Thursday, August 31, 2006


I thought that European history and geography were among my fortes. The other day I was surprised to stumble on something I'd somehow never heard of: the Baltic duchy of Courland.

Located somewhere in or around Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Russia, the duchy of Courland was apparently quite powerful in some earlier century.

Courland was a player in the heyday of Baltic shipping and trade. They even got in on the imperial game, and had at least two far flung colonies: some island off Africa, and the better known Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean.

My question to the world is: have any of you heard of Courland?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Poland - part 2

The morning brought a new day for me and Poland. The rain had stopped, rays of sun nudged me awake, and a blue sky greeted me from the window. Lisa was semi-comatose but told me to feel free to take a walk while she slept. I decided to do just that.

An entire day had been lost flying, but now I had that pleasure of suddenly finding myself on another continent. What I saw on the streets was recognizably Europe, and the sights and sounds brought me directly back to my European backpacking days. The feeling of being on a Polish street is not significantly different from being on a French or German street. There is the same strange combination of drab and colorful surroundings that is to me very distinct from America. Narrow streets with tiny cars which interestingly parked on the sidewalks.

This particular neighborhood, Kazimierz, includes the old Jewish quarter. After Steven Spielberg filmed “Schindler’s List” here in the early ‘90’s, this formerly neglected area turned into a vibrant bohemian enclave, with cafes, galleries, and restaurants of every kind popping up everywhere. The result is very NYC East Village, as the area is still somewhat run down and the influx of tourists and artists is relatively new. There are some stately old buildings, including our hotel (the Regent) and a massive cathedral in a tree-lined courtyard; there was also a large open-air marketplace where vendors were busily selling used clothing, jewelry, vegetables, framed pictures of various popes, and laundry detergent.

Back at the hotel Lisa got up just in time for us to catch the complimentary breakfast, a standard continental affair with a choice of juices, yogurts, rolls, cheese and jam. It was also apparent the Poles like their coffee strong, which suited me just fine.

To make our lives easier we booked a second night at the hotel, and then set out to discover Cracow. Just north of Kazimierz, overlooking the Vistula River, is a hill supporting the most famous castle in Poland: Wawel. It is actually an entire medieval complex including the cathedral where the kings and bishops of early Poland are entombed. As the former seat of government, Wawel is considered the spiritual heart of the Polish state. There is an old myth that a dragon resided in a lair beneath the castle; then there is a newer myth that Wawel is home to one the earth’s seven chakras, a center of energy. Sure enough, we saw people meditating in the northwestern corner of the royal courtyard.

There were lots of tourists wandering around Wawel. A Unesco World Heritage site, it has been impeccably preserved. The interior of the castle houses a network of museums and restaurants, while the well-landscaped grounds lend it a park-like atmosphere, with costumed musicians playing medieval accordion music. If I had to compare the general feeling of the place to anything, it would definitely be the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, even though the climate couldn’t be more different.

Wawel was nice but the best part of Cracow was yet to come. The road from the castle led to a triangular place with a display about the Solidarity movement, and after looking at that, we continued along a street called Grodzka, which was bustling with activity. We had just entered Old Town and were surrounded on all sides by perfectly preserved historic architecture in uplifting shades of peach and yellow ochre. I had always imagined Cracow to be a dark city, but I was wrong. What I soon realized was that Cracow, as a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, belonged to the Viennese school of stately, candied architecture and coffee house culture.

On a more Polish note we passed a shop called “Greenpoint,” but unlike my former grimy Brooklyn neighborhood, this was a high-end fashion boutique. I wondered if there was a branch in Greenpoint, or if the one here was a branch of a New York clothier. Either way it seemed like another expression of my Polish destiny.

Grodzka deposited us in the star attraction of Cracow: the Rynek Glowny, or town square -- the largest such square in Europe. I’d read about it, but being there exceeded my expectations. There were not only architectural marvels but people everywhere – walking, standing, sitting in cafes drinking tall glasses of piwo (beer). It was a living, breathing town square, a welcoming place, and the true heart of present day Cracow.

At the center of the square was long structure called the Cloth Hall. We entered the south end and found ourselves in a long, open-air hall lined with vendors on either side. The vendors were selling mainly souvenirs and jewelry, and there was a considerable buzz to the place. The majority of the jewelry was amber, a natural abundance of which is found along the Baltic coast. The hall was a pleasant diversion and I was briefly reminded of the longer and narrower market place we visited in Kyoto.

All around the square and the Cloth Hall were large outdoor cafes where the serious business of eating, drinking, and people watching occurred. We planted ourselves in one next to the Cloth Hall, and in retrospect this was one of the best. In accord with Lisa’s desire for classic Polish food, we ordered plates of pierogi kapusta and pierogi russki, fresh and sprinkled with dill. We washed them down with a dark Okocim, one of the better Polish beers. A lot of calories perhaps, but delicious and vegetarian.

We noticed that most of the younger Poles in the city spoke English, and that there was a considerable amount of bilingual signage, making it a little easier to get by with our feeble grasp of Polish.

After the meal we explored many back streets, the Barbican and Florian gates, and the Planty – the park surrounding the periphery of Old Town like a moat. I’d wanted to see the art museum on the upper floor of the Cloth Hall, but it was closed. By way of compensation, we found a large gallery featuring the paintings of Olga Boznanska (1865-1940). Her work was somewhere between completely boring and perfectly subtle, the best pieces conjuring up sleepy childhood afternoons in Sea Cliff spent staring at slabs of jade, African violets and dust particles suspended in rays of sunlight.

After that we felt a little sleepy ourselves and went back to the hotel for a nap. When I realized I hadn’t had my afternoon coffee, we got up and went to the café down the street that was full of burlap sacks and photos of someone plucking beans at a tropical coffee plantation. While sitting in the café, loud music wafted in from without; upon investigation we discovered a band giving a free concert from the top of a building at the open-air marketplace. We joined the crowd on the street to listen to a set of Polish punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.

