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 #70: Saturday, Nov. 25: Ugly and Beautiful, Palms and Monsters

I had forgotten what a small town Krakow is until we took a weekend tour to Warsaw.

Big, bustling, dirty, raw and alive, Warsaw is a real city.

But it's not a faceless moloch. Alongside its historical and Soviet architecture, it has real surprises to offer.

In the middle of town there is a big intersection with a roundabout surrounded by massive flat-faced buildings that reminded me of the airy, generous squares on the Riviera. And lo and behold: In the middle of it was a palm tree.

In Warsaw! I asked our Villa-babysitter Renate how they managed to keep the thing alive in the cold and she said: "It's plastic."

Like Krakow, Warsaw also has a monster legend: A basilisk - a poisonous half-cockeral, half-snake with wings that can kill you by looking at you - haunted the cellars, streets and air of Warsaw until a hero (again, an artisan, I believe) killed it by tricking it to look into a mirror. But it is rumored to still be hiding out in the cellars here somewhere.
As we wandered through the rebuilt old town into the dark, more and more I had the feeling that we were being followed, but whenever I turned around, I saw nothing suspicious.

But the feeling grew finally I heard a fluttering, looked up and got this photo of the basilisk flying out of a window into the night. It's true, then: The basilisk lives!

Day #69: Friday, Nov. 24: Content vs. Form

There it was: The glass of Nutella, just sitting there on the breakfast table.

Nutella is a creamy, chocolatey, nutty breakfast spread that is very popular in Germany and is becoming more and more popular in other parts of the world as well. It comes in a hundred different brands and flavors (This particular jar is a different brand and thus not officially Nutella, which is a trade-marked brand, but still I call it that.)

Seeing it there on the table was a clear sign that were would soon be a fight. A fight about aesthetics. That’s how things happen in these literary houses: All it takes is one little thing like a glass of Nutella to set us off and we’re at each other’s throats. This is how it happened:

Erica: Who eats Nutella around here? Isn’t that something that kids eat?

Eric: Oh my God, you just made me realize that there is more meaning in that glass of Nutella than there will ever be in a beautiful poem about a tree.

Katja: You filthy bastard, there you go disparaging the beauty of nature again, if you don’t take it back I’m going to pour this scalding coffee right in your face!

Kobus: You dirty dog! I’ve had enough of your disrespect for poetry. If you open your mouth one more time I’m going to ram this kitchen knife right into your gut!

Eric: Just you try it, you literary wimps! I’ll show you that a glass of Nutella has more meaning than a whole book of poetry! Erica would never walk through the park and say something like that about a tree: “Oh, that kind of tree is for kids.” In the Middle Ages they did, of course: Trees, birds, weather all had meaning, a crane was a symbol for Jesus, everything had meaning, but today it’s no longer the case. We see the beauty of nature and we feel transcended, closer to God perhaps, but there is very little real meaning in it.

This glass of Nutella on the other hand is full of meaning. It means childhood for most Germans, and because of that to see someone eating it makes him or her appear to be endearingly nostalgic for his/her childhood. For me, it says something specifically about German women: I have never met a German woman who doesn’t love Nutella despite all talk of diets and will secretly eat it with a spoon when no one is looking.

And there’s more: Nutella is a huge success in Germany and I think of it as a German food, but I believe – correct me if I’m wrong – that it was an Italian invention that didn’t quite work in Italy but became a big hit when exported to Germany. That’s a little piece of ironic globalism right there, and it tells you a lot about Europe, about the relationship between Germany and Italy, and about the German perspective on their own live and environment (Germans complain a lot about Americanization and hamburgers and Hollywood influencing their culture, but not many know that Nutella is from Italy).

So all this meaning is in that glass of Nutella. You can’t say that about any of the beautiful trees in the park, though you can devise a thousand ways to say the same thing over and over again: That a tree is beautiful. In fact, I would go one step further and say that glass of Nutella is of much higher cultural value to Germany than about 80% of all poems written in German.

Next time you’re in a non-German country, like, say, Poland, try this experiment: Go to a café and talk to a table with three or fours Poles sitting at it. Ask them: “Can you tell me who Lessing was? Who Heine was? What is ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’?” Then ask: “Can you tell me what a Mercedes is?” Clearly, products are just as important to German culture as “culture” is, in many cases more important.

