I drive home to Vienna like someone possessed. I can see only the road, the road signs, the gas stations. I’m blind to everything else. Luckily, besides a little hang-up with the Croatian border police regarding my cabbages, everything goes off without a hitch. For the first time in the whole trip, I take the Autobahn, and delight in its monotony. I listen to the radio. When German replaces Hungarian, I turn it off again.
Within a week of returning, the trees are completely bare. It begins to rain, then snow. Across the city, the hammering of workers setting up the Christmas markets can be heard. They are hanging lights from the lindens on the Ringstraße.
For the first few days back, I try to see Vienna with the same objectivity as all the other places I’ve visited but I’m unsuccessful. I cannot forget that I know this city. I know by the heaviness of the air and the sounds of the trams and the garish colour of the trash bins and hundred other little things.
A man returning after years of absence would have known, with his eyes shut, that he was in that ancient capital and imperial city, Vienna. Cities can be recognized by their pace just as people can by their walk, writes Robert Musil in ‘The Man Without Qualities.’
Like all big cities, he continues, it consisted of irregularity, change, sliding forward, not keeping in step, collisions of things and affairs, and fathomless points of silence in between, of paved ways and wilderness, of one great rhythmic throb and the perpetual discord and dislocation of all opposing rhythms, and as a whole resembled a seething, bubbling fluid in a vessel consisting of the solid material of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.
At some point, I was as new to this city as I was to Mostar, Warsaw, Prague. I chose it for a home, but could have easily chosen someplace else. I came once as a tourist, spent a few days walking around and decided it was good enough. A few months later, I arrived by bus with a suitcase, moved into a moldy little apartment, found work, and that was that.
I remember a friend coming to visit that summer from Stockholm. Vienna just won’t let you forget that you’re in the capital of a great empire, will it? He said. Another friend disagreed. I think it’s almost provincial here, she said. Both were right. That’s the charm of Vienna. Yes, it’s inconsistent, vain, and pretentious. But never so much so that it becomes repulsive. It can laugh about itself. And as much as I curse it, I always come running back.
Knowing I will write this last article, I take walks through the city. I walk from Ottakring, where I live, to the city center. Like always, the Ringstraße with it’s jumbled historicism gleams like someone has scrubbed it with soap. I eat at a Würstelstand outside of the school where I learned my first words of German. I pass the Musikverein, where I used to buy standing-area tickets for Prokofiev and Brahms. I pass the Burgtheatre, where the intelligentsia yawn and smoke cigarettes just as they did a hundred years ago. I say hello to my favourite waiter at Cafe Sperl, who has no time to talk, but remembers that I like to read the New York Times and brings it over to my table. On a rare sunny day, I walk up to the surrounding hills and look out over the city, at Prater and the Danube, which will continue on to Bratislava, Budapest, and empty into the Black Sea. I pass my old apartment that looked over the train tracks of the Westbahnhof. As always, it is lit up red from a brothel downstairs. Crows fight over garbage along the tracks. Windows of trains are lit up in the dark, even after they have emptied themselves of passengers.
Well intentioned friends in Vienna ask me about my journey, but I am unable to come up with anything remotely clever or interesting to say about it. ‘Berührend’ (touching), I say, ‘anstrengend’ (challenging), ‘wunderschön’ (beautiful). They nod. We move on.
Life, too, moves on with frightening speed. I have to drive twice a week to the Wienerwald to collect sticks for the wood stove in my apartment, otherwise I’ll freeze. My ear, ringing since Warsaw, keeps me up at night and I begin a series of absurd self-concocted treatments. I sign contracts, fill out forms, get the flu. I take the car to a mechanic. I pay another parking fine. I make cabbage soup. Life returns to normal.
At the end of November, I call up a friend. Help, I say, the weather is so bleak. Everyone’s so miserable. Wouldn’t it be nice to be back on the road again?
I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet is a relief. It reminds me of driving through the desert.
After three hours or so, I meet up with the Neretva River, whose deep, abundant green comes as a shock. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa (much less glamorous than it sounds). I leave the car there and trace the river back by foot, past the old mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, like an an animal stretching its back. The old stone bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, destroyed in 1994, and rebuilt in 2004, connects the two halves of an increasingly polarised city. It reaches from the Bosniak ‘side’ to the Croat one. I don’t realise or recognise this while I’m there though. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when a melancholy Serb veteran describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’.
Even in late October, the bridge is full of visitors, who make their way across with tiny, tentative steps. I, too, am so concentrated on my feet that I barely register that I’m crossing the bridge at all. I prefer to look at it from a distance. The next day, I sit down on the river bank below and watch Croat teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and a group of Bosniak school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.
I am very touched by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić‘s book, ‘The Balkan Express’ (purchased by accident in Dubrovnik), especially her essay about the Mostar bridge’s destruction during the Bosnian war. Written immediately after the bridge’s collapse, it speaks of an immense collective sadness, a void, something more unimaginable than death itself. I wish I could ask her for her thoughts on its reconstruction: What it meant for the broken country then, and what it means for the divided country now. Perhaps one day I’ll have the chance.
