Poland Journal 2004

Day 1: The Flight

Having to wake up at 6:30 AM for my annoyingly early 9:00 AM flight to Warsaw (through New York), I arrived at the airport on time, which is to say I had about an hour left before the flight would leave. Fortunately, United has an inordinate amount of check-in booths, San Francisco being one of its major hubs and all, and so that part didn’t take long. I also escaped one of those infamous “hour plus”-long security checkpoint lines (although several times in the past I have not been so lucky). I even managed to grab a tuna sandwich and requisite Diet Coke before showing third-to-last to board the plane.

The flight to New York was uneventful, and I was entertained by two movies: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, which was sweet if a bit vapid, and Master and Commander the something of the world, which quickly bored me and so I switched to Starsky and Hutch (it’s great, of course). I even got an aisle seat by switching my crappy middle-of-the-plane seat with some British guy’s wife.

Arriving there early, I had a whopping hour to get to my next flight. Because of my weird tickets (which had confounded the United agent for a minute or two), I had to check in again; this time I would be flying on LOT, the Polish national airlines. When I got to the desk, the agent was seriously surprised at my arrival–apparently, I was the last one there. I made it in time for the final boarding call. At least I didn’t have to wait in line.

During the eight-hour-long flight, I managed to seat myself next to two young girls. Though they were not young enough to cry incessantly, and they fortunately spoke only Polish and thus could not pester me with questions, they still managed to discover various ways to move about the aircraft, most of which I had not even dreamed of being possible. An interesting thing about Polish people I learned on the plane was that they tend to talk, a lot. Imagine someone you know who talks all the time (you know who I mean). Now imagine if everyone sitting around you on a plane was a clone of that person, except that they all spoke in Polish and constantly leaned over your seat to show various eclectic items to each other (watches, bottles of wine–that sort of thing). I did get to watch Tank Girl on my laptop, which is an amusing comic book-based movie with some nifty animation and a great main character. Some Springsteen later, and we landed.

For some reason, whenever a Russian plane lands, every passenger onboard applauds vehemently, as if they had expected it to crash. Interestingly enough, a significant portion of the Polish plane did the same, though not as many. I don’t really understand this custom. It isn’t done in any other countries as far as I know (probably the other former Soviet ones as well). And it isn’t as if Russian planes crash more often (they have had no crashes on international flights). Weird–anyway…

The airport proved to be very reminiscent of Sheremetevo, in Moscow, i.e. old, drab, and dirty. Fortunately the lines were shorter (though maybe because I conveniently sat almost at the very front of the plane and so was one of the first off). I got my stuff and proceeded to leave through an ominously-unguarded “green” customs gate. Of course by this time it was already Tuesday, which is technically “day two”. Please accept my apologies for mentioning it here.

Day 2: Warsaw

I arrived about 24 hours after my flight left, local time, which means that I spent about 15 hours in airport-airport transit; I arrived at the hotel about an hour later, i.e. 18 hours home to temporary home. Upon checking into the hotel I completed a survey of my room. Of course, since this was some random cheap motel in Poland, I didn’t have very high hopes, which proved to be a good decision. The first problem I encountered was that the doors wouldn’t open. The knobs didn’t do anything, and to open them required you to insert the key, and while turning it to unlock the door shake it violently so that it might open. I never really got the hang of it, but fortunately I was able to ask various others to open it for me.

Other amenities: two beds (excellent! I can throw all my stuff on the second one, thus avoiding needless organizing), a stock nature painting copy, a handy thermometer (now I know what temperature it is, so I can complain more quantitatively about the lack of heating/cooling), a shower (very nice after that long flight), a desk with drawers lacking in bibles (screwed again), nifty plastic light switches, curtains AND blinds (score!), a television (it looks like it just might work), and some suave designer chairs (well someone had to design them, right?). A nifty item was an ashtray, inside of which lay a piece of paper with a no smoking sign. Brilliant waste of an ashtray. Of course they didn’t have any form of internet access whatsoever. That’s what you get in Poland, I guess.

I met with my grandparents, who told me to take a nap. I decided to watch TV instead, and found all of one channel in English–Eurosport. It could have been worse. It could have been BBC World, which loves to show nature shows all day long. Or FOX News. Oh, and there was TV5, a French channel. I managed to find a game show called “Des chiffres et des letters”, which was like Scrabble… sort of. So Eurosport it was, though not much watching later it was time to go tour Warsaw, as tomorrow I would be leaving for Cracow.

We had a nice Polish guy to drive us, who spoke Russian decently well; his name was Zbishek (it’s short for some longer name which I couldn’t remember, but the short form sounds better). By this time my jet lag had started kicking in, though I expected the exciting nature of the coming activities. First we decided to get lunch, and Zbishek led us to a nearby place he recommended. It was awful. The food there was mediocre, and it was all stuff that my mom could have made much better. It was pretty cheap, but then again so is Taco Bell, and I’d take that any day instead.

So full on bitter soup, over-oiled salad, and dry meat, we decided to visit monuments (what else?). We drove by one to Copernicus and one to Poland’s most famous poet (who never lived in Poland and was born in Lithuania, but that’s hardly of import to the Poles). We stopped by monuments to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (when the Nazis slaughtered thousands of Jews) and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (when the Nazis slaughtered thousands of Poles).

