It is a bit odd that the words I would use (cultural center, juxtaposition of modern and old, etc) to describe my expectations of Krakow versus my actual experience of it so far are more or less the same, but still they are nonetheless are very different things. Compared to major metropolitan areas, the city and it suburbs are small in area. I have a theory that one can use a bicycle to get around most of it, so I went shopping for a bicycle a couple of days ago. I spoke to a woman on the street, and she told me to go to Tesco (a British grocery/department store chain) which had supposedly opened a few stores in Krakow.
Did they ever.
The size of the place, and the variety of things they sold there are easily the equal of any Wal-Mart or Super Target in the United States. I knew very well that modernization, capitalism and so forth had come to Poland, but I had no idea that they had come to that scale. Of course, if one goes shopping in a ex-Communist or Third World country or anywhere off the beaten path, you would expect that you can find things cheap, especially necessities for which the locals cannot afford extravagant prices. What I didn't expect to find was these same goods as high-quality, readily available items. I found the bicycle I wanted, close to the top of the line at the store, for 600 zl (that's a little less than $200 for you fans scoring at home).
Frankly, I'm suprised that I hadn't heard about it until I went there. It seems that there ought to be some sort of political mobilization against it, for a lot of the same reasons Wal-Mart in controversial in the US, especially since there are a greater number of small merchants who stand to be put out of business in its wake. Maybe there is, and I am just not aware of it.
Then, right there in Tesco I encountered the old Poland again. I had purchased my bike and walked to the service desk to cut off the tags and get ready to ride it home. Directly in front of the service desk, a wizened little babcia was making some sort of disagreeable comments in my direction. Frankly, I don't the she was comprehensible for someone fluent in Polish, which is not me. As near as I could figure out, she disapproved of my new purchase, wondering what sort of wild extravagance would ever have somebody pay 600 zlotys for a bicycle. It's just as well that she didn't see me buy a new watch for about the same amount immediately upon leaving the service desk.
Of course, from a big enough picture the old woman has a point (cranky as she was). I could have had a perfectly fine life without that bicycle. It would be a crying shame for Poland to successfully navigate the trauma of Communism and its aftermath, only to fall victim to the same runaway consumerism afflicting the developed world. But even for that, there is something to be said for Tesco. People who don't have easy, reasonably cheap access to food, clothes, and other basics of life are not going to be thinking of much else.
With the advent of Poland into the EU, many young people are leaving, especially for the UK. In a lot of ways, they represent the first generation in 100 years who have the opportunity to set their own course in life, individually and collectively. I am very interested in what it will be.