On arrival at the tiny airport in Balice, Poland, I was greeted immediately by a pleasant but rather bold taxi driver who began carting off my luggage, smiling widely and muttering something about 25 zloty. My suitcases were locked in his trunk before I could protest, and his price sounded dirt cheap. So I hopped in, and he took off, riding the center white line through winding, dark, empty back streets, all the while talking in a rapid, hard-to-follow Polish/German/English clip. Every so often he’d turn around and gesture to emphasize a point, and I’d envision us running off the road into a ditch. But, fifteen minutes later, I was still in one piece when he parked the taxi in the middle of the street, about a block from the Hotel Saski.
The Saski was a century-old hotel, just half a block from the famed Main Market Square in Krakow’s Old Town. For about $35 a night I stayed in a clean, dormitory-style room with a hot shower. The shared toilet facilities down the hall were old, but spotless. Despite what I’d read about toilet paper costing two cents a sheet in hotels and public restrooms, ours had a whole box for the taking. Anything the hotel lacked in Western-style comfort, it made up in Old World charm. It had a working cage elevator, beautiful oil landscapes lining the hallways, and a restaurant with a full menu of Polish favorites – such as sausage and sauerkraut.
The Saski’s entryway opened onto a narrow cobblestone street, which took me to Rynek Glowny, or “Grand Square,” once the largest medieval square in Europe. It was still an impressive city center, and the focal point for Poland’s richest resource: her people. This was the gathering place for young and old, rich and poor. Visitors and locals alike mingled comfortably. The heart of the square was the Cloth Hall, a long, distinctive building with an ornate roof and multiple arched entryways that divided the square in two. The Cloth Hall has been a shopping area for more than 700 years. Inside, merchants sold art, jewelry, and Polish artifacts in individual stalls, while outside, artisans painted, drew, and displayed their work.
Rynek Glowny, or “Grand Square,” was once the largest medieval square in Europe.
Among the displays, I found two beautiful drawings of the older buildings surrounding the square. With no knowledge of Polish, I spent a few minutes bargaining with the artist, using gestures and a bit of flattery. He was thrilled when I identified one of the houses in his sketches as one from a nearby side street. Reminiscent of the taxi driver, he wrapped the sketch in tissue paper, put it in a bag, and handed it to me with a handwritten invoice – before I agreed to purchase it. His face glowed with pride when I accepted it and paid him, motioning for him to keep the change. I, too, felt proud: I got a good price.
Elsewhere on Rynek Glowny, male musicians in native dress – beige pantaloons, white long-sleeved shirts, and black and red knee-length jumpers, heavily adorned with red tassels and ribbons – entertained outside the Cloth Hall on violin, clarinet, and accordion. Students from the local university gathered at an outdoor café to discuss politics, while visitors from Europe and the US hunted for souvenirs. Around the perimeter stood a variety of shops, from crowded discount bookstores to high-end boutiques, where few storekeepers spoke English and ordinary Krakovians spent the day shopping. Just outside the 14th Century Gothic Church, St. Mary’s, a mother and baby dressed in ragged clothing sat quietly on a blanket and begged for money. Passing shoppers, students, and visitors offered a kind word, a warm touch to the shoulder, and a coin in their basket.
The people I encountered in Krakow displayed natural grace, generosity, and compassion. That goodness even extended to the square’s countless pigeons. Krakow’s pigeons were a special lot, believed by some to be the resurrected knights of Prince Probius, who tried to reunite the old kingdom of Poland many centuries ago. The winged knights reputedly made up the second largest pigeon population in Europe, after that of Venice, and visitors enjoyed paying their respects. Vendors sold special food in cups, and adults and children alike fed and played with the birds. One young man in a bright red jacket stood near the center of the square, very still, arms straight out to his sides, like a scarecrow. Dozens of pigeons flocked around him, landing on his arms, atop his head, and around his feet. Even the children’s shrieks of delight didn’t frighten them away.
Krakow’s pigeons were believed by some to be the resurrected knights of Prince Probius, who tried to reunite the old kingdom of Poland centuries ago.
The day I left, I had to get to the airport by 5:00 a.m. In a strange country, unable to speak the language, I worried all week about making transportation arrangements, but the hotel staff assured me they’d line up a taxi. Sure enough, at 4:00 a.m., a middle-aged man was waiting for me outside in his private cab. Despite the early hour, Jan cheerfully jumped out of his car and held the door for me, then grabbed my luggage and packed it carefully in the trunk. The trip to the airport took about an hour, and he chatted all the way, his broken English a delight to listen to.
At the airport, I asked him the fare.
“How much would you like to give me?”
This was new. I couldn’t imagine a U.S. taxi driver, or anyone who provided a service in the U.S., asking me to decide how much to pay for it. I began to panic. I wasn’t sure whether to pay him in dollars, zloty, or Deutsche Marks, and I had no idea what constituted a fair price.
When I asked how much others usually paid for a fare from the hotel to the airport, he said, “One businessman that I drove just the other day gave me 100 American dollars. But you can give me whatever you think is fair.”
I couldn’t help but smile. The Polish were proving to be exceptional negotiators, in addition to all their other fine qualities. I gave him my last $90. I guess that was a generous fare, because he absolutely beamed. It was worth it.
Handing me his card, he said, “Next time you are in Krakow, you call Jan. I’ll drive you anywhere, anytime.”
Fourteen years later, I still have his card.
Diane E. Baumer is finishing her graduate work in Creative Writing at Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, OH. In her spare time, she loves to read, hike, make jewelry, and play with her cat. She is excitedly planning her next great adventure to Churchill, Manitoba to romp among the polar bears.