By this time, I was becoming rather melancholy and disillusioned, because I was stuck in Poland for over a week with four old people. Actually, four old Russian people. Thus not only did I not relate to their age, I also couldn’t relate to their culture. At least on prior trip there had been some people my age or that spoke English (my brother was the best of the lot). How am I supposed to make Simpsons references now? With this in mind it was only natural that I miss all my friends, most of all Alice (that endless paragon of fun). Looking back I am trying to filter out all of the extraneous sadness from these events, though I might leave a touch of the cynicism.

We arrived, at last, at the object of our journey (I only found this out upon our arrival)–the Polish “Old Town”. Ironically, it is the newest part of town, having been completely demolished by the Nazis (see Warsaw Uprising of 1944). They rebuilt it, taking millions of bricks from other Polish towns, i.e. by destroying their historical buildings, and rebuilding everything here. It looks very similar to other European cities, especially Bruges and Luxembourg (well except the huge chasm thing that Warsaw naturally lacks). Since I loved those cities, I naturally enjoyed Warsaw as well.

Just a tidbit: in the 1984 European Championship, Michel Platini (of the French) scored the perfect hat trick–a regular shot, a header, and a free kick.

One thing to notice in the Old Town is the plethora of restaurants, with delightfully sounding menus. Since we had eaten before, I didn’t get a chance to sample their food, but it did bring up the question of the idiocy of not eating in other of these fine establishments, especially the ones with the beautiful view over a little valley (someone must prefer the look of a diner). The city itself is very green, which I was surprised to find. Trees dot all of its streets and there are dozens of flowers growing on them. It gives the city a very nice, relaxing feel, and makes it much more pleasant than, say, Manhattan. We only spent an hour and a half in the Old Town, and by that time I was ready to collapse into bed.

I came back to the hotel, hoping to catch one of the night’s Euro 2004 soccer matches. Eurosport decided that showing boxing was a much more important exercise, and the only channel that had a match was in German and had an extremely fuzzy picture, such that I couldn’t understand what the announcers were saying and I could only make out a large field of green with random colors blurring within it. I fell asleep, the day ending early for me.

Day 3: Cracow by Train

I woke up at seven in the morning, which is pretty good considering I fell asleep around seven last night. Silly jet lag. Still, twelve hours of sleep is nice. Ironically though, we do not need to leave today until 11:30 AM, since our train is sometime past noon. See, my grandfather has had this annoying habit in past trips of waking us up as early as possible so that we can all leave somewhere at 7:30 or 8. The only result of this is that we return back around 6-7, thus missing all of the pretty nights (usually we, i.e. I, go out again to see them). Thus this was quite an unusual occurrence.

The morning was spent watching TV while text messaging Alice. I found out that, interestingly, Italy didn’t make it into the quarterfinals of the UEFA (European) Championship. Before the matches Italy had complained that Sweden and Denmark would plot to tie 2-2 in order to prevent Italy from advancing (due to the new tiebreaking rules in place, even if Italy won 25-0 they wouldn’t advance). They denied that they would purposely seek such a result. Yet that is exactly what happened. 2-2 draws are fairly rare in the world of soccer, and Italy fell to bad luck. It’s interesting that this makes Italy the first team to not advance despite having no losses.

At nine I went to breakfast. I haven’t had very good experiences with the free hotel breakfasts, although I did hope to at least have some cereal and grapefruit/orange juice. In France, at two hotels we stayed at, they had very excellent juice-making machines. You would put in fresh oranges and it would juice them, producing very good-tasting stuff. Here they had ordinary juice, cereal (though only corn flakes), two types of cheese, bread, and some hot food of unknown contents (it did not look appealing enough for me to wish to try it), though it looked like a meat-vegetable-sauce product. There were eggs too, boiled ones, and ones were almost-successfully scrambled. I had cereal and some toast with cheese.

My grandfather, worried that I would be hungry/thirsty on the train, went with me to a nearby store, where he bought me a bottle of Coca-Cola Light, dyed in an ugly, slightly-translucent grey, and some pumpernickel bread. The lot cost five and a half zlotys, which are the unit of currency in Poland (the word derives from ‘zoloto’, meaning gold); that’s about a dollar and a half. I returned to my room to pack, accomplishing that arduous task with very little in the way of trouble.

We went to the car with all our things, my grandparents having brought far too much (at least five times more than me), and of course having me carry it. Zbishek drove us to the train station, from where we would depart to Cracow. Driving in Warsaw, as in other European cities, is much different from driving in the US. Since most of these cities were built before the advent of the automobile (technically, Warsaw was rebuilt, but they did this to make it look as much like it had before as possible–again those damn conservatives interfere with progress) all of the streets are narrow, and so even the main boulevards are often 2 lanes across (that’s one in each direction). Since this leaves nowhere to park, it is legal to park on the sidewalk in many areas. Europe also has different road signs from the US, which anyone who has been to both areas will know. When we arrived, we said goodbye to Zbishek, and he gave me his card. This enabled me to find out his full name: Zbigniew Klasa. What a cool name.

