Poland, where everybody knows your name. Well, my name at least. Even in my home town of SCS, my family name always confuses the heck out of teachers, new friends and those ever so charming telemarketers. The Z’s and lack of consonants are clear evidence that my family, like so many other American families, has ancestry from a place where vodka is king, cabbage is queen and the Pierogi is the prince with whom everyone falls in love with.
I’ve always wanted to go to Poland. After hearing stories about my Grandpa’s birth place and growing up in a proud to be Polish family, I felt that a visit to the home land was a must. Since France is much closer to Poland than the USA, I decided that I should take advantage of this proximity while I am living here. And since Ukraine is just next door to Poland, I added an additional part to the trip; a weekend stay in Kiev to visit a friend for a long deserved reunion.
I’ve separated this blog into sections to make it easier to read. Read it all, read parts, or skim it, the choice is yours.
Dimitri and I arrived in Krakow on a Rainy Easter Morning. Our amazing hosts Ryszard and Ewa were there to greet us. They are cousins of family and graciously offered for us to stay with them while we visited Krakow. From my experience with them and other Poles we encountered I can safely say that Polish people must be the most welcoming people on the planet. Aside from taking us around town, preparing insane amounts of Polish food for us to try and allowing us to stay with them, they also gave us advice on other parts of our trip and were available whenever we needed them! We arrived at their house and had a typical polish breakfast of bread, cheese, meat and a variety of salads. It was a bit odd to eat salad and sandwiches in the morning however it most definitely fills you up and prepares you for a day of walking and exploring.
While Ewa and Ryszard (pronounced Eva and Richard) were working, Dimitri and I explored the city on our own.
The main square of Krakow has a wonderful covered market where you can search for touristy goodies, the Maraicki church where a trumpeter performs a song every hour in honor of a long standing tradition and a new museum about the ancient village of Krakow. Wonderful restaurants outline the square and are always filled with people having a beer when it is sunny. A huge benefit to vacationing in Poland is the amazing exchange rate! We ate many big meals there, including drinks and sometimes desserts all for under $25 American dollars.
We visited Wawel castle and discovered the flaming dragon near the shore below. No worries, we fearlessly blocked his flames with our umbrella and escaped un-burned. The dragon is actually a statue based off of the castle legend. If you walk near the gate of the castle, you can see the dragon’s bones hanging by the front door! Some speculation is that they are in fact whale bones, but to respect the legend, the bones have never been taken down and inspected.
I had some initial hesitations about visiting Aushwitz-Birkenau. It was difficult for me to voluntarily go to a place where so many people were forced to spend their final days in such downright torture. However, I decided that skipping it would be missing out on a very significant part of history. The camp is located about 30 mins outside of Krakow, so we took a tour bus out to the site. Our French tour guide had a very thick Polish accent which made it difficult for me to understand him, but the place really spoke for its self.
Aushwitz is actually not that big. It is composed of about 40 red brick buildings, guard posts and a small court yard where inmates stood for roll call. It felt a bit surreal walking through it. Walking down the little dirt lanes while passing buildings with yellow dandelions blooming in the grass, the place had a clam but eerie feeling. Signs, explaining the different parts of the camp and the grisly events which took place there are written in Polish, English and Hebrew. The atrocities they explained where chilling. Walking through the dormitories you could see huge show cases of prisoner’s personal items which the Nazis collected upon the prisoner’s arrival. Glasses, clothes, hair, shoes, toys, bowls ect. Pictures of the first inmates hung on the walls, some with memorial flowers hanging on top of them.
Birkenau was much bigger than Aushwitz. We took a quick bus ride there and were able to walk through the fields and see the remains of the gas chambers and dormitories. All of the visitors there were very respectful. All of the school groups going through were very quiet and some of the students were silently crying as they followed the tour. I’m very glad I visited this place, but once is definitely enough in my opinion.
A Promise Made is a Promise kept: Kiev, Ukraine
The last time I saw Sveta, I was finishing up my sophomore year of high school. She was an exchange student from Ukraine who received a scholarship to study for one year in the USA. I was already friends with her host family, so naturally I became friends with her as well. Everyone adored her and it was really difficult when she left. I remember hugging her goodbye on the front lawn, promising her that we would see each other again. Nine years after our good bye I saw her smiling face waiting for me at the airport in Kiev. Words cannot describe this meeting. Even after such a long lapse in time, it seemed like nothing had changed. During our hour long bus ride to the apartment, Dimitri sat and listened as Sveta and I talked and talked and talked.
We only had a short weekend together, but I enjoyed every minute of it. During the day, Sveta took us around Kiev and showed us the town. In the evenings we went back to the apartment, made dinner and talked late into the night about memories, movies, new things in our lives, and any subject which came our way. Although I loved seeing the city, talking to her was my favorite part of our time in Kiev. Her vivacity and lightheartedness was exactly the same as I remembered and the time which had passed since we last saw each other seemed more like a few weeks instead of a few years.
