Saturday, January 30, 2010

Irish folk music jam session in a former train station in Germany!

It was a lazy Sunday on January 17th, and a very snowy one. I think the snow is following me around, plaguing places that haven’t seen this much of the white stuff for over 20 years. Around 2pm Angelika and Axel decided it was worth braving the snow to get to their monthly Irish folk music session. We set out in the van, on snowy roads leading through the country and quaint little towns. After 45 or so minutes of driving we arrived at our destination, Kuz Kulturzentrum im Kleinbanhof, a pub rented out by the town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck, that used to be a train station. Where the waiting room used to be sits several rectangular chairs and tables and in the main room a bar lines one side of the room with 8 or so small tables pushed together to make one big table taking up the center of the room. Along another wall is a big fire-burning oven, where roasted apples stuffed with dark chocolate and marzipan (Bratapfel) are waiting to reach the correct consistency to land happily into our tummies.

I awkwardly find a seat at the now large rectangular table across from Angelika, surrounded on both sides by Axel and a girl named Enya to my right, who is the only other person my age. I am the only native English speaking in the room, so mostly I watch everyone’s gestures and facial expressions in order to understand what’s going on around me. While I may not have understood the exact words used with my still limited German vocabulary, it’s surprising how much you can understand without words. Every once in awhile Axel makes a joke in English to me and Angelika relays to me that the apples are ready, a fact that quickly leads to one appearing in a bowl in front of me. Eventually Enya comments that she heard me speaking English and asks where I’m from. We make small talk before everyone starts playing and I think she’s much braver than I, at 18 or so, to play in a room with so many other talented musicians who’re much older and more experienced than her.

There are many fiddle players, guitarists, a man playing the harp and several people playing different types of flutes and wind instruments. Axel is a fiddle player and Angelika mans a flute and a drum called a bodrán. The jam session begins much more informally than I thought. One person starts playing a tune and others join in at their own pace if they know it. Every once in awhile most people know a song and play it to its completion, but mostly it’s a fading in and out of different songs that’s almost mesmerizing to watch. When there’s a lull, someone starts playing up another song and everyone joins in again.

Axel on the fiddle

Angelika on the flute

Angelika on the bodrán

The informality of it astounds me, but not in a bad way. I expected formations, sheet music and music stands, but instead there were a bunch of people sitting around a table together in this station-cum-pub. Playing as they liked, nibbling on apples, cake and tea, making small talk and jokes between songs. A little girl coloring with crayons bursts out crying with a shout of “Nein!” when her Dad breaks up a puzzle she very-much wanted to stay in one piece, and I laugh to Enya next to me, “She really didn’t want that puzzle broken!” Mostly I’m happy I understood the word “No!” in German. If I’m lucky I’ll speak 5 year-old by the time I leave here.

Here's a video of part of the session I took. It's a bit dark and may cause seasickness, but you get the idea!

I realize as I’m listening that I’ve never been taught to play music for fun. Since age 8 or so my teachers and conductors have separated us into categories of the good ones (1st violin), okay ones (2nd violin, first half) and those just good enough to stay around (the back few stands of 2nd violin). I’ve been either required or strongly encouraged to participate in NYSSMA during most of the beginning years of my musical literacy. There was always talk of music scholarships and how only the best can make it in the music business. Conductors telling us how it’s sight-read or die in the big, bad world: a skill I never quite mastered on any of the instruments I’ve played. While all this is fine and well, I wish someone had just put me in a circle and told me to play! If only some small percentage of us will make it anyway, might as well teach us to have fun! To this day it takes all the courage I can muster to try and play in front of anyone, because I’ve been bred with this idea that if you’re not the best (or at least very, very good), then you shouldn’t even bother and you’re just wasting everyone’s time. I don’t think I realized this is why I’m so shy to play or practice in front of anyone until I was sitting in this circle of people just playing music for the joy of it…because they can.

On the drive home in the dark, we talked about Angelika’s Irish friend, a very accomplished dancer and flute-player, who is also in the three-piece band she’s apart of that travels around for gigs throughout Europe now and then. We also talked about stage fright, those delicious baked apples and the difference between a violin and a fiddle. To put it into perspective, a violin is what I expected with those formations and music stands and a fiddle is what I got.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kleinenhain: January 14th-16th

14 January 2010

I wake up and meet with Angelika at which time she shows me the process of the morning routine. We feed her chickens, head over to the sheep barn to give the sheep new hay and water and then it’s time for a breakfast of fresh rolls baked by Axel and more of those delicious jams. I begin the first bit of my incessant German quizzing and vow to bring a notebook next time to write everything down.