Then we wandered around in search of a possible dinner. My instincts drew me to the far eastern edge of the Kazimierz district, where a number of ethnic restaurants surrounded a tree-lined, cobblestone square. We ended up at an Indian restaurant that claimed to have the only Tandoori oven in Cracow. Lisa said it was strange to go to a foreign country and then have foreign food (as opposed to native dishes), and in a sense she was right. But I knew I needed Indian food for balance, and even though the waiters were Polish and the Tandoori wasn’t working, the curried peas were still good, and the gentle flow of wind and people passing by our candle-lit outdoor table provided the perfect atmosphere for my sleepy, jet-lagged brain.

French, German, and English

The French laguage: more c's than k's

The German language: more k's than c's

The English language: c's and k's in equal proportion

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Poland - part 1

The day before our flight it was all over the news that a terrorist plot to blow up US-bound planes flying from the UK had just been foiled by British intelligence. Not the kind of thing you want to hear, but it's good to know that 007 is doing his job. Then there's the argument that, with all the increased security measures, these are the safest times to fly. This may be true, but we did have to make some packing adjustments after the "no liquids, creams, or gels" pronouncement.

The next day we took the "Monterey Airbus" to the San Francisco airport, which is as modern and architecturally impressive as they get. There was some terrible traffic going to the airport (supposedly due to some sporting event), but once there, almost zero traffic -- the opposite of the LAX or LaGuardia experience. The international terminal was surprisingly empty, and for all the news reports about crowds and delays, our wait in the Lufthansa line wasn't more than twenty minutes.

The flight to Munich, which spans nine time zones, was rougher than the return a week later. The route consisted of an extreme northern arc over Canada, Greenland, and Scotland. The flight path, as well as the flight time (10-12 hours), resembled the one to Japan, but the flight itself wasn't as comfortable. While the service and amenities were good, there were many small ways that Japan Airlines surpassed their German counterpart. The latter's rough edges included the loud slapping of landing gear, weird turbulence around the arctic circle unlike any I've experienced, and the monitor indicating that it was some minus sixty degrees outside the plane. The general sense was that flying from San Francisco to Munich is a very unnatural act.

In Munich we had three hours to pass before the more local flight to Cracow. The Munich airport was a little like the San Francisco airport -- clean and modern and nearly empty. There was an abundance of shops and restaurants, some very high end, and for a moment I felt like I was at the Americana shopping center in Manhasset. Many of the shops were full of World Cup bric-a-brac, as barely a month had passed since that big event. We took the opportunity to purchase some Euro and Polish "Zwoty" at a currency exchange. Unlike every Safeway supermarket in California, the Bavarian woman at the exchange recognized my last name as French and pronounced it perfectly.

Upon learning that liquids, creams, or gels were not considered a threat to the flight to Cracow, we bought toothpaste, deoderant, and body wash. Then we ate a grilled "Panino" sandwich at a cafe. With even more time to kill, we found a waiting area that provided free coffee and newspapers. I even gave a crack at reading the German ones. It had been some twenty years since my last trip to Europe, and it was good to savor the details.

The plane to Cracow probably flew over the Czech Republic. This information wasn't volunteered, but if you look at a map it makes sense. When we landed in Cracow, the air was moist, the tarmac wet, and the little airport near empty. Lisa had done some research about how to take the bus into town, but it was approaching 11 pm and we were understandably disoriented. We bought bus tickets at a news stand and wandered out to the bus stop. A large, circular Coca-Cola sign confirmed what we have all heard: an eager embrace of western capitalism. We tried to make heads or tails of the bus schedule, and since it was saturday, the outlook didn't look good. A bus finally arrived, but then parked and shut down. I approached the driver, a young, Slavic-looking man, and we proceeded to have a completely confused exchange of hand signals and mispronounced words. Fortunately a pair of women appeared who I recognized from the plane; their first laguage was apparently French, but they also spoke Polish and English. Before long it was established that the bus was headed downtown, but we would have to wait.

A few notes on Cracow. Like many Central European cities Cracow has multiple spellings that are interchanged shamelessly. There is Cracow with a "c" and Krakow with a "k", as well as the German "Krakau" and French "Cracovie". Cracow is the former capital of Poland -- prior to Warsaw -- and is considered the spiritual heart of the Polish state. The Old Town is some seven or eight hundred years old, a historic area that miraculously escaped the ravages of Europe's many wars. What I didn't realize until recently is that Cracow is a major tourist destination within Europe, attracting droves of visitors.

That wasn't exactly clear the night of our arrival, as the bus plowed into the darkness, stopping to pick up drunken skateboard kids, and a heavy rain began to pour. We weren't even certain what exit to get off at. It's true we could have taken a cab, but we were wary of being ripped off, and willing to rough the bus. As soon as we reached the edge of Old Town we disembarked, and although it was raining, I had studied the map well enough to get us to our hotel. It was a little scary, walking through a strange city with heavy backpacks in the pouring rain, surrounded by grafitti and drunks, but around midnight we reached our hotel in the Kazimierz district, just south of Old Town. After checking in, an older man, presumably the bellhop, helped us with our luggage and the strange Polish door locks that need to be turned twice.

Unbelievably jet-lagged and disoriented, I tried to sleep, but with mixed results. As I lay in the foreign bed, the fact of being in Poland weighed on me, its problematic history, which the pouring rain outside seemed to exacerbate. Then the long and turbulent relationship between the Germanic and Slavic peoples weighed on me and kept me up for a few hours. But the fact that the hotel room itself was fairly clean and decent and comfortable helped sleep eventually win out.