The Odyssey

The journey from Prague to Athens was an interesting one. And to think, I was worried about being late (late for being two hours early) this morning.

As it turns out, I wasn’t late. It was a misty morning in Prague. I caught the train to the tram to the bus with no problems. I even accidentally got off at the wrong stop and had to wait for the next bus. That was a little awkward. I wasn’t paying attention, then when I heard the announcement “airport terminal something” I panicked and jumped off.

I didn’t see anything that looked like an airport. I thought perhaps the public bus just dropped you off nearby and you had to walk the rest of the way. My main concern is that I had no idea which terminal to go to. I had no wifi at my apartment, and no way of getting online before my journey.

I spend a few minutes at a security point at some nearby complex. I thought this could make sense, you know, airports and security. I spoke with a very confused Czech man who I’m sure had no idea why I was demanding information about the airport. The language barrier didn’t help.

I decided I had no options but to get back on the bus and try again. I didn’t wait long. The real airport was three stops further. I arrived two hours before my flight almost to the minute, so I was feeling quite good about everything.

I find flying and airports kind of relaxing. I spend so much time in my daily life right now running around. I’m always trying to figure out where I am, where I’m going, it’s exhausting. In an airport, as long as you get there with the recommended two hours, you just move through the machine. You don’t have to figure anything out yourself, and then you’re on a plane. Not only are airplanes fun and exciting, but you’re actually forced to do nothing. I don’t allow myself that often, and I actually really enjoy it.

The thing that I like about airports is that, even when things go wrong, you’re just rerouted. You still follow a planned route. That was the case today. That romantic fog is not so seductive for take offs and landings. I was told to have a coffee and come back for more info in a half hour.

I never mind having a nice coffee. Moreover, the whole airport had free wifi, so I was sufficiently entertained. When I came back, they were going ahead with my flight to Warsaw with only a small delay. It was a small delay that would make me miss my connecting flight, but that was their problem to worry about, not mine. This is why I like airports. When trains are cancelled or things go awry any place else, you have to figure out your own solution. 

I can be a very zen traveller when things are out of my control. Plus, I always try to remember how much anger and frustration the poor airline employees have to face on days like this. They’re not responsible for the weather, they’re just here to help accommodate you in the best way possible. And I hope that, if the time ever comes that there is a single seat left on a flight to Athens or some extra goodies to give out, they’ll remember the nice girl who smiled and wished them a pleasant day. That’s me.

I’m sitting at a window seat in the Starbucks, observing the misty cause of our delay and writing addresses on postcards. I had been worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to use wifi and get that taken care of, so I was glad for the time. I was pretty absorbed in my task, and had just finished when I realized at a quite curt Czech voice was directed at me. 

They were ordering me to leave because there was some suspicious luggage. I suddenly realize that I am the only person left in the place and there is security tape all around me. I quickly try to gather my things. I’m sure I looked like the clueless tourist of the year as I fled the Starbucks in total disarray. They hadn’t just blocked off the shop but that whole half of the airport. Whoops. I saw the offending backpack on my way. I kept thinking to myself that if this thing explodes and kills me while I’m trying to pick up all these darn postcards, Matthew is going to have new passion for his career.

Displaced, I decided that this was as good a time as any to head back to the check in desk and see about my flight. I was told that I should go ahead and get through security, it would only be delayed 45 minutes. I’d probably miss my connecting flight since I’d had only a 30 minute layover, but they told me that they would work something else out for me at Warsaw.

After waiting around by the gate for a while, the flight was cancelled completely. I was very, very happy that I had decided not to check my luggage. While everyone else was stuck at the baggage reclaim desk, I breezed on through to the ticket desk.

I was the first to arrive from this cancelled flight, and the poor guy was clueless. He called his superiors, who apparently gave him no information but to tell us to wait there. I was suspicious about the inefficiency. I considered going to the ticket desk outside security, but he promised us some free food vouchers so I thought I’d see where that went.

Person after person came up with the same questions: I don’t need to go to Warsaw, is there a different way to get to my final destination? Should I get my luggage and from where? Am I in the right place?
His response was an increasingly frustrated plea for us to just wait. Again, I was feeling a little suspicious.

When another man came up to ask about getting to Athens, I told him that it was my destination as well. He has a smart phone and a personal assistant, and while we were waiting was able to ascertain more concrete information. The next way to get to Athens was via Munich and we would arrive around 6:00. They could do this for us straight away at the other ticket desk.

Happy I’d cast my lot in with this guy, we headed out of the security area. Unfortunately, the flight to Munich was full. The next flight was through Frankfurt, and would deposit us in Athens at 21:55. 
Of course, this isn’t ideal. If it had known I’d be spending an entire day in the Prague airport, I could have seen a few more this this morning. But like I said, I’m quite tired. I’m lucky to be going to Greece at all. A nice relaxing day before I arrive is actually pleasant. I have a new friend, food vouchers, and I’ve now experienced my first ever cancelled flight. All in all, not a bad day. Besides, airport or not, I’m still in Prague. I’m lucky to be anywhere on this continent, every single day.

My friend asked me if I smoked, and although I don’t I was happy to join him. We stopped for a coffee, and I was completely bewildered when he got out a cigarette right then and there. Coming from America, it’s so unexpected to see smoking indoors. I assumed he’d meant to step outside to smoke, and it took me a few moments to process. It was just a small moment, but one of those funny things that stand out to you when you travel.

The only bad thing to come of having to leave security was that, on the way back through, my eye makeup remover was confiscated. There was only a small amount in the bottom of a relatively small bottle, but it goes a long way. It would have lasted me months. I’ve flown with that same bottle in much fuller states, gone through the same security with it just earlier that day, and it was quite irritating to see it thrown out now. Fortunately I was meeting a professional makeup artist in Athens, the amazing miss Jolie. I wouldn’t be totally out of luck tonight.

We ate lunch using our “refreshment vouchers” and headed to our gate. The flight, of course, was delayed. This time it was not due to weather, but the plane itself was running late. Apparently, due to strong northerly winds, only one runway was usable. Every flight out was delayed. The bad news didn’t end there, for we were headed straight back to Frankfurt to catch out flight to Athens.

