Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Euro Part III: PL to AU

August 29th: Katowice to Krakow via Nazi Camps:

The petite and energetic Colombian athlete raced off into the mountains in a taxi, while I stayed back and continued my own journey, but not without his pleading attempts to convince me of joining him up there so I could watch a compatriot compete in this foreign land. He probably also hoped I would just remain by his side for the rest of his trip, as an English mediator in the wide divide between his Spanish and everyone's Polish, as if my own language barrier wasn't tallenough.

Perhaps the creator was calling me to this task as well, not just that of funding the guy's 100 kilometer taxi ride. Alas, I declined, feeling a need to focus on my own needs for once. Next on the original plan was Auschwitz, and I was sticking to my guns. I found a cheap bus to Oswiecim (Polish name for the small town adjacent to the camps), and another more local bus that dropped me off within a few hundred feet of the entrance. I spent the rest of the day touring the two most infamous WWII genocide camps, solemnly by foot under semi-overcast skies.
The train/bus station in Katowice. Few tourists seem to make it here. A taxi stand across the street in Katowice. All the drivers congregating.

The people of Oswiecim (pronounced "oshvichim") are tired of being known only for the atrocities their neighboring nation chose to commit in their backyard, and their welcome sign proudly announces that the town has over 800 years of history, not just 60 something.

Most people don't walk past this sign with the bicycle because they arrive on a big, organized tour bus, or by family or rental car on a road trip. I am one of the few who got there entirely by mass public transport and foot. I got to see what most ignore on the way here. The faces of the elder Polish locals on the bus who lived through it all, and are still here to see the sort of Disneyland theme park it's become.

Three out of four of my grandparents escaped from homes not far from here, as teenagers. They embarked on boats on both the Baltic and Adriatic seas, and arrived as refugees on foreign lands. I'm glad my grandparents weren't suckers who stuck around to see what might happen. I kind of feel like a sucker sometimes for sitting back and watching while the world around me slowly implodes upon itself.

Since they now require all visitors to sign up with an official guided tour at the first camp (the one with the museum) if you come between noon and 3 pm or so (which costs a hefty chunk of dough), there's a way to bypass that. Just catch the free shuttle bus over to camp #2, also known as Birkenau, or the Vernichtungslager (extermination camp.) It'll take you at least a couple solid hours to traverse the entire place.

It's an enormous field spanning into the horizon, sprinkled with variously-purposed structures, ranging from fully intact to intentionally dynamited (to conceal evidence.) If you take the free shuttle bus back to "base camp" anytime after 15:00, admission becomes free again. It's really self-explanatory and full of descriptive diagrams, like any museum. It was originally the labor camp that coincided with its nearby death camp counterpart. It's hard to truly comprehend all of what there is to feel and how it must have been for the prisoners. May the creator have mercy on all of humanity for all of its (ongoing) mistreatment of its own people and habitat.

Late in the afternoon I caught a ten dollar bus to Poland's second largest city. That night was the only time in the entire two month trip that I crashed at a youth hostel. For ten dollars I got a shower, a bed, three funny roommates from Belgium and New Zealand, and a continental breakfast (coffee and snack.) I enjoyed the vibe there. Not too much of anything and not too little. I went across the street to a corner store and came back with cheap Polish beer for all of us, and we shared a few cross-cultural laughs.
The next day I walked a bridge over the Wisla river from Kazimierz to Podgorze, while imagining what it might have been like to be a Jew in the 1940's, forced to abandon my home in central Krakow, and resettle in cramped quarters behind newly erected walls, fulfilling the dictator's promise of making Krakow the "cleanest" (most Aryan) Polish city under his rule. I even walked past the famed old factory of Oskar Schindler. Not a tear rolled down my face, as is the case with the movie every time (without fail). Only a very unsettling feeling and an almost disbelief about that whole time period. Not to mention ours.

When I called my grandpa to tell him I'd just been to his hometown, his schizophrenic alzheimer response was, "Why did you go there? That's where all of our people were killed. There is nothing to go do over there." Oops. Sorry I said anything.

"ESCAPE THE SHADOWS! LET ME HELP YOU" is what the billboard says. I did in fact witness what I perceived to be quite a bit of depression in the air, at least in the southern quadrant of Poland I passed through. Maybe not so much the younger generations as with the older ones, the latter of which outnumber the former. It seems to me a country stuck between the old left and the new right, or perhaps I'm just politically clueless. It seems very uncomfortable with itself, or maybe I'm just uncomfortable with myself and projecting that unto the innocent Poles.

My overnight bus from Krakow to Vienna, clear across Slovakia, was uneventful. I slept right through it all, arriving in the Austrian capital at daybreak. The next entry will be about the friends I paid a visit, and onward into Magyarorszag (what Hungary calls itself), Serbia, and Romania.

The Slovaks reading this are probably wondering why I dashed right through their country without even opening my eyes. Well, you can't do it all in one trip and I chose to focus on the places where I had contacts and invitations lined up.


My lovely friend Alfie, a Parisian living in London. I met him in Nevada after Burning Man 2009.
My Scottish friend Gregor and his English wife Zoe, who lent me their couch for a night in London. Thanks again you all for making a near-stranger feel like family. Gregor and I met randomly while backpacking through South America in 2007. See the taxi driver sitting in the backseat, reading the paper? He's taking a break on the inner circle at Regent's Park. I told him we have relief stands in NYC where we like to do that. It was a nice moment of international laborer solidarity. New Yorkers can't request an instant text message for the 3 nearest cabs. But Londoners can! What's with the number 3 and taxis in London?

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