I have three photos of Mostar in front of me. One is a postcard, a sepia-coloured photo printed on poor, cardboard-like paper. It is dated September 1953, when my father sent it to us on his first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the centre of the photo is the Old Bridge— all postcards of Mostar have that bridge on them, of course— and a part of the old city. ‘I think of you as I walk over this beautiful bridge,’ he wrote to my mother and me in Rijeka, Croatia. I can imagine him walking there on a warm autumn day. Coming to the middle, to the place where young boys used to jump into the river to prove their courage, he must have leaned over the stone railing and looked into the Neretva below, quick and silent as a snake. He must have stopped there, overwhelmed by the elegance of the stone construction. When his hands touched the bridge, he must have felt its smoothness and warmth, as if he had touched skin instead of stone. It was as if the bridge had a life of its own, a soul given to it by the people who had crossed it in its almost four hundred years of existence. It was erected in 1566 during the Turkish Empire and, the story goes, the stones were stuck together with mortar that had been mixed with the whites of eggs. Serbs and Turks, Croats and Jews, Greeks and Albanians, Austrians and Hungarians, Catholics, Orthodox, Bogumils and Muslims— all had stopped at the same spot, rested on the same stone. I was four when he wrote that postcard, and I know that he was certain that one day I would see and touch the Mostar bridge, too.
My father was wrong. I did not make it. I foolishly thought the bridge would be there forever. So I never went to Mostar, never walked from one bank of the river to the other. The bridge that saw so many wars, survived so many years, no longer exists. It collapsed in a second on November 9th. All I have to remember it by are these three photos: before, during and after. And I wonder what my father, dead for years now, would have said if he had seen this other photo, the last before the bridge was destroyed. Would he recognise it, ragged and pitiful as an old beggar, with a makeshift wooden roof, black automobile tires and sandbags piled in a futile effort to protect it from the occasional shelling that had started with the war?
When the bridge collapsed, it was Tuesday morning. A pleasant, sunny day, much like the one when my father visited Mostar. The town is only about seventy miles from the Adriatic Sea, so winter comes rather late. The bridge had been shelled since Monday afternoon. People who saw it say its collapse did not last long: at 10:30 A.M. the bridge just fell. As I look at the second picture, I try to imagine the sound of the Old Bridge falling down. A bridge like that doesn’t just disappear; its collapse must have sounded like a swift, powerful earthquake, the kind that people in Mostar have never heard before. Or maybe it sounded like an old tree splitting in two— a hollow crack surrounded by a long silence. Whatever the sound, the river swallowed it in a single morsel. A while later, it was as if the bridge had never existed.
The third photo of Mostar is one I cut out of a newspaper and carry around with me. It is in colour and, paradoxically, the most beautiful of the three that I have. The sun shines over the rooftops of the old city, painting the stone houses white. The slightly swollen river, a rich, deep green, rubs along its banks like a lazy, satiated animal. Absent from this beauty, however, is the bridge. There’s the beginning of its long stone arch, but if that portion were only ten feet shorter, there would be no trace of the structure at all. Only the sheer logic of the place, a feeling that a bridge belongs there, over the river, between two halves of a medieval town, tells us that something is missing. It’s been a little more than two weeks, and I’m still surprised when I look at this photo. When I remember what is no longer there, I feel a spasm in my stomach, a knot in my throat. I feel death lurking in its absence.
I’ve heard that the people in Mostar, even adults, cried when they saw the bridge had fallen. I believe the reports, for I have seen people who are not from Mostar cry as well. An elderly journalist. A lawyer. A singer, who wept for the first time since the war started. Not so long ago the newspapers published photos of a massacre in the Bosnian Muslim village of Stupni Dol. One picture showed a middle-aged woman with a long dark knife cut along her throat. I don’t remember anyone crying over that photo or others like it. And I ask myself: Why do I feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the woman? Perhaps it is because I see my own mortality in the collapse of the bridge, not in the death of the woman. We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us, it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us— but the bridge is all of us, forever.
The Josip-Broz-Tito Club
In a bullet-riddled building in a side alley of Mostar, I stumble upon the Josip-Broz-Tito Club. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I step inside with the pretense of searching for a coffee shop.
Four men sit in the half-dark, murmuring to one another. They are spread into the four corners of the room, one man in each. A fifth moves between them, getting up occasionally to shuffle to the back room. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.
‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.
The fifth man gestures to a seat near the window, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back with a hot cup of Nescafe. The other four study me for a moment from their corners. Then they resume their conversation as if I wasn’t there. I study the tablecloth.
Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare. They have both the frightenedness of a boy and the calm of an old man who has become accustomed to being frightened. I find it difficult to look at them.
It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.
The sky becomes dark blue and the street becomes black. The beggars along the Brace Fejica get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The Karadoz Beg Mosque sings the Koran. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. I wall back to the Park Villa, slip off my shoes, and sleep for a long, long time.
On the dashboard of my car is a cardboard icon of a saint purchased at an Orthodox monastery next to a half eaten pomegranate, parking tickets, and a modest pile of zlotys, forinths, marks, euros and kuna. In the trunk of my car are fifteen cabbages from a roadside stand, fifteen rolls of film in a plastic container, and a mountain of my laundry, washed here and there along the way. The car is covered in an inch of dust, even though I’ve washed it twice. On the dirty bumper, two Montenegran boys have scraped 200€. They tell me with kind smiles that that’s what my car would be worth in the Balkans. They ask why I don’t have a German car instead (they are much more popular here).
The car sags. I sag. Six weeks of hotel rooms, mechanics, border crossings, bazaars, restaurants, invitations, stray dogs, hand gestures, steep mountain roads, gas stations, graveyards and monuments have taken their toll. I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to feel both lucky and grateful for my trip and at the same time, exhausted and ready to go home.
