Oct/Nov 2004   Travel

The Polish Sub-Compact Effect

by Michael Spice

In Transit, Dubai, June 23 and 24

This is why we work here, in part. Two months off every summer, which is of course the perfect opportunity to travel, with the added benefit that it gets us away from the stifling heat and humidity of an Emirati summer.

The day we left it was 43 degrees Celsius, or in Americanese: 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and you know, it was not all that bad. We were in Dubai at the beach where an off-shore breeze was blowing through the palms, and it didn't feel that hot, and we spent the heat of the day at the water park keeping cool. We had sushi/bento/teriyaki for lunch and spent the evening shopping for knick-knacks at an air-conditioned mall, where we also took in a movie. One strange phenomenon in spending serious amounts of time in an air-conditioned desert is that you find that your body is rarely experiencing a comfortable temperature. You get all sweated up outside, and the moment you walk inside you are relieved to be somewhere that your body has a chance to cool off, but pretty soon you are freezing.

Leaving Dubai airport right now is a bit of a trick. They are building additional capacity for the millions who will soon be coming to this ultramodern jewel of a city, but at the moment, the place is chaos. They tore out the entrance to the airport to put in a new one, and where the curbside drop-off and taxi stands and rental car return areas should be, there is just a torn up hole of a place with a new parking ramp structure going in. It's a great airport, and it will be even greater, but at the moment, yikes! It took us an hour to get the rental car dropped off. But we had plenty of time because, for the most part, planes seem to leave Dubai only in the wee hours of the morning!

I suppose it is so you will buy more at the Duty-Free there, which is quite good and has great raffles, like buy a raffle ticket for $200 US and get a 1 in 1000 shot at owning an Aston Martin DB7, which would probably be as close as I could ever come to owning one.

I watched "Fifty First Dates" on the flight to Frankfurt, and I loved it. Really, I laughed and I cried. The reason I think I enjoyed it so much is because my grandmother is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers, and I began to think playing a video for her every day that cued her in to the day's upcoming events might be one way to go about it. Do you think that at the end of the Reagan presidency they were doing that for him? OK, Ronnie, here's your video. Now see, you're an actor and you are playing the role of the President, so go out there and win one for the Gipper!

Who knows?


Frankfurt, June 24

Being an American, you have it pounded into your head your whole life that traveller's checks are as good as cash anywhere you might want to go, and you know the rest of the story. At least this time we didn't need them, and we did in fact find a Money Changers that took them at the airport, but I remember being 18 and accepting traveler's checks when I worked at Burger King in Midland, Michigan. The States throw you off that way.

I only bring this up because the McDonald's in the Frankfurt airport wouldn't take them, although they take a mess of currencies and plastic. I had a strange craving for non-halal beef. Truth be known though, it didn't taste any different.

The high skies of Europe were turbulent that day, so we spent an extra two hours or so waiting for our flight home to Gdansk, Poland, where my wife's family live. But that went okay once we got on the plane. By the way, the Brazilian company Embraer makes some nice little jets. The one that LOT Polish Airlines use to fly the Frankfurt-Gdansk connection has leather seats and is only three seats across, with the left side of the plane being a single row of seats and the right a double row.


Poland, Gdansk, June 24

When we got to Gdansk, my wife's parents were waiting for us, and everything went really smoothly. It turned out that the airport, which used to be called Rebiechowo, had recently been renamed to Gdansk Lech Walesa Airport, in honor of the great Solidarity leader who became a not-so-great President of Poland. Lech's fate is one of those things that just is.

I breathed in the beautiful early summer Polish air, full of linden blossom, and crisp humidity, and almost daily rain, and I think I put on 5 pounds right there, as if the desert had dehydrated me and Poland rehydrated me. But in truth it was the hearty beer and golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), the dried sausage and the crispy breakfast rolls with ham and spreadable cheeses for breakfast. I do not know if I eat right in Poland, but I eat very well there, and I do not much care what it does to my waistline, except when I am trying to fit into my trousers. But it's summer, and I wear shorts with elastic waistbands and drawstrings most of the time anyway.

We stayed in Gdansk for about a week, getting over the travel and meeting a couple of old friends we hadn't seen since September 10, 2001.


