The Slovakian Apartment
Before we left our Slovakian home we spent an hour talking over coffee with our host, Peter. I think if we did not have a meeting time already set in Poland and Peter didn’t have to get rooms ready for guests coming in the afternoon we would have talked for several hours. Peter works as an independent contractor for companies that install chairlift systems. He currently does work for a French company whose fortunes seem to be falling. His wife, Veronika, is an instructor in Spanish and business at a university satellite campus in Popard. They have a young son who is six years old. Veronika always wanted to work in the hotel industry and it has been her dream to run some sort of hospitality business. As a result, Peter worked with a relative and over a four year period built a house with two apartments upstairs and three rooms with a communal kitchen downstairs. To finance the enterprise they sold their apartment in nearby Popard for 50 000 euros, just before housing prices spiked to triple their value. It was a move that was unfortunate but they seem to be taking it in stride. They live with Veronika’s parents, which makes it easier for them to manage the rental business alongside their day jobs. Working more than one job is a Slovakian necessity according to Peter, who said “it is the Slovak way of life.”
As we have heard so many times during our trip, everyone has a story of migration. Peter’s brother lives in Mexico City of all places, and Peter and Veronika lived and worked there for a year. The movement of people around the globe is amazing and often defies what I would expect in terms of migration direction. In our travels we have met a Scot who immigrated to Hungary, a Belgian who immigrated to Turkey, a Canadian who immigrated to Italy, and an Italian who immigrated to Greece. It was a reminder that migration is not always about moving from an economically poor region to an economically rich one.
I was fascinated to hear how Peter viewed his country in relation to its neighbours and how he viewed North America. It was a challenge to my preconceptions about Poland, which we have yet to visit, that amongst all his neighbours Peter admired the Poles the most. He stated that they have a real head for business and economic development. In general, he felt his fellow Slovaks had little business sense (a view a bit at odds with current economic data) and tended to see their neighbouring countries too much like enemies.
In regards to North America, Peter feels the United States gets a bad rap for intervening around the world. Why shouldn't they act if there are problems they can do something about? In terms of the economic crisis, Peter believes it is the fault of the US Democratic Party and that only more right wing free enterprise economic policy will bring prosperity to the world. He pointed to the European economic crisis as an illustration of what is wrong with government intervention and regulation. This is interesting view considering it is Slovakia’s entry into the European Union that has seems to have grown its economy and made it possible to survive its separation from the Czech Republic.
In regards to Canada, Peter sees Canada as being an exception in the world. It is economically successful even with a more left wing approach to government. He feels that we are out of step with the world trend. He says it may work for Canadians to put their trust in government to accomplish good on behalf of the people but he can’t see how it can work elsewhere, as his experience is that governments are corrupt and dysfunctional. It is difficult to see how Peter could believe otherwise having grown up under a communist regime, and then seeing corruption continue among his country’s democratically elected officials.
I told Peter about an observation shared with me while visiting a family of one of our International students in Brazil. The father, who is a wealthy and successful businessman, said he has no problem with paying taxes to see services equally available to all people. In Brazil he pays the same amount of taxes as in Canada but gets very little for it in terms of infrastructure and services, thus requiring him to spend money again to buy these services privately. He believed if people could see and experience what happens in Canada with taxes, they would be much more likely to adopt a Canadian style social policy and not aspire to the American religion of letting the market entirely decide how a country’s services and wealth are divided. He felt his fellow citizens needed to expect and demand more of their governments.
Our topic of conversation was not extraordinary, as it is something we argue in Canada at every election and we hear it argued constantly in the US electoral politics. What made it unique and new was discussing the same issues with someone from an Eastern European background and having Hannah engaging in the concepts and trying to make sense of it all for herself. A person’s political view is shaped so much by their personal experiences, so much so that it often trumps what one might reason to be best just based on wider information and considerations. The more we talked the more we all found a simplified left-right, government-no-government approach to the world fell well short of an adequate solution. It helps to dialogue with people from all walks of life and backgrounds and countries. It really tempers your views and widens your appreciation of the complexity of economic development and caring for your fellow man.
It was with great reluctance that we left our host, but we knew we were going to be in the same situation as when we left Hungary if we stayed any longer. The kids had enough of their dad driving like a maniac to make a pre-arranged meeting time for our next accommodation. As it was, we were going to arrive in Krakow with no time to spare if we left immediately.
Our arrival in Poland was quite a contrast with our arrival in Slovakia. Admittedly, we seemed to have entered Slovakia by the back door and travelled a lot of sketchy roads, perhaps through the most impoverished areas of the country. We did find the Popard area of Slovakia to be comparatively affluent and have read that the Bratislava area is even more so. Despite this, on our last stretch through Slovakia we again saw many, many people (we suspect that a good percentage may have been Roma—often called Gypsies) standing alongside the road in the middle of nowhere with just one bucket of berries to sell. I am not sure how long some would need to stand there before selling their one container of freshly picked wild berries, especially when there was a half dozen standing several meters apart each vying for the next car. Traffic was not particularly heavy. When we crossed the border into Poland we saw an immediate uptick in traffic, a disturbing abundance of billboards, and sprawling communities with many small businesses haphazardly peppered among family homes. There was definitely a sense of greater economic activity.
The Polish road system as we have experienced it thus far is plagued by an almost insane fluctuation in posted speed limits. Within a kilometer you can go from 70 km/h to 140 km/h and then down to 50 km/h with little seeming to justify the required change in speed. Since there is radar and photo radar everywhere most cars tend to comply with the fluxuations. This generates a dangerous nervous energy among drivers, of whom half are chafing to see the next rise in speed and will slam their feet down on their accelerators as soon as sign indicating a speed change appears. The other half suffer from a paranoia that they may have missed a speed reduction sign and unexpectedly brake to observe what they imagine the slower posted speed limit might be.