A weeks before, in Poland, I found a book in the library of the house where I was staying titled ‘CENTURY’. The width of its spine was easily that of my outstretched hand. Before I had even opened it, the construction of the book itself seemed a marvel. I carried it (with both hands) to my bed and spent two nights flipping through it in amazement and horror. It was a collection of 20th century photography unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The only question I could ask by the time I got to the last page was the following: How is it possible that so much happened in one little century?
I’ve asked a similar question (perhaps less consciously formulated) in every little village and in every ancient city I’ve visited on this trip. Except in the case of the cities and villages the weight of history was not limited to the twentieth century, but rather, stretched itself to include the nineteenth, fifteenth, sometimes the eleventh, tenth. Everything that played out in the twentieth: despotism, occupation, beauty, progress, recession, revolution, optimism, misery, and resilience seems contained in every century, every stone, every hotel room, border crossing, every face and gesture. That’s what makes me sag.
But I mind this much less than I expected. I think of Milan Kundera, who writes:
‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become… the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’
The stones of the old town gleam at night as if they were wet, even though it hasn’t rained in weeks. The limestone cobblestones of the Straca, the main street of the Old Town, are the colour of milk, and slippery. The Straca is trodded upon by so many feet that the city of Dubrovnik has to come along once and awhile and ‘rough up’ the stones to prevent any serious accidents. I narrowly avoid three in the three days I’m there.
I have to be honest that Dubrovnik makes me a little sad. First I hesitated to write this, but upon reflection decided that I would, because this scholarship is not only about encouraging interest in World Heritage but also about the importance of preservation. Preservation, for me, is twofold: there’s the preservation of the site itself, but also the preservation of a quality of life for local people. That means cultural infrastructure, affordability, community. If the people visiting World Heritage sites make it impossible for the people living close to and maintaining those sites to remain in their cities, it seems like a case of very misplaced priorities.
In 2016, UNESCO threatened to take away Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status if the visitor numbers weren’t somehow capped, as it’s medieval Old Town was at risk of damage and wear. Measures were taken, numbers were somewhat reduced, but critical problems remain. And, at least in my opinion, these tensions hang in the air.
I’d be a hypocrite to point my finger at people visiting Dubrovnik when I too visited. I could have done my research, but I didn’t. I arrived completely oblivious about the reality of over-tourism here. I take it as a good reminder for myself to have a bit more awareness of where and how I travel and move past a ‘the world is my oyster’ mentality (For four euros an oyster, one might consider a burek instead anyway).
It goes without saying that tourism is an important part of Dubrovnik’s economy and recovery after the pandemic and that the solution is definitely not to stop visiting Dubrovnik altogether. I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that there’s something obscene about the opening of Dubrovnik’s ‘Very First All Christmas Store’ when locals complain about having no places to meet. And there’s something that feels absurd about a tourist in a Winter Is Coming shirt staying in a vacation rental close to the imaginary ‘King’s Landing’ in a real neighborhood where locals have been priced out. According to Responsible Travel, who also have some interesting tips for how to respectfully visit Dubrovnik, 5000 people lived in the Old Town in 1991, compared to around 1500 today.
I’m not immune to Dubrovnik’s charms. The sea smells wonderful. The medieval city center is remarkable. At the pier, well fed cats sit at the feet of old fisherwomen catching mackerel. I could sit there for days. The few locals that you actually meet are kind. But these things strengthen my resolve to say the above, not the opposite.
Anyone who wishes to know what I got up to in Budapest, need only follow the trail of my parking fines. They lead from Józsefváros in Pest, to Bikás park, to the scenic cliffs in Buda that look over the city, the slow ships on the river Danube, and the dark plains beyond.
Parking fines come in what resembles a dog waste-bag, tucked affectionately under the windshield wiper. Once you get one, you begin to see them everywhere. When you see a car with a pile of six or seven, you can’t help but wince in solidarity.
Why did I end up with so many parking fines, you might ask? Why not just pay for a ticket like everyone else? I need only show you Budapest’s parking machines with instructions solely in Hungarian, looking like relics from the Communist times and you will understand my desperation. In the five minutes it takes to find, examine and stand gaping at the machine, a green bag will have already landed on the windshield.
Kertész and Van der Meer
I visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center hoping to see Capa’s famous picture of the dying Spanish Loyalist, a photograph which has haunted me since I first saw it in a textbook as a child. Unfortunately, the Capa exhibit is under renovation, but there’s an exhibition of André Kertész’ photographs of rural Hungary on, and it’s wonderful. Also very moving are Hans van der Meer’s photographs of Budapest in the 1980s.
The Buda Castle
Like K in Kafka’s Castle, I have a hell of a time entering. From Gellert Park, I step into a shiny elevator on the west side. Up on the first landing, the door opens on a disorienting scene: People in suits scurry around, vacuuming, sweeping, and hauling large crates of the brightest, largest oranges I’ve ever seen. They barely notice when they crash into each other or into me. The sun sinking in the sky and lighting up the stones only seems to make them run faster.
When I slip away and try to take the stairs up to the next landing, I meet a stout security guard with his legs spread out on the steps. He tells me something angrily in Hungarian and motions with his nose back down to the first landing. When I try to take a kind of ramp, a police woman appears imposingly at the top, shaking her head solemnly. An orange rolls down the ramp and past my feet.
