February 2010 Archives

Sun Feb 28 20:26:53 CST 2010

2010 Trip to Warsaw, Day 3

But i overslept. I told M. i'd meet her in the lobby of the hotel at 10am. About 10:05 i woke because a strange electronic device was making "doot doot" noises. My vocation for the past 20 years has been to take care of electronic devices that make these noises when they are sick, so i'm highly sensitized to any sort of electronic bleeping or blooping. I opened my eyes. "Hmm..." i thought, "this appears to be a hotel room complete with a phone that wants some immediate attention." As i picked up the phone, i looked out the window and saw grey. About 50m away from wherever i was, a large, also grey building. I could tell that i was very high above the ground.

"Aruh?" i said into the phone.

"Hi!" said M.

Ah, yes, that's M., we're in Poland, where i am visiting, and i was supposed to already be downstairs in the lobby of the hotel... 6 minutes ago, ready to go do and see stuff. Crap.

A short while later M. and i headed out towards her flat for some brunch. We stopped by a market and she bought few things. It was one of those older-style markets you don't see much now in the U.S. -- a covered building with long and wide hallways, stalls lining both sides. They seemed to sell everything. M. bought a few foodstuffs, and we left.

Outside the market is a small snow-covered park, full of various corvids and Mallard ducks. In the sidewalk at my feet, i see a marker of the Jewish Ghetto's wall from the war. I stopped and look at it for a moment. We walk for a few minutes, and the we come to a small memorial that shows the area of the Ghetto in a sort-of sculpture, laid on top of a relief map of Warsaw.

I started to feel a little odd. It's about 11:30am, and i haven't had any coffee yet today, and i'm having difficulty processing this. I was a History major in college, and know more about the history of the Second World War than probably any other period of time from before i was born. I'd been to Europe many times before, and seen a few remnants of the war in Germany and the Netherlands. But this was powerful and sobering. In 1986, i recall that i saw the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, but that was quite some time ago, and it was somehow different. Maybe because it's a museum you chose to go to, as opposed to this small, non-descript memorial to the enormous pain and suffering for hundreds of thousands of people.

I started thinking and remembering what i knew. 70 years and a few months before i came to be standing at this spot, the Germans invaded Poland. France and Great Britain betrayed and abandoned Poland, failing to fulfill mutual defense treaties and other promises. A week or two later, the Soviet Union invaded from the East. Germany and the USSR had a peace treaty then, so they just divided up Poland. Of course the Poles fought for the survival of their nation, but up against two of the largest and most technologically-advanced armies of the day, they never had a chance.

A year after the invasion, right where i was standing, the walls went up, and the Jews in Warsaw were separated and confined within the Ghetto. And then, over the next few years, the Germans shrunk the ghetto and its population until there was nothing left. They became some of the millions and millions of people murdered, or starved and worked to death.

It's a lot to take in, especially pre-coffee. We were on our way to M's flat for brunch, so i pulled myself away from the small memorial and we trudged through the snow.

M's flat was very warm (warmer than my house in Austin) -- radiator heat, like i had in Chicago. I ate a lot of yummy sandwiches constructed of various homemade ingredients (like homemade mayonnaise, jam, or peanut butter), and i may have taken a nap. (Apparently all the sleep the night before wasn't enough... or maybe it was all the food and the warmth of the flat compared with the cold greyness of outside.)

Early in the evening, M. took me to see Old Town. I took some pictures but it was dark, this being the middle of January at around 52 degrees North latitude.

In Old Town we saw cool sites like Zygmunt's Column (those streaks behind it are sea birds flying by during the photo exposure) and the Market place .

All of Old Town was rebuilt after the war because the Germans destroyed it: first by the terror bombing and bombardment of Warsaw during the initial invasion in Sept of 1939, and then they completed the destruction, five years later in August 1944, in response to the Warsaw Uprising. Old Town was rebuilt after the war, in its various period styles. It is very strange to look at something that appears to be from the 13th or 15th century, but you know was meticulously pieced back together in the past 50 or even just 20 years.

It was the middle of January, but some Christmas lights and decoractions were still up, and even though it was cold and dark at 6pm, there were plenty of people out. Some of them were sledding down a big hill into a park near the Vistula River.

We walked back along the Royal Route and such a bunch of other cool stuff, like the Presidential Palace and a statue of Copernicus in front of the Royal Academy of Science

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: Traveling

Tue Feb 2 23:06:57 CST 2010

2010 Trip to Warsaw, Day 2 -- Snow and Greyness

January 15th.

Here i am again in Frankfurt. This airport is starting to become familiar. The little kiosks with overpriced snacks are scattered along the middle of this terminal. The Italian-named cafe with the 0,5 litre weisenbier is here. The crappy casino is there.

Lufthansa marches us downstairs from my gate to an autobus that drives us out to the "apron" (E.g. tarmac... Frankfurt has too many airplanes for the gates, so some people get to go outside to march up the stairs to board their flights, just like in the good old days!)

We board an aging 737 (-400?) and i get the feeling i'm one of the few people on the plane that isn't Polish. Perhaps people are wondering what i'm doing on the flight, but it seems to be just polite curiosity as opposed to paranoia. Given my recent misadventures with Manic Panic, their curiosity is probably warranted.