I had read in one of the free pamphlets available at the hotel that the train station in Warsaw was absolute shit. While this was an exaggeration, it wasn’t a very big one. It reminded me a lot of Russia train stations (I’ve been to two–Moscow and St. Petersburg), i.e. dirty and lacking any seating. In the true fashion of my grandparents, we arrived thirty minutes early (they, especially my grandmother, tend to worry a lot), during which time the lack of benches/chairs to sit on became woefully apparent. The whole time was spent worrying about whether we were on the right platform, which, unsurprisingly we were (I had asked a worker when we arrived, and he had told us that it was the 4th ‘peron’). Even more to their disbelief, we managed to make it onto the train, finding our correct seats even before it left.

The trip to Cracow would take us just under three hours, which was excellent, since that meant I could use my laptop for the entire time. We sat in little rooms (what are the rooms on a train called?) for six. Since there were five of us, we were joined by a nice Polish man, who was from Cracow, and spoke Russian fairly well. While he talked to my compatriots, I busied myself with my laptop. That got old quickly, though, and so I read some more of One Hundred Years of Solitude. From the first several chapters I have the impression that the book is very sexual, and this amuses me for whatever reason. For instance the second chapter concerns various women becoming amazed at the size of Jose Arcadio’s penis, while the third has a young girl who burned down her grandmother’s house accidentally as a child, and is now forced to have sex for 20 cents per person until she can pay off the “debt”. In the night she was in their village, sixty-four men took advantage of that opportunity. It might be just me though.

Actually the interesting thing about Poland is that not very many people here speak Russian. Not only was Poland a part of Russia until 1918, but after World War II the Soviets kept a tight control over the country. Everyone in schools was forced to learn Russian, to promote ‘Slavic unity’. It hasn’t been two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, and already everyone here has ‘forgotten’ Russian. I have a suspicion that perhaps they just don’t like to speak it (a la the French speaking English). Also, with the opening of the country’s borders, especially since it joined the European Union this May, many tourists have flooded the country, and naturally most of them speak English. Actually one of the Poles here even said that they hate to speak Russian and German, because they were controlled by the two countries. When asked which they hated more, he said Russian, because the Russians controlled them for much longer than the Germans.

Anyway, there was some problem with the Polish driver who was supposed to meet us at the train station. Namely that he didn’t. This resulted in a renewed round of fretting by my grandmother, who loves to do that sort of thing. After an absurdly long amount of time of ‘discussing what to do’, we decided to–wait for it (this is a brilliant idea)–take a taxi to the hotel. Which we did.

We arrived there, at the Hotel Krazimierz, which happens to be located in the heart of Cracow’s Jewish district. There are about seven synagogues in walking distance from it. Incidentally, Jesus was Jewish. There was a charming woman working at reception; she spoke English quite well (better than anyone I had met so far), and was nice enough to accommodate all of my grandfather’s redundant complaints. This time I got room 405 (which is 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 5, or 3^4 x 5 (they are in order!)).

I went to my room, to see how it would compare to the last. After a thorough and exhaustive inspection, I determined that it was quite a bit better. First of all, there was a chocolate on my pillow. Second, there was a mini-bar. Third, and probably most of all, it had curtains, and pretty peach-colored ones at that. I could tell already that this was no ordinary hotel. Did I mention the sewing kit on the desk? I didn’t? Well there was one, and that just plain rocks.

After we had settled in our rooms, and my grandparents had taken about forty minutes to thoroughly bitch at the tour lady that was supposed to arrange the driver (she decidedly apologized, and promised that we would have one the next morning; I wasn’t holding my breath), we decided to go out to eat. Knowing the habits of my grandfather, i.e. his inability to choose any place of a decent level of quality, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Since this was, after all, the Jewish district, a Jewish restaurant seemed like the appropriate choice. Within walking distance were five of them, and I arbitrarily choice one of the closer two, named Klezmer Hois. In some brochure I had read that they recommended the chicken in honey and ginger at said place, so I figured that I may as well alleviate myself of the trouble of having to decide. After deciding for an inordinate amount of time (they did have English menus, but the others had to ask me to translate the entire thing, it seemed), we ordered. I had matza ball soup, and the aforementioned chicken, along with a large (1/2 liter) beer. Since I had had another beer in the hotel just before we had left, I started to feel a bit lightheaded, though the food quickly set me straight.

We went home, and gathered together for a late-night snack/drink. I had some cognac, though it was of deplorable quality, and I didn’t have more than a bit. There were also very tasty chocolate and almond cookies. After the food, I proceeded to watch one of the Euro 2004 soccer matches (I forgot to mention that this hotel has them, albeit in Polish–YAY!), specifically Germany-Czech Republic. The Czechs had already won their group, and so the result of this match didn’t matter for them. They took the opportunity to rest some players with injuries. Germany, on the other hand, needed a win to advance. However, Germany had beaten the Czechs in the 1996 final, and they were looking for revenge. All of these factors combined to make for an excellent match, with both sides attacking. As usual, the Czechs started out behind, when Germany scored midway through the first half (their previous two games they had been down 0-1 and 0-2 before rallying for 2-1 and 3-2 wins). Only nine minutes later the Czechs equalized on a free kick, and it was all over when midway through the second half Baros scored a clever goal (tricking two defenders and the goalie) to put the Czechs in the lead for good. That marks Baros’s fifth straight international game with a goal.

