After studying in Russia, I went on a tour through Central Europe. I actually flew on Aeroflot from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, Poland. It’s something I’m glad to say I did (for the shock value, if nothing else), but I wouldn’t repeat the experience. The plane was cramped, the decor gray and gray-blue, the breakfast was gray, and the oxygen system nonexistent. I had awoken at 4:30 AM, Moscow time, in order to make the flight, and I was too tired to care much.
Apart from the fact that our pilots were clearly ex-fighter jocks and hadn’t fully accepted the reality of passenger flight, the trip was uneventful. My Russian professor had arranged for a travel agent friend of hers to make reservations and have a couple of people meet me in Warsaw to get me started–my Russian was bad enough, and I didn’t know a word of Polish. Two extremely nice guys, Marek and Piotr, met me and went above and beyond the call of duty to show me the sights of Warsaw and get me (and my two friends who arrived by train from Russia the next day) set up and oriented. This, with the exception of the staff and leadership of the Polonia Institute in Kraków, was to be typical of the character of Poles that I met.
I came to Poland with very low expectations. The image in the West, and even in Russia, of Poland was of a bleak, drab, dull, flat country that continually got run over by her neighbors. Well, one out of two. It helps that I went at perhaps the best time to see Poland: early-to-mid-June. The grass was freshly green and the poppies blooming. The weather was a little dreary at first, but soon brightened. However, I noticed little of this. Perhaps a Polish joke will help to explain (a joke by and not about Poles):
“A Frenchman gets on a train bound for Moscow. He gets confused and steps out in Warsaw. ‘Mon Dieu!’ he thinks, ‘Moscow is as poor and ugly as I’ve heard!’ About the same time a Russian gets on a train bound for Paris. He also gets confused and steps out in Warsaw. ‘Bozhe moye! Paris is as rich and beautiful as I’d heard!'”
If you compare Warsaw, particularly the Warsaw of a few years’ past, to the great cities of Western Europe, it will come up a bit short. Except for a small section rebuilt in the heart of the city, little remains of its old architecture and everything is of Postwar Soviet (i.e., drab and depressing) design. Well, there is one exception. Remember the haunted building in Ghostbusters? Well, it stands in the center of Warsaw. Stalin’s Socialist Gothic masterpiece, the Palace of Culture, is an exact copy of the seven he inflicted on Moscow, destroying by socialist design in Moscow what Nazi war did to Warsaw. The trouble is that the building is simply too useful to tear down (I was in its concert hall, which is quite beautiful and had acoustics to suit the L.A. Guitar Trio and King Crimson). Several high-rise buildings are going up surrounding it, but I still wonder if some of the worst pseudo-gothic filigree couldn’t be scraped off the building to leave a dull but functional building. On the other hand, it does give downtown Warsaw character. Bad character, but character nonetheless.
Despite its many drawbacks, Poland in general (and Warsaw in particular) is economically light-years ahead of its increasingly distant eastern cousins. I spent the ride in from the airport plastered to the window of the car, gazing at all the other automobiles (including several Fords and Mercedes), which had been scarce in Russia. The neat, clean, and well-built kiosks demonstrated the difference better than anything else. Capitalism in Russia was still of the lemonade-stand variety: little kiosks that sold everything from radios to washing powder to G.I. Joe dolls–err, action figures. In Poland, Capitalism had entered the Mom’n’Pop store phase, in which very nicely supplied shops formed the major part of private sector activity as industries were beginning to be privatized. Kiosks were leftovers of the previous period, and those that remained were much more permanent, more so than newsstands or hot-dog stands in America. It was that (comparative) wealth that fascinated me. Having been apart from even lighted signs (St. Petersburg was far behind Moscow in this aspect) for a month, it was almost a relief to see the little touches of neon bedecking the Warsaw skyline (for those looking for tasteful capitalism in Warsaw: don’t bother, the neon and everything else has exploded to smother the place).
I got to see the Old Town (newly reconstructed), took an English language tour for me, myself, and I in Wilanów, and wandered around Lazenki park, seeing Belwedere palace, then-home of then-President Lech Walesa. The next day we successfully met my friends, received USD 200 by Western Union (giving me the first million-anything note I’d ever held in my hands, giving the Poles much amusement), and parted company with Marek and Piotr.
