Krakow: I love libraries

7 December, 1999

The next day we had a fantastic breakfast at our neighborhood Milk Bar - the Poles often have big hearty bowls of soup for breakfast! What a wonderful idea.

In Krakow i saw some amazing busses. Most city busses around the world are about 12 meters long (apprx 40 ft), and we saw plenty of those, as we do everywhere. In Seattle we have articulated busses which are about 18 m (60 ft) and bend in the middle for turns. In Krakow they had solid body busses that were 18 meters!!! I never saw one attempt a turn, but i'm not sure they could do it very easily... it was strange watching these enormous vehciles move through traffic!! I also saw an articulated bus once, but it was 24 meters long!!!!

Then we wandered the central part of the old town, just enjoying it. One of the things that i had planned to do in Poland was to do some research to try to extend my Cichanowciz family history - - as i understood it the village names that i had written down as where that branch (my mother's father) of my family came from were in the area around Krakow. But these are tiny villages and i really didn't have any idea where to look. In addition i had even less information about the villages from which my mother's mother's family came from, although i knew it to be in the general area of Poznan. So i wanted to see if i could dig something up.

We spent a very productive half hour or so chatting with the friendly woman at the tourist information center. She had some good suggestions and we learned some facinating things about the city and even bought a book of legends and stories about Krakow for my mother (don't tell her!). One of the things she (the woman at tourist info, not my mother) suggested was the main University library, which turned out to be only half a block from our hostel!

We walked to the library via a different route then we had previously taking and, and along the way discovered, another Milk Bar! It was cozy and good, but a little bit more meat oriented than the other Milk Bars we had visited.

One of the things that i have discovered is that libraries are really good places to visit when travelling. You see the real local culture. You can sit and relax out of the weather. You can always find interesting things to browse through, even if you don't speak the language, you can often find Internet terminals and sometimes people to talk to. Also i have always liked libraries. They are a comfort thing. Many are kind of industrial, but often they are in cool modern buildings (like in Dresden or Vancouver) or in historical buildings (like in Prague or New York). Libraries are good.

We arrived at the library building around 14:00... it is a huge old building with a very elaborate, formal lobby that was, at first, a bit intimidating. I didn't use the coat and bag check, because Cheryln was going to sit in the lobby and write in her journal -- so i just left them with her. I walked up the big main staircase and explored the building a bit. This building had an interesting feel, one that i recognized from other places in Eastern Europe. The huge formal hallways were lined with closed, and sometimes locked doors. Everything was very elaborate, although poorly lit and often a bit dingy. And it felt very much like it was deserted, although on the rare occation that i passed an open door i saw big, modern, well lit rooms full of people. It was a very bizzare feeling. On the 2nd floor (3rd floor in the American way of counting) i saw a door with a sign that i thought might mean cartography. After wandering a bit more to get up my bravery, i tried the door, but it was locked.

I wandered even longer, trying not to look as lost as i was. Finally i got up enough nerve and approached a student sitting eating a sandwich on a bench in the enormous formal stairwell. I asked if he spoke English, but he said "Nie" and turned back to his book. Eventually i wandered in to the "reading room", which was a huge, dark, Baroque sitting room with about 100 identical wooden desks with identical large backed uplostered chairs and identical antique lamps putting identical circles of light on the desks. Every square inch of the walls was covered with packed wooden bookshelves. There was a balcony above, leaving most of the room 3 stories high. Up on the balcony were more wooden bookshelves against the wall and desks lining the railing packed with students whose faces were lit by their laptop computers. The only sound was pages turning. Next to me at the end of the room was a raised platform with a big circular desk and a powerful light. The big computer on the desk was the only incongruity in the entire room. It was really a stunning sight.

Of course, after taking it in for a few moments i retreated back through the hallway/lobby and into the stairwell. I went upstairs and peaked into the room from the balcony. I could see the laptops more directly there - each was sitting on the old wooden desk at a station made especially for a laptop. It was cool. Finally i screwed up my courage and went back to the hallway/lobby where there were a couple of staffed desks on either side - probably circulation desks. I asked one of the guys working there, he looked like a student, if he spoke English and he directed me to the big raised desk out in the main reading room. There the librarian (at least i thought of her that way) was extremely friendly and helpful. We chatted for a few minutes, not quite whispering. She told me the cartography room was on the 2rd floor and gave me the room number and that it would be open from 0900 to 1300 the next day. I went upstairs to investigate and, sure enough, it was the same, locked, room i had found before.

