Sunday, February 27, 2011

Luxuriating in Luxembourg

I meant to finish this post Friday night, but I got off track, talking, as usual. Of course I was torn between my faithful readers and the fascinating, multi-lingual conversation that broke out among my bunkmates around midnight. We had six countries crammed into three bunk beds—Ecuador, Peru, Italy, Brazil, Spain and America—and spent hours talking everything from anacondas in the Amazon to the teachers’ strike in Turin.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and though I’m well into Belgium now, I wanted to get back to Luxembourg.  It really is a sweet little country that deserves its own post.

I had always been curious about Luxembourg--which is basically what drew me there in the first place—but apparently I wasn't curious enough.  Before my arrival, I hadn't bothered to learn one thing about the country.  All I knew is that Luxembourg is one of two small countries in western Europe beginning with the letter “L,” the other being Lichtenstein.  But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you the language spoken, the currency used, whether Luxembourg has a president, a prime minister, a king, a queen, or what.  

They must like America, I figured, when the bus deposited me on the city’s main thoroughfare, named after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, all written out like that.  I had no idea why Luxembourg City would name its major street after an American president, and tucked that more trivial question away for later.  Instead I concerned myself with picking up the more basic facts to get me going.  

I struck off to the city center and learned, through various signs and a series of short conversations, that Luxembourgers (or is it Luxembourgians?) typically speak French, the official language, but once can also encounter German, Portuguese and, important for me, English, to varying degrees.  In Luxembourg you buy things with the Euro and, as I discovered to my chagrin, it takes an awful lot of them to buy things that are generally cheap elsewhere.  My first breakfast cost around 9 €, or almost $12.  I put half in a plastic bag and stretched it into lunch because, well, that’s what you must do in order not to blow your backpacker’s budget in expensive little Luxembourg.

I also noticed that, at 7:15 a.m., the modern, glass buildings surrounding me already had the lights on and people inside sitting at their desks and cubicles.  Perhaps Luxembourgers prefer to rise early and work hard, but I had a different idea for my time there.  I intended to do a little luxuriating before beginning a long stint in a Bulgarian monastery the following week.  I was thinking a pedicure, or maybe sushi?

Of course that was before I learned that Luxembourg is the Land of Exorbitance.  An average spa pedicure there cost upwards of 70 €.  And you can’t even touch a piece of salmon for less than 7 €.  Along the way someone told me that Luxembourg is the richest country in the world, and that’s when I realized that my idea to luxuriate in Luxembourg was perhaps not the brightest one.

But I didn’t give up my quest to indulge altogether.  I settled on treating myself to a movie out at the Cine Utopolis in Auchon, back on JFK Avenue.  A film in Luxembourg City will set you back 8.50 €; not outrageous when you consider a regular ticket in the ArcLight Cinerama in Los Angeles can cost upwards of $14.  I checked the listings and learned that I had two extremely attractive Best-Actor nominees from which to choose—James Franco in 127 Hours or Jeff Bridges in True Grit.  It was hard to settle on one, so I thought the best way to choose--in the spirit of luxuriating--would be to pick the bigger eye-candy of the two.  The call was close, at least in my mind, but in the end I went with James Franco.

What a huge mistake on my part.  I won’t spoil the movie here (in case you missed the true story in the news), but suffice it to say that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to lay eyes on James Franco again without conjuring certain images that would make turn my stomach.  This of course is a big problem considering he’s hosting the Academy Awards tonight, and that’s a show that I never miss.

It’s even sadder when I consider that it was James Franco who helped me through a bad bout of homesickness in Russia. (Did you know he’s part Russian?)  His now-famous face was plastered on billboards throughout Moscow, and for some reason it comforted me to see him during my walks down cold, lonely streets. I even took a picture so I could remember. Now I think I’m going to have to erase it.

I learned some more stuff about Luxembourg during my time there. The streets are clean and tidy, the place is teeming with banks, and the people could be movie stars themselves, insofar as looks are concerned.  Not only that, but Luxembourgers are extraordinarily polite and helpful, and not at all hostile to Americans in the way other French-speaking people can sometimes be.  And, though I didn't actually try it, I gathered that Luxembourg is the kind of place where you can stick your thumb out for a ride and not end up dead in someone’s trunk.

Thankfully there was no need to hitchhike in Luxembourg City because it has what can easily be described as one of the most organized and well run bus systems in the world.  The stops have electrical signs that tell you exactly which bus is coming and when, and without fail, the buses are on time.  A 1.50 € ticket will get you two hours worth of ride.  That is pricey compared to the 20 cents I'd gotten used to paying, but I learned that, if used strategically, one ticket can buy you some cheap sightseeing around town.  Often I would hop a bus—any bus, like the number 13 going to “Kirchberg,” for example—get out and explore for a bit, and then hop another until my two hours were up and it was time to return to the city center.  If there is one place where it is important to get your money's worth, it's Luxembourg.

In the end, I managed to luxuriate in Luxembourg with one of the biggest indulgences imaginable in the life of a backpacker. When it was time to catch my train to Bruges, I was faced with a steep, uphill walk to the nearest bus stop and a change of buses before I would reach the station.  But for 3 €--or twice the amount of the public bus ticket--I could be shuttled from door-to-door in the hostel’s van.  I splurged and took the shuttle against all my penny-pinching instincts.

It was glorious.  I boarded the van right outside the hostel door and, ten minutes later, the driver let me out directly in front of the train station.  So, in the end, I did in fact experience the height of luxury in Luxembourg.  But I never did figure out that Kennedy thing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Look At That Polish Sausage Sizzle

Just before I left Poland on Tuesday I finally had some authentic Polish kielbasa.  I wanted to splurge in a sit-down restaurant and it took some deciding on a place.  I was leaning toward a cafe in Warsaw called Zapiecek, on the main boulevard just around the corner from Nowy Swiat Street, where my hostel was located.  I had peeked in at the menu the day before and saw that for 22 zl (about $8.00), you get tea and two different kinds of sausages, served with onions and bread.  The waitresses wore flowery traditional-Polish-looking outfits, and from the aroma in the air, I guessed I would be in for a real treat.