The sheep and their barn! My favorite is the white one to the right, but there'll be more of her later.

Chickens in their coop!

The typical breakfast spread, mmmm. Jams, chutneys, bread and apple juice all made from their own produce!


After breakfast I get a tour of the premises: the vegetable garden, the guest house, the bake house, the greenhouse, where all the wood is stored, where the compost heap is, etc. My flat was lit by a wood-burning stove and unfortunately I let it go out over night, so we had the task of collected more firewood and starting it up again. The rest of the day was spent making a path for the wheelbarrows in the snow, bringing seasoned firewood from the storage area near the pasture to the house area and separating it by size, feeding the animals and giving the sheep logs with bark for them to chew off until their hearts are content, warm lunch with lots of vegetables, buckwheat and seeds, tea, discussion and some German. I’m slowly getting the hang of things and trying to suss out the routine, but this is definitely not such a bad life.

15 January 2010

I wake up in the morning, beginning to feel the routine. Put more wood into the burner that heats my flat, feed the chickens and give them water, change the sheeps’ water bucket and give them hay. Eat a breakfast of fresh bread and delicious homemade jams and chutneys, quiz Angelika and Axel on German words. I have about 4 pages of words and phrases in my notebook and I’ve spoken my first several sentences! I’ll be fluent in no time, you watch.

Angelika and Axel, the typical scenario at the table during my German quizzing, though this time Axel is showing Angelika how he can wiggle his ears.

Today was only a bit different in that Angelika and I got in the car to run some errands in Bremervörde, a cute small downtown area near their village, Kleinenhain. We went to the post office and got bird food at a store downtown. The bird food is to keep the birds around so they eat the pests in the garden. They also have their own bees to pollinate everything. Organic methods in action! In any case, after that we drove to the supermarket (Rewe) to recycle some bottles and buy ingredients to make hummus, get cat food and soymilk. When we got back, lunch was served. A delicious pumpkin soup cooked by Axel and a Swedish dessert called Rotegrütze made from frozen berries from their summer’s garden and soy custard. I ate so much I thought I might explore, but we were off to feed the animals and bring in several wheelbarrow loads of firewood to the house, so I got to work it off a bit. My guns are going to be freakin’ awesome by summer; I can already feel my muscles making a comeback. Angelika went to a meeting 30 minutes away after that, so Axel and I finished tea and had dinner and talked about bananas, my Economic Botany class and the differences between West and East Germany before and after the war.

16 January 2010

It was Saturday today, but the routine was basically the same, except there was some pretty cold wind so we didn’t spend as much time outside. At breakfast, Angelika and Axel told me about a neighborhood exchange group a friend of theirs belongs to where people designate points to any good or service they have—from a physiotherapy session to a loaf of bread—instead of using money. It reminded me of the first Hampshire class I took my sophomore year, Colloquium on Sustainability, where we modeled the same thing in class, exchanging fake haircuts and bike tune-ups on ripped up pieces of paper to help us understand different meanings of currency. The idea always stuck with me and I’d love to be part of something like that wherever I end up.

We cooked a big feast for lunch consisting of celeriac, beets, carrots, potatoes and pumpkins from their root cellar bathed in vegetable broth and spices, cooked for an hour then topped with feta cheese (or tofu in my case) and pumpkin seeds. Lunch is the main hot meal here. We have breakfast around 9:00, lunch around 1 or 2, tea consisting of tea and some bread or cookies and then dinner at about 7:30 pm, which is usually bread or rolls, jams and cheese for them. Very different than the big meal at night like we do in America, but I like it because I never go to bed with a really full stomach and need most of my energy for the main part of the day anyway.

Most of the afternoon and night Axel worked on 12 loaves of a rye-sourdough bread. They have a huge industrial mixer that I envy. Tomorrow morning we get fresh sourdough bread. At dinner, Angelika told me an epic story about the survival of one of their sheep who had a rough start to life and another story about a sheep whom Axel built little leg splints for so he could heal and walk normally. Just imagine a little lamb with leg splints! Adorable. The first sheep I mentioned is the friendliest and always walks over to me to get pet while the others are running away like the herd animals they are.