My third and last attempt to get into the Buda Castle is a small elevator, tucked around the corner, which takes me up to the next landing with a jolt. When I exit, I am alone in a stone courtyard, empty except for six or seven huge French flags flapping in the wind. I jog my memory but cannot remember the Budapest ever being occupied by the French. The Ottomans, yes. The Habsburgs, yes. The Soviets, yes. But the French?
Eventually I hear footsteps, and a film crew passes by wheeling a massive crane. Someone appears in the upper windows and slowly begins lowering the French flags, which drop into a pile on the stones.
Inside the Buda Castle is the Hungarian National Gallery. It’s there that I see ‘The Visitation’ in an exhibition about medieval Hungarian altarpieces. Painted in 1506, ‘The Visitation’ shows the figures of Mary and St. Elizabeth surrounded by irises, strawberries, and peonies. The sky behind them is red, as if someone had pulled a curtain over the sun. The picture is beautiful and disorienting, containing both (what I, with albeit little art history knowledge) think of as Japanese and Art Nouveau elements (look at the Iris!). I stand and look at this picture for at least ten minutes before I read that it that it was taken from the Church of St. Catherine in Banská Štiavnica, where we rattled on the doors but couldn’t enter.
The other painting that leaves a comparably deep impression on me is Sandor Trauner’s ‘Picture 1’ from 1929. It’s empty darkness is as comfortable, full and disturbing as a László Krasznahorkaibook or a Béla Tarr film. I carry both paintings with me in my mind as I exit the beautiful Buda Castle.
A few streets in Józsefváros, where I’m staying, are being torn up and redone. When Friday evening comes, the street becomes still, and tools and materials are left here and there, waiting for Monday. When Monday comes, the workers return, and with them, the noise. After sitting for ten minutes in Józsefváros, a thin layer of dust has accumulated on my head and I look and feel as useless as a jack hammer on a Sunday afternoon.
From the window, I watch construction workers who gaze at iridescent green beetles on the sidewalk. I watch the shadows of yellow honey-locust trees on the walls. I watch the ticketing officer on his rounds. He slips green bags under the cars with a mournful expression (he doesn’t look nearly as mean as I imagined). I watch old women with shopping bags swinging, propelling them forward, youths who trip over their legs, and middle-aged men who drag their feet as if they weighed a million tons. I watch fights between lovers and neighbours passing objects through windows. At night the street-lamps grow so dim that it’s hard to see anything at all.
October sun streams into Budapest Keleti, the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. I stand amongst a mass of people under the arrivals board. We fidget in anticipation of whoever is coming or perhaps our own going. The station is quiet, and somehow provincial: people run over the tracks and slip between standing trains. The train from Munich finally arrives and A gets off, pale as a ghost. He has the flu. We decide to spend two extra days in Józsefváros, to let him rest. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to worry about parking fines.
On Monday we decide to take off. Only, the car won’t start. The battery is dead. after receiving detailed instructions from a mechanic friend on the phone, I get into the drivers seat and A pushes the car (this can’t be very good for someone with the flu) down the street. A few bystanders join him in pushing. Second gear! Second gear! They all shout at me. I am screaming. I shift into second, the car starts with a cough, and we glide out of Budapest and head south.
I arrive in Kráľová sooner than expected. I had hoped to stop a few times in the Tatras (the mountain range separating Poland from Slovakia), but everything is covered in fog, and getting out of the car means standing in a cold drizzle. It’s impossible to know if the sheep that emerge from this fog are white or grey or black, so caked are they in mud. They enter the fog again quickly, as if they had been forced out against their will.
I meet a friend of mine from Vienna at the station in Zvolen, and together we drive up the mountain, park the car, and walk up a steep, muddy road to a little cabin we’ve rented. We spend a weekend there sitting by the fire, walking in the surrounding hills, and collecting rose hips for rose hip soup. I catch up on washing and sleep. I read too many articles about Putin and the war and try to wash them from my mind with some of Milan Šimečka’s beautiful recollections of home and everyday life in “Letters from Prison.”
In Král’ová, the animal population far outnumbers the human one. Among its animal citizens: cows with big, wet eyes, sheep that sniff at the car, cats that scratch on the windows at night, and horses that growl like dogs and pace the fences. Among it’s human citizens: a few old shepards, a small family, and our next door neighbours, who are friendly but preoccupied. They tend to their cows and shake apple trees full of dark, shiny apples. A black dog with a red cast hops after each falling apple and tries to catch it in his mouth.
On Saturday we make our way slowly down the mountain, which has been cut up by the rain and is covered with flattened , speckled frogs. We drive towards Banská Štiavnica, an ancient mining town built in a crater of an ancient volcano. We visit the well-preserved old new castles (built in the 13th and 16th centuries) and walk through the steep, crowded cemeteries on its ridge, which are covered in flowers unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen (John Berger writes about Slovakia’s special relationship to the dead as captured by Markéta Luskačova in his essay ‘Christ of the Peasants’). Down in the valley we find a little white windowless restaurant where we eat halušky and cabbage soup and flip through Slovak tabloid magazines.
After our late lunch, we decide to visit the Kalvária, a little red shrine on a hill that we spotted from the New Castle. The way up is a Via Crusis: a series of stations telling the story of the crucifixion. In this case, the stations are little cheerful yellow huts with wooden reliefs inside, only most of them have been moved to the museum and replaced with cardboard cut-outs due to vandalism after the nationalisation of the Kalvária in 1950. Standing in front of a damp, two dimensional cut-out of Jesus carrying his cross, I cannot help thinking of the flattened frogs on the mountain road and I’m filled with pity for human and animal suffering alike.
