Budapest, Krakow and Prague are considered to be three of the must-go-to cities to visit this year and I am fortunate enough in that I will have visited all three of them and lived in one (Budapest for 6 months+) by the time I return home in April.
The first day I was in Krakow I got lost by taking the tram in the wrong direction of Nowa Huta, which is more industrial than the Old Town/Kaszmiersz which is where I wanted to go. But even despite feeling that I was “stranded” or in the “middle of no where” young Poles were able to tell me in English how to return in the right direction. Tired and overwhelmed by the unfamiliar territory at Dworec Glovny, I had not double-checked the sign of the Tram I had entered. The same thing had happened in Paris where, the night earlier, I was exhausted by walking in the Louvre for three hours and did not read the direction or final destination of the metro. However unlike in Paris, where it is quite obvious that even though the fellow passenger knows and acknowleges they know English but continues to speak in French–in Krakow, people are more willing to speak in English even if it is a bit rusty.
When one thinks of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, the first things that come to mind are usually the Berlin Wall, Communism, the Second World War, and then maybe Pope John Paul II. Krakow was de-mystified when I went on a free walking tour organized and led by Pawel Mrozowicz, a student at the local Jagiellonian University. He is one of the most enthusiastic tour guides whose passion and knowledge of Polish history–that he broke down into “episodes” of the “soap opera”–was infectuous and I probably learned more in three hours than I could in a ten-week course of Polish history. He led the group to lesser-known sites such as the “Boner Palace” to St. Mary’s Church to hear the hourly bugle call. One member of the group asked about the logistics of the job of the bugle-trumpeter. Mrozovicz responded that good-naturedly that the trumpeter did his job out of great honor and was possibly motivated by that and appreciation of tourists who waved to him from below. And that he probably was on Facebook saying to his wife, “Be right back in ten minutes, got to do some bugle calls!”
In this article about Krakow, a 24 year old painter admits that the first thing he craved when the Berlin wall fell was a Barbie doll, a typical symbol of the West. I was once on a bus that was going through the former East Germany and talking to my seat-mate who grew up in the former GDR. He casually mentioned that the first thing (out of possibly many things) that his fellow “Ossies” craved evidentally were bananas…because the shops had run out of them within days. Not to be too corny–they went bananas for bananas.
Another common-place thing one would find are obwarzanek, which would resemble a product between the union of a pretzel and a bagel. The closest cultural item I could think of are the Russian bubliki.
To be continued with more photos…and later this month notes on Prague.