Krakow Chronicles: How To Quit Smoking And Drinking for the New Year

Lift, if you will, dear reader, your nose from this page and your hot, precious coffee cup: what do see from your window? Cold, grey skies… long, dark nights. Now look back at the screen again. Thank you. Welcome to winter, Central European style.

Polish winters can be summed up in one word: snow. Day after day after snowy, frozen day: a silent, yet insistent reminder that winter has you firmly in its icy grip and that spring is merely a memory; a story we tell our children from beneath warm duvets and thickly-frosted windowpanes.

This is my fifth Polish winter, and I have to say I’m feeling it. Flying from England to Krakow over the New Year, a smattering of British snow was rudely replaced by a Slavic snowstorm. In England, subzero temperatures and an unusual amount of snow closed some airports and shut many schools for much of January. Predictably, the newspapers called conditions “treacherous” (as if the weather has somehow betrayed the nation’s trust) and declared much of British life to be in a state of chaos (editors seemingly ignoring the fact that the daily newspapers at least were still prepared, printed and distributed nationwide without too much trouble). Whilst such conditions are admittedly rare across the Channel, it is of course nothing compared to a Polish winter. Should I ever see a family of four, fully kitted out with skis, poles, goggles and helmets come out of an English park, as I saw in Krakow the other day, then I’ll be impressed. As I said to the barman back home, “We had minus 27 one year”. “How do you manage?” he asked. I put down my empty beer glass and sniffed, “You just wear lots of layers”. My brother, ever observant, ordered two more beers and his wife bought me an extra layer for Christmas.

But Christmas and England seem an age ago now. I was younger then, certainly. Healthier? Definitely. Hardly was I back in the Krak than the first symptoms appeared: tired, aching muscles, a nasty cough. All too quickly, it was the Monday after the year before and, back at work, I reluctantly took my place within the ranks of the sneezing, shuffling and ashen-faced souls who make their way daily along slushy streets, by steamy-windowed trams and buses, to cafes, schoolrooms and offices: victims of colds and the flu. And, whilst our kind may be seen all over the city, we are little heard. Grey, watery shadows of our former selves, we slip quietly past, preserving our precious stores of energy for the cold, neon-lit journeys home, dreaming of pills and powders, syrup and sleep.

Thank the god of your choice for sleep! The first night of insomnia brings merely tiredness and irritability, whereas the second frustrates and (somewhere between two and five am) simply bores. By the third night, you wait for the small hours, and watch from the corner of your room, as in a dream, strange thoughts crawl across your mind like moon shadow on the wall. You try drinking, you try not drinking, you try going to sleep, you try staying awake. But nothing can help you. You can only try to hold on to your sanity and wait for the sickness to pass. Because it’s the weather – specifically, the air pressure – which is turning you, slowly, inside out. You see, whilst we British love to talk about the weather – did it rain, is it raining, will it rain? – it’s only words, in the end; just us being polite. We don’t really care – not really. No: contrary to popular wisdom and stereotypes, it’s not the Brits, but the Poles, who really know about the weather.

Whether you’re feeling high or low, chances are so it is the air pressure. The British don’t link the two because our weather never sticks around long enough for us to notice. But things are different in this part of the world. It’s continental Europe, after all – with continental weather. There’s no escaping it. And that’s probably why every year Britain seems surprised – offended, even – by winter’s return, whereas Poland and probably just about any other country in the world you could care to mention have taken the giant evolutionary leap of noticing that winter is, in fact, quite a predictable and regular event.

Still, my English body’s predictable surprise at the annual return of winter at least stopped me smoking and drinking for a few weeks. After four years of living in Krakow, not increasingly draconian and undemocratic smoking bans, teetotal girlfriends, ever-rising tobacco taxation or even bleary, red-eyed Saturday morning English lessons managed to do what a good dose of flu could. So I say thank you, Polish weather: I’ll take the hint and look after myself a bit better from now on.

Stay warm and na zdrowie!

Selected pieces by John Marshall may be found here.

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