Krak Heads

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

She said:

Without ever having been to Poland, the only preconception I had was in regards to the death camps. I didn't know anything about Warsaw outside of the Ghetto, and I only knew that an overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau came from Krakow. I saw Schindler's List which only served to reinforce those ideas.

People asked, "Why are you going to Poland?" Initially, I thought that the main reason was to see the camps, and seeing the cities would be secondary. But when I read about the rich history and significance each place had on my ancestors, both became places I wanted to explore. Unfortunately, due to traveling complications, Warsaw would be a place we would have to come back for. We arrived in Krakow on Sunday night, and ended up staying until the following Saturday. Krakow is now the city where we have spent the most time, and I have to admit, one of the most enjoyable and undiscovered cities that we've been to thus far.

We arrived at night, only to find that our first two choices for accommodations were either closed or booked. So we settled on a "suitable last resort" in a great location in the old town. I pulled the sleep sac out once again. We dropped our stuff, showered off the triple travel day nightmare, and headed out excited to try a new cuisine. For me, some of it was food I was brought up with, and I think Chad was most excited for pierogi and kielbasa (polish sausage), foods he ate growing up. As we walked through the main square, we couldn't believe what a bustling city Krakow was. Since I had no idea what to expect, this was a very pleasant contrast to the rural, dreary town I expected.

We picked a restaurant called Chlopskie Jadlo, literally meaning "peasant food", for our first taste of Polish cuisine. Much like the restaurant we went to in Ljubljana, it was supposed to offer a real Polish experience. There was a statue of a peasant woman at the door, traditional Polish music in the background, servers in costume, and bed board type booths. Sounds a bit like Epcot, I know, but no matter how much we try to fit in, we are still tourists, and since they make these places specifically for people like us, we may as well try them once and a while! We sat down to what I thought was bread and butter. Wrong, it was farmer's cheese and lard with rye bread on the side. Yes, I said lard. No, I didn't eat it, but Chad...

Anyway, after a delicious dinner of borscht, pierogi, untraditional stuffed cabbage (yet still very tasty), and fried pork chops with fries (guess who ate what), we walked around the main square a bit. The weather had definitely changed, and I was cold for the first time. We discussed having to send clothing home to make room for warmer clothes and couldn't believe we were still traveling as the seasons changed. We sat in the main square while we talked and heard the infamous bugler for the first of many times as the clock struck midnight.

As ramshackle and moldy as our B&B was, the breakfast they served was phenomenal. We had to choose from 4 different sets of breakfasts. I chose the vegetable/cheese plate and had toast-and-cheese for five days in a row (only my immediate family will appreciate how "at home" that felt to me). Chad, on the other hand, chose the sweet breakfast plate and had a variety of different sweet, cream-filled croissants with Nutella to top it off.

We decided to take it easy on our first day and enjoy the town informally to catch our breath (of course, our formal introductory guided walks would come later). We explored some areas around the old town, and sat at open door cafes watching the city pass by. It was important to us that we catch up on our blogs (as this is not only for the enjoyment of our friends and family, but also serves as our journals), so we spent the better part of the day café-hopping and wandering aimlessly.

The Old Town and the areas surrounding it felt like a mesh of many different cities to me. The Old Town, which is basically the "tourist's Krakow", is surrounded by the Planty. This is a belt of park areas (which used to be the walls and moat) surrounding the Old Town. In the center is the Main Market Square filled with cafes, street vendors, horse and carriages, a main market cloth hall, statues of famous poets/writers, a church, and a bell tower. This reminded me much of Venice's San Marco Square, with an abundance of tour groups by day, quieter with a better ambiance at night. There were competing orchestras and overpriced restaurants all around the square. There were even people feeding pigeons, again I ask, WHY? The streets coming off the square (one of which we stayed on) are mostly pedestrian streets lined with name brand stores and restaurants. This reminded me a lot of Verona. The Planty was all reminiscent of New York to me with grassy areas somewhat sparse, benches and trees in the forefront, and traffic in the background. Still, the parks were a nice place to sit and watch people.

