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Magic Zloties 

Street musicians in Krakow

Finding a place to stay in Krakow proved very difficult.  We went farther and farther afield until we found some kind of dormitory.  After the long train ride from Prague, the first order of business was cleaning up.  We were met at the shower by a bureaucrat.  We would need a shower receipt, sold only at the front desk.  The cost was trivial but the nuisance was great.  We changed back into our street clothes, paid a few zloties and received our precious receipt.  Actually, the receipt was filled out in triplicate.  Why, I asked?  One for us to present at the shower and one for us to keep.  And the third?  Oh, that was sent to the ministry.  Why in the world would any ministry want records from showers?  The desk clerk shrugged.


We went to the main square.  The word was that this was a student city with a night life of sorts.  We sought out clubs, but found that them swarming with people.  Entry was impossible.


Something was afoot.  Red banners were going up all over the city saying "22 Lipca."  We asked what that meant, and we were told, July 22.  The very next Sunday.  People tried to explain to us what was about to happen, but we couldn't figure out what they were telling us.  In Poland at that time, very few spoke English (even though they all had cousins in Chicago and Cleveland), but people of a certain age spoke French.  The young people spoke Russian, which was of no use to us.  People the age of our parents spoke German, but it was very important in speaking German for both sides to make it clear that they were not German, and that they each spoke German reluctantly and as a last resort.  All three of us could handle French to varying degrees, but I was the only one who knew any German.  I preferred to speak French, but sometimes German was the only option.


We found a pastry shop and led off with French, the best way to begin in Poland.  The shopkeepers went wild!  They kept saying Franšais!  Franšais!  We kissed their hands.  They gave us free pastries.  They must have thought we were French, but what was the harm?  We were French at heart, at least when it came to pastries.  Every day we were in Krakow, they fussed over us and gave us free pastries.


Restaurants were a different story.  We always waited hours for a table.  One day we staked out a table before lunchtime and kept it going right through dinnertime.  It was out base of operations, as we saw the city and attended to our most important task finding a way out of Poland.


Our next leg was a complicated one:  a local train from Krakow to Katowicz, then an international train from Katowicz to the Czech border, across Czechoslovakia to Hungary, continuing on to Budapest.  We had been told that the only place to buy a ticket was at the Krakow office of Orbis, the official Polish tourist agency.


It took all day.  Orbis was very crowded, so we got in line.  After a long wait, we made it to the front of the line, and the window slammed in our faces.  The clerk was going to lunch.  We got in another line.  When we reached the front, we were told we were in the wrong line and to get in another line.  After another long wait, the clerk's answer was complicated.  All we could do in her line was to use the zloties in our pockets to buy the local ticket from Krakow to Katowicz.  For the remainder of the ride -- the international portion --we had to buy special zloties and we could only do that at another office.  Once again, it was a question of currency with a pedigree -- magic zloties.  At the cashier, we presented our dollars and were given Russian rubels.  Because international purchases were handled throughout Eastern Europe with rubles, they would be necessary here, too, so that Orbis could reimburse the railroads in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.  With the rubles, we bought zloties accompanied by documentation proving that they had been purchased with rubles that had been purchased with hard currency.  Then we took our currency to another window, presented the paperwork, and received the international tickets.  After almost a whole day's effort, we had our tickets out of Poland.


After only two days in Poland, we began to wonder about bureaucracy.  We raised a fundamental question, one that must have haunted everyone who lived in a society like that.  Was all this bureaucratic frustration the result of arbitrariness and incompetence, or was there something more sinister going on?  Could it be that there was a kind of hidden hand directing everything that happens, one that discouraged showers by requiring a receipt, one that made it hard to leave Poland by slamming windows in your face?  The hidden hand theory seemed implausible because it rested on a kind of directing intelligence that was not apparent, but who could say?


A close look at our train tickets fed our paranoia.  We were scheduled to cross the border into Czechoslovakia one minute after midnight.  So what?  What do you mean, so what?  This would keep us in Poland one minute past the expiration date of our visa.  Would our papers be out of order?  Was this an accident or a trap?  We worried about this little discrepancy, but decided that there was nothing we could do about it during our remaining day in Poland:  too many lines, not enough time.


We awakened on Sunday, July 22,  to endless streams of young people in gym suits converging on the historic center of town.  Buses had parked around the periphery of the city.  Every street had its own parade.


We joined the crowds and found blocks of humanity forming into one of those orchestrated communist displays that were familiar to us from news reports of May Day in Moscow.  It was 22 Lipca --Youth on Parade Day in Krakow.  The students took their assigned positions, and the speeches began.  If we had known more about the local communist hierarchy, I suppose  we could have drawn conclusions from who was there and who was not, and who stood in the positions of honor.  We moved around the periphery.  We kept our distance.  We felt very out of place; who knew what the unwritten rules of conduct might be?  When the event was over, the crowds disbanded.  There was a kind of trade fair in the main square, with 22 Lipca spelled out in giant letters with tomatoes, against a background of cabbages.


Our strongest impression of old Krakow and was Wawel Cathedral, a massive gray gothic building, associated with the long and rich history of the Catholic church in Poland and with the Jaggiellonian dynasty that had ruled this country.  The death camp of Auschwitz was not far from Krakow.  We gave some thought to a visit there, but the idea seemed intimidating in many ways.  We had no idea how to arrange a visit, and our experience with arrangements in general had been frustrating in Poland.  The possibility of visiting Auschwitz seemed emotionally overwhelming to me, and I could not imagine what it must have been for Richard and Don to consider a visit.  In the end, we dismissed the possibility as undoable, but with a regret.

Next chapter:  Budapest

22 Lipca, Krakow, Youth on Parade

Last updated September 2, 2002.