Lunch, before roasting. We did a lot of chopping, but it was worth it!

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect here, what with no internet really and a decent amount of down time. For one, I am so much happier doing this kind of thing than I was teaching English. While I was raised from a young age to succeed at academics, I’m starting to realize I don’t really have the heart or motivation to follow an academic path. I just thought that was all there was until about a year ago, what with the honors classes and the suburbs and the Smith education and all. I like learning and talking about different theories and whatnot, but when it comes down to it I don’t want some big career, or to Save The World. I mean, I want the world to change, of course, and I want things to improve and to help that happen, but the whole top down approach doesn’t work for me.

I want to start with myself. I don’t want to preach, I want to live. I want to get to know people and individuals, not regions and groups and categories. It feels terribly selfish and almost blasphemous saying this, but I really don’t have the patience or motivation to solve everyone elses’ problems or tackle some noble, selfless cause like every other goddamn person at Smith College. I want change I can see and shape with my own hands, I don’t have it in me to do the whole government, history, bureaucracy thing and I’m not very good at being pretentious. Sorry alma mater.

A brief welcome to Bremen and a first taste of the Farming Life

January 13th. After dragging my suitcase through several blocks, an illegal bus ride to the station and a fancy train ride, I made it to Bremen where I was to meet the first woman whose farm I was staying at through HelpX. I was told she’d be wearing a black wool coat with broad yellow cuffs, so after depositing my embarrassingly big suitcase into a 5 euro locker at Bremen Hauphtbanhof, I was off for a quick tour of Bremen. At first glance it reminded me of the Lanes in Brighton, narrow streets with little shops leading to yet more windy pathways. Angelika pointed out that some of the shops have the dates they were built on them, most of them hundreds of years old. I was told of markets, seafarers and craftsmen before she was off to her voice lesson and I was left to occupy myself in this new German city.

I had started learning German two days earlier. The essentials, like “Haben sie soyamilsch?” (Do you have soymilk?), “Wo ist…” (Where is?) and “Sprechen sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?). You’d be surprised, but throw in a bit of pantomime and you can get quite far. Of course everyone speaks English, but I always feel awkward and rude throwing out English automatically and it takes all the fun out of the experience, anyway.

I wander off in search of a soya latte and free wireless, which I found at Starbucks after trying a handful of other places. I know I should expand my horizons, but sometimes it’s nice to fold yourself up into a bit of globalization when everything else around you is foreign and new.

Barista: *german german german*
Me: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Barista: Ah, English. This is the worst song.
Me: *laughs*
Barista: What is the worst song for you?
Me: *thinks* I don’t know, probably songs I hear all the time that I don’t know the name of. What about you?
Barista: I don’t know, I’ll have to check my list. *Pulls out list*
Me: You have a list! *laughs*
Barista: *names some German song* Let me find my English list! *pulls out English list and names a few songs I don’t know*

Welcome to Bremen. Where the Starbucks barista’s are not only multilingual, but care about your musical tastes.

After getting a bit lost and getting to use a few of my 15 or so German words, I meet back up with Angelika and we take the trains back to the station nearest their small-holding, Geestenseth. We drive in the dark through what looks like windy roads surrounded by farms and she later explains that it’s not as deserted as it seems. Throughout the ride we talk about organic farming, raw milk, mating chickens, plastics, vegetables, what vegans eat and the lawsuit against a Canadian farmer due to genetic drift of Monsanto’s round-up ready seeds.

I’m just happy I recently read Barbora Kingsolver’s Animal. Vegetable. Miracle. and have a Food, Health and Law class under my belt. I’ve always been interested in these things, but it feels rare that I have a person in front of me, outside of a book, that lives a life like this. In fact, this is maybe the first family I’ve ever met that grows basically all of their own fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans and only eats in season. I make a joke that reading about local and seasonal farming in said book was like reading an exciting fiction novel because of how I grew up. I tell her my grandfather was a farmer, but all I remember from before he sold his land was kittens, cabbage, riding on tractors with my Dad and getting to drive a car on his dirt roads way before I was of legal age, backing into a cornfield to, I’m sure, my father’s simultaneous amusement and dismay. As I’m explaining this, I make a mental note to ask my Dad for whatever details he remembers of my grandfather’s farm. For something that was likely a huge part of his life growing up, he doesn’t speak of it very much and now I’m interested.