I think I dozed off through most of the short flight. There was a sense of general panic when we arrived, and I believe that we were the only ones not late for our flight. I hope the delays allowed everyone to get to their planes on time. I had two hours to get to my gate, so let the rest run past me.

My friend and I had coffee while we waited, by now for the fourth time. It’s taken a lot of caffeine to get me through this day. As you know, it’s been a long week. Our flight was projected to be 40 minutes late, which turned out to be nearly correct. Unlike American flights, all European flights over two hours serve a meal–and as an American, this excites me.

This trip dragged on for much longer. It’s a shame, because I really like to be up in the air. I fell victim to what seems to be a more and more frequent occurrence these days: the man next to me was slightly too large for his seat. His body was as wide as the seat could allow, which meant that his arms at rest at his sides intrude several inches over the narrow armrest and into my space.

Normally, being petit means I’m quite comfortable on planes. I have an extra few inches between my arms at rest and the armrests. But I had nowhere to go to escape from constant an awkward contact, since the lady on my other side was of a perfectly average size and took up an average amount of room. She’d have to have been quite small for me to borrow any of her space reasonably. The food was decent, but it was an uncomfortable three hours.

I tried to prop my left foot up on my purse to keep it a bit elevated. I only need my feet to last two more weeks, and that can’t be too much to ask. There is a sharp pain at the top of my foot, and I’m not quite sure how to deal with it because I’ve never had problem like it before. Even after a restful day like today both my feet are swollen, again an atypical problem for me. I don’t think I’m doing particularly more walking than my other travels, so I wonder if it’s the constant cold and wetness. 

I’m going to buy new shoes if I come across any, because these are falling apart now at the seams. They have several large holes, but apart from being in once piece I don’t expect to find anything that will be much improvement. Again, just two weeks is all I need from them. I wish I could afford new insoles, as well. They usually last a few years, but I’ve worn mine out in less than five months. I think I’ve just been doing that much more walking than average.

When I bought them, I asked how I could tell when it would be time to replace them. I was told it would be like when you knew to replace an old pair of sneakers (which I admittedly don’t have much experience with) and they would be wrinkled and cracked. Well, mine fit this description. They’re cracked on several places and I’m wearing it away in the heel. 

It’s a bummer to have spent a full day in airports that I could have been exploring Athens or Prague, especially since I had so little time left. However, as difficult as it has been to actually get to Greece (I could have been 1/3 of the way there by train in the amount of time it took today) I am so incredibly happy with my decision. I’m going to take a slower pace and enjoy the dry, sunny country. I had wanted to badly to go there, and for so many reasons now I’m happy it worked out. 

I arrived after 11:00. All of my troubles for the day would have been made up to me by a new stamp in my passport alone, but that stupid EU foiled me again. This was quickly forgotten though, when I walked out into the night and it was warm and dry. At night. I had forgotten such things were possible. 

I tried to take the train back but the bus made more sense. Mine was the last stop so there was no way to miss it. The hotel was supposed to be very near the Syntigma Square, practically in it, so I hadn’t planned my route any further. 

A young Greek man saw me looking bewildered and offered his assistance. His name is Chris. He told me that he has many friends who are traveling at the moment, so he hears a lot about the complications of traveling. He also didn’t want to leave me to wander around at midnight, which was really cool.

There is an Electra Palace and and Electra Hotel both within a few blocks of the square. I knew I was in the palace, but I don’t think he knew that the names were different. We went to the wrong one first, but it was a small mistake. I reunited with Jolie a few short minutes later.

The hotel (or should I say palace?) is fabulous. She took me up to the rooftop pool for my first view of the acropolis. The angle from here is totally unobstructed and stunning. I felt like I was really in Greece! I could have gotten here faster from America than I did from Czech, but I did it. It’s amazing how exhausting this can be, as relaxing as it seems to hang out and drink coffees all day. I will sleep well tonight!

Rainy Prague

Prague is enchanting.

I have a guide book to Europe. I borrowed it from my parents. Actually, my mom wrote me a love note in the front cover that i only discovered this week. It was a lovely little surprise. So, the perfect for this kind of trip. It has key information for each country like phrases, currency, and a little history, then a guide to the sights in each major city.

The very first sentence about the Czech Republic says, “Nothing will prepare you for the beauty of Prague.” Today, I learned a little about that.

I also realized, again, what a good decision it was to go ahead and go to Athens. I had my first real night of sleep in a long time, and I never wanted to wake up. I had been planning to go to the earliest Prague walking tour at 10:00, but when I woke up I realized it was raining. It was raining, I was so tired, and I decided to go back to sleep until the rain passed.

The rain never passed and I only slept for another hour. Zuzana and I had been joking yesterday that I might just stay in the apartment all day and rest, since I can, and I actually came very close to that. It’s a good thing there’s no food here so I was forced to leave. Still, I really enjoyed a leisurely morning for a change. I felt only slightly guilty about spending my limited time in Prague in bed.

I discovered that during the day, there are several restaurants on the lower levels of my apartment buildings and the ones around it. None served breakfast, so I had Chinese food for brunch and used wifi. My only real plan was to go to the free walking tour, the next of which was at 2:00. Although it was really overcast, the rain had abated. I was hoping for it to stay that way. 

It met in the old town square. I arrived pretty early and wandered around for a while. I had passed through the night before with Zuzana, but it was nice to see in the daytime. I met two girls who were also going to take the tour, an Australian girl named Cherise and an Egyptian girl named Miriam. We hung around together for most of the tour, but it was one of the friendlier groups I’d ever been with. I met an American girl who has been living in Istanbul for a semester abroad and a Brazilian mother-daughter duo. The mother had the most fabulous hair I’d ever seen.

The guide was really friendly, too. He is an American guy from Georgia and Florida. He was charismatic and funny, and informative. Like all European cities, Prague has a rather tumultuous path with lots of death and drama. I think this was one of my favorite European walking tours so far, even though the conditions were less than ideal.

Yesterday was sunny and at times downright hot. Today was rainy, and usually downright cold. The guide had a few tricks up his sleeve, and kept us mostly under shelter when he was talking to us. Of course, there was no help but to get wet from place to place. My shoes were a goner immediately. Once the damage is done, you get used to it and move on. It only really bothers you in the beginning, and then any time after you’ve taken your shoes off and have to put them on still wet.