The Kalvária is clearly cared for by the community: its walls have been freshly painted, there are apparently masses held there from time to time, and visitors, even on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The white steps up to the shrine have been washed by the rain and look brand new. My friend and I stand on them for awhile and look down at the darkening city, where lights are coming on one by one and where chimneys billow wood smoke, which blows to the west.
Built in the 18th century, the Kalvária is young by Banská Štiavnica‘s standards. The hill, however, is old, and I’m sure that long before anything existed on it, people have climbed it to gaze upon the same surrounding hills and imagine a fortune in silver. I think of a poem by Walter de la Mare:
Slowly, silently, now the moon Walks the night in her silver shoon; This way, and that, she peers, and sees Silver fruit upon silver trees…
On our way home through the hills, we drive by an abandoned black mineshaft and some empty mining settlements, and decide to park the car and take a look at them. We realise quickly that they aren’t empty at all— that Roma families live in them. There are children playing around the mine shaft and rolling down the road on bicycles. When they see us, they run behind the columns of the house. One of the youngest boys, tiny and wearing a red sweater, steps forward and calls out to us first in Slovakian, then, when he realises that we’re foreigners, Romani. Whatever he says make the others giggle. The columns seem to shake with laughter. The whole building is at a tilt, and seems to sink into the mud before our eyes. The windows are mostly dark, and it seems as though a pair of eyes peers out from every one.
Kazimierz is a district in the south of Krakow, pressed between a bend of the river Vistula. Poles and Jews have lived peacefully together in Kazimierz for centuries, until the war, when the Jews were sent across the river to the ghetto.
Standing at the Vistula and gazing across at the other riverbank, my mind drifts for some reason to a moment in Andrei Platonov‘s novel ‘The Foundation Pit’. It’s the early days of the Soviet Union, construction for a giant proletarian house is underway, and the Kulaks, wealthy land-owning peasants and, are being rounded up and put on a river raft:
“Fa-are we-ell, parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Far-are we-ell!” responded the kulaks sailing off to the sea.
It’s a different tragedy and a different (in Platonov’s case symbolic, imaginary) river, but the same disastrous twentieth century.
On a positive note, there are signs of real Jewish cultural life returning to Kazimierz. Real cultural life, with all its prerequisites of tolerance, safety, past, and future. Yes, Kazimierz is tin menorahs, Zydki figures, and cheap trinkets sold on the curb. But Kazimierz is also a publishing house (publishing Jewish literature in Polish), a bookstore, live music, a kosher Israeli restaurant, a community center and places of prayer.
My hotel is in the attic of an old Mikvah, a ritual bathhouse and I sleep there like a stone. The breakfast room doubles as a place for the publishing house to hold meetings and for klezmer musicians to tune their instruments before they play for the dinner guests. Obscure Jewish celebrities beam down at me from picture frames. The table is already set: herring and onions, plums, cake, boiled eggs, mackerel, cream cheese, jam, toast, and coffee.
As I take my place and begin my ritual of making sandwiches to slip in my coat pockets (I really have no appetite in the morning), a Orthodox man comes in, teetering under the weight of multiple black suitcases and a hat box. He sits down at an empty table across from me, calls the waitress over, and asks her anything is kosher. She shakes her head. He lets out a small sigh, checks his watch, and orders an espresso, two glasses of slivovitz and a bowl of plums, which he drinks and eats with slow luxuriousness.
St. Mary’s Basilica
Across from the main market square in the Old Town is St. Mary’s Basilica (completed in 1347). Entering it, you feel as though you’ve stepped inside some bodily organ, so rich and red are the walls. Gilded ribbons run up the walls like little veins to a vaulted ceiling, the blue of Polish pottery, and covered with stars.
Every hour, the Hejnał Mariacki is played by a trumpeter up in one of St. Mary’s two towers. It’s a sad, plain kind of bugle call that warbles over the market square and then suddenly dies out— a nod to a 13th century trumpeter shot in the throat mid-song.
Inside St. Mary’s it’s warm and quiet. People talk in hushed, solemn voices. When they pray, they only move their lips. Every once and awhile, when the door swings open to let someone in or out, it’s possible to hear music from the market square and the hoofbeats of horses. It smells of damp wood, recent rain, and ammonia from the horses lined up nearby. Some of their drivers have fallen asleep on their carriages.
The man with the plums and the slivovitz gets stuck in rush hour traffic, misses his flight to New York and decides to stay in Kazimierz for another night.
Over slivovitz and coffee, he tells me about his life. He tells me about his grandparents from a tiny village in Hungary who made their own slivovitz; who came to New York without a word of English and without having ever seen a banana (and bit into them, peel and all). He tells me about living next to ‘the Projects’: how he used to fear the people there —who supposedly flip kippahs off— but doesn’t anymore. Nobody from the Projects have ever flipped his kippah off, he says, and what’s more, they are all actually nice. They all take care of one another now, he says: if some criminal is on the loose, Orthodox families will fling open the windows and shout “Get him!” in Yiddish. And a group of neighbours will gather and trail whoever is causing trouble until the police finally arrive.
We go on talking from afternoon until evening, when the restaurant suddenly fills up for dinner. The old waiter lights a candle on our table and gives a polite little cough to remind us that we are taking one of his spots. My friend takes the hint and asks if I’m hungry. I say, well, a little. He smiles, picks up the menu and proceeds to order around half of it: potato latkes, thin red borscht, matzah ball soup, helzel, cholent, chicken livers, cabbage rolls, charoset — and more slivovitz.
