Monday, August 14, 2006


Krakow was great. Lots of restaurants and things to do without the sense that it was all about the tourists. I suppose that may be because they don't get as many visitors as Prague or Budapest, but there was more of a feeling that people were just going about their lives with normal jobs.

Auschwitz was strangely unsettling, and not in the way that you might expect. It is very green, a lot of trees have grown up around the barracks and I couldn't escape the feeling that, were it not for the knowledge as to what had gone on there, you would not feel out of place having a family picnic on the lawn. This was less true of Birkenau (where more people were actually murdered), but it still didn't have the same impact on me as I would have expected. Ultimately, I think the fact is that the pictures from that time and the memoirs of the survivors are just so disturbing that the site of the camp today was never going to have as significant an effect on me. The one exception would be the room of shoes. Seeing children's little sandals and women's stylish high heeled shoes made the fact that this happened to regular people, with otherwise normal lives a lot more clear.

Warsaw is not an attractive city, it seems to fall somewhere in between Detroit and Cleveland in the looks department... but in its defense it was bombed to smithereens by the Nazis and then run by communists for fifty years. Its old city seems somewhat artificial, having largely been rebuilt after the war.

The rest of Eastern Europe had left me unprepared for the Poles. They are far more outgoing, friendly and helpful. When a woman in the Krakow train station realised I didn't speak Polish, she decided that I was utterly helpless (or at least I gather that this is what she had decided... she didn't speak a word of English and so just spoke slowly and yelled at me in Polish) and would not rest until she saw me get on my train (for my part I was very nervous to get on the train until I confirmed for myself it was indeed the one Warsaw.... they leave every hour on the hour and this train was waiting at the platform 40 minutes early... I had no desire to end up in St. Petersburg). She then refused to allow me to carry my own bags and started ordering around male travellers to help me.

The rest of my journey had also left me completely unprepared for the men of Poland. Or rather, Warsaw. Walking to my hotel from the train station, I had a number of men try to speak to me in Polish. They were all very old men (father, bordering on grandfather age). Since I don't speak any Polish, I don't really know if they were just being friendly or trying to be "friendly". But it is my general experience that friendly types don't stare at your chest when they are talking to you.

People staring at my chest I can handle. My final day in Poland I was walking from my hotel to the subway at 11 o'clock in the morning. A guy came up to me and started talking at me in Polish. Obviously I had no clue what he was saying. "Sorry, I don't speak Polish". Unlike the old men he didn't walk away. He looked sort of confused for a moment and said "erm, sex?". Apparently, standing there in my jeans and t-shirt I looked like a Polish prostitute. He didn't seem to want to take no for an answer so I got away as quickly as I could. I was ready for home.

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