Boss J., our driver for the next three days as Driver D. gets some rest, pilots our Ford Transit six hours through rain on country roads from Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland. We pass four car accidents, then stop counting. We also pass Auschwitz, and a huge poster of Chopin. The Polish countryside reminds me of Pennsylvania. Krakow’s picturesque cobblestone streets and beautiful, medieval-ish architecture do not. It’s terrible that I know more about Rem Koolhaus (please excuse Wikipedia link) than about the entire pre-postmodern history of architecture. Finally, we arrive at the venue: “Klub Re.”
It’s easy to understate the importance of playing in Poland in these breezy, sarcastic and/or absurd blog posts that I write for the Washington City Paper’s Arts Desk. At the risk of alienating millions of faithful readers who chuckle at my every witticism, I feel compelled to say that traveling to Poland for the first time, let alone playing a concert there, is a crucial personal milestone that is explicitly unfunny and, surprisingly, emotional. My maternal grandparents were Polish; I’m half-Polish; unless my mother or Aunt J. is reading this and is willing to correct the record, I’m pretty sure that I’m the first member of my family to return to Poland since 1918, when my grandmother left after her mother died of the Spanish flu; my grandfather was a Polish Jew, which probably means at least a few of my relatives were welcomed at Auschwitz and eliminated in the Holocaust, a.k.a. the Shoah, a.k.a. what Shimon Peres’ biography of David Ben-Gurion recently reminded me was the almost total destruction of European Jewry.
So, it’s kind of a thing for me to be here, but not many Poles agree. Though people in Krakow seem to like our band and are generally familiar with music from Washington, D.C., there are only 10 of them. We are paid 800 Polish zlotys, or about 200 euro, and sell one record. I take a picture of the promoter, who looks like me, or at least looks like another bald guy with a prominent nose.
In the morning, I walk to St. Mary’s Basilica with Singer C. We pay eight zlotys, or about two euros, each to enter and look at some medieval-ish Christian stuff. We don’t understand what most of it is. Since St. Mary’s has separate entrances for “worshippers” and “visitors,” I’m not even sure how to light a candle. At the souvenir shop across the square from the basilica, I spend 80 zlotys, or about 20 euro, on some Catholic-ish medals for the Polish members of my family.
On the way out of town, Drummer J. clamors for Polish sausages, a.k.a. kielbasa. Boss J. says that there is no such thing as Polish sausages, and that kielbasa is actually Czech. At first, I think he’s just kidding. My great aunt, whose first language was Polish though she was born in Riverside, N.J., cooked kielbasa for more than 75 years. But he is so insistent that I wonder whether I am the product of some culturally bankrupt, Americanized Polish diaspora. Then, a few hours after we cross the border and return to the Czech Republic, I do a Google search and confirm that he was definitely kidding.