A Krakow journal

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

29 May

On the LOT flight from Frankfurt, my wife Ewa sees two items of interest in today’s Gazeta Wyborcza. ‘Look,’ she says, leaning across the aisle, pointing at an article. ‘Guess who’ll be in Krakow tomorrow? George the Bush.’ (The name was coined by Dan Quayle, who announced at a press conference, ‘I’m proud to serve with George the Bush’ – referring, of course, to the current president’s father.) Reading further, Ewa tells me that Bush II is coming for a meeting with Alexander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, and that a lot of what we’d planned to do tomorrow – buying supplies for our apartment, which we haven’t set foot in since last summer – will probably have to be altered, because Bush is travelling with an entourage of six hundred people and traffic in the city centre is likely to be snarled.

A moment or two later, after flipping to the cultural section, she says, ‘Now here’s some more enticing news. Günter Grass is in town, too.’  

Our younger daughter Magda, who’s thirteen, asks, ‘Is he coming to meet George Bush?’

30 May

Bush, it turns out, will not arrive until this evening, so after waking at five o’clock, Ewa and I drink coffee for a while, get dressed and go downtown to shop and reactivate our cellphone.

One of the first things I notice, walking around the city centre, is that the prices for some goods and services have dropped since last year. Poland is in the midst of a lengthy recession, with unemployment in some cities as high as 25 per cent, and, like most westerners who own property here, I’ve already benefited from the economic troubles. During the year or so we’ve been away, we’ve had tiles installed in our kitchen, new bathroom fixtures added, a major rewiring job done – all of which cost us less than five hundred dollars. After we get our cellphone working, Ewa calls the man who did the work and makes arrangements to pay him. When he comes by to pick up the money, she gives him a good-sized tip. She’s not like a great many Poles I know who emigrated to the US in the ’70s and ’80s, under the belief that the Soviet boot would remain firmly planted on the Polish neck. They gave up their country and then got tricked by history. They were supposed to be able to return for brief visits and live like kings on pennies a day. A Polish friend of ours who left in 1980 and now lives, as we do, in Fresno, California, complains bitterly after every trip back: ‘Poland’s so damn expensive.’

31 May

Jet-lagged to the point of incoherence, we went to sleep last night at six o’clock and missed Günter Grass. On the positive side, we also missed the arrival of George Bush, who angered some people, according to this morning’s papers, by failing to wave back at them as he was being driven into town and by refusing to shake the hand of the mayor, who opposed the war with Iraq. Junior may well manage to alienate even the Poles, despite their long-standing love of his father, who gets credit in this part of the world for the collapse of communism.

On the way to IKEA to buy furnishings we couldn’t afford last year after paying for the apartment, Ewa and the taxi driver discuss the looming referendum on Poland’s entry into the EU. While a lot of people think the vote will be close, the driver says there’s no chance the referendum will fail. The only ones who’ll vote No, he tells us, are small businesspeople, old folks who spend all their time listening to Radio Maria (the right-wing Catholic network), and peasants.

1 June

Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main market square, is for me a magnetic place. One of the largest medieval squares in Europe, it is dominated by the massive fourteenth-century Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall. The first time I ever visited the city, back in 1990, the square was grey and depressing, but now there’s plenty of colour. Lively cafés with bright awnings line all four sides, street vendors hawk their wares from carts and booths, there’s an open-air flower market, and from all four corners of the square, early in the morning and late at night, one hears music: a Dixieland band near St Adalbert’s Church, a Krakowian folk band at the north end of Sukiennice, a gypsy group in front of the Town Hall Tower, a scraggly-headed kid sitting on the pavement in front of the EMPIK book store with a cheap guitar, doing Dylan a little better than Dylan himself. Whereas Warsaw has passed laws banning street musicians, they’re everywhere in Krakow.

We stop tonight at Café Szara for drinks and dessert. On the sidewalk, just beyond reach of the waiters who would probably have to run her off if she got any closer, a tiny Ukrainian woman plays the violin for change. Last year, on a day when she positioned herself before EMPIK, I saw the poet Robert Hass, who’d come to town for a poetry symposium, standing in front of her, listening raptly. I can’t remember if I knew her story then or, if I did, whether or not I passed it on to Hass, but I know it now. Conservatory-trained, she left the Ukraine to play on street corners in far more affluent Krakow, in hopes of earning enough money to send her daughter to college. She also tried Berlin for a while, but to her surprise she discovered she could make more here than there.

Tonight she plays Wieniawski, and after Ewa goes over and places twenty zlotys in the violin case and tells how much she enjoyed it, the woman smiles, thanks her and proceeds to play the whole piece again.

2 June

The word American might as well be tattooed on my forehead: I may eschew blue jeans and tee shirts and replace my white jogging shoes with black Eccos, but everybody still knows where I’ve come from.

I usually make it three or four days in Poland before someone tries to cheat me. I’ve often wondered why it never happens the first day or the second, if something changes in my demeanour as I begin to settle in, so that everybody knows it’s okay to go ahead and hunt Bambi. This time it happens late at night in an Internet café. After my older daughter Tosha, Magda and I each spend fifteen minutes checking email and I go to pay, the guy at the desk doubles the price.

My reaction is the same as always. Because (A) my Polish is atrocious, (B) I’m from Mississippi and was raised to be especially polite to those I want to strangle, and (C) I feel an odd kind of responsibility that somebody else is in a position in which he needs to rip me off, I reach into my pocket, pull out twelve zlotys, hand them to the guy and walk out.

On the sidewalk, Tosha, who is fifteen, looks me in the eye and says, ‘Daddy? Didn’t he double the price?’

‘Yeah, and we’re not going there anymore.’

In Tosha’s chest beats Chopin’s heart. She doesn’t ask my permission, just spins on her heel and re-enters the café. She asks the guy – in loud, insistent Polish – why he tried to fleece her father.

A moment later she emerges and hands me six zlotys. ‘Daddy, you need to do two things,’ she says. ‘The first is to start standing up for yourself.’

‘What’s the second?’

‘Learn more Polish.’

4 June

For the first time since leaving the US, I weigh myself. After converting from kilos, I discover that I’ve already lost four pounds off my 220-pound frame. This almost always happens when I come here – despite the fact that when I’m in Poland, I eat like a pig and drink two or three beers a day. The reason for the weight loss is easy to understand: in Krakow I have no car.