When we get to their small-holding, they show me my flat. I have the entire upstairs of their chicken house, equip with a kitchen, living room, dining area, loft, bathroom and shelves of English and German books. One of the first things I did was make a pile of books I wanted to try to rapidly read before I left in two weeks. The flat is beautiful and I’m both overwhelmed and really excited at the same time.

Angelika shows me where the wood-burning stove is in case I get cold at night, then takes me to where all of their freezers for storing their own fruits and vegetables are, next to massive shelves of jams, preserves and chutneys made from their own produce themselves. I inwardly pee myself with joy. If a food museum existed, that would be my favorite kind. I’ll never get bored learning about how food is made and seeing what it looks like.

I get to sample lots of these at dinner. I had only heard of quince mentioned in a book I’m reading currently called Animal Dreams also by Barbora Kingsolver, but I got to taste it for the first time in an apple-quince jam. Also there was strawberry preserve, white raspberry, cherry-wine jam (they make their own wine and this was from some leftovers), apple-cinnamon chutney, some jarred sundried tomatoes in olive oil, among other things to spread on bread they also made themselves, with some vegetable broth to warm us up and their own apple juice. I am in heaven.

I should mention the crazy oven as well. Heated by burning wood in a little compartment inside, the temperature is controlled by opening and closing a drawer to let more or less air in and placement of the pots on the top surface. The pots are old ones designed to fit into the stove, so the bottoms stick closer to the fire.

After dinner, they show me a picture of their sewage system, which has compartments with bacteria that break down the waste and filter it through different sections and plants that eat up the bad stuff, finally releasing it as ground water. We clean up and put more wood in the stove, then I say goodnight to Axel and Angelika shows me the “Apple Chapel” where the apples are kept to last from autumn until spring. It smells like autumn in there and it’s wonderful.

And that’s only the first several hours. I think I’ll be learning a lot in the next two weeks.

Hamburg, Germany and the Adventures Within

On Tuesday the 12th of January, Kassia had class so I was off to explore Hamburg on my own. Without much of an idea where I was going, I hopped on 2 buses in search of a vegetarian restaurant called Hin & Veg. I texted someone from couchsurfing, Torben, a guy originally from Berlin who had moved to Hamburg in October, who met up with me for lunch. We talked about ourselves over veggie hamburgers (in Hamburg!), went to another place for tea and coffee and then boarded the U-Bahn so he could show me a bit of downtown Hamburg, including the Town Hall and the River Elbe. Did I mention how awesome couchsurfing is? It’s basically a great excuse to meet and hangout with people from whatever city you’re in, anywhere in the world. It’s definitely nice to hangout with someone who knows the area rather than doing the tourist thing, and Torben was a great host! Regardless, anything that makes it socially acceptable to hangout with strangers and make new friends is fine by me.

Me outside of the Hamburg town hall (Rathaus)

Torben and I

I just had to take a picture of this because I think it's hilarious. This is apparently the most liberal party in Germany. Does anyone else see a large proportion of The Gay?

After Torben left, I got myself a German SIM card from Vodafone and met back up with Kassia, Stephanie and another Smithie studying in Hamburg named Liz at Hin & Veg again. It was definitely strange spending time with Smithies after so long. It honestly feels like I graduated 10 years ago sometimes! I enjoyed some delicious tomato soup this time and a vegetarian currywurst.

In the evening, we headed to a bar I heard about from Gulliver called 3 Zimmer Wohnung (3 room flat). This place was set up like it was somebody’s flat, bed, fride and all! It’s now up there on my list of favorite bars. Once there we met up with Torben again and another couchsurfer named Misha who’s a student from Jordan doing an internship in Germany for his degree. We chatted for a bit about life, visas and our travels and once Misha and I discovered our mutual love of hummus and falafel, he mentioned a place in Hamburg that had amazing versions of both. Convinced, we layered up and set off on a walk through the freezing Hamburg streets back to the Schanze area for falafel. He did not let us down. That night I consumed the best falafel of my life, and it had all sorts of goodies included in the pita, including beets, my newfound love! We all hungout until after midnight and then parted ways. Rock on couchsurfing.