I really had no idea what to expect when arriving in Ukraine. I knew that it was not a prosperous country, but visiting it opened my eyes up a bit more. The buildings are old and communistic looking. The buses and trams can’t compare to our new high tech models. Surrounding the metro stops were little markets with food available for purchase. Chicken, fish and meat were simply put on tables, in the sun light and stayed there all day waiting for someone to purchase them. The price of food is not equivalent to the salary of the people. I paid about 250 Grivna (about 30 bucks) for three days of groceries for three people. The salary of a DOCTOR in Ukraine is 1,000 Grivna a month (approximately $125).
On the up side, down town Kiev was a pleasure to see! We visited some amazing Orthodox churches with round orb roof tops and brightly colored walls. We walked through little markets and wandered around in a big park looking down on the city.
It was hard to say goodbye. After such a long absence of seeing each other, the weekend felt like it went by too fast. But I am confident now that a return trip to visit my dear Sveta once more will be in my future.
Once back from Ukraine, we headed way down to southern Poland, almost to the Slovakian border for a visit to the ski town of Zakopane. I discovered this place while surfing the net, and was drawn to the huge mountains and picturesque village. We were a bit flabbergasted that such a small town was filled to the brim with tourists. As we latter found out, Zakopane is not very well known worldwide, but it’s a renowned vacation spot for Poles.
We had a bit of interesting luck while discovering this town. We tried to book a rafting tour, however the tour ended up being canceled. We took a funicular up to the top of a cliff to see the view and within 5 mins of our arrival huge storm clouds rolled in and covered the gorgeous view. And much to our surprise, it snowed while we were there! It was the first time it snowed since 70 years, and we happened to be there! Luckily, Richard had already given us some coats to take with us just in case. Otherwise we would have frozen! On the upside, we discovered some AMAZING Polish restaurants with really good food, waitresses dressed in traditional garb and bands singing folk songs. We hiked a bit in the mountains and the present snow fall made them even more captivating. Our hostel was also in a creepy old hotel like you see in the movies. It was decently comfortable, really cheap and empty! We did a bit of exploring at night to see if we could find anything interesting and came across some cool old rooms. It really felt like a haunted house (which I looooove) with the exception of very nice Polish speaking receptionists and a lack of ghosts.
Back to the Roots- Rzeszow
Unfortunately, the only English speaking personnel at the bus station in Zakopane misguided us in regards to our bus to Rzeszow. She informed us that it would take 3 hours to get there and instead it took 7. Not exactly the impression I wanted to give to our host, but unfortunately it was out of our hands.
Waiting at the bus stop for us was a very patient and understanding relative. Ziggy is the nephew of my grandpa and lives very close to the village where my grandpa was born. In planning my trip to Poland, I really wanted to visit my grandpa’s birthplace and therefore contacted Ziggy to ask if he could play tour guide for us. We stayed with him and his wife and they took us on a fast paced tour of the area.
Niebylec is a tiny little village outside of Rzeszow. Driving through it takes under a minute. And just on the side of the main road, across from the bus stop and near the tiny market square is the wooden house of my grandpa. I really wanted to go inside and look around, however I think a random non Polish speaking intruder might have scared the little old woman living there.
We also explored this region a bit more and went to a very beautiful lake which is popular for camping vacations during the summer months. Ziggy ordered us all beers to drink on the terrace and enjoy the scenery. This would have been a bit more enjoyable if 1) I enjoyed drinking large quantities of beer (he ordered us each a 16 oz!) and 2) It wasn’t 10:30 in the morning. At lunch time we had a really good meal of fresh fish, fries and coleslaw with beer again of course! We then explored some of the other little towns in the area.
I feel fortunate to have visited my grandpa’s hometown. American’s have such a colorful, multicultural background, yet many people don’t have the opportunity to really experience their ancestor’s culture. Although he’s no longer with us, and he never returned to his little town of Niebylec, I think my grandpa would be quite happy to know that I’ve seen the green hills around his village and walked near his childhood home.
Poland is a phenomenal country. The people are warm and incredibly welcoming. The language has diverse sounds and rules which can make your head spin. The big cities are full of entertainment and things to see, however they don’t get caught up in the rushed big city atmosphere. The trains are slow, but they allow you to spend a bit more time enjoying the scenery. Poland’s history is a harsh one, yet the Poles honor it and truly respect the important things in their lives. The American movies on T.V are dubbed with a very monotone male voice over even for female characters, yet somehow you still manage to follow along. I can’t speak for the North of Poland, but the south has rolling hills, sky scraping mountains and little villages freckling the countryside.
If perogies tickle your fancy or your last name is stock full of Z’s, I’s and Y’s or even if you just have a longing to put on a flowered skirt and do the Polka, pack your bags and discover for yourself why being Polish is something to be proud of.