During my trip, I kept thinking that Poland is something of an enigma and perpetually stuck at the crossroads of history. Twice the country was wiped off the map by invaders who did not believe that Polish boarders should be honored. It was a country continuously sacrificed to the appetites of empire. This history could lead to an inferiority complex. But I quickly realized that the Polish will have none of that.
In fact, I observed a healthy sense of Polish identity and pride in their country. What I did not realize, was that I was traveling to the heart of this pride: Krakow and Wawel Castle and Cathedral.
Beginning in 1038 (a really long time ago!), Wawel Hill was the residence of Polish kings. A Gothic castle was built in the 1300s. Although destroyed by fire in 1499, the castle was restored and rebuilt, this time in the Italian style. When the capital of Poland and royal residence was moved to Warsaw in 1609, it pissed off many Krakow natives. In fact, I got a sense from a few tour guides that Krakow does not care for Warsaw much. The castle was sacked in the Swedish invasion of 1665, and burned by Swedish soldiers in 1702. See - never trust a Swede (just kidding!).
Over the next 200 years, the castle went through a yo-yo period of restoration and invasion, as it was occupied by Prussians and Austrians. The castle became a museum in 1945 and is well worth a visit. I especially enjoyed the stamped leather walls. I wanted Ch-ard to distract the dozent so that I could touch the walls, but was paranoid that some alarm a la Mission Impossible would go off. As I toured the castle I pretended to be a Polish princess being forced to marry an evil man. Ch-ard carried my train.
We were not the only visitors to the castle. The grounds were covered with groups of school children, about 9 to 13 years old from the look of them. Looking at their bright faces and inquisitive eyes, I can only imagine that the guides were spinning fabulous tails about the greatness of Poland and the Polish kings.
This idea was reinforced when we went into Wawel Cathedral, which is next door to the castle. The cathedral is filled with royal tombs and is the site of Father Karol Woytyla's (Pope John Paul II) first mass as a priest. The ornate tomb of St. Stanislaw, the patron saint of Poland, lies within the cathedral. I watched as the tour guide told the small children about the tomb. When she asked a question, ten tiny arms flew in the air, eager to share their knowledge of their Polish heritage.
I was completely fascinated by these groups of children. At this young age they are being taught what it means to be Polish. Is that a bad thing? I think not. A country has finally secured its boarders, defeated an oppressive communist regime and is attempting to establish its identity. And the thing is, the EXACT same thing happens in the U.S. The children instantly transported me back to my childhood field trips. Seriously, we visited Fort Sumter like four time when I was in elementary school.
Polish national identity remains interesting for me. After partion, war, and communism, a new factor may influence its development: The EU. How can we reconcile our national identities with an overarching European identity? Some people do not think that it is possible, and that there is no such thing as a European identity. But that, dear reader, is a topic for another blog.