Torben, Kassia, Stephanie and Misha on the bed at 3 Zimmer Wohnung

Having a little cat nap at the bar

Okay, so on the way to the bar we had to walk through the red light district, but this was especially funny to me, if you can see, because on one side it says "Gay Kino, Sex Kino" and on the other it says "Jesus Lebt (Lives)".

Stephanie and I set out to take the U-Bahn home, but unfortunately only made it halfway before it shut for the night due to our internet addictions, leaving us to take an epic trek home through an unfamiliar city without a good map, having been guided slightly by a very friendly construction worker in the U-Bahn tunnel. At least I got to use my small amount of German, (“Wo ist?”or “Where is?”) before getting horribly lost near Kassia’s street and making her come and get us at 1 am. Oops.

Stephanie in the U-Bahn tunnel waiting for the train

I only had one full day in Hamburg, but good times were had and I hope to go back eventually for more exploration. It was great to see Kassia, however briefly, and chill in this pretty rockin’ city to start off my German adventures. Speaking of, it’s always crazy to hear a friend bust out language skills I didn’t even know they had in front of me. I am always so impressed by this. Mostly I think of other languages as passwords to get the things you want.

There's a Christmas tree floating in the middle of the water and I think that's pretty nifty.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Fate is not just whose cooking smells good, but which way the wind blows..."

On January 10th I had my goodbye dinner at Maly Buddha, an Asian-influenced tea lounge-cum-restaurant with lots of vegetarian options by Prague castle in Hradčany. On a Sunday night on the 10th of January, 15 of my friends showed up to bid me farewell, enough to book three full tables and an American waiter just for our English needs! The food was delicious and the company great; I’m really going to miss these kids. Luckily, I’ll be back for a few days for my birthday on February 8th.

From the left: Sara, Bryan, Jess and Ali

Miriam, Josh, Jillian, Pete, Klara and Dusan

Katie, Anna's friend, Anna, Viktor and Andrea

After dinner I decided I should finish how I started, which meant U Sudu, one of my favorite bars in Prague that has a couple levels underground and is a maze of caverns. Later, I went with Jess, Sara and Miriam to Red Room—another expat haunt where I always seem to know everyone by the end of my 5th month. There is live music that may or may not always sound like Jack Johnson. This can be good or bad depending on your taste, I guess, but I generally vote bad. It’s the kind of place you’re not sure you like, but forces attract you there nonetheless.

The trek to U Sudu from the restaurant in the snow

Eventually, I had to get home and pack up my life (again), so I bid everyone goodbye. The fact that Jess won’t be here when I come back for a visit made the reality—the ending of this strange life in Prague I’ve grown so accustomed to since August 8th—set in. I walked teary-eyed to the tram and packed from midnight or so until 4:15 am. My procrastination skills are one thing in my life that seems to stay constant.

Oh, and because I never actually put up a picture of the babies on the TV tower. Here they are!

After a hearty 2 hours of sleep, I was off to Hamburg, Germany. I woke up at 6:15 am, rushing madly with my suitcase through the snow, terrified I was about to miss my 8:31 am train and almost in tears over the rough snowing terrain and the lack of cooperation from by oversized suitcase. I didn’t factor in the extra time it’d take to lug my heavy suitcase by myself through the snow. When I got there the train was of course delayed by over an hour because of the weather. Finally getting on the train, I wandered confused through the compartments. They looked much more posh than I was used to, so when I heard a woman speaking English I asked if I was in 1st class. She laughed, told me no, and offered to share her compartment with me.

One thing I love about traveling is you meet so many interesting people. There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie that exists between those living out of a suitcase for some period of time. This woman was a roughly 40-something massage therapist from Vancouver traveling through Europe and Northern Africa (re: Morocco) for several months. She started in New York and had already visited many places in Southern and Eastern Europe, aiming to see as much opera as possible. Opera’s not really my thing, as far as I know, but whatever inspires you, all the better!