East of Gdansk, July 1

We set out from Gdansk in my wife's parents' Daewoo Matiz, a sub-compact that until recently has been the prevailing car size in Poland, and we headed East toward the Russian border, stopping in the lake country of Mazury, home of Lake Gizycko, a big lake for sailboats. As we cruised through the countryside, we saw more storks than I have ever seen. Storks flying, storks plodding in the fields hunting frogs and other morsels, storks on their nests built on the red brick chimneys in the farming village towns and on the newer racks that are placed on electric poles to provide the storks with a non-destructive place to roost, as the stork-favored chimney tends to be a problem for the home owner who likes to use the fireplace or coal-burning heater.

We stopped in a town called Lidzbark Warminski and saw a castle there built in 1350 to 1400. It had a moat. It made me want to joust, but there were no horses about, and Joanna wasn't similarly inclined anyway. One time at such a castle, I got to shoot a pretty old crossbow, and it was sweet. At first I was lucky to hit the target, the bolt drops so much mid-flight, but on my last shot I made a bullseye. Yeah.

We also went to a place called Holy Linden (Swieta Lipka), where there is a beautiful baroque church with a very ornate golden and yellow exterior and a very nice organ within. It's strange because it is this amazingly ornate church in a village with like maybe 20 houses, all of which have little businesses that sell tourist stuff like carvings, toys, religious trinkets, snacks and cold drinks. In the summer in Poland, there are always these really big umbrellas on the patios of small shops, and open air grill bars with the name of a beer company on top, like Warka, or Zywiec, or Okocim, and so you are never too far away from a nice glass of some very noble brew, and you always feel invited to stop for one and kill half an hour in the shade, sipping and enjoying as the summer eeks along. As I still had a ways to drive, I skipped the beer garden for the time being and wound up looking at some animal skins. They were mainly of two varieties, one of which was from a really small deer called a daniel (roe deer, they tell me), and the other was of wild boars. The proprietor saw that I was keenly interested in the wild boar skin, and why not, it was rough, almost porcupine-like, black-brown-grey, with black skin, and the scalp and snout still there. It was morbidly fascinating, and the shopkeeper invited me inside to look at more pelts, and so I went in, but I quickly realized that of course, I would never buy such a thing, and that even if I did, what would I do with it? I could never bring it back to the Emirates, as swine are considered the most foul of creatures, so I told the guy where I lived and that purchasing was simply not an option.

We went to the church where the organ was playing and making what is for me one of the best sounds on earth, the deep body-shaking rumbling of the resonant low pipes, and the moment we hit the door it stopped, depriving me of that experience that is the only thing that has ever made me feel I have felt something of God's presence in a church: the physics of sound coming out of really big tubes, resonating over me and off the walls of the whole high and narrow space. And the priest then began to sing an almost comedic tri-lingual version of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, in Polish, German, and English.


The Eastern Frontier, July 2

And after a year in the desert, the smell of the land was an epiphany, the great eastern farmlands that rolled onward to Belarus and the Ukraine, blooming with the summer crops, we drove through a field of golden heather, a pungent smell of herb and spice, mustard, maybe, we were not sure, and then into the deep dark forest of the Bialowieza National Park, home of the European Bison, home of moose, and wolves, a wild space on the frontier. The smells were so pure and clean, so wet and cool, it was like being able to drink something life-giving and sustaining any time of the day, just roll the window down and breathe it in. With intermittent rains finally subsiding around dusk, we took a stroll in the hunting grounds of the Czars, Lithuanian dukes, and Polish Princes with ponds of lily pads and footbridges and the evening sky lighting the trees and meadows with amber edges, we felt like we were in a Renoir painting.


Lublin, July 3

We were going to have lunch in Lublin, a major eastern Polish city, and then head to the Majdanek Concentration Camp, just to see what it looked like. But a hard rain fell, and dissuaded us for the time being from the death camp, so we had lunch at a café in the nice Old Town, and saw the fort in the middle of town that was also used to kill many a Polish resistor and many a Jew during the 3rd Reich's occupation of Lublin. It's a museum now, but we decided to make it short and sweet, and headed for the fortified city of Zamosc, which is just down the Lublin to Lwow highway, to see a city that had never been captured by an enemy until world war two.