We stopped for lunch and a break at a place that served, among other things, American pancakes. This was tempting, but there wasn’t time for much more than soup and bagels. Thinking that I might only have two meals today, brunch and linner, I had two whole bagels. You never know when you’ll have the chance to eat again.

After I asked about Kafka, he showed us a few of the places that he lived and worked along the route. I guess people don’t usually ask about him, but he spent a lot of time in Prague and seemed like he really got around. He lived in many places, had many jobs, and we even saw his synagogue. 

Mozart also loved Prague, and Prague, Mozart. I got to see the theatre where Don Giovanni premiered and a statue dedicated to him based on the ghost in the final act. They love it so much in Prague that it runs pretty regularly at the opera house. It’s actually on now, but I didn’t have the time to see about getting a ticket. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve seen it either three times now or four, I can’t recall.

The Jewish quarter was, as usual, one of my favorite parts. I’ve always wanted to see the Jewish cemetery in Prague. It was much to small for the Jewish population, but since they were confined to the ghetto they had to improvise. Graves there are stacked up to 12 people atop one another. It’s amazing. In the Jewish museum are some the drawings of the children of the nearby Teresin ghetto, which I have learned about and really wanted to see as well. Unfortunately, the tour ended too late for me to make it back there.

After the tour, I went to get coffee with my new friends. They brought other people they’d met on the tour, and there was quite a good little party of us. People split off one by one, everyone pretty much wanting to spend the rest of the evening in their respective hostels where it was warm and dry. I desperately wanted to do the same, but this was also my last chance to see anything in Prague. When Ben, an Australian guy, told me he was going up to the castle, I decided that I had to come along.

We said goodbye to Miriam and Cherise, along with another guy named Scott. They had all said repeatedly that they were going straight back to their hostel, but changed their minds. The five of us were a merry party, after the initial shock of being back in the freezing rain wore off. At first we tried to share the few umbrellas that we had between us, but those of us without soon were so wet that it didn’t make a difference.

It was clear right away that we had all made the right decision to go to the castle. Even before we got there, we were discovering the beauty of Prague. We didn’t consult any maps. The castle is on top of a large hill, so we just headed towards the incline. The staircases we found were amazing and the views of the city just really elegant. I think we even forgot about the rain for a while.

We made it to the top, but everything had already closed. Still, the architecture was beautiful. I think the weather had scared off everyone else because we were the only ones around. I love that. I love having a place to myself to enjoy, without having to worry about pickpockets or other tourists getting in my photos.

We came down the other side. I think we thought that we had discovered the beauty of Prague before, but it was nothing compared to this view. Even the rain was suddenly atmospheric. the soft light filtering through clouds in the early evening made the whole city seem to glow.
On the other side of the hill, we weren’t quite sure what to do. I proposed going to the Charles Bridge. I had seen it the night before with Zuzana, but I wanted to see it in the light as well. 

We took almost the same route as Zuzana and I had the night before. I showed them all where she had shown me all of the swans, which is still delightful. There are wonderful views of the Charles Bridge from that point. As we carried on, we discovered a few things for ourselves. There’s a fountain where two men, Hitler and Stalin, stand on either side of the Czech Republic… Both peeing on it. The best part of this is that it moves. The hips rotate back and forth, and the pensisis (peni?) move up and down as they stream pee onto the country below.

We also stumbled upon this alley the boys had heard about during a boat tour. It gets so narrow that only one pedestrian can fit through at a time so there are stop lights to let you know when you can walk through. You could also look with your eyeballs to see if anyone were coming and whether or not you’d both fit, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

The Charles Bridge is perfect at dusk. The entire city of Prague is so picturesque and photogenic. My camera takes decent photos in the half light, but any darker and they would have been all a blur. Across the bridge, we looked back and saw the castle atop the hill. It was lit from below, but there was still just enough light in the sky to discern all the buildings below. Everything was bathed in cool twilight blue. It’s one of the most beautiful sights of the trip. 

I thought a lot about Before Sunrise today. I know it was actually set and filmed in Vienna, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, Vienna, Budapest, and Prague share the same concept. Perhaps it’s because I just didn’t get the chance to really explore Vienna. I wasn’t thinking about that movie or I honestly would have given myself more time there. Whatever the reason for it, probably all of the unexpected enchanting vignettes within this day, the movie has been on my mind. 

I’m loathe to leave the city, but I really need to get out of the rain and get some real rest. My foot started hurting in the strangest way; it’s the muscles on the top part of my foot. I’ve never had that happen to me before and I’m not quite sure what it is or what to do about it. After the Charles Bridge, the pain became quite sharp.

We had a small meal together before we parted ways. Ben had an amazing looking crepe from a street vendor, then Scott and Miriam had pizza while the rest of us had drinks in a cafe. Since they’re going to Hungary from here, I gave them the rest of my florints. It was a nice little bit of change for them, but the denominations were too small for me to get changed anywhere. I don’t mind passing it along to my friends, though.

Getting back to the apartment was easy enough, and it does feel so good to be dry and out of the rain. I hope my shoes dry by morning. It will be an early one. I have to get to the airport!

Today was such a beautiful day for Prague and for friendships. I hope all of these people and places will come back into my life someday.

Golden Prague

“It’s like we’re literally in prison right now,” and “god, it’s like all they want you to do in here is sleep,” are only two among a string of such astute observations that lulled me into a peaceful slumber on the train last night. I got to hear all about the Krakow nightlife. I missed the marathon of 6 AM nights, since I was waking up two full hours before then.

I felt bad for the older lady on one of the bunks who didn’t have earplugs. I would have offered her my extra pair, but they had already been in my ears so that’s pretty gross. Still not sure which would be worse, though… Listening to the drivel of other travelers, or wearing waxy earplugs. These are the people who make my age group look bad.

I gave them 15 minutes before I put my foot down about the lights. I know it’s shocking, but people do actually plan to sleep on overnight trains.

After this, the night was fine. Polish overnight trains are a little sketchy. The sheets were square and could in no way cover the whole bunk, the lights were kinda broken, but these things are all part of the adventure.