After a dinner of traditional Polish food, we went to check out a local jazz club. This place is owned by one the first Polish jazzmen and great saxophone players, who reportedly drops by frequently to play. The club is in an old cellar with an amphitheater-like feel to it. It was a small place with brick walls, red velvet chairs, and photos of jazz musicians hanging on the walls. It reminded us a lot of one of our favorite NY jazz clubs, Smalls. The trio that played on the night we were there included a drummer, a bassist, and a pianist/saxophonist. The pianist switched between the piano and saxophone, and when part of his saxophone broke off during a song, he immediately switched to the piano without missing a beat. They were fun to watch, and we stayed until the end of the last set (secretly hoping the owner and famous jazzman would show up).

The next morning, we happily gave our laundry over to the B&B, who charged nearly nothing to do it for us (we found out later that it was because they line dry the clothes, and we ended up having to wait two days to get it because it rained), and began the formal Krakow walking tour. For the next four hours, we completed three guided walks and a hike up to a famous castle. We walked down historic streets filled with shops, found makeshift art galleries, and peeked in a McDonalds hidden in an old Gothic cellar. We saw an 800 year old church and learned about the bugler that we had heard every hour on the hour since we arrived. It seems the buglers are all firemen first and buglers as a second, 24-hour shift job. They play what's called a hejnal song on the hour, and we noticed that they stop part of the way through and then begin again, but we didn't know why. As the story was told to us, during the first Tatar invasion, a watchman saw the enemy coming and sounded the alarm. Halfway through the tune, an arrow pierced his throat. This is why, even today, the hejnal stops partway through the tune, sort of a tribute I guess. True, who knows, but an interesting legend either way!

The walk continued through a Cloth Hall, once a place where cloth sellers had a market, that is now an open market filled with souvenirs and trinkets of Poland. We hit yet another church, but this one was where Pope John Paul II prayed when he was in town. It also happens to house a replica of the Shroud of Turin which touched the real Shroud of Turin, so apparently, it's now a holy relic...ok. It was, however, sort of cool to sit in the pew where the Pope liked to pray and imagine that such an important holy figure sat there before me! We then walked across the street and saw his place of residence when he was archbishop, and when he returned home as the Pope. There is a picture of him in the window where he stood on the last visit to Poland before he died. It remains a memorial where people visit and leave flowers.

From there, we hit the castle. I am not really one for castles, but as far as castles go, this was a nice one with all the necessary Baroque finishings and a bell tower with great panoramic views of the city. We rubbed a wall claiming to have great chakra energy (can't hurt, right?), and grabbed some grub at a local milk bar. These are cheap cafeteria-like eateries initially set up during the communist era when the government would pick up the tab. Apparently, Poland still subsidizes these places and the prices are ridiculously low, so basically, they are a budget traveler's dream for a cheap and hearty meal!

After all that walking, we headed home for some rest before trying to catch one of the Chopin concerts in town that night. Since I could not tear Chad away from his siesta, I decided to take some alone time and go to the concert by myself. It was basically a one-man recital of Chopin music. I didn't really know much of his work, so I sat in the front row and aligned myself with the piano keys so I could watch his hands. The music was powerful and the pianist seemed to take on a whole body performance after taking his initial bow. He sat down strategically on the bench and placed his feet meticulously on the pedals. He warmed his hands (which reminded me of Mr. Meyagi in Karate Kid) and attacked the keys as he began each piece. He would sway his body in the direction his hands were moving on the keys and seemed to anticipate every move he made. It was graceful and fun to watch. Chopin is powerful music and I found myself actively listening to each piece, unable to loose myself in the music as I could with Vivaldi for instance. I met up with Chad after the hour and a half performance and told him all about what he missed over the best meal we have had this entire trip.

