Confessions of a Krakowian jogger
In the crisp winter morning, I warm up for my morning jog. It’s a short jog: I’m 40 years old and out of condition. But the sun’s shining and I’m feeling good, so off we go!
On the paths around the block, there’s a pleasant dusting of snow from the first snow that Krakow’s seen for months. I miss the snow this year. Two years ago, in 2005, was the coldest and whitest winter many Poles can remember. Minus 27 degrees centigrade. I still hear it, two years later. Every time you breathed in, your nostril hairs crackled. Another 10 degrees, an American doctor told me, and the water in your eyeballs begins to freeze. “Think about that!,” he said. I tried not to. For, in my eyes, Krakow was a fairytale that first winter: the Planty, Main Square and Wawel all alive, looking down benevolently at my wide-eyed innocence in those heady days and nights. I miss the snow and I miss seeing things for the first time, too.
A small but angry dog snaps at my feet as I jog blindly around the bend. His babcia owner admonishes him as I slip on the snow. I regain my balance and quickly turn my head to see the little sausage dog looking up blankly, yet kindly, into the woman’s yapping mouth. She probably doesn’t know that her dog doesn’t understand Polish. But then she probably doesn’t understand dog either, and yet they couldn’t be happier: inseparable, their very presence giving each other happiness and a reason to be.
I’m trying out a new route this morning. This new neighbourhood of mine needs exploring. I need to put my mark on it – the dog would understand that. I come to some traffic lights and do something I’d always thought looked faintly stupid: I jog on the spot, waiting for the green man. He duly appears and I find myself trotting along a cycle track, lined with bare winter trees. Soon, I see a flash of colour. A long wall of concrete graffiti: not quite art but some good attempts; imaginative and a welcome improvement on the usual football-related inanities spat out in a black fuzz. So much talent waiting to be channeled: thoughts to be shaped and moulded in essential, primary colours.
The wall fades behind me. I check my watch. Good: half-way through my jog already. Another street crossing and suddenly there’s a bright yellow and red block of flats. It stands tall and proud in an otherwise dull and seemingly lifeless sea of concrete and grey. I slow up a moment, drinking in the colour through the crisp, sharp air. If only more of Krakow was like this, the pastel colours around the Main Square – like Venice or Lwow, even. Unfortunately, the production of coloured paint didn’t figure highly in Communist Five-Year Plans, only heavy industry and subservience to the party. If a nouveau riche Pole wants to do something for his people, he could do worse than paint all the blocks in his town. Colour is light and light is life.
But until that happens, a foreigner like me is forced to look past the cold reconstituted stone and childhood memories of steroid-filled women breaking Olympic records for the glory of the people. It’s been nearly twenty years since ‘the breakthrough’, as Poles call the downfall of Polish Communism, and, despite having embraced capitalism, many have yet to feel any warmth at all.
As the trees and the blocks and the shops trot slowly past me in their turn, I force myself to notice them, to really take them in. There’s something fresh, unique, about something seen, or someone met, for the very first time. It’s a strangeness which, try as you might, can never be recaptured, once the moment becomes part of our inner landscape. The first impression should be crisp and sharp, and therefore all the sweeter in later remembrance. The whole of reality really is in this first moment.
I’ve turned the corner now and I tell my aching lungs we’re on our way home, although I’m not exactly sure where that is. Though a newcomer to jogging, I feel sure that, like hill-waking, it’s a golden rule never to return by the same route, to double back on yourself.
I tried that a few times before. You think it’ll be easier that way. Maybe, but the trouble is you end up back just where you started. It seems we: me, you, the Poles, we all have this need for new and fresh experiences, good or bad. So, again, I turn around an unknown corner and hope that home’s not too far away now.