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Airbnb Politics

On Poland.


When I went to Poland this past December, I felt a mixture of apprehension and curiosity that had almost nothing to do with the pandemic travel restrictions then in place. Over the last two years, I had often heard friends and teachers speak of the country in a certain tone. I had read even more from journalists and politicians. Some say Poland is Europe’s black sheep and a terrifying example of a backsliding democracy, proof that illiberalism is a real threat to the political, social, and moral progress Europe has made in the last eighty years. Others say Poland is a success story of the marriage between social conservatism and liberal fiscal policy. To me, the country was like a controversial classmate or colleague who is rumored to have inscrutable or abstruse views, which no one can quite understand. I wanted to learn more firsthand.

Why are so many people seemingly obsessed with Poland anyway? Of course, to some extent what happens in Poland affects global affairs, especially now, given its proximity to the war in Ukraine. But that doesn’t explain the inordinate amount of attention paid to Poland from non-experts who never seemed willing to delve into the reality of Polish government and society. 

Perhaps the instrumentalization of Poland as an ideological chess piece is a result of what I call Airbnb politics. I use the term to describe a tempting inclination to homogenize and simplify different societies in order to assimilate them into the blinkered political narratives of one’s own people. Airbnb allows us to travel abroad while retaining all the comforts and amenities of modern life from back home. In a similar way, practitioners of Airbnb politics satisfy their desire for political intrigue by creating comfortable spaces in foreign lands where they can reconstruct the familiar ideological monomachy of the United States. Airbnb politics offer an imagined reality where the foreigner can superimpose his desire for political outrage on a country about whose own politics he is largely unfamiliar. In the case of Poland, those who see the world with American eyes often inflexibly project their own anxieties about the rule of law, immigration, and abortion on a country that treats those issues in ways essentially dissimilar from their own. But I don’t want to opine about Polish politics. (I don’t have the knowledge to do so.) Instead, I’d rather recount what it was like to spend a week in Kraków just a few months ago. 

I landed in Kraków in the late afternoon of a late December day. The sun had already set. A light fog cast the city through a gray filter. On that quiet Monday evening, the streets were filled with men in checkered flat caps, old Polish women selling obwarzanki krakowskie behind blue carts, and white horses drawing white fiacres across the reddish, wet cobblestone. There was a family standing outside an Orthodox church intently trying to make out the intonations of liturgical chant flooding the street. Across from them stood a bronze sculpture of a three-legged horse with his head turned downward and away from the neo-Baroque theater up the street, as if it was shunning the artistic achievements of a people who had amputated one of his legs. Masks were rare, and no one challenged me to prove that I had been vaccinated. The city’s inhabitants freely congregated and embraced in cafes, pubs, and restaurants without undergoing a ritualistic masking and unmasking. 

On a map, Kraków’s Stare Miasto (old town) looks like a brussels sprout on the stem of the winding Vistula River. It is the most beautiful area of the city with its richly decorated, four-story, pastel Baroque buildings. The old town is well-aired and the streets grid-like, unlike the labyrinthine inner districts of Vienna or Prague, and encircled by a horseshoe-shaped park where people seem to retreat for pensive walks or conversations down tree-lined paths illuminated by tall, antique street lamps. There seems to be a Catholic church on every block. Each one is an architectural and artistic masterpiece; each deserves attention and admiration. As I walked through the old town, people streamed out of churches and into the market life of the town and vice versa. I often saw nuns, seminarians, and priests praying their beads in the streets or along Planty Park. Nativity scenes in glass cases like colorful palatial dollhouses were scattered throughout the city’s corners, squares, and parks. A festive jollity seemed to intoxicate the whole city. I walked into a restaurant on the Florianska where a Polish folk music troupe performed for a small gathering. A middle-aged Polish lady, wanting to join the conviviality, got up from the table next to me and began to dance, twirling and kicking her legs in a surprising feat of agility. It didn’t last long. She fell backward onto the carpet with a thud. Her friends helped her get up, all of them laughing as if this was a habitual occurrence over decades of friendship.

