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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farewell to Warsaw

Awwwwwww. Yeah, we really enjoyed Warsaw, and what little else we saw of Poland. I can't imagine we'd ever go back, just because of our age and limited income, but never say never, I guess. It's a beautiful, friendly country. The landscape is mostly rural and in the summer, at least, reminds me of Missouri and Iowa; anyway the greener, hillier parts of the Midwest. The people, with exceptions (nasty men on trains) are very nice, and as for children, we only saw a few on Corpus Christi. None of them were American, and none of them bothered us. Good job, Polish parents! As far as the unpleasant children we encountered in the concentration camp (for God's sake!) they were not Polish. And their parents are idiots.

By nasty men on trains I mean they just don't make any room for you to pass, unless you get very physical with them. I'm not sure what the cultural issue may be there, but I am quite capable of throwing a block. But although those two or three incidents stand out, they are remarkable for their infrequency. There are nasty men (and women, and children) everywhere. Poland has fewer than most. One of our guides told us that the primary reasons for Polish tourism are: ancestry, culture and history such as the Holocaust. There are actually tours of all the major camps and other sites in Europe. So that's one way and one reason to see Poland, although anyone with a smattering of common sense and languages can do it independently, as we did. Oh, and Cracow at Christmas is supposed to be wonderful, but bring long underwear.

Because we had no real timetable, we didn't get up until noon or so. Packed and stored our luggage in the hotel and took a taxi to what we thought was the Holocaust Memorial. Well, it actually was one, but not the one we wanted. However, when we told the driver "Stare Miasto" (Old Town) instead, we ended up right in front of the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising statue anyway, which is what we had been looking for.

It's very large and spread out. No one picture can capture all of it.

And in this case, the bit of blurriness gives a feeling of motion, which is appropriate for these figures, who had to move urgently, coming up from the sewers, and then escaping again. Unfortunately the uprising was crushed, but it took the Nazis by surprise and cost them a lot of resources. They never did finish their purge before they had to run from the Red Army.

It was another alternately sunny and rainy day, and when it started raining near the statue, we looked for a restaurant and found this one. We thought it was so cute and oldy-worldy. Not to say that it wasn't, but later we found out it was part of a chain. It figures, right? But the food was terrific. Clog your arteries right up, and much better than the best fast food we have here. Just what Americans need: fatter asses.

So after we ate a hugely substantial meal (this matters later) we began walking through the Stare Miasto. It's a lot like Cracow's Old Town, because when we were looking at pictures of both places, Joyce couldn't tell them apart until I told her I didn't see any big black head lying on its side in Warsaw. So that's how we knew which ones were Cracow.

There was an amber shop on every block, so Joyce finally got what she was looking for, and I found a small carved rabbit, and we won't see this stuff again until Christmas. We also bought postcards and magnets and looked at things we didn't buy, such as these slippers which were very much like the ones Joyce's mom, Wanda, used to make. It made me feel bad that this thoroughly Polish woman never went to her ancestral land, but she embodied every good thing there is about Poland.

And here's the amber shop. In middle of the window, you can see a whopping piece of amber about the size of a dining room chair cushion. The best amber has "stuff" in it, and since it's resin, it doesn't weigh very much. Well, we thought it was interesting!

More walking, more picture-taking, a coffee chop (a Polish "Starbucks") and a Chopin concert outdoors. That was a nice surprise.

We popped out of the Old Town right near our hotel, and went to the bar for juice this time, and just hung around until it was time to go to the train station. And even now, I wish I had had more time in Warsaw. And everyplace we went. It's probably just a mind trick, but I feel more like I "belong" in Europe. After all, we are not indigenous to North America, we actually are Europeans. Maybe we should spend more time there. As soon as they build the North Atlantic Bridge, I'll look into it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cracow: the cultural heart of Poland

Like Auschwitz and Warsaw, a must-see but for different reasons.It was relatively undamaged in the wars, and is smaller and cuter than Warsaw, bigger and richer than Plock. Unless you have business in Warsaw (such as digging up dead people) Cracow is probably easier and more interesting to see. I liked them both. We saw three capitals of Poland in three days, anyhow. I don't know how many more there are.

