After spending a large part of the evening in Market Square, watching buskers do their thing, while we sipped on beer and applauded, a sense of a calming comfort had slipped in defining our relationship with Krakow. After all the hustle through the day, watching hordes of tourists, and being all touristy ourselves, Krakow had something so comforting about it. And that means a lot, given that we were almost out of cash, completely alien to the language, and were traveling into this unfamiliarity after a good two years and a few months which were nothing less than a big blur. Had the pandemic really changed anything?
It was our last night in Krakow, after the day we had had of walking and stuffing ourselves with food, dinner was a difficult decision but a necessary one. In no time, we found ourselves at a food mall, attempting some Chinese food from a food truck that was supposed to resemble flavors from back home. Yes, I am talking about the spices. The evening had a joyous calmness to it. Unlike what we had considered, we had finished our bowl of food through our conversations. Talking about all things under the sky. A lady, the owner of the food truck stopped by to check if the food was up to our taste. Before we could tell, she was telling us how Krakow wasn’t Krakow anymore. Of course, we had enjoyed the city and had come with no prior expectations. But she had been living there for years now and felt distant from the current form of the city. The pandemic and then the Ukraine war had taken their toll on the life of Krakow. Poland, as the neighbor did all it could to make way for those who managed to escape the war but not really, as they wandered about as refugees. Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city, closest to the Ukraine border welcomed all. But a city that never slept, that partied till wee hours of the morning had lost its sheen, first to the brunt of the pandemic and then the man-made disasters of war.
Parichay and I were happy to find a bustling city that had shops and restaurants staying open till and often past midnight, unlike Vienna. And yet as tourists, we hadn’t considered the life, spirit, and nature of Krakow.
To think of it, Krakow seemed like every other European city that we had ever visited. There was the Planty Park, Wawel Castle, Jewish Quarter, numerous gorgeous cathedrals, cobble-stoned streets, Market Square, and the Stare Miesto, all of which wore the history and the culture of the city like a bejeweled possession. The language, however, was a major struggle. Unlike German which we have now been learning even Spanish and Italian which seem rather easier to comprehend, Polish seemed alien. I think there were three crucial factors that gave us comfort in Krakow- Money, Food, and People.
We got 460 Polish Zloty in exchange for 100 Euros. In a city like Prague or Budapest, which boast of an affordable lifestyle, there is only so little that could be done with this amount of money (in their local currencies). In Krakow however, we could comfortably account for 8-10 meals in that money or get a 2-3 night’s stay for 2 people. Every time we spent our money, we weren’t afraid to burn a hole in our pockets. We did not have to pick the cheapest item on the menu either. In return for all of this, the quality was nothing but top-notch.
Talking of food, we’ve loved our pasta and vino in Italy and Spain. But no place across your Europe, in the last 7 years has felt closer to home with its food than Krakow. The food had genuine flavors, and spice levels enough to please Indian taste buds like ours (We looovvveee chilies). We tried Obwarzanek Krakowski, Zapikankie, Sheep Cheese, Potato Pancakes, and of course, we had the Pierogis. The bread felt like the bagel from back home, potato pancakes matched a variety of Indian dishes, and then there were Pierogies- which were all sorts of Momos/Modaks or any other variation of stuffed dumplings that you can think of. The portions were generous throughout. And the best part? Vegetarian ingredients- potatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, spinach, and chilly were inherently a part of the dishes and not inspired by vegan trends. For the very first time, Parichay had the opportunity to taste the original version of traditional European dishes other than Pizza, and did he enjoy it, or what?
And despite the minor glitches and struggles, mainly linguistic ones, the people here smiled and smiled and smiled. They were polite, warm, generous, and extremely helpful. Especially when your travel from nearby European destinations, you realize how much of a difference a smile can make to feel welcomed in a corner of a world where everything is new, unfamiliar, and often intimidating.
But thinking again of what the lady had to tell us of Krakow had the city lost its smile while battling through all its hardships? We parted ways hoping that things would get back to the earlier version of normal, but can it? To think of it, the pandemic has been hard on each one of us in a different way. For some, the loss has been more personal, for some, it was more emotional. We think escaping our realities or going back to our old ways will bring back joy. But will things ever truly be the way they once used to be?
Tragedy is not new to Krakow. It has existed for long and wears its wounds like scars. Every time you think of Krakow, you know there is so much grief, pain, and atrocities that the city and its people have withstood. All you can do today is to acknowledge them and honor them. But humans learn the hard way, we know better to inflict wounds than to help in healing. Yet another pandemic, yet another pandemic, yet another twist to the fate of this Polish jewel.
We do hope to go back to Krakow, sooner than later. But will things be better then? As we travel, we are so immersed in looking for our own joy in the destinations, in experiences, in foods and things. Maybe, it’s time we stop and think is the city really smiling, or is it healing from the wounds of time and people?
The buildings will mostly continue to stand in their glory, the city speeding through the day. But as the sun sets and the moment of truth arrives, will the moonlight tell the tale of melancholy?
Krakow, we await you!