As we watched the Czech landscape slowly fade into a German one and the voice on the train switch languages, we talked about rock-climbing, back-country skiing, how I’m fed up with academia, her travels, the Czech language, books we’ve read, her son and daughters’ tree-planting gigs, etc. Eventually some German people got on in Dresden and we talked to them for a bit, too. It still amazes me that everyone can speak English.

My compartment friend, Enid, got off in Berlin and I was on my own. Unfortunately, the internet told me I only had one train to take, so I was startled to find that I needed to switch in Berlin from the conductor. Again I rushed, only to find the train delayed. I am already tired of snow. Once onboard, we go one stop only to have the doors break because of freezing conditions. Out in the cold again, we all wait for another train that shows up packed, leaving us to stand the entire 2-hour journey to Hamburg. Alas.

Four hours later than expected, I finally made it to Hamburg and was greeted by Kassia, a friend from Geology class at Smith my senior year, who took me to German Smith College (a.k.a. the Smith Center in Hamburg). I met another fellow Smithie staying with her, Stephanie, and we were off back to Kassia’s dorm. After looking at German TV, some tea and making small-talk with Kassia’s German dorm-mates, the first thing I did in Hamburg was sleep. After my long day of travel, I couldn’t think of anything much better than that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Krakow, Poland, Part II: Pierogies, Wawel Castle, the Dragon and Friends!

After our busy first day, we decided to take it easy the second. So we wandered around Krakow looking for the sex machine. It seems the locals couldn't find it either. It says, "Wait! Where is the sex machine?" The sex machines are in Prague, apparently, but that's for a later post.

But we got cold and hungry, so we made pierogie stop number one. These were mushroom and cabbage pierogies. Mmmmm.

After filling our tummies, we went back to the hostel. Did I mention we stayed at the best hostel I've ever been to, possibly the best in existence? If you go to Krakow, stay at Greg & Tom's Junior Hostel. Anyway, we hungout in the living room with our other hostel mates for most of the night. Kt convinced this guy from Australia, Max, to stuff 16 Polish cheetos in his mouth. It didn't take much persuasion...

This is Steffen, not sure of the spelling. He was from Germany (Frankfurt?) and told me he knew how to cook vegan food. Nom. I'm still constantly embarrassed that everyone in our hostel (and in my life now in general) can speak on average 2-3 languages, while I still come in at about 1.4. I'm working on it!

The second bar we went to in the Kazimierz, the Old Jewish district of Krakow (a where all the chill, eclectic stuff was), was a indoor beach! I made a sand angel.

Bryan on the right was confused? He later came to visit us in Prague a few times as the next stop on his journey. Yay friends!

We're such hotties.

Craig, from New Zealand, and I. There was some deal where you get a free shot with a pint, so I partook in the free part. Craig came to visit us in Prague later and we took him out to Bukowski's. Traveling is awesome.

This Aussie was out for the count. There's Kt in the background with this dude we picked up on the street whose an English teacher in Krakow from the UK. Those English teachers are everywhere!

This is the Wawel (pronounced Vah-vel) Castle. Much more modern-looking than a lot of the castles I've seen in Europe, but still pretty! Like Kt said, it looks like it's actually still in use rather than just existing to be pretty.

This is the dragon! It used to eat sheep and young virgins, until some dude named Krakus or Krac got some sheep and mixed a thick, yellow paste from sulfur to smear all over them. Then fed them to the dragon who got really thirsty and drank so much water from the river that he exploded! Dragon-problem solved.

Then we ate more pierogies at a Polisn Milk Bar that was super cheap. Everything on the menu was Polish, so the only words I could read were "onion, soup, meat, cheese, borscht and beverage" thanks to my Czech. Somehow it worked out. I got pierogies, some breaded, fried eggroll and borscht. Kt got some type of meat dumpling.

That night, we went on the hostel pu crawl. The first stop was a vodka bar, where we sampled 4 different shots of vodka. There was also this gem of a photograph behind Kt. Boobies!

This is Marek. He worked at our hostel and led the pub-crawl. He was really nice and pretty awesome. Also one of the ones that put up with one of my 5000 "How do you say *word* in *insert language here*?" questions. I probably should stop quizzing native speakers of any language other than my own incessantly, but I want to know how to say everything! Especially the dirty words.

Here are some other hostel-mates on the crawl and a French guy we met off named Aziz whose living in Krakow (2nd from the right).