The next day one of my friends split off for London (apparently he just loved sitting in the train), while Dawn and I headed for Kraków. I knew a little of the history and was eager to see the original buildings, which had miraculously escaped Nazi demolition.
It turned out to be a fantastic choice. Apart from an instant cold (probably an allergic reaction to the still-potent pollutants for which southern Poland was infamous) and a rather long, hot walk to the dom turista PTTK, which was an unfortunate and, at the time, unrenovated, communist construct, there was little not to like. I got to wander around Wawel hill and took my first picture of the gas-fueled Dragon (smok, appropriately enough in Polish), and see the Czartoryski Museum for the first time. Kraków in the summer is a wonderful place to stroll around, stopping frequently at outdoor cafés…or at least it was before it became so popular. In fact, it still is pleasant, but one must plan ahead and avoid the most populous times of year.
One personal discovery was the Lebanese restaurant…well, it was more of a Lebanese fast-food place. Still, it was a wonderful change from heavy Eastern European food to rice and spices. Don’t go looking for it, as the next year I found that it had been swallowed by the maw of McDonald’s. I also saw Beauty and the Beast for the first time, though completely in Polish, without subtitles.
After a few days, we traveled on to Budapest.
In the summer of 1994, I returned to Poland for a summer program in language and culture at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. By that time, I had adopted my now-standard method for adapting to the time difference: get up late on the day I’m to fly (most of my eastbound flights are overnight), stay awake during the entire flight, even if this means watching depressing Mosfilm/ABC collaborations about getting sent to Siberia) and staying up the entire next day until a normal or even slightly late bedtime. At that point I’m so exhausted that I sleep a full 8 hours and within a day or so, I’m switched to the new time zone. This time, it involved missing the guy who runs the Warsaw office of the Kosciuszko Foundation (probably nursing a hangover, from what I saw later), navigating on a few words of Russian and three words of Polish to the train station and then to Krakow (actually, this isn’t really hard, though it was complicated by my lack of sleep).
Arriving in Krakow, I actually made it to the dorm (it was not centrally located), got myself registered, and sort of unpacked in the room. The guys in the next suite invited me out to dinner, and after some confusion with tickets, we managed to get to the main square. We ask around in bad Polish and English as to a good place to eat, and we are directed to Wierzynek. Yes, the fanciest restaurant in town, and me in the same clothes I’d been wearing for the past 24 hours, and without sleep. Things still being what they were in 1994, our clear Americanness got us a table and I managed to have bigos (sauerkraut, cabbage, pork and sausage, much better than it sounds), boiled potatoes, beer, Coke, and a chocolate tort for about USD 7. I doubt you could do that for under USD 20 now, and if you show up in clothes like that…well, hope they let you have a back table. We ended up walking home sometime around I in the morning, the trams and busses having stopped much earlier. I’m not quite sure how I made it through all that awake, but I do know it was rather late the next morning when I awoke.
At some point that next day, I encountered my roommate, a similarly-aged German named (I kid you not) Magnus. Magnus was a genial sort, spoke excellent English (which was fortunate, since my Polish was…embryonic, to put it politely) and had also been raised Presbyterian. We got along fine. This was somewhat strange, as he didn’t socialize, except very occasionally with other Germans. I suspect he was to the point I am now, in that Poland is fine, but I’d rather meet Poles and practice my language skills than hang out in English. He also studied with Teutonic application and efficiency: he was up at 5:30 or 6:00, began studying, ate breakfast, studied some more, went to class, ate lunch, went to class, studied, ate dinner, studied, and then listened to Polish talk radio as he went to sleep, around 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening. I am most decidedly not a morning person, and this was the only source of complication. I had to do my late night homework in the cafe downstairs. I probably didn’t learn quite as much as I should have, but then month-long summer programs are vacations that only brush up your language skills, not serious programs. They don’t work that way, even if you study as hard as Magnus.
