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Krakow: The “Real” Europe

Street names and more: an analysis of this Old World city's charm.

The largest medieval town square in Europe, Krakow's Main Square dates back to the 13th century.
The largest medieval town square in Europe, Krakow's Main Square dates back to the 13th century.

Krakow is special. Paris is fantastic, but so over-the-top and tourist-oriented that emotional connection is limited.

When we arrived in Krakóv, and walked out on the Old Town square (above), my eyes teared up. I was now “really” in Europe – sort of like going from Tijuana to Michoacán. The bells in the two steeples of St. Mary’s Basilica chime every hour, and once in awhile a trumpeter appears at a steeple window to play.

The varying facades of the buildings surrounding the square are intricate and beautiful, as are the open carriages drawn by pairs of horses in accoutrements like feather headdresses and golden medallions, the drivers in vests and hats. In the center, there’s a building that houses vendors of arts/crafts from all the cities of Poland. It's all very Romeo and Juliet. At one end is a towering brick structure, the entrance to the catacombs below.

Krakóv became a three-level underground city after being repeatedly attacked. (The country of Poland was eliminated – twice.) To sit at a sidewalk café in Paris is relaxing and entertaining. To sit at a squareside café in old Krakow is breathtaking.

Today, we saw an exhibit on The Orange Alternative. Around 1981, a Polish historian named Fydrych came up with a plan to end the Communist government in Poland. He saw that there were millions of white spots on Polish buildings where government agents had painted over protestor complaints or slogans. He declared that the solution was to draw a dwarf/gnome on each spot. (His dwarf was an orange comic character, like the seven dwarfs of Snow White.) Fydrych and his friends went to many Polish cities, painting dwarfs on building white spaces. The communist government didn’t know what to do about this, so they did nothing.

The dwarf images became an inspiration for change. Fydrych, known as Major, printed newsletters describing his surrealistic politics, and leaflet invitations to his “happenings.” He asked people to show up wearing orange scarves, and they did. They were arrested, but then released.

At another happening, 31 people dressed as Santa Claus were arrested, then released. Many happenings followed – with silly means of group identity, like dwarf caps and bizarre homemade costumes. For one happening, Major asked the group to bring baguettes covered in ketchup. A bakery close to the site was swamped, with a long line of customers, each asking for one baguette and a double order of ketchup. When the police tried to close the bakery to stop the protest, the owner objected, saying, “this is the best business day I have ever had!”

The exhibit filmstrips described and documented many such incidents, with a growing number of cities, participants and publications. The government couldn’t stop the protests; they didn’t have the jailspace for all the protestors or reason to prosecute them.

The exhibit included pictures of Lech Walesa and his Labor Movement, but didn’t connect the dots between the two movements. The exhibit concluded that the effects of the Orange Alternative and Walesa’s Labor Movement combined forced the Communist party to negotiate, resulting in elections, resulting in its defeat.

The Orange tactics reminded me of Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven, and of Mario Savio at Berkeley. But the stakes in the U.S. were much lower than in Poland, where a military dictatorship was defeated.

Our apartment in Krakov is a modern efficient flat in an old building with large rooms, full kitchen and bath, and clothes washer, walking distance to Old Town and Vavel (Wawel) Castle. (By now you should realize that the “W” is pronounced like a “V” in Polish.) It's on the corner of Zyblikiewicsa and Librowszczyzna.

There ought to be a law against three or more “z”s in one word, especially when surrounded by “s”, “c” and “y”. Map reading in Poland is tough, because the street names change often and on maps the long names are 6-8 blocks long. So far, I've been fortunate to find Polish (or French) who speak English (or Spanish). But if I got lost, I don’t think I could successfully say “Excuse me, would you direct me to Librowszczyzna?”

These might be the worst street coordinates possible, right?

Well, it turns out that they are among the Top Ten Deadly Names I’ve encountered in Poland so far. Here’s the list – try to make these roll off your tongue without drooling too much on yourself, or chewing on your lip.

  • 10) POWSTAŃCÓW SIQSKISH
  • 9) ZYBUKIEWICSA
  • 8) ZWIERZYNIECKA
  • 7) ORLQT LWOWSKICH
  • 6) PRZEDWIOŚNIE
  • 5) WYBRZEŹE SZCZECIŃSKIE
  • 4) PRZYJAŹNI POLSKO-WĘGIERSKIEJ
  • 3) BYDGOSZCZ
  • 2) LIBROWSZCZYZNA

And my no. 1 difficult name is Halina’s birthplace – WAŁBRZYCH. Its pronunciation is not remotely similar to its spelling.

Hint #1: All “W”s are pronounced “V”. Hint #2: “Ę” = “EN”. Hint #3: “Ł” = “W” (not “V”).