The road layout in Krakow proper is also a sight to behold. The tram system runs down the center of some streets with just enough room on either side of the tracks for one lane of car traffic. As a result, tram loading platforms connecting to the sidewalk are placed literally on the car traffic lane. Driving down the street you will suddenly find yourself driving on an elevated platform with a brick surface for a hundred meters and then return to a normal asphalt surface, giving the uninitiated driver the alarming feeling that they have somehow driven off the road and are driving on the sidewalk, about to mow down hundreds of people. It seems to be a very unsettling set up for both foreign drivers and first time tram passengers.
Our apartment is a mere 15 minute walk from Krakow’s magnificent central square and less than ten from the beautiful architecture of the old city. That small expanse marks an extraordinary transition in the character of the city. Our neighbourhood consists mostly of sooty gray apartment buildings, which remind one of all the bleak camera footage on North American television whenever there was coverage of the political situation in Poland during the 1980s. The streets are in pretty rough condition and cars are parked bumper to bumper along the streets. Our building is a bit of an exception having been painted a reddish brown, with a great deal of it flaking off. The hallways are very dark and worn, and look a bit like a correctional institution. The very fast moving elevator in this ten story building is a bit off putting since there is no interior door. If you are not alert the first time you use it, you could scrape off a limb by standing too close to the elevator shaft as you hurtle upwards to your chosen floor. The fact that the door to our apartment has a huge deadbolt at both the top and bottom and requires a key the size of which a medieval jailor might use seemed to confirm the idea that we may have inadvertently booked ourselves into a Soviet era prison.
Our Home in Krakow
The contrast that awaited us on the other side of the door was remarkable. A very neat, comfortable and well appointed apartment awaited. It has a balcony overflowing with flowering plants. The only institutional motif that persisted was the wire mesh covering the whole face of the balcony. Apparently birds are a real problem, so nearly all the balconies in the neighbourhood have gone with the caged in look. Our hostess was extremely earnest and helpful. She assured us the neighbourhood was very safe and that they also lived just two blocks away in the same neighbourhood. We all breathed a lot easier.
We walked the neighbourhood to do some banking and then grocery shopping. The currency is zloty, which are roughly three to every Canadian dollar. As always, grocery shopping is a bit of challenge the first time round in a new country. We needed to go to two supermarkets to get just the basics and visited a nearby farmer’s market for fresh produce, but were unable to get to the bakery before it closed at 4:00 pm. The two supermarkets we visited were claustrophobic affairs with too much stock, too many customers and too little aisle space. Along with low quality of produce the meat and baked goods were also poor. On the plus side there are dozens of bakeries and delicatessens around to supplement, just not on a Saturday afternoon after 4:00 pm.
Jewish Music Festival in Krakow
The kids settled in for a relaxing evening in the apartment while Muriel and I walked to the Jewish quarter of Krakow to catch the last night of the Jewish music festival. The festival is the largest of its kind in the world. The closer we got to the venue the thicker the crowds became. The free open-air concerts are held in a large square where people jostle for the best position in which to stand. The band we heard came from the United States, and played music inspired by ZZ Top with lyrics sung in Yiddish. The group’s rather staid image seemed at odds with their music, which made the whole concert look like people trying to imitate something rather than expressing who they really were. The concert goers also seemed like they were not quite sure how to act or respond to the music. A few were dancing or swaying with the music but most people seemed more intent on watching what everyone else was doing, hoping to pick up some sort of clue on what they should be doing. We listened for about half an hour, then started wandering and engaging in some people watching of our own.
We stumbled across Plac Nowy, a collection of unkempt buildings surrounding a concrete square filled with chipped green market stalls and numerous pigeons. At its center is a rotunda, which served as a ritual slaughterhouse for chickens for the Jewish community until World War II. Today the square is a hugely busy marketplace with a few hundred stalls operating from early morning to early afternoon selling all and sundry. After the market winds down, the rotunda at the center is what draws locals by the hundreds. The rotunda has at least 15 hatch like openings through which Krakow’s most famous fast food is sold. Zapiekanka is a halved Polish baguette that is loaded with cheese and mushrooms and all manner of other toppings to make a pizza-like snack. The name of this snack comes from a word meaning to roast or scorch. It seems unimaginable that you can have 15 separate businesses selling the exact same kind of food from the same location. But it definitely works, as there are lines fifteen people deep waiting to place their orders. The price is right, with the most expensive form of the zapiekanka going for about 3 dollars Canadian. It is the night food of the area and a favourite pit stop for people on a pubcrawl. The size of the snack is huge, yet you see small slim well dressed young women ready for a night on the town somehow downing them with little trouble and managing to keep themselves clean in the process (napkins are not provided).
After stuffing ourselves, we meandered back to our apartment. Krakow looks like an incredible city with a lot of character and a big food culture. In addition to food, the Poles also love their alcohol. It seems like on every other block there is a 24 hour “alkohole” store. I did a little research to see if the stereotype of hard drinking Poles is true. I am glad I checked so I can put another myth to rest. Apparently Poles only consume alcohol slightly above the European average. What skews people’s perception is that 7 percent of the population drinks half of the country’s alcohol, a problem that we have witnessed in the streets and parks. I still crave a cold beer when I get home but promise to keep myself to one; they are, after all, a half litre each.