Just a nice, lazy day in cold Krakow

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Of all the places I have been on this trip, Slovakia and Poland have remained the most elusive in terms of finding English or German speaking people.  It must be the decades of Soviet influence that have kept them from learning any of the Western European languages, and it's been a source of frustration for me.  But it's not because I want to get directions or finally buy something without using sign language...it's more than that.  Of all the visas and stamps in my passport now from the past month, these two countries are the ones I am most curious about, and I would really love to talk to people about how much their countries and lives have changed.  Sure I can find an 18 year old who knows some basic English but he wouldn't know first hand what life was like before communism collapsed.  I want to know what it was like to live under oppression then and freedom now.

With all that in the back of my head I was people watching last night in a downtown Krakow shopping mall that would have been inconceivable as recently as the early 90s but is now totally complete with the chain stores that would make any US shopper feel right at home. I could have easily been in Moline, IL had it not been for the Polish signs and a food court with fast food blintzes and goulashes rather than pretzels and greasy Chinese food.

Shopping here not even 20 years ago involved hunting down a scarce item at a goverment owned store and then buying it became a tedious process.   The shelves were mostly bare and if maybe some shoes came in, a line would form.  Once at the head of the line, the shopper would receive a receipt from the clerk for whatever size was left and then would wait in a second line to pay.  After paying, this lucky shopper would go back to the original line to pick up the item. After all this trouble and time the worn out shopper would finally have some coveted size 9 shoes for his size 11 feet.  If you wanted the pair of Nike running shoes that perfectly fit that visitor you saw from the west, some good imagination was in order to turn your own People's Factory #7 crapola into something stylish. 

By the early 90s things were just starting to change here in Poland but few had the money yet to enjoy the goods starting to fill the shelves.  Nowadays it's just like shopping in the good ole USA.  Pick out the item off a rack all messed up with sizes out of order, take it up to the register with an indifferent clerk and walk out the door.   The only lines now are those at a register full of people with armfuls of goods that they actually want (and that fit, too).

Some hunger finally pulled me into an overcrowded Carrefour supermarket packed full of every food and beverage conceivable.  I watched a wizened old lady dressed in all black attempting to push a shopping cart around the busy aisles.  Her hunched over body and shawl covered head made her like a time capsule amidst us more modern people.  She is exactly the person I would love to speak to if I knew some Polish because I want to hear her thoughts on how much the country has changed.  Not even twenty years ago she was hunting down something as basic as fruit but now she is surrounded by American ketchup, German chocolates and Argentinian wines.  Sixty years ago she was living through the German invasion and Soviet occupation of her country and now she was hobbling around a French owned market supported by a cart probably made in China.

I peeked in her cart and all she had were some potatoes, bread, and sausage.  That's old school cooking when compared to the premade paella and rotisserie chickens at the deli.  Even I was blown away by the selection of bottled water Poles have.  Maybe this old lady just goes through life totally oblivious to the what else is available, and that's what I was dying to find out.  Maybe not a whole lot for her has changed, and I will never know.  She is a living history book that I couldn't crack open.

I'd also love to meet a professional and find out what it was like to transition from a crappy job guaranteed by the state to our system where nothing is guaranteed but where hard work hopefully will pay off.  I am curious if some people are nostalgic for the old way of life now that some time has passed or if they enjoy this completely new way of living.  I am even curious what it was like going from flying a Tupolev at state run LOT Polish Airlines to a Boeing at the free market version of LOT today.  By the way, I am flying a 737 on Hungarian based WizzAir later today up to Nyköpping, Sweden so I will let you know if it's just another Ryanair, jr.

At every stop along my way up to now I have been able to talk to the locals and learn about their interesting ways of life nothing like mine.  For me meeting people is one of the best parts of foreign travel and it is true that in Krakow and Bratislava I have been meeting a ton of people, but they're other travelers just like me.  Not that someone from New Zealand visiting Poland is any less interesting...I just want some of the local flavor.

About all I have been able to learn about Bratislava and Krakow has come from my eyes.  I have noticed that outside the Old Towns, the buildings are all typical Soviet era nondescript housing blocks in various states of disrepair.  Satellite dishes hang from balconies and beam in the outside world that was once forbidden.  Cell phones have replaced landlines that once had a years long waiting list for installation.  And shiny new Mercedes roll over the same cobblestoned streets that were once the domain of piece of junk Soviet or Polish built cars.

But not even a world war or years of communist neglect could change the old town here in Krakow (or Bratislava) luckily and even today it's like stepping back hundreds of years.  It is a well restored area worth visiting, and I have totally enjoyed it.  The highlight was climbing I don't know how many steep steps to the top of St. Mary's church and taking in the whole city.  You know my sightseeing habits well enough by now to know that if it's up high, I am going to find a way up there for the view.

I really don't have any crazy stories or adventures to report from here that will entertain you.  It's just been pretty laid back and quiet hanging out with people I have met at the hostel.  One thing is for sure though in Poland and Bratislava, there are very few if any American visitors.  In fact, everywhere I have been except for Paris and Madrid I have rarely come across other Americans (besides some very, very sketchy expats in Vientiane).  Consistently it's been Canadians, Dutch, Australians, New Zealanders and Germans.  And just from my unscientific sampling Aussies and Germans outnumber everyone else.  Come on Americans, get out there and explore!!  It's an awesome world out there with some amazing sights and warm and friendly people.  I promise you, with a little extra planning and some common sense, these strange places you only see in the news won't bite.
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