Following our day in Auschwitz-Birkenau, we decided to go to Kazimierz , the once thriving Jewish Quarter of Krakow. We were desperate to see how life was for the Jews before the Holocaust, and how the neighborhood was in present day Krakow. We visited an old Jewish cemetery inside the complex of the only active synagogue. It had been renovated since the war, but the most compelling part was the mosaic wall surrounding the perimeter. It was made from shattered gravestones found during excavations after the war and put back together as a memorial. I placed a rock on top of the Holocaust memorial outside of the synagogue and inquired about Rosh Hashana services the following day. Unfortunately, the only service available was not only in Polish, but it was also orthodox. That meant Chad and I would have to split up, so we regrettably declined. Although Chad was more than willing to participate, the Judaism I desire to share with my husband does not include praying/meditating separately. We talked of how we would celebrate the Jewish New Year, and thought of ways we could incorporate the traditions in which I was brought up with. From there, we went to a bagel place...and had a burrito!

We went to another synagogue in town, set up as more of a museum and a memorial. We saw photos and films about Jewish heritage, and more heart-breaking images about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust. From there, we went to an exhibit in a Jewish museum, which was crucial for me to have seen at a time when I needed to find some restoration in my faith in humanity. The previous day and majority of this day had all but wiped it clean, and this exhibit, which I touched on in the Auschwitz blog, was a refreshing change to the somber mood I found myself unable to get out of. It was about Righteous People, those who risked their lives to help save a Jew from being killed. The exhibit was set up in parts: the first exhibit was about Righteous People, the second exhibit was divided into photos of Jewish history throughout Poland.

The Righteous Peoples exhibit was amazing. Although many Poles were guilty of handing over the Jews to the Nazis, here was an exhibit showing the select group of Polish people who tried to help. These were people who risked their lives to save another and have been recognized by Yad Vashem (the "Jewish People's Memorial of the Holocaust) and honored for their valor. One of the most compelling parts of the exhibit was the statistics shown per country (I gave some numbers in the Auschwitz blog, but Poland had the highest amount of Righteous People among all nations recognized; the USA was second to last on the list). The personal stories were also very gripping, as many were from descendents of Jews that had been saved, written almost cathartically. It was not forgiveness for those who committed crimes against the Jews or those that didn't help, it was basically a personal thank-you letter with words from the heart. Again, in trying to find some light in a tunnel of darkness, here it was.

The photo part of the exhibit revealed Poland's Jewish past through the present via photographs of villages and towns where Jews once flourished before they became a hunted people. They exhibited the destruction and devastation of these neighborhoods, homes, and synagogues with photos showing how they stand today. As the exhibit progressed, modern day pictures of Holocaust sites appeared, as was necessary to properly portray the sequence of history. Although I have seen these images time and time again, being at the camps one day prior gave them a whole new meaning somehow. The final part of the exhibit was meant to show how Jews today are working to keep the memory of those who died alive. Most photos featured present day people and their efforts to restore, not only tangible Jewish relics, but also the very spirit and legacy of those who perished.

After the museum, we walked about a mile in search of a factory. We passed through a neighborhood called Podgorze outside of Kazimierz where the Nazis forced the Jews into a ghetto before being sent off to the camps. The ghetto was surrounded by a wall with what resembled Jewish gravestones around the top, and part of this wall still stands as a memorial. We continued our walk until finally we found what we were looking for, Schindler's Factory. We almost missed it until we saw the famous gate with the sign above it written in Polish, "Fabryka Oskara Schindlera Emalia". We were the only ones there, until a Polish security guard came out to invite us in for a quick, but all-inclusive tour. He pointed out original remnants of the factory, he took us up the infamous stairs where the Nazis would march up to Schindler's office, and he gave us a tour of the actual office where Schindler would work (as seen in the movie). The extent of his English was "origin", designating what was original from that time and what was rebuilt. And then he left Chad and I in the office to our thoughts and photos. Chad sat at the desk where Oscar Schindler once sat and wrote a message from us in the memorial book. We took pictures and wandered the place as if it was the office of a friend. We were the only ones there and dusk was upon us. Eerie is an understatement, but it was amazing how the place was left for people to visit freely, not roped off or incased in glass.

