Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kraków, Redux

“You can always tell a Midwestern couple in Europe because they will be standing in the middle of a busy intersection looking at a wind-blown map and arguing over which way is west. European cities, with their wandering streets and undisciplined alleys, drive Midwesterners practically insane.”
Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson might be right about most Midwesterners, but not me.  I'm fairly certain that 90% of my mother's family would spend a maximum of 10 minutes squinting at a map, gesticulating broadly, and arguing passionately about which street leads to the Colosseum before eventually flagging the nearest taxi and calling it a day.  I, on the other hand, find the narrow, twisting streets of European cities to be mostly irresistible and charming.  Unless I'm lost and in a hurry, in which case I tend to curse them aloud in the manner of a crazy person.  Even then, though, it's hard to argue against the loveliness of cobblestones and the immense variety of life and shopping to be found in a European back alley.  Do you need a cobbler? A viola? Half of a calf's head?  It's right there, waiting to be "discovered" by you, the naïve tourist.  Never mind that the locals have been getting their calf heads there for 100 years.

Kraków is exactly the kind of European city in which I would dearly love to live.  It's fully stocked with wandering streets, Baroque architecture, parks peopled with wrought iron benches and lampposts along fine gravel pathways, and enough excellent restaurants to keep me occupied for a considerable length of time.  I envy the people who rush across the rynek every night on their way home, taking the rows of elegant buildings for granted as the facades soften to pastels in the twilight. 

While my friend Katie was visiting, we naturally decided to venture to the city.  I had been there once before, with Alice, but we hadn't done anything touristy whatsoever.  Being French, Alice had seen her share of castles and cathedrals, so we mainly focused on shopping and wandering aimlessly.  Katie, on the other hand, had never seen a castle in her life.  Our mission was clear: tourist day!

I have to say that my favorite part of bringing a newbie to Kraków is seeing their face light up when we walk into the square outside the train station.  It is so lovely, and it's not even the nicest one in town.  Katie and I lingered, taking photos amidst all the travelers and shoppers rushing around us.  She had been in Gliwice for some time at that point, but this was really the "Welcome to Europe" moment.

After capturing those first moments on film, we headed for the nearest tram stop, keen to get on to the Wawel Castle and accompanying cathedral.  I love the trams in Kraków.  Some clanky and ramshackle, others sleek and new.  And always going where you need them.  So, we hopped aboard and were quickly at the foot of the castle.

As castles go, it doesn't look too intimidating or grand.  It perches there casually, a bit top-heavy, on a hill overlooking the river.  It doesn't make your heart beat faster, doesn't make you want to invade it.  It just exists in a bit of a time warp, not quite removed from the city, but not exactly a part of it the way ancient Roman buildings are inseparable from everyday Roman life. 

We hiked up the path to the castle and took in the view from the ramparts.  I had heard rumors of dragons in the area, but sadly, none were out and about during our visit.  The castle grounds were lovely and the day was fresh, perfect for a stroll towards the cathedral, where we indulged in guided audio tour headsets to maximize our experience.  There was a lot of history and art in such an average-sized building, so our time and money were quite well spent.


After the cathedral, we attempted to get into the castle, but the guards turned us away for not having the appropriate tickets.  In the end, it turned out to be extortionately expensive, so I, being a vetern of castle-viewing, left Katie on her own to visit one of the set of rooms (all priced separately, absurdly enough!) and repaired to an outdoor cafe on the grounds where I could write postcards and admire the castle from afar.  For free.  I mailed the postcards from the little post office right there at the castle--and as an interesting side note--they took over two months to arrive in the States.  Not that I knew it at the time, of course!  Such are the benefits of updating this blog so far in arrears.

The rest of our afternoon was spent making our way to and around the rynek.  We stopped in the Hard Rock shop so that Katie could buy her boyfriend a t-shirt, and I wrangled a restaurant recommendation from the clerk.  He directed us to an Italian place where the food was gorgeous and so delicious.  The waiter was even happy to practice his English on us.  Thank you Hard Rock guy!  A bit of shopping at the mall near the train station followed, and so ended our lovely tourist day in the big city.

I'm really happy I got to introduce Katie to her first "real" European city, and I can't wait to see her again over here!  We're already planning a "Soup Tour, 2011".  I, for one, can't wait!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Arbeit Macht Frei

"We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning."
George Steiner

The sun should never shine on a place like Auschwitz. There is simply no call for it; it would be insulting to the memory of the 1.1 million people who were murdered there. It is fitting then that last Tuesday, when Katie and I ventured to the Polish town of Oświęcim in search of the Nazi concentration camp, that the day was gray, rainy, and miserable in all regards.

