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Polandian

Nothing happening here, move along to Polandian – that’s where all the cool people are now.

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Krakow is stuffed full of architectural marvels. What’s not immediately obvious is that the whole lot is built of brick. There’s nothing wrong with bricks, let me hasten to add, but it is a bit of a con job. The buildings look as if they’re made of stone, but they’re not; it’s brick all the way down. I spent another productive Sunday wandering around Krakow collecting evidence.

A typical Krakow building. Looks like it’s made of stone, but actually it’s brick covered in a layer of sculptured render.

Another typical Krakow building where the deceitful layer of render hasn’t yet been repaired.

Now, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with building in brick but I do wonder two things:

1. Why go to the trouble of pretending that a brick building isn’t a brick building? Especially when major municipal buildings such as the main cathedral, Kosciol Mariacki, is plainly and openly brick-built?

Brick-built and proud of it.

2. Where’s all the stone? Wawel sits on a mound of (rapidly dissolving) limestone but most of it seems to be made of brick. There are limestone quarries within the environs of the city including the notorious Plaszow quarry – adjacent to the Nazi’s Plaszow work camp. Why aren’t most of the building built of stone with all this limestone lying around?… ok, actually that was about four questions in one.

Wawel: Poland’s heart is made of brick (mostly).

In case you don’t believe me about the limestone, here’s a picture I took of a stone in the wall of a monastery in Krakow. You don’t get many fossils in brick.

I look at other buildings in ridiculous, but oddly exciting, detail over on Polandian.

I like to wander around Krakow looking at the buildings, street furniture, and general cultural brick-a-brack. It’s not uncommon to find me boring the pants off the lady A pointing at some obscure feature of Krakow’s architecture while gesticulating wildly and spouting some ridiculous theory. She generally rolls her eyes, quite rightly, and urges me onwards to somewhere where we can discuss the various merits of handbags or ‘light summer trousers.’ Apparently these things are VERY IMPORTANT.

Undeterred I offer the following oddity; something that I’m at a loss to explain. Krakow’s streets are fascinatingly diverse, but there is one almost universal feature: all buildings are built on the same property line. Walk down an old Krakow street and every single building fronts the pavement. You step out of the door and you’re on the pavement, about 2 meters from the road. But, and this is the ‘but’ I want to address here, sometimes a building is set way back from it’s neighbors; I mean a good 20 or 30 meters back. Why? How the hell did this come about?

Let me show you: A classic Krakow street – all buildings front the pavement.

But suddenly you get this: A building of the same period as the surroundings but, inexplicably, 30 meters back from the road.

This is one example (on ul. Jozefa Sarego) but I know of three or four others. Not enough to constitute a style, but enough to make you wonder why and how it happened.

1. Was a building in the street destroyed and there happened to be another building behind it? Unlikely, it’s too close.

2. Did the architect want a garden in front of his project? Why so rare?

3. Are these survivors of older development? Also unlikely since they look like there were built at the same time as the surrounding developments (late 19th century, early 20th).

Any ideas?

Learn more fascinating facts about Krakow past and present.

I’m back baby!

The passport control officer responded to my cheery “Dzień dobry” with a perfectly impassive blank stare and I knew I was back. Seven days home in the curry nation and I had become accustomed to those odd quirks of British culture such as responding to greetings and occasionally smiling. Never mind, I know the score, it’s a culture thing and I even found it oddly comforting. By the way, and this is not leading to a rant I promise, I’ve discovered an ever more benighted and extreme species of official Polish rudeness than Post Office workers. Not possible? Try dropping into your local kantor (currency exchange). I’ve been in scores of these places over the years and I can wholeheartedly say that I’ve never come across a more morose, taciturn and robotic form of human being anywhere else. I’ve never experienced a ‘hello,’ a smile, a ‘thank you’ or any other kind of human communication from these people. In fact I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen one of them open their mouths at all. Perhaps they’re some kind of specially bred mute species. I tell I lie, one of them did speak to me once. He was an an absurdly orange victim of excessive solarium use and he told me that he couldn’t exchange my money because it wasn’t clean enough. My, how I laughed.

Me and the lady A went to East Grinstead, Lindfield, and Bath. I ate about four pigs worth of bacon and pork sausages in the form of English breakfasts. I bathed in fine local ales (learn to make proper beer in Poland for god’s sake!). We glided about the place in pristine trains (my god trains have improved in the UK recently), we fell in love just that little irrevocable bit more, played with nieces, hung around in ancient church yards, and generally had a fine old time.

I genuinely loath looking at other people’s holiday pictures but am completely incapable of resisting the temptation of inflicting the same thing on other people. Weird bots people.

The author seriously considering how much trouble he would be in for diving into the ancient Roman baths of Bath.

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English sky, English city

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A house on the Kennet and Avon Canal. I was going to buy it, until I remembered my fear of swans.

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A grave in an English church yard. The inscription read “Sacred to the memory of Mr Charles Hawkins who was overtaken by the inevitable fate of mortals and released from pain and affliction on the 26th day of May 1789 aged 60 years.” Good luck to him.

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A wonders why we can’t build straight buildings in England

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Never fear. I will return to rock-hard social commentary soon. Yawn.

I feel I’m getting close to the central mystery of the Polish character. I’m probably completely wrong in this belief but it makes me feel better so humour me. I’ve written recently about the strange behaviour of Polish people on pavements and on the road. I’ve written that I’m very confused by the way that Polish people seem to wander around in a daze without any awareness of the people around them and about the way that they drive as if they were the only person on the road. I’m starting to get the feeling that both of these things point to a fundamental feature of the Polish psyche.

