The start of the trip & Poland
September 2008

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Two years ago, Stefan did a tour of countries along the Adriatic Sea (you may recall that I flew down to Naples and we spent a weekend together). His photos from Albania and Croatia really struck me, and I announced that I wanted to go to at least these countries before we left Europe. In 2007, after I got back from Afghanistan, we started planning for an Eastern European tour via Stefan's Africa Twin. Stefan picked the countries we would try to visit (we knew we might have to cross out some on the way), and I used Lonely Planet Eastern Europe and the Internet to pick towns and sites to visit. As usual, we picked an off-season time to go: September. 'Cause we hate heat, and we hate crowds.

We try not to make a big goodbye with Albi, because that ultimately just stresses a dog out even more. So leaving had to be no big deal, even though inside me, it was a VERY big deal.

For Stefan, the trip doesn't start until we're far from home, preferable in a foreign country, and he feels like he's somewhere "different." For me, the trip starts when we're walking out the door. I should note that I don't go down the hill with Stefan on the motorcycle -- the hill is too steep. So maybe the trip starts when I walk down to the bottom of the driveway and finally get on the bike... There was some confusion about the day we were walking out the door... it turned out to be Sunday, August 31. We left at 10, ready for a very long day of driving - we wanted to get a good start to getting out of Germany.

This was our first trip with a GPS. We headed East, sometimes on the Autobahn, which we hate because it's so freakin' boring, but is a big time saver. The GPS proved its value quickly, when we were needing to find the nearest gas station, and we never would have found that particular station without the GPS.

East Germany still has a different feel than West Germany; there's a lot more road construction going on, and to me, things still feel in transition. We went through a city called Bad Düben and, I kid you not, we passed PEE-WEE Strasse!

We ended up camping in Campingplatz "Am See" Hindenberg, a large camp site near Lübbenau, Germany. I had the feeling that the camp site had been full all weekend, but now, it was mostly empty and quiet - truly, vacation season was over for most people as of that weekend. We set up the tent with competitive speed; the campers in the RV across from our site said they watched in awe at how quickly we did it. We were hungry!

We walked over to the camp site restaurant, which was fancier than I expected - a really nice decor and an excellent menu. I was happy they were still serving, even though it was almost 9. After we ordered, the other diners slowly started departing the restaurant, leaving us on one side and a young family of four on the other. The parents took this as the cue that their very young kids could now run around freely throughout the restaurant, screaming and stomping, while they, the parents, ordered more wine. I kept thinking the chaos would end soon, that they were just having a last gasp before they, too left, but it just went on and on. When our food arrived, I walked across the empty restaurant and told the young couple, "Enough. I can't hear my husband and he can't hear me. Your kids need to be quiet." The parents reluctantly gathered their kids up from our part of the restaurant and brought them back to their table.

The meal was fantastic, and I was over it, but as the Loud Family was finally gathering up themselves to leave, the Dad walked over. I thought, ofcourse, it was to apologize. Nope -- it was to tell me how rude I was to tell him to keep his kids quiet, because they are CAMPING, and kids should not be told to be quiet when they are on VACATION, and obviously I don't have children because I do not understand that "kids need to be kids."

Ofcourse I exploded. I told him that he needs to teach his precious little snowflakes that they can't do anything and everything they want to, anytime they want to, wherever they want to, and he has NO right to let them run screaming through a restaurant, here or McDonald's. Before I could really get going, the restaurant owner came over and asked the guy to leave.

No, parents, your kids do NOT have the right to scream, yell and run around a restaurant, ANY restaurant. If your kids don't know how to talk with in-door voices and how to mind their manners where people are going to try to be speaking and listening to one another, you do not get to take them with you out to dinner, and if they start misbehaving, you have to LEAVE. If you feel overly-restricted by that requirement of life, then get a freakin' babysitter and leave your precious little snowflakes at home!

Luckily, we had earplugs, because the family was staying in a nearby RV, and the kids screamed -- SCREAMED -- late into the night. I guess bed times are just too "restrictive" and might hurt the precious little snowflakes' creative development.

The next morning, we cooked a big breakfast with Stefan's tiny camping stove: scrambled eggs with onion and garlic! Then we packed up and headed out, to try to get over the border to Poland ASAP. I was stunned that so many little cities in Eastern Germany still have dirt or gravel roads -- only the main roads through many small towns are paved and, then, sometimes still with cobblestone. We stopped in Frankfurt am Oder, the other Frankfurt, Germany (which I think has more character than the more well-known Frankfurt, Germany) to have lunch and buy things for supper later. Yes, I had Chinese food in Germany at the Polish border. Globalization indeed. Then, at last, we passed the many-but-vacant border control buildings, over the Ilanka river, into Świecko, Poland.