After that, I played SMAC for two hours, then went to sleep around one.

Day 4: Exploring Cracow

After my first night in this hotel, I determined that it had awful beds. The prior hotel had nice fluffy pillows and blankets, and sheets that were at least soft. This one had flat, cotton blankets and pillows, and rough sheets that made sleeping rather unpleasant. Fortunately for me, I went to bed late, so I was sleepy enough at the time that I was able to fall asleep without much trouble.

The morning enabled me to survey the quality of breakfast at this hotel. For my particular food choices, i.e. cereal + juice, it was significantly better, having four types of cereal and a much better selection of juices. For everyone else, it was worse, lacking in much of the food that the other hotel had (such as the weird vegetable medley). For instance the bread here was truly disgusting, tasting at least four days old and probably abundant with mold.

We met our new driver, Pavel, who was a local. He didn’t speak Russian, although he spoke German, which turned the car into a German love fest. I forgot to mention, but last night Ellen Becker arrived to join us for the day we would be here. She is a friend of my grandparents’ that lives in Germany, and they try to see her whenever they are around. Last year, when we visited Cologne (in Germany), she dropped by. She only speaks German. As last year, I was basically the only one in the car that didn’t know any German (the others knew varying levels of it), and they started speaking exclusively. And as last year, this was severely annoying, since all the discussions of what we would be doing were done in the language, and only later someone would relay to me the results.

It was therefore with complete bemusement that I rode in the car to the Cracow city center. It seemed to take a long time–fifteen minutes–though perhaps that was because of traffic. We arrived near the old market, and the driver let us out for about ninety minutes. Our first stop was a small local museum, created from the private collection of some Polish noble (his name was naturally lost in the annals of my memory). Most of the collection was fairly ordinary Renaissance fair, but there was one painting that stood out (well, not literally). Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” was housed here, and it is only one of three of his extant oil paintings. The painting itself was not very remarkable, it is, as the title indicates, a lady holding an Ermine. Her eyes indicate that she has just noticed someone, and overall she is very warm, much more so than the Mona Lisa, who comes across as rather withdrawn.

That was all to be seen in the museum, at least in my venerable opinion. Fortunately, the majority of our party agreed, and we moved on to bigger and better things. Towards the market square there was a quaint street, full of nifty shops, which I was inclined to investigate. The leadership complained of a lack of time, though, and we went down a different street, this one full of cars and well, cars. The square itself was huge, said to be one of the largest in Europe. There were thousands of bustling tourists (it is said that tourism has increased significantly with the relaxing of entry requirements upon EU membership) and their sheer volume made the place seem very popular indeed. I read somewhere that Cracow now attracts more tourists than Rome or London, though I’m not sure if that’s accurate (it sounds a bit too ostentatious).

The highlight of the square was–what else?–a cathedral. St. Mary’s to be exact. For whatever reason, my grandparents are obsessed with visiting cathedrals. In our last few trips I must have seen over two dozen, in the following cities (in some we saw more than one!): Paris, Amiens, Tours, Caen, York, Strasbourg, Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, London, Kostroma, Uglich, Nizhniy Novgorod, Oxford, Edinburgh, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rouen, Luxembourg, Aachen, and some others I have forgotten. All of the cathedrals are extremely similar, as most of them are built using Gothic architecture (admittedly some are different) and all of them are Catholic. After seeing one or two there is extremely little point in seeing the rest of them, since they are almost identical. It should be easy to imagine what I thought as we entered this one. Much to no one’s surprise, it looked very similar to all the previous cathedrals. After about zero minutes I had seen every unique attribute of this particular cathedral. Fortunately we left quickly, our time running short; there was no repeat of various earlier hour plus visits.

Then, disaster struck. One of our party, my great-uncle, was missing. In the cloud of massing schoolchildren on a trip to their blessed cathedral we had lost him. We gathered outside the entrance to the cathedral to worry and wait. And wait. And worry. And wait. And worry. I decided to be proactive and look for him. It only took thirty-seven seconds until I found him, standing on the other side of the crowd. We rejoined the party and for about five minutes there was various yelling and arguing around. Then they decided to look at the map to determine where to go to meet up with Pavel again. It seemed to me rather obvious that we would just keep going across the square until the intersection with a particular street, but they had to discuss it for many a minute. Finally though, we left, sure enough going to where I had thought we should. We then got in the car.