Of course, the whole point of writing poems about a tree is that you can use the tree to create an analogy to some part of your own soul. You can’t do that with a glass of Nutella. It is so fraught with meaning of its own that it overpowers the poet and defeats him entirely.

Kobus: That does it! Take this, you swine! Aaaargh!

That’s when things really heated up.

Day #68: Thursday, Nov. 23: The Truth About Litfaßsäulen

You know the Litfaßsäule, those pillar plastered with ads that stand around on random sidewalks all over Europe, from "The Third Man," of course. And if you've seen that movie, you've certainly wondered if they are hollow inside. Well, now you know the truth about what – and who is inside them.

Day #67: Wednesday, Nov. 22: The Rynekites Part 3

Day #66: Tuesday, Nov. 21: The Stuff of Krakow Part 2

I loved these chess-stuff photos so much I couldn't decide which ones to leave out, so I didn't.

Day #65: Monday, Nov. 20: The Rediscovery of the Drinking Buddy

After weeks and weeks of high-brow literary discussion and non-stop parsing of James Joyce and the aesthetics of the use of the qualifier in sentences under five words, I needed a break. So I imported my old friend Christoph the Rock 'n' Roll Doctor for a weekend.

Christoph has more of an artistic vein than I do – he plays guitar and composes (in fact, he revealed himself, standing before a busking guitarist at the Krakau Rynek, to be quite a guitar snob, if I may say so myself). But was less interested in that aspect of his personality than I was in another: He is also a great drinking buddy.

I know an old-fashioned drinking buddy may not be all that hip in certain circles, but sometimes that's precisely what a guy needs. We toured the clubs of Krakau, watched the beautiful women, watched the other guys watching the beautiful women and made jokes about to old to stand around watching the beautiful women anymore. (Though I have to admit I thought it was a little bit shameless the way he weaseled his way into everyone's heart at the Writer's Villa by whipping up an excellent pasta in the middle of the night, while I've been trying to get their attention using all my literary cunning and prowess and have made no headway so far. But that's all water under the bridge now.)
Nothing much happened, really. We bartered our way into a hip club that was closing. We sat in an old people's cafe where Lenin once sat. We climbed to the top of a mound outside the town said to be a place where old generals were buried. The strangest encounter we had was at McDonald's at four in the morning. While Christoph went in search of the toilet...

...I pulled out my camera and took a photo of a drunk Irishman. Some nights, you think drunk Irishmen are worth photographing, don't ask me why. Suddenly there was a security guard at my elbow: "No photos."

"Why not?"

"I don't know."

In the meantime, Christoph was getting closer and closer to the toilet.
"Well, if it's a rule," I said, "there must be a logical explanation. Can you get the manager to come over and explain the rule to me?"

In the meantime, Christoph was still getting closer and closer to bathroom.

A conversation ensured as the manager tried to think up some reason why it would be forbidden in a place like McDonald's to take photos. No one really seemed to know, and the greater their uncertainty grew, the more I rubbed salt in the wound, by saying, "There must be a rule book around here someplace, I'm sure there's a simple enough explanation, maybe we should all go into the back office and look through the bookcase, maybe we can turn it up."

In the meantime, that toilet was down there somewhere, for sure...

Finally the McDonald's security guard and manager decided the best thing to do was to just wander off and leave me, my camera and my two cheeseburgers alone. But as they left, I heard them mutter something in Polish. Though I can't be sure, I'm pretty sure it was, "I'm not paid enough for this crap." Or something very similar.

In the meantime, Christoph was still getting closer and closer and closer to the toilet...

Christoph never did find that bathroom.

It was a great weekend of a lot of nothing special. Nothing special. Hanging around. Goofing off. With a drinking buddy, you don't have to worry so much about impressing people. You can afford to make stupid jokes, stupid comments, do stupid things, just hang around like a loser and not worry about it. It's one of the simple pleasures that guys have, and it's been such a long time since I did it. Thanks for coming, Christoph.

Day #64: Sunday, Nov. 19: Guest Blog: Photos by Christoph the Rock 'n' Roll Doctor