Let’s continue with sketches of three more cities I found extraordinary.
My fondness for all things Polish bears no mystery. The respective factors consist of most importantly the language, but also the history, music, people, cuisine. I also exhibit a similar sort of fondness towards the Brazilian and Mexican identities, mixed with a touch of sympathy, admiration, openness.
Yet after considerable time in the country of Poland, I still regarded Kraków with skepticism. The southern, well sustained historic city is considered the more beautiful in the country, yes. But also the most touristic.
This second aspect especially kept me at bay. I generally tended to avoid cities generating much hype. Based on the majority of experiences, the greater the hype, the less appreciable the moment. Let’s consider the famously notable destinations of Rio de Janeiro, Medellin (Colombia), Florianópolis (Brazil), Luang Prabang (Laos), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Hong Kong, Kyoto (Japan), Oaxaca (Mexico). I simply can’t relate to them with much excitement.
Similarly, my preference bias only strengthened in presence of false negatives, or those cities generally regarded unremarkable that I otherwise enjoyed. Examples include Porto Alegre (Brazil), Belo Horizonte (Brazil), Bogotá (Colombia), Detroit, Bangkok, São Paulo, and almost every other visited Polish city.
Perhaps I prefer inspiration to arrive spontaneously, rather than prepackaged. Each experience that contrasted hype, also did so for individual reason. Each became a product of particular, almost random circumstance. Hence my habit of circumventing hype.
However, fortune has presented notable exceptions, among Berlin, Chiang Mai (Thailand), Guanajuato (Mexico), and arguably others. Whatever hype these destinations may receive, my memories of them still radiate with tenderness, with nostalgia. Much of the ultimate impression literally yields to chance.
I reconsidered the strictness of my bias, proceeded to Kraków, passed a pleasant three months, and intend on returning. Go figure.
Why Kraków? It approaches the conception of my ideal city in more ways than most cities I’ve known. It’s small and easily navigable by foot, bike, trams, buses. Likewise, the city provides endless activities, meetups and groups that don’t necessarily exclude outsiders. One can thank the heavy tourist presence for this.
The tourists, however, tend to generally concentrate around the old town. In the confines of this central region I much entertained the impression of hearing more English and Spanish spoken than Polish. Yet one need but cross the old town boundaries to be transported into the typical, unremarkable Polish-speaking territory. Well, I lie. Polish speaking it may be, it’s anything but unremarkable.
The city, the center and well beyond, basks of beautiful scenery. The old town features antique structures, castles, churches, carriages, markets. The river Wisła stretches and curves for many kilometers along the city, providing for charming bike paths, picnic areas, parks. More impressively yet, dense, folkloric, Slavic forest territory is at but a reach of finger. Venture a few kilometers beyond the center to pick apples, berries, and mushrooms.
Maybe my impression of Polish cities leans towards disillusion. But I can’t recall too many regions of Kraków that didn’t strike me in some way.
The tourism, while easily avoidable, also facilitates much cultural variety depending on one’s mood. If feeling nostalgic for Latin America, for example, by virtue of meetup platforms, you can easily arrange an evening with Spanish speakers at a Latin discotheque.
What more? The city cuisine comes in a way that facilitates my especially demanding palate for simple and effective nutrition. Alternatively, for those not too particular or health oriented, signature standards are also plentiful: pierogi, płacki, należniki, zapiekanki.
The city is still considered relatively economic by European standards, among those other eastern European countries. More so, the presence in a Slavic country not of my origin gives me a taste of something familiar yet something exotic. And I can’t avoid but again mention my fascination for the Polish language. For me, the language repeatedly tends to form an integral part of the tale.
Small, colonial, folkloric, mountainous. The description fits plenty of profiles. But this one chose me. I was at the right place, at the right time.
A small university town in an identically named state of central Mexico, it was the first of the Latin American colonial kind that I’ve come to know. The others wouldn’t make the same impact.