Swiecko reeks of Poland's former Soviet master. The architecture and town layout is from another time -- and I don't mean that in a good way. Quite frankly, it looked like a somewhat cleaned up downtown Kabul (which is also strewn with Soviet architecture) -- again, not a compliment. It took a while to find an ATM that would work and give Stefan Polish money (Poland isn't using the Euro yet officially, and when they do unofficially, you get a bad exchange rate). Then we headed out of town, South toward Krakow, which we knew we wouldn't make that day. I was stunned by how much road work was going on, that day and every day, a lot of it funded by the European Union according to signs along the roads. The Polish roads were mostly excellent, in fact! I was also really impressed with how many bike lanes I was seeing -- yes, Poland is getting ahead of the USA when it comes to addressing alternative transportation.

I was fascinated by the Southern Polish landscape: there were lots of forests, lots of people selling mushrooms on the side of the road, much less trash than I was expecting, abandoned or converted collective farms or factory farms here and there, lots of people riding bikes everywhere (including any highway) and tidy houses. Indeed, many houses were unpainted and looked a little run down, but few were entirely unkept: the yards were clean, the gardens were full of flowers and produce, there were no cars up on cinder blocks in the front yard... And the gas stations were all new, with spotless bathrooms! Hurrah Poland! We even saw two people training for a bike race, one a woman; they were obviously professionals. I canNOT imagine biking on these Polish roads with their crazy drivers, though I would soon learn that Polish roads were more sane than some other countries... The scary drivers started almost immediately when we crossed the border. A phenomena of Eastern Europe that continued until the second we hit the Austrian border a month later was that a driver will pass you no matter what, and if the driver is about to have a head-on collision as he passes you, he will then come back into your lane, even if that means forcing you off the road. Even so, no one ever was as rude to Stefan as the drivers of Italy.

We realized we weren't going to make it to any camp ground as listed on Stefan's map, and so asked a guy in the parking lot if a gricert stire if there was a camp site nearby. In his broken German, he assured us there was one in a small village called Rokitki, which was actually on Stefan's GPS (shock), so we used it to head to that village. We discovered there were three tiny villages all with that name or something similar, all right next to each other -- but no camp site. We asked someone on the street, and after she figured out what we were looking for ("kemping"), she assured us there was, indeed, a camp site further down the road. We still couldn't find it. Back and forth on a road resembling Highway 60 in Kentucky, but no campground. Finally, a guy on a dirt bike told us where the turnoff for the site was. And, indeed, there was a holiday camp there - an old Soviet-era holiday camp that is for long-term cabin and trailer rentals, around a small pay lake. Since the grounds and homes were almost entirely empty, both because it was not a weekend and because it was September, we decided to camp rough, right next to the lake. Every five minutes, we thought someone was coming to throw us out, but no one did. One guy on a bicycle, with an adorable mutt (black lab, Dachshund and who knows what else) running alongside, tried to pay us a visit to chat, but when he realized we didn't speak Polish, he quickly moved on. I was bummed he didn't try to talk to us more -- I'll try to talk with anyone!

Our brilliant idea of the evening: Warner Brothers should set up a parody Web site "selling" all of the Acme products that were ever offered in old Warner Brothers cartoons, especially the ones with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner (although I would also like to see the Acme Bagel Warmer and Gene Splicer from "Pinky and the Brain" for sale).

The more we got into Southern Poland, the more contrast we saw with the border city that was my first impression of the country: modern homes and huge stores, with Soviet-era architecture becoming less and less. I was stunned at how lovely it all was; much cleaner and nicer than Italy! The rural areas remind me so much of the rural areas of Western Kentucky.

Indeed, I did encounter that uniquely Eastern European Devuskha style. My favorite was the young woman in a shimmering green top, white mini-skirt, HUGE white hoop earrings, and pink shoes at the grocery store. And she wasn't a hooker.

Speaking of hookers... I was really saddened at how many their were in Poland by the side of the road. All very young, none looking healthy. They looked mean. Bitter. Empty. I can't imagine the life they lead.

The stray dog sightings started almost immediately when we crossed the border into Poland, and while they broke my heart, there were far, far fewer than I had expected, and that continued all the way until Romania... and I'll have more to say about that later...

We had a good night's sleep, even though we weren't wearing earplugs, and we never were thrown out, although we left as early as we could so no one would have that opportunity. We were trying to take secondary roads, and at a gas station, we met three bicyclists from Germany; I remained astounded that bicyclists dare to try the roads of Eastern Europe. Later in the day, a Polish guy on a bike flagged us down when we were pulled over looking at a map and told us adamantly, in decent German (certainly better than mine) that if we wanted to go to Krakow, we would HAVE to take the Autobahn, that the secondary road would take too long. He was obviously a motorbike fan and wanted to do us a favor. It was not the first time we got this kind of random kindness from people.