Shall I bring over two plates, so it’s easier to share, sir? The waiter asks.
I assume it’s not kosher?
No, says the waiter.
Then no thanks, it’s all for the lady.
The waiter’s eyes widen. My eyes widen. I protest, but my friend says he’s feeling generous, he enjoys the company, and besides, if he can’t eat anything while he’s here, he’d at least like to see the food of the old country— the food his grandparents ate in their little Hungarian village.
I soon learn that my friend is himself the owner of a restaurant and fanatical about food to a degree that I’ve only read about (perhaps in M.F.K Fisher stories.) The restrictions of his religion only serve strengthen this fanaticism by adding an element of mystery to things. His descriptions of fois gras and oysters, things he’s never tried and probably never will, are so beautiful, that they make my very real experiences of fois gras and oysters, seem pale and unreal, as if I ate them in a fog. Or as if I were one of Plato’s cave-dwellers, eating only shadows.
Every time a new dish arrives, he cuts into it with a fork and knife, listens to the sound it makes (a crunch or a squelch or a hiss), breathes in its aroma, and nods his approval. He seems impressed by the quality and authenticity of the dishes. The only thing that causes him to shake his head is the garnish on each plate:
Do you have any idea how much this would cost at a kosher supermarket? He asks me.
No, of course not, I say.
Well, according to the FDA, the average head of lettuce touches sixty insects. One insect, one sin, so you do the math! And well, can you imagine how painstaking it is for a poor Rabbi to go through and check a little lettuce for insects? A garnish is just a waste if you ask me. And look, you’re not even eating it!
His phone rings, and he gets up from the table to take a business call in Yiddish. I take this opportunity to ask the waiter for take away boxes, since there’s no chance of fitting everything in my coat pockets. When he returns I thank him for the meal. He thanks me for listening. It is a profoundly strange and beautiful evening.
On Wednesday afternoon, I walk to the southernmost part of Kazimierz, where the Skalka Monastery sits on the banks of the Vistula. I want to visit the tomb of Czesław Miłosz, one of my favourite poets (this is my favourite poem of his about Krakow).
The courtyard of the monastery is empty, save for a woman napping on a bench, and a group of schoolchildren with chins in their hands. A bored looking ticket attendant collects my three zlotys and gives me a postcard that reads ‘Hello from the Skalka Monastery!’ I don’t need to go looking for Miłosz’ tomb: it’s the first one to the left.
I stand next to it for a few minutes trying to think about something meaningful, but as usual when I’m near the dead, my mind can’t seem to span the massive distance between us and prefers to think about my parking ticket, which is set to expire in an hour.
Somewhere above my head, I hear a drum set, and the squeak of saxophones. Thankful for the interruption, I walk upstairs (past the attendant and the children) to the church, where a dress rehearsal for a Catholic-rock musical is taking place. A priest in a long white robe plays the saxophone, while another, dressed up like a thug, raps in Polish. Between stanzas a choir sings with gusto.
I take a seat in a back pew and watch for awhile. The rest of the pews areempty. It’s only me, the sound technician, the director, and a drunk woman who is dancing in the aisle. Outside it begins to rain again, first just a little, then a lot.
The Temple Synagogue
Outside the temple synagogue in Kazimierz, three Orthodox men crowd around a smartphone. A fourth man paces nearby, reading a holy book, and mouthing the words to himself. All four have plastic caps stretched over their hats to protect them from the rain, which has let up for a few minutes but will surely start again.
A taxi pulls up, and they file in, ducking their heads carefully to avoid hitting their hats on the rim of the car. The fourth trails after them. He doesn’t take his eyes off his book. They drive away, bouncing over the cobblestones.
My second hotel room in Krakow faces the Plac Nowy, a market square in Kazimierz. Unable to sleep for some reason, I lie awake the whole night, listening to the sounds of the square, which swells and empties according to its own natural laws.
Around two, students leave the bar underneath the hotel and fill the square. They laugh and shout in young, happy voices. At three it becomes quiet— quieter than the Polish countryside. At four, some drunkards arrive, argue, make up, and sing. Then, around five, silence again, broken up only occasionally by the screech of a bird.
At six, I move over to the window and watch the sky begin to lighten, and the construction workers drink coffee at the little kiosk. At seven, they are replaced by old men with woolen caps and long faces, who sit on benches and watch the street vendors laying out their wares (menorahs, books, communist pins, old coins).
It must have rained sometime in the night because the pavement is wet and the rooftops shimmer.
After being almost entirely and intentionally destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Old Town of Warsaw has been reconstructed. To an untrained eye like mine, it cannot be distinguished from the well-maintained old town of say, Prague, which managed to come out of the war comparatively unscathed.
The people of Warsaw are proud of their Old Town: every time they catch me wandering into an outer district they seem confused and point me back in the direction of it. Stare Miasto! Stare Miasto!
This pride is more than understandable. The history of their city (and their country) is a never-ending story of occupation and destruction. So rebuilding an entire part of the city that has disappeared and claiming back the right to one’s own past is a form of resistance and admirable stubbornness. It’s the very same stubbornness that I’ve seen in the faces along the country roads that lead to Warsaw.
