Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 8 - Poland

November 28 -

I finally got a good night's rest and an amazingly full breakfast. I was prepared for walking Krakow this day. I had made friends at the hostel and palled around with one of them for the day as we walked most of the main area of the city, called Old Town. The main square is gorgeous. We walked further out of the main area and found Oskar Schindler's factory, albeit in a very dodgy area of town. Kazmeirez was cool to explore. Krakow's Jewish quarter is fairly intact, considering the viscous history visited upon the area and its residents during the Nazi regime. Virtually nothing remains of the Jewish population, and those visiting must piece together their fateful lives through the buildings and temples that still stand as a testament to their past existence.

We ate at Ariel, laughing at the menu options. A lot of the dishes were preceded by the word "Jewish" - as in "Jewish roast beef", "Jewish stew". Otherwise, is was a nice dining experience, though naturally, a bit touristy given the area. Afterwards, with night falling around us, we checked out the Christmas market in the center of the main square. I did a bit of shopping in the old textile hall and finally called it a night.

I loved the hostel I stayed in and met some great people. Greg & Tom was an amazing place to hang out. The staff was top notch. Snacks and drinks were provided non-stop and they served an amazing breakfast. They have a no bunk beds policy, which is always nice. Close to the train station and Old Town, it was perfect, especially since I had an early morning flight and didn't want any problems getting to the train.

Day 7 - Poland

November 27 -

I don't think one could ever prepare themselves for a visit to a concentration camp. Given my sorrow a few days earlier at Babi Yar, I still didn't know what to expect visiting Auschwitz. I think we all know it's an awful place, filled with the worst evil humanity could have thought to dredge up. Even the leftover remains of the barracks tells a story of extreme desperation.

I took the city bus out to Osweicim, which oddly enough, is a beautiful ride. My mind was momentarily lost in the beauty of the Polish countryside until we got closer and I was struck with the most worrisome thoughts about what kind of past these homes had. Who lived here when the camps were built? What did they think of the horrors practically occurring at their doorstep? Did they watch the many death marches to and from the camps? What did they think, or did they think at all out of fear of the reality of the situation?

The closer we got to the camp the more anxious I found myself, until we arrived and were let off in the parking lot. Entering the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign ("work makes free"), I had to wince at the absurdity of it all. No one was ever set free for working. Walking the rows of blockhouses I was struck at how well done this monument was to those who perished here. There are actually two Auschwitz camps. The second and bigger camp is about a mile away in Brzezinka. I walked the distance, collecting my thoughts, and arrived to deal with a completely different camp, but felt the same disturbing feelings walking amongst this hallowed graveyard.

My feelings for this visit run deep. Words cannot express how profound my experience here was. I walked through the camp silent, inwardly gasping at some of the exhibits. Rooms full of suitcases, shoes, and bags of women's hair, and a display of baby clothes - it was extremely unbearably at times. My faith in humanity was tested several times. But, I had to stay and bear witness, or else I could not be a proper witness when these crimes are questioned by those with hateful agendas.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Day 6 - Ukraine

November 26 -

My ticket for the overnight train from Kiev to Lviv was for platzcart - third class accommodations. Not that I minded, especially since it only cost me about $10.00 and included clean, warm bedding. I just preferred 2nd class for some privacy. Being out in the open plan, I found the beds a bit bigger and with more room to move about, but the not too dim overhead lights and constant movement of people throughout the aisles prohibited me from having a decent night's sleep. Not good considering I had a long day in Lviv.

I became a bit of a curiosity to my fellow passengers. Not used to platzcart, but knowing some of the protocol of Russian trains, they watched my every move, especially once I took out a book. By morning, I was somewhat under the wing of my fellow passengers. Cautious as they were, they were so helpful in making sure I understood how to manage. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Russians (in this case Ukrainians) will make sure you get where you need to go. The train arrived and I was amused to hear a tinny version of the Ukrainian national anthem. My curiosity was confirmed a few minutes later when another train arrived. The Ukrainian national anthem is played for every arriving train.

I needed a shower and the Lviv train station offered this service for about 1USD, piping hot water included. I just had to supply the soap and towel. Afterwards, I checked my luggage and bought my ticket to Krakow. Thankfully, the Dutch couple back at the hostel Kiev had come from Lviv via Krakow, and gave me the heads up on which English speaking window to go to. They even gave me the rest of their Polish currency. I am forever grateful to them for making this step easier and more sane, and for the extra change. I only hope I've somehow paid it forward tenfold since then.

Now, I was ready to head out. The tram messed me up, so I ended up lost and backtracking to the train station in order to walk into town. This was a city I wasn't really prepared for, taking for granted it's size and the lack of Russian spoken here. I felt confused by the Ukrainian Cyrillic and hesitant to speak Russian for fear of offending. This was a city that had pretty much erased much of the Russian language from it's culture.

In Rynok Square, I took one of those tacky trolley rides and this turned out to be the best decision I made. It gave me my bearings and I was able to get the gist of the area. Lviv is a gorgeous city and I predict it'll begin to rival Prague, Krakow, and Budapest, as places to visit for the weekend. In fact, this was one of the reasons why the overnight between Krakow train route was created. That it is a bit shop worn is completely forgivable. It's interesting to note that Lviv was once under Habsburg control. For some reason, they respected the Ukrainians, allowing them to practice their language and culture, a departure from typical monarchs of the day. In return, the Ukrainians remained loyal subjects, and thrived as a people. It is said that Lviv is a city of firsts. It has the distinction of being the first city as you enter Eastern Europe and the first city as you enter Western Europe. Whatever appellation bestowed on the city, it was worthy of a visit, despite the short amount of time I visited.

I look back on Lviv with more fondness than I was feeling for it at the time. In my defense, I was both tired, facing an extremely long day, and a bit hesitant due to lack of information. It's a huge city but I concentrated mainly on the area around Rynok Square. Since it was Thanksgiving Day, I chose Café Veronika for my meal - grilled lamb, vegetables, wine, and cherry pie. It was amazing.

Settling in for the near midnight train, I knew this would be a rough night. Indeed, it was. For the under six hour train ride from Lviv to Krakow, I was woken up a total of four different times by immigration. Twice each by Ukrainian and Polish military. I slept with my passport, which enabled me to have a grasp of the situation when the time came. Each time, with weary tired eyes, I handed my passport over to whomever entered the room, at all times remaining in my bed save for the last immigration check when it was discovered I was American and my belongings had to be searched.