For the past two years, my children have attended schools at opposite ends of Fresno, one of the most spread-out cities in the US. On days when they have piano lessons, I often put as many as one hundred miles on the car – and never leave the city limits. In the car I’m not myself. I ride the freeways at breakneck speed, shut off from all the other edgy drivers, as well as from the landscape itself. When you spend so much time inside the car, changes in weather are almost unnoticeable; one day is, for all practical purposes, the same as any other. The one exception, in Fresno, is that rare day when it rains; then there are numerous wrecks and, because parts of the city have no gutters, many of the streets flood. Traffic sometimes stops altogether, in which case all of us sit in our cars, looking pissed-off and making angry calls on our cellphones.

In Krakow each morning I set off for the Rynek at a brisk pace. It’s fifteen minutes there, fifteen minutes back, and I make that walk at least twice a day. I also go out to buy water once or twice a day – Krakow’s drinking water being undrinkable – and when I return, with an enormous jug in each hand and three one-litre bottles in my backpack, and climb four flights of steps to my apartment, I get a good workout and reach the landing outside my door feeling sweaty and winded and deeply involved with the world.

5 June

I’m in Warsaw for a couple of events arranged by my Polish publisher to promote the release, in translation, of my novel Visible Spirits. The first is a meeting with professors and students from the English Department at Warsaw University.

Polish students rarely fail to impress, and the ones I encounter in Warsaw are no exception. All are extremely young, supremely bright, and better read in both English and American literature than almost all of my students back home. One young woman who has already read my novel asks why so much attention is paid in the book to the lack of physical contact between black and white characters, and I explain that in the South, especially in 1902, when the novel is set, white people and black people almost never touched one another, except in cases of sexual relations between a black woman and a white man or in situations in which white children were nursed by a black nannies. I field questions about the influence of Faulkner on my work, American resistance to novels by Canadian authors, the rise of ethnic writers in the United States. One professor announces that while Toni Morrison has clearly influenced me, I haven’t said a word about her. No harm intended, I reply, she’s a great writer and will fare just fine whether I mention her today in Warsaw or not. Another professor, as a preface to a question about the ‘decline’ of the Southern novel, crowns Sophie’s Choice the last important book about the American South.

6 June

In Warsaw, I’ve been staying with a friend I’ll call Barbara. She’s in her late seventies now, and she spends three or four months out of every year here; the rest of the time she lives in California.

When she was fourteen, Barbara took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Some months back, while watching Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, she became hysterical and had to be led from the theatre by a friend because of a scene that closely resembled an event she witnessed during the fighting. Last night, while we were talking about her reaction to the film, she withdrew a box from a closet and showed me an armband she wore during the uprising to identify herself as a medical aid worker. Old and frayed, the fabric was stained by blood.

Today, before I leave for Krakow, we talk about the upcoming referendum. Barbara says she’s against Poland’s joining the EU. The only reason she can offer, however, is that she is angry: angry that so many people in Poland have gotten rich through ‘connections’. Talent and hard work don’t matter anymore, she says, it’s worse than under the Communists. She’s convinced that in the EU, rich Poles will get even richer, and she would like to prevent that.

I know that, like most of the surprisingly large Polish immigrant community in Fresno, Barbara votes Republican, so I ask her why it doesn’t bother her that in the US the rich keep getting richer as the incomes of almost everyone else keep declining. She says, ‘Maybe because when I first went to America, I knew that was what it would be like. Here, it used to be if you knew some Communist boss, you go to him and he says to you, “Look, you need a suitcase, no problem.” He picks the phone up, calls somebody, they bring you a suitcase. Now, you need a suitcase, you don’t have the money to buy a suitcase, you don’t get one. Nobody cares.’ She shrugs. ‘Maybe I’m too old to keep coming here. Maybe Poland’s passed me by.’

7 June

Tonight I carry a signed book downstairs and give it to my neighbour, Mr L.

Mr L is in his early fifties, a short, slight man with prematurely grey hair. He has a degree in Polish literature, has written two books for children and has worked for more than twenty years as a copy-editor at one of the largest Krakow papers. These days, he also doubles as a janitor and caretaker for our building. He lives directly underneath us, in an apartment half the size of ours, with his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and three small grandchildren.

When I hand him the book, he accepts it graciously, admiring the cover and the binding, just as I would if another writer gave me one of his books. Then he thanks me profusely and apologizes for not being able to reciprocate. He owns only a single copy of each of the books he has written.

8 June

In the old Poland, as elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, it was not at all unusual to find a college professor or an attorney living between an auto-mechanic and a street vendor. While apartments near the centre of the more attractive cities like Krakow, Gdansk and Wroclaw are now being bought and renovated by foreigners and affluent Poles, and the original inhabitants are moving to larger and newer quarters on the outskirts of town, the part of Krakow that we live in still has a decidedly blue-collar aura. We’re three blocks away from the Hala Targowa, where farmers drive in every weekday morning to sell their meats, fruits and vegetables and Sunday is dedicated to a flea market. Each morning, about eight o’clock, we hear a horse clopping down the street, on his way to spend the day dragging tourists around town in a carriage. We’ve never actually seen where the horse lives, but our neighbour Wojciech Ligeza, one of the country’s leading poetry critics, tells us the stable is nearby.

On our side of the street, which is also the side the Ligezas live on, about half of the buildings have been at least partially refurbished. On the other side of the street, every structure looks as if it hasn’t been touched since the Nazis left town. One in particular is little more than a soot-covered ruin, and it’s in this building that most of the kids who cause trouble on the street reside.

Last year, when we were trying to decide whether or not to buy the apartment, I walked along the street around ten o’clock at night with Krystyna Lenkowska, a poet whose work Ewa translates. Krystyna runs a travel bureau that has its offices a few blocks away, and she had told me that her car had been broken into twice and that numerous other cars in the area had been vandalized as well. The night she and I took our walk, we saw a group of badly dressed teenagers stuffing a frightened dog into a trashcan and then beating on the can with sticks. Krystyna said that one of them – a pimply kid who couldn’t have been more than fourteen – was the one who’d broken into her car. When her husband saw where the boy lived, she said, he’d refused to press charges. The boy repaid his kindness by breaking into the car again.

We were running short of time last year and running short of money, too, and since we were afraid that prices would rise dramatically when Poland entered the EU, we decided to go ahead and buy the place, despite our misgivings about the surroundings, because the apartment itself was spacious and nicely renovated. Also, we reasoned, it was only a short walk from the Rynek – close enough to the place-to-be that you could almost consider yourself there.

