Thursday, September 19, 2013

Krakow Chronicles

We are on our annual road trip in Europe, this time we drive down from Prague (Czech Republic) to Krakow (Poland). It’s almost June, but it’s unusually cold and rainy and it takes us more than five hours to reach the city. In our three days in the city, we meet three very different kinds of people, each with their own story, each of which is fascinating in its own right.

We shack up with an Indian family who has been living in Poland for the last ten years. Mr. Chatterjee is a marketing manager with a prominent manufacturing company while his wife, an ex-IT professional, is a housewife. We ask her impressions about the country which has now been her home for almost a decade. Her daughter, Tanya, is in UK doing her bachelors in Economics, while her son, Rohan, goes to school in Krakow itself. She seems quite happy with her life in the cozy, sprawling bungalow, as she indulges her passion for gardening and painting, though she does admit that it gets quite lonely at times, especially since her husband travels often on work and her daughter has moved out of home. While her son is quite comfortable with the local children and has imbibed the local tastes (like the love of tennis and skiing, as opposed to cricket), she still finds her solace in rented old Bollywood movies or new Bengali music (‘Bangla Adhunik Gaan’) which she picks up on her annual visits to India.

Every winter finds her dressed in layers of warm clothing, taking her dog, Kosturi (she couldn’t resist the temptation of naming her after a popular Bengali household name, something her kids resisted) even at sub-10 degrees temperature while every summer, she goes on trips across Europe either on her own or with her friends/family members visiting from India. “I have traveled to Austria, Germany, UK, France, Spain, but Prague is definitely my favourite, followed by Budapest”, she quips, as she points to the souvenir of the Astronomical Clock in Prague or the night shot of the Danube river in Budapest. But life, for her, is a waiting game: waiting for the day when she would finally go back to Kolkata, even though her husband nurses ambitions of leading the entire Eastern European operations for his company in the near future (a rare achievement for an Indian) and her children cannot dream of a life outside the comfortable familiarity of Europe.

The next day, as we go around Krakow through the busy streets of the old Jewish town, Kazimierz, soak in the magnificent view of the Vistula river from the Wawel Castle, try the local cuisine (including the popular Żurek soup) in the Old Town and pick up knick knacks at Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), arguably the world’s oldest shopping mall, we get to know Slawomir, a middle aged man, born and brought up in the city. He enthusiastically chatters away about how the economy has flourished with a lot of multi-nationals setting up their offshoring desks in cities like Krakow and Wroclaw (not unlike Indian cities like Mumbai, Bangalore or Gurgaon), the pride the people take in Pope John Paul II, the first Polish Pope and the many beautiful castles and salt mines in and around Krakow. But as we get a little high on the local drink, Śliwowica, his cheerful mask slips off for a moment as he talks about his well-educated wife who lost her job as an economist and his 23-year old daughter who works extra shifts in KFC to make it through college. Himself a cab driver, he is completely old school, as he expresses his disapproval about “the young people these days.” He shakes his head as he confides in us, “I fell in love with my wife as a teenager and we have been married for 27 years. But look at my daughter, she has a boyfriend she lives with, but they don’t want to get married. What can you do as a parent, but no, I don’t like it”…

On the final day, we take a bus to Auschwitz, about 60 km from Krakow, infamous for housing one of most elaborate Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. For almost four hours we relive the horror stories that so many Jews went through, we see glaring reminders of inhuman atrocities and we cringe at the thought of the monstrosity that went on for over five years: all of it narrated by the Polish guide, whose voice pierced through the gloomy silence on a gloomy day, whose words cut through the gory remnants of the camp and whose emotions dripped with frightening familiarity to the events. Finally, when the tour came to an end, we got talking to him, and he left us even more shocked as he signed off, “People wonder how I do this job every day, how I go through the experience again and again, but let me assure you that if you were a Jew who had lost a family member in this carnage, you would also feel the same personal trauma that I do, each day, every day”.

And there it was, our journey through Krakow, which ended up as more than just another tourist destination. It was also a journey into the minds of the people who, despite the vast differences, were essentially the same, with stories which resonated with each of us: of longing, of pride, of the cultural tug of war, of resentment, of memories, of being human.

First published on Newsyaps

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