At this point I was fairly hungry, but the majority had yet gotten to this point. As such, they felt that we should engage ourselves in an activity for an hour or so, whence we would finally go eat. We drove out of Cracow and got to a small village with the amusing name of Tupiec (in Russian that would mean ‘dead end’). Inside this not particularly illustrious place was a Benedictine monastery. Monasteries, like cathedrals, hold some strange attraction to my grandparents, and I had been in many of them (though not as many as cathedrals, naturally). In fact we once took a boat trip where our final destination was a monastery (it took us seven days to get there). This monastery had no defining features to signal it as being an especially wonderful monastery. It was devoid of all life, and mainly served as a nice vantage point from which to look down on the Vistula, the main river in Poland. There was a souvenir shop, in which my grandmother bought a cross. I should like to point out, however, that my grandparents are not very religious. They are simply interested in the early Christians; for instance, my grandmother has written a book about them.

After this thrilling adventure, we took a plethora of winding, hilly roads to a restaurant that Pavel recommended. This was in the town of his birth. Incidentally, this town is very close (30 km) to the place of birth of the Pope. We sat down to a nice Polish meal, although the food I had was not particularly Polish. It included deep-fried mushrooms and grilled sole with tasty potatoes, and of course some beer. The more adventurous members of our group (i.e. my great-uncle) ordered some Polish sampler, with various foods. I tried some of them; they weren’t half bad.

We left the restaurant and took a more normal route back to Cracow. Since I would not be able to see it the following day, having plans of my own, we stopped briefly by the Wawel (that’s pronounced Vavel), which is at the center of the city. The Wawel is on a large hill, and has walls, a palace, and other interesting things. I only had time to walk around it briefly, but the view from above was simply gorgeous. It looked so pretty that I began to fall in love with Cracow. I just hoped it had a nice personality.

After a brief stop at the hotel, I decided to go to a bar to watch the night’s soccer match, with my pet team England against the host team, Portugal. Consulting my guide book, I found that the nearby Sheraton hotel had a nice bar, that sounded like it would have people who at least spoke English, a prime requirement of mine for any bar. I left to walk there, although I found that Cracow was far smaller than I had previously imagined while driving through it. It took me about fifteen minutes to get there, while I allotted thirty, in which time I could have probably crossed its entire center. With my extra time I went back to the Wawel, and sat on the grass watching people. This was a popular date spot, and over half of the people there were couples, strolling, talking, in the joyous raptures of love. There was also a group of teens who were yelling what I can only assume are insults in Polish at a group of American tourists nearby. I distanced myself from them, fearing that I would be caught up in the verbal abuse.

Then it was off to the bar. It was a typical American-style affair. I sat down at a table next to two British chaps (in Britain there are no people, just chaps) and ordered a ridiculously large amount of food. I had nachos (with sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and peppers) and a burger with fries. The nachos were fairly good, but the burger had a dry, overcooked bun. The rest of it was good though. This being a bar, I had my fair share of Heineken. Throughout all this I watched the soccer match. England did not play very well at all, although they had a lucky, amusing goal in the third minute. Their rising star, Wayne Rooney was injured throughout the game, and after that they kind of mellowed out. In the end it was a 2-2 draw and England lost 6-5 on penalty kicks. England always loses on penalty kicks. I don’t think they have ever won on penalty kicks. Bah. Still, the night was fun, and I got home around midnight, watched the celebration in Portugal on BBC News, and went to bed.

Day 5: A Quiet Little Town

Seventy-five kilometers from Cracow there lies the small town of Oswiecim. It is like any other of Poland’s many towns, with quaint houses, shops, and a train station. Yet this particular town has a very unique history. It was the site of the deaths of over one and a half million people within a period of four years. Most of these people would have known it by its German name–Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was the site of two concentration camps during World War II. The first was known as the main camp or Auschwitz I, and the second as Auschwitz II or Birkenau. On this particular day, I decided to visit the camp, although I went alone since no one else shared the same desire. To get there, I took a tour bus ($15). The trip to the city took an hour; along the way was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Poland is a really a beautiful country, with luscious forests and beautifully rolling hills. It is ironic how such pretty scenery leads the way to such a place as Auschwitz.

In January of 1945 the Red Army liberated the camp, freeing some 200,000 people held there. Two years later it was opened as a museum. Our tour guide was a cool Cracow native, with a sexy goatee and excellent English skills. The museum itself is notable because it is housed inside the actual barracks inside which the prisoners were interned. In a sense it is creepy to be walking in the same place that thousands lived and died, but this serves to heighten the significance of all of these events. Above the entrance to the camp still hangs the same sign that the Germans put up, “Arbeit Macht Frei”–“Work Brings Freedom”. Freedom perhaps from life, if one takes an interesting interpretation.

Until 1943 all of the prisoners were photographed, but the SS soon realized that prisoners had changed so much during their time in the camps that the photographs were worthless. After that year prisoners were tattooed with numbers on their left forearm. One of the barracks has its walls covered with these photographs, showing the prisoners with their names and dates of arrival and death. Most of them lasted no more than a few months–the longest that I was able to find was eleven–and some lasted less than a week.