By the time we reached Cracow again, I had a blister from my penance tour of Oswiecim ("Oz-vee-ain-chim" Again, run it all together fast.) We drove through the Jewish ghetto and around several other sites, but I told the guide to drop me in a pub while she and Joyce did a walking tour of the old town. I found my friend Zywiec and we had a nice chat in my journal.

To get to Auschwitz from Warsaw, you take the 9 AM (weekend) train, reach speeds of 90 MPH, and arrive in Cracow around 1130. You grab Polish fast food (imagine a spicy chicken pita sandwich) and drive an hour way out into the beautiful countryside to reach the camps.

You spend however much time there, then drive back to Cracow. Then you spend as much time as you want in the Old Town before catching one of the late trains back to Warsaw. I want to emphasize that these trains are VERY nice. They have great seats, a dining car, a snack cart, and a little readout that gives your location, the time and the speed along with other things. It's much more impressive than AMTRAK. (Ugh). And we actually had no intention of going to Cracow OR Oswiecim until the concierge at the Sofitel told us (via e-mail a week or so before we left) how easy it was. Realizing the chance to do it again was very slim, we decided to woman up and see what humankind hath wrought upon itself. And as I said, we're a pack of idiots. Let's hear it for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. ("Live long, die out" is their motto)

So, while Joyce went sightseeing and amber shopping, I sat in the pub and drank my little beers and caught up on all my writing. She said the market square was very lively and crowded and she didn't buy anything because she couldn't take enough time to look. I had a good time not shopping. I'd rather have a root canal than shop. I actually have had a root canal so I know this for a fact.

After Joyce caught up on beer, we asked our guide to take us back to the train. We shared a sandwich and slept, returned to the hotel very late and collpsed with NOTHING on the agenda until the 8:30 overnight train to Budapest the next evening. We didn't set an alarm or a wake-up call for the first time since leaving home.


Yeah. What can you say about it that hasn't already been said? I refused to take pictures at all, and I bought only a book written by a survivor, not only of Auschwitz, but Birkenau (which is next door), Majdanek and Ravensbruck.

It's just horrible. Neither of us had been to a camp before, although I lived, like, 40 miles from Dachau at one point. They made the American schoolkids go there, but I had a choice and I wasn't ready yet. I think I wasn't mature enough yet to be that ashamed. You've never had a nightmare as bad as this. The weather helped a lot by being four kinds of miserable. It was cold, raining, hot, muddy and dusty. They haven't done anything to repair the streets since the 1940s, I think to make you miserable enough to get a clue. Just imagine standing in that shit for a two-hour roll call. We were bitching from 15 minutes of standing around in the rain/heat/mud. Shame on us. And shame on the parents who brought screaming babies in arms and toddlers to such a place. What the hell is wrong with you?

I didn't know the camp was brick, which was because it was a Polish Army installation at one time, so it was built to last. I bet it was a pretty little spot at first, and then came the gas chambers and the ovens and the gallows and so on. They cleverly have turned some of the barracks buildings into museums in which they display all the stuff (only a fraction, they constantly remind you) they pulled off of and out of Polish and Hungarian Jews: clothing, prostheses, teeth. The hair was the worst. I ran for the window because I was sure I was going to heave. I didn't but it was way too close. Piles of luggage and toilet articles and toys. The hair was used to make tank seat upholstery. No waste allowed!

One building housed the torture cells: starvation, suffocation, and standing all night before being made to work the next day. Sonderkommandos were the Jews who were made to run the gas chambers and crematoria. They killed them all off every six weeks or so and started over. At the end, several (but not nearly all) of the Nazis who ran the camp were captured, tried, brought back and hanged there. Really? They just hanged them? Why didn't they brick them in, like they did to the Jews?

The human race is disgusting. Go see for yourselves. Look here, of course, but go in person to a camp. We all need our asses kicked.

Let me make one suggestion: not only are the streets rough but the floors are slippery and there aren't enough handrails. I wish they would correct a few of these things to make the site more accessible to everyone. In the meantime, though, go prepared with good shoes and a walking stick.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Back to Warsaw

We arrived back in the big city around 3 PM, or beer time. Or time for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, because that happens every hour. We could see it from the bar. Straight out the window is the Tomb, although you can't see it here:

But we also wanted to get pictures close up. We made it out of the bar for the 5 PM change.