We rarely regret having sunk our savings into the apartment. But last night was a rare night. We were woken at 4 a.m. by a terrible noise, someone screaming his head off and banging, we thought at first, on our door. I bounded out of bed and into the hallway, where I determined that the noise was coming from the street, four floors below.

A group of kids were making their way down the block, pounding on doors, breaking glass and kicking cars. As people began sticking their heads out of windows, the kids hewed to the middle of the street, shaking their fists and yelling curses and threats. They finally parked themselves on a stoop, in front of the worst-looking building, and proceeded to shout themselves hoarse.

I put my earplugs in and went back to sleep.

9 June

We forgot to listen to the radio last night to hear the results from the EU referendum. I run out and buy a Gazeta Wyborcza first thing this morning and discover that it passed with almost 80 per cent of the vote.

Upon hearing the news, Tosha, who like both her mother and sister has dual citizenship, whoops: ‘Great! That means I can live in Ireland!’

10 June

Ewa and I stroll around Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. In 1939 close to seventy thousand Jews lived here, but only a small number survived the war. Unlike the Warsaw Ghetto, however, Kazimierz itself was not destroyed. Many of the buildings look much the way they did prior to World War II. Others have been renovated, in part because the area became chic after Steven Spielberg filmed much of Schindler’s List here. Now, Kazimierz is the site of the Festival of Jewish Culture every year at the end of June and the beginning of July, and apartments in the quarter are selling for daunting sums.

Still, for all its ghostly grandeur, Kazimierz looks seedy and run-down, and while we’re sitting outside a café called Singer’s, where the tables are all old Singer sewing machines, a procession of interesting types passes by, including a pair of twins in their mid to late thirties, whose compressed facial features, along with the idiotic look in their eyes, would make them perfect fits for the worst of all Appalachian stereotypes; give them a banjo, a shotgun and a jug of moonshine, and they could have careers in Hollywood. They’re walking step for step with an elderly woman, snarling at her. The only words either of us can make out are babcia (grandmother) and kurwa (whore).

12 June

Life isn’t fair – and a great illustration of that cliché can be found playing saxophone every Thursday through Saturday night in a basement just off the Rynek.

Janusz Muniak is a frail, scholarly-looking man with a grey beard, who seems, at times, to want to hide behind the enormous tenor sax he wears from a sling around his neck. His tone – rich, breathy, reminiscent, on ballads, of Dexter Gordon’s – fills the tiny basement club known as ‘u Muniaka’ and, when he cranks it up and blows hard, rattles the bottles and glasses on the crowded tables. If there were justice in the world, he’d play to huge audiences at places like Lincoln Center and be the subject of sententious articles by Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker.

We’re here this evening with Jola, our next-door neighbour, who tells me, apologetically, that she really knows nothing about jazz. That’s okay, I reassure her. Almost nobody else in the audience does, either.

It’s a typical evening at ‘u Muniaka’. Which is to say that there are a bunch of tourists – several very loud Americans, a few even louder Germans – and a handful of Poles, at least one of whom, a heavy white-haired man with a video camera, seems to know that he’s in the presence of a master. He sits right up front, staring directly at Muniak and nodding his head during the solos. What he doesn’t do is touch the video camera.

I hear one of the Americans say, ‘I didn’t know they had jazz in Poland.’

In fact, Poland has a lively jazz scene, and right now the king is Tomasz Stanko, who was named European jazz musician of the year for his last recording on ECM, Soul of Things. Muniak used to play with Stanko, but I rarely find an American jazz enthusiast who has ever heard of him. He blows away in the basement night after night, for a cover charge of twenty zlotys, about five dollars.

Last year, when I saw him drinking coffee alone one afternoon at a sidewalk café, I was unable to stop myself from walking over and telling him that I loved his work, that I owned all of his CDs and rarely let more than a few days pass without listening to them all over again.

Janusz Muniak smiled, thanked me and then, as if talking to an old friend, confessed, ‘You know, I often feel such doubt about my music.’

15 June

In an Internet café on the way home from the Rynek I check my email, and when I start to shut down the browser an ad pops up asking if I would like to apply for a green card. When I close that one, another pops up, warning me not to pass up a chance to live and work in the US.

22 June

I love Polish beer. Because supplies at the apartment are running low, I stock up on Okocim, which is currently thought to have surpassed the traditional favourite, Zywiec. The taste of Zywiec hasn’t changed in the fifteen years I’ve been drinking it. Whether you get it on draft, in a bottle or a can, it’s always the same. Even the emblem on the container has remained constant: two dancers dressed in red and blue folk costumes, whirling through a mazurka. Okocim, on the other hand, has had to try harder. It used to come in a sick-looking greenish-brown can with dark vertical stripes, and it tasted a good bit like bathwater. Now it comes in a bright green can, with a crest of arms on it, and the taste is similar to that of certain Dortmunder beers, like Dab. The beer suffers, however, when it’s not on draught, and you always have to be careful not to get it too cold.

Some years ago, in an effort to wean the population from vodka, the Polish government took steps to increase the production of beer, while letting the cost of vodka, which had previously been keyed to the black-market rate of the dollar, rise. Now, almost 60 per cent of the alcohol consumed in the country is beer. Consequently, you don’t see as many really bad-looking drunks as you used to. The fear of unemployment may have something to do with the change, too. You can drink quite a few beers and still get up the next morning and go to work, whereas a litre of Wyborowa would render almost anyone incapable of motion.

23 June

A couple of weeks ago, our neighbour Jola told Ewa about a restaurant a block away that offers traditional Polish dishes for next to nothing. She warned her that the place was run-down but assured her that the food was excellent – so good that, as she put it, it really made no sense to cook any more. So several times a week Ewa’s been in the habit of going there and buying carry-out dishes and bringing them home for dinner. The only time I went with her, I was surprised at how bad the restaurant looked. It’s on the ground floor of an apartment block, a dimly lit, low-ceilinged affair with dingy walls; the day I went there, a woman was crawling around on the floor, running a wet rag over it, and the diners were all elderly people, several of whom, I could see, were buying one dish at a time, counting their change and, if they had enough, coming back for more.