The reason for these deaths was generally starvation. Their portions consisted of a bowl of coffee in the morning, soup for lunch, and a hunk of bread with a tiny piece of butter for dinner. In total it was about 1700 calories, and these people had to work for eleven hours a day. Of course these were the normal prisoners. Those breaking any of the rules would be punished, and one of the barracks was maintained as it was, with the original punishment cells intact. One method was the suffocation cell, where prisoners were packed inside a tiny room with a very little opening for air at the top and no light. They would spend the night there, most of them suffocating. Another room was the standing room. It was three by three yards square, and four people were forced into it for the night. They couldn’t sit or lay down, so they had to stand, and they were sent to work the next day. This continued for days or weeks until they died of exhaustion.

Then of course there were those that were simply killed, i.e. the majority. Part of the tour involved going into an actual gas chamber, the first one built, back when they weren’t very efficient. This one could only house 700 people; later ones housed 2,000. Then the corpses went off to the crematorium, where they were burned in one of four ovens at 1,000 degrees for forty minutes. These were also inefficient; later ones only took fifteen minutes to burn each corpse. The ovens were also still there, ready to be used again, I suppose.

From those people they killed, the SS took everything of value. In various rooms there are examples of this. One of them houses a huge pile of human hair, a metric ton of it, filling half of the room. It was sold to German textile manufacturers at fifty pfennigs per kilo. Similar piles of suitcases, shoes, pots, and brushes filled their respective rooms. And this was only a small sample of the items gathered–many of them were burned as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence.

In another part of the camp was a yard at the end of which was the infamous Wall of Death (I have determined that anything can be made to sound ominous by appending “of death” to it; for instance: “Sheep of Death” or “Coat of Death”). There thousands of prisoners were shot, most of them political prisoners that were actually tried before being killed (though the trials basically involved a pronunciation of guilt and a death sentence, it was better than nothing). At first the camp was used to house mainly political prisoners; only later was it used to kill mass amounts of Jews.

After this depressing show, we drove to the second camp, Birkenau. It was built to house more prisoners, and was made thirty times larger than the main camp. Its massive size was readily apparent. The end of the camp could not be seen from the beginning–it was an entire town to its own. It was here that most people perished, with four much larger gas chambers and crematoriums. The conditions at Birkenau were even worse than at Auschwitz I. Their living quarters were formed from converted stables. Originally built to hold fifty-two horses, they now held up to a thousand prisoners. The sanitary conditions were equally bad.

That completed the tour, and we began our return. The whole experience naturally left me feeling overall depressed. When you are actually inside the camps, where actual people were killed in a variety of cruel ways, there is a sense that something grandly evil has occurred. It is as if the weight of these deaths is left to hang in the air, not having been taken up by anybody’s conscience. Iit was very chilling.

Again, riding in the bus back the scenery quickly returned to the beautiful forests. It did help to alleviate some of the sorrow that had filled me up till that point. I returned to the hotel, and we went to get some dinner, at another Polish restaurant of Pavel’s choosing. This one was much more traditional. We were served bread with some cheese-type spread as well as lard, also meant to be put on the bread. I don’t care too much for food composed entirely of fat, but I had read that this was an integral part of the traditional Polish dinner. Unsurprising.

Ellen (that’s the one from Germany) ordered soup in a bread bowl. The Russian people had apparently not seen such a thing, although I distinctly recall eating it with them when they had visited me in the past. Still, they marveled at the ingenuity of combining two delicious things–soup and bread, and saving a bowl in the process. This marveling continued throughout dinner, which for me would have consisted of catfish fillet, except that they had ran out (as the waiter struggled to explain to me in Polish). Instead I had a whole trout (though a small one) along with some mushroom soup. Since everyone else had ordered far too much, they offloaded a lot of it onto me, and I found that almost all the food was cooked in copious amounts of, yep, pig lard. Yum.

When we got back to the hotel, I started to watch what I hoped would beu an exciting soccer match between France and Greece. Sure France was heavily favored, but the Greek team had surprised everyone before, beating Portugal in the opening game, and I wanted them to avenge England’s loss to France in their opening match. Halfway through the second half, they did, with Greece scoring off a fantastic header by Charisteas. I fell asleep shortly after, though the score remained 1-0 till the end, and France was beaten.

In the morning they told me that I had missed ‘amazing’ fireworks over the Wawel. Alas, the land of Nod makes no amends.

Day 6: To Gdansk and the Baltic Sea

Another train awaited us this morning, an early one, at 9:35. Due to yet more fretting over whether we would make it in time, we left early, and arrived at the train station thirty minutes early. By that point the train hadn’t even thought of arriving, let alone done so. The Cracow train station, by the way, is much nicer than the Warsaw one. It even has elevators to all of the platforms, and digital signs showing train arrival times.

Here we embarked for our train journey, to the Polish city of Gdansk. We wouldn’t actually be staying in the city proper, but rather in a hotel by the sea. My grandparents assured me that it was a nice, four-star hotel, and there would be much to do, for instance swim. So it was with some optimism that I embarked on the trip. It would take seven and a half hours to get there; we would be passing back through Warsaw and then all the way to the north coast of Poland.

That region is interesting, because it had always been in German (Prussian) hands, until the crazy war that was World War I. The Treaty of Versailles created the modern Polish state, but traditionally Polish lands had never included lands this far North. Since the statesmen wanted Poland to have access to the sea, they took this land from Prussia and gave it to Poland. The result was that the region known as East Prussia, to the northeast of Poland, remained in German hands while Poland blocked off its access from the rest of Germany. In World War II the Soviets took over the area, and it has remained Russian territory to this day. All was well until the various Soviet republics started becoming independent, as Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania’s exist from the USSR meant that Russia was no longer connected to the region formerly known as East Prussia (in Russian it is called the Kaliningradskaya Obslast, its capital is Kaliningrad).

The train ride wasn’t too bad. At first I entertained myself by talking to my grandmother, who had read a book about the formation of the English language. We discussed various aspects of linguistics, although that was put to an end when she decided to sleep. Afterwards I entertained myself with my laptop, whence I found that the sixth person sitting there, a random Polish guy, also had one, though his was clearly inferior. That was followed by a period of reading and a protracted period of falling asleep to music, which helped the time to pass very quickly.

We were met at the train station by yet another driver, Yanek, who this time spoke no language other than Polish whatsoever. He would only be taking us to and from the hotel once though, so that wasn’t too much of a problem. It was about a forty-five minute drive to our hotel, called Astor, way out in the Polish countryside. At first I had a good overall impression of the place. It looked nice and not run down at all.

Upon entering it, however, I noticed a worrying sign. The hotel had no apparent knowledge of the existence of the English language or its prevalence among about a third of the world’s population. Verily all the signs were in Polish and German, which, while having a reasonable cultural explanation, is no way for a tourist-based business to operate.

I went up to my room, to investigate its quality. It had a TV, as expected, with a larger number of channels than before (about twenty). However, not one of them was in English. About half were in Polish and half in German, but there was no hint of BBC World or anything of the sort. All I would be able to watch would be a few soccer matches. The bathroom also had the tiniest shower I have ever seen. It was such that any movement of mine would cause me to hit the temperature-changing knob, causing a torrent of either freezing or scalding water to pour on me. It wasn’t very fun.

On the positive side, the bed here was much comfier, with nice warm blankets. There was also a couch, just the right size to make it perfect for reading, and a large balcony. Of course this region was also quite cold, and so I wouldn’t really want to be going outside, but just in case, the option was available. We soon went to dinner, which at this hotel was included. It was served in buffet style, and while there wasn’t a very big variety of food–boiled vegetables, fries, chicken, pork, and rice–it was at least half-decent. Not nearly as bad as the food in England was at times.

We went for a walk after dinner, looking for the sea. It wasn’t too far to find, about a five minute walk, which brought us to a cliff with a beautiful view over the sea. Very, very pretty indeed. To get down required, err…, scaling down the cliff, so we decided to look for an alternate path. I found a place where the cliff had a hill of sand next to it, dotted with footprints and thus obviously used to descend before. As you may surmise, walking down a steep hill of sand is difficult, so it turned into me jumping a few feet, sliding a few more, and continuing till the bottom. It was fun. From the beach I found a nearby stairway which would enable one to reach the bottom without the aforementioned activity, although to the others it looked far too daunting to attempt, and we went home.

The Netherlands won the night’s soccer match against Sweden on penalty kicks. This is the first time in a very long time that they have won in penalty kicks, having lost the past five matches in which they figured in the final result. So it was unexpected. The match was exciting, despite the lack of scoring (prompting the 0-0 draw that required the PKs).

The main discovery of the night came when I found a local phone number I could use for dial-up internet access! It was a momentously joyous occasion, as it would likely enable me to entertain myself in times of boredom and monotony, at least for a while. I just hoped it wouldn’t cost too much to be on for hours at a time. I fell asleep shortly after.

Days 7-9: The Astor Lull

The rest of the days were spent watching the clouds go by at the Astor Hotel, Jastrzebia Gora, Poland. There wasn’t very much to do there, so I spent my time reading, writing this log, watching a few of the movies I brought with me, reading various random websites, going on occasional walks by the sea, listening to music, and watching a couple of the soccer matches.

I finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I found to be a fantastic book. It is remarkable in how it deals with the whole roller coaster ride of human experience, detailing each precarious drop and each subsequent rise, until it rolls right back to the beginning to start again. The book is at times funny and insightful, but from about halfway into it is simply tragic, as the slow unraveling of everything that has been built up until that point begins, and the fall of the town is described. As a result I became sad, but it was a good kind of sad, a revealing and introspective kind of sad. I recommend the book with the utmost of my melancholy.

Throughout these travels through Poland, I have noticed that the country is, very appropriately, like a mixture of Germany and Russia. It is much more modernly European than Russia, in that it is cleaner, safer, and nicer in general. Yet vestiges of the old Soviet regime remain, especially in many of the older people who remind me very much of the same kinds I see in Russia.

I saw Full Metal Jacket, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Godfather, all good movies. I won’t bother discussing them in detail here, since I already discuss plenty of other unrelated things, and really you should see them for yourself if you haven’t, as it would take many millions of words to convey all of their interesting points.

On one of the days we walked to the most northern point in Poland. There is a large rock, in the form of an obelisk, that proudly proclaims this fact, and gives the present location in degrees longitude and latitude. The rock stands on a pedestal, on which are engraved names of many people, along with places of birth. We couldn’t decipher the explanation of who these people were, and this remains a mystery to this day.