I slept as well as one can on a train, and felt pretty refreshed upon arriving in Prague. It was 7:30. Now, my accommodation in Prague is a little unusual. A friend of mine from Kansas City, Nick, had heard I was coming to Prague and introduced me via Facebook to his local friend Zuzana. Zuzana and I had been communicating for the past few weeks and I am convinced there is not a kinder person. She found me an apartment to stay in. It belongs to one of her friends, but since he isn’t staying there at the moment he rents it out cheaply.

To get the key to the place, I had to go to his boyfriend’s hair studio. This was the easy part, since it’s basically right across the street from the train station. I get there fine, but find out that he doesn’t arrive in until 9:00.

At this point I’m pretty hungry, so I’m not terribly upset by the idea of finding food and coffee and wifi. I started to walk around, looking for a cafe. for some reason in this part of Prague, none open before 9:00. My bag starts to feel heavy after a while so I cut my losses and head back to the train station. If nothing else, I know it will be good for a Burger King.

To my delight, there’s a little place there with all of the things I was looking for. Food, caffeine, wifi. There, I had one of the best omelettes of my life. I was incredibly hungry since last night I’d only had a twix for dinner, but it was a hot, substantial omelette made with bacon. It really hit the spot.

My blog yesterday prompted a lot of support for me going to join Jolie in Athens. Flying was indeed an option I hadn’t really considered. I really had wanted to go to Greece during this trip, it just never really made financial or logistical sense. It still doesnt, but I didn’t take much persuading. I am going to Athens. I am SO excited to see Jolie. I found a relatively reasonable flight, and I leave Prague Friday morning.

The only city I’m really missing is going to be Salzburg. As much as I love The Sound of Music and wanted to see this city that my mom is so in love with, it will have to wait for another trip. It’s now on my long list of good reasons to return someday to Europe.

I had been planning on spending a lot of time in Prague and looking forward to spending more than a couple days in one place. Knowing that I only had two full days changed my plans. Kutna Hora, a small town outside of Prague, was high on my list, so I decided that would be how I spent my day.

After I got the keys to the apartment and dropped off the money for it, I headed back to the train station. I dropped my bag in a locker and hopped on the next train out.

For some reason, an hour on the train feels so much shorter than an hour in the car. Also, something about trains always makes me sleepy. Maybe these two things are related, since I spend a lot of train travel time dozing. The train went to a station outside the city, and then I had to transfer for a short 10 minute ride into the main station. This is what I was told to do when I bought my tickets in Prague. I had it on good authority that this station was closest to all of the sights.

It’s quite a small station, but it makes sense because Kutna Hora is a small place. The primary draw for me was the Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic Church decorated with tens of thousands of human skeletons. I asked the one lady working at the train station where this was located, but there was a troublesome language barrier. She tried to tell me to go back to the last train station.

I decide to ignore this advice, and I turn around to see another girl about my age looking frustrated. Apparently, she had just been at the last station. They told her to come here, and now she was being told to go back there. I introduced myself, then my new friend Nicky and I decided to join forced. Outside the train station we were in some strange residential block of new, crummy apartment building. An English speaker walking a dog told us that it was a two mile walk to the church but a straigh shot. Hoping he actually meant kilometers but said miles because he could tell we were Americans, we set off in that direction.

The walk was pretty short. It was very sunny, even hot, which was a nice change from Poland. We found the Ossuary with no problems.

It was a really bizarre place, but small. It was a pretty quick stop.

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I can’t remember why they suddenly has such a surplus of dead bodies in this town that they ran out of room in the graveyards. Whatever happened, I’m glad it did. There were large pyramids made of bones, which were hard to photograph, but everything else was mad of bones too. Chains of bones were hanging from the ceiling. The chandelier was made of skulls and femurs. There was even a crest made of bones. It was wild and so morbid. What possesses people to create something like this? Other cities with extra humans laying around do normal things, like create catacombs. What happened in Kutna Hora that this was the natural thing to do?

We had a few hours til a train back. We stopped in a cathedral and had lunch. We accidentally killed a little too much time and then missed this train. The next train left in an hour, which was almost as long as it took us to find the train station again.

Nicky and I were back in Prague by 7:00 and went our separate ways. I was meeting Zuzana in an hour, which wasn’t enough time to drop my bag off at my apartment. I instead had a coffee and a snack. When I’m really tired, I have to eat a lot more often just to keep my energy up. It took me longer than I expected to get to her, so I was a few minutes late, but this was fine.

Zuzana is so sweet and wonderful in real life. She showed me all around Prague. One of the first things we saw was the Charles Bridge, from afar. It looks like something from Beauty and the Beast, enchanted. Later on, we passed over it. It’s actually kind of a small city, and we did a lot of walking. Some parts felt like Before Sunrise, like when we walked past a window and some young teens were practicing piano on the other side.

When we were on the Charles Bridge, near the end of our evening, she told me that this place was so romantic that if she were a man she would have to kiss me there. Someday, I’ll come back with Matthew.

We passed a church that had been turned into a nightclub and took a peek inside. It was so strange. Tourist traffic really drives up the demand for discotheques, which is something I don’t like or understand. You can get drunk and party anywhere in the world, like at home. Why would you waste your precious, limited time abroad on that? And then waste more time recovering from your hangover the next day?

We saw some pretty squares and the astrological clock. I am really excited to explore again in the morning. There are some free walking tours, which I always love.

Time got away from us a bit. We were about to part ways at 11:30, but the metro closes at 12:00 and I wasn’t sure if I could make it to the train station, get my luggage, and back to the correct metro line on time. Since I didn’t have a phone, Zuzana came with me as far as the train station. She was impressed by the smallness of my luggage. I’m proud of it! It’s a small bag for a month.

In the end, I had no problem with time. I found the apartment quite easily. It’s a designer’s, and you can tell. It’s impossibly modern and clean. It’s so nice to be alone, too. I don’t have to worry about other people waking me up at all hours of the night, or where I will leave my things during the day that they’ll be safe. And I so deserve a good night’s sleep.

Auschwitz

I left my hostel even earlier today and I made my train on time. No toilet drama or anything. I had bought myself a pastry and some juice the night before since I assumed nowhere would be open at 4 AM, which proved to be a good decision.