The soldiers guarding the Tomb are like, three or four years old, just tall for their age. I saw no females and we must have seen the guard change at least a dozen times. Here are some baby guards.

As we approached the Tomb, we saw what we thought was an interesting architectural commentary on young lives cut short. I thought the columns were left unfinished to represent these incomplete lives. Joyce thought the columns were made to represent candles that had burned out too soon.

Here's a link to this great picture. Wikipedia gets all the credit for it. We didn't get any nearly this good.

Well, it turns out there's no architectual significance. It's the remnant of the Saxon Palace that still stood after the Second World War. It had been the site of the Tomb since the early 1920s, so that's all they preserved, or there would probably be nothing. Around 75 - 80% of Warsaw was destroyed in World War II, and they have rebuilt a lot of it, really. Some of the blanks are still blank, though, and other blanks were filled in by Communist Bloc architecture. And some are now archeological digs. Our hotel window overlooked one of them.

We didn't want to spend another fortune at the hotel restaurant, so we asked our guide to suggest something within walking distance. Here it is:

Here we discovered the Polish answer to chicken fried steak: the most gigantic Schweinekotellette (or pork cutlet) ever. I don't know what size it is when they start beating it, but whenever they get done, it's about a foot across. It's so tender and thin you don't really feel the size of it when you eat it. It came with a pile of sauerkraut I couldn't even stand the smell of (I'm allergic to it) so Joyce got all that. The dessert was nothing to write home about but this is authentic Polish cuisine in a dilapidated old restaurant on Pilsudski Square, very reasonable, too.

That did it for us. I think we were in bed by 8 PM, because next day, we had to take an early train to Cracow, and Auschwitz.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Corpus Christi in Plock

After leaving Ulaszewo but before arriving in Plock, we detoured slightly to Wyszyna (see the pictures in the previous entry) because our guide thought we might find a church there which could have been attended by Joyce's ancestors. We found the church, but the old one had been destroyed, and a new (1928) one had been built on the same spot. It was interesting it itself because, heck, this is Poland! I was never in Poland! Everything is interesting! But it was just a few minutes prior to the big Corpus Christi mass and the stations of the parade were in absolutely pristine condition, having been decorated by the girls of the most recent First Communion class, and guarded from predation (as in little boys) by grown men who used this sentry duty to stay outside and enjoy the beautiful weather.

Here are a few shots. Blurry, but you get the general idea.

Plock ("Plwotsk") is the adminstrative center for Ulaszewo, and Jadwiga ("Yod-vee-gah") thought we'd enjoy seeing it because it's a medieval city on the Vistula. By the way, if you don't know much about geography, you should check out a map to get a decent idea of where and how Poland is situated. Here's a hint: Warsaw is on the same latitude (roughly) with Amsterdam, north of London, well north of Quebec (the city). In other words, gets cold and dark early. You don't want to visit there past October, our guides said. But in the summer? An excellent place to visit. Perfect if you've been broiling in Florida.

As to Plock, it was at one time the capital of Poland. Today it's one of those small, charming places with city walls and castles and churches just like everywhere else in Europe. See?

Except for the church, however, everything was closed (except the tourist train) because of Corpus Christi. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, Corpus Christi is Latin for body of Christ, and yes, we have one in Texas. It's the official celebration of the Last Supper at which Christ transformed bread and wine into his body and blood, according to the Christian tradition. So I said to Jadwiga, "but that happened on Maundy Thursday, in Holy Week." And she said, "Yes, I know, it makes no sense at all." Catholics agree that the actual first transubstantiation took place during Christ's Passion, but they celebrate it on a Thursday in May or June anyway. Maybe it's like the Queen's official birthday in England: the weather is likely to be better.

At any rate, here's a link:

Of course, I tried to put it in as a link, but in this program that's always a crapshoot.

And so we arrived on the main square in Plock right at the beginning of the Corpus Christi parade. It was probably crowded by their standards, but we were able to get a great spot. All the great spots were wide open.