The morning before we left, we had another wander (and got more pierogies at a 24-hour pierogie joint....rock on Poland!). These are a lot of really cold pidgeons, cuddling. You'll get the theme in a minute...

In the train station, I made the mistake of feeding one pidgeon part of a chip. Which made all of them ATTACK MY FACE. Inside! I have hereby learned my lesson, let it be stated.

My nemesis.

After our first train brought us from Krakow to Bohumim, back in the Czech Republic. We went on a quick wander for some food. I thought this sign was funny because I'm a 5 year old boy. Guess why.

On the second train Kt was trying to demonstrate something to me. I'm not sure what it was, but it sort of looks like she's brushing her teeth while jump-roping. Yes!

That's all there is for Krakow! It was such a freaking amazing trip and we met so many amazing people and partook in lots of shenanigans. Pictures on Facebook eventually, but my internet may be limited from here on out. Currently in Hamburg and heading to the first farm today!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Krakow, Poland, Part I: Sleeper train, Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine

I think Kt summed up the night train from Prague to Krakow best when she wrote, "went to sleep in Czech Republic..woke up in Poland.. most productive nap ever." I didn't actually sleep much because I was so excited, but it's a good idea! I sort of felt like I was at summer camp, but it was moving and no one wanted to play.

We pretended to sleep, at least.

I read a lot! I'm pretty sure all the train travel in my future is going to do wonders for my literary repertoire.

After we checked into our hostel and ate free breakfast around 6:30 am, we booked tickets to Auschwitz and the Salt Mines for that day. This was not quite as happy as the sleeper train (by a long shot), but definitely world shattering. And by this I mean I almost started bawling on the bus just from the movie about Auschwitz before we even got there. Damn. I know I learned about concentration camps and the Holocaust in school...Maybe I forgot it all, didn't pay attention, or maybe they just never got into the details of exactly how horrible everything was, but being there and hearing stories of how many people were killed, the manipulation, torture and sheer mass of former residents' belongings (and hair) right in front of me was intense. There are not even words. This is the entrance to Auschwitz. The motto over the gate, "Arbeit macht frei," translates as "Work makes you free."

These are the buildings people were kept in. We went in most of them, but weren't allowed to take pictures. I think the most memorable room for me was one where they stacked up a fraction of residents' shoes, hair brushes, glasses and hair in separate rooms. In each room, the item went from floor to ceiling. When people first got there (sometimes they even made them buy their own train tickets, telling them they were going to work camps), they took their belongings and separated them to use for themselves. Once people were killed or when women first got there, they shaved their heads and used/sold their hair to make textiles for the German armies. I honestly can't even process the level of exploitation involved in these acts.

Two layers of a barbed fence, a wall and a watch-tower.

This was also really intense. Found in a courtyard with blocked windows so no residents would see what was happening, this was a wall specially created so people could be shot in front of it.

After Auschwitz, we went to Birkenau about 10 minutes away. This was another, bigger concentration camp created to ease congestion at the main camp. These train tracks were used to bring people to the camp through the main gate. Also to take them to gassing rooms that no longer exist beyond the trees. Prisoners were told they were going to shower and made to strip naked then brought to these chambers that even sometimes had fake shower heads installed. Once they were in there, they were locked in and gassed with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide used as an instrument for extermination.

Large cabins, originally design for horses with no insulation, where people slept in three layer bunk beds, a few to a bed, with access to bathrooms only several minutes a day.

These were the toilets. As you can tell, absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Because people were fed rarely and poorly, they often had a variety of gastrointestinal problems. One of the "good" jobs was cleaning out these toilets because you could go to the toilet as much as you wanted and got to work inside.

View from the watch tower.

After the intensity of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, I was sort of happy we had a less depressing point on our itinerary to cheer me up. I stole all these pictures from a friend we made at our hostel, Pedro, who was nice enough to send them along. The Wieliczka salt mine was definitelly an impressive site. This is the main ballroom, hundreds of meters underground. Everything is made of salt: the chandeliers, the stone floor, the alter and the pictures on the wall.

Close up of the chandelier made of salt.

Statue made of salt and Kt and I!

I don't remember what this is, but there's Kt and Pedro!

I mean, you HAVE to lick the walls, right?!?! You don't walk into Taco Bell and not eat tacos, do you?!?!