I headed south and entered the market square, the heart of the Stare Miasto, where I found a luminous Christmas tree apparently cut from a primeval forest previously untouched by human hands. The square is bisected by the Sukiennice—a two-tiered Renaissance structure with loggias along its length and a long pedestrian corridor with a barrel vault ceiling down its center. St. Mary’s Basilica stands in the northeast corner, apart from the square’s perimeter of neat buildings positioned shoulder to shoulder. Every hour a Polish trumpeter in the tower plays a bugle call that permeates the air like a heavy mist. The eastern side of the square was packed with temporary wooden stalls selling an eclectic assortment of goods, food, and drink. Stocky Polish men stood behind grills and shifted steaming stacks of reddish-orange kielbasa and ham hocks next to a stall filled with tilting stacks of rounded loaves of bread. Small groups escaped the noise of the market for easy conversation and a cigarette by the medieval clock tower on the other side of the square.   

Not all Kraków is like the Stare Miasto. Before traveling to Poland I thought communism was dead in Europe, relegated to museum exhibitions and powerless student groups at premier universities. But the inhabitants of Nowa Huta—Kraków’s easternmost neighborhood—still live in, not under, the legacy of communism every day. Nowa Huta was built entirely on principles of socialist realism architecture and urban design. A twenty-minute tram ride east, it is the ugly stepbrother of the Stare Miasto and its Baroque beauty. The neighborhood is centered around a square, treeless park that once commemorated Lenin but was later renamed after Ronald Reagan. Massive apartment blocks and wide boulevards radiating from the central square evoked a ghostly gray grandeur. The lack of color was most disconcerting. One passing blue streetcar looked like a narrow estuary cutting through a rocky seashore. As I strolled through the heavy and austere apartment blocks, I felt that I shouldn’t be there, or perhaps that I was not actually there. Pedestrians were reserved and did not acknowledge me, but I’m sure I stood out from the Poles, whose physiognomy resembles the sharp cut features of soldiers in a socialist war memorial. People queued up outside of a small shop while a clerk inside punctiliously checked paperwork as he prepared trays of two-dozen eggs for his customers. The churches were almost unrecognizable; the one I entered resembled a Midwestern primary school topped with a pile of excess black and gray roof gables. In the distance, thick plumes of steam spewed out of the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned it melting down as I was whisked away to a decontamination site.

I stepped into Nowa Huta Museum, which looked a little worse for wear with its peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights. Earlier I was told that Kraków is a thrifty city (its nickname is “Pennytown”), but the middle-aged Polish lady behind the ticket desk frowned at me when I tried to take advantage of the student discount. At mid-morning on a weekend, I was their only visitor. I was accompanied by a dispirited museum attendant who was dressed like he just arrived from the graffitied half-pipe of a skate park. To him, I was like an unwanted and clumsy dinner guest. With each new room came a pause and then sound of his steps on the creaking wooden floorboards, like an inexperienced hunter tracking prey. I kept an exaggerated distance from the objects to avoid any possible misunderstanding. He abandoned me when I wandered into a windowless basement that has been converted into a nuclear bunker exhibition. My premonition of a Pripyat-style meltdown materialized: I was welcomed by a series of life size mannequins in hazmat suits and holding Geiger counters. It was too much to handle, and I fled back to my watchful attendant. 

I found myself itching for a hearty Polish meal on my tram ride back from Nowa Huta and decided to pop into one of the city’s milk bars. Despite the name, there were no chocolate shakes. Milk bars are tiny, no-frills cafeterias serving state-subsidized meals. Often the only decorations are stock photos of fresh produce awkwardly hung on the walls, misleadingly depicting food that you can’t find on the meat-and-potatoes menu. A Polish woman was on duty behind the small counter where she dished out soups, pierogi, cutlets, and thick stews into white crockery while sharply crying out the orders. One of those old men wearing a flat cap arrived, put aside his cane against the counter, and handed over a collection of plastic containers. He made idle conversation with the woman behind the register until containers were returned overflowing with pierogi and breaded pork cutlets for later consumption. I ordered the same meal as most other people: pierogi and piping hot beetroot soup. Although unappetizing at first sight, it proved to be the perfect meal for a cold, drizzly afternoon. 