The train was nice and warm and I dozed most of the way. When I woke up, it was raining. I was sad for my shoes.

Auschwitz is a 15 minute walk from the train station, so my shoes were completely saturated by the time I even got there. I couldn’t really mind though, being at auschwitz. I was right about beating the crowds. Like I said, they make it really hard to get there at 8:00. I was the only person on that train. I don’t know how the other couple people got there, but we were few.

Well, besides the school group. They pulled up in the parking lot at the same time as I walked in, and the people who worked there kept trying to herd me into their group. I kept insisting that I was alone, and finally I broke away.

It was pretty surreal to see the gate. It was difficult to walk through it.

When people ask me why I want to go to Auschwitz, I think they expect me to have some Jewish heritage. I don’t. Well, maybe I do, Grandma Prouty might have discovered someone in our family history… But that’s uncertain, and certainly not my reason for going.

The horrors of the holocaust are part of a legacy that all humans have inherited, not just Germans and Jews. It’s important for each of us to confront that. I feel that Auschwitz was something that I needed to see, if I ever had the opportunity to do so. I want to be a witness for the victims. Eli Wiesel said, “to forget them is to let them die again.” I may not have been alive during WWII, but I have I herited that responsibility.

It’s difficult to talk about the emotional aspects of what I saw today. And even being there, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of it all.

I am glad that I went early and without a guide. I was completely alone at the execution wall, in the standing cells, walking down halls lined with mug shots of the early prisoners. One man looked so bewildered and mildly surprised in his, he reminded me of my brother David. He always has that look like he’s not really sure what’s going on. That man was murdered in less than a month at the camp.

I went for over an hour without seeing another person, and almost two before I started running into tour groups. This I took as my cue to move on to Auschwitz II, Birkenau.

This is the Auschwitz that you see when you picture Auschwitz. It is amazingly huge. I was on the first shuttle over to it, so again it was uncroded. This camp was so much larger than the first. This is where you see the three level pallets that slept 15 prisoners. The pond filled with ashes, the field where they burned piles of bodies in open air. Much of it was destroyed by the Nazis near the end of the war in an attempt to destroy the evidence of their deeds.

The only time I smiled was when I came across Crematoriam IV. I’d studied this in one of my many Holocaust classes. There is an excellent movie about it called The Grey Zone. It was destroyed by summerkummandos (the prisoners forced to take on the job of burning the bodies of other prisoners; they never held this post for more than six months before they were executed themselves) in the only successful resistance movement in the history of Auschwitz. It was never restored.

I was on the far edge of the camp by this point. The barracks are still surrounded by barbed wire fences, and I was on the outside. A gate in the middle of the fence was open, and a path cut across, so I started across it.

I don’t know what gave me the feeling that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. It had been ages since I’d seen another person walking around, and the men on tractors mowing the grass didn’t say anything to me. I got all the way to the other side before I realized that there was no outlet, only more barbed wire. I know that Holocaust jokes are always in bad taste, but I thought to myself at that moment: “oh my god, I’m trapped! I’m going to die here! It’s happening again!”

It had been a 30 minute walk across a muddy, rocky field in the freezing rain. But I did make it back to the other side, found a place where I actually could cross, and thus made my own escape from Auschwitz.

I was tired, hungry, and cold, but I still hadn’t found Canada. That is the name of the warehouse where the possessions of the prisoners were sorted and pillaged by the nazis. It was called Canada because Canada the country had a reputation for being a wonderful place, like heaven. The Jews who worked there sorting the goods, only women, had a much better quality if life. Not only did they have access to all of the things the other victims had brought with them, but they were better taken care of. If you had a contact in Canada, you were able to get more of the basic necessities like food and shoes.

This is where I assumed the collection of shoes would be. You always hear about the mountain of shoes. The warehouse had been destroyed, so when I asked where all the things were, I was told they were back in the first camp.

I went back to Auschwitz I. I explained that I had been there this morning, so they kindly let me back in without making me join a tour. I ran into Matt and Corry on my way into the building, while they were on their way out. They didn’t appear to have cried as much as I did. The shoes were moving, but the pile of glasses made me so sad (the movie Bent to understand why, and for a good film about the fate homosexuals during the war). Worst of all was the case of tiny children’s shoes and baby clothes.

In the book shop was a biography of the family of dwarves who saved the daughter of a holocaust survivor I met last year.

And that was my Auschwitz experience. It’s not for everyone, but I am so glad I had the chance to be there. It’s hard for me to find adjectives when taking about that place. I don’t want to say I was “excited” about going there, or that I had a “great” time. It was challenging but rewarding.

It had been a very long day, and it had finally stopped raining. I was just in time to catch a 2:40 train and grab some lunch to take with me. Pierogies, of course. I am so sick of having wet, cold feet. It always lasts for days at a time. It’s such a miserable feeling. On the train, I discovered that my shoes were not only wet but full of mud.

I started thinking about these shoes I’ve seen in shop in Kansas City. The store is on 39th street and it’s called Retro Vixen. It’s a really cool little place. But they have these shoes, that are basically rainboots in the shape of retro kitten heels. There is almost nothing I wouldn’t give for those shoes right now. I didn’t pack rainboots because I didn’t have room. I have one pair of shoes that I wear every day… And I wish it was those shoes!

http://www.retrovixenclothing.com/retrovixenclothing/index.php/shoes/black-fancy-bow-bootie.html

And I’d pay just about anything for them at this point, short of having them overnighted from KC. But seriously… My firstborn child?

I spent hours walking around the mall at the train station. This mall has more shoe stores than I’ve ever seen in any mall, but I didn’t see any like this. I didn’t really expect to. I’ve never seen them anywhere else. The other reason I was there is because I felt like I just had to keep moving. I was so incredibly tired.

Let’s think about the last five nights for me: Saturday, I was up til 5 AM, Sunday I slept (“slept”) on a train, yesterday I woke up at 4:45 AM, today I woke up at 4:10 AM. Tonight I’m sleeping on a train again. Tomorrow should be interesting.

