Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hanging Out on Old Town Square : Warsaw Diaries: Part II

Thanks to Rick’s illness we spent a lot of time hanging out on Old Town Square people- watching, a great opportunity for sociological observation. There appear to be far fewer international tourists in Warsaw than in Krakow and most of the people in the square were Poles; it seemed like most of Warsaw come out to the Square on warm summer nights.

Some observations: I aren’t seen so many young pregnant women in a long time. Polish women apparently are not in synch with the trend of delaying childbirth, increasingly common throughout the developed world. Also there are signs of increasing gender equality: many young men pushing baby carriages and equally involved in taking care of young children when families are in restaurants/cafes. Of course, who knows what this really means for work/ home life balance among young Polish women and men, but if behavior in public spaces is any indication, conventional gender roles are changing.

On a less happy note, I was surprised at how many older people were walking about the square alone. The activity in the square reminded me of the Italian custom of the passeggiata—when some time in the early evening everyone in the town takes a stroll round the square. (However, in Italy I can’t remember seeing anyone walking alone.) My guess is that these were widows and widowers who used to come to the square with their spouses, and still want to come out on a warm summer night rather than sit home alone watching television. Of course, I have know way of knowing if my fleeting observations are grounded in the reality of Polish life, but it's fun to speculate.

We didn’t see much of Warsaw outside of the historic district, but the little part we saw, we really got to know. We missed the National Museum and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Museum, but at least we did see the fascinating small Madame Curie(AKA Maria Sklodowska) Museum located a few blocks from our hotel.
Madame Curie Museum

The museum has inspired me to read the biography of Madame Curie written by her daughter. Rick has read it and highly recommends it--one of those wonderful by-products of travel, all those new interests to pursue!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Warsaw’s spectacularly reconstructed Old Town : The Warsaw Diaries: Part I

Rick and I had thought of Warsaw as a stop between Krakow and Berlin, not a destination. We were wrong. Warsaw’s spectacularly reconstructed Old Town, dating from the early 13th century, and the adjacent New Town, dating from the early 15th century, definitely make a trip to Warsaw worthwhile. We wound up spending three days in Warsaw rather than two as originally planned thanks to being unable to get at a train reservation for Berlin. We had no idea that these reservations had to be made days in advance, so we wound up in Warsaw for 3 days.

Sometimes what at first might seem like a travel mini-disaster can turn out to be serendipitous. So it was with Warsaw. First, the hotelMamaison Hotel Le Regina Warsaw turned out to be one of the best we ever stayed in. With a first-rate French restaurant, I’m sure it would have cost twice as much in most European capitols. We had a large comfortable room with a small private patio. This turned out to be a real blessing, as Rick got sick and we spent a lot of time in that room—-Rick in bed and me on the patio reading. Despite my worry about Rick, I really enjoyed relaxing on that patio.
Mamaison Hotel Le Regina Warsaw

I was trying hard to repress my fear that Rick’s intestinal problems might be e. coli. We had been traveling during the time of the e. coli outbreak in Northern Germany and had been scrupulously avoiding cucumbers—-supposedly the source of e. coli bacteria. I avoided salad greens altogether except for gorging on bean sprouts. It turned out that the culprit was not cucumbers after all, but—-you guessed it--bean sprouts!

Despite eating all those bean sprouts, neither one of us was stricken by e. coli and Rick gradually began to recover. One of the downsides of travel (for me at least) is the constant pressure to be doing something. Here we were in Poland, a country we might never visit again. How could I justify hanging out for a bit, reading newspapers, checking email etc? The silver lining in Rick’s illness was that break from sight-seeing we’ve always found so hard to justify.

One of the many advantages of our beautiful hotel was that it was right on the edge of the historic district and Rick could venture out briefly, see some of the sites, and return to the hotel for another nap.
Street Scene in the Old Town

The historic district was truly amazing. The Nazis destroyed the entire district at the end of the war. The Red Army was advancing and the Nazis decided to destroy Warsaw out of pure vindictiveness, rather than for any strategic reason. According to the guide on our half-day city tour, Goebbels claimed that Warsaw had been so reduced to rubble that it could never be rebuilt.

The Poles rose to the challenge and achieved a spectacular reconstruction of the historic district. We had seen the reconstructed town square in Frankfurt (Main), and it was so obviously a fake we came to the conclusion that such reconstruction could not be done. The best that could be hoped for would be a Disneyworld facsimile. The Polish restorers proved us wrong!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The rebirth of the Old Jewish Quarter : the Krakow Diaries, Part III

Restored synagogue in Kazimierz

Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, has undergone something of a renaissance. It is now filled with caf├ęs, trendy restaurants, shops and art galleries. There are two ways of looking at this: 1) thanks to the Nazis, and to a lesser extent the Communists, there are very few Jews left in Poland, but the Polish government is cynically exploiting its Jewish heritage to attract tourists; 2) despite Nazi attempts to wipe out Poland’s Jewish heritage, the spirit lives on in Kazimierz where synagogues have been restored, a Jewish historical museum established and an international Jewish cultural festival held every July.

