Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Krakow - episode one: Too fat for a Pole


The town and the places I visited were full of young people – healthy looking, with their distinctive defined features and lean figures. I did, however, notice a distinct lack of middle aged people (and have no explanation for this). The older people were the retired generation (and didn't tend to hang around tourist haunts, understandably), but I was disappointed at the lack of impressive facial hair across any generation. This may be a stereotypical expectation, but one fulfilled in the past (in an adventure in Spain, but that’s another blog post). There’s no denying it, if I hadn't been wearing a big coat with a fur collar and the most ridiculous (but warm) ear-flap hat, I would never have been mistaken for a native, not at my weight.

St Adelbert's
I enjoyed my visit to Krakow and the people were friendly, especially the ones on the market square. These fell into three distinct categories – firstly the tourists, of whom I was one and blatantly wandering about with a camera taking pictures of churches and architectural detail; secondly the visiting Pole who is confident in the language but unfamiliar with the city. They were disappointed when I couldn't direct them to their chosen destination or tell them which tram was going where. Finally were the panhandlers; those individuals (of all ages) who were asking for money or food, with the catch phrase ‘I'm hungry’. One rather elderly lady in a fur coat told me she hadn't had any lunch (but she did have cigarettes).

I adopted a technique for dealing with the latter group – a simple and safe one. Speak complete gibberish. If I spoke English, then they had a way in to conversation, and being British and polite, we hate saying no. But, if I spoke complete rubbish, they gave up and went away, heading towards the next likely looking mark. Now I may sound insensitive and there are definitely those in need in Krakow as in many places, but I am not wise enough to know who is deserving and who is not. Nor am I foolish enough to get out my purse in a market square in front of a person who can (fur coat lady aside) no doubt run a lot faster and further than me.

If you know me, you know I am not a Christian or a great believer in any formal religion, but I do believe that the basic ideas (of nearly all religions) are a good moral guide overall, where they are about mutual benefit. I also understood that Jesus was a man (if he really was, blah blah, nothing deep here, save that discussion for another time) who stood for helping those worse off than yourself and in being humble in this life. So whilst on the freezing streets of Krakow young and old are asking for handouts from strangers, in the churches there are the most extraordinarily gilded statues I have ever seen.

I understand that churches were built to impress and convey the might of god (and the ceiling of St Mary’s is wonderfully impressive), but of the little I know of the Bible, I don’t think the apostles went around in huge gold-laden cloaks. Perhaps just one statue from one church would have yielded enough gold to feed everyone in the square that day.

Oh I know that’s simplistic, but it’s not so much about the money or aesthetics as about the conflict with what I understood Jesus to represent, and then how he is represented. In St Adelbert’s (where I attended a wonderful chamber concert), the painting of Mary and child had silver crowns stuck on top of their halos – an obvious later addition. It looked like a kid had got the silver paper and jelly beans out. Probably real silver and amber, probably worth a small fortune, yet to my mind they detracted from the impact of the painting itself. Mind you, the churches were very impressive and as a visual feast I certainly enjoyed visiting and photographing them.

It was cold in Krakow so I spent most of my time in my coat and well wrapped up. I ate wonderful food at Polish cafes and enjoyed local fare. Still, I didn't over eat and didn't drink much (apart from the delicious mulled wine) and I walked miles and miles. But if I had visited in summer and worn the local fashion of rather hideous check, they’d have still known I was too fat for a Pole.
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