We got to Krakow in decent time and still with daylight -- just one traffic jam on the way -- and stayed at the camp site Smok, as highly recommended by Lonely Planet Eastern Europe. It's a great camp site, namely for its location in relation to old town in Krakow, and its bathrooms - huge, clean, with showers that don't require tokens for hot water. Though we didn't use them, the site also has bedrooms for rent. The site has information posted all over its office, in multiple languages, regarding how to use public transit to get to Krakow's old town or any other tourist site in the area. It had two really nice outdoor eating areas, a shared fridge in one of them (which we used for milk), and a tiny onsite grocery. Only downside: there is a kennel or a person who has many dogs nearby, and the dogs bark all night. Earplugs are a must. I was very pleased, all in all, with what we found, as we would be staying there for three nights. Our fellow tent campers the first night were backpackers from New Zealand; they are a young couple touring Europe for three months, and would be going to Estonia soon to participate in the World Orienteering Championships. Later, our fellow tent campers were young German guys touring by bicycles (yikes!).

We had a great night's sleep and a hearty breakfast (more scrambled eggs; usually, when camping, we just have cold cuts, cheese, bread, and for me, maybe peanut butter). We followed the camp site's directions and took a city bus that stops near the camp site entrance to downtown, and then after much confusion, a mini-bus to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, and has been shown many times on German TV. You have to keep reminding yourself that everything you are seeing was carved by man, not by nature -- otherwise, you won't be all that impressed. The tour was interesting, though very rushed. Some of the carvings are kitschy, but most are quite beautiful, especially the underground chapel. It was nice to spend such a hot day in a cool mine (though it was far from cold, as had been implied on all the descriptions), and I'm glad we went... but I had wanted to be a lot more wowed than I was. Am I becoming a jaded tourist?

We ate really bad pizza for a late lunch right outside the mine's entrance, and a mini bus driver about to head back to Krakow saw us looking confused on the street and stopped on the wrong side of the road to pick us up (did I mention how nice people were to us?). We headed back to old town and walked around. Krakow is really lovely, and it's obvious that it really gets going at night - oh, to be younger and 40 pounds lighter and capable of staying up late... IMO, Krakow has Madrid (sorry, Alex) and Geneva (my least favorite European city) beat by a mile in terms of being a city worth visiting: it's beautiful, compact, dripping with gorgeous sights that are easy to find, and has a vibe that makes you want to jump in and enjoy. When we first started walking around, Stefan noticed a sign for an English-speaking club, and it turned out to be meeting that very evening; I was tempted to crash it and speak in my Kentucky accent, but we decided to spare the attendees the confusion.

I was weirding out over one thing: what is up with all these guys with shaved heads in Poland? I swear, half of the guys we saw under 35 had their heads shaved or extremely closely-cropped hair.

I was shocked at how much Polish I could figure out from most, but certainly not all, store signs. By the time we left Poland, I knew the Polish phrases for "For Sale", "Open" and "Closed." Ofcourse, I don't remember these now. But I did while I was there! And I would learn these three phases in every subsequent country we were in after this - and I would promptly forget them when we entered a new country.

We watched some fire dancers in the city square as night fell, had delicious local beer, had a nice supper in a small restaurant on a side street, walked around a lot, stopped at a grocery for canned goods (but couldn't find any), and after much confusion, headed back to the camp site by train and bus. While we cooked, an almost-not-a-kitten-anymore came up to play, and I was happy to oblige, as I was missing Albi badly. The cat made me realize how much I miss Kabul Kitty as well. Although the stray dog and cat situation in Poland is still way better than Italy, I wish Poland would embark on an aggressive, ongoing campaign to encourage people to spay and neuter their pets.

And in case your wondering, yes, I will berate Italy throughout the rest of this travelogue regarding its stray dog and cat situation, its mounds of trash, its unfriendly people and its drivers, in comparison with Eastern Europe.

The next day, we headed to the Auschwitz concentration camps. Ever since I first learned about the Holocaust of World War II, I vowed that, someday, I would visit Auschwitz and pay my respects. Our earlier visit to Dachau was good preparation for this visit on several levels... and, yet, can you ever prepare yourself for visiting Auschwitz?

As we headed out of Krakow, we just missed a huge convoy of black cars with tinted windows, with a large police escort; I think I saw Portuguese flags on the head car. I can't believe whatever official it was didn't stop to see us.