So i went back to Cheryln and we went back to the town square. After buying a small Polish-English dictionary we stopped into the Telephone office and used the Internet a little, although it was hellishly slow. (We have found that Sunday evening is the best time to try to do email. It is Sunday morning in the U.S.A. and the response time is the fastest!). While we were there we thought about trying to call a friend of Cheryln's who had been begging for a phone call - she was having a tough time with some big emotional hurdles to get over and she needed a friend to chat to. But we had forgot the number. We did buy a phone card though! We started to wait in this extremely long line to pay for our Internet experince, but soon found out that line was for paying the bill for the home phone and were able to pay at the desk and head on out to, of course, the Milk Bar! On the way home we needed a post office, and looking at the map we found only 4 along our 10 block walk home! We wandered through a really cool neighborhood to the local post office where we had to wait in a long holiday line. I explored some phone books, looking for names in my family tree - i even found a couple! Cheryln bought a bunch of postcard stamps using only Polish... and they were cheap! That evening at the hostel Cheryln did talk to her friend on the phone for quite awhile, running up a huge phone bill back in the states, but the friend said it was worth it!

Tuesday morning we got up and headed to our favorite Milk Bar confident and happy because we had a goal, a task. After breakfast, and a short walk in the park to use up enough time, we went back to the University library. I went directly to the room on the 3rd floor and knocked lightly on the door - there was no answer, so i cracked open the door and said hello in Polish. There was a series of 3 offices, with no walls between them that gave the effect of a long hallway to the window. At the desk near the window was a small compact woman. I carefully read the two or three sentences in Polish that we had composed. She stood up to greet me and i asked if she spoke English - she said that she spoke 'only a little' (and for once, this was true!).

I set down my page of family tree data, and tried to explain the last names, and the village names, that i was looking for. She seemed to understand and ran around a bit collecting reference books, but seemed unhappy with her choices. She didn't speak to me actually, but kept coming back to where i was standing, finally she found a book that had a listing of every village in Poland in 1897. One of the big problems with this research is that the names of counties, regions and even cities and towns in Poland have been changed multiple times in the last 100 years, by various governments and occupying forces. So a listing from the end of last century was essential. Finally she looked up at me and said, "This is going to work. Come with me." and strode out the door. I followed her down the hall to another room, which turned out to be huge. It was the actual map room. On the way down the hall she said, "We will find the village of your grandfather!"

Once in the map room she collected about a dozen reference books and we started searching for listings for the two villages and two counties in question. The names i had written down were quite confusing, but we started to find some things that looked interesting. Actually as much as i tried to help, she did almost all of the work, running around finding maps and books, and then looking through them for the proper listings. I was pretty good at finding them on the maps, once we had the right maps though.

Eventually she went next door and asked another woman, who i assumed was her supervisor, a question, and this brought in the second woman to help, and now they were both running around looking for things. The second woman would only speak to the first woman, and only in Polish, but after quite awhile, perhaps half an hour after she was recruited, she suddenly spoke to me in almost fluent English! After perhaps an hour in the map room, the first woman disappeared, she just went out the door and i never saw her again. But the second woman continued to help me. We found listings for all three towns on my mother's father's side, but made little progress with the fairly confusing county names on my mother's mother's side. I was very excited to find Tartaczysko! And it was not where i expected it, near Krakow, but far up in the northeastern corner near the Lituanian border! Mordarka, though, which we also found, was rather close to Krakow.

We had about a dozen maps out on the tables, ranging from very old, brown maps of the entire country to recent very detailed topo maps of very specific regions. She was helping me write down the preciece names of the area maps that contained my ancestral villages so that i could buy them at the map store downtown. At one point she was holding one of the maps, i forget which one, and she kind of looked both ways and then shoved the map into my pocket. "Don't let anyone see it!", she said! A few minutes later she gave me the other one, told me to take it as well. I kept asking if she was sure she wanted me to have them, but she said it was fine, just don't let anyone see them! When i tried to put them with my papers, she insisted that i put them in my pocket! After a little while she asked to see the maps again, and she took one back, but said i could have the other. I think the one she took back was the first one she had given me, but i am not certain.

