The Strength of a Smile

It has been challenging to write about this vacation because it was not a typical European getaway with a beer in one hand and a selfie stick in the other. Okay, fine, I had four beers, and we used a selfie stick once – on our last day at a fabulous airbnb.

 

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The honey beer was really good!

 

I dove deeply into Poland’s history before arriving there. I found it necessary to do my best to get a feel for the country’s past in order to value it during my visit because Poland was never really high on my list. That is, until I found out it was the cheapest country to fly to from Spain during Holy Week (and boy, did we overhear Spanish tourists during our visit there!).

The month before my friend, Sarah, and I took a plane to Warszawa – Poland’s capital better known to us as Warsaw – I read La Casa de la Buena Estrella by Diane Ackerman, or The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is coming out in theaters later this year.

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bridge in Krakow

In reading this historical novel, I gained deeper appreciation for Poland’s involvement in World War II. It had not dawned on me that this was the country where Auschwitz was built. It had also skipped my memory, from high school history classes, that Hitler wanted Poland badly. His direct order for Poland was to kill mercilessly. But in Ackerman’s book, I learned about Poland’s resistance to Hitler and the nazis. I learned about the kindness, goodness, and bravery of its people. I learned about resilience. I arrived in Poland with a sense of respect and honor for its past.

Our flight landed later than scheduled, and we had to rush from the airport to Warszawa Centralna Train Station. Happy to spot a Costa (my to-go and go-to coffee place in Europe) I grabbed a caramel latte, and then a sandwich from Subway, not knowing how much I was spending in this country’s currency, the zloty.  For your own reference, 1 Polish zloty = 0,23 € .

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The language barrier was an immediate challenge as a lady tried to help us find our platform, when we actually needed help finding a place to exchange money.  I researched a few Polish words prior to our trip, but they were so difficult for me to pronounce. I trusted that, like in most European countries, we could easily find English speakers in Poland. I know, I know, I do not pride myself in being that person, but it is true that English is such a global language that you can travel almost anywhere with English alone. Still, I kicked myself for not making more of an effort to learn basic Polish phrases aside from toaleta, the sign for the WC. It amazes me to experience how I, as a traveler, rely a lot on strangers’ kindness.

I had only spent 3 days in Eastern Erope when I went to Budapest, Hungary last year (Enchantment). When we rode the train that would take us from Warszawa to Krakow, we realized we were no longer in Western Europe. We felt disoriented and a little scared. Our train was late. We could not spot any English signs in this major train station. When our train finally arrived, we were surprised by how old it looked. Like, really old, even for Spanish standards. Wagons were not numbered, and some of them had no lights. I hoped we wouldn’t ride to Warsaw in the dark. We hopped on and walked from one end to the other, trying to find our seats, asking for help, and either amusing or annoying all the non-English-speakers. I got stuck in the corridor, and a big man grabbed me by my backpack and shoved me to the other side, where I tried to laugh off his roughness and keep walking. By this point you probably realize that this was a very rough first day on what was our “Spring Break ’17! Woot! Woot!”.

 

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Wall in the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, Poland’s former capital.

 

Four hours later, we arrived in Kraków Glówny, which is the train station you can see in the Holocaust movie directed by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List. The weather was cold, windy, and rainy during our two day visit.

My favorite place was the Main Market Square, which had an Easter Market! I love markets so much, and the smell of traditional Polish food was comforting under the gray clouds. Krakow is quite small (if you come from Madrid), and we found ourselves in the Main Market Square multiple times a day. My absolute favorite thing to eat was this grilled sheep cheese with a red berry jelly on top (I think it was either raspberry or cherry).

We took a walk to Wawel Castle and the cathedral, but we found the Cathedral was closed to tourists because of Easter week. Poland is actually the most Catholic country in the world, which was an unexpected fact (good question for a trivia game!).

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The cathedral was closed 😦

I was sad that the castle did not have tall towers with cone shaped roofs. Personally, I would call it a palace to avoid confusion. You cannot use the word “castle” loosely on someone like me! Stuffed from our potato pancake lunch with beer, cold and wet from the rain, we lost interest in trying to get inside said castle, so we just walked around the area taking pictures. When travelling on a budget, you have to choose your activities carefully, and what you want to put your money towards. In Krakow’s case, we decided to gear our budget towards good food and a guided visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.

 

 

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Entrance to Auschwitz I – it was turned into a museum upon survivors’ requests. 

