The Krakow Diaries

75 days in Krakow. On a literary grant from the German Kulturstiftung der Länder. In the Guesthouse of the 16th century Villa Decius, with 10 other writers from Poland, Germany, Belarussia, Ukraine and Georgia. Beautiful city. Nice Krakovians. Fun nightlife. Beautiful women. And in the guesthouse: Meetings of the minds. Too much vodka. Good friends. One of the great pleasures of my life.

Day #7: Saturday, Sep. 23: My Widersacher: the Young German Intellectual


I told Katja Thomas, the young writer from Leipzig, that I believe she is using this grant not so much to write, but to find herself as a writer. She avoided the subject by saying 1) we all use our entire lives to find ourselves, and 2) that I the kind of person who always has to stick people in drawers, as the Germans say - labeling them. She is right of course, I am that kind of person. (In fact, I think that's what it says on the label of my drawer: "Guy Who Is Always Labeling Other People"). The Germans are excessively afraid of someone putting them in "drawers." In fact, one of the drawers I put Germans into in general has the label: "People Who Think They Are Too Complicated, Individualistic and Unique To Be Put Into Any One Specific Category."

(Photo: I warned her that this bad photo of her, with the shadow falling as it does, makes her look like her head has been chopped off and digitally pasted back on, she said, "Yes, that's me.")

Ah, but now the plot has thickened and I have added a drawer to Katja's profile: More Dangerous Than She Appears.

It happened while we were chatting in the kitchen. Three women were chatting, I was more or less listening, so every once in a while a woman-thing crept into the conversation: "Curly hair grows slower than straight hair," said Katja.

That sounded to me patently absurd, but she explained: "The molecules have form into a certain pattern, and that take more time."

There are two explanations for this rather bizarre statement:

1) It's true.

2) She knows she is in my blog and is feeding me nonsensical items in the hope that I will publish them and make an even greater fool of myself than I do on my own.

However, since I know very little about hair molecules, I have no way of knowing which of the above is true. I only know that I have to be careful around Katja.

Day #6: Friday, Sep. 22: Long Live East European Intellectualism!



The good news is: It's still alive! Yes, young, thin, angry Slavs still read complex poetry to adoring fans in trendy run-down bars about (according to the woman sitting next to me, who claimed to understand a few phrases) young, thin, angry Slavs who refuse to join the rat-race and express their rebellion by sitting around drinking beer all day.

I felt like the guy who walks into a meeting of the Jehovah's Witnesses as an atheist and walks out a beleiver. Coming from the West, where young writers know about getting an agent and selling film rights before they have something to write about, I was ready to roll my eyes at this kind of writer. "Posing" is what I would call it. And in a bar in New York it would be true. In the US, the age of Beat is over, and now all that's left are writers who strike the angry-young-artist pose until the Hollywood scout shows up.

Serhij (Sergei) Zadan, a young (30-ish), hip Ukrainian writer and poet, had a reading in the Jewish Quarter tonight, in a club called the Lokator. The Krakau Jewish Quarter is not very Jewish nowadays. It would be more correctly named The Trendy Quarter. It is filled with young, slightly run-down but exceedingly hip bar and clubs. There were about 20 or 30 of us in the Lokator. Serhij read for several books and a manuscript, including his first book, called Depeche Mode after the popular pop group, and he was translated.

(Photo above: On the left in the ironically retro green sweater and fetchingly strict bangs you see the Polish host and co-reader [I stand corrected - see Katja's comment]; on the right is the aloof Polish translator; in the middle is Serhij, prolific writer, Ukrainian intellectual and, apparently in his country, rock star.)

Serhij is a proto-East European intellectual the way they're supposed to be: thin, scruffy, serious, slightly greasy hair, white-skinned with a light black scruff about the chin and cheeks. He read standing, banging out his words like bullets, loudly, quickly, each sentence a little rant. The audience was with him all the way, silent when it got serious, chuckling at the jokes.