The flight is about two hours. As the plane is just a few hundred feet from the end of the runway, i look out the window to the side and see a snow-covered airport. The taxi-ways with moving airplanes on them seem to be little deer-trails through the snow. "HOLY SHIT" i think to myself, "M. wasn't kidding when she warned me that Poland is like Pakistan... have these savages even cleared the snow from the main runway? Is my plane going to skid off into a frozen field and erupt in a ball of flame? What the HELL was i thinking, coming to Warsaw in the middle of January?"

As it turns out, they do have functioning snow plows at the Warsaw airport, and the landing was uneventful. While waiting to pick up my luggage, i changed some USD for Zlotys (at a remarkably bad rate -- next time, i'll just use my ATM card and get a better rate) so that i'd have some cash for the taxi.

I'd gone through (EU) Passport Kontrol in Frankfurt, so after getting my suitcase and walking down a hallway and through some doors, i suddenly and unceremoniously found myself completely free and on my own, in a very large, open, chilly, foyer with scores of people speaking a language i'd never really heard before, over 5,000 miles from anyone i know, except for this one fascinating, funny, smart vegetarian woman i'd come to meet, who was currently nowhere to be seen.

I wandered through the crowd of arrivees, greeters, and hopeful taxi drivers, and after a few minutes M. and i saw each other. She came over, we hugged, and she kissed me on the cheek. She was strangely familiar and very much like i imagined her (based on the pictures i'd seen and our conversations over the past month or two). She'd thoughtfully brought me an apple and a sandwich to eat, and we climbed into a cab she called to take us into the city. I was sleep deprived and jet-lagged, and two weeks later, i have no recollection of what we talked about on the ride into town.

Warsaw was still covered in snow. The trees were bare, and the sky was a solid, grey, perma-cloud. It was exactly like i remember Chicago winters. .

I checked in at the hotel, and M. accompanied me to my room so i could dump my stuff before we went out for food at Vega. In the hotel room, i emerged from the bathroom drinking a glass of water and M. demanded to know where i'd gotten the water.

"From the sink?" i hazarded.

"You shouldn't drink that," she said, shaking her head.

So.. cold like Chicago but also with unfriendly-to-my-guts bacteria like Mexico. As it turns out, they have some really yummy beer there, so i just drank that instead of plain water. (OK, OK, i drank a lot of tea, too.)

If you get a chance, you really should try Ciechan's Midowe. It's a beer brewed with what must be a ton of honey. It's quite delicious and tastes almost like mead. You can get it at Cykloza, a vegan cyclist cafe.

We walked each other sort of halfway home (M was worried about me making it back to my hotel, and i was worried about her making it to her flat). When i arrived at the hotel, i bathed, and then dozed off after watching a few minutes of the Fellowship of the Ring on the hotel TV. I turned off the TV and went to sleep around 22:30, figuring i'd wake up on my own around 9am.

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: Traveling

Tue Feb 2 22:06:02 CST 2010

2010 Trip to Warsaw, Day 1 -- On both being and not being an American

First, The Pictures.

January 15th.

Day One is all traveling. Poland is Central European Time (7 hours ahead of Austin), and the flights and layovers from Austin to Warsaw are 18-20 hours, so it's impossible for me to arrive on the same day.

My friend S. was kind enough to drop me off at the airport. It's kind of appropriate for S. to drop me off for my trip to Warsaw in the dead of Winter, because he's Canadian. Well, he's also a U.S. citizen now. (The natural thing for me and most people in the U.S. to say would be that he's also "American" but that's not actually what we mean, because everyone from Canada, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego (and, of course, including the various islands also considered part of the Americas) is "American." And since i've been talking a lot with M. who's Polish, about U.S. customs and habits, i've needed to use an adjective to describe people from the United States. For example, "No wonder some people from the Americas think people from the U.S. are arrogant -- we've (probably unintentionally) mis-approporiated an adjective for two whole continents just for our much smaller country."

Now that i think about it, perhaps this is why we have these immigration problems with people from Mexico and Southwards: These other Americans hear our politicians talking about how we are making jobs, defending, and doing other helpful stuff for all "Americans." And so these Central and South Americans logically assume that this also means them, because it does! Maybe this whole immigration problem could be solved if all of us people in the U.S. would just stopped being arrogant, misappropriating (geographic) morons!)

Unfortunately, i don't really have any good suggestions for what people from the U.S. should be called. "United Stateseans" sounds stupid. I mostly just say "U.S." Of course, before the (U.S.) Civil War, we were Texans, Illinoians, or Marylanders, but after the end of that War, the U.S.A. went from being a plural to a singular, and so began the great homogenizing that has culminated (so far) in us all watching the same stupid TV programs, eating the same crappy fast food, and coming to believe that the word "American" describes just people in the U.S. Maybe we should call ourselves "Homos" because we are clearly the Great Nation of Homogenation!

Uh.. hm.. yes, so my (mostly) Canadian friend S., drops me off at the airport, which is appropriate, because i'm going somewhere similarly cold and dark AND i have my Sorel (Canadian) snowboots. It was appropraitely grey in Austin:

I can't remember if we left on time, but i had plenty of time to sit around at IAH (Houston) and watch the U.S. Customs and Board Protection decide what to do with a wayward piece of luggage:

Eventually i left on a Boeing 747-400 operated by Lufthansa, and flew all through the night to Frankfurt, Germany.

Posted by johan | Permanent link | File under: Traveling