I’ve really had a decent amount of energy. I’m pretty happy with the fact that it’s only now starting to get to me, and only late in the day. But I’m going to use it to justify why I was wandering around a mall on my last afternoon in Krakow. I was avoiding taking a nap at all costs. That would ruin everything. I feel like if anyone has ever had a chance of falling asleep on a train, it’s me. Tonight.

Speaking of which, I have to go catch that train. My plans were dubious for a moment. Fabulous Jolie gave me the practically irresistible offer of joining her in Athens. I was fine with eating the money I’d put on reservations and such… But then I realized it involves 90 hours of train for me. It breaks my heart, but I’ll have to save Greece for another time.

False Start!

It was not an easy morning.

I woke before 5:00. I’d slept in my clothes (throwback to my St. Teresa’s Days) and skipped the makeup. I figured I’d be crying it off, anyway. So, I was out of bed and on the road in under 5 minutes.

I quickly realized that I had underestimated the walk to the train station. A tram pulled up and I hopped on for a few stops til it started going the wrong direction. Still not even close, I ran as much as I could in flats and walked briskly when I couldn’t. I missed it by to minutes.

The next train wasn’t til 7:14 I fully realize the irony of being upset that I missed my train to Auschwitz. Looking on the bright side, I went to get some breakfast. It’s probably best not to spend a day in Auschwitz on an empty stomach… again, the irony is terrible.

I had a chocolate croissant for breakfast. I also tried to hydrate. I grabbed a huge bottle of water from the fridge. Now, I can’t read polish, but I was pretty sure “natura” meant natural, or flat. I should have read the fine print. As it fizzed when I opened it, I realized that the very small word at the bottom of the label said “gazowana,” and I had grabbed the carbonated water. No matter how much I drink of that stuff, I still feel thirsty.

I made my way back to the train station really early. I wasn’t going to risk missing my train again. On my way back into the station, I took a side door that was so heavy I almost couldn’t get it open. It slammed shut before I was all the way through it, smashing my foot.

I bought my ticket first, just in case the lines got long. Then, I went to the bathroom to clean the blood off my ankle. There was no one there to collect money, so I just went in. Then, suddenly, Madame Peepee shows up behind me yelling in Polish. I try to calmly explain that I don’t want to use her toilets or her towels, I just wanted to pour water over my foot. She kept screaming. I showed her the blood. She grabbed me by the arm (I haven’t even entered the bathroom) and shoves me towards the exit. I move toward the trash can (that is outside) and she keeps screaming and pushes me. At this point I’m screaming too. I’m tired, I’m cold, and I just want to rinse my wound. I left.

I poured water over my foot in the middle of the waiting area. I know it was rude to dump water all over the floor, but I was really upset and didn’t see any other options. No one stopped me. I spent the next 30 minutes contemplating revenge: paying her the 4 pkl and going into a stall, then stuffing all the toilet paper down at once and flooding the bathroom. Pooping on the floor. Of course I didn’t act on it. But as someone who works around so many nasty things, you’d think she’d scream a little less.

I got onto my train, settled in, and dozed off. Before I knew it, the guy across from me was very kindly waking me up and telling me we were there. I jumped off the train with almost everyone else. I couldn’t believe that the two hour ride had gone so quickly. I must have really been asleep. I glanced at my watch, and realized that it had only been 15 minutes. I read “Krakow Business Park” on the station sign, alarmedly asked the man who had woken me if we were at Auschwitz, and confirmed that indeed we were not as the train pulled away from the platform.

This is really my fault, not his. I should have been paying attention. He looked at the timetables with me and told me when the next train to Auschwitz was: in two hours. I assure him that it’s fine. After all, he was doing a kind deed to wake me. But I wonder what business he thought I had in a business park, with my dress and my generally disheveled appearance. Not wanting him to feel badly, I waited til he and everyone else were off the platform. Then, I burst into tears.

After I had indulged my emotional frustration for a few moments, my rational brain started working on solutions. Clearly, I couldn’t stand here on the platform for two hours. I was tired, cold, bleeding, now 4 hours late, and stuck with 1.5 liters of fizzy water minus what was in my shoe.

It was time to take a step back and relax. Fortunately, there was some weird coffee bar cafeteria thing in the first office building. They didn’t have wifi, but they had the second-best tool for problem solving: cappuccinos.

After the caffeine started to work its magic and my brain started working fully, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go to Auschwitz today. It wasn’t even 8:00 in the morning yet. I could go back to Krakow, start over and pretend none of this ever happened. Tomorrow, I’d be sure to make the 5:40 train.

And that’s exactly what I did. I took a tram back to my hostel, changed out of my Auschwitz clothes (they specifically mention how you dress on their website, so I’m saving this outfit for my real visit), and put on makeup. This is when most people were waking up, anyway. I could still have my full day in Krakow.

So, my new day.

I joined the 11:00 walking tour of the Jewish district. It was fantastic. Right off the bat, I met a really nice Canadian lady named Irene. We chatted a bit throughout the tour. She was in Warsaw to visit her grandmother, and now is doing a bit of travel around Poland on her own. She told me that, in WWII, her great grandmother hid Jews in her home. What an amazing heritage.

The tourguide was named Jakob, and he was really great. I really enjoyed his accent. He was clearly very passionate about this history and his area. He told us that he had written his thesis on the Jewish district. We saw the old synagogues, streets, and several places that were used in the movie Schindler’s list. Later on, we saw the ghetto where these events actually occurred, and Schindler’s real factory. It was a really interesting, full three hours. He knew so much about the history, and about the interesting legends and anecdotes.

The tour ended a little late at 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m never one to complain about extra information or extra time. The only trouble is that I wanted I make it back to the main square in time for a bicycle tour at 3:00.

On the way to the tram, an Australian bloke named Matt struck up a conversation. He was headed back the same way, to catch the second walking tour at 3:30. Matt is the spitting image of one of my old friends in Kansas City. Right down to the mannerisms. It was a little strange.

I decided to do the second walking tour as well, instead of the bikes. The biking tour was put on by a different company, and it covered the Jewish district (which I’d just seen) in addition to the old town and city center. The walking tour was just of the old town and city, so I wouldn’t repeat anything, plus it gave me time for lunch.