I had recently arrived exhausted from a fairly long Asia trip in 2012, not yet ready to reintegrate in life, whatever that meant, and found myself in limbo. Then I thought of taking the opportunity to develop my until then functional, but fractured command of the Spanish language, as well as get a feel for Mexico for the first time.
I conducted quick research, systematically settled on Guanajuato, purchased a one-way ticket from my then residence Chicago, and proceeded having not a clue how long I would remain. I then matriculated at a small immersive Spanish school and settled to live with a family. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years. That last one is a lie, but I found myself in a sort of isolated fantasy world for a 3-4 month period.
Only for those first weeks did I place much emphasis on the school setting. With time, between my non-official school interactions, life with the family, and city adventures, I minimized and ultimately eliminated the school environment. The language command became gradually autonomous.
What of the town? Mountains surround the periphery from all 360 degrees. If feeling particularly melancholy, you’ll find a series of impressive and isolated vantage points for a panoramic view of the territory.
Narrow stone roadways with especially slim sidewalks are nothing unusual in a town of this origin. And the city layout is anything but systematic. A labyrinth of ascending, descending and intertwined paths, each may lead you to a new discovery. Make your way to one of the countless street plazas, close your eyes, sharpen your senses, and feel the spirits of the ancient whisper. Or for a little taste of the macabre, pay a visit to the mummy museum.
For simple culinary pleasures, street food is galore. Actually, I have yet to find a corner of Mexico where it isn’t. But be wary of overindulgence.
Live music, jazz included, are aplenty. My living quarters, in fact, faced a restaurant patio featuring an almost nightly live band. I inevitably resigned to hearing Samba pa ti a time too many.
Despite the abundance of cafes, museums and ethnic restaurants, one wouldn’t find this city unreasonably touristic but during select seasons, such as the yearly film festival. To the contrary, the town feels authentically Mexican.
During my past 7-year residence, I squeezed much out of this metropolis. And it squeezed much out of me. That could describe a healthy relationship, if maintained at balance.
One can consider Chicago an authentic ethnic enclave. This aspect I’ll most emphasize here. I effectively developed all my secondary languages during my presence in this city, by virtue of exclusively natural immersion and free meetups.
The gigantic Polish immigration permeates the city identity. Polish newspapers, polish radio stations, polish TV stations, polish schools, polish churches, polish restaurants and cafes, polish markets and convenience stores, polish museums, polish library sections, polish translations of much official government text and web sites, polish language in the ATMs, and of course, polish neighborhoods. Did I omit a verb?
Many Poles, well fortified in their neighborhoods, hardly spoke English, at least based on my impression. All the better for my purposes. I used to frequent Polish establishments or meetups for language practice. Really, for anyone with an interest in the Polish language, I cannot think of a better city in the US than Chicago.
The situation improves further yet with the Spanish language. Between the sheer sizes of communities from Puerto Rica or Mexico, among other less represented Spanish-speaking groups such as Colombian, Peruvian, Cuban, etc, you’ll find dedicated regions with a situation similar to that of the Polish community, except on a far wider scale. Between the neighborhoods Pilsen, sections of Logan Square, Ukrainian Village (yes), Cicero, and really all over West and South-West Chicago, Spanish speaking and largely Mexican presence is felt throughout. Losing yourself in entirely Spanish speaking markets, bars, and restaurants of all classes of taste and luxury does not present much of a challenge. Among the major metropolitan US cities, after Miami and the greater LA, Chicago probably most represents the Spanish language. But I haven’t investigated the numbers in recent years.
Chicago also serves as a strong enclave for the Ukrainian, Chinese, Greek, Kyrgiz and other communities, with many of the linguistic and cultural pleasantries, although to a lesser extent. The Russian speaking community that I actively participated in for years, too extends to impressive proportions, albeit not focused in any one particular neighborhood. If one were to ask me for ways to naturally adapt the environment to their Russian language learning needs, I would struggle to indicate an effective strategy. New York better serves for this purpose.