Anyway we kept looking at maps and trying, in vain, to find the two counties of the Kubinskis. At times i felt like she had fogotten about me and i started trying to figure out how to make my exit, but she would come back with some new book or map. I spent a lot of time restacking and organizing the many books and maps we had lying around. Of course i am not complaing even in the least, it was a fantastic experince, it was great having her do all this research for me and of course, i can stare at maps endlessly. It was really great. Finally we took every reference and map containing useful information, a pretty substantial stack, and she told me we were going down to get copies made. I followed her down to the reading room, where there were photocopy machines in the corner. (How come i hadn't noticed them before!?) Finally, after getting the copies and taking the books back and thanking her, i was ready to leave... i was getting a little worried about Cheryln because i had been upstairs for over two hours! I thanked the woman profusely and went looking for the first woman to thank her, but i could not find her. So i headed down stairs with this huge map buldging in my small front pants pocket and a large packet of photocopies and notes. It has to be ranked up there with the best travel experinces!

We left with a feeling of euphoria and decided to stay another day in Krakow, in hopes of perhaps getting out to Mordarka, which was about 3 hours by train from Krakow. Of course we went to the map store and bought the maps that were not given to me, then we went back to the Telephone office, but the Internet was not availble so we got a listing from one of the guidebooks and went wandering the oustskirts of the city center looking for places to access the Internet. We got to see some cool neighborhoods. We also saw something pretty unusual, a tram wreck. It wasn't bad, but the traffic backup was terrible. Krakow has one of the better tram networks we've seen and people really depend on it. In fact, Poland ranks up there with Germany and the Netherlands for excellent tram networks! So the first two places on the list had both closed, but the last one, called LOOZ was open, albeit a bit smoky. We read email and news reports from the war zone in Seattle, shaking our heads. We were amazed at the intensity, happy that the protests were succesful and sad that we missed out on it. We checked our email and left with that strange daze that doing email while travelling alwyas seems to cause. So we went to a Milk Bar - the second one we had found, down in the center of town. I really liked this one because of the wonderful potato pancakes! And now with our Polish dictionary we were getting much better at reading the menu.

So we woke up Wednesday morning figuring this was a day for an excursion out of town. Travelling, it is always easy to visit the big cities, and usually very interesting. But not only are the cities very touristic (as the Europeans say) but they often have a very different culture and lifestyle from the small towns. We like to try to visit a small town, even if it is as a daytrip. We really wanted to try to get to Mordarka, the village we had determined was where my great Grandmother Maria Wojtas had emigrated from. The other possibility of an excursion was considerably more somber. The small village of Ochwiem is only about an hour outside of Krakow. The German translation of the village name is Auschwitz. The two infamous death camps, sinister Auschwitz and the huge, ominous, Birkinau are at the edge of the village. I had visited them in 1990 - it is a terrifying and stupifying experince to visit. I'm glad i did, but i was NOT really interested in doing it again. Not exactly what i would call fun. But Cheryln had not seen it and she felt it was something important to see, although she didn't exactly WANT to go - you can't really use words like 'want', 'fun' or 'like' in relation to an excursion like that. I couldn't let her go alone, so we were considering that excursion. We had actually been discussing it the entire time we had been in Krakow without coming to any decision.

So after breakfast at the Barcelona Milk Bar where they now knew us as regular customers and were happy to see us, (and even made certain to give us a meatless soup!) we headed to the bus station. We were going to have to take a bus at least part of the way beacause Mordarka is so small that train service is infrequent The goverment owned train system (PKP) in Poland is cheap, convienient, easy to use and covers most of the country. The bus system is another story. From what i could see, in addition to PKS, the state run buses, there are approximatly 3.5 billion private bus companies. Every one of them has their own schedules, stops, fares, rules and runs, although many run to the same places. Just to make things easy, absolutely none of these schedules are posted or published anywhere. Once we determined that the PKS wasn't going to get us there we had to try to navigate the private bus system. We wandered through the busses (at least the ones we could find) for about 15 minutes.

Since there are no published schedules, the conductors on these private busses often just call out to you to get on the bus as you walk past - i guess it would be a good adventure, not knowing where it was going, but it wasn't what we were hoping for that day. So after an hour and a half or so of trying we gave up on the Mordarka idea. The thought that we would have to deal with this same issue on the other end really clinched it for us. So we decided to try to go visit the concentration camp museum. This required finding yet another private bus company's stop, and despite a few criptic signs and 25 minutes running around the same three blocks, we never found it. It is hard to say that we were actually disappointed. Chagrined but releived but might be better. So of course we went to a Milk Bar. Nothing like a good hearty yummy one dollar meal to make you forget missed busses.

Then we went for a walk. We walked out towards the hostel and beyond. Just behind the hostel was a large open space bordered by a very large formal park with trails and rides and food stands. It was very nice... it was called Jordana Park, i used to have a friend named Jordana who was pleased by the uniqueness of her name. If i was still in contact with her i would've sent a postcard.

We continued through the large open space. A few kilometers in the distance beyond Jordana Park we could see the Kocisczo mound. I should explain... first of all we came to Poland expecting an extremly pios Catholic country as all the guidebooks had described. It was, after all, The Church that had held Poland together through the many partitions, right? Well we were quite pleasntly surprised to find the strongest and most open pagen traditions we had found anywhere. There were lots of churches, but little evidence of religious devotion. But there were many many things that we identify with a positive pagen way of thinking. One of those was the mounds. They build, as monmumets, large burial mounds to people who they want to memorialize. The largest of these, of course, is to the great national hero Tadez Kocisczo, who was also a hero of the American Revolution. He fought in America and then returned to Poland where he lead a revolution against the partition, fighting against Russia and Austria. The Poles lost that war, but it is viewed as one of the two or three key pieces of their national lore and Kocisczo is revered above all others. (In fact, the most popular movie in every Polish city we visited was called Pan Tadez, loosely translated, Gentelman Thadeus - which seemed to be a romance involving elaborate period (18th century) costumes and manors and estates.) So we started to walk to the Kocisczo mound, but the weather took a turn and as it got windy and cold we decided that perhaps a long long walk was not the best idea.

One thing we like to do in any city, but especially a city with a tourist oriented center like Krakow, is to hop a tram, sometimes at random, and ride it to the end of the line. You don't even have to get off, although we often do. It is advice my grandfather gave me and it is an excellent idea. So we hopped a tram and took it far out into the industral district and then took the same tram the other direction, through the center of town and out into the residential areas. One of the things we saw a lot of was big ultra modern architecture churchs - concreate with sweeping roofs in unconvential shapes and bizarre steeples. I asked a couple of people about these churches, since they seemed very incongruious to me from my standpoint of American propaganda - dozens and dozens of obviously recent churchs in a country that until recently was communist and athiest. The explaination was always the same - that they were all built in the late 70s and early 80s by the very powerful Polish Catholic Church, and absolutely everyone felt it necessary to add that they felt the Church had WAY too much power and money and needed to be reigned in.

As we approached the end of the line we found ourselves in the middle of the sprawling commie apartment complexes again. We got off and wandered a bit, exploring a veggie market and some other shopping areas (we found a place to pee in a spanking sparkling new modern laundrymat!). On the tram back to the center we spotted a Milk Bar and... well when the tummy grumbles, you have to listen. THIS was a wonderful cultural experince. The Milk Bars in the center of town were very nice and rather authentic, but they were just the minor leauges, preparing us for this. It was great, we were surrounded by working class Poles who lived in the huge apartment buildings and we felt comfortable because of our preperation! Krakow is in many ways a very touristy town, but sitting in the milk bars talking to students, (we often chatted with people we shared tables with) and going to the libraries made us feel more a connected to the people, to life in Krakow -- in fact we had people tell us a number of times that they didnt know we were travellers. Isn't that the goal? :)

That evening we spent more time on the Internet, but the connection was rather slow. We were up early in the morning to catch our train to Wroclaw (read: VROTSVAHV -- i cannot display the crossed L which sounds like the w in water).

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000



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