I have a couple of friends who are members of Zielony Balonik, a Polish book group who meet in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Not that I’ve been to any of the meetings, but when I met Grazyna and Robin back in July they told me about a exchange visit they’d organised with a book group near Krakow for October. Why didn’t I come? And Lorna as well? We’d never been to Poland, and it seemed like a good reason to go. In the end we couldn’t make the meeting with the other book group, at Limanova, which sounded like a great success.
On Saturday morning we rendezvoused at Camelot on Tomasza, and fortified by good breakfasts walked to the National Museum, to meet Grazyna, Alexander and Larissa. We walked round the 20th century Polish paintings galleries, stopped longest at the Witkacy self- and commercial portraits, though we lacked the code to know which particular high guided them.
I sat a while in the full-size set reconstruction for Kantor’s Powrót Odysa (Return of Ulysses), performed covertly in the Nazi-occupied city in 1944, and which by (apparent) coincidence a friend had mentioned only recently.
On Sunday we enjoyed a tour of Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter, with the novelists Małgorzata and Michał Kuźmińscy, who’ve written two books set there, one just before World War Two, and one just after, when it was a real centre of the black market.
One highlight of the rest of our stay was our visit to the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, where we saw still life with a japanese doll, a nicely curated exhibition of early 20th century Polish paintings influenced by Japonisme, and featuring many of the Japanese artefacts (woodblocks, robes, figures) portrayed in the paintings. The café does excellent Japanese tea – I enjoyed the kokeicha, a type new to me – and we’d recommend the sushi set.
One evening I met the poet Wojciech Bonowicz, who introduced me to a group of writers preparing a ‘magazine’, that is a live presentation of selected texts – a throwback to the Communist days, apparently, when publishing was difficult and risky. They invited me to read as well but, having no Polish and other plans for that evening, I made do with their company there and then, against a backdrop of 60s Polish pop they merrily sang and occasionally danced along to.
We attended the concert Disturbed Calm at St Katherine’s Church, part of the Unsound festival – were lucky to get in, as the 800 tickets were sold out in advance, but did so after a long wait. The venue rather outdid the music during Canadian ‘sound sculptor’ Tim Hecker’s set, but Swedish percussion-and-voice duo wildbirds and peacedrums were more compelling, especially when complemented by a 14-strong choir.
And we were taken with the Schindler Factory, a rich and sobering presentation of Krakow during the dark days of World War Two. There’s a mini-model of the Powrót Odysa set here too, without further explanation.
On the way there, we were charmed by these annotated padlocks on a pedestrian bridge over the Vistula – contemporary beechbark lovehearts. Lorna thought the keys would have been thrown in the river.