In need of something uplifting and celebratory for the New Year, we found a traditional Jewish Restaurant for dinner with a Klesmer band concert performance. As I ate the very food that I was brought up on and listened to sounds of the Klesmer music, I tried to focus my overwhelmed mind on the moment, and on how lucky I was to be in it, not just because I am traveling this time, but because of who I am and who died in the very country I was eating in because of who they were.

Our next to last day in Krakow included a visit to an old communist neighborhood and some shopping. I am not going to get into my thoughts on the neighborhood since this blog has gotten extremely long and I am confident Chad is going to talk about it. But I will say that as the whole concept of communism, for the most part, is a terrible thing, so were the "ideal neighborhoods" set up as communist communities. The buildings were gray with absolutely no architectural ingenuity, and the streets, although some were tree-lined, were bare and void of that bustling "city feel". I realized that was the point, uniformity, but aside from the few benefits of the softer sides of communism, I thought the design of the neighborhood basically matched the concept. That night, we celebrated day 100 with Polish vodka and one last traditional meal of stuffed cabbage and pierogi.

Poland seemed to mark not only the beginning of a new season, but also the beginning of a deeper understanding of the dark historical realities directly pertaining to my heritage. Much of the history we have learned about and explored thus far has been hundreds and thousands of years old (i.e. Roman and Greek). But, beginning with Croatia, this stuff is not so old. Being that much of my ancestry is from Eastern Europe, (anyone remember how many wedding rituals came from Eastern Europe?), I feel an urge to continue on and learn more about where my lineage began and the suffering they endured. I am also learning that it wasn't just the Jews; it was many other ethnicities that fell prey to, not only the Nazis, but also the reign of Communism. The people of Krakow were very nice to us in the week we toured. I was not wearing my heritage on my sleeve, though, and as the week came to an end, I began to wonder if it would have mattered. And then I decided that as naïve as it may be, I was glad that no one asked, because I was a human treated well by other humans. I cannot dismiss the historical deception and anecdotes told by those close to me, but for now, this will have to be progress.

He Said:

Thanks to all those who participated in our interactive sweeps-week edition of The Chronic Couple Chronicles - "ChAlli Does Controversy". Please forward any remaining comments, religious rantings, emails from talking monkeys, or reasons why you should be the next American Idol to my home office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C., 20500. Whatever you do, though, do not go to Krakow. Ever. It is the worst city on the entire European continent, and I highly recommend that everyone just stay the hell out.

Now that I've given myself an alibi for the impending over-touristization of Krakow, I'd like to request any information pertaining to real estate in the European Union, and more specifically, Poland. Tips on how to work a washing machine and the phone number of a good Polish tutor would also be greatly appreciated. Oh, and a few small investors wouldn't hurt either. Within our first day we realized that coin operated laundromats don't exist, and now we're ready to move to Krakow to open one.

Krakow isn't the Poland they show in the movies. It's a vibrant city of Old World pastels patched together in an urban quilt of carefully manicured parks and flowerbeds, talented student-artists selling their final exams along the city walls, a lively Jewish quarter that 60 years later is awakening to a new day, a surprisingly good jazz scene, and scattered across the city are pilgrimage sites for a spectrum ranging from the devoutly Catholic to the energy-loving New Agers to the Hollywood buffs that are surprised by its beauty. Days in Krakow are like a string of good nights sleeps. They're addictive. You just keep wanting more of them.

A few years ago, my grandmother asked me if I was sick and tired of having so many influences in my life. As a product of divorce and remarriage, I gained two new parents in less time than it usually takes parents to acquire two new kids. I was lucky. Steve and Pam have always been great role models to me, and I will always consider them to be parents, regardless of the fact that "mom" or "dad" is preceded by "step". I don't even know what "step" means. In Poland, I felt aspects of both of their influences coming together at the same time, further reinforcing the answer I gave to my grandma's question - "No. I like influence."