The journey to Auschwitz was long and taxing, involving many linguistic missteps and rude Polish citizens who refused to help out a couple of confused foreigners. The fact that it started raining as soon as we began our journey didn't help matters or my mood. But eventually, we found the right combination of trains and buses, and were dropped off at the entrance to the camp/museum.

Walking up the long driveway towards the visitor's center, before actually entering the camp, you feel a solemnity overtake you. This is no place for joking or kidding around. It was a bit of a jolt, then, to see teenagers running around and posing for pictures outside near a random food stand. But, I guess everyone is an asshole when they're a teenager.

Once inside, we checked the map to see which direction to head off in. We were running late thanks to the public transport shennanigans, so our time there was limited, eventually prohibiting us from going to the nearby Birkenau camp.

The first thing you see upon leaving the visitor's center is the entrance to the camp. It's a wrought iron gate, with the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" inscribed above. "Work Makes One Free". You cannot look at it without shuddering and wishing you could be doing anything else other than standing there at that moment. It is impossible to not to put yourself in the shoes of those who didn't stand in front of the gate of their own volition, who had very little chance of ever walking back out the gate as a free person. It's humbling. It's appalling. And you haven't even walked through it yet. Once inside, there's a sign stating that an orchestra of prisoners was made to play just inside the gate as other prisoners walked through it after a day of working outside the camp. Disgusting.

I was surprised to see that the bunkhouses where prisoners were kept were actually solid brick buildings. I'm not sure what I imagined, but something more ramshackle and less well-preserved, I suppose. The buildings are now all two stories, but they weren't all so originally. The prisoners were used to build them by hand, of course, and there are photographs showing the torturous work.

For the beginning of our visit, we went into one of the bunkhouses which featured an exhibition on the involvement of Poland in World War II, and the treatment of the Poles by the Germans. I honestly had no idea that Germany was so intent on simply exterminating the Polish people at large. They systematically destroyed their cities, their education system, their culture, their food sources, their morale, and their way of life. Still, the Polish people persevered and very few ever collaborated with the enemy. The Germans marched off groups of teachers and students to concentration camps; underground schools at every level of education popped up. People were killed in mass public executions, advertised afterward on posters as a warning; citizens still fought and rebelled in cities all across the nation. Warsaw was absolutely leveled, something not done to any other major city during the war; citizens used trams as blockades to attempt to protect themselves and the city. From start to finish, the Germans attempted to destroy the Polish state and the Polish people. Thankfully, they did not succeed.

The pictures in this exhibit were shocking. A German soldier casually holding a gun to a woman's head, ready to shoot her as she clung to her baby. Men lined up against street walls, waiting their turn to be executed like the men laying beside them on the ground. Children starved into skeletons and then murdered in the streets. Everywhere the most disgusting examples of inhumanity, and all of it so well-recorded by the efficient Germans that it's amazing to me how some lunatics claim it never happened. One thing is clear after looking at all of the German documentation of their own atrocities: they were proud of what they did and never doubted for a moment that they would be victorious.

Thanks, perhaps, to the time of year and the day of the week, Katie and I had this enormous exhibit almost entirely to ourselves. It was so quiet, we could hear the constant thrumming of electricity through the lights as we walked along the hallways, looking at pictures and reading all of the signs. Eyes welling up at the worst pictures and descriptions. Hummm-hummm-hummm. It was unnerving. The only room in which there was a total absence of sound was the one in which prisoner uniforms were displayed, hung up on headless dummies, in rows as though they were walking together as a troop of soldiers. The pictures in the room showed some of the resistance fighters and detailed how they were all killed. It was freezing cold, even though we were both wearing heavy coats.

In fact, the whole of the Auschwitz camp was absolutely freezing. Every building gave me shivers...I couldn't stop the hairs going up on the back of my neck. The worst building, other than the gas chamber/crematorium, was the prison within the prison. We went down into the basement, where the special torture cells were kept. In this area, there were several types of cells used to punish misbehaving prisoners. Standing cells, tiny squares where four men were put at once, overnight, so that none of them could sit down. Starvation cells, where prisoners were given no food or water until they eventually died. Dark cells, where there was only one tiny window and a solid door; prisoners there would eventually use up all the oxygen in the room and suffocate to death. I walked up to one of the doors to look through the peephole, and I instantly jumped back as my nose touched the wood and I could smell it, rotten and musty. I imagined an SS officer looking through that same peephole with a sense of satisfaction, and I wanted to vomit.

