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My name is Garrett Van Reed. I am an American who first visited Poland in 2002, and has been living here since 2006. I am writing to share a bit of my experience and perspective living in and writing about Poland as the Editor-in-chief of Poland In Your Pocket - a small Kraków-based publisher of travel guides, which I co-own with my wife. Like thousands of other firms across Poland and the globe, our company has been gravely impacted by COVID-19 and the future for my firm and family in Poland is entering a period of uncertainty I never anticipated.
As someone with no Polish roots whatsoever, I’ve often been the recipient of befuddled comments from Poles that I’ve gotten things completely backwards by moving to Poland from the United States. The fact is, though my arrival in Kraków - the only Polish city in which I’ve lived - may have been the somewhat random result of my entirely unmoored mid-20s, my decision to stay here and start putting down roots was the direct result of the magic I immediately felt upon arrival.
From the moment I moved here, Kraków had, and still possesses, an alien allure and literary mystique that appealed to me as an untethered post-grad who had made the erroneous decision of devoting my college years to the study and practice of poetry; a decision which shaped me into a penniless wanderer with almost no perceptible employment prospects back home. Kraków for me was like a time machine to a bygone era where the integrity of art and culture was more important than the bottom line of business profits. At the same time it was full of entrepreneurs pursuing their passions as the economy opened up to new ideas and possibilities. I fell in love with the city and was determined to stay as long as possible.
With no interest or experience in teaching English, I was fortunate to find that my literary skills could be applied to Poland’s burgeoning tourism industry at a time when it was just being discovered as an exciting destination. As a travel writer I was forced to immerse myself in the history and culture of the places I was writing about, namely Kraków, Wrocław and Katowice, which was an excellent way to understand the people and assimilate into the culture. Through working as a travel writer I was also fortunate enough to meet my wife, Małgorzata, a native Cracovian working alongside me for the same company.
I will admit that it was incredibly difficult to sacrifice my strong connection to my home and family in America to live in a country that still feels foreign to me fourteen years later. I knew that no matter how well I learned to speak Polish (to this day well enough, but not fluently), and how much I learned about Poland, I would never be Polish, or aspire to identify myself as such. I would always be an outsider, a ‘stranger in a strange land.’
I left in 2008, only to be quickly lured back by the prospect of a paying job - something which still proved elusive back in Philadelphia. Despite having fallen in love with my future wife, in 2010 I left again in the throes of a full-blown crisis of conscience. After a full year of tormenting myself, friends and family back in Pennsylvania, I resolved to return to Kraków, this time on my own terms. Incredibly, my old job and true love both welcomed my return and I’ve never looked back.
I have been very fortunate for the daily affirmations that I made the right decision. In 2012 my wife and I had the opportunity to take over Poland In Your Pocket, and we grabbed it. Two years later we were blessed with a son and last year we finally got married. My Kraków story has been a very happy one.
As the writer and editor of Kraków In Your Pocket, for over a decade I’ve attempted to recreate that excitement I first felt when coming to Kraków for our readers. The first printed city guide to Kraków was published in 1999, and until a month ago it appeared on the market every two months without fail, fully updated with new things to do and places to visit, alongside an expanding roster of regularly published city guides to, among others, Warsaw, Trójmiasto, Wrocław, and Poznań,. Created by a dedicated and passionate team of 20+ people across PL working tirelessly on relentless deadlines, it was a labour of love and also a source of income for many families, not just my own.
Though our content appears on a multitude of online and social media platforms, we’ve always earned our income primarily off of our print publications, partnering with local businesses who advertise in our guides, which are distributed for free in hotels and tourist information offices. As a travel company at the intersection of the Polish gastronomy, nightlife, hospitality, culture and events sectors, COVID-19 has made our firm a microcosm of the industries hit hardest by the restrictions in place to stem the pandemic. As a result we have been forced to stop production on our guides for the first time ever, and are faced with laying off our cherished colleagues who have also made their livings thanks to Poland In Your Pocket for decades.
The fact that the print edition of Kraków In Your Pocket and our other city guides have now disappeared from the market and may never return brings me sadness not only as their steward, but also more generally as a traveller. As any creator does with their craft, I created travel guides that I myself wanted to use. Guides with a strong, subjective voice that presented the best attributes of Poland, but also weren’t afraid to comment with humour on the absurdity or shortcomings of their subject. Guides with detailed maps and self-guided tours that lead users to all the essential sites, but also many places requiring a local’s insight to discover. Guides full of captivating stories to make the reader appreciate the history and significance of what was in front of them. And perhaps most uniquely and importantly, guides that were so meticulous and up-to-date in their details that the user need not go online to get further information about opening hours, or even how to get to places with public transit. Without them, I worry that the independent, offline exploration these guides were designed for may cease to be an option for future travellers.
Not yet 40 years old myself, perhaps I was indeed born in the wrong era to be seemingly bemoaning the inevitable advance of technology and its effect on my industry. Or, more likely, it is because of my experience in my own era that I only begrudgingly embrace the reality that travel, like all human experience and interaction, now increasingly occurs online through a device that actually removes you from the environment around you, rather than immersing you in it. A device that is so much a part of our daily routines, that a ‘vacation’ no longer offers us a break from that routine.
Over the years, of course, Poland In Your Pocket has adapted to many new trends and technologies; we publish across a spectrum of social media platforms, and we are working right now to adapt our content to the world the COVID-19 pandemic has created and that which will be left in its wake. As our business evolves in hopes for survival, perhaps this is simply my long public eulogy for a unique product that was on the market in Kraków for over 20 years, and though perhaps now irrelevant and unlikely to be missed, I was proud to be a part of its history and will maintain until I too disappear from this earth, that Kraków never benefited from a better guidebook.
Although I am obviously still grieving the loss of a loved one that no mask or social distance could protect, the wonder and affection I feel for this city remains and will still be expressed in whatever it is I do, whatever form that takes. Travel will eventually resume, our tourist markets will eventually recover, and people will again discover the unique magic of places like Kraków, Warsaw and Gdańsk. In the meantime I have a 5-year-old son to imbue with magic, which is the more important job anyway, and if there’s any silver lining to this situation it’s the reminder that our health, and our humanity towards those around us, are the most important things in life. It has buoyed my spirits to see the outstanding job that communities across Poland have done in demonstrating this - from the kids to the teachers to the medical professionals to the business owners - all of them are to be commended for their brave, generous and unselfish responses to these difficulties.
Although I myself am not Polish, my son is, the family I have created here is. While I feel like a ‘man without a country’ and worry about the threat today’s leaders (in both Poland and America) pose to democracy, Kraków is my chosen home and I am determined to stay and help my community recover from this crisis. As a resident I will always celebrate living here and continue exploring and soaking up the magic that the city still holds for me. As a professional, the future is beyond the horizon of my sight, but I hope I can continue to put my energy into articulating exactly what that magic is for others, and helping them pursue its discovery for themselves.
Garrett Van Reed
Poland In Your Pocket
IYP City Guides
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