Back in the day, when the good citizens of Poland finally found a way to overthrow the Communist yoke, a common refrain, born of decades of exhaustive effort, was the wish that their country simply be a “normal” one. That of course meant they wanted to live à la Western Europe and the U.S., free and prosperous, under rule of law, without a Soviet Russia breathing down their necks. Two decades later much of that has come to pass, and no one speaks of “normal” anymore. Besides, what is “normal” these days? (Sorry, but that’s exactly the kind of question one can afford to toss off when belonging to the West again.)
This summer, for family reasons, I found myself in Krakow for two full weeks — my first time back in Poland in 33 years, a golden opportunity to see how it has changed. Family and friends warned me I wouldn’t recognize it. I wasn’t so sure. Yes, on the way in from the Krakow airport, nicely, discreetly named after Pope John Paul II, we passed an IKEA, huge lumberyards, many new car dealerships and KFC-signed strip malls, and even saw a stretch of modern freeway. Yet on nearing the city’s center, once we turned into bumpy and narrow Dluga street, everything was as I remembered: its three-story buildings still a sooty, early 20th century gray, but with one small difference — all the ground floor stores and shops had clean windows and displays, bright signs, and not a queue in sight.
The historic old city, where we stayed at my wife’s old apartment, was something else again, exactly as I remembered it, except better: spiffier, cleaner, upgraded, renovated, and not only its huge Main Square but side streets and courtyards and cellars. Krakow has become a tourist mecca, and its summer human traffic never stops, foreign and domestic alike. I would need a lot more than two weeks — how about two years? — to explore it properly, starting with its glorious churches, an art historian’s dream. How can there be so many of them in such close vicinity, if not right next door to one another? (Not to mention the many chapels within each one. And it’s not as if these churches weren’t overwhelmingly Catholic.)
About those tourists. It used to be Poles from the hinterlands would be bused in, in groups, to see Poland’s old capital. What struck me this time was the number of individual Polish families, two parents, two or three kids, on visits. So very Western suburban, no? That also means they traveled by family car. Krakow, needless to say, now teems with automobiles, all of them newish, Japanese, European Fords, German and French, plus an occasional Cadillac — and for old time’s sake, a communist-era clunker that didn’t know the ’70s are over.
Students of that Polish decade will recall the communist party’s ill-starred effort to introduce consumerism — all of it resulting in huge Polish indebtedness to the West (and wide suspicions that much of that Western aid ended up in Kremlin accounts) and an ever more restive populace. Back then, complaints centered on food shortages and the unavailability of Polish pork (and toilet paper). Now food is so plentiful and shelves so well stocked — eggs in cartons that let you know if they came from free-ranging chickens — if there is concern, it’s that modern supermarkets drive out Mom and Pop efforts. Today’s most frequent complaints have a familiar ring: there’s way too much public and private debt, regulations are killing small business, the country is becoming too dependent on EU funds. It all could end very badly.
But not right away. Drabness is no longer the norm. People make plans, travel the world, build new houses, knock down walls to create bigger, sleeker apartments, the entire package at times worthy of Architectural Digest. And in Krakow every hour on the hour a trumpeter plays the abruptly interrupted Heynal from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica on the Main Square. The performance recalls the original bugler, who by legend took an arrow to the throat while warning the city of a Tatar attack back in 1240. I always remembered its sound as hopelessly forlorn. Now I swear it’s being played by Louis Armstrong.