What about the Poles and Poland, you ask. Umm, good question. The Jagiellonian University does like to provide you with some of its scholars, but seems averse, if not actively discouraging, to contacts with regular Poles. My language teacher, though excellent, was Bulgarian. The summer program is such that it’s hard enough to meet a non-American. I got to know an Italian girl (well, somewhat, apparently I wasn’t quite hip enough for her) and my roommate. That was it. In fact, almost every other American I met was from Cleveland. A couple from Buffalo, one from Chicago, and everybody else from Cleveland or its regional Ohio environs. (Oh, well, y’know, that’ll happen, youbetcha. Wanna come with for some pop and a show?)
Oh, yeah, Poland. To the program’s credit, we did actually get taken on trips to some interesting places around Kraków. Of course there were tours around town, and I got to see da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” and the 14th Century Flemish tapestries in the castle at Wawel hill. We went rafting on the Duna river and spent the night at Zakopane. I had not associated Poland with mountains, but here were huge, young mountains with snowcapped peaks (despite the hottest summer on record in Europe; hotter, even than in jungle-like South Carolina) and alluvial plains formed by glacial action. Add to that some truly stupid behavior on my part, such as staying out in spite of an approaching thunderstorm (horizontal rain and being the highest thing in 500 kilometers with lightning hitting just on the other side of the peak is exhilarating, to say the least), and one can say that I truly seized the day on that trip.
The next trip coincided with the only other rain during my entire stay in Europe. If you’ve seen Shindler’s List, you’ve seen Krakow. That’s because a) it was spared destruction by the Nazis, b) wasn’t overly modernized by the communists, and given the lack of technological advance, wasn’t too far from how it looked fifty years ago, and c) is very near to a place the Poles call Oswiecim but the rest of the world knows as Auschwitz.
The day was appropriate: sullen gray clouds hung low and provided a steady drizzle. As we arrived, the clouds parted briefly to add a surreal twist: with grown trees and brick buildings, the first camp in the town of Auschwitz resembles a college campus. Then you see the barbed wire. In fact, this camp isn’t the place most people think of when they think of “Auschwitz”. It was, however, the place that Mengele performed his “experiments” and the techniques of mass extermination were researched and tested. The entire camp has been turned into a museum, with some of the most dramatic displays being simply huge bins full of shoes, or brushes, or other toiletries that the Nazis had collected from the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, cripples, and homosexuals who were shipped to the camps. Simply the giant heap–more than a meter deep, 20 meters long and 10 meters wide, in some cases, are horrifying in a way that graphic words and footage can’t be.
Much less is visible 5 kilometers outside town, in Auschwitz B, or “Birkenau.” This is the camp you see in Schindler’s List. The Nazis destroyed it and evacuated before the Ukrainian troops “liberated” the area, so only the guard building, rail platform, and railway are left. Some barracks have been rebuilt. If you wander back to the edge of the park, not too far beyond the site where the gas chambers and cremation facility used to be, there is a pond, gray with the ashes of the victims. Needless to say, it was a sobering experience. People keep asking me if I’ve seen the new Holocaust Museum here in DC, and I tell them that after Birkenau, I think I’ve done my part.
After learning pidgin Polish, making a few friends, and generally having a nice time, it was time to head out on two weeks of vacation (yes, I’ve led a hard life). The program wrapped up with a bus trip to Czestachowa, the holiest city in Poland, where the rampaging Swedes (yes, I find it hard to picture, too) were held off, supposedly guarded by an icon of the Virgin Mother. Regardless, it stands there now, and draws yearly pilgrimages of devout Poles. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time a priest came out and blessed a group including devout atheists, but it won’t be the last.
From there it was on to Warsaw just before the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising (pictured above). It was also the hottest summer on record, and niegazowana woda (non-fizzy water) was sold out. I decided to take my leave south again, toward the mountains of Jelenia Góra. I went to the central train station in Warsaw with a Pole to help me decipher the schedules, and he assured me my reservation to Jelenia Góra held no surprises, like a change in trains.
Hah. At least it wasn’t my Polish that was at fault; those schedules are incomprehensible.