To be honest, I don't think I'd ever have the spirit and drive to travel, especially within Europe, if it wasn't for the Geigers. I'll always remember weekend dinners with Pam's family in Isla del Sol, playing Trivial Pursuit and hearing stories about gingerbread towns and the beer makers of Germany. I'll also always remember time with the Samiecs in Chicago, walking down the hall with Steve's dad as he showed me the black and white pictures of great-greats back in Poland. Pierogi, kielbasa, and sour soup are childhood soul foods to me, so at dinner on our first night in Krakow, I had come so far from home to experience a place that felt so much like home partly because of them.

This trip is all about discovering where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be. It's just as much about deciding what I want to do when I get back as it is about deciding what city we want to go to next, and while writing all afternoon from a café window overlooking the square, I took a big step toward figuring out what that is. I've missed writing for so long I didn't actually realize I missed it. I've always been interested in being a travel writer, and while sitting in the window that day, that's what I was - not for an editor, not to pay the rent, but for myself because I enjoyed it.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the dilemma of the travel writer is in telling the masses about an undiscovered place while simultaneously wanting that place to remain untouched by those same masses. The perfect example people give is Prague in the 1990s, which is now supposedly overrun by touristy commercialism (we'll see in a few weeks). Well, the new Prague is Krakow. It is beautiful, exciting, and very cheap. Aside from what are probably brutal winters, it is the ideal place to expatriate oneself. There is a thriving art and music scene, new money is continuously entering the economy thanks to Poland's addition to the EU, and everyone speaks English.

Krakow's main square surrounds the enormous Cloth Hall market building and is crowned by the Town Hall Tower and the spires of St. Mary's Cathedral. At the top of every hour, the bells chime and an off-duty firefighter bugles the hejnal to remind everyone that one of his predecessors was killed centuries ago during the Tatar invasion. It can be heard all over the city, even inside the shower of our B&B. Bands of accordionists compete with nearby drummers and fire dancers for zlowty coins, which can buy enormous lunches at the former communist "Milk Bars" just up the street. These sterile restaurants are still partially funded by the government, the food is fairly decent, and two people can eat a good-sized lunch for around four dollars.

The city of Krakow is also about pilgrimages. It is the home of former Pope John Paul II, and still today, people pay their respects by placing candles underneath his portrait in the window. Across the street, St. Francis is probably my favorite cathedral we've visited so far on this trip, despite the fact we've been to many of the biggies. There was just something special about it. It's stained glass windows were created by two Polish masters who happened to be rivals and friends; there was a replica of the Shroud of Turin that, since it actually touched the original, is considered a relic in its own right; there's an interesting painting of Maksymilian Kolbe, a priest imprisoned at Auschwitz who saved another man by volunteering to take his place in the 10-man starvation cell; and in the cathedral's rear, in the second to last pew on the left, is a small plaque marking Karol Wojtyla's favorite place to sit and pray before he became Pope John Paul II.

For 21st century mysticism or 14th century Polish history, people go to Wawel Hill. According to Hindu texts, the body has seven different "chakra" points holding the major energy forces of the body. The planet Earth also has seven chakra points, which along with Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, and Velehrad, include Wawel Hill. Though Wawel Hill employees are officially forbidden to talk about it, people often gather in one particular corner of the courtyard where energies are supposedly the strongest. We rubbed the wall for good measure as a woman knowingly nodded to us. The other guy that was there must have fallen asleep during his meditation because he wasn't moving.

Wawel Hill's castle was built by Polish King Kazimierz the Great, a person loved by all Poles who "found a Poland made of wood, and left one made of brick and stone." Kazimierz was a progressive and tolerant king who urged Jews to move to Poland in the 14th century when other kingdoms were deporting them or even forcing them into imprisonment. He granted special privileges often related to banking and trade, and he is the major reason why, before World War II, Poland was home to more Jews than any other country in Europe.

According to legend, Kazimierz loved one particular Jewish woman so much that he had a neighborhood built for her, which to this day is still called Kazimierz. In reality, though, Jews moved here much later than Kazimierz's reign, when in 1495, they were forced out of Krakow after being blamed for a fire. In the 1800s, the Jewish and Christian communities were merged once again, and Kazimierz flourished up until World War II. Of the more than 60,000 Jews living here before the war, only a few hundred remain today.