Coming into Zamosc is nothing special until you get right up to the very walls of the city's old center. The walls are massive, and now contain a market, as well as housing a concert space for chamber music, among other things. In the very center of Zamosc is a wonderful central square which is 100 meters on a side, and has heavy white arcades all the way around, with old merchants' homes painted bright colors along the upper floors. There were many beer gardens serving a variety of foods. In the old days, the Lords Zamoyski encouraged a diverse populace, and sought experts from all over Europe to make their city a progressive and vital place. The prettiest of the buildings on the central square are the ones known as the Armenian Houses, one of which now houses a performance theatre.

As we ate dinner on the square, the rain that had been driving me nuts all day on the road finally let up and the dark and heavy cumulus clouds started to break up and let some blue through, suddenly revealing a double rainbow that landed at the door of the Ratusz (City Hall).


Zamosc to Roznowski Lake, July 4th

We left Zamosc the next morning feeling great after a relaxing night of walking and talking, and then sleep at the Hotel Senator, a very nice and quite economical hotel in the Old Town.

At breakfast, we were amused by a German speaking couple who showed very little tact in the breakfast room, causing the one woman who was trying to attend the breakfast buffet while also trying to hold down the Front Desk no end of trouble, and being just plain rude to her really. They were the last patrons to eat breakfast, at close to 10 AM, and were strangely surprised that supplies at the buffet had run low, and it was not just that they were bossy and petulant, but that they were also snobby. The man was obviously Polish, but had become German, and he and his German wife were so prim and above everything Polish, it made us wince. In the end, we had to tell him to mellow out, as he was getting himself all worked up, that the attendant in fact did have everything under control, having just two minutes ago sent out for more breakfast food and drink, and that they had simply come down to eat at a bad moment, which we also were experiencing.

That evening we spent in a pension on a lake, it cost about $12 US for the room, and was by far our cheapest night on the road. As night was falling over the lake, there were ominous black clouds reflecting in the lake, with the sun setting to the West, and pale blue-white skies to the East and it made for a beautiful contrast as we sipped a beer on the picnic table and watched the sun go down. The 70 year old owner of the pension invited us back to his house, which was up a hill, along a road made out of pre-fabricated cement blocks, to watch the Euro 2004 Soccer final match. It was a modest house, with a small garden, and a barking dog to protect it. After Greece won the match, we walked back down in the deep darkness, went to our room and fell asleep.


Roznowski Lake to Pieninski National Park, July 5th

Maybe one reason the room at the pension was so cheap was that the neighbors started their day at 5:30 AM, and had the radio going at a pretty decent volume the whole time, but we have started taking earplugs everywhere, so we managed to sleep in until 9. Even the owner of the pension thought those early-rising vacationers were not quite right, since they were after all on vacation, why would they not sleep in a bit, and this from a 70 year old man who actually had duties at the pension every morning and he would never get up before 7:30, he said.

We moved on to the Pieninski National Park, a small national park, with an old limestone mountain range, and thus not so stark and rugged as the granite Tatra Mountains. It was quiet there, even though we went on the big attraction there, a float down the Dunajec River with two Gorale (mountain men) for guides. The boats were little more than 6 flat-bottomed, flat-sided canoes lashed together into a makeshift barge, which is how this river has been navigated for hundreds and hundreds of years. The water was not very high despite the recent rains, and the trip took about three hours, and so we lazed in the sun as the Gorale poled us down the river, gliding along the Slovakian border, watching Poles and Slovaks wave to us from either shore, and the occasional band of kayakers played in the small whitewater areas. The river cuts through some pretty steep canyons and the guides liked to play a game of "see that peak over there, we will be going right under it, so which way will the river take us after the next bend", and you really couldn't tell, because the river was so twisted in the canyon floor.

The next day we went to a valley that had been flooded after a dam was constructed, where there were two castles on each side of the valley. It reminded me of some ruins I had seen some 18 years earlier in the Rhein Valley in Germany. The story of Czorsztyn and Niedzica (the 2 castles) is that the two families that had the castles were feuding with each other, but neither castle could be taken because they were both built on cliffs. One of the two castles was in much better shape though, so I got the picture that maybe one side won out in the end. Actually, the better of the two castles was a strategic castle for the northern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and