Matt and I (a part of me always wants to call him Sean) looked for the Peirogie place I’d been to yesterday but didn’t find it. We ended up in a kebab shop instead. It was a quick stop, then back to the tour.

Irene had stayed at Schindler’s factory after the last tour to see the museum there, but suddenly appeared with the new tour group. apparently the museum was closed. We were joined by Matt’s friend Corey, who had missed the first tour, and the four of us hung around each other for the next three hours in the old town.

Krakow has a pretty interesting history. It’s a much more ancient city than I expected. Our new tour guide was almost as good as the last. It’s hard for me to judge because I’m much more interested in Jewish history than I am in polish history. however, he did make a Star Wars reference and use the word “bombastic,” so he is alright in my book.

John Paul II is a local hero in Poland. Not to mention that 98% of their population is catholic. I didn’t know anywhere in the world was still 98% Catholic. There have been statues and photos of him everywhere in the city, including the salt mine, but today we saw the Pope’s Window. This is where he would stay when he visited Krakow, and he would lean out the window to have conversations with people. He is such an amazingly cool guy. I know they’re a little biased here in Poland, but I am learning so much about him and loving it. I liked him before, but even more so now.

The church by the pope’s window was doing something funny tonight. A glass car, like a popemobile, showed up right after we did. Apparently, a very famous painting from that church is about to make a tour all throughout Europe. They’re transporting it in a portable shrine in this glass vehicle.

I know it’s not the best environment for a delicate painting, and it’s more religious based than art based, but I really like the idea of bringing art to the people like this. I think it’s a great way to share art. In the creative community, there is a constant discussion about the role of galleries and museums. There are lots of community art projects, and I’m sure everyone is familiar with at least one in their area. But how about loading the Mona Lisa into this thing, you know? It’s such a bizarre thing, but I like it.

The tour ended at the Wawel dragon. My three new friends and I got a recommendation from the guide for a pierogie restaurant and set off to find it. We were starving. The wait was well worth it. Funnily, this place is exactly across the street from where I had been yesterday and couldn’t find at lunch. I liked it better, though. You had the option of having your pierogies browned, instead of just boiled, and you could mix/match different kinds. Everything was excellent. Afterwards, we split a bunch of different sweet pierogies for dessert. It was another excellent decision.

Today was a brilliant, beautiful day. Krakow was a little cold and cloudy, but I had a great time exploring it. I am worried about rain. It would be dismal tomorrow, since I’m planning to spend most of the morning outdoors. I didn’t make it to bed quite as early tonight, but I plan to be out the door much earlier. I’m going to take any chances with this train tomorrow. It’s a new day, and I’m doing it my way. If all works out like I hope, then I think that the debacle this morning will have been for the best. I met some wonderful friends.

Wiekliczka Salt

My plan for sleeping didn’t work out quite like I’d hoped, but the train was a fine experience overall. It was much more comfortable than I had expected. The other girls in my cabin all seemed to be about my age and were really nice. Mine was the top bunk of 3, with no ladder, so I had to climb up via the other bunks. It was about a foot and a half away from the ceiling, and a person any taller wouldn’t have been able to lie down straight–but it was perfect for me.

We arrived in Krakow just before 7. I found the hostel fine, but did have an embarrassing experience on the tram. First, I missed my stop I thought we were just at a red light when I was supposed to be getting off. The next stop, I couldn’t figure out how to get the doors open. Nobody said a word to me, nobody helped me, and then the tram moved on. I figured it out by the next stop, so I just had to take another one back the way I had come.

They’re really nice at this hostel. It comes with free breakfast, and they even allowed me to eat there this morning. It’s really just toast with jams or cream cheeses and coffee or tea, but it’ll do.

I decided to go to the salt mine today and auschwitz tomorrow. Aushcwitz is free before 10:00 and after 2:00, but it’s actually pretty hard to get there before 10:00. I wouldn’t mind paying, but what you pay for are tour guides. You’re not allowed to go through without one during peak hours. I’ve been studying WWII and the Holocaust extensively in university, and tours are generally basic enough I didn’t think I’d be getting new information. I’d rather go early, when it’s less crowded, and see things on my own. To do so, I’ll be catching a 5:40 train tomorrow.

To get to the salt mines today, I took a bus. I wandered around krakow for a bit beforehand, and it seems like a really nice place. It’s very pretty, there is a lot going on, and it’s nice to be out of the really big cities. The bus is the quickest and easiest way to get to Wiekiclzka, so it was pretty crowded. I was standing. I dropped my empty smoothie cup and met another couple travelers who picked it up for me.

The two guys are Isaac and Stanley. They’re ariel photographers, so basically they fly planes around fitted to take photos and measurements of the ground. Cartographers and other people then take this data and use it for research. Isaac is an American and Stanley is Polish, but they both live and work primarily out of Chicago. Their work with the polish government brings them here a few times a year. They live in Warsaw, but came down to Krakow for a few days.

We went through all the salt mines together. I licked almost all the walls. I don’t understand why only cows and seers get salt licks. It’s so delicious. The mining operation is really impressive. The entire thing is hand cut, there were no natural caves there. Now, its about 327 meters deep. The caves themselves are beautiful and impressive, but the miners took it to the next level.

As they hollowed out more and more space, they would turn the caverns into chapels. Their work was dangerous, so they wanted to bring god into the ground with them. The spaces they made are amazing. Almost every one seems to have a chandeleir made of salt crystals.

Then, there’s an entire underground cathedral. You can go to mass there at 7:30 AM on Sundays, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten to on time. The whole thing is carved, again, from the salt. Impressively, it’s all part of the original cave. All of the decorations, the altar, the statues are part of and fixed to the cave. Space was just carved out around them. Is amazing. The only piece of non original salt is the saint on the main altar, who is made of a more pure (and therefore lighter) salt stone.

Getting out of the salt mines took almost as long as the tour itself, and the three of us were starving by the time we got back to Krakow. I asked Stanley what Polish food was, and he told me pierogies. Well, I love pierogies. I just somewhow hadn’t realized they were polish! We were determined to have some for lunch, and Stanley said he knew the best place.