Good luck.

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The largest medieval town square in Europe, Krakow's Main Square dates back to the 13th century.
The largest medieval town square in Europe, Krakow's Main Square dates back to the 13th century.

Krakow is special. Paris is fantastic, but so over-the-top and tourist-oriented that emotional connection is limited.

When we arrived in Krakóv, and walked out on the Old Town square (above), my eyes teared up. I was now “really” in Europe – sort of like going from Tijuana to Michoacán. The bells in the two steeples of St. Mary’s Basilica chime every hour, and once in awhile a trumpeter appears at a steeple window to play.

The varying facades of the buildings surrounding the square are intricate and beautiful, as are the open carriages drawn by pairs of horses in accoutrements like feather headdresses and golden medallions, the drivers in vests and hats. In the center, there’s a building that houses vendors of arts/crafts from all the cities of Poland. It's all very Romeo and Juliet. At one end is a towering brick structure, the entrance to the catacombs below.

Krakóv became a three-level underground city after being repeatedly attacked. (The country of Poland was eliminated – twice.) To sit at a sidewalk café in Paris is relaxing and entertaining. To sit at a squareside café in old Krakow is breathtaking.

Today, we saw an exhibit on The Orange Alternative. Around 1981, a Polish historian named Fydrych came up with a plan to end the Communist government in Poland. He saw that there were millions of white spots on Polish buildings where government agents had painted over protestor complaints or slogans. He declared that the solution was to draw a dwarf/gnome on each spot. (His dwarf was an orange comic character, like the seven dwarfs of Snow White.) Fydrych and his friends went to many Polish cities, painting dwarfs on building white spaces. The communist government didn’t know what to do about this, so they did nothing.

The dwarf images became an inspiration for change. Fydrych, known as Major, printed newsletters describing his surrealistic politics, and leaflet invitations to his “happenings.” He asked people to show up wearing orange scarves, and they did. They were arrested, but then released.

At another happening, 31 people dressed as Santa Claus were arrested, then released. Many happenings followed – with silly means of group identity, like dwarf caps and bizarre homemade costumes. For one happening, Major asked the group to bring baguettes covered in ketchup. A bakery close to the site was swamped, with a long line of customers, each asking for one baguette and a double order of ketchup. When the police tried to close the bakery to stop the protest, the owner objected, saying, “this is the best business day I have ever had!”

The exhibit filmstrips described and documented many such incidents, with a growing number of cities, participants and publications. The government couldn’t stop the protests; they didn’t have the jailspace for all the protestors or reason to prosecute them.

The exhibit included pictures of Lech Walesa and his Labor Movement, but didn’t connect the dots between the two movements. The exhibit concluded that the effects of the Orange Alternative and Walesa’s Labor Movement combined forced the Communist party to negotiate, resulting in elections, resulting in its defeat.

The Orange tactics reminded me of Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven, and of Mario Savio at Berkeley. But the stakes in the U.S. were much lower than in Poland, where a military dictatorship was defeated.

Our apartment in Krakov is a modern efficient flat in an old building with large rooms, full kitchen and bath, and clothes washer, walking distance to Old Town and Vavel (Wawel) Castle. (By now you should realize that the “W” is pronounced like a “V” in Polish.) It's on the corner of Zyblikiewicsa and Librowszczyzna.

There ought to be a law against three or more “z”s in one word, especially when surrounded by “s”, “c” and “y”. Map reading in Poland is tough, because the street names change often and on maps the long names are 6-8 blocks long. So far, I've been fortunate to find Polish (or French) who speak English (or Spanish). But if I got lost, I don’t think I could successfully say “Excuse me, would you direct me to Librowszczyzna?”

These might be the worst street coordinates possible, right?

Well, it turns out that they are among the Top Ten Deadly Names I’ve encountered in Poland so far. Here’s the list – try to make these roll off your tongue without drooling too much on yourself, or chewing on your lip.

  • 10) POWSTAŃCÓW SIQSKISH
  • 9) ZYBUKIEWICSA
  • 8) ZWIERZYNIECKA
  • 7) ORLQT LWOWSKICH
  • 6) PRZEDWIOŚNIE
  • 5) WYBRZEŹE SZCZECIŃSKIE
  • 4) PRZYJAŹNI POLSKO-WĘGIERSKIEJ
  • 3) BYDGOSZCZ
  • 2) LIBROWSZCZYZNA

And my no. 1 difficult name is Halina’s birthplace – WAŁBRZYCH. Its pronunciation is not remotely similar to its spelling.

Hint #1: All “W”s are pronounced “V”. Hint #2: “Ę” = “EN”. Hint #3: “Ł” = “W” (not “V”).

Good luck.

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