A Lot To Be Proud Of

How time flies. No sooner have we finished Easter (painted eggs, baskets of food, interminable hours around the family table) than summer’s just around the corner. With the longer and warmer days, Krakow has become a sensual feast. In winter, the stone kamienica across the street was inhabited only by shadows, who scuttled quickly up staircases. Now, the sun has made them flesh and blood, painted smiles on their faces and made you notice details in the stone you’d somehow missed before. Double-windows are thrown open to catch the sun and your attention is captured by the strains of an unexpected violin or clarinet, wafting through the net curtains and rolling gently down the street. You realize that even shadows have lives, and colourful ones, in fact. Like flowers, they only need the right conditions. And, closer to home, balconies blossom with bratki (“brothers”) and begonias, carefully tended by their babcia owners.

Though far from the Main Square and Mariacki Church, I hear the Hejnał (the mournful tune played by the trumpeter on the hour, every hour) drifting along my street. Maybe it’s the radio, a practising musician or perhaps a daydream. Whatever it is, like a friendly, sleepy, dragon, “Krakow” – the thought of it, the feel of it – has awoken from its long slumber and permeates once again the souls of its people.

And not only the souls, but their bodies too. Towards the end of April, I received an SMS from a friend. A short message, innocent enough in its way: Did I want to run the Krakow marathon? Well, yes, the thought did appeal to me. After all, I’m not in bad shape and I’ve always wanted to see more of Krakow. And here was my chance. I should leap at it, gazelle-like. And so I did – metaphorically. Sort of. Almost. That is to say that, for a couple of hours or so, I let the idea run around my head for a while, before reluctantly coming to the conclusion that running a dog up and down the local riverbank two or three times a week hardly qualifies me for the remake of Chariots Of Fire. Not to mention the fact that, fortunately for me and all the serious, well-prepared, runners, I discovered that the invitation had arrived just twenty-four hours too late for me to register and pay good money for that particular kind of self-inflicted madness. Not that that stopped nearly four thousand brave souls from taking part on a hot Sunday morning, the winners coming from as far afield as Ukraine, Kenya and Ethiopia. World-class indeed!

However, I personally prefer my pursuits to be more artistic than athletic. Just as well I live in Krakow then: a city with a fine intellectual and artistic heritage – a heritage the City Government is determined to capitalise upon. I recently interviewed an international marketing executive on the City’s behalf. A man who has set foot in more cities than McDonald’s, he was very impressed by Krakow, telling me it had taken him precisely eighteen minutes to fall in love with the place (not, presumably, including baggage-handling and the taxi ride from Balice). According to him, we Cracovians live in “a mini-Florence” (albeit one with its fair share of concrete blocks). Kind words – and no doubt heartfelt – but, as a lifelong Cracovian had, coincidentally, explained to me only a few days previously, Florence – like many historical cities – is a victim of its own success, left wondering where to go now. In the city centre, its winding medieval streets are snarled up with traffic and its overdependence on tourists inevitably impacts upon the local atmosphere. Apparently, it’s even rare to hear a native-to-native Italian conversation there these days.

The same colleague then recounted how, ten or fifteen years ago, it was, in contrast, extremely rare to hear any foreign language on Krakow’s streets. And, if we go back a little further, twenty years ago would have seen the Rynek Główny (Main Square) dark and lifeless at 8 pm, even at weekends. Impossible now to imagine that huge and vibrant public space, where everything happens and everyone meets, so devoid of life. How the city has changed in a generation – and how the new generation is changing the city.

Selected pieces by John Marshall may be found here.

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