The second perspective is certainly the more appealing, especially after a visit to Auschwitz. When we went to the Schindler Museum located in the actual factory where Oskar Schindler employed over 1,000 of Krakow’s Jews, I found myself focusing on individual acts of courage and kindness, starting with Schindler himself--who, flawed human being that he was-- gradually began to see his slave laborers as human beings and became determined to save them from the Nazi killing machine.

The museum’s multi-media, interactive exhibit of the Nazi occupation of Krakow is one of the best historical exhibits I’ve ever seen and a must for any visitor to Krakow. But I felt that I had to escape the cruelty and started to rush through the exhibit looking for some record of human decency to focus on. And yes, there were individual acts of courage on the part of both Krakow’s Jewish and Christian citizens; there was the Polish resistance and an underground theater troupe determined to keep hope alive during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation.

After leaving the museum and immersion in Krakow’s tragic history, we were soon back in beautiful Old Town Krakow, filled with tourists dazzled by the beauty of the newly prosperous city. Another surreal moment, another disconnect.

I had expected Krakow to be one of those “been there, done that” places, but to my surprise we’ve begun thinking of a return trip, perhaps combining it with Prague. There’s so much we didn’t see in our 5 days in Krakow. Krakow is filled with beautiful churches—like Prague, it is a city of steeples and spires—and many small museums. And then there’s hanging out in the cafes of the spectacular old town square,

St.Mary's Cathedral in the Main Market Square,Rynek Glowny
Church of St. Bernard of Siena

We would not return in the summer again. This trip was planned to coincide with Rick’s 70th birthday in June, but next time there will be no such constraint. We’ve decided there will be no more international trips during the summer. Why deal with the crowds, the heat, the additional expense when as retirees we can travel in early Spring and the Fall?

So maybe we’ll try to visit Krakow and Prague some Fall when there’s a music festival we’d like to attend. We went to Prague in 1989 and it would be fascinating to see what the fall of Communism has meant to Prague. It was a good experience for someone like me who once considered herself (very briefly) a communist to actually visit a hard line communist country. It was wonderful to see that repressive regime crumble in the year after our visit.

So that’s our tentative plan—a return visit to Krakow and Prague. At this stage in our lives, we don’t know how much longer we’ll have the stamina for international trips but as long as we can, we intend to get out there and see the world, and that includes some return trips to places us really loved.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Auschwitz and Birkenau: the Krakow Diaries, Part II

The entrance to Auschwitz
The entrance to Birkenau

Rick and I felt a little guilty about not going to Dachau when we were in Munich in the 1990’s.We were having too good a time enjoying the museums, the restaurants, the opera in Munich and we just didn’t want to spoil the fun.

We decided that we could not do that twice and this time we would go to Auschwitz/ Birkenau. I was dreading it. I was afraid that what had never seemed quite real to me would become all too real. But instead of initially being overwhelmed by the horror, Rick and I experienced a strange distancing effect. It was a gorgeous sunny day. On the ride from Krakow to Auschwitz when the tour bus showed a horribly grim film, we found our eyes wandering to the lush green countryside and the iris and peony filled gardens in the houses by the road.

The cognitive dissonance continued at Auschwitz. The entrance was filled with tour buses and cheerful looking tourists strolling in the park-like area in front of Auschwitz. The groups of teenagers who looked very bored when inside the museum immediately started chatting merrily with each other as soon as they got outside.

We did have a greater sense of the reality of the Holocaust at Birkenau. No doubt because of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Birkenau looked much more like what I expected—the ramshackle buildings constructed to hold those bound for the gas chambers—in contrast to the sturdily built brick buildings at Auschwitz, built originally to house Polish soldiers.

The barracks at Auschwitz
The barracks at Birkenau

Every once in a while something broke through that strange sense of distance. When we passed by a hall of photographs of those murdered at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Rick pointed to a photo of a man with the same surname as his grandmother. He was identified as a merchant from Poland. Her family members were merchants from Poland so a connection was possible. Nothing like personal connection to pierce through the sense of unreality.

The contrast between the beauty of the day, the holiday atmosphere in the parking lot and the horror of Auschwitz/Birkenau was not the only surreal aspect of the day. The museum at Auschwitz demonstrated the extent to which the Nazis ran their camps like a business with carefully recorded inventories of possessions confiscated and detailed records of all prisoners. I had known about this grisly combination of cold-blooded efficiency and unimaginable horror, but seeing the actual records on the spot where it actually happened had an impact. Although I felt this strange distance while on the actual site, the experience stayed with me and I expect will remain a part of me forever.