Last week, I saw my grandfather’s face beneath the black cap of a priest with a floor-brushing robe, dusting the frost from the streets of Krakow as he moved with a purpose to God knows where. God probably does know, in fact.
I saw his bow-legged stance, the one that I usually saw as he jauntily pushed a wheelbarrow through the woods, his pipe affixed to the corner of his mouth. This time, it was a on a construction worker shoveling stones into the pitted road outside Krakow as I left, what felt like moments after I had arrived.
Krakow wasn’t on my list of places to visit. I do have a list, a list that has been languishing for a good three years now, ever since I moved back to Paris and realized that travel cost money, particularly if you didn’t want to be sharing foot water with filthy fellow backpackers who snore themselves awake. Krakow just sort of happened by way of my Godmother, who was planning to spend Thanksgiving there and asked if I would like to tag along. While I had my own Thanksgiving plans — plans that I intend to describe at length at a later date — I decided to take three precious days off work, and so from Monday to Wednesday last week, I was in Poland.
From the moment I arrived, there was something about it. The language that brushed past me, so far removed from anything I could understand that it became a lyrical white noise. It’s not the same noise as Dutch; I’ve never been to Germany, so I can’t make the comparison. It reduced me to a state of embarrassed humility when I found myself doing what I so hate and asking a blonde woman on the shuttle bus, “Do you speak English?”
The ride to the city center was cold and uneventful, and yet I couldn’t allow my eyelids to close for even a moment, couldn’t stop staring at the landscape that was so different and yet rang so true.
It’s hard to believe, perhaps, but I didn’t fall in love with France at first sight. It crept up on me, the way that love so often does, until it suddenly seemed inevitable. But the outskirts of Krakow, for some unknown reason, became mine at first glance, the way good friends of good friends can suddenly and without warning become integral parts of your life, the way the cousin of your cousin becomes your cousin before you know his last name.
My Godmother is an experienced traveler; she’s been to Poland before. She knew, when I arrived, that what I would want to do for the next three days was wander, and wander we did: in and out of cafés, where I ordered mocha without exception once I tasted and categorically refused black Polish coffee. Up and down streets, in and out of boutiques and gourmet food shops.
And of course, there were the Christmas markets, where we spent the majority of our time and money. More on that at a later date.
The more we wandered, the more intrigued I became. My aunt told me the story of the church on the main town square that played host to the Christmas markets we were so enchanted by: a horn player who, in announcing the arrival of the Huns with his trumpet, was shot through the throat. Every hour, the horn that announces the time is hushed half-way through its song, in deference to this strange bit of history. I soaked up little moments like this, tried to find common ground with the people I couldn’t understand.
Or maybe I felt some sort of kinship with this country. My great-aunt would find this alarming; we’re German, not Polish. But with a name that ends in -ski and birth certificates somewhere in a town that now exists within the Polish borders, there’s a reason that I saw my grandfather’s face everywhere I looked.
I brought two Polish sausages and a slab of lard back from the Polish grocery store and served them with potato pancakes and applesauce and roasted Brussels sprouts. The Country Boy thought they tasted good. I thought they tasted like home… whatever that means.
Potato Pancakes (makes 6)
400 grams potatoes, shredded on the large holes of a grater
a hefty pinch of salt
4 Tbsp. lard
Place the potatoes in a strainer and toss them with salt. Allow to drain for at least 1 hour.
When ready to cook, heat the lard in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Transfer the potato mixture to a bowl and add the egg. Mix to combine.
Test the heat of the lard with a small piece of potato. When it sizzles, dollop large spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the lard. Cook for 2-3 minutes per side, until golden-brown and crispy. Reserve on paper towels.
If you happen to have delicious Polish sausages on hand, put them in what remains of the lard to brown on all sides. Serve with mustard and applesauce.