Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Low Humming of Bees

The title of this post comes from "Orpheus and Eurydice," a Czeslaw Milosz poem I was reading as I sat in De Revolutionibus, a bookstore off of Krakow’s Main Square. I could hear the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, violin music drifting in from somewhere, birds chirping, church bells ringing, and people softly murmuring. You can’t blame me for drifting off for a nap, during which I dreamed that I lived in a place where I would hear only these sounds, feel gentle breezes and smell summer sun for the rest of my natural life. I was so happy when I woke up!

My nap arrived at the end of a full week of activities and fun, which produced similar euphoric moments. I attended the European Mensa Annual Gathering last week in one of my favorite cities in the world: Krakow, Poland. In addition to taking part in a number of stimulating events and intellectual pursuits, I gave a presentation about smart and thoughtful travel. The attendees were astute, funny, and lively and my talk gradually morphed into a discussion about how best to go from one place to another (and why we do so) while making the most of the experience. It was a learning exchange on both sides as we shared thoughts gleaned from adventures around the world.

You should want to get lost in Krakow’s cobble-stoned medieval streets, even if you know the city well. I have visited several times over the years, but still found new things to discover during a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz again (this time, with a historian guide who informed us, among many other things, that the Gucci family had built one of the synagogues there), the Jagiellonian University, a couple of historic pharmacies, a 14th-century bourgeois home, gold-laden Baroque churches, innovatively-curated art exhibitions, and an ever-growing range of restaurants featuring Polish cuisine of course, but expanding outward, too. Luck would have it that the Pierogi Festival was taking place during our visit; we/I partook in the Ruskie variety made with potatoes, onions, and farmer’s cheese. I also indulged in parowky (a.k.a. hot dogs), zapiekanki (a.k.a. pizza), and delicious lody (a.k.a. ice cream). But it did not end there: we/I also enjoyed French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Thai and vegetarian/vegan food.

On this trip, I stayed in Podgorze, a fascinating area south of the Vistula that once contained the Jewish ghetto and still retains many original buildings, like the significant Apteka Pod Orlem. The street on which my hotel was situated – Ulica Piwna – was the main street which ran through the ghetto. Somewhat jarringly from a historical perspective, you can also find lots of street art in the form of graffiti and murals, empty lots, new apartment buildings, Tao, ZaKladka, and Cawa, where on my last night in Krakow, I sat with Polish people drinking wine under an awning watching both the setting sun beyond the Father Bernatek Footbridge (like Paris’s Pont des Artes complete with lovers’ locks) and the simultaneously pouring rain. Podgorze is also home to Schindler’s Factory and MOCAK, which currently has a fascinating, though quease-inducing show on medicine in art. Nearby, you can find the old walls of the ghetto, from which a ten-year-old Roman Polanski escaped.

My still-fresh memories of this trip continue to form, and will no doubt merge with prior memories of visits to Krakow; they will eventually solidify until I visit again. It’s a rich thing to have had such a layered experience of this city over the past 25 years. At the moment, I can say that the following experiences stood out the most: two shows at separate National Museum in Krakow locations – one about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wyslawa Szymborska, and another highlighting the paintings of EwaKuryluk; a Max Ernst show; the Pharmacy Museum; a tour of the Stalin-era steelworks plant’s nuclear bunkers in Nowa Huta (where we begged our tour guide to show us the usually-off-limit second floor rooms filled with Soviet Social Realist art and architecture – glorious in its starkness); and a Let Me Out experience. If you haven’t tried it, you should. In fact, if you haven't tried Krakow yet, it is time.