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Book set in Kraków (‘a magical city of folklore and fables’)
18th December 2013
Winter Under Water – book set in Kraków.
A weekend in Kraków, the Insight Guide to the city in one hand, our selected novel set in the city in the other. I chose Winter Under Water by James Hopkin, a gentle story of love and yearning and was well rewarded by this choice – it led me through the streets of the city whilst exploring the love affair between two people, Joseph and Marta.
As I arrived at Kraków’s main railway station Dworzec Główny, I emerged, glancing to my left towards Hotel Europejski and saw the pink neon sign on the roof, dawn emerging, a tone at a time, as if easing out its tongue… just as Hopkin described it in the novel. I knew this was going to be good TripFiction novel!
Joseph comes from England to settle in Poland’s second biggest city. He arrives in December, I arrived in December and I too was one of the women in ‘padded coats that cover from ankle to Adam’s apple and look more like sleeping-bags’ – and still I was cold. I did not have the requisite woollen bobble hat, that everyone there wears. Unlike mine, (to wit, a hat with a brim) the hats the locals wore were anchored to their skulls and wouldn’t blow off in the icy wind that swirled past the Galeria Krakowska; it was because of my hat (I think!) that, like Joseph, I didn’t blend in, and like him, I felt like a ‘luminous fish’. Accosted by people (often dressed in military regalia) wanting you to visit their restaurant, buy a mechanical tweeting bird, or glug some paraffin-like alcohol (I don’t think I have narcissistic tendencies, but I did feel as though I was walking around with a spotlight pointing at me).
Marta is already married and living with her husband and daughter and expresses her love for Joseph via letters. He, in turn, tries to get under the skin of the city so that he can feel closer to her. As he, too, explores the city, he comes across characters and cafés, and makes observations about what he sees. We learn that if you say ‘push past them’ the Poles will understand that as ‘excuse me’ (much like the Germans, if you say ‘fish paste’ they will look at their watches and tell you the time. But I digress…). He spots that the city, circled as it is by the ring road, looks much like an outline of the Virgin Mary’s head. It does (well, with a bit of creative imagination). Or that Poland has the oldest constitution in Europe, the second oldest in the world. And all this when Poland’s borders have been invaded and the country occupied by so many different forces, the Tartars, the Austro-Hungarians, the Nazis, the Communists…. the Poles have really tried to hang on to their culture.
As a novel Winter Under Water added a huge and exciting dimension to my visit and enabled me to see and observe the city through another pair of eyes, it made it much more multi-dimensional. As a storyline, it was an interesting concept, though at times it felt a little slow and too ponderous.
And as a city, Kraków is beautiful and cold in the run up to Christmas when I visited, an atmospheric market outside St Mary’s, some richly interiored coffee houses from the art deco period to dive into, restaurants galore, pierogi and baked cheesecake to eat, amber to buy, and an array of monuments to visit – Schindler’s Factory, the Jewish Quarter, the Ghetto and further afield Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yes, and the thick hot chocolate at Café E Wedel is worth a detour!
Now I am off for a warm beer and cloves, plus Szarlotka apple pie with a thick roof of pastry!
Tina for the TripFiction Team