This afternoon, Ewa stopped by there to get some pierogi. On her way in, she noticed three rough-looking guys in their twenties waiting outside. She walked up to the counter and took her place in line behind a tiny grey-haired lady. When the woman finished placing her order and it was Ewa’s turn, one of the guys who’d been loitering out front pushed past her and said, ‘I reserved this spot.’

Ewa doesn’t easily back down when she feels wronged. She told the guy that it was her turn, that he’d been outside. His response was to tell her she was impudent and nudge her aside.

Polish men beyond a certain age tend to behave with great chivalry, opening doors for women, kissing their hands, paying them compliments that would constitute grounds for revoking tenure at an American university. One such gentleman, perhaps seventy years old, had the misfortune to be seated nearby. He looked at the young man who’d taken Ewa’s place and said, ‘That’s no way to behave. You’re disgraceful.’

The young guy and his two companions told the man to shut his mouth, called him various names that Ewa said couldn’t easily be translated and warned him that if he said another word, they would beat him within an inch of his life.

Ewa said there were four or five other older men in the restaurant and that all of them, without exception, dropped their heads and stared at their plates. One female diner, however, addressed the cashier: ‘Call the police,’ she said, and another one added, ‘This is an outrage – we can’t even eat a meal in peace.’

The young men laughed. One of them said, ‘Call the fucking police if you want to. They probably won’t even come, and if they do, we’ll whip their asses.’

Afraid that things would get out of hand, Ewa stepped aside and let the three guys order, and they took their plates over to a table and sat down and began snickering. She waited for her pierogi, then left. When she got home, she was still shaking. ‘One thing I have to say,’ she told me, ‘is that this would never have happened under the Communists.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘In a police state, the police will come, and when they get there, they’re the only ones who whip ass.’

24 June

Jozef Baran, an excellent poet who thus far hasn’t attracted a large readership in English, possibly because he’s been poorly translated, has invited us to a poetry reading this evening at Jama Michalikowa, probably Krakow’s most famous café, an art nouveau establishment that was once a favourite meeting place of writers and artists. I’ve been inside twice before, and both times it was empty. It’s a non-smoking café, and that circumstance alone has probably imperilled its existence.

When we walk in, there are already twenty or twenty-five people arrayed around the tables, and within moments the crowd is twice as big. While a trio consisting of flute, piano and soprano sax offers a selection of standards and light classics, we’re all served a piece of cake and a cup of coffee, and a new anthology makes its way around the room. It’s titled Poezja i Gwiazdy – Poetry and the Stars – and it contains the words of a few stars, mostly notably Czeslaw Milosz, two of whose poems lead off the anthology and are the first ones to be presented once the reading gets underway – not by Milosz himself, who is rarely seen out and about these days, but by a local actress.

Afterwards, several of us go out for a drink, and I get a taste of Polish literary politics. There’s a fair amount of talk about Adam Zagajewski, who along with Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska is one of the country’s most widely-read poets. One person refers to Zagajewski’s work as ‘Herbert-lite’ – watered-down Zbigniew Herbert – and says that in fact Zagajewski, who speaks English perfectly and teaches one semester each year at the University of Houston, has been able to convince the American poetry establishment that he is the Eastern European poet. Thus, anyone who is not sanctioned by Zagajewski and his circle rarely makes it across the Atlantic.

When I confess that I love Zagajewski’s work, one of the poets looks at me, laughs and says, ‘Well, he writes to be loved by you.’

25 June

On the way to the grocery store this morning, we see three scruffy guys sitting on a bench across the street from the cheap restaurant, and Ewa tugs at my shirt sleeve and nods in their direction. They’re passing a bottle of vermouth back and forth. Near the bench is a child’s wagon with three rucksacks on it.

I played football in college, and while I probably lost every fight I ever took part in, nobody, as far as I can recall, ever wanted to fight me twice. The other day, when Ewa told me what had happened in the restaurant, the dormant redneck in me erupted and I asked her to go out with me and see if she could finger them, figuring that even at the age of forty-six I could probably do significant damage to at least one of the three before the other two did even worse damage to me.

But today, when we see them sitting there on the bench, drunk and getting drunker, with their rucksacks in that wagon, I keep right on walking.

26 June

Waiting outside a frame shop where Ewa has gone to leave a picture, I see a guy pull into a parking space in a plum-coloured Mercedes. When he climbs out of the car, he’s carrying a leather briefcase. He wears a beige suit, starched white shirt and silk tie, but as he walks toward the back of the Mercedes he loosens his tie with his free hand. He pops open the trunk and sticks the briefcase inside, pulls off the tie and folds it and lays it inside too. Then he doffs the jacket and folds it and puts it inside. He unbuttons his dress shirt, rolls up his sleeves, removes something from the trunk, closes it and walks around to the passenger side, where he hangs a magnetic sign on each door. The signs say City Taxi and are followed by a phone number. He goes around to the driver’s side, hangs similar signs on those doors, sticks a white wedge on top of the Mercedes – the word TAXI appears in bold black letters – then gets back into the car and drives away.

28 June

Lillian Faderman is one of the most important lesbian critics and social historians in the United States. This past year she published a provocative memoir called Naked in The Promised Land, in which she admitted that as a young woman she had worked as a stripper. To prove it, she decided to include pictures from old magazines she managed to order off the Internet.

She’s Jewish. Her mother and her aunt escaped Latvia prior to the onset of the Second World War; almost everyone else in their shtetl was murdered. Lillian has travelled widely in Eastern Europe but has never been to Poland before. Now she’s here with her partner Phyllis for the thirteenth annual Festival of Jewish Culture.

After they check into their hotel and we eat dinner, we attend an event unrelated to the festival: Nigel Kennedy’s concert at the Philharmonic. Kennedy is married to a woman from Krakow and he maintains a home here and has acquired a huge following. The place is packed, with people standing and sitting in the aisle and even onstage, where chairs have been grouped around small tables, on which stand bottles of champagne and glasses.

Kennedy’s haircut is hard to describe, but I’ll try: there’s a lot of fuzz on each side of his head, and in the middle there’s a row of hair that sticks straight up in the air, as in an Iowa cornfield, and in the middle of that, there’s a small patch that sticks up even higher. He must be going for a samurai look, because he’s wearing some kind of kimono around his neck.

He gives a stunning solo performance of Bach’s Partita, and after he’s finished and the applause finally dies down, he high-fives the audience, kisses two or three of the women who are sitting onstage, then grabs a glass of champagne and kills it in one gulp.