In the old town, next to a small side street where a black carriage horse is sleeping, a hat seller waves me over. He smiles and reveals one long, yellow tooth. He tries to sell me a fur hat. They are beautiful, but I already have one at home in Canada, I tell him. He doesn’t understand English, so he takes my hand and leads me over to his neighbour, a young woman selling magnets. She translates for us. Canadians are some of my best customers,he says. Much better than the Spanish.
The Spanish generally don’t have a great need for fur hats, no? He considers this for a moment, shrugs, and pulls out his identification card. He points to his birth year: 1935. Then he pulls a calculator out of his pocket and punches in his age: 87. Wow, I say. He passes me the calculator and I punch in my age. Wow, he says. Then he takes his age, and minuses my age from it. We both marvel at the number. We stand, grinning at each other and not saying a word. Then we shake hands and part ways.
Muranów was once home to the Jewish ghetto. 460,000 people lived there. 390,000 of them were murdered. 460,000 minus 390,000 leaves 70,000. Nowadays in Muranów there are some Soviet-era apartment blocks, unassuming parks, and small restaurants. I takes me a good half an hour to find the synagogue (the only remaining pre-war synagogue in Warsaw) but I finally find it tucked in between a parking lot and some new glass buildings. Nobody is around, and the synagogue is locked. The only person that I’m able to find is the old owner of the kosher grocery store. He wakes up when the door jingles open and greets me in Hebrew, Polish, and English. He reminds me that it’s Rosh Hashanah. Then he nods off again. His eyes are tiny and distant behind a pair of the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen.
“We reached Krochmalna Street and the stench I recalled from my childhood struck me first— a blend of burned oil, rotten fruit, and chimney smoke. Everything was the same— the cobblestone pavement, the steep gutter, the balconies hung with wash. We passed a factory with wire-latticed windows and a blind wall with a wooden gate I never saw open in all my youth. Every house here was bound up with memories. No. 5 contained a yeshiva in which I had studied for a term. There was a ritual bath in the courtyard, where matrons came in the evening to immerse themselves. I used to see them emerge clean and flushed. Someone told me that this building had been home of Rabbi Itche Meir Alter. In my time the yeshiva had been a part of the Grodzisk house of prayer. It’s beadle was a drunk. When he had a drop too much, he told tales of saints, dybbuks, half-mad squires and sorcerers. He ate one meal a day and always (except on the Sabbath) stale bread crumbled into borscht…”
(An excerpt from ‘Shosha’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Singer.)
Krochmalna Street has not been rebuilt. How could it? In order for something to be rebuilt its inhabitants need to say: we survived, we remained, we want to fill this place again. But in this case, the people are gone and so is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Krochmalna Street. At one end of the street there’s a tiny, dirty patch of grass (apparently a park) named after the author. At the other end, the only remaining old building stands with boarded-up windows. Between these two ends, modern buildings have popped up beside ones from the fifties and sixties which are starting to turn grey. I find this street unbearably sad and move along.
In the marketplace next to Hala Mirowska, vendors sell plums, raspberries, massive bunches of dill, mushrooms fresh from the forests, dried, fragrant fish and pastries. It’s so crowded that it takes an hour for me to move from one end to the other. Despite this, it’s quiet. Everyone seems to speak softly. (Or perhaps I’m only remembering it like that.) The sun shines in its mild autumn way, and everyone seems to be in a good mood. The vendors are nimble, curt. They do not need to shout or advertise their goods. They have built up reputations for themselves which long line-ups at each stand attest to. Plums which are mouldy or otherwise unacceptable roll about on the ground and are stepped on, releasing a wonderful smell.
An old man steps out of this jostling, whispering mass of people and comes towards me. He is wearing an old black leather jacket and a black beret. His eyes are sharp and full of good humour. He stops before me, bows deeply, says, Welcome to Warsaw, and then continues on his way. It feels as though the city itself has sent me it’s greetings.
I somehow manage (don’t ask me how) to get some address mixed up and accidentally end up in a cellar where a metal band from Mumbai are playing. The band and the crowd are so likeable that I end up staying for awhile. I’m not at all dressed for the occasion (a beret, hiking shoes, and red lipstick) but everyone is forgiving. Warsaw, you’re incredible, they say between songs. You all have so much energy. We’ve never seen anything like this!
It turns out that they are only the opening act, and that a band from Budapest are the real stars of the evening. They open the evening with a song called “Holocaust.” Let us make sure that it never happens again! They say before they begin. To my untrained (and very sensitive) ears, it sounds like one long, sustained scream, and I have to be honest, it’s one the most articulate things I’ve ever heard on the subject.
I take the tram back to the Soviet-era walk-up that I’m renting in the suburbs. I brush my teeth in the tiny kitchen. My neck is stiff, my face is irritated (by being whipped by some long hair), and my ears are ringing, but I’m happy.
Przy Bażantarni Park
On Sunday, the same day as Rosh Hashanah, Warsaw celebrates the Patron Saint of Warsaw, Saint Wladyslaw from Gielniowo. On top of that, the Warsaw Marathon is happening, and many major streets are closed. Despite this, I somehow manage to get to the Przy Bażantarni Park in the Natolin district, where there is a kind of fair. The air there is filled with the smell of sausages, candy, fried potatoes and Polish music. There is a makeshift dance floor, and it is full with the very old (who know all the words and mouth along) and the very young (who know neither the steps nor the words). As the afternoon goes on, they are joined by mothers, fathers, and even a group of teenaged girls, who giggle nervously.