I discovered that the hotel had a swimming pool, and so I decided to take advantage of that, having, as usual, not much else to do, and I went there twice. There was also a sauna, which didn’t work for some reason. Ah, well, c’etait la vie. Mainly I spent my time waiting for my trip back.

Day 10: The Voyage Home

I had even more complicated plans for my return trip. Since my plane was leaving from Warsaw, and I was far north of the capital, I would first take a separate plane there, then switch to the one going to Chicago and ultimately San Francisco. I didn’t much trust Yanek to actually deliver me to the Gdansk airport, although my grandfather had created a brilliant plan that would enable me to see at least some of Gdansk before I left. I had to get up about two hours earlier than I was used to (eight!), and we left at nine to drive to the city.

Gdansk is rather quaint, it is a nice Germanesque Polish town, and although much of it was destroyed in Allied bombings during World War II, it has been rebuilt nicely. The houses, at least in their rebuilt form, are reminiscent of Dutch houses, although they are naturally significantly newer-looking. We walked around town for about ninety minutes–I had time to eat some ice cream to help my aching sore throat–and then we went to drive to the airport.

Gdansk airport is very small. It had about ten flights that day, three of them to Warsaw, one of which I would be taking. I hadn’t expected this, and so we arrived very early, as with about fifty passengers per hour the lines weren’t long at all (actually, they just weren’t). The plane was some tiny Brazilian one, of a type I had never heard of, but it flew seemingly well, without crashing too many times. I had a seat all to myself, as they were in the 1 aisle 2 configuration. The flight was a mere forty minutes, and the time passed by hardly noticed by me as I read the latest issue of the Economist.

Warsaw, in comparison, looks positively gigantic. An interesting thing I learned this time, which I had failed to notice when arriving, is that Warsaw is named for Chopin. Many airports are named for people, e.g. San Jose is named for Norman Mineta, but Chopin is clearly a much cooler figure than Mineta. This is also the first instance that I have seen an airport named for a musician (or any kind of artist, for that matter). Seemingly in mocking of my previous lineless experience, the check-in at Warsaw took just over an hour, making it the second-longest I have ever had to endue (the longest of course was in Moscow). I was further frustrated in the passport control line, as my line consisted of three people, except that the two in front of me each took about five minutes each (on average everyone else took thirty seconds), making it the slowest despite its shorter size.

I had time enough to visit the Duty Free shops, where I bought my mother two cartons of cigarettes (it took a while to find the specific kind she wanted, but I did!), some snacks for me, and a large Toblerone for my brother.

On the plane I had merely an aisle seat, but soon fortune turned my way, seemingly in repayment of the evil Warsaw lines. The man sitting next to me had a wife, and the two could not get two tickets together, so his wife was sitting in business class (there being only the two on this plane). He asked me to switch with her so that they could sit together, and I naturally obliged. Ah, the wonders of love enabled me to get a free ‘upgrade’, which was rather nice, as I had only flown once before in business class, and didn’t remember it well. After this experience, I must say that I heartily recommend it. The food is significantly better, and you are allowed all manner of free alcohol, including cognac, liqueurs, and other goodies. There is also of course much more leg room. Thanks to this arrangement the flight passed easily and the nine and half hours seemed more like seven or eight.

On the flight I sat next to a girl perhaps in her mid-twenties, from San Diego. She told me that she had been traveling in Europe for a month, arriving first in Italy and then traveling north into Poland. This sounds like something awesome to do–I would love to just travel all over Europe, seeing all the various interesting (key word) places there are. The girl also expressed interest in my reading of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which she said was an excellent book that she too enjoyed. Well, we landed, and I was about two-thirds of the way home.

Chicago airport is interesting in that it is the first I have seen where the area of the airport goes over the highway. As our taxied to the gate it had to go on a short overpass, a new experience for me. My seat in business class was the closest to the plane’s exit, and for the first time in my life I was able to leave the plane first. I got to see how they open the door and attach that tube-thing (what is it called?), which was cool. It’s little things like that make life fun. American passport control and customs were easy, quick, and painless as always (other nations should try to follow this model–sigh), and I had about an hour and half before my flight to San Francisco would leave. I used some of it in getting a snack at McDonald’s–a grilled chicken sandwich, which was pretty good, as their food goes.

United has a series of new ads hanging all over their terminal at ORD. They have cool drawings and little phrases, and while that concept is not at all new, having been used for pretty much every United ad I have ever seen, these were some new ones. My favorite one said something along the lines of, “The airline preferred by significant others” and then in smaller text below it, “More ways to get you home faster.” Stuff like this is how this journal has gotten as long as it is.

On the flight to San Francisco, as if by karma, I got an awful seat. I was in the aisle on the last row, sitting next to a couple who slept the whole time (which wasn’t so bad, although it is interesting that on all four flights I have had people sit next to me they were women). I mainly listened to music, vainly trying to sleep, although ultimately I arrived having failed at that. The prospect of home brought me renewed energy, and I was finally happy to be back.