Back outside, we walked around for a bit, seeing the execution yard/wall, where prisoners were executed en masse. We stopped in the exhibit for French victims, which had a recording playing of a train arriving at the camp that echoed through the whole building and made my skin crawl. There was a room there that had every wall lined with pictures of children who were shipped off to Auschwitz. It even had each child's address and everything, right down to the arrondissement.

Eventually, as closing time was near, we made our way towards the gas chamber and crematorium. At first, we didn't see it, as it's built into the side of a small hill. But, as we came around the side, we saw the entrance. Again, we had it entirely to ourselves, which was good because I started crying almost as soon as we went in. The sense of dread and death and desperation is almost can feel the terror just hanging in the air. It is one thing to have seen this place represented in movies and documentaries; it is another thing entirely to be standing where so many people were purposely gassed and burned. Generally such a thing is unimaginable, but there is nothing unimaginable about it when you're standing right there where it happened, looking directly into the ovens.

Why go to Auschwitz? Why put oneself through the nauseating experience of accepting the reality of this place and what happened here?

To bear witness to history. To say, this happened, and I'm here to add my voice to the millions who are outraged. To make sure it never happens again.

I'm not sorry I went to Auschwitz; I wish I had been able to see all of the exhibits there and at Birkenau. I'm sure I'll go back at some point...but not anytime soon. I don't think I could bear it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Gluttony

"The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching. Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up."
Ted Allen

Thanksgiving has come and gone, as has my most recent guest, Katie. Katie and I worked at the library together in college and have been friends ever since. She had never been to Europe, so I was really excited when she said that she wanted to come here for her first-ever visit. I regarded it as both a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to introduce her to the place I love, even though I wouldn't normally pick Poland as a traditional starting point for European adventures. Still, she was keen to come, and didn't mind that Poland was to be her introduction to European life instead of, say, Paris.

Almost immediately after her arrival, I hosted an early Thanksgiving blowout feast. I invited everyone from work, 16 of whom came. Everyone was charged with bringing a dish and beverage of their choosing. There were lots of great Polish food items, and some other random dishes, as well. I was charged with cooking the traditional Thanksgiving goodies.

So, I went for an apple cider-glazed 22 pound (10 kilo) turkey, with a big pan of traditional stuffing (no oysters, sausage, or cornbread for me!), 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, apple cider gravy, soft pull-apart rolls, and two pumpkin pies with homemade whipped cream. A lot of work, but Katie helped me prepare as much as possible the night before and throughout the day on Saturday, including sawing off the neck of the turkey. (I find it's nice to keep an experienced surgeon on hand at this time of year.) Really, everything got done on time, except the damned turkey, which delayed the stuffing (only room for one giant thing at a time in my small oven) and the gravy. But, since everyone had brought something to eat, no one was sitting around twiddling their thumbs and starving. Thankfully!

I sweated it out in the kitchen, getting things ready at the last moment, but Katie was really good about bringing me bits of food to eat and helping to clean as we went along. I feel it was as successful as it could have possibly been under the circumstances! Instead of brining the turkey, as I normally would, I opted to salt it overnight (as recommended by Cook's Illustrated for those who don't have the space or inclination to brine). It worked a treat, and the turkey was incredibly moist.

My friends hung out until about 1am, listening to music and drinking a bit too much. Having lots of fun, to be sure. It was a great party, and I'm so glad I took the time to share the spirit of Thanksgiving with all my new friends.

I also have to say a special word of thanks to Katie, who came to Poland with an entire suitcase filled with goodies for me. Three enormous cans of pumpkin, for a start! Not to mention chips, sugar, and spices that I couldn't find here. Jeans, a Barefoot Contessa cookbook, and on and on. What an amazing woman! So, thank you again for your incredible generosity and kindness, Katie!

The day after the early Thanksgiving party, we mostly just laid around my apartment, bloated and exhausted--as is traditional to the Thanksgiving celebration.

This year, I'm thankful for many things, but especially for the friends in my life. You make the world an amazing place to be!

More stories from Katie's visit to follow...

Monday, November 16, 2009

From Here to Kraków

I’m happy to report that I have had my very first visitor, the estimable Alice (of French extraction). She arrived October 29 in Katowice, which meant that I had to go and collect her. This was to be my first time using the train here, as well as my first time taking the airport shuttle from the Katowice train station. As we will see, one would prove significantly more difficult than the other.

Prior to leaving, I used the internet and one of the Polish secretaries to draw up an exact itinerary for the day’s adventure. Train times and shuttle times, both coming and going. Key words translated into Polish. I felt confident and keen to get out on the tracks, as well as excited to see Alice for the first time since I left France.