The next day I went in, made my order, and sat eagerly anticipating this kielbasa.  I was sipping my tea when the waitress placed the accoutrement before me, including dishes of spicy mustard and horseradish, and a basket of brown bread.  Then, after warning me that "it's hot," she set down a large platter and took off the cover to reveal two scrumptious-looking pieces of meat atop a bed of grilled onions.  The sausage was still smoking and sizzling.

I don't know why I got the sudden urge to do this, but I quickly whipped out my camera and caught the sizzling sausage on video.  The group to my left--who seemed to be engaged in a business lunch from the sound of things--kept shooting me curious looks as I sat and filmed my kielbasa for posterity.  But I didn’t care.  They can have authentic Polish kielbasa—in Poland—anytime they want.  I was leaving Poland that afternoon, not knowing when I’d return, and wanted to take this memory with me.

The sausage was—in a word—delicious, but it's also been problematic.  To begin--because I hate to waste food, money, et cetera--I tried to stuff in as much sausage as I could at the restaurant.  When I felt like I was about to explode, I put the rest in a little baggie, along with the remaining two pieces of bread smeared with mustard and horseradish, and then paid the bill.

I walked back to the hostel uncomfortably full, collected my bags, and then hopped a city bus to the airport.  The airport is about a 40-minute ride with between 15 and 20 stops along the way.  Initially the only available seat on the bus was one in which you must sit backwards.  I sat down, but after about three stops-and-starts I began to feel nauseated with all the motion and a stomach full of sausage, bread, and butter-saturated onions.  I stood up and faced forward the rest of the way, but still, by the time I reached the airport, I was completely sick to my stomach.  I spent some of my last remaining Polish zlotys on an outrageously-priced can of Coke in an effort to settle things, and it did help some.  I also chucked the leftovers-baggie in the trash.  It pained me to waste a precious Ziploc, and a real one from America to boot, but I knew I wanted nothing more to do with Polish sausage anytime soon.

The next day, after some time, a couple of Pepto Bismol tablets, and the aid of digestion, I was looking back on my Polish sausage more fondly.  It was, truly, a great meal.  I decided that my next blog post would feature my sausage video because, for some reason, I found that sausage sizzle very exciting and thought perhaps it might be of interest to others.  I know my dad will like it, considering during our weekly phone call for the past four Sundays, he's asked, with a vicarious longing, "Did you have the Polish kielbasa yet?"

I tried to upload the video to my blog yesterday afternoon, and though it seemed to be working, it was taking forever.  Finally I canceled the upload and left the hostel to go see some more of Luxembourg.  (I'll explain how I ended up in Luxembourg on the way to Bulgaria later.)   I returned in the evening and tried again.  I thought maybe the earlier upload attempt had been taking so long because at that time I had other programs simultaneously open, so this time I closed everything but the video upload.

I lay on my bed and read while I waited.  After an hour or so, it still wasn’t done.  Now I was completely frustrated because, one, I had spent hours trying to upload this dumb sausage video, and two, I had promised a post for yesterday evening, specifically before bedtime.  Who is even going to care about this sausage anyway? I thought, now feeling ridiculous about it.  But currently none of the other posts in the hopper is even close to completion, so I decided to wait the sausage one out.  At some point, I drifted off to sleep with the light on and my laptop open to a screen that told me that my sausage video was currently uploading.

I woke up this morning to the sound of my Italian roommate's shuffling, and immediately checked on the video.  It said there had been an error, and I had been logged out of the hostel's wi-fi sometime during the night.  So no video.  Now this sausage was really churning my guts for the second time.

Once she saw that I was awake, my roommate (who, incidentally, looks remarkably like Angelina Jolie) asked, “Were you having nightmares last night?”  Intrigued and a little embarrassed, I thought for a second and replied, “I don’t remember.  Why, was I yelling in my sleep or something?”  She told me "it was more like muttering," but she didn’t really understand what I'd been saying.  I bet it was about this damn sausage video, I thought.

Now the whole thing was just absurd.  Here I was in a Luxembourg hostel disturbing my Italian roommate with night terrors over a frustrating failure to upload a Polish-sausage video clip.  I had nearly given the whole thing up when this morning over breakfast I figured out that if I first post the video to YouTube, I could then easily upload it directly to my blog with one click of a button.  The whole process took about ten minutes from start to finish.

And now here it is, Sizzling Polish Sausage: 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards, Part II

 Manhole covers are the worst.”
Scottish Janine

Warsaw sure looks pretty under a blanket of snow.  But I’ll have to admire it looking out the window because it’s 5°F outside, and says it “feels like” -4°F.  Accordingly I’ve struck all nonessential outdoor activities off my Warsaw to-do list. “Get some Polish kielbasa” is the only remaining item. 

In fact I’ve stayed in quite a bit writing, watching DVDs like The Big Lebowski and The Pianist, and surfing the net for things I’ve been wondering about as of late.  Like, what's the difference anyway between the Warsaw Pact and the Warsaw Convention?  

The turn in the weather also inspired me to finish off Part II of Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards.  Here it is; a list of nine so-called hazards I’ve encountered along the way:

1.  The St. Petersburg Slip-And-Slide

St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Petersburg has a lot of grand churches and cathedrals, so it seems only fitting that I would walk around praying a lot.  God, I would ask, please don’t let me fall down and shatter a kneecap.  Technically, He did answer that particular prayer because I didn’t fall down and shatter a kneecap, at least not in the conjunctive sense.  But I did fall down—four times—all within the first few days.  This prompted me to create a chart in my journal entitled, simply, “Fall Count.”

The problem was, I couldn’t distinguish between the real slippery, fall-provoking ice and just the regular kind that you can walk on and still stay upright.  I do recall someone in Los Angeles telling me to “watch out for black ice,” but looking back, I feel that was not a particularly helpful warning.  I think the reason black ice is so insidious in the first place is precisely because you can't spot it until it is too late.

The first time I fell was at an intersection where the busy Nevsky and Ligovsky Prospects in St. Petersburg meet.  This is also when I first discovered that flailing one’s arms and shrieking does nothing to help prevent a fall.  But it does get people’s attention, which may be followed by a helping hand, as was the case with the first fall.