Needless to say, after waking sinfully early, I labored down to the train station with my backpack and boarded the train. After a long wait, during which some unintelligible announcements were made in Wroclaw, the train headed off. Unfortunately, my half of the train went to Kolodko, and I didn’t realize the error until the diesel engine hooked on to take us up the village line towards Karlowy Zdroj. In my defense, there had been severe train delays and being two hours late didn’t seem unusual.
Anyway, after giving a kindly conductor much hilarity at my plight and horrid Polish, I managed to take a series of slow (osobowy) trains from Kolodko to Jelenia Gora. A girl in my compartment surprised me by telling me in English, “Don’t look so worried!” Well, there are a lot of Polish Americans, and English is a popular language. You can’t count on it that far from large cities, but you can be surprised. The trains went along incredibly high wooden trestles through some very picturesque valleys. I wish I’d been able to take pictures, but the local Gypsy kids had me worried to take out anything as valuable and portable as a camera. A drunken guy asked me to go “half on a ticket,” I think, and fortunately my honest inability in Polish and yet another kindly young woman and her children returning from a day picking blueberries admonished him to remember that I said I didn’t speak Polish, and he staggered off. Another kind guy explained to me in simple Polish and broken English what the speaker was announcing in Walbrzych (the trains were late, surprise, surprise). It’s experiences such as this day, strenuous as it was, that have endeared Poland to me: there are a LOT of really nice people with incredible patience there.
So at 1 in the morning, after an entire day of my life spent on a train trip that should have taken six hours, I arrived in Jelenia Góra. I was able to get to my hotel despite the taxi driver’s lack of knowledge of where it was–he had to get out and ask several people. As it turned out, it was in a pedestrian square the next village west. The proprietor was very friendly, considering she was doubtless being awakened in the middle of the night. The place was memorable, in that it only cost USD 5 per night, the least I’ve ever spent.
It turned out to be a lovely section of town, even though the heat was still oppressive. I managed to go into town, find a map including trail information, and buy a pair of shorts (I hadn’t brought any, since I didn’t need them the previous summer). I even saw a sailplane still behind its towplane–both were likely Polish. I didn’t recognize them, but I knew that Poland had a good light aircraft and wooden sailplane industry. As it turns out, a friend that I would meet in my Master’s program in South Carolina is a Pole who learned to soar near Jelenia Góra. I treated myself to a nice dinner with lots of ice cream, and was amused that everyone instantly assumed I was German (this part of Poland was ceded from Germany after the war), then English, and then expressed shock that I was American. It’s one of the last places on earth this was possible; I would imagine by now they are far less enchanted with us.
The next day I was able to head up to a castle on top of a small ridge, further west of town. I was proud of myself for the ascent, until I realized a) it had a restaurant in it, and b) it had a HOTEL in it, which means people came up every day, just to be able to sleep…. I took a few pictures, but the drought had blighted the landscape, and I was getting tired quickly. I spent the remainder of the day in a park, reading Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Well, Poland was in transition, and I thought it appropriate.
Finally, that night the heat broke, and I was able to leave Jelenia Góra in relative comfort. By mid afternoon, of course, the heat had returned and caused the train to be delayed. At least it rained a few more times. I went back to Krakow to regroup and head for Budapest. I surprised a guy I knew at school who was on a longer program, and he and a friend of his and I all tripped down to Budapest for what we hoped would be a cooler and better-appointed vacation. Can you guess how it turned out?
September 1995 – June 1996
Well, things being what they were being, I finished my master’s degree in International Relations but needed more time abroad and better language skills. Since I’d felt more at home in Poland than any of the other places I’d visited, and the language was at least somewhat similar to Russian, I decided to go to school there for a year before returning to the United States to find work.
Because I’d had a good time at the Jagiellonian University’s summer school and had learned of their yearlong program, I decided to enroll. One of my acquaintances from summer school would be there, and we decided to room together (word to the wise: never do this; just find a roommate with whom you have to speak in Polish, so you can actually learn the language).
I explored the area around the school, on a hilltop 5 kilometers outside of Kraków, near a hamlet called Przegorzaly. Behind it is a nature preserve with walking paths–with signs warning you not to trample the rare wildflowers in the area. If you walk to the other side of the low ridge, you come to Kraków’s zoo. For something built and maintained with all the more money they must have had, it’s good. Few of the animals are in extremely small enclosures, and there has been a moderate attempt to keep it natural-looking, rather than bare concrete cages. They even have a (slightly bedraggled) bald eagle.
