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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

A local reflects on the poisonous mystery of Kraków’s omnipresent smog, which first permeated the ...
2019-03-22 10:00:00
A Gotham-Like Depression

I can easily remember the moment when I first realized that Kraków, the city where I’ve lived ever since I was born, was ruthlessly poisoning me. That moment was around seven years ago, when I first read about the creeping pollution in my home town. Before the anti-pollution activists first arrived on the foggy horizon, did no one really know about the air pollution in Kraków? Why didn’t anyone talk about it? Did we treat air pollution as a regular meteorological phenomenon that didn’t merit any special attention, just like, say, hailstones? I don’t know. It’s hard to understand, let alone explain. Perhaps smog did exist back then, but a social awareness of smog didn’t exist until 2012. To use a well-worn, yet accurate analogy, back then we were all Monsieur Jourdain, who realized he had been “speaking prose while knowing nothing of it”. We realized we had all been breathing death.

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This realization brought with it a mass trauma on the scale of an infinitely postponed, yet irreversible medical diagnosis. Like a patient newly informed of their condition, we went through a phase of intensive rebellion: marches and demonstrations, anti-smog masks, plaques commemorating the victims of smog on city walls, an appeal to Pope Francis published in the Italian daily press. Next was the inevitable coming to terms with the fact of illness, and the anticipation of a swift recommendation for successful treatment. Incidentally, accelerated civil education took place. This means that even today, you can converse with just about anyone in Kraków on the subjects of lowering emissions or development in the areas of ‘ventilation corridors’.

Several years have passed, and with them so has public agitation. Historically, the smallest number of anti-smog masks can be seen on the streets this year. The leaders of yesteryear’s campaigns and protests, alongside civil servants of different ranks, are taking part in consultations and legislative work too convoluted to electrify anyone. It’s the time of a peculiar ‘little stabilization’; a moment of limbo. Kraków’s smog is out of the headlines. It remains, however, in our lungs and our consciousness. This changes everything.

It changes the past. I have finally understood why the houses here are always so grey, the snow equally grey, and the smells dull. It has dawned on me why the most pleasant moment of each holiday has always been the first breath of fresh air. I have even realized why my mother hauls an oxygen tank around the house.

It changes the present. Kraków has become somewhat gloomier – even more decadent than its usual, unstable, indecisive self. The air is visible. The air reeks. The most interesting initiatives get bogged down with futile disputes. If someone says they are going to a rave, they stay at home, and vice versa. I begin smoking again, because… what do I care? Then I quit again, because hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Finally, it changes the future. No one believes that thanks to the decisions and actions of civil servants, smog will disappear in any kind of foreseeable future. This means that we have to do something about it on our own. The more far-sighted and interested among us – including allergy sufferers and newly-minted parents – are already moving away, preferably to the Trójmiasto area on Poland’s Baltic coast. Among the rest, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t plan on or dream of “leaving Gotham with the Cat Woman”, in the words of local poet and musician Marcin Świetlicki, ever unfailing in sensing Kraków’s subcutaneous tremors and spasms.

“I don’t trust this city anymore / and I took such good care of it, I defended it, I fought off all the invaders”, Świetlicki continues in the same poem, aptly, if surely unintentionally, summing up the specific feelings of the city’s faithful daughters and sons, betrayed by this place flooded with swarms of tourists and clouds of dust, fatal to health and life, a fucking beloved, damned, yet exquisite depression, also known as Kraków.


Tranlated by Joanna Figiel

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