The new Galeria in St. Petersburg
On the second fall I wasn’t so fortunate.  I was making my way down to the new Galeria one evening when a patch of ice sent me careening on my right hip like I was sliding into home.  Two approaching teenage boys watched me go down and I just assumed they would stop and help me get up.   Instead they just stepped over me and kept walking.  I think that surprised me more than the fall did.  After they passed by I lay there for a second, taking stock of the situation.  Then I did the only thing I could do, which was to roll over on the frozen ice, crawl on my knees a few inches to a place where I could get some better traction, and pull myself up.  The whole thing left me sore and embarrassed, but at least my bones were still intact.

I suppose the third and fourth stumbles were technically half-falls.  Imagine “taking a knee,” but real hard and unexpectedly, and on the same spot both times.  Thankfully my kneecap didn't shatter either time, and that’s how I know God loves me. 

2.  Manhole Covers Are The Worst  

One day, back at the hostel, I had been complaining to Scottish Janine about the St. Petersburg slips-and-slides.  She assured me that things would get better because with time I would naturally come to recognize where it was safe to step and where it was not.  Then she issued a warning that I'm certain has saved me from disaster on many an occasion.  “Manhole covers are the worst,” I recall her saying, and ever since then I've avoided them like Rain Man sidestepping sidewalk cracks.

I don’t know the science behind it, but apparently manhole covers in wintertime are particularly treacherous.  I myself have taken some unexpected skids across a few, and even though I managed to remain upright, each time I nearly had a heart attack. 

I recently Googled “slippery manhole covers” and discovered that they are, in fact, a longtime, dangerous phenomenon the world over.  Taking just one example, I found this hundred-year old letter to the editor, entitled, aptly, "Slippery Manhole Covers:”

            To the Editor of the New York Times:

Permit me to call attention to the dangers imposed upon pedestrians by the negligence and carelessness of property owners to care for the manhole covers on the sidewalks in front of their premises.  In all instances the covers are of iron and in most cases very well worn, rendering a slippery, smooth surface.  To add to this, most of the covers are of the convex style, with a rounded elevation.  It is rather dangerous to step on such a cover on clear days, but when it comes to snowy weather the snow on the cover is so deceiving as to make a victim of the most careful and cautious.

--Benjamin Schwartz, Brookyln, N.Y., Feb. 26, 1914

I'm guessing Benjamin could never have imagined that his letter to the editor would be reprinted in an internet blog called Travelarity almost one hundred years later, but there it is.

3.  Missing the Sights/A Crick in the Neck

Typical snow-covered sidewalk near my hostel
These two hazards really go together.  Sadly, what I remember most about Russia are not the grand avenues and eye-pleasing onion domes, but the sight of my two feet, moving one in front of the other, on the sludgy-snowy-ice-covered sidewalks directly ahead.  For weeks I walked around with my head down, walking at a turtle's pace, watching for “black ice” and other potential unsafe conditions.  Every so often I would pause to look up at my surroundings, and this would help to alleviate the semi-permanent crick in my neck developed over the days and weeks.  It wasn’t until I got to Kiev—where the weather was warmer and the sidewalks clearer—that I could actually take in the sights while walking upright at a normal pace.  Unfortunately here in Warsaw, the downward gaze is back, and my neck is killing me again.

4.  Icicle Impalement

Example of hanging icicles--and these are small ones.
Before leaving the U.S., I read somewhere that tourists to Russia should look out for falling objects; namely, icicles and old stucco.  I had forgotten all about this until one day I was lingering on a street corner near The Hermitage trying to decipher a tourist information sign when a man approached me and began speaking excitedly in Russian.  I looked at him confusedly and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand; I speak only English.”  Then he made a gesture with his hands, like “shoo, shoo,” away from where I was standing.  Still perplexed, I thought, what in the hell is this guy’s problem?  Finally he pointed to something above my head.  I looked up to see a row of icicles suspended dangerously from a ledge above, ready to impale me at any second.  I’ve since learned that last year in St. Petersburg, falling icicles killed five and injured 150 more.  Looking back I realize this man may have saved my life and I don’t even know his name.

5.  Ice Chunks Pushed Off Rooftops

In a related vein, in Russia it is a common sight to see people on top of huge buildings shoveling snow and ice onto the ground far below.  I was told they do this to prevent roofs from caving under the weight of snow, or water seeping into people’s homes.  Of course this creates new and different hazards for the people—like me—walking past below.  Sure, before the workers start their shoveling they first cordon off the sidewalk with plastic tape, but that doesn’t prevent stray chunks of ice from landing elsewhere, as was the case when one such piece of ice landed just inches from my head while I waited at a bus stop, a good distance from the plastic tape, incidentally.

Later I read with interest an article in The St. Petersburg Times (the Russian one, not the Florida one), about a poor Estonian woman studying in St. Petersburg who was hit by falling ice.  She spent nine months in a coma and, at the time of the article, was rehabilitating in a German hospital.  She could only blink, raise her eyebrows, nod, and smile.

She sued for $1.6 million but the jury awarded only 84,000 rubles—or about $2800--which barely even touched her medical expenses.  The court did find the city maintenance worker negligent, but she received only a 6-month suspended sentence and got to keep her job. 

The take-away:  if a large chunk of ice negligently tossed from a tall Russian building happens to land on your head, basically you're screwed.

6.  The Devil Went Down To Georgia

A few weeks back I was walking in the center of L’viv, Ukraine on my way to my morning-writing coffee shop when The Devil Went Down To Georgia popped up on my i-Shuffle.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a song that can really put some extra exuberance in my step, and I just get progressively more animated as it goes along.  That’s what was happening on this day.  I was bouncing along listening to Charlie Daniels sing:

Johnny you rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard
'Cuz hell's broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards
And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold
But if you lose the Devil gets your soul

It was at that moment when a slippery patch of ice took my right foot by surprise, and hell broke loose in Ukraine.  I went skidding across the cobblestones right near some very famous Catholic church.  Again, with arms flailing, I couldn't help but scream “Oh my God!”  I didn’t fall that time, thankfully.  But I did look up and think, is this what I get for enjoying a song about the Devil?