29 June

Lillian and Phyllis sign up to go on an eight-hour tour of shtetls near Krakow, and we make arrangements to meet them at Ariel, one of the Jewish restaurants on Szeroka, at five o’clock. Five comes and goes, and six passes, too, and a young woman who works at the Klezmer House, where the tour originated, tells me she has no idea what’s become of the tour bus.

They finally show up at a quarter till seven, and while Phyllis is her usual calm self, Lillian looks exasperated. Inside Ariel, over a glass of Bulgarian wine, she tells us that the tour was poorly organized. ‘They took us to a restaurant where we waited for two hours to be served lunch,’ she says, ‘and then they told us that unfortunately we wouldn’t visit the last scheduled stop on the trip, at which point one young man burst into tears. I guess maybe his family had come from that area or something.’ She says she’s surprised that at most of the stops there are no traces of the former Jewish inhabitants. She was also amazed to be ushered into a hall – in one of the small towns they visited – to discover that it had been decorated in the national colours of Israel and that the Star of David was painted in various places on the walls. The mayor made a speech, she said, in which he admitted very openly that he hoped to attract Jewish tourists to his town to bolster its poor economy.

I ask her if she knows that in the last year, since the wave of suicide bombings, some fifteen hundred Israelis have applied for Polish citizenship. A liquidy look appears in her eyes, and I decide to quit sounding like a Polish patriot with a Southern accent and let her order dinner.

4 July

Perhaps because I know I don’t have to rush out and face madness on the freeway, I normally eat very little here for breakfast: usually a tiny square of szarlotka – applecake – washed down with a single cup of coffee. Today, however, I’m not likely to eat again until evening, and maybe not even then, so I consume two rolls, some cheese and a bit of ham. I eat with little relish.

As I open the door, Magda, who’ll be leaving for the mountains this afternoon with Tosha and Ewa, pronounces her verdict on the day that lies ahead of me: ‘I’m glad I’m not you.’

Lillian and Phyllis are waiting in the lobby of their hotel, and Phyllis has two maps in hand, one marked Krakow and the other marked Polska. Despite my warnings that Poland is the car-theft capital of Europe, and that you can’t drive in central Krakow without a special permit, Phyllis decided months ago to drive to Poland from Western Europe, rather than riding trains. We go pick up her rental car, a peppy Renault with Italian plates, from the lot where it’s sat since Saturday – and where the charge is about what you’d pay for parking a car that long in the middle of San Francisco – and then we’re on the road, swinging around Planty (the broad green band that circles the city centre), then crossing the Vistula, having one moment of confusion in a rondo before heading west and leaving Krakow behind, its halo of pollution receding in the rear-view mirror.

‘The countryside around here’s really beautiful,’ Lillian says as we get further out, and indeed it is, a fact that never fails to surprise me. Villages nestle among rolling hills, the occasional promontory crowned by an onion dome serving as a reminder that the Eastern Orthodox faith made a few inroads here. A couple of times we pass horse-drawn vehicles, and for a good ten kilometres we are stuck behind a tractor with no chance to pass.

At Libiaz, we leave the tractor behind and turn south-west, on route 933, and in a matter of moments – before we know it and long before we’re ready for it – we’re there. The main lot looks full, so we park across the street, get out and walk past a gift shop and a place that advertises itself as Art Burger. The odour of french fries hangs in the air.

We cross the street we drove in on, walk through a grove of tall trees, and Lillian asks me how long I think they’ve stood here. I don’t know, I tell her. I’ve been here three times, and on each occasion it looked different. I was here just last year with Tosha and Magda, and I don’t remember any trees where these are.

At the end of the main parking lot, past the tour buses and the taxis and the Mercedes and BMWs with German license plates, we all three glance up at exactly the same moment, and see, no more than a few metres to our left, the twisted black arch, with its chilling inscription.

Arbeit macht frei.

5 July

Each year the Festival of Jewish Culture stages a concluding klezmer concert – free to the public – in the middle of Szeroka Street, in the heart of Kazimierz. Lillian has been looking forward to it ever since I wrote to her and described the scene I witnessed last year, when the singing and dancing continued into the middle of the night.

It was raining then, and it’s raining now, much harder than last year, but the rain fails to halt the proceedings. Thousands of people, mostly young Poles, push toward the stage or cavort behind it, and I see more than a few young blond men wearing yarmulkas, drinking beer and speaking Polish to their girlfriends between sips. Phyllis and I cling to a railing near the side of the stage, neither of us willing to brave the surging crowd into which Lillian disappears.

Finally, after an hour of getting soaked and having smoke blown in her face by the guy next to her, who’s been lighting cigarette after cigarette, Phyllis says she’s had enough. I offer to look for Lillian.

It takes me a while, and a lot of different substances get spilled on me, and I step on several feet and draw a dirty look or two, but I finally find her. She’s standing directly in front of the stage, swaying to the music, and when I reach out and lay my hand on her shoulder, she looks at me and says, ‘You can’t know what it means to me, Steve, to hear this music. In these streets.’

10 July

‘Americans in Krakow’ is the name Adam Zagajewski and Edward Hirsch have chosen for their yearly poetry symposium. This year’s symposium has been broadened to include two Irish poets, Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney. At the morning session at Collegium Maius, a young Polish student offers a presentation on Polish women poets born in the ’60s and ’70s. Afterwards, Boland creates something of a stir by suggesting that ‘the ironizing of history’ offers a particularly dangerous trap for women poets. She makes what seems to me a useful distinction between discovered irony – citing as an example Wislawa Szymborska’s ironic stance toward the extremely grim environment of post-Stalinist Poland – and transmitted irony, which I take to mean something along the lines of ‘irony for irony’s sake’. During the spirited debate that follows her comments, she remarks at one point that ‘the Irish are not, by nature, an ironic people’ and says that she wonders whether Irish women who lived in the severely Jansenist Ireland of sixty or seventy years ago would even be able to converse with the Irish woman of today.

When there’s a break, I approach her, introduce myself, tell her I’m keeping a Krakow journal for The Dublin Review, and ask if she thinks some of the younger Irish writers could be accused of ‘ironizing history’.

‘Oh, now, I wouldn’t want to say that,’ she says, and, within a few seconds, she has managed to shake my hand and put a fair amount of distance between herself and me.

When I get home, I find my neighbour Mr L – the children’s author and copy-editor who doubles as janitor – mopping the stairs. He pauses long enough to tell me that he has read my novel and enjoyed it. He says he found the subservient position of blacks in the South especially interesting.