Our visit to Auschwitz was incredibly significant to Sarah and I, but it is not something I think appropriate to share on this blog entry. In order to truly pay my respects to the Holocaust victims, I am going to diligently work on an in-depth article that can truly bring awareness and education to others, rather than treating this place as a tourist site on my blog. It might take me some time to write a solid, honest piece on it, but I hope to have it published this year on a platform other than my own blog.

 

 

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Church of the Virgin Mary

 

Another place we visited was the Church of the Virgin Mary (Kosciol Mariacki), which had an impressive carved altar that was restored after the war. To us, everything in Krakow felt deeply marked by the war. “It’s a solemn city,” Sarah said, and I completely agree. We walked around the Jewish Quarter (former Jewish ghetto during WWII), and it shocked me to think that the scenes from Schindler’s List happened in this place, in real life. Krakow is pretty intact from the war, unlike Warsaw, which was destroyed. It is a surreal experience to walk on the same ground of those who fought, survived or perished.

 

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Once the Jewish ghetto – our time there was just as chilling as our visit to Auschwitz.

 

 

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Apple Pie and beer in Alchemia

We stopped at a highly recommended bar called Alchemia, where we had drinks and traditional apple pie. Other food we had during our time there was pierogis (dumplings), potato pancakes, goulash, and honey beer. It was all very comforting after walking in the cold, but also very heavy. We made a point of stocking up on healthy snacks such a fruit, protein bars, nuts and seeds at the many Carrefour Express throughout the city.

 

It was a history heavy visit with many hours of walking, and our accomodation played a very positive role during our time there. Starting our morning in our very cute, private room at Dizzy Daisy Hostel was easy. They have free coffee, and a very homey lounge and kitchen. They took care of our Auschwitz tour, so we did not have to do anything other than pay, and they are about a 15 minute walk away from the Main Market Square, and from the Glowny train station and the bus station.

Culturally, this city felt the most different of all the European cities I have ever been to. Granted, we were not there for long, but it must be said that we both noticed a significant difference in demeanor. Facial expressions were quite neutral, and I do not think we saw a smile. We did not feel it was a personal thing, but more of a general way of being. On our last night, we were eating traditional food near the center in a chic restaurant. “Why are we whispering?” Sarah asked. Because every one else was whispering. With a significant number of people sitting around us, we felt we were in a library. It is important, I think, to have these kind of experiences when travelling. Try getting everyone to whisper in a Spanish restaurant, friend!

 

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View of the Main Market Square from the tower of the Church of the Virgin Mary (there is a cool underground museum right there, which shows recent archeological findings of Medieval Krakow). This site was majorly excavated in the early 00’s folks.

 

From Krakow, we took a 5€ night bus ( www.polskibus.com ) to Prague in the Czech Republic, which I will blog about next! After 2 magical days in Prague, we flew back to Warszawa on a tiny plane, and spent an evening there.

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We saw a beautiful sky in Warsaw!

We only got to see the Old Town Market square, but that was enough to make me wish I had a whole week to explore this city! The kindness of our airbnb hosts knocked our socks off! And the cherry-pie-cuteness of the Old Town Square during sunset was enchanting. It was very, very, very cold and windy. But the city emanates a certain positive vibe that I struggled to find in Kraków. I developed a special love for Warsaw after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife. This city was completely destroyed by the nazis, and everything you see has been built in the decades since then. Warsaw moved me because when I look at it, all I can think about is its resilience, and how I hope it rubs off on me.

 

 

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I thought this represented Warsaw well.

 

Though it was 0°C, the sky was a beautiful golden pink, and smiles were spotted while riding the tram. After spending a week going to blood-stained places, learning about the profound damage a single human being can spread with domino effect, Warszawa was the silver lining to human nature. I cannot emphasize enough the difference that the kindness and joyfulness of our airbnb Polish hosts made on our experience. This couple went above and beyond to help us resolve problems with our flight, and making us feel welcomed once we arrived. This is the Warsaw I had come to see. I wanted to meet people that embodied Warsaw’s resilience and strength. It was not the strength of an army nor social power. It was the strength of a smile. And this is why I would gladly return there for more.

 

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Old Town in Warsaw

 

 


 

For more information on visiting Auschwitz visit:

http://auschwitz.org/en/

Our cozy hostel in Krakow:

http://www.krakowhostel.pl/

Another major sight in Krakow we could not got to was Schindler’s Factory:

http://www.mhk.pl/branches/oskar-schindlers-factory

 

 

 

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One thought on “The Strength of a Smile

  1. Wow, great recap! So looking forward to reading your upcoming posts about our experiences in Prague and Auschwitz. I’m so thankful to have spent my spring break traveling with you. Xoxo

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