7.  Constantly In A Fog

I wear glasses, and have noticed that when I enter a building from being out in the cold, my glasses immediately fog up.  It happens too when I pull my scarf up around my mouth and nose to keep warm—I guess my hot breath rises up and fogs my glasses.  Again, I don't know the science behind it.  But I do know that walking around blind in this way makes it quite difficult to watch for black ice, falling icicles, and errant snow chunks. 

8.  Contact Lenses Sticking To Eyeballs

This is perhaps an irrational hazard that I invented.  Basically—even though it could potentially eliminate Hazard Number 7, above—I was afraid to wear my contacts in Russia because I imagined they might freeze to my eyeballs.  Before leaving Los Angeles I voiced this fear to a colleague at work.  She tried her best to convince me that my body temperature would keep the contacts from freezing on my eyes, and that did make sense to me at the time.  But when I got to Russia I decided not to chance it.  Because really I cannot think of any worse cold-weather hazard than having contact lenses frozen to my eyeballs in a place like Russia where I wouldn't even be able to tell someone what the problem is.

9.  Cold-Weather, Filthy Self-Talk

Technically this isn’t a hazard, but it’s somewhat related and I think worth a mention.  If kids are reading, stop here.

There’s something about traveling solo in freezing cold weather that makes me talk to myself more than usual.  And the colder it is, it seems the more obscenities I use.  Often when I walk outside and get that shocking blast of cold air, I’ll say things out loud to myself like, “Can it be any more f*@king freezing?” or “It’s cold as a bitch out here!”  Sometimes I just mutter an abbreviated, “Ho-ly shit.

I know, it's something I need to work on.  And finally, here's why I don't go ice skating:

Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Soviet Side Of The Tracks

Earlier this week I left Krakow and went 117 kilometers up the road to a town called Kielce.  All of a sudden Poland got all iron-curtain on me, at least architecturally speaking.  I’m talking about concrete-monstrosity after concrete-monstrosity as far as the eye can see.  It’s the kind of drab, cheerless landscape where even thoughtless grafitti-scrawls can markedly liven up the place.

I could tell right away that Kielce was a far cry from the picturesque, cobblestone streets of Krakow, whose charming architecture was largely unaffected by the war.  The two-hour bus ride through the Polish countryside was quite pleasant and had me eagerly anticipating some small-town quaintness.  But then I was dropped in front of Kielce’s bus station, which, oddly enough looks like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I emerged from the bus to find a fairly dirty city with a faint smell of something chemical-industrial in the air.  

I also quickly learned that, for the most part, I’d lost access to English speakers.  Gesturing and pointing began again in earnest as I went in search of my room.  There are no hostels in Kielce, so I settled upon a budget hotel, which the kind staff member in my Krakow hostel helped me book ahead by telephone.  Partway through the search I found someone who was able to tell me that my hotel was located in the northwest part of town; more specifically, on the “other side of the tracks.”  Perhaps that’s not an expression widely used in Poland, but in my American mind, I found it slightly worrisome.

I set off with my backpack in the direction of Urzednicza Street and, after a twenty-minute slog that took me through a long, underground tunnel beneath the railroad tracks, I found the address amid some of the most depressing, Soviet-style housing projects I’d ever laid eyes on.  My building wasn’t the worst on this particular street—which had been crowded with high-density, concrete apartment buildings—but it was quite stark and characterless just the same.  And, I might add, a tad bit scary-looking.

I went inside, handed my passport to the man behind the front desk, paid the 100 zlotys for two nights (about $17.50 a night), and received my key.  The man—who did not speak a word of English—pointed to the number on the key, 607, and then gestured for me to go toward a metal, blue “Kabinet,” which I assumed was the elevator.
After some fumbling with the doors, I got out on the sixth floor and walked down a long, barren hallway lined with 20 or so nondescript doors.  I opened number 607 with curious anticipation and let out an audible gasp.  All I can say is that this room gave new meaning to the word Spartan.  It was completely devoid of anything that could offer a modicum of comfort—no TV, not a clock radio, not anything that would even so much as emit a sound.  Apart from the simple furniture, the room’s only moveable objects were a glass ashtray on the bathroom sink (just a sink; the toilet and shower were shared down the hall) and one wooden hanger.  It actually made me long for the tacky decor of a Motel 6.  Would it kill to hang a picture on the wall?  I wondered, as I dropped my pack and headed back out.

On my way into town I had spotted an uncharacteristically-bright, M-shaped American icon in the midst of the bleak, gray skyline.  Yes, it’s the Golden Arches of which I speak, and that is where I was now headed.  I don’t know what it is, but there is something about being surrounded by relics of communism-past that makes me want to gorge myself on McDonald’s.  It’s like I get scared and need reminding that nowadays, in places like Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, the capitalist-pig in me is free to shovel in as many french fries as the button on my pants will allow.

The restaurant was crowded—as has been the case with every McDonald’s I’ve encountered thus far—and most of the words and sounds seemed to be in Polish.  I knew I was off the tourist trail, and so, going with the trend of the day, I just assumed that the girl about to take my order did not speak English.  I greeted her with a friendly “hello” and a smile, pointed to a picture of a cheeseburger near the register, and held up an index finger; meaning “one cheeseburger, please.” 

Before I could finish gesturing the rest of my order (which was to include french fries and a small strawberry shake), the girl shot me the nastiest look and said, all snotty and indignant-like, “I speak English,” as if to suggest that I was some sort of miming dumbass.  I was taken aback.

Oh really?  Then you’ll understand perfectly when I tell you to get me a cheeseburger and fries, pronto, bitch!  And whip me up a strawberry shake while you’re at it!

Of course I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.  Perhaps my now-lengthy and tiresome struggle with language barriers had left me a touch oversensitive, but I still think her attitude was uncalled for.  I mean, considering that Poland’s lingua franca is Polish and not English, I think it was entirely reasonable for me to present my order in the way that I did.  Indeed, my effort was meant to avoid the “ugly American” stereotype that presumes everyone, everywhere speaks English, or should speak it anyway.  In fact, when in the past I’ve presumed English speaking where there is none, non-English speakers sometimes have gotten quite salty.  Often, after making some initial inquiry in English, I’ve had information windows coldly shut in my face, and countless frustrated hands thrown in the air.

