Thursday, November 17, 2011

(Semi-Recent) Trip to Poland

I have been so bad about doing updates about our journeying! Part of it is because on our last trip, we didn't really take any pictures. Geoff had imagined that our camera would charge itself via the USB connector, and when that turned out to be not true, we didn't really want to fork out 50 Euros to buy a charger in Krakow. So, instead, Geoff took some pictures on his dinosauric iPhone 3GS, which made everything seem gray and romantic and more or less unrecognizable afterwards. :) (We even tried to take photos in the dark while "catching" someone else's flash. Sad times.)

Anyway, this particular trip happened in early October, during our school's fall break. We were too last-minute to book good airfare deals for going away, so we decided to rent a car to drive to Poland. FYI: Renting a car in Germany as a foreigner is not the easiest. Your non-European license is only valid within the first 6 months of moving here, and even then you have to rent from big companies that carry the international insurance -- which naturally means that you pay a bit more. Also FYI: Parking in Krakow is expensive and inconvenient. Supposedly it's not safe to just leave your German-plated cars on the street, because Polish people like to break in to German cars. So, if ever we intend on repeating this trip, we will be taking a local German train to hop over the border to Poland, and then we will take another local Polish train to Krakow.

Anyway, back to Krakow. You know, Krakow is poetic and beautiful, full of sad history. I didn't really know much about Poland before this trip, but I was intrigued to learn that it's really a country that has been continuously dominated by other empires and countries over the years, from Russian Empire to Prussian Empire to dominance by Austria, followed by a brief period of independence before it got dominated again by Nazi Germany. Also, we don't really think about this, but the Polish people were the second biggest group of victims, I think, in the Holocaust. Auschwitz was built originally to house the political prisoners from Poland, whom the Germans wanted to keep quiet and away from sight. Lots of them were murdered after swift "trials" at Auschwitz. The Polish people were not encouraged to attend schools during the war (and various strategies were used to prevent the intellectuals from gathering and studying), because Nazi Germany wanted to maintain a stronghold over the land and its people.

Anyway, when we went to Krakow, we visited Auschwitz and it was a very intense experience. The tour guides were superb and took their jobs very seriously, and it was very informative but obviously also very sad. When the Nazis evacuated the camp at the end of the war, they destroyed most of the evidence that it had ever been used as an extermination camp. There is only one small gas chamber that still remains, and we were able to go inside. It was very intense. The electrical barbed wire fences are still up and you can walk around and see the gutters that surrounded the camp and see the entrance to the camp and the train tracks that lead up to the entrance to drop prisoners off for sorting. Some of the sleeping quarters can still be seen, and even when we went in October, it was cold. One can only imagine what it was like in the dead of winter, when you are wearing next to nothing. Moreover, there are displays of all of the personal belongings, shoes, and even hair of the victims. The hair was haunting, because they weaved them into everyday products like rugs and resold them. It was deeply sad, and even though there are people who would argue that that place should not allow so many tourists to go per day, I cannot help but think that it is absolutely necessary for them to educate as many people as possible about the horrors that occurred there.

Besides Auschwitz, we also went by foot on our own and visited the old Jewish ghetto in Krakow, like featured in Schindler's movie. Much of the area still teems with old buildings, like they could have been around during the war. We visited an amazing and extensive museum on Poland's role and perspective in WWII, located inside Schindler's old factory. We also went into the small pharmacy that is famous for its Polish owner who refused to move out of the Jewish ghetto during the war, and who helped to hide Jews and to sneak in free medicine for people inside the ghetto.

We also saw the medieval Center of the city. It was beautiful, and filled with cathedrals, happening bars, and yummy restaurants. Our favorite was Marmolada, which is one of a mini chain of 4 restaurants that are all supposed to be different and delicious. This one was fantastic, from the wine to the food to the service to the price. It's also a 1-minute walk from the city center, right off of one of the little alleys.

Lastly, we visited a cheesy tourist trap of a salt mine in Krakow. You'd never think it, but there is a beautiful chapel that is carved entirely out of salt in the depths of a salt mine, made by 3 professional miners who did this as a hobby over the course of seventy years. They made it complete with statues and chandeliers and -- you would never believe this -- a breath-taking statue of The Last Supper, carved into the walls. Talk about a personal hobby project!

Last note is that the Polish roads are supposed to be horrific -- even my coworker's wife, who is herself Polish and native from Warsaw, said so. The funny thing is that on our way to Poland, while we thought we were still on the German side of the border, the highway started to get really bumpy. You couldn't really see any difference, except the car was going up and down and up and down as though the road was filled with potholes. We were joking that perhaps we were already in Poland, and sure enough, in two minutes we started to see road signs marked in Polish letters...

The next big thing I'm looking forward to: German CHRISTMAS MARKETS!!!!

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