12 July

Every literary culture has a generation gap, but Poland’s, it seems to me, is larger than most. I feel as if I’ve watched the gap grow bigger. Back in 1992, I spoke to students in the English Department at the Copernican University in Torun, and someone asked me what Polish writers I enjoyed reading. I mentioned the big names – Milosz and Herbert – but also said how much I admired the novelist Andrzej Szczypiorski, whose recent novel The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman seemed to me to dramatize not only the terrible fate of Warsaw under the Nazis but also the tragedy of Polish–Jewish relations (at one point, during a flashforward to the post-war period, the narrator says that without Jews, Poles can’t be the Poles they were meant to be). When I asked the students how many of them had read the book, not one hand went up. I must have looked surprised, because when the meeting concluded, a young woman who’d posed several interesting questions walked over and told me that I should understand that students her age were not interested in the Second World War, communism, or the Solidarity period. ‘We’re looking forward,’ she said, ‘not backwards.’

Today, this urge for what’s new translates into a willingness to ignore the work of older writers, even those whose reputations are as big as Milosz’s, Szymborska’s and Zagajewski’s. One of the young Krakow poets told Ewa this morning that she had heard Zagajewski read one of his poems and that it was ‘really good’. Ewa’s impression was that the young woman hadn’t read Zagajewski previously.

14 July

After Heaney offers an eloquent presentation on Milosz at the morning session of the poetry symposium, I speak with him briefly. There are numerous similarities between the Poles and the Irish, he says, but one large difference is that the Irish are perhaps ‘a little shy’ about their urge for transcendence, whereas the Poles are pursuing it full-tilt. We talk for a few moments about Michael McLaverty, whom Heaney first met in his youth, and then about William Trevor, and I tell him it never ceases to surprise me that Trevor seems not to be held in higher esteem within Ireland itself. Heaney compares Trevor to Brian Moore – both of them, he says, ‘can deliver the goods’ – but tells me he finds Trevor’s work perhaps ‘a little short on poetry’. We make our way around to Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales, and both Heaney and his wife Marie tell me that if I liked it, I should certainly look up a book by Sam Hanna Bell entitled December Bride. I go away happy, craving a glass of Jameson’s.

16 July

Yesterday, at the former Stutthoff Concentration Camp near Gdansk, a German tourist attempted to steal the door from one of the crematoria. When security guards caught him, the man’s excuse was that the door was ‘just lying there’. His explanation failed to produce the desired effect, so he attempted – without success – to bribe the guards.

17 July

Gazeta Wyborcza runs an interview with me this morning, along with a colour photo, a bio and a review of my novel. The last time my picture was in the Fresno paper (which was some years ago, as I live in a town of almost half a million souls, served by a newspaper that reviews primarily romance novels and self-published self-help books), I was stopped by a woman in the grocery store who asked if I was the man whose picture had just appeared in the Bee. When I told her that I was and got ready for her to ask, shyly, if I would mind signing a book for her, she reached out, grasped my hand and said that she was really, truly glad I had been released and she hoped I’d be able to find a job and lead a productive life. She said she could understand perfectly why I had done what I’d done, and she could not swear that, given identical circumstances, she might not have shot the bastard herself.

Gazeta Wyborcza is the largest paper in the country, with a circulation of half a million, but I pass unnoticed everywhere except Haiku, my favourite bookstore, where the owner tells me that the pieces in the paper were really great. I don’t bother to ask if anyone has bought my book. I’ve already noticed that both copies are tenaciously holding their ground.

19 July

I’ve ridden American trains, French trains, German trains, Irish trains, and Italian trains, and once, for about four kilometres, a Finnish train. But there’s no train quite like a Polish train.

The first time I ever rode one, back in 1987, I was sent from Olsztyn, where my sister- and brother-in-law live, to Wroclaw, where Ewa had friends she wanted me to meet. The train left Olsztyn in mid morning and reached Wroclaw about eight o’clock that night. About halfway through the trip, my compartment was invaded by a group of six factory workers who’d just gotten off shift in Poznan and were going to Wroclaw for a wild weekend. They each carried a sack of warm beer, and one of them, whose name I recall to this day – Jerzy – had been to Michigan and could speak about forty words of English. He insisted that as an American guest, I drink one of his beers. At that time I had not learned to drink beer at room temperature, and the first swallow almost made me gag. But I did not want to be rude, so somehow I managed to drain the bottle. Then I was informed that each of the other five men would be offended if I didn’t drink one beer from each of their bags. By the time we got to Wroclaw, I was roaring drunk and singing songs I didn’t know any of the words to.

As a result of that experience and a few others, I’m always a little nervous on trains here, even though, in all fairness, the ones that run the Inter-City routes – from Warsaw to Krakow, for instance – are indistinguishable from Eurocity trains. Today, however, I’m not going to Warsaw and no Inter-City train is available: in preparation for a short trip that Ewa and I are about to take to Amsterdam to see my Dutch publisher, I have to deliver Tosha and Magda to Rzeszow, two hours away, where they will be picked up by a bus from the summer camp they’re going to attend. Ewa stays home to pack for our trip.

The good news is that our train is only forty-five minutes late. The bad news is that it comes at all. We find ourselves wedged into a second-class compartment with five other people. An enormous woman occupies my assigned seat next to Tosha, but when I show her my ticket, she tells me she likes to sit by the window, that she’s older than I am and doesn’t feel like moving. Thus, I sit by the door, next to an old man who is coughing his head off. It’s hot in the car – many Poles fear a draught, and will rarely agree to ride with the window open – and even though I do my best not to drink any water, I finally cave in and down most of a bottle, which then forces me to make my way down the aisle to the bathroom, a place that no words, in any language, could adequately describe.

20 July

For the last three nights we were subjected to what Milan Kundera calls ‘the idiocy of the guitar’. In the grey hulk across the street, someone’s parents went away for a long weekend, and beginning on Thursday evening their daughter, who looks as if she’s about eighteen or nineteen, hosted a non-stop party in a ground-floor apartment. Booming sounds that I think might have been heavy metal ricocheted off the front of our building and the Ligezas’ and a couple of others. I imagined poor Wojciech in his living room, doing his best to listen to Handel or write about the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska while outside it sounded as if the next world war had just begun.

This afternoon, walking past, I glance into the apartment and see about thirty-five to forty kids, in various states of partial dress, dancing and hoisting bottles. An hour or so later, when I return from the grocery store, a car is standing on the sidewalk in front of the building. The windows in the ground-floor apartment are closed, the drapes pulled across them, and the only sound is the voice of an aggrieved teenaged girl explaining, I’m sure, that the neighbours have grossly misrepresented her actions, that it was really just a small, quiet get-together, at which the only refreshments were tea and cake.

26 July

Returning to Poland after a few days in Western Europe is like taking a trip backwards in time. As the train travels east on a foggy morning and we clear passport control and customs, things become progressively more grey. From her berth in the upper bunk, Ewa says, ‘This reminds me of all those times when I was young and I came back here after going to the West. It’s not the same, of course – there’s so much more colour now, and I know I’ll be leaving again soon and that when I go, I’ll be sad about it – but back then, I always got horribly depressed. I never imagined communism would die in my lifetime.’ When we’re on the outskirts of Warsaw, she points at a row of godawful-looking apartment blocks, dating from the Brezhnev era, and says, ‘Those bastards really knew what they were doing. They packed people into those places just to depress them and keep them from getting ideas.’ Those structures, the likes of which can be found ringing cities from Dresden to Vladivostok, were in fact built to last for only thirty or so years, after which they become radically unstable. A Japanese company, so I’ve been told, has perfected a technology which can be used to stabilize them, and a debate is currently going on about whether to shore them up or let them fall down. The problem is where to put those unfortunate enough to live inside them.

In Amsterdam, we spent an hour so so visiting my Dutch publisher, Robert Amerlaan, editor in chief at De Bezige Bij (The Busy Bee). The publishing company Amerlaan heads has its origins in the Dutch resistance, dating back to 1944, and was named after the underground agent who founded it for the purpose of publishing poetry broadsides. We sat in Robert’s beautifully appointed office near the Rijksmuseum, with him and three of his co-editors, drinking wine and beer and discussing some of the writers he’s published down through the years, such as Harry Mulisch, whose great novel The Assault captured my attention when I was a graduate student. The contrast between Robert’s situation and that of my Polish publisher, whom we’d had lunch with in Warsaw while waiting for our train to Amsterdam, could not have been greater. The Polish publishing house, Czytelnik, was founded the same year as De Bezige Bij and has an equally distinguished record, having published the work of Polish writers like Zbigniew Herbert and Ryszard Kapuscinski, as well as such foreign authors as Philip Roth, Susan Sontag and Martin Amis. But there all resemblance ceases. De Bezige Bij is thriving, while Czytelnik is flat broke. Czytelnik’s editor in chief, Henryk Chlystowski, a large man who always seems to wear a dark suit and has a degree in Polish philology, informed me that the publishing house had ‘no money’, while at the same time letting me know that not only did he plan to publish my next book but that he considered me ‘their author’. He seemed cheerful enough about the dire straits in which he found himself. He and Robert both seemed to me to represent the very best side of publishing – two deeply committed editors, one with everything he needs to continue to be successful, the other with absolutely nothing but his own sense of taste.

27 July

Walking through Planty this afternoon, on a day when temperatures have again soared above thirty, we see so many drunks collapsed on park benches that I lose count. Most of them wear old, dirty clothes, but a few are relatively well-dressed, and a couple have on suits, suggesting that before getting drunk they might have attended church.

28 July

Krakow is home to no small percentage of the world’s pigeons. Locals sometimes claim there are more of them here than in any other city; they cluster on the pavement outside Sukiennce, looking for a few of the bread crumbs people are always tossing there, they perch on rooftops, window sills and balcony railings, and they sometimes come inside. Just last week, I opened a kitchen cabinet to remove a coffee cup and was startled half out of my wits when something grey and white flew straight at me, brushing my cheek with its wings as it went by.

The birds are beautiful, but they produce a lot of shit. Back in early June, right after we got here, I was standing before a Bankomat outside Hala Targowa, waiting for the machine to dispense money, when something hit the top of my head and splattered onto my shoulder. One of the birds had made a deposit, which caused much amusement when Ewa and the girls came out of the store.

This afternoon, Ewa and I are sitting in the garden outside Loch Camelot when something falls from the sky, right into the middle of her teacup.

31 July

I’ve never met anybody in the Krakow literary world who doesn’t have an opinion, one way or the other, about Adam Zagajewski. The most frequently voiced one is that he’s a great poet. You will also hear that Milosz is championing him for the Nobel Prize and that he has lots of readers in Sweden, an obligatory requirement if you want to win the big one. At the same time, there are other voices that will tell you his best work is behind him and that he was never any better than countless other poets to begin with, that he’s just been incredibly lucky.

When Zagajewski and I meet this afternoon at Prowincja, a small café near the Rynek, I ask him if he’s aware of any jealousy directed at him. He laughs and says, ‘Yes, but that’s because my wife tells me people are jealous. I give them more credit. I think they just don’t like my work. And to be honest, I don’t want everybody to like it.’

I ask him if I’m right in thinking that the generation gap in Polish literary culture is a gaping wound, citing as evidence a comment I heard the other day, to the effect that Milosz is ‘an old fool’.

‘I think the gap is with the thirty-to-forty-year-old poets,’ he says. ‘They’re the ones who want to break completely with the past. But I know one younger poet – she’s only eighteen – who feels completely differently. So I don’t think you can say yet that this is something definite.’ He shakes his head. ‘There are people now who criticize Milosz because for three years, right after the war, he was a Communist diplomat. This is all they know or care about. It’s crazy.’

The parallels between Milosz and Zagajewski, though by no means exact, are nevertheless interesting. Both write in Polish but were born in cities that are not in Poland – Milosz in Vilnius, Zagajewski in Lvov, which became part of the Ukraine after World War II. Both wrote novels as young men, and neither is particularly eager to talk about that. (Last summer, I heard Milosz remark that he considers the novel an ‘indecent’ form, citing as evidence the fact that Dostoevsky once used his own mother’s epitaph on a gravestone in a scene.) Both Milosz and Zagajewski went into exile, and they initially chose the same place: Paris. Both had a rough time there. Milosz was persona non grata in the literary salons at a time when Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and other French intellectuals were still enthralled by communism; he was also close to broke and was rescued from penury by the offer of a teaching position at an American university, in his case UC Berkeley. Zagajewski and his wife were ‘close to starving’, as he puts it, when he received a letter from Edward Hirsch asking if he would be interested in teaching poetry writing at the University of Houston.