We watched all this with great interest as Jadwiga explained it to us. I felt like I was in Chicago or someplace else with lots of Poles. There was a girls' high school band, nuns, brothers, priests, and a really important priest (but not a bishop) carrying a monstrance (containing conscrated host) with a canopy over the top, carried by acolytes or some similar group. Girls ran in front of this throwing flower petals in its path. At the appearance of this phenomenon, everyone genuflected as far down as they could, some leaning on fire hydrants, cars or each other to do it.

I found this devotion kind of sweet in one way, and in my cynical laissez-faire Protestant way, a trifle (but only a trifle) disturbing. I mean, I have my beliefs, too. Nothing so publicly devoted as that, but yeah, I remember when I was like that, right around confirmation time, I think.

Here are some of the possibly less blurry shots of the devotion:

Like I said, they always look better from a distance, or if tiny. They look really good in the teeny weeny icons.

My favorite part was when I winked at a really old nun, and she winked back. Something about simple faith is a little contagious, I think.

Raising the dead

This was the long-planned for day when Joyce would finally visit the very soil her ancestors had once farmed. We guess. You see, we tried to hire an "expert" at to find out for us, and they wanted hundreds of dollars to reconstruct an entire family tree. No one wanted the job of saying, "Yeah, this (or that) was your town." So we went with the census information I was able to find on my own.

Neither the guide nor the driver had ever heard of Ulaszewo. But there is such a place. Here you can see a sign to it.

When you get there, you can't find any signs that you have arrived. We had to stop and ask people.

We asked here:

And they directed us to here:

which is a very fine restoration of the kind of farm house Joyce's ancestors probably did live in. It's now being used as a vacation retreat. Feel free to squint at these pictures. We didn't figure out all the camera doo-dads till partway through Budapest, and even then we sometimes messed it up. Not to worry, there's a whole lot of fuzzy pictures that aid clear memories. Which we have and you don't. Sorry, we wish we would have done better, too.

Although farming continues in this area, a lot of people from Warsaw are building weekend getaways out there. We rode around the neighborhood for a while with our very enthusiastic guide, Jadwiga, asking everyone we saw about the history of the area. We came across this roadside shrine which has been on the same spot in some form or other for centuries. On this day, it was decorated up for the Corpus Christi celebration, and there'll be lots more about that later.

Don't forget to squint! Or get up and stand across the room. It looks much clearer that way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

But wait! There's more!

That was hardly the end of our day. Although we had been told, by the Warsaw Sofitel, like two days before we left, that the freakin' pool would be closed for our entire stay, it was too late to do anything about it. We had also booked several trips from there and the location was perfect, so we still went. They told us we could walk to a nearby hotel and swim there for 50 Euros a day. Gee, what a deal. At first we thought we might try to negotiate a better deal, then decided to skip the whole thing. But we did tell them we had booked the hotel for that reason, and we weren't happy. And of course they didn't give a crap, because they already had our money.

Here is the architecturally unlovely Warsaw Sofitel-Pilsudski Square:

Since they use a calendar, and not a thermometer, to decide when to do pool maintainence, we suggest you give them a big fat miss. I mean, come on, it was JUNE. That's what God made March for. There are some good things about the place, and we'll describe them, too, but there are other hotels in the area that are probably not so expensive and maybe they even give you what you pay for.

Another sad note, there was once a beautiful palace on the same site, but the Communists demolished it to make room for this unfortunate pile. And it was here, not only at this hotel, but in Warsaw, that we learned what "Communist Bloc" really means. Oh, sure, it often refers to a Cold War political entity, but it's actually a style of architecture. You need 1500 Communist blocs to make a hotel. Three and a half blocs make a medium apartment, 5792 and you have a train station. Communist children didn't play with Legos or Lincoln Logs, they played with Communist Blocs. Batteries sold separately.

So, what's good about the Warsaw Sofitel? They have a nice bar that looks out onto Pilsudski Square where all kinds of interesting things go on. There was a flash mob there our first day. The rooms have 110 volt outlets for recharging American things. The restaurant, while crazily expensive, is very good, and the hotel staff is pretty nice. They did set up our day trips in advance (for outrageous prices), but when you don't know the country or the language and you want to do something unusual, like dig up your ancestors, that's what happens.

We settled in our room and then went to the bar, where we always drank the same beer because we had made a pact to drink only local draft on this trip. That turned out to be an easy promise to keep! Ate right there in the restaurant and went to bed at 8:30 PM local which was after, like, 36 straight hours of not sleeping. Luckily, our private trip to Ulaszewo (Oo-la-SHAVE-oh)the next day wasn't until 11 AM, so we didn't have to worry about anything for a while. But hey, it was just the first full day.

Marathon Women

We did it on purpose. We made our longest day of flying the first day of the trip. We flew to the farthest point on our journey, and worked backwards. That way, we reasoned, we would never have to spend such a long period flying again. And we were right, not that it made a shittin' bit of difference when all was said and done. That's called foreshadowing. Please take note. I don't want to foreshadow for no reason.

So we took the shuttle from the Hilton to Air France for our flight to Paris. We checked in nice and early to avoid problems and complications and all that. We ate in Chili's because we really didn't know if and when we would eat again. Sure, they actually feed you on foreign carriers, but what, and when, we had no idea. That was around 3 PM and the flight was scheduled to take off at 6 PM or so.

A thing about scheduling. Let's say you book your trip through some consolidator such as Expedia, and you book it far in advance, like, when you think prices will be best. You lock in your rates. But you don't lock in flight times. Every month between when you book until you actually go, sometimes more than once a month, you get notifications of flight changes. Add an hour. Subtract half an hour. And on and on. Just a few days before we left, we got news that our layover in Paris was going to be longer. I mean, it's good to know but there's nothing you can do about it. More foreshadowing there, as you'll see.

To keep up with this, we "invested" in a tiny, miserable netbook which I hoped would help us keep abreast of this sort of thing without being any fun so I wouldn't be tempted to use it a lot. It weighs about a pound and a half and fits in my shoulder bag. It has no memory worth mentioning and is very slow. I hate it, but I bought it to hate it so I would look at the sights and interact with my spouse and not always be staring at some stupid screen. Well, so I have to have wifi for it, of course. And I have to be able to charge it. So in the hotel I paid maybe five bucks for wifi. In the airport it cost me another five bucks for half an hour. Then I had to sit on the floor behind a pillar and fill it all up with American electricity. Many people do such things in airports.

Oh, I know, why not get an internet enabled cell phone? Because that means contracts. We use TracFone which has no contracts and is very cheap for the way we use a cell phone, which is basically to call 911. Thus a crappy netbook requiring wifi and recharging is better for us. And it worked very well for what I needed it for, which was checking reservations and professional e-mail to find out I didn't have a job. But that's not important right now.

I had an actual paper journal with me and a variety of pens with which I took notes in writing so I could produce this blog later. It's a much more pleasant way to spend time in Europe, or anywhere, than hunched over, staring at a screen with a keyboard so small only a five-year-old could use it easily. So I wrote in this journal at every opportunity, and I still fell behind, but I took many notes which I can barely read. All this, and the pictures, and the tickets I saved, and the daily cruise programs, will be very helpful, I'm sure. Because my brain is fried and Joyce's isn't much better.

It got close to time to board and suddenly my name is called. "Here, you're getting different seats," the agent says cheerfully, handing me a new boarding pass. While I'm trying to comprehend this, Joyce flies over the counter and strangles him. Actually all she did was make them give my original seat back. They thought I wanted to be able to hear the audio for the movie and whatnot. No, I can read, and prefer to. If that happens, they should ask you first rather than split up a family.

So, with that out of the way, we boarded yet another flight from hell, which is to say it was perfectly average. We had the oddest seats, two aisles, and the two next to me were empty! A young woman decided she wanted the window seat. Joyce also wanted it. Fight ensues. I play peacemaker. She's an economics student and is studying for finals. The center and aisle seats are extremely not conducive to studying. We relent. We really prefer aisle seats anyway. So she gets all her gear out and starts studying. We take off, level out, and they serve dinner. We eat it. She gets up to go to the loo and never returns. I get up to go to the loo and find her playing craps or something in the kitchen with six or seven young men from Ethiopia or some such place. Maybe Morocco. Several hours later, I go to pee again and find her asleep with them in a tangle of arms and legs. One more item to add to the list of things I don't understand.

A zillion hours after take-off, we land the next day in Paris, and discover that Charles DeGaulle Airport is really a poorly disguised biathlon course. Of course nearly every airport in the world is under constant renovation. So you grab your bags and run 500 yards, stop to pant and they shoot at you with signs that point in the wrong direction and people who work in the airport but know nothing about it. Run another 500 yards with bags. All turn around at once and run back. Most of this is happening in dimly-lit corridors with low ceilings on slippery flooring. Even if you can read French, you soon realize the information was for last week, when everyone was routed in the opposite direction. Grab your bags and run up and down several escalators, half of which are not working. End up in a dead-end tunnel. Turn around and realize that a narrow passageway you passed a while back is the official escape route. It ends at a security station. They take your water bottle, but it's empty by now anyway. Even though you never left the international part of the airport, they treat you as if you had just arrived from Somalia with a hand grenade clutched in your sweaty fist. On the other side, you put all your clothes back on, sometimes inside out, and finally stumble onto a concourse. Look out the window and see your bags being transferred merrily onto the plane to Warsaw. They rode while you did the airport obstacle course. Next time I'm going as baggage.

Suddenly we realized that, if our stopover had been any shorter, we wouldn't have had a snowball's chance of reaching the gate in time. Could this have been done on purpose? No way. Bought new water with credit cards because we still had no Euros, because they don't do Euros in Miami, boarded and collapsed.

The flight to Warsaw isn't terribly long, but we got to nap a little. The plane was half-empty besides, and it was a small one. And it was a good thing, too, because they used a ladder when we landed in Poland. As crazy as Paris was, this is even crazier. We walk off the tarmac into the terminal, and immediately begin climbing a long set of zigzag ramps. Higher and higher we go, until, at the very top, we have a lovely view of the runways. Then we walk some distance on this top level, until we arrive at a long series of working escalators to carry us down, all the way down to ground level again. Okay, that's really Polish, and I am allowed to say so because Joyce is Polish and she said it first. Climb up and ride down? Why not just walk straight across?

We collect the checked bags and go out, through no customs, no passport control and no security, into a waiting room where our little man with a namecard collects us with a cart, and we just walk out. Welcome to Poland!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Flying to Miami . . .

. . . with Hertz, same as last year. One less encounter with the TSA is always a good thing. Also one less claustrophobic ride, one less chance to lose luggage, one less chance to be treated like self-loading cargo, one less fee to pay. Screw you, domestic United Statesian airlines.

We were booked at the Miami Hilton because it's comfortable but even they can't control the weather so we didn't swim because it was raining. But we did enjoy their restaurant very much. I had a cold (rare, as in almost tartare) steak salad and Joyce had some other such thing. We generally order things when we travel that Joyce doesn't make at home. This is why I almost never eat chicken abroad but I do eat steak or whatever they have for a specialty. And I never eat veal in the US, but I get it when I can in Europe. Not that you can find a lot of veal here anyway.

So, a very uneventful stay that consisted mostly of reading Stephen King's Duma Key and charging batteries. Even Joyce was reading a collection of stories by Faye Kellerman. "Halleluja! It's a miracle!" (Bob Gunton's Warden Sam Norton in Shawshank Redemption.)

My spouse and I went to Europe and all I got was this headache.

I need that made up into a t-shirt. Anyway, yes, we're back, and I'm almost ready to start this blog. It looks like I actually am starting already, doesn't it? I'm really not. This is just my list of excuses for not starting it.

I have several hotel complaints to make. Some are for mere inconvenience, others are for injuries, so I can't mention any names yet. We were also harassed by a Passport Control Agent in Miami, for being gay. Then of course, the injuries persist. I'm not going to die of them, but they make it hard to do stuff, and to concentrate on stuff.

Finally, I have a bunch of things to review on line. They won't reach the level of an official complaint but it's necessary to get the information out there for the sake of other travelers. At least I got that part started, but for legal reasons, some will have to wait. because if some organizations come through, I want to give them credit.

So to give you an idea of how things went in Poland (Not too bad at all! But it seems like years ago) here is our first picture from our trip:

It's pronounced "Ziv-ee-itch." You say it real fast.

Na zdrowie! ("Nas-drove-ya")