Walking down an average Polish street I observe Polish people trying to walk through each other. It’s almost as if they literally cannot see the people around them, or if they can see them they treat them as ghosts of some kind. When people look into your eyes it’s with an expression of suspicion. For a long time I thought it was just me they were looking at this way, that my foreigness was somehow obvious from my appearance, but I don’t believe that any more. Polish people look at other Polish people with just the same latent suspicion they look at me with. Nobody trusts anybody. Everybody expects everybody else to be a bastard. I got a cold feeling down my spine when I finally saw this.

I remember some wise person making a comment on one of my posts somewhere that said something like “all Polish people believe that all other Polish people are idiots, anti-semites, drunks, thieves, or religious maniacs APART FROM the ones they know.” In other words the average Pole wouldn’t trust another Pole as far as he could throw him unless he was part of his extended family or clique of friends. If I meet an Englishman I’ve never met before my default position is positive; I’m expecting him to be a decent honest bloke. When a Pole meets a Pole he’s never met before it seems the default assumption is precisely the opposite. I find that kind of scary.

It explains a lot. People who work in shops are rude because they assume you’re an idiot or a thief. People fail to get out of each other’s way on the pavement because they assume the other person is a rude and uncivilized person and they are damned if they are going to give way to a rude and uncivilized person. People drive as if they were blind because they literally have no respect for the lives or limbs of the inferior people around them.

It can’t be that simple… can it?

I’ve made a breakthrough observation which might explain the Crazy Ivan phenomenon I described a while ago. For those of you who can’t be bothered to look back at the original post the Crazy Ivan phenomenon can be summarized as this: when walking down the street Polish people frequently and randomly stop and or suddenly reverse direction almost invariably straight into the person walking behind or beside them. I’ve been puzzling over this strange behavior for months.

Yesterday the warmth of the false Spring we’ve been experiencing down here in Krakow for the past couple of weeks slipped away in the night and the snows came back. Polish people instantly wrapped themselves in padded coats, scarves, hats, and fur boots as is their want, even though it was nowhere near cold enough to justify such sartorial extravagance. I noticed immediately that the incidence of Crazy Ivan encounters shot up. This was the breakthrough. When you’re wearing a hat AND a woolly scarf AND a voluminous hood you just can’t see or hear anything going on around you, hence you don’t know anyone is behind or beside you, hence you have no idea you will walk straight into them if you suddenly change direction. In other words you have no peripheral vision. I’m slightly disappointed.

Of course, this only explains the ‘walking into people’ part of the phenomenon, It doesn’t explain exactly why these people so frequently find the need to suddenly veer of in a different direction or start walking backwards. One day I will understand…

DVD Folly

Friday night is DVD night for me and the lady. I guess we should be out raving at the local chav pit but I’m far too old and the lady A is far too polite to mention the fact. Besides, there’s nothing better than a Friday evening in with a bottle or two of vino and a couple of randomly selected movies from the local DVD shop.

Months ago we accidentally and fortunately stumbled upon the Piracki Video shop on Ul. Lea. It’s about 10 minutes walk from where I live, has a pretty good selection of movies, and foreigners are treated as fellow human beings (even if they can’t say “I’m returning this” in Polish). There’s none of this tedious messing about with laminated membership cards and whatnot; they take a note of your name and address (on trust) and that’s it. It’s like being in the Cosa Nostra. No questions asked. You come in, choose a dvd, give a nod and a wave to the lass behind the desk, and that’s it. Admittedly, if you bring a DVD back late, they send ‘Big Stefan’ round to break your legs, but it’s a small price to pay for the day-to-day level of service.

We were very happy there for six months or so. Then, one fateful day, we wandered down a different street and were hypnotized by the pull of a Mega-Hit Nowy-DVD shop called Beverly Hills Video!! Can you imagine getting away with a name like ‘Beverly Hills Video” in the UK? Conjures images of three Armenian cousins renting slightly-worn Chinese-copied DVDs on Kentish Town Road to me. In Poland it’s the acme of cool and trendy weekend entertainment. There are dozens of them across the country, kind of similar to what Blockbuster used to be in the UK. The place is nicely laid out, professionally decorated, well-stocked and, in the final analysis, absolutely awful. We joined.

For three or four weeks we went there every Friday and wandered around its isles and isles of cruddy movies. We tried hard to believe that we were having a good time trawling through the acres and acres of meaningless titles involving ninjas, commandos, strike force 9s, and phat chicks but, in the end, we had to come to terms with the fact that they they didn’t actually have any Woody Allen movies at all. Not to mention the fact that we just didn’t like the place, on any level, despite it’s cooler-full of blue energy drinks and the opportunity to buy ‘chilled wine.’

This week the full horror of our error finally broke upon us and we resolved to return to Piracki Video to face the music. I won’t say we weren’t afraid, because we were. Would they accept us back into the fold? Could we fool them by casually mentioning an imaginary month-long holiday to the Caribbean despite our pasty Polish-winter complexions? Would they smell the evil scent of Beverly Hills Video on our clothes and cast us forever into the outer darkness? These and other questions troubled us and quelled conversation as we made our way up ul. Lea last Friday evening.

At precisely 18:17 we swept into the place with breath held and barely daring to glance in the direction of the rental desk…

The lass behind the desk rose… and broke into a massive grin. She spread her arms and more-or-less embraced us with a kiss on each cheek. Waves of relief and nostalgia swept over us. We spent an hour wandering around the 50 square meter shop grinning like fools and reveling in the sensation of familiarity. “I feel like I came home” said the lady A and I, for one, knew exactly what she meant.