Come the big day, I was, naturally, running late to catch my train to Katowice. I also left my sheet of key Polish words on my dining room table, along with my Polish dictionary. My rudimentary explanation of “train station” to the taxi driver seemed to work, until he started going in the wrong direction, wasting precious seconds. I got to the train station with about 2 minutes to spare, ready to make a running leap onto the train if need be. Thankfully, the train was still humming in place, and I was spared the humiliation of a failed jump and messy death.

Unfortunately, I was not spared the humiliation of needing to buy my ticket from the train conductor. No electronic pre-purchased tickets available here, sadly, and I was too late to buy one at the station. I had plenty of money, but no small bills because it just didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem. All I had was a 50 złoty note ($18) to pay for a 9 złoty ($3.25) ticket. Of course, the guy didn’t have adequate change and kept questioning me in increasingly colorful Polish. Just when I thought I was going to be hoisted from the train at the next stop, he started shouting something in Polish to all the other passengers. Fortunately, he was asking if anyone could break a 50, and one of the teenage girls was able to help out. Whew! Crisis averted, but my status as a foreigner was revealed, and I hate that. When I use public transport abroad, I keep my mouth shut and try to blend in. Having the conductor shout, “Can anyone break a 50 for this ignorant foreigner?!” doesn’t really line up with that goal.

The rest of the train ride was uneventful, and soon I was at the station in Katowice. I had heard that the station would be thoroughly wretched, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a bomb shelter coated in graffiti and soaked in the urine of thousands. Once I scouted out the airport shuttle pickup location, I retreated back into the building to kill 30 minutes until the next bus. Starving and cold, I decided to order my favorite Polish soup from a dismal-looking food stand. After I placed my order, the woman looked at me in surprise, but quickly retrieved a frozen bowl of żurek from her dorm-sized fridge to warm up. I was dubious, but honestly, it was the best I have yet had here. I love this soup…it’s made from a base of fermented rye flour, so it’s a bit tangy. Plus, it’s got potatoes and kielbasa in it, which lends a lovely smoky flavor. It occasionally comes with half of a hard-boiled egg in it, which is vomitous. Thankfully, this one was egg-free and lusciously thick, as well. Pure yum.

So, I ate up and scurried out to the shuttle bus as soon as it arrived. The man, despite being charged with the constant transport of foreigners to the airport, spoke no more than 5 words of English. I already knew from the shuttle’s webpage that the price was 25 złoty for a roundtrip ticket, so I thought I was good to go. He said the price in Polish, which I only recognized as containing the number 2. So, I started to take money out of my wallet, and he said OK once I got to 20 złoty. Uh, what? I asked for a ticket (to have for the return journey) and he basically said he couldn’t give me a ticket. At this point, my tourist bullshit detector was going off, but I paid him the money and got on the bus anyway. Then, using his remaining 3 words of English, he attempted to tell me that the bus would not be leaving for another 25 minutes, 25 minutes later than stated on their official website. I was really wishing at that point that I knew the Polish for “What the fuck??” I wasn’t worried about getting there on time since I had deliberately chosen an early time in case things didn’t work out as planned; I was, however, worried for the return journey because we had a very tight window in which to make our train back to Gliwice.

I was pissed and felt like I was getting ripped off in the bargain, so I phoned school to have one of the Polish secretaries speak to the guy. I explained what was going on and then handed the phone to Mr. Driver. He seemed very confused, and soon started getting pissy. We had to pass the phone back and forth a few times, and each time, he got madder and madder. Eventually, he printed me out a receipt for my payment, but made me pay him 5 złoty more. He refused to budge on the return ticket thing, so I ended up having to pay 25 złoty each way. Assholes.

Anyway, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Alice’s flight arrived a bit early, so we were able to catch an early shuttle bus back to the train station. It was really nice to get caught up on the journey home. Once back in Gliwice, we went back to my place to put our faces on, then it was out to my favorite bar, 4 art, to have drinks and dinner with Magda and Georgina. Good times!

The next day it was off to Kraków, a city I had been dying to see ever since I knew I’d be coming to Poland. Oh, it was lovely…so lovely. Its architecture is similar to Prague, which happens to be my favorite city in the world. There was also a great vibe in the city, such positive energy. Since Gliwice could hardly be described as vibrant, it was nice to be in a place that practically thrummed with culture and history. We took our time walking around the city, heading slowly but surely towards the rynek (town square). Eventually, we went to a Georgian restaurant for lunch, where I had a traditional Georgian cheese pie and Alice had a chicken kebab. It was a cozy spot to rest for awhile out of the cold, and the food wasn't bad, either!