Kazimierz's main square was filled with Jewish restaurants and shops. Nearby were the synagogues, many in various phases of restoration due to the neighborhood's recent revitalization. We toured the old Jewish cemetery, which was surrounded by a mosaic wall comprised of former headstones that were defiled during World War II. On one side of the wall, we read memorial plaques created by various holocaust-victim family members from around the world, one being from New York and written in English. They lost seven members of their family.

After touring Auschwitz, Kazimierz was nice for two reasons: one, it followed up so much death with so much life, and two, it made so many of the stories seem personal. We visited the Galicia Jewish Museum, created by British photojournalist Chris Schwarz, which displayed much of his work on Jewish life and relics in Poland as they exist today. The best part of the museum, though, was dedicated to the Righteous People who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Some of the stories were chilling, including a 10-year-old girl who spread horse manure around hiding places to throw off Nazi track dogs and a Polish teenager who purchased and smuggled forged identification documents to her Jewish classmate. Unfortunately, though, there weren't enough of these stories, and many people actually called the Nazi police to turn them in. For those that didn't actively choose to either assist the Jews or report them, there was often a decision, as well. As Alli said previously, I don't think any of us know exactly how we'd react to having a rifle barrel pointed at ourselves, our parents, or our children, so I could never fault them for keeping quiet to save the lives of their families. But I guarantee that those who didn't stand up for what was right will never be celebrated or have museum exhibits in their names, let alone a feature-length film directed by Steven Spielberg.

We were completely shocked when a worker saw us milling outside of Oskar Schindler's factory and personally took us on a brief tour of his office. Apparently the site is being turned into a museum, but until then, only a small exhibit and film exist. We climbed the infamous stairway so prevalent in Schindler's List, and then we were led into his office. It is exactly as it looked when he worked there. The bookshelf is the same. The desk is the same. His chair is the same. I sat down and thought about the closing message to the Righteous Peoples exhibit, which said that we must stop persecuting people based on the color of their skin, their sexual preferences, or their religion. People should be judged as individuals, not according to the groups in which they fall. Schindler and those like him did just that, and it was nice to learn about how many lives were saved for a change. We celebrated, in a sense, by going to a dinner and listening to a traditional Jewish klesmer band consisting of a bassist, a violinist, and an accordionist.

Since we stayed in Krakow for six nights, our longest stay anywhere so far, we decided to have Socioeconomics Day. We began in the communist Disneyland called Nowa Huta. According to Stalin, making Poland communist was like putting a saddle on a cow, so one of the Soviet solutions was to build a factory with an adjacent living quarter to house its workers. They built a semicircular neighborhood complete with self-sustaining apartment buildings that included their own stores and schools. It was communism in action and encapsulated the Soviet ideal. That's why its layout probably seemed so boring, despite being surprisingly pleasant. I admired the planned efficiency, but when there's nothing to sell in the stores, as was the case in Poland due to frequent shortages and deficiencies, there's not much point in having a store at all.

After finishing our morning in Nova Huta's Lord's Ark Church and newly renamed Ronald Reagan Square, we continued our lesson with the pinnacle of capitalistic society - the mall. We went to the Food Court and ate KFC, and seriously considered going to a movie after the smelling popcorn. We were there for a reason, though, and we circled both the top and bottom levels in search of a few warm items of clothing in preparation for the colder weather ahead. But alas, we found nothing, making us both poor communists after finding Red Pleasantville kind of boring, and poor capitalists after not spending any money. I did wind up buying a Fanta, though, but still couldn't figure out why the hell the Poles design the plastic rings on their bottle caps to only pull halfway off.

At the end of the week, we finished up another café writing session and headed toward the station for an overnight train to Budapest. We only had about seven dollars worth of Polish money left, so going to an ATM machine made no sense. Our only cheap option was four McDonald's cheeseburgers and a bottle of water, leaving us with 10 zloty cents, or 3.33 pennies, and just enough to buy two postcards.

They Said:

Happy 8th Birthday Google! We are so proud of all your accomplishments!
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