Fake News by Michal Karski
“History can never be static. We are continually discovering new aspects of stories which we thought we knew but which our researches are illuminating with the bright light of modern perception. Never mind the naysayers, the sceptics, or those individuals stuck in the mud of tradition. History, despite the usual meaning associated with the term, is actually the science of the future and, as such, it must be constantly reevaluated. What is old must be reassessed for it to become relevant to the new.”
The speaker is noted Herzoslovakian academic Professor Vimislav Estrafalario, maverick historian, founder and sole member of the independent international think tank HWQ (Historians Without Qualifications). “Forget the latest charges against us about wanting to ‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,’” says the professor, insisting on the pronoun ‘we’, when speaking of his one-person association. (In fairness, another historian recently joined on November 5, 2016, with the sole purpose of being able to resign later the same day in protest at Estrafalario’s agenda). ”These are nothing but the usual gripes coming from the usual biased liberal suspects.” He waves his hand dismissively and addresses himself to his lunch.
I am interviewing Professor Estrafalario at a modest eatery just north of the Rynek. The monocled scholar, mildly eccentric with goatee beard, bow tie, and tweed jacket complete with elbow patches is on a lecture tour of Poland and is presently working his way through an enormous Antipodean-style beef burger. His English is flawless, if very slightly accented, having been perfected by years of study at some of the most prestigious English and American universities. (Author’s note: the precise CV of the Professor will be forwarded to me by email, so I cannot identify these universities yet, nor can I say anything definite about his academic career for the moment.)
“The fact is, my friend,” continues Estrafalario, brandishing his fork for emphasis, “historians of the former Communist Bloc such as myself are realizing that there is a wealth of undiscovered history just waiting to be publicized. The new nationalist governments of neglected Eastern Europe are clamouring for the services of historians belonging to our organization who invariably highlight what is best in a country’s history, downplay any less glorious episodes, and can even discover hitherto unknown facts. For example, I have come here to your wonderful Krakow on just such a mission and I am hoping to interest your government in my research.” The professor reaches over to the adjoining table and helps himself to some mayonnaise, which he dollops onto his French fries. “Listen, if you will, dear sir,” he continues, lowering his voice and leaning across the table to me, “while I tell you all about my latest findings concerning the Roman origins of this very city.” I am rather taken aback. “Roman origins of Krakow?” I repeat. “Indeed,” says Estrafalario. “Who would have thought it? But it is as true as I sit here eating this Polynesian Burger.” I listen in awe as he expounds his latest groundbreaking theory.
“The Ancients got around, as we know.” begins the learned professor. “Virgil tells us that his hero Aeneas founded Lavinium, in what is now Lazio. Tradition has it that another fugitive from the sack of Troy, one Brutus, was the founder of London. Paris is named after the brother of Trojan hero Hector. The voyages of Jason took him as far as modern day Georgia and one tradition has it that he skirted the coast of the Black Sea with his trusty Argonauts, where Laertes named a settlement Odessa (since he was told by an amateur soothsayer that his wife Anticleia was to give birth to a daughter and not, as actually happened, the son who was to become famous as the cunning Odysseus) and then they zigzagged across the Balkans, navigating various lakes and rivers, trying to find an overland route back to Thessaly, traversing Romania, Herzoslovakia, Hungary, founding Lubljana in Slovenia, then up through Poland as far as the Baltic coast, where Orpheus’s less famous but equally musical brother Sopot decided to settle and then back down the amber route, navigating the North Sea, the English Channel (Calais is named after one of the crew) and down through the Pillars of Hercules and back home.”
The professor pauses and contemplates a French fry on the end of his fork. I find it impossible to add anything meaningful, instead listen to the fascinating exposition.
“Slightly less mythical,” continues Estrafalario, “are the exploits of the Romans whose conquests spanned the length and breadth of modern-day Europe. Livy gives his name to Livorno, but others are not so directly connected. The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, for instance, who was a friend of Pliny the Younger and author of a history of the Caesars, spent many years in the Roman spa town of Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath) and was known as a great gourmand. You may find this hard to believe but Tranquillus, usually known to us as Suetonius, has given his name to the British delicacy known as suet pudding.”
This is a revelation to me. I cannot help but anticipate further surprises.
“Stockholm” continues Professor Estrafalario, “is reportedly named after Saint Okholm, a Roman praetor based in Denmark whose real name is unknown but who is said to have converted to Christianity at the behest of Constantine following the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Munich in Bavaria was founded sometime in the first century AD by Festus Filtrincus October and Vienna soon afterwards by Orsonus Wellesius Prater.
I begin to suspect that all is not what it seems with the eminent professor. I am no historian, but one or two things don’t quite add up…
Nevertheless, Estrafalario somehow manages to engineer me into paying the bill and we stroll outside into the Krakow sunshine. “But what has all this to do with Krakow, professor?” I inquire.
“I’m coming to that, my friend. It will come as no surprise therefore, to discover that the name of your Krakow, said to have originated from Krakus, is actually ultimately derived from the Roman Gracchus, and in particular the third and lesser known brother of the more famous Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, Roman politicians both of whom met untimely ends as a result of their radical views.
“Rome in the second century BC was a cauldron of political intrigue and violence so after his brothers were both assassinated, the youngest of the three, Salvator Gracchus travelled up by mule and on foot through Trieste, and then on to Zagreb where he hopped on the Orient Express which took him to Budapest, and then he continued by bicycle up to what is now Zakopane and then on to a Celtic settlement which he liked and where he decided to stay and which now bears his name.”
“But Professor,” I try to interpose. We are now ambling along the Planty down towards the Post Office.
“Before I continue with the further exploits of Gracchus, or Krakus, if you prefer,” says Estrafalario “and the legend of the Krakow dragon or Smok Wawelski, may I make a slight digression on the theme of the ‘obwarzanek’, samples of which we tasted earlier in the main square.
“The word ‘obwarzanek’ itself is not, contrary to popular opinion, a purely Polish term. Instead it can trace its origin to Byzantium. A masterpiece of the culinary art of the Eastern Empire, the ‘ops Byzantium’ (and not, as some suppose, ‘opus;) was transformed and Polonized to ‘obwarzanek’ over the course of a few centuries, including the usual sound shift from ‘b’ to ‘v’. It was said to have been brought to Krakow in the early 14th century by Venetian traders, and tradition even has it that one of them was Marco Polo himself, hence this country’s original name of Pololand.”
“Pololand?” I venture. “But surely, Professor. This is stretching credibility to its furthest limits. I wouldn’t wish to be rude, dear sir, but isn’t it the case that you are actually a fraudster and a sham?”
“Oh, look!” says Estrafalario. Here comes my tram. Got to go. Next time it’ll be all about the Ancient Greek origin of zapiekanki. Work still in progress. Thanks for the lunch. Catch you later! Cheerio!”
Prof. Estrafalario was interviewed (in an alternate reality) by Michal Karski.