Look Up!

27 October 2021

Aga Kozak – journalist, coach, sex educator and wellbeing and meditation mentor. Head of the Kręgi Festival and co‑author of the podcast “Sharing is caring”.

I moved back to Kraków after ten years away, at the strangest moment: in the middle of the pandemic. When friends in Warsaw asked why, I had three answers: first, because I missed this city where stepping on the cobblestones and the sound of church bells mark the slow rhythm of the day. Second, I missed my incredible friends from back then, who always seemed to have more time than those in Warsaw. Finally, the pandemic meant no tourists, so the city laid itself bare and revealed things which are usually concealed by long queues of visitors from all corners of the globe, making them inaccessible to locals. Things which I would usually have to push and shove to experience, with people constantly getting in the way, or I’d have to get up at dawn to see at all.

The pandemic-era Kraków with its deserted Main Market Square was a nightmare for many, but a genuine joy for me. My greedy gaze was much like when I first came here as a schoolgirl, dreaming of studying and living here, admiring the buildings, parks, churches, museums… I remember looking into every courtyard, examining the door handles and jambs, searching for traces of mezuzahs. When my dream came true, Kraków became a daily reality; and, although as my first city of adulthood it became an indelible part of my mentality, I no longer looked with such admiration: I noticed the dirt, I hated the careless renovation works, and I was always cold in the badly heated flats. I also had no patience for guidebooks or history books, which didn’t seem sexy at a time when I was immersed in Postmodernism.

During the pandemic, I pounded the streets absorbing information from the extraordinary lapidarium of freshly naked buildings revealing delicious titbits about the city. I cast aside classic guidebooks to Kraków by Michał Rożek who discusses every tenement house in meticulous detail; instead, I reached for the brilliant crime series starring the Cracovian housewife-turned-PI Mrs. Turbotyńska [originally in Polish: Szczupaczyńska – ed.], penned by Maryla Szymiczkowa (a persona invented by co-authors Jacek Dehnel and his partner Piotr Tarczyński). The novels are packed full of descriptions of fin-de-siecle Kraków: human trafficking, old tram routes (including one encircling the Main Square), Kraków’s “Venice”, the Vistula flowing down today’s Dietla Street, histories of the Egyptian Tenement House and the St Brother Albert hostel, all in dazzling prose – and they reawakened my hunger for the city and for becoming something of a tourist.

I found a similar theme in Donna Leon’s recent The Temptation of Forgiveness – an instalment in her crime series set in Venice, filled with historical facts and enchantment with the city, while not shying away from critiquing the tourist policies of Serenissima’s authorities. (The author used the profits from her bestselling novels to… buy a Baroque orchestra!) One of the book’s protagonists, when asked how best to admire a city, says that you must always keep your eyes wide open – and always look up. Priceless advice! Whenever I’m out with friends, I’m surprised by how few do so.

By raising our eyes, we can always spot something new – especially here, in Kraków.

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