Mostly, our trip was spent just getting to know the place. Everywhere you go, the city invites you to take her picture. Picturesque around each twisting street, with colorful facades, leafy parks, and cobblestone streets, Kraków is genuinely lovely. I wanted to snap my fingers and live there instantly. I especially wanted to live there after visiting Massolit Books, an English language bookstore. What heaven! The warm beverages and homemade cakes, the decent selection of Bill Bryson books, what more does a girl need? I could have spent hours just loitering in the wandering rooms of floor-to-ceiling books. You would never guess from the outside that the small storefront hides a veritable maze of English treasures.

After hunkering down in a back room for an hour or so, Alice and I headed back in the direction of the train station. Once there, we did some browsing in the enormous attached shopping center. I was looking for a new purse, but the only ones on offer were suitcase-sized fringed numbers beamed in from 1987, so I declined to make a purchase. I did, however, strike gold in the pantyhose/tights store. Patterned tights seem to be a national obsession here, so I was keen to find a pair of my own. But, since most Polish women look more like anorexic giraffes than actual human beings, I was doubtful that I would be able to find a pair of tights in anything resembling my size. The saleswoman, not wanting to lose a sale, assured me that she had something which would be more than adequate. To demonstrate, she grabbed a pair of tights from a low drawer and pulled them out of the package. In loud English, she said, “SEE!” as she put both hands in the panty section and stretched them out as far as they would go. “BIG!” Well, I couldn’t disagree with her; they did seem suitably voluminous. So, I bought a brown pair to go with a couple of my skirts. Happily, once I got home and did some creative wiggling, they mostly fit. If I go back, I’ll make sure to buy the extortionately expensive patterned pair she tried to sell me.

By this time, my never-ending headcold was coming on full force, so it was time to go home. The train back was warm and cozy, much better than the drafty, Communist-era train on the way there.

Saturday was Halloween. In the morning, Alice and I helped out at the little kids’ Halloween party at school. Some of the kids went all out with their costumes and looked great. None looked better, though, than a student of mine named Viktor. Viktor is a total nut muffin. Just lunatic in every way. I don’t particularly enjoy this trait as his teacher, but it served him well on Halloween. In the midst of all the other kids dressed up as witches and vampires, here comes Viktor down the hallway, wrapped head-to-toe in gauze bandages. What a mummy! I have never seen such a skinny kid! He could barely move, but he looked great. Not so great later, though, as the bandages started to unravel and he was left wearing little but his tiny blue underpants. I took a bunch of pictures that day, but somehow managed to miss him, damn it.

In the evening, the teachers indulged in a Halloween Pub Club at NOT. I didn’t really have a costume, so I just dressed in a nice outfit, teased my hair up a bit, and put on a little too much makeup. Alice didn’t have a costume, either, so she decided to go as a man. We spent an amusing hour or so trying to get her pot belly just right, after which she oiled down her hair and drew on a pencil-thin mustache. Magda came over for dinner before hitting the club (my first-ever attempt at chicken piccata-yum!). She was going as a *really* desperate housewife, so she was mostly naked. We made a classy threesome. So classy, in fact, that we decided to take a taxi instead of show ourselves to the world by walking to the bar.

The night was pretty crazy. Some of my fellow teachers got very creative with their costumes, although I think Matt took the cake with his transvestite lumberjack zombie outfit. It was hilarious. I had a great time, as ever.

Sunday, we were supposed to go to Auschwitz, but I was feeling too ill. Plus, it was All Saints’ Day, which is an enormous holiday here. So, rather than deal with bizarre public transport changes, we just stayed home and relaxed. Monday was a full day of work for me, so Alice hung out at school in the teacher’s lounge.

Tuesday, I took Alice to the train station in Katowice to catch the shuttle to the airport. We each got a bowl of the amazing żurek and ate it, steaming, while standing in the freezing cold next to the shuttle bus. Her driver was much nicer than mine had been, although the bus did still leave 25 minutes late. With sadness, I waved goodbye to her as the bus drove away.

The days have sped by, and now it’s almost Thanksgiving. My friend Katie, from the States, will be arriving on Thursday. I’ll be hosting a gargantuan Thanksgiving feast next Saturday, the 21st. We’re talking a 22 pound turkey, people…with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and the works. Almost every single teacher from school will be there, about 15 at last count. Where will they all fit?? Anyway, I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Details to follow!