But Milosz can be austere, as is his right after weathering both of the great nightmares the last century served up, whereas every time I’ve been around Zagajewski, he’s seemed like an open, friendly guy anchored firmly to the earth. When I ask him if he has any warm feelings for Gliwice, the ugly industrial city in Upper Silesia where he and all his relatives were forced to move after Stalin annexed the entire eastern part of Poland, he says, ‘Yes. Because there are so many old people there. People in their nineties like my father. I see them as losers. They’ve lost everything. But on their faces, in their eyes, you can still see something, just a faint trace of dignity, the last thing they’ve held onto, and I find this very beautiful and very moving.’

3 August

English-language papers arrive in Warsaw on the same day they’re printed, but they always come to Krakow at least one day late. Consequently, I tend not to buy them, preferring to scan the Los Angeles Times headlines on the Internet. But off and on all summer, I’ve bought the Saturday Guardian one day late and spent an hour or so with the books and travel sections.

Today I find that yesterday’s travel section was devoted to Eastern Europe, and on pages eight and nine there’s an article about Krakow and ‘the southern provinces’ by Paul Kriwaczek. Near the end of the piece, the author gets around to the question of Polish anti-Semitism, making an oblique reference to certain figurines for sale in the Cloth Hall, which he labels ‘cruel caricatures of money-grubbing Jewish tradesmen’. After reading the article, I’m curious enough to go back to the Rynek and make a visit to the Cloth Hall. I stop by every stall, and while I see literally hundreds of figurines of Hasidic Jews, I notice precisely two which might be said to be cruel. One is a stooped figure with sagging jaws who clutches what appears to be a bag of the type robbers carry from banks in American westerns; the other is definitely holding a gold coin in his palm, and his features are indeed sinister. All of the other Jewish figurines I see are completely innocuous: Jews depicted as rabbis, musicians, tradesmen of various sorts. These figurines are no more grotesque than the ones depicting Polish mountaineers, farmers, blacksmiths, priests, milkmaids, nuns. In other words, if you wanted to see evidence of Polish anti-Semitism in the Cloth Hall, you could find it. But today, at least, you would have to search hard.

5 August

Generally speaking, Krakowians have a lot of time for idle conversation, which is something I love about the city. Perhaps the most garrulous man in town is my friend Grzegorz Tusiewicz, who writes a jazz chronicle for the newspaper Dziennik Polski and is a regular contributor to Jazz Forum. Every Sunday for the last year I’ve gotten an email from Grzegorz, telling me everything that has happened in the Krakow jazz world during the preceding week.

This summer, unfortunately, I’ve seen very little of him and his wife Gosia. He has a disease that affects his motor functions, forcing him to spend most of his time in a wheelchair. For him, just getting into the major jazz venues is a task of almost herculean proportions – since the events are almost always held in cellars and his wheelchair has to be carried down stairs that sometimes have as many crooks and curves as a pretzel – but last year he never missed anything that mattered.

Back in June, however, he tried to reach the bathroom in his apartment late one night and, while dragging himself along on crutches, he fell. He suffered a serious fracture in the better of his two legs. Because his father was a surgeon and Grzegorz knew that the quicker the bone was re-set the better off he would be, he and Gosia snapped it back in place before the medics arrived.

The fracture has not healed properly, and he’s currently suffering paralysing cramps. Under the best of circumstances, the summers are hard on him, because Krakow is often hot and humid; this summer has offered only the worst of circumstances. When I go to visit him today, I find him sitting in his wheelchair before an open window, a massive cast on his left leg, his body soaked in sweat. While we talk about the changes that have occurred in the jazz world in the last year – such as the demise of the only jazz record store in Krakow and the failure of several record companies – Gosia hovers over him, administering various drugs, including an injection intended to relieve the pain from his muscle cramps. At one point, in the sweltering heat, he sighs, tells me to excuse his manners, and pulls off his tee shirt.

In some ways, he claims, jazz musicians were better off twenty or twenty-five years ago. ‘Their audience was larger then, more recordings were made and sold, and all but the very best of them made more money. Some of the traditional jazz groups, like Boba or the Jazz Ball Band Orchestra, could go to Germany and play concert after concert, making very little by German standards but because of the exchange rate coming home rich. Not any more. Now they might play in Germany eight times a year, and the money doesn’t mean much more here than it would there.’

He tells me that a day or two ago he heard Janusz Muniak being interviewed on the radio. Muniak mentioned that the city had raised the rent on his club four different times, but when he appealed to them recently for funds to help renovate the Steinway piano there, on the grounds that many young musicians who didn’t own pianos themselves were using it to practise, his application was denied.

‘That’s how it is,’ Grzegorz tells me, shaking his head and pushing himself a little closer to the window. ‘No money for arts and culture. No money in Poland for much of anything.’

11 August

No money for much of anything, maybe, but Poland has not yet perished (to borrow a few words from the national anthem). On our next to last day in Krakow the young man whose company administers our building drives us to a notary’s office so that we can sign some papers granting him power of attorney in our absence. We ride across town in a new Saab, and he tells us about his sister, who is currently in San Francisco taking an accelerated course in Business English. He and his family have a thriving business and are considering buying other properties in Krakow, including another one on our street. He’s personable, articulate, and he has told me in the past that he tries to read at least one book in English each month, to make sure that his English skills remain current. He has travelled widely and is, I expect, pretty much at home wherever he finds himself. Twenty years ago, he would probably have been assistant director of a state-run enterprise, living in one of the cleaner apartment blocks, buying a few goods each month from Pewex (the hard-currency store) and vacationing, every summer, in Bulgaria, Romania, or perhaps in the Baltic Republics. He most likely would not have even owned a car yet, since the waiting period back then was about eight years and Poland was, in fact, one of the few places on the face of the earth where an old car cost more than a new one, because the old one was readily available.

If he’s worried at all about the future, he doesn’t show it. When I ask him if he thinks the economy is worse than it was a year ago or better, he says, ‘It’s a little better, I think. As soon as things are better in France and Germany, they will straighten out here. Those countries receive the bulk of our exported goods.’

He parks near a Volvo – one of the new S60s – and when we get out, he gestures at it and says, ‘You know, I think the next time I buy a car, it will most likely be one of those.’

 Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 13 Winter 2003–4