2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Krakow Smiles and Bison Vodka

Krakow Smiles and Bison Vodka

I had to wait several uncomfortable minutes for Marek Wawrzynski to finish stacking some boxes in the back room before he would serve me. This was his subtle way of reminding me that I am merely a customer, whether I’m a local or not. I doubt Marek even smiled on his First Communion picture. It’s nothing personal, simply a Polish way and there is no place more Polish than Krakow’s Vis A Vis.

I ordered Żubrówka on the rocks, a bison grass-infused vodka people like mixing with apple juice for some terrible reason. As is the norm in Poland, Marek measured out precisely fifty milliliters into the glass and slid it over to me.

“Ten złoty,” he mumbled, stone-faced. There is something heartening about being welcomed in-to my old watering hole, after a 12-year absence, with that same old, chilly Krakow indiffer-ence.

I first stumbled into this matchbox dive while bar-hopping across Europe 24 years ago, drawn by an inherent gravitation to sordid establishments. I was immediately impressed by the thick smoke of cheap Polish tobacco and the vibe from Krakow’s poets, musicians, painters and assorted riff-raff, many from the legendary cabaret Piwnica Pod Baranami, next door. I ordered a shot of Wiśniówka – cherry vodka – took a seat at the window as the midday January snow danced down and covered Krakow’s market square in a fleecy layer of white. This was before McDonald’s and shopping malls and Schindler’s List tours, when the coal soot of Krakow’s communist past was still plastered on the city’s medieval buildings. “I could live here,” I thought. That drink changed my life.

I got a job teaching English a few blocks from the cafe, and spent most of the decade watching the city transform from my front row seat at the Vis A Vis. Each summer, more beer gardens sprouted along the square until the rynek was entirely ringed by plastic tables and umbrellas sporting various beer logos. The Vis A Vis also followed suit, changing its cast iron relics for plastic, but that was the extent of its transmutation. Everything else was still in the ’70s, including its two saintly matrons, pani Zosia and pani Krysia, attired in old-school blue and white uniforms with headpieces.

Pani Zosia was a beacon of geniality among a cabal of gruff misfits, which included Szybus, a renowned bedlamite who once took a chain and padlocked the police into the station next door while waving the key in the window in front of them. Zosia was a classic elegant Polish woman of her generation with the heart of a lion. Seeing her on a Sunday afternoon after church, you would never guess that she had tossed a piss-stained drunk out of the cafe by his collar and pants the night before. Pani Krysia, on the other hand, only smiled when you tipped her, and even that grin was suspect. Ever alert with the darting eyes of a bird of prey, she would stand by the door rubbing her hands like a fly and flicking her tongue like a lizard, looking for the next mark. The problem was that the only tippers were foreigners and the Vis A Vis was the one bar in Krakow that tourists intuitively avoided.

Just as I drained my Żubrówka, Marek came up and handed me a booklet of his poetry. Touched by this random act of kindness, I ventured to collectively reminisce. I ordered another drink and asked what became of Dracula, the imposing pony-tailed barman whose slow burn was so severe we were afraid to order from him, hence his nickname. Dracula once told me he didn’t smile because there was nothing to smile about in the Vis A Vis. For Marek the poet-barman, expressiveness is more complex.

“We don’t smile because that’s what the communists wanted us to do,” Marek affirmed. “It’s a private thing for Poles. We smile inside.”

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