I made one excursion outside of Kraków to see an English expat named Charlie, who also happens to be one the funniest persons on Twitter. (I have found social media generally to be destructive, but I am thankful that it allowed me to make this connection.) He had been teaching and writing for the past eight years in a medium-sized town near Katowice called Tarnowskie Góry. At first blush, the town was eminently parochial: women exited bakeries cradling loaves of bread, a man cautiously carried two trays of eggs across the street, and everyone seemed to be pulling a bundle buggy behind through the sleepy streets. Usually, it’s busier. The town’s lead and silver mine has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I’m told that, before the pandemic, its adits, the mine’s long, horizontal passages, attracted a decent amount of tourism. In some places, Tarnowskie Góry still shows the marks of a mining community. The townspeople are too humble and practical to indulge in lavish displays of wealth or superfluous expenditures. 

As I observed all of this, Charlie emerged from the fog and greeted me in the square with a smile. Even though he has a strong English accent and is easily over six feet tall, he effortlessly fit in. We chatted for a couple hours over lunch in a dark and empty Polish restaurant. I suspected the townspeople must have been uneasy at this furtive Anglo-American gathering. Charlie spoke of Tarnowskie Góry with a tenderness and intimacy that was touching. He seemed to be a man perfectly content in his adopted town and happy to detach himself from the hollow networks of a globalized world.

Later, after returning from Tarnowskie Góry, I walked toward the Vistula and entered Kazimierz, Kraków’s former Jewish district. It is now a hip and trendy neighborhood where street art and student-filled cafes are ubiquitous. I explored Plac Nowy’s open-air market, where vendors sell produce, clothing, and Soviet-themed knick-knacks. A few merely have fold-up tables covered with unfolded piles of sweaters and pants as if they were fed up with their child’s messy room and decided to make a quick złoty. Curious shoppers navigated the cramped commons while struggling to eat the popular street food zapiekanka: a two-foot-long baguette piled with meat and melted cheese. 

On the opposite side of the river from Kazimierz is a quiet, clean neighborhood called Podgórze connected by a pedestrian bridge where bronze statues of trapeze artists swing in between the suspension cables. I discovered a small group of people practicing stage combat with medieval weapons in the pit of a former limestone mine as if they were preparing for a siege of the old town.

I can’t forget to mention Kraków’s mounds. From the city center they look like green gumdrops scattered across the hilly suburbs. Krakus Mound provides some of the best views of the city, but I was told to head farther west and visit Kościuszko Mound—a monument built to commemorate a Polish patriot who fought for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. It was a fifty-minute walk from the Stare Miasto, across a flat quadrangular meadow where dogs that look more like small black bears ran loose and bicyclists with insulated delivery chests strapped to their backs raced past me. As I crossed the meadow, the mound completely vanished behind the thick, crooked branches of a leafless forest and the handsome houses on the slope. At the top of the hill, instead of a wooden palisade, I found that the mound was encircled by an Austro-Hungarian citadel fort and a neo-Gothic chapel seamlessly built into its red brick walls. The chapel’s staggered turrets and crenels painted with crosses evinced a worldview that does not correlate Christianity with pacifism. The whole complex could be an ecumenical project between the Hapsburgs and Mississippians of Cahokia. I was rewarded at the top of the mound with a panorama of Kraków where the resplendent Wawel Castle can be spotted in the foreground of the nuclear power plant. One ensured the existence of the medieval town; the other ensures the existence of the modern city. 

As I write this now from the security of my Airbnb, everything in this apartment feels so sterile and stultifying. It’s as if a disinfecting crew not only scrubbed it clean of any trace of Covid but also any possible trace of the people and culture that I found outside these walls. The Airbnb is comfortable and familiar, suited perfectly to my modern consumer demands and aesthetic preferences. All too often, it seems, we approach our politics similarly, imposing our chorus of national despair on a country that is not the United States. 

It’s only when I leave my political Airbnb that I can more fully appreciate the vibrant beauty of Poland, as well as the profound charity of many of its inhabitants. Now, if my Polonophile friends ask me about the country, I can give my impressions but no confident assertions about its state or political trajectory. I’m perfectly content with that.

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