The school itself is a complex of three buildings: a “castle,” a “bastion,” and a hotel. The “bastion” (baszta), a three-storey tower, was built in the 1920s by a local eccentric. In the 1940s, during the Nazi Occupation, Hans Frank, the German governor of the Kraków area, built a palatial home there. In the 1980s, the school for foreigners that Jagiellonian University ran was deemed a security threat if the students were allowed to mingle with everyday Poles in Kraków. Therefore, construction was started on a students’ hotel to keep them safely isolated from reality.
Construction was completed in 1989. So, what did the school do, now that the Communists could no longer tell them where to house foreigners? House them where the Commies wanted, of course. Many people moved out to apartments, but I didn’t. This was probably a mistake. On the other hand, I met some great people from all over Europe and East Asia there. These included Keiko, a Japanese girl into progressive rock, William, a Swede named for some English person, and Charles, a French fish farmer from the Arden forest who had some pictures of artificial insemination of fish that I never want to see again. There were of course many others, but that gives you some idea of the range of people, almost all of whom I liked quite a lot. The Americans weren’t as consistently interesting, but there were some fascinating exceptions. On the other hand, I’ve lost touch with all but two of them, while I still exchange letters occasionally with ten or so of the non-Americans.
I botched the initial language exam, as I had just studied hard to pass my Russian translation exam for my degree in America. I kept mixing in Russian and had what I would come to recognize as “bad Polish days,” much like bad hair days but only evident when I opened my mouth. I was placed in the lowest class, but fortunately the teacher agreed to move me up two levels. I then had the best teacher of my whole experience there, who spoke little English and forced us to learn Polish quickly and effectively. He did have a bizarre sense of humor, as one day while my friend Aiko was sitting next to me, he tried to teach us the word “fear” in Polish, and as an exercise asked what Japanese had a fear of. “They have an obsession about it!” No answer from us. “Bomba atomiczna [Atomic bomb]!” he proclaimed happily. Ignorance of Asian sensitivities (or perhaps a disregard for them) was evident in the hotel as well–the Asians were arranged so that every Japanese had a Korean roommate.
Fortunately, my morning commute was one hundred yards (around 90 meters), which was quite useful during the winter. Classes would generally be held in the morning and early afternoon, with some special courses being taught in the evening. That meant that we usually grabbed lunch back at our rooms (the cafeteria lunch was awful and really expensive, by Polish standards), took our afternoon class, and then went into town only to return immediately after dinner or earlier, if there was a special class that night.
I found it extremely difficult to meet Poles in such an environment. There were no attempts by the school to bring us and Polish students together. Their attitude was, “Well, we’re teaching you all the Polish you’ll ever need to know, and Poles have nothing to learn from you.” My roommate had met some students during his summer there, but was reluctant to introduce me after our initial contact for some reason. Finally, he taught half of their week at an English-language retreat in the mountains, and, eager to return to grad-student mode, wanted to return to his books. I took the second half and surprised them all by not wanting to bury my nose in any books and joining their parties. Most of them spoke incredible English, but they were young enough to find my Polish amusing but not discourage me. Just hearing them speak Polish to one another was an education. As a result, I got to know Krzysz, Przemek, Agnieszka, Anna, and a whole host of others.
However, their English was too good and I didn’t learn enough from them. After Christmas, I put an advertisement on bulletin boards at the Jagiellonian Library and a couple of student dorms. I got calls from several people, but only a couple worked out. One was a Polish girl who told me of her fear of black people in London (she led a somewhat sheltered life in this respect), but the best was Marek, whose English was on a par with my Polish. In fact, since I was immersed in it, my Polish eclipsed his English and when there was a miscommunication, we defaulted to Polish to work it out. This didn’t help his English as much as would be ideal, but he was more interested in learning German for his upcoming “working vacation” in Germany as an illegal worker. Lots of young Poles would do this, as it got them far more than they could earn at home and he could help support his family in Silesia.
