Hejnał is sounded in all four directions from Mariacka’s tower. Yes, even in the middle of the night. No, it is not a record. Listen to it here
kosher* dinner at Klezmer Hois in Kazimierz and accidentally stumbling upon a Klezmer concert in the room next door. I’m standing in the door way, covertly hidden away. In front of a delicate dark red curtain with golden ornaments, there is a man with a double bass, one with an accordion and a young woman with a violin. Their play is sweet and snappy, lively and melancholy. Hava Nagila. Bei mir bist du scheen. The woman will at times put down the violin and start singing. Her voice is deep and velvety, it sounds like the dark wood boarding on the walls. Like the stone pillars and the lace doilies on the tables. From dark depths, the voice is softly climbing up, sighing high, desperate, the way Klezmer clarinettes usually do. I feel like sighing myself. Magical, magical Kraków.