There wasn't a lot of signage for Auschwitz on the way there, and what there was was a bit confusing. We took a wrong turn and, instead of ending up at the main museum, which is at the first, smaller Auschwitz camp, we went down a road, turned a corner, and there, before us, was the jaw-dropping site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. There was no sound. I didn't hear the motorcycle anymore. We pulled into the parking lot and I got off, took off my helmet, and just stood there, staring at the gate. I don't know how long I stood there. There it was. One of the last things more than one million people saw before they were executed.

We were some of the first tourists to arrive for that day -- a small group on a bus. While Stefan smoked and I tried to recover from just the sight of this place, I looked out across the field in front of it, and realized there was a group of people in the distance, moving towards us. I looked at them as they approached, and saw they were young people, probably high school or college students. They were carrying banners. Then I realized the banners were Israeli flags. They were there to retrace the steps of the martyrs, and to hold a ceremony of remembrance. We never talked to them; I felt like they were on a very special, private journey, and I wanted to respect that.

Because we'd come to the main camp first, and so early in the morning, there were very few people there, and I think that really added to the experience for us, keeping it solemn and personal. Loud, boisterous students taking pictures and laughing had been a really disturbing thing at Dachau; I couldn't have handled it at Auschwitz-Birkenau. There are small signs outside of key points in the camp, telling you what had happened at different points. When we finally went into a barracks, I just totally lost it. I haven't cried that hard, that long, in a long time. Standing at the small ponds next to the remains of the ovens, where so many people's ashes were unceremoniously dumped... it's just so hard to get your mind around it. I placed a small stone on one of the memorials, and recited a promise quietly regarding remembering these people and fighting against genocide and repression today. I don't think I could go to this place again. But I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I went in and saw it for myself, that I paid my respects, and renewed myself in my own values. I remind myself again that silence means approval and hope I have the strength to never be silent. May I always have the courage to speak out.

We headed over to the main Auschwitz museum. The first Auschwitz camp was actually converted military barracks, so it doesn't have the same feel as other Nazi concentration camps, which were laid out in exactly the same ways. Many of the barracks are now museum space, and it would take a whole day to go through each. The most heart-wrenching sights, for me, were the massive piles displayed of shoes, glasses, pots and pans, suitcases, even prosthetic limbs. If you aren't moved to tears when you see those entire rooms of people's belongings, you aren't human.

I don't recommend the film at the Auschwitz museum -- it's too short, it's not well-done, and there are much, much better documentaries out there. I do recommend the photos in front of the film room: they are pictures of local Polish people who tried to help people in Auschwitz, and sometimes even pulled people right out of the final death march out of the camp as the Allies approached and hid them in their homes. May I have their strength in such a situation...

We met some bikers from Estonia in the museum and again in the parking lot, but they were really cold and unfriendly, unlike most motorbike people. Not sure what their deal was.

Unfortunately, we didn't pack any rain gear for the ride to Auschwitz, and I didn't pack my guidebooks in plastic for the day trip either; there was a sudden and very intense rain storm that hit as we started back, and as it rained, we got caught in the worst traffic jam I have ever been in. We went about 10 feet in an hour, I swear, in the pouring rain. By the time we were at the camp site, we were absolutely soaked and very, very irritable. Wet bike clothes are GROSS. Instead of taking a shower, I sat in one of the camp sites shared eating spaces, sewing up my bike pants, which had ripped in several places (I so loooove being fat), while Stefan hung our sopping wet clothes from the rafters. We sent out for pizza, and it was delivered right outside the dining area (how's THAT for service?). I plugged my iPod into Stefan's portable speaker and calmed down to Tulare Dust.

I was sad to be leaving Krakow the next day, because I wasn't done! I hadn't visited Wawel Castle or Wawel Cathedral or Kozimierz, the former Jewish quarter. I wanted to try another Old Town restaurant. But we had to push on. So... I guess I'll just have to go back to Krakow some day! Whoopie! It would make a great destination for a long weekend.

The next morning, our mood wasn't much better. I spent the better part of the morning trying to dry my bike gloves with the stubborn "automatic" hand dryer in the bathroom. The morning's only good news was that the camp site would allow us to pay in Euros, though they ripped us off with the exchange rate. We were itching to get on the road and start a new adventure. It was very foggy, but it cleared up quickly, and we made great time. That, and having our clothes dry so quickly in the wind improved my mood dramatically.

Southern Poland just got more and more beautiful. All I could think of was how lucky a person would be to get to live and work in Poland!

In the Tatra mountains, just as we were approaching the border at Slovakia, we went through a village where, I swear, the houses and small shops looked just like Bodie, California. How can that be?! It was like seeing what Bodie would have looked like back in the day... but with paved roads and cars.

It was then on to Slovakia.

Pictures of the adventure.

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