The place was full, even though it was 3 in the afternoon. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long. I don’t think I could have made it. I had a mix of all different kinds of traditional pierogies, and they were all delicious. Isaac and I were still hungry afterwards, so we split a plate of his favorite: apple pierogies. I am such a big fan. I will definitely be going back there this trip, if I can find it.

Their friend Magda, who lives in Krakow, met us after lunch. We moved on to get coffee in the main market square. Magda is a really beautiful and funny girl. Since she lives here, she was able to show us around. We walked around the castle.

Stanley told us the story of the church in the square: there are two towers of different heights. Apparently, they were built by rivals. The one to build the biggest tower was meant to have some kind of prize. When one man realized he had made a mistake and was going to lose, he stabbed the other… Which is why the tower with the wider base is shorter. Across the square, there is a knife hanging from a building. It’s supposed to be the murder weapon.

I left them pretty early. My hostel is nice and seems clean. The roommates are all really nice and we spent a while chatting tonight. There is a French guy and some girls from different parts of Asia. If my strategy for making myself tired yesterday didn’t work out then, it will surely pay off now. I’m going to be before 9:00. That train to Auschwitz leaves early.

Leaving Budapest

First and last days in cities are always a little strange, since you’re so short on time.

Today, I realized it would probably be a good idea to take a shower before getting on an overnight train in a cabin with 5 other people. You’re welcome, strangers. The receptionist was a man today, and therefor had no problem letting me stay as late as I wanted and let me use a towel without putting down a deposit. Score.

The three euro breakfast at the restaurant next door is awesome. Hungarian breakfasts are my favorite of all the European breakfasts so far. English breakfasts are heavy, expensive, and the Heinz baked beans kinda ruin it for me. In France and Italy, it’s a pastry, juice, and coffee, which isn’t enough sustenance and is always overpriced.In Germany and Holland, it seems to be a lot of sliced meat and cheese… Which would be fine if it hadn’t been left at room temperature for god knows how long.

Hungarian breakfast is coffee, juice, a three egg omelette with paprika, toast and jam. It’s perfect! And for €3 or ft900, I’m more than happy with it. The guy at the hostel forgot (“forgot”) to give me back the deposit I left for my hotel key and kindly brought it to me while I was eating. Other than that, my morning was pretty uneventful.

My only real plan for the day was to see Vivien and her boyfriend, Aaron. I had some time to kill before then, so I went to see what time Simplabar opened. They have free wifi and cheap drinks, so I was thinking of stopping there before my train to update the blog. Much to my surprise, it was already open. I wandered around and took some pictures in the daylight. It looks different. I’m glad to have gone, though.

I hung out there with a vodka-orange (it’s a Saturday morning, that’s acceptable right?) and booked my last hostels and trains. I don’t have to worry about making any other arrangements now for the entire rest of my trip. It’s amazing to think about. I can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. I’m hurtling back towards America now. I’m going to be there before we all know it.

Another BIG thank you to Jolie for being a rockstar. I’m going to go ahead right now and name her the MVP of my six months in Europe. To reserve seats on the Eurostar with a eurail pass discount, you have to do it in person or via phone. Since I don’t have a phone, and won’t be there in person til the prices have skyrocketed, she called for me. I’m going to be seeing her on the 8th. Again, it’s crazy crazy that my time here is coming to an end so soon… But I love London, love Jolie, and I am definitely excited to see them both again.

The time came around soon enough that I needed to make my way to the Fsherman’s Battalion. I’ve actually been there at least once a day since I arrived here. It’s very pretty with great views. The walking tour ended there, the labyrinth is right by it, and today it’s where I met my friends. Vivien is a photographer and was just finishing up a small shoot. She’s incredibly talented.

This is her website: http://viviennaomi.com/index_ketto.php

You can find her page on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/VivienNaomi-Photography/141641319251143

I got there a little early and wrote some postcards. A few Asian tourists took pictures of me, which I thought was very strange. It reminded me of being in Istanbul on the Galata tower, when some Japanese tourists asked to take a picture with me. Maybe they’re all mistaking me for some celebrity? Or maybe this blog is more popular than I thought! Just kidding. It’s a strange phenomenon.

Viven and Aaron both looked beautiful and happy. Vivin had incredibly kindly brought me some toiletries, which was so perfect because I’m just beginning to run low. They had actually driven up from Kecskamet. They borrowed her dad’s car, and Aaron was behind the wheel.

They had plans in a few hours, so we decided to drive to that part of town and walk around there. Since Aaron was neither on the left hand side of the road nor falling asleep at the wheel, this was not even a remotely frightening experience. Unlike Stonehenge. It’s a good thing we left when we did, though. The city is confusing and complicated, and it took us almost all the time they had to find our way across it. Aaron is a brave man for driving here. It’s not Istanbul crazy, but it’s certainly not like being on the road in America.

We finally got to the address they had, only to discover that it was incorrectly. They needed to be back on the opposite side of the river (where we had just come from) and had about fifteen minutes. This is where we said our goodbyes. I hope they made it on time and had a fabulous night. Apparently they’re going to some kind of couples cooking class, a one night thing where all the couples cook and eat a meal. It sounds like a blast.

I started walking back in the direction of my hostel. Nothing in budapest is really that long of a walk, but at almost the first street I came to there was a tram stop for my line. I didn’t have a ticket, and they don’t let you buy tickets on the tram, but I took the risk and hopped on. I think it’s completely ridiculous that you have to buy tickets in advance, and only at metro stations. I mean, how are you supposed to get to the metro station in the first place if you can’t take a tram? I would have paid for it, I just didn’t have that option.

I had McDonald’s again tonight. It’s a time and money thing. Also, Hungarian food can have more than 2000 calories in a single dish… Which makes McDonald’s a pretty healthy option in comparison. This is not the place to be on a diet.

It was getting late enough for me to start thinking about heading towards my train station. It’s never a quick process. I have to get back to my hostel, pick up my luggage, take a tram to the metro, the metro to the train station… And I cannot be late for this one.

I think my strategy of staying up so late last night will pay off. I maybe should have gone to bed a little earlier and woken up earlier, but I don’t think it was too critical. I had enough energy to get through my day happily, and now with dinner in my belly I’m starting to feel the sleepy set in. One big glass of wine and I will be out for the night! Hopefully.