It's amazing how unimportant it is to understand the language at a reading. It was a real joy to watch him, no matter that the only works I picked up were Johnson & Johnson, Jesus, prostitute, marijuana and "fucking" (as an adjective).

While we would roll our eyes at him in the West and say "Is this cosmic Weltschmerz or should he just grow up?", here they appear to take this seriously. Being taken seriously is a terrific freedom for a young writer. Why are the creative writing classes of America producing so much artificial, soulless word-prettiness? Because young writers are seeing their work through the eyes of adults: their teachers, critics... and Hollywood scouts. It is cynicism that keeps youth from being young.

Serhij made a believer out of me.

Day #5: Thursday, Sep. 21: Erica

There is even a famous writer among us lesser stars on the firmament:

Erica Fischer, the Viennese/Berliner journalist who wrote, among many other books, Aimee & Jaguar. It is about two women, a German and a Jew, who fall in love with each other during the Third Reich. (It was turned into a popular movie that should have made her rich, but Germans tend not to pay much for movie rights.)

Now, if you're a journalist looking to write a book, the secret is finding the right subject, and I have to say, if you want to learn how to pick one, follow her example. Aimee & Jaguar has everything: Nazis and Jews, love and the Holocaust, not to mention lesbians. Most journalists would kill to find a subject like that. This woman has a pretty good eye.

What is she working on now? I will find out.

Day #4: Wednesday, Sep. 20: Meetings


The others have arrived.

There are nearly a dozen of us living in the guest house behind the Villa Decius for three months. I arrived late, as I was still in the US, and so I missed an excursion they made together over the weekend to the Ukraine. They returned Monday night, so I am beginning to meet them in the halls and in the kitchen.

Larysa is a tall Ukrainian translator (Ukrainian/Polish). I don’t know what she translates because she doesn't speak much English. She is shy and you know what that means: I suspect she is hiding some kind of mystery. Alas, I will never know what it is. Unless I start learning Ukrainian.

Here's a photo of the funky East European sculpture in garden.

Day #3: Tuesday, Sep. 19: Novel or non-fiction?



Settling down to work. Always a difficult project. I have about a week to make a decision: What am I going to write? Novel or non-fiction? Or both?

The reason I have a week is because once again I am behind: I did not finish my two non-fiction book proposals before coming to Poland. That means my Beautiful German Frolein and I are finishing them up this week per e-mail and she will send them to our agent then.

I will be in Krakow for three months. Three months of just writing, working, being a writer. In Krakow, no less, reputedly the most beautiful city in Poland. This is what I've dreamed of for years. And I still don’t know what I'm going to write.

The question still stands: Novel or not?

Day #2: Monday, Sep. 18: The Krakow Women Gallery

















Day #1: Sunday, Sep. 17: The Arrival



The Truth About Krakow: It is filled with beautiful women. And when I say beautiful women, I mean really excruciatingly, painfully gorgeous women.

It was a sunny and sweatingly hot Summer's day, which is unusual for this time of year, as it is no longer summer, in this part of Europe. Arriving in the Villa Decius, I was tired from getting up early to get the plane from Berlin and shlepping hundreds of pounds of books through Berlin then through Krakow, so the plan was to flop down in bed and write off the day. Then my Beautiful German Frolein called and gave me a piece of her mind: You're in the most beautiful city in Poland on one of the most beautiful days of the year and you’re laying around in your room?

So I struggled with the map and the bus schedules and got into town, had a couple of beers (the only word in Polish I know – I can’t pronounce thank correctly, but "piwo" is easy) and sat around watching the girls go by. It was a day to remember. You should have been there and saw what I saw.

These women know they are beautiful. They like tight jeans and tight blouses and showing their navels and wearing high heels when there's absolutely no need to. They love showing off their charms. And when I say charms, I mean their bodies. But that alone does not beauty make. The most beautiful of these women – would you believe me if I said there is something, well, Japanese about them? If not Japanese, then at least manga-ish. It's their round faces, huge eyes and their sharp noses – they look like the beauties in manga comics. And they are proud, which makes them even more beautiful.