Thursday, 3 June 2010

Poland 1: Cinematic Exit

You expect change when you visit a city regularly. However, it’s still jarring when seemingly permanent elements of that city disappear.

That’s what I discovered in Kraków, my first stop on this year’s Lonely Planet assignment.

For the next few weeks I’ll be travelling around the whole of Poland, updating the Poland chapter of the Eastern Europe guidebook.

I began in the Polish city I know best, having lived here in 1994-95 as an English language teacher.

Kraków is an effortlessly beautiful city and its main attractions never change: the sprawling main market square, the Rynek Główny; mighty Wawel Castle; the narrow streets of Kazimierz.

However, in my own mental map of the city there are other fixtures, one of which was the tiny Kino Pasaż. Slotted within an arcade leading off the main square, this 42 seat cinema was a shabby little gem.

When Narrelle and I lived here in the 1990s, this was the place where current releases went to die, providing a last chance to catch them before they left the big screen altogether.

To be frank, I was expecting the Kino Pasaż to be closed when I returned to Poland as a travel writer in 2006, having been away for 11 years.  

Single screen cinemas were under pressure in city centres everywhere around the world, and this had no particular architectural charms that might have saved it as an art house venue - it was just seven rows of six seats (or was it six rows of seven?) in a scuffed old room.

So imagine my surprise to find it was still functioning in 2006, then in 2007, and in 2008. By now it had entered my own private folklore of the city, an eternal piece of Kraków’s furniture.

Then, last Thursday, I walked through the arcade to discover that the Kino Pasaż was no more.

The letters spelling out its name were still attached to the wall, and there was even a relatively recent film poster pasted on the door. But there were clear signs of closure, and I was able to peer through a recently uncovered window to see the battered old cinema seats within.

A woman working in a nearby office confirmed that the cinema had closed the previous year. As I stood there contemplating its closure and the likely removal of those big metal letters that had been there for god knew how long, I felt a distinct pang of grief.

Its closure wasn’t at all unlikely, after all. In an age of modern cinema multiplexes and boutique art house outlets, an ugly duckling like the Kino Pasaż was always living on borrowed time.

But still, it was a part of my life in Kraków in the 1990s, when Poland seemed much more foreign to me than it does now, as a comforting place to take in an English language movie.

And it was comforting to keep encountering it as the years went by, a tiny fragment of my own life’s narrative. I distinctly remember seeing Rapa Nui there, for example, an obscure Hollywood flick about Easter Island; an experience which provided context when I finally visited Easter Island a decade later.

So the Kino Pasaż is gone, and in a few years almost no-one will remember it was once there. But it lives on here, and in my mind.