In each of these cases, we would meet in a cafe and speak for an hour in Polish and an hour in English. This did more for my Polish than anything else there. Marek was especially helpful since he was a Polish philology (somewhat related to linguistics but broader in scope) student, and could explain the history of words and Polish grammar to me. It made more sense and was more interesting for an admitted nerd such as myself.
Back at the Castle, my second semester was with a teacher who was genial, if alcoholic. While I got practice speaking, I didn’t learn as much. He did show us movies in Polish,which helped. I also bullied them into letting me take classes with a more political focus. For the most part, the staff felt that politics were beneath them. I should have gone to Warsaw, but shouldawouldacoulda.
With my newfound friends, I did go on several trips, which are described elsewhere. In February we went to Lithuania, and in April we toured South-Central Europe, including Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Slovenia, 90 seconds in Vienna, and a hellish time in the Czech Republic for my two companions. Later my parents came over before I went home, and I showed them around Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Budapest before heading home.
Having successfully found employment in Washington, DC, after far too long a time searching, I decided to take my first vacation in Hungary and Poland. I was fulfilling my end of a bargain with a friend from grad school to guide him through Central Europe in return for his (unfulfilled yet) promise to guide me around Japan. I also took my brother on his long-awaited introduction to the region.
Even in the Keleti train station in Budapest, my stress level went down. It was a relief to be able to tell the conductor, who tried speaking to me in German, “No, I understand things much better in Polish.” The experience of Slovak border guards asking security questions in broken English was a novelty for my companions. We breezed into Krakow Glowny and I was amazed.
The train station looks totally different now. An underground passage has been added, and small shops and cafes deck the platforms and the passage. Automatic doors open for you, and a ramp lets you take your wheeled luggage up to the ground level. I later learned that this was all in preparation to make the train station area a sort of conference center. The only thing that hadn’t changed, at least on the outside, was the bus station.
When I went into the maze of kiosks between the train station and old town, I found my second shock. An ATM, with logos of most of the American ATM systems, ready to dispense cash straight from my bank account in the States. This was rumored when I was last in Poland, but the reality and ubiquity of these cash machines was surprising to me. In retrospect, given Poland’s economic growth, this isn’t so surprising given its status as a major tourist city, but the change was a bit of a shock.
We stayed in the Saski, my favorite hotel in Krakow. My companions quickly came to like the fact that you could just spend an hour or two in a cafe on the square and watch the rather attractive Polish women go by. I worried about getting them to see everything before we left. By the end, I had figured out that I didn’t need to do that, since everything was new to them and as long as they enjoyed what they were seeing, they wouldn’t know what they were missing.
I tried to get out to see the Nowa Huta steel works, but by the time I got there and realized that the old Communist tourist structure touting the plant had been removed years ago, it was time for me to go back and rendezvous with my friends.
We did meet my teacher from my summer school in 1994, who was working as a tour guide in Jagiellonian University’s museum. We also met with my friends Krzysz, Przemek, and Anna, and my friend from grad school educated Krzysz on the political history behind one of the lyrics he couldn’t understand from “Sweet Home Alabama.” This was as surreal a conversation as I’ve ever had, it taking place in the old Jewish district. I am sad to say that the Ariel cafe closest to the old synagogue has really become a disappointing place to eat. The music is fine, but the food is mediocre.
We also took one of Orbis’s package tours to Zakopane, but unfortunately, it didn’t provide for any time actually on the mountain. I had thought this might relieve me of the burden of showing my brother and friend around, translating, and making all arrangements, but in retrospect that would have been much easier than being shepherded around some very touristy places by our guide. We really should have spent the night there, but this was our last day in Krakow and we were taking the night train back to Budapest.
In the end, my brother and friend said that they liked Krakow a lot, mainly because of its relaxed atmosphere. It wasn’t as far to go to get to the major sights, as in Budapest. My boss also just took a business trip there and was impressed by it, so if you see nothing else in Poland, make sure you spend some time in Krakow. It is still a treat for me to hear the hejnal, as the trumpeter in the main square recreates the legend of the warning against a Mongol invasion, felled mid-call.