So, no, I didn’t appreciate the tone.  And just to make one further point in my defense, the next morning I found myself back at the same McDonald’s for breakfast (with the sound excuse that I had not yet tried an Egg McMuffin abroad).  I approached the counter with the intent to order a “Jajko i Bekon”—or an Egg McMuffin with bacon—and this time I did so unhesitatingly in English.  Of course, the girl at the register—a different one—didn’t understand a word I said, and asked me to point overhead to what I wanted.  I cannot win, I thought, but at least I can report that Egg McMuffins in Poland are just as, if not more, delicious than the ones at home.

I was initially drawn to Kielce for some research on a future writing project and accordingly spent a good amount of time wandering through town, looking at things of interest in that regard.  This brought me back to what I will call the “good side of the tracks,” where I discovered a city center that stood as a delightful exception to the prevailing architectural rule in Kielce.  It wasn’t exactly Paris, but the main strip—Sienkiewicza Street—was both aesthetically-agreeable and pleasantly inviting.  Nearby sat a splendid cathedral, and even a tree-lined park with a sweet, little frozen pond complete with a topiary swan.

But, continuing a short way down Jana Pawla II Avenue, I found myself back in dreary, urban blight.  From the looks of things, it appeared that Kielce did begin as a quaint Polish town.  Then—sometime after its so-called “liberation” by the Red Army following World War II—it was remade into a hideous mass of utilitarian concrete.  I don’t know much about architectural design, but I know what I like, and when I think about what kind of buildings please me, I think of Boston’s brownstones, or San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, or Florida’s bungalows.  Perhaps I was just missing the beauty inherent in Kielce’s concrete.  I certainly hoped so, for the sake of the people living there.

And to be clear, it’s not so much that I’m complaining about Kielce, but rather expressing sympathy for it.  In fact, I walked around imagining ways it could possibly be improved.  Fanning out from the center, I kept thinking, someone at least ought to slap a coat of paint on this cement.  Then I spotted an 11-story, fluorescent concrete monster that practically burned my retinas.  Apparently, others before me had had the same idea.   The paint didn’t exactly help, at least in my opinion.

Thankfully there is some good news on the horizon, according to the town’s tourist publication.  Kielce has reportedly obtained a billion euro from EU funds and is “becoming prettier and prettier, increasingly friendly to inhabitants, and more and more attractive for tourists.”  That makes me feel good because I really did meet some lovely people while in town, including the friendly barista at the Cube Café on Sienkiewicza Street.  He spoke great English—perhaps honed from the brief time he lived in and around New York a few years back—and was therefore an immense help in my effort to find my way around Kielce.  He even offered to show off some parts of the city on his day off.   Unfortunately I was scheduled to roll north to Radom, but I thanked him for his generous offer.  When I put my coat on to leave, he came from behind the counter and hugged me goodbye.

So in the end I left Kielce with more fond memories than expected.  But I still think someone from the tourist bureau should have a sit-down with that unfriendly girl at McDonald’s.  I mean, really.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Steered Wrong in Radom

I knew this was going to happen.  I promised that I'd have a post up today, and there are no internet cafes around.   At least no one here knows of one.  I’ve been walking around the center of town showing around my journal in which I’ve written “wi-fi” (here in Poland they pronounce it “wee-fee”).  So far I’ve received non-stop shakes of the head, which I take to mean either they don’t know what “wi-fi” means, or there’s no wi-fi.

A little while I ago I ducked into a small store called “Komputeroniks,” or something like that, and inquired about the wi-fi situation in the city center.  I figure they might know since they’re in the business, selling computer accessories, flash drives, mice and whatnot.  The man working told me that he doesn’t know of an internet café, or a place that has wireless connection, but he offered to let me hang out in the store and use his wi-fi connection. 

He obviously doesn’t know my process.  There’s so much involved in writing a blog post.  In my case typically it involves sitting for hours in a cafe, drinking coffee, writing and re-writing, and every now and again laughing out loud at my own cleverness.  There’s also the ever so time-consuming selection of pictures to include in the post.  I looked around the store and saw there would be no place for me to sit apart from the small desk where customers are being served; and in fact the entire store itself is about 10 feet by 5 feet.  I thanked the man, begged off his offer, and noted the closing time—6:00 p.m.—just in case.

I continued walking to the end of the street, scanning storefront windows for the words “wi-fi” or, as is sometimes the case, “Hot Spot,” but nothing.  So I devised an alternate plan.  I’m now around the corner at the Dallmayr Café, having a cappuccino, and writing this post.  As soon as I’m finished, I’ll go back to Komputeroniks and ask to borrow the wi-fi to upload this to my blog quickly.  Sorry, I can’t do pictures, because that takes some time.  But I promise, tomorrow when I get to Warsaw, I’ll upload the post that was intended for today, entitled, “On the Soviet Side of the Tracks,” and it will have lots of photos.

Meanwhile, since I have a few minutes, I’ll tell you what’s behind the title of this post.

So, all over the world, I get fairly good directions from strangers, and usually it works out really well.  Even when we don’t speak the same language, we make do with a lot of gesturing.  In this way I’ve learned that a dip followed by a quick rise of the hand means go underground to cross the street—a nice tip to avoid getting run down in the street.  Usually, when I stay in proper hostels in big cities, I get directions from them, with varying levels of precision of course, but I always make my way.

Before my arrival here in Radom I emailed the hostel—which clearly is not a typical backpacker place—and got the following line of directions:  “From the train station take bus No. 7 goes to 4 stops.”  I took that to mean, take bus no. 7 and go four stops.

I arrived in the Radom train station this afternoon and found a bus stop with a bunch of numbers listed on the sign, including the number “7.”  In a few minutes, bus number 7 rolled up.  I got on and, as is my habit, showed the driver the name of the street where my hostel is located, in this case, Limanowskiego Street.  The bus driver shook his head “no” and said something in Polish.  Clearly I didn’t understand, so a man in the front row repeated it—again in Polish—like maybe they thought I was slow or something.  Finally, a third person, this time a young woman, said, “This is not right bus,” and motioned for me to get off.

So I did.  Now I was in a pickle, because I had no map, save for a rudimentary one scribbled in my journal, and which unfortunately did not include the location of the train station in relation to the map, rendering the entire scribbling of no use.  I spotted a hotel across the street and decided to inquire at the reception there.  I do this a lot, and not only do I usually find an English-speaking concierge who gives good directions, but often I’ll score a free map of the city.  In this case, the man behind the counter did not speak English.  He did, however, go upstairs to find someone who could.

A few minutes later, a young girl appeared, and I told her that I was looking to go to Limanowskiego, which the hostel told me was four stops on bus number 7.  I also explained that I had gotten kicked off bus number 7 moments ago for being on the wrong bus.  She kindly walked me outside to a nearby bus stop, read some information on the sign, and then advised me to go on bus number 14. 

I appreciated her help, but was hesitant to get on a completely different-numbered bus in an unfamiliar city.  I looked at what she was looking at, and noticed that Limanowskiego Street was listed as stops for both bus 7 and bus 14.  For number 7, it was precisely the fourth stop, just like the hostel said.  I now gathered where I had gone at the train station; since that bus 7 was going in the other direction, it was indeed the wrong one.  But now I was set and on the right path.

I learned from a woman standing at the bus stop—again through pointing and gesturing—that I needed to first purchase a bus ticket at a kiosk across the street back near the train station; the ticket is then validated once on board.  I bought two, just in case; each ticket costing 2.10 zloty, or about .75 cents.  Finally the right bus number 7 rolled up.

This is where things went wrong.  There was a man standing by the bus driver—I don’t know if it was the bus driver's friend, or whether he worked on the bus, or what—but I showed him my address and he nodded his head yes, as if to say, yes, we’re going your way.  Then this nosy, old Polish woman sitting in the front row got involved.  I don’t know, but I gather she asked him where I was going, and he told her some place on Limanowskiego.  She started speaking very fast in Polish, and kept repeating Limanowskiego, Limanowskiego to others on the bus, leaving me with the impression that perhaps this was not the right bus.  But how could it not be?  The sign on the bus stop said Limanowskiego was the fourth stop from where I got on, which is the exact information I got from the hostel.

Now I was nervous, so I showed her the address in my journal, which said, “ul. Limanowskiego 36/40."  She nodded her head and demanded I have a seat next to her.  For the next few stops, this woman did not stop talking, and every now and again, she would say Limanowskiego, so it seemed she was talking about me.  Now she had two other people involved, including another old woman standing next to me.

The bus approached the fourth stop, and I could see from the nearby address that this was where I needed to get off.  But the woman would not let me go.  She literally tugged my backpack down toward her, preventing me from exiting the bus.  I did not understand what was happening, and now everyone in the vicinity was chattering excitedly in Polish as to what I should do.  I was told to wait for four more stops.  As we passed the bus stop, I could see the numbers going up – 44, 46, 50 – leaving mine, 36/40, behind.  But at this point there was nothing I could do but trust all of these people who were vehemently telling me to wait for four more stops.

The bus turned off Limanowskiego street and stopped three more times before returning to it.  On the fourth stop, the group signaled for me to get out.  The second old woman, who was getting off at the same stop, insisted that I follow her through a complex of cement-block buildings, but I could see this was not right, as the numbers on the street were now in the high 70s.  I kept telling her, “No, this is not right.”  Finally, I pulled out my journal and showed her the number 40.  She then opened her purse, brought out her glasses, looked at the number, and gave me a look that said, “Oh shit; sorry.”  She drew a figure “80” on the page with her finger, meaning, we thought you meant “80.”

To be fair, the “36” in “36/40” could have been mistaken as “86,” but in any event, now I was really annoyed.   I knew I should have trusted my gut instinct.  And because I didn’t want to insult an old Polish woman, I was now out a bus ticket.  I turned and walked in the other direction to find a bus stop with a bus number 7.  I should mention here that it was freezing outside—about 20 degrees.  Of course the nearby bus stop had no service for number 7, but it did have a number 14.  I remembered that 14 makes a few stops along Limanowskiego, and I figured it was my best option.

I pulled my other, unused bus ticket from my pocket, and just as I was about to board, the wind took it away.  I watched it as it blew underneath the bus, so I couldn’t even run after it.  I looked around and didn’t see any place where I could possibly purchase another ticket, so I boarded anyway, with only an already-validated ticket.   Now I’m a criminal because of that dumb lady, I thought.  But I figure everyone was complicit in causing me to overshoot my stop—including the bus driver himself—and so, being the skilled lawyer that I am (or so I've been told), I was prepared to make my case if called upon to do so.  Plus, I had another defense, which is that, in some places, bus tickets are good for one hour from the time of validation, and how am I supposed to know what the law is anyway when everything is written Polish?  Who knows, perhaps “ignorance of the law" is a valid excuse in Poland.

No one came around to check to my ticket, and after a few stops, bus number 14 deposited me exactly where I wanted to get off in the first place, which happened to be directly across the street from my hostel.  Now, I don’t have time to tie this up in a nice bow, or come up with a moral of the story, because it’s coming up on 5:35 p.m. and I have to fix typos before I go around the corner for the dispatch.   Maybe this:  if you ever find yourself in Radom, Poland, watch out for aggressive, old Polish women on bus number 7, especially if they’re not wearing their glasses.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Overnight in Auschwitz

I don’t really know how to describe what I’ve been up to for the past two weeks other than to say that somehow I got off on a history-of-the-Holocaust bender of sorts that has left me completely spent.  I plan, as a result, to take a hiatus from all things Holocaust-related the minute I finish this post.

Holocaust-related literature
 in a local bookshop
It started the day I arrived in Krakow.  I previously wrote about my visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum, but what I didn’t mention is that I spent the better part of two hours in the gift shop-slash-bookstore thumbing through dozens of Auschwitz-survivor memoirs with the intent to purchase just one.  But by the time I reached Auschwitz on Thursday, I had bought and read three in quick succession, including I Was Number 20823 At Auschwitz by Eva Tichauer, I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree, by Laura Hillman (also a “Schindler Jew”), and Primo Levi’s quintessential Survival in Auschwitz.  The latter, penned shortly after Primo’s liberation in January 1945, brought me directly into the inner world of Auschwitz like no other.  It's one of those books that, by the end, makes you feel like you know the author personally.  I now feel like I know Primo, and that's why I've taken to calling him by his first name.  

All along I had planned to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau on my own rather than with a group, mainly because I didn’t want to experience it through the words and filter of others.  I also didn’t want to be rushed.  Most people make Auschwitz a day trip from Krakow, and follow a guide’s schedule, but I found those logistics limiting, especially given the time it takes to get there (almost two hours by bus) and that, in winter, the camps close earlier, at 3:00 p.m. rather than 6:00.

The Center
So I decided to stay over for a night.  Online I located a couple hotels nearby, as well as something called “The Center for Dialogue and Prayer.”  The Center is a Catholic institution intended as an interfaith place for “reflection, education, sharing and prayer” for those moved by what happened at Auschwitz.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it sounded interesting, and was also the cheapest option, so I booked a room there.

I caught an early morning shuttle bus from Krakow, found my way to the Center, checked in, and headed over to Auschwitz.  I felt nervous as I approached the entrance, particularly given the two-week massive build up I had created.  I stood reading some informational signs while others milled around, perhaps waiting for their tours to start.  A girl next to me turned to her friend and said, in a British accent, “I almost feel guilty for eating,” before taking a big bite from her sandwich.  This made me think of Primo and his daily bread rations, along with the watery soup with bits of potato peelings that represented his “dinner” night after night.

In fact, I walked around the camp constantly thinking of Primo, using his recollections as my guide.  Here is the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate through which Primo marched to and from work; this is the Block before which Primo stood naked on his way to the infirmary; this is where Primo stood for roll call; this is where Primo watched his fellow prisoners executed.  I ended the tour with the most horrible parts; namely, the gas chamber and the hanging gallows, and finally exited the camp eager to retreat to my little room. 

Back at the Center, I lay down and reflected for a while.  It was hard.  After an hour or so, I emerged from my room and asked the girls behind the front desk if I could have a look inside the Center’s library, which I understood was stocked with even more Holocaust-related literature.  Just what I needed.  I was told that someone would have to unlock the library and escort me inside, so I took a seat in the lobby and waited.

Meanwhile, a slight, elderly man walking with metal leg braces entered the building.   Another man from behind the reception desk greeted him and sat him on the couch adjacent to mine.  I noticed his eyes were sunken in, and soon I observed that he had trouble with his sight.  Twice he brought his wristwatch to within a half-inch of his eye to check the time.  He seemed to be waiting for something to happen, and then it dawned on me.  I had read in the Center’s information brochure that it sometimes arranges meetings with former prisoners of Auschwitz.  Something told me, this man is an Auschwitz survivor.

The man’s escort led him over to the elevator just as another woman showed up to take me to the library.  After brief introductions, I couldn’t help myself.  “I was just wondering, who is that man that just went up the elevator?” I asked, strongly suspecting what the answer might be.  I had guessed right.  The woman told me the man's name is Edward Paczkowski, and indeed, he is an Auschwitz survivor.  He was in the Center this evening to address a large group of German high school students from Dortmund, now waiting upstairs in a conference room.  His talk would be in Polish, and translated into German.  I wouldn’t understand, but I didn’t care; I asked if I could listen in.  

During the talk I was mostly lost in translation, but I'm certain I caught the gist.  Every now and again I would recognize a German word picked up from Primo’s book—like lager for camp, or kapo, for prisoner-trustee; and of course I perfectly understood words like “Nazi” and “SS.”  At one point, Mr. Paczkowski pointed to the numbers tattooed on his arm, and that needed no explanation.  During a brief bathroom break, a few German girls seated nearby filled me in on some other details in English.

Afterward, I approached Mr. Paczkowski to thank him and shake his hand.  He took my hand in both of his; his were warm and soft, and I felt something profound as our hands remained clasped together.  He addressed me in Polish, which was translated in turn;  “thank you,” he said, “and have a safe trip returning to your country.”

I next visited the library, as I had earlier intended.  I asked if I could check out a book or two to bring back to my room for the evening.  I ended up with four, including one called Holocaust Denial.   After experiencing what I had, I was curious to know precisely what these Holocaust deniers were denying.  I took the book with me and left the Center in search of dinner.

It was dark, and the two long streets between the Center and the closest establishments were completely deserted.  I found only one place open—a restaurant connected to a nearby hotel—and entered to become the restaurant’s only patron.  It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps no solo traveler in her right mind ever spends the night in Auschwitz.

I ordered a chicken filet with a side of mashed potatoes; comfort food.  I sat eating alone, occupied with a transcript of the Montel Williams Show on “Holocaust Denial,” from April 30, 1992, and reprinted in the book’s appendix.  At one point, Montel comes back from break and says, “We’re talking about the Holocaust, and whether it did or didn’t happen.”  Oh, it happened alright; in fact, right down this scary, dark street. 

I finished the last morsel on my plate, save for a garnish of parsley.  I looked down at it and thought, Primo would have eaten this parsley.  I started to chew on it, but it tasted extremely bitter and I quickly spit it out.  It was then that I realized that I could no longer do something as simple as have a meal without putting a depressing Holocaust-spin on it.  I needed to pull myself together.

But I still had Birkenau to visit in the morning.  Birkenau—or Auschwitz II—is a separate camp located approximately 3 kilometers from Auschwitz I, and is the worst of the worst insofar as Nazi death camps are concerned.  It was raining when I arrived, and the place—much larger than Auschwitz I—was eerily desolate.  I walked around for some time, visiting the communal latrine and poking in bunkhouses where short periods of sleep interrupted long days of forced labor.  Then I set off to the far end of the camp to have a look at the crematoria ruins.  I say ruins because, when defeat appeared certain, the Nazis worked quickly to destroy the evidence of their terrible deeds.