As with many parts of Warsaw, Natolin is full of hurriedly (and notoriously badly) built grey apartment blocks that loom around and press in on the park, but as with the other districts, they seem to shrink next to the people of Warsaw, who are warm, stylish, and unpretentious. (I like them very much.)
A trumpeter from one of the bands that are playing sees me standing off to the side, tapping my foot along to the music. He asks me if I’d like to dance. I say yes, and we go spinning around the stage to the music of the Warsaw-Lublin Brass Band. He patiently teaches me some of the traditional dances (which are making a comeback among young Polish people) including the so-called “small waltz.” It’s not like the Viennese Waltz, he says. You have to move your feet very quickly and very little. Imagine you’re dancing in a little box.
A waltz perfect for the tiny kitchens of those grey apartments, I think to myself.
If you ask for “a small breakfast” at the hotel in Wziąchowo Wielkie you will find the following waiting downstairs for you on the table:
Fried eggs with fresh dill, sausages, ten slices of bread, a roll, ten cubes of butter, one bowl of strawberry jam, one bowl of cottage cheese, one bowl of mustard, one plate of vegetables, an assortment of cold meats and cheeses, one glass of juice, one jug of milk, one thermos of coffee and one thermos of black tea.
A cat stares from the door of the dining room. Every time you look back, a new one has taken its place. At intervals of five minutes, the Ukrainian cook, dressed in black, comes out of the kitchen wringing her white hands and smiling expectantly. You thank her every time and turn back to the task at hand: making the food disappear as not to hurt her feelings. If only the cats could come a little nearer so that you could slip them a sausage! But they are well trained, it seems. So you resort to slipping things in your coat pocket.
The owner enters. He is sixty or so, tall, handsome, carries himself like a Polish aristocrat. He tells you the history of the place: how it was a manor of some nobility, a spa, a school during the communist times, a ruin, and now his hotel. Have you enjoyed your stay? He asks (in perfect high German). Oh, you live in Bavaria? He has a friend, an old guest of his, some Von-Somebody who also lives in Bavaria and happens to be turning 100 this week. He really ought to visit one of these days…
After you’ve drunk your coffee and eaten what you can, you can take a stroll (only strolling, not walking, is appropriate here) around the large pond. Only, every time you come to a bridge you find that it has collapsed. The grass is long, the elegant white benches are rotting, and tiny green frogs hop out of the gazebo when you come near. Nonetheless, it is charming here— straight out of a Chekhov story. The sun shines mildly. The huge linden trees shake their leaves. A cat jumps up on your lap. In the nearby pine woods, people are walking along sandy roads in search of mushrooms. It is a perfect day. The news of Putin calling up hundreds of thousands of more soldiers seems as if it were happening in some other, far away world. But near the back door, the cook and her teenage son have their heads together and are whispering, and it’s clear that it’s happening here, in this one.
I cross the Elbe on a little wooden bridge so narrow that before I drive across I get out to take a look if the car will fit. For all it’s historical significance, here it resembles a common little creek, brown and a little swollen from all the rain.
I swear something feels different on the other side of the Elbe. Grey geese pick through the mud next to abandoned factories. Many of the houses are made from dark, horizontal wooden beams with white chinking. Roofs seem larger and droop farther towards the ground. Rather than oak and apple trees, rowans line the narrow streets, and in the dusk they look like so many red matches.
I stay overnight at the Hotel Alpský in a bare yellow room. The television is broken, perhaps for the best. I go to bed early. Cold air from the Carpathians blows in and I sleep well for the first time on the journey.
When I wake up, I notice for the first time that there’s a picture hanging over my head. At first I think it’s a scene from the American West: a well, a dusty shack, a desert with a few bare telephone poles. When I look closer, however, I realise it’s a picture of the source of the Elbe. When I look it up on a map, I discover it’s only a few kilometres away, and that there’s a road leading there directly from the Alpský which continues on to the Polish border. Perfect.
Only, ten minutes in I almost run over some Czech tourists and realise that I’m driving on a hiking trail. So I turn around and take the regular old pass to Poland and skip the source of the Elbe. Some things are better when they keep a little of their mystery about them.
In St. George’s Basilica in Prague there exists a statue of death unlike any I’ve ever seen: a small, green figure, with a hood of many sumptuous folds, standing alone in the crypt, set off to the side like something in storage. His intestines peek out under emaciated ribs, his eyes are hollow as cups, and a snake-like root or root-like snake comes out of the floor and winds it way up to his knee.
As I gaze at him, it seems to me as if this entire basilica (Prague’s oldest) has only been built to house this strange, anonymous statue of death, though I know from the brochure that it holds the remains of an important saint and other objects of higher value.
“If,” writes Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert, “in the white basilica of St George fire broke out, God forbid, its walls after the flames would be rose coloured… the fiery heat would make the limestone blush.” When I read these lines later in a small bookstore in Malá Strana, I picture (yes, God forbid!) fire burning down everything except this little green statue, which appears indestructible and brand new next to the peeling wall paintings and delicate reliefs.
I leave. Outside the castle and tucked into a corner near the British Embassy, a hundred bouquets of flowers are strewn in the street for Queen Elizabeth. I’d like to get closer and pay my respects but a television reporter is nearby, wobbling over the cobblestones in high heels and waiting to interview anyone who comes too close. She grins at me. Her mouth is full of menacing, brilliant white teeth.
P.S. For those confused, I decided after my failed attempt to sightsee on the first evening, that I would go for a walk in the morning before I left.