Backpacking trip: Poland

As you may have noticed from my handy countdown at right, I just went backpacking through Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary over two weeks in June. My partner in crime was my high school chum (yes, as in shark bait), Marisa.

Marisa & I at my wedding

We have traveled in Europe together before (2008 Barcelona/Madrid), road tripped across the U.S. (2010 Chicago to San Francisco) and pretty much know how to still get along after being around each other too long. We intentionally completely coincidentally timed this trip during the European Championship, which happens to be the exact time we were in Europe together in 2008. Then, we watched Spain win their title, in Spain (where Spaniards casually celebrated by climbing buildings and setting cars on fire). So, I guess it’s our thing. Four years from now, we’ll meet for Euro2016 in France. Not complaining.

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

Warsaw’s Old Town

Poland. Homeland to half of my genes. I was nostalgic before I even arrived. Marisa and I met in Warsaw since I was there with Jaro since he was there for work. Follow that? We stayed in city center and I’ll admit, at first I was unimpressed. From the domineering Stalin era “gift” (Palace of Culture & Science) to the horrendous traffic, to the chain stores to the grey weather, I wondered if I had set my expectations too high. Not to be discouraged, we headed out for dinner, were surprised by sweet & wonderful service, then scrambled to the Fan Zone to watch Ukraine vs. Sweden. Quite a tame crowd, friendly even, yet still really enjoyable. I saw people of different ethnicities exchanging pleasantries. Hand shakes. Smiles. Peace. When I heard about the violence and rioting happening elsewhere in Warsaw, I was in disbelief. We avoided it completely. Oh, and Ukraine won. (!!!)

Warsaw’s Fan Zone

The next day, we wandered over to the Old City and that was the Warsaw I was expecting. Beautiful and charming square surrounded by a castle and quaint buildings. The sun was even out. We enjoyed a huge feast in an outdoor patio for lunch for about 10 bucks, strolled around the waterfront and took in the pretty scene. Then that night we squeezed into the fan zone for the Poland vs. Russia game. In a word, it was INSANE. Tens of thousands of us were packed into the giant Fan Zone and there still wasn’t enough room. It was suffocating. But thrilling. With delicious perogis, €2 beers and the buzz of excitement, we were having a blast despite also fearing for our lives and trying not to get trampled. There is no sports event in the U.S. that comes close to this and it’s not even the final! Sorry, Superbowl. But seriously, it is actually really uplifting to be part of an event like this where everyone, from toddlers to grannies, have extreme national pride. Polish & Proud!

Krakow’s Castle

The following day, we headed to the train for our next destination – Krakow. After a 2.5 hour rickety, slightly smelly train ride, we arrived. And I thought Warsaw was charming. The city is like the size of my thumb. Everywhere you look, there are adorable cafes, pretty fountains and nice people. What a dream. You can walk everywhere in 20 minutes. We saw the historic castle, (unmemorable) cloth hall and (regrettably) the Underground Museum within the afternoon. Even wandered into a “English” pub with some fellow Dutchies to watch the Denmark vs. Portugal and Netherlands vs. Germany games. Traveler Tip: A great way to make friends while traveling is to bond over support for the same team. We made instant friends with some Dutchmen just by flashing my jersey! Even though my orange lost, we had a great time in the random hole-in-the-wall pub.

The next morning, slightly very hungover, we did something you just have to do when you are traveling in Poland. We visited Auschwitz & Birkenau. I have several reflections on the visit.

1. You see all the haunting things that you have read about, learned about in school and tried (not) to imagine. The cramped sleeping quarters. The ghostly gas chambers. The barbed wire. But then you see the things that you don’t necessarily expect. Like heaps of human hair shaved the heads of victims after they were gassed. Stacks of luggage with families’ names since they were told told they’d be retrieving them. Back braces. Prosthetic legs. Broken eyeglasses. And (worst) piles of baby shoes. As I write this, I can’t believe that I saw it with my own eyes. At the time, it was so overwhelming that I felt numb. Throughout the 3 hour tour, we were silent. Just shocked, horrified and sad. Embarrassed and ashamed of the human race for the unimaginable pain we can (and did) inflict on one another.

2. I did not take pictures. It was not appropriate to think I could retain the dignity of those who suffered with my photographs. I thought it cheapened the experience watching others do it. And don’t get me started on the girl posing with the train tracks in Birkenau.

3. There was a quote on a wall there that struck me:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

I find that eerily true. In a way, it was good for me to visit. To remember. To reflect. To re-evaluate how I behave. Recognize that it could be kinder. Change. I have thought about the visit often in the weeks since I was there.  It truly leaves a lasting impression.

Promote love, not hate.

It started to pour as we finished our visit. Thunder and lightning. It was actually scary and we had to wait inside a sleeping cabin in Birkenau for it to pass (it didn’t). Tourists moaned putting on their rain jackets, popping open their umbrellas. Lacing up their waterproof boots. It just made it all the more real that people faced these conditions (and much worse) in thin cotton pajamas, with no choice.

We returned to Krakow and had a low key evening. Blame it on the rain. Blame it on our day’s activities. Heck, blame it on the hangover. We ate a hearty dinner of perogi and soup in the rainy square, getting ready for our first overnight train of the trip.

Installment #2 on the Czech Republic next…