I already felt sick to my stomach and by now wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of this place.  Halfway down the long road I stopped to read an informational sign.  It said something like:  You are walking down the road where millions of Jews were herded to the gas chambers.  That’s when the tears came, and I knew that I could not take much more of this.  I walked to the end, paid my respects, and left.

I realize that my blog is called Travelarity and asserts that "Something funny always happens along the way."  In the wake of my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I now stand corrected.  Nothing funny happened.  But I think it was important in any event to tell you what did.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Seinfeld-Spielberg-Schindler's List Connection

You were making out during Schindler’s List?”
Mrs. Seinfeld, The Raincoats-Part II, Season 5, Episode 83

Being the Seinfeld-enthusiast that I am, I’m often hard-pressed to get through any significant span of time without relating something that happens in my life to an episode of Seinfeld.  Oddly enough, my visit to the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in Krakow on Friday proved no exception. 

Of course most people know the film Schindler’s List, which recounts the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them as forced laborers in his factories, including the Emalia enamelware factory situated in Krakow’s Podgorze district, which became the site of Krakow's Jewish Ghetto in March 1941. 

More than 15,000 members of Krakow’s Jewish population were forced to live within the Ghetto's walls, including a young Roman Polanski, who described his feelings at the time in a handwritten note now on display in the museum:

"I suddenly realized that we were to be walled in.  I got so scared that I eventually burst into tears."
Roman Polanski, age 8

The eventual liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto took place in March 1943 and was supervised in part by SS-officer Amon Göth, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film.  Those who could still work were sent to the nearby Plaszow forced labor camp, while the others, including children, the sick, and the elderly, were carted off to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.  Many were murdered on the spot in the Ghetto's Zgody Plaza.

Nazi Terror exhibition with
 floor-tile swastikas
As with many real people and places touched by Hollywood, the 1993 release of Schindler’s List generated further interest in the original Schindler factory.  At the time of filming, the factory was in use as an electronics component plant; later it was opened to visitors seeking to catch a glimpse of Schindler’s office, and the famous interior stairway featured in the film.  In 2007 the factory was closed for a three-year, multi-million dollar renovation; it reopened last year with a permanent exhibition entitled Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945.  

View of the Plaszow Concentration Camp replica exhibit
As one might expect from a museum that depicts in graphic, painstaking detail the very worst of what humanity has to offer, the experience is a heavy one that wrenches the heart from start to finish.  Of course some rays of light shine throughout, like the several video testimonials of surviving, Schindler Jews, and other stories of “righteous” Cracovians who risked their lives to save others.  But overall, it’s hard to imagine anyone exiting the place without feelings of intense melancholy in tow.

So you can imagine my reaction when, down one of the exhibit halls, I encountered two teenagers standing close together with their arms around each other in what looked to be a romantic embrace.  At first I tried to extend the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps they were consoling each other over the sheer madness and incomprehensibility of it all.  But then, just as I was passing by, they started sucking face.  At that moment, the voice of Jerry Seinfeld’s television mother popped into my head, questioning these two kids in that now-famous, incredulous tone: 

You’re making out at the Schindler factory?”

You may recall the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and his girlfriend, Rachel, go to see Schindler's List and, finally alone and away from Jerry’s visiting parents, proceed to make out through the entire film.  Unbeknownst to Jerry, Newman is seated in the back of the cinema and witnesses the whole, objectionable display.  Newman wastes no time in telling Jerry’s parents, Helen and Morty, who later confront Jerry upon his return home:

Helen:  How could you?
Jerry:  How could I what?
Helen:  You were making out during Schindler’s List
Jerry:  What?  No.
Morty:  Don’t lie, Jerry.
Jerry: (turns, grimacing):  Newman.
Helen:  How could you do such a thing?
Jerry:  I couldn't help it. We hadn't been alone together in a long time and we just kinda started up a little during the coming attractions and the next thing we knew, the war was over.

Rachel’s father also learns of the inappropriate make-out session (from none other than Newman, his postman) and thereafter forbids Jerry—“someone of such weak, moral fiber”—from seeing his daughter again. 

Perhaps I'm being too judgmental, but I think two lovebirds stealing kisses in the middle of what can be described as a Holocaust-remembrance museum rises to same level of absurdity as the Seinfeld-Schindler’s List story line.  And trust me when I tell you, the Schindler Factory museum is simply one of the last places you’d think you’d have to advise people to get a room.

Schindler's List movie memorabilia displayed
in the museum's "Film Cafe"
I finished touring the museum and returned to the hostel with a renewed interest in everything Schindler’s List.  I thought it would be interesting to watch the film once more while in Krakow, so I searched the internet for a legal way to get my hands on it.   Unfortunately I couldn’t find a place to purchase or rent it online (as Netflix and similar sites don’t stream in these parts), so I relied on various online articles and short snippets to refresh my recollection.  That’s when I ran across an interesting Seinfeld-Spielberg-Schindler’s List connection heretofore not known to me.

I read that—considering the subject matter—the making of Schindler’s List was understandably difficult for members of the cast and crew.  Spielberg himself purportedly said that he “cried all the time” during filming; in fact, there was little humor on the set for obvious reasons.  So, to temper the depressive feelings engendered by the reenactment of tragic events, Spielberg reportedly had episodes of Seinfeld delivered to his hotel for viewing after long, arduous days of shooting.  In later interviews, both Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine) discussed the connection between Spielberg’s viewing of Seinfeld during the filming and The Raincoats-Schindler’s List episode, which aired the next season.

Of course for days now I’ve been wishing that I had packed some of my own Seinfeld DVDs, particularly as I prepare to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau later this week.  But then today, reflecting upon the two Auschwitz-survivor memoirs I’ve read since my arrival in Krakow, I realized how patently absurd my own thinking has been.  Here I am about to visit a place where the most horrifying deprivations in the history of humankind took place, and I’m lamenting the fact that I won’t have the comfort of Jerry-George-Kramer-and-Elaine to get me through the witnessing of its historical reminders.

Yes, that perspective sure is a slippery little sucker, but I think I’ve got a grasp on it now.