22 January 2009

krakow and auschwitz

Some pictures from Trevor's and my trip to Poland last weekend:

Clock tower in Rynek Główny, the main square in Krakow. I found the pace of things in Krakow to be pleasantly relaxed, despite its being one of Poland's largest cities; even on a weekday morning there is an unhurried feel to the downtown area. It was easy to forget at times that Poland is not a "First World" country, but every now and then we'd get a reminder: a standing-room-only van ride, a clunking Soviet-era train with doors that sprung open while the train was in motion and toilets offering an unobstructed view of the snow, errr, whizzing by below.

Me with JPII, Wawel Hill. Prior to his election as pope and his change of name, Karol Wojtyła was archbishop of Krakow, and his old city still palpably misses its favored son. His former apartment is now part of a museum filled with his personal effects and gifts he received from foreign leaders. And despite my long drift from religion, I still found myself caught up in it; John Paul retains an extraordinary pull on my imagination.

"Booze": this English version of the menu at Chata restaurant doesn't sugarcoat it. Trevor and I liked this restaurant so much we came back to it our second night in Krakow. (We're pretty sure the waitresses thought we were there because we dug them, judging by their giggling. Really, we just liked the food.) Polish cuisine is quite delicious. My favorite: warm Ewe's milk cheese topped with cranberries. We also enjoyed "bison vodka," a version allegedly made from the grass that the bison feed on in eastern Poland. Each bottle comes with a long blade of grass floating in the drink, a bit like the worm in a bottle of tequila.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work brings freedom), the notorious gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The block buildings of the camp now house a series of museums, some curated by individual countries and others devoted to specific topics related to the Auschwitz and the Holocaust. We both felt like we had ample historical background on the Holocaust -- at least half of the photos in the museums I recognized -- so it was more about being there and soaking in the dreadfulness of the place than amassing lots of new facts. Auschwitz is about an hour and a half from Krakow, either by standing-room-only van or clunking-Soviet-era train, in the small and eerily serene village of Oświęcim (osh-VYEN-cheem). Auschwitz itself is shockingly small; most of the slaughter happened about 3 km away at the industrial-sized execution and cremation chambers of Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau.

Me at Birkenau-- it just doesn't seem right to smile in a picture at a Nazi concentration camp. Much like our day in Stonehenge with its brooding clouds, our day in Oświęcim seemed to provide the perfect weather for the setting: cold and still, crystalline with an ominous fog. In contrast to Auschwitz, Birkenau is largely being left to rot. Behind me is a series of rusting barbed wire fences and a series of chimneys watching over the ruins of destroyed wooden bunk houses.

In case anyone was in suspense, we did go clubbing (cue Trevor's techno beat). One of our nightspots was this place, called Prozak. I have video, but am certainly not going to post it on this blog, just in case Trevor decides to get into politics someday.

No comments: