Walking through the center of Krakow. The narrow medieval streets leading to the Old Market, the shifting perspectives, the nervous rhythm of the rooftops—all joined to form the blood vessels of a living, organic system. You could circle the old city center by way of the Planty gardens in an hour or less. Church steeples, white or blood-red, pierced the vast canopies of chestnuts, maples, ashes; they towered above the foliage like grownups hovering watchfully over their young in family photographs. Days and weeks went by when my mind was taken up by completely mundane matters:Will I get credit for history of philosophy, have I got enough money for both concerts and lunches, does my girlfriend still remember me? But sometimes, at odd moments, it seemed to me that I perceived the city’s unity, that I grasped it by means of a special sense, the sense of wholeness.
The medieval city offered a ready model of the cosmos, it had everything: the river, the meadows, the houses and trees, the churches and cloister gardens, the fortified walls enclosing the city and the gates that opened it, like the valves of a human heart, in an ageless rhythm of day and night, sleep and waking, sloth and the merchant’s sly hyperactivity. And this was the center to which the needles of all the compasses drifted, whether consciously or not; each apartment house took its cue from the center; you could gauge the distance to the Old Market from any point in the city by way of something like an unseen Geiger counter. The Old Market was the city’s magnetic pole, its destiny, its boundary, its pride. And even the city’s ramshackle outskirts, a no man’s land overgrown with weeds, where old automobiles and empty cans sunk in stoic ataraxia slowly but surely succumbed to rust, even these peripheries sensed dimly that they weren’t entirely on their own, autonomous, derelict; they were the city’s skin, a self-renewing epidermis linked by elongated nerves to its omnipotent center. The sun and moon were likewise city property, they circled it faithfully in winter and summer alike, at times pale and weary, veiled by mist and lacy clouds, or just the opposite, shining briskly, joyfully, triumphantly.
It was a matter of pride to belong to such a city, to be a piece of it, striding its streets like a farmer measuring his fields. I was just a student who went home to Gliwice every couple of weeks, I wasn’t even registered to live in Krakow, but perhaps I felt its radiance, its ancient power all the more strongly for that. Not always, though: at times I doubted Krakow’s majesty, hence doubted the very possibility of a tangible, magical wholeness in our day and age (as if the city really had become my model of the world!). I laughed at myself sometimes, at my comic exaltation, my excess. The…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Adam Zagajewski