East Versus West

Click  here to see a slide show. The city of Krakow, Poland, has that alchemic mix of history, architecture, art, and laid-back cafe culture that so many foreigners look for in Paris—but for a quarter of the price and with none of the attitude. I’ve lived in Paris for the last 10 months, so I barely knew what to make of Krakow’s cheerful and attentive waiters. Even stranger was the opportunity to eat an excellent meal for two, with wine, for $20.

Now, I’m not going to go around telling anyone, least of all French waiters, to be cheerful and attentive. But I am going to compare old and new Europe. It so happens that we left Paris and landed in Prague on the very day that French voters delivered a resounding “non!” to the EU constitution. (A subject I wrote about here.) We were in Poland, in a Wroclaw hotel room, when we learned about the “nee” delivered in the subsequent Dutch referendum. Politicians and pundits across the continent grasped for meaning; it seemed that the idea of European unity lay in tatters.

These rejections expressed, among other things, fear and frustration in the West over trying to integrate the new Eastern members of the European Union, like Poland. Last year’s additions suddenly made the European Union about 74 million people larger and much poorer: The combined GDP of the 10 newcomers, when they joined, was less than 5 percent of that of the existing 15 members. In France, the “Polish plumber” became a catchphrase for the fears behind the “no” vote. He and his Slavic brethren are expected to march west, working more for less and snatching French jobs.

On visiting southern Poland, though, I think the French should worry less about the plumbers and more about the concierges. France can, to some extent, keep the plumbers out for a while. Like most of the old EU 15, it has imposed work-permit requirements on citizens of the new member states.

But France can’t legislate tourists into choosing Paris over Krakow—or Riga or Budapest or Prague, buzzing capitals of the new Europe, which will all be using the euro as currency in a few years. The euro could drive up prices, but it will also make it simpler for a Madrilenian or a Roman to go east for the weekend.

So, what was so darned charming about Krakow to prompt this anti-Parisian outburst? (Paris is, after all, not a bad place, just plagued with terminally lousy value for money.) Maybe it was the sight of speeding monks: handsome young men in long brown robes, always moving with an air of cheerful purpose, as though they were off to repair Catholicism that very moment. Or maybe it was the largest medieval town square in Europe, which, at about 430,556 square feet, is ideally suited to the lazy people-watcher. All of Krakow comes to the square, so you don’t really need to leave.

Or maybe it was taking an urban ride on the Bandit, free of our baggage, skirting the imposing walls of Wawel Castle and stopping in a park on the Vistula River at sunset.

Or perhaps, in fact, it was the after-dark scene on that massive main square: A giant screen played a French-narrated, Polish-subtitled documentary about birds, and hundreds of evening strollers stopped to crane their necks and watch. When a predator bird attacked a baby penguin, a collective gasp went up.

After the credits rolled, we found a nightclub just off the square, in a complex of ancient, vaulted brick cellars. The DJs, the crowded dance floors, and the stock of beautiful people we found inside would have, in most cities, generated door policies and valet parking, but Krakow is just not that uptight.

There are plenty of visitors. As in Prague and Wroclaw, the hotels in Krakow were full to capacity when we arrived. Many of the visitors were touring Poles, including groups of schoolchildren straggling across the main square in long, snaking lines between their teachers. The college student working for Old Town Apartments, who let us into our rental, said the city had been full of Britons for the previous two weeks; they came on cheap direct flights from London. I also overheard Germans and Spaniards and a few Americans.

I was starting to worry that I couldn’t really see much from the back of a motorcycle, that all my impressions would be too fleeting. Among the things I could see, though, were billboard advertisements, and one that caught my eye again and again was for an airline called Sky Europe. I saw the ads in prosperous Krakow, but also in a town called Bytom, part of the industrial sprawl around Katowice, where plaster peels off the apartment blocks, laundry flaps in the grimy air, and twice I spotted swastikas scrawled on walls. Graffiti is another thing you see from the back of a motorcycle.

The Sky Europe billboards tout flights to London and Amsterdam, and when I checked the Web site later, the company was advertising a London-to-Krakow fare of £9, or about $16. This is in keeping with a trend that has swept Europe over the last few years: Aggressive pricing by upstart airlines has pushed inter-European ticket prices down into double—and even single—digits.

Europe already has its “Erasmus generation,” named after the European Union’s university exchange program, through which, over 18 years, some 1.2 million students have studied abroad within Europe. Today the program’s alumni speak multiple languages, work and date across borders, and are seen as forgers of a Pan-European identity.

Now the Sky Europe generation is on the scene. (Which, to be fair to all the other cheap airlines, could be named after any one of them.) Recently, I happened to interview the CEO of British carrier Flybe for an entirely different story. In trying to explain the psychology of the spontaneous ticket-buyer, he said: “Maybe the price is so low that I’ll go to Prague for the weekend and get drunk. And then maybe it’s still low enough the next time that I decide to fly back to apologize for the mess I made the first time.” He was speculating about how buyers respond to price, but what struck me was his summing up of the down-market Euro-carousers who have made neighborhoods like Prague’s Old Town and Dublin’s Temple Bar their playgrounds. His comment also sheds light on the hand-drawn sign in the window of a Prague cafe that said “no stags,” meaning bachelor parties. Deciding to fly across Europe has become as casual a choice as deciding to go down to the local pub.

High-minded academics and politicians see the Erasmus generation as the future leadership of Europe. But Sky Europe, Flybe, Ryanair, and others may be bringing about a more democratic sort of integration by making mobility accessible to all. Leaders in Brussels are disappointed that their European project has lurched to a crawl with the objections of French and Dutch voters. But maybe a few years of 9 euro flights between Paris and Krakow can repair the damage.

As for the Polish plumbers, the French may have kept them out, but the Polish Tourist Office has come up with a solution. On its Web site for French visitors, a strapping Polish plumber casts a sultry look at the viewer under the caption: “I’m staying in Poland—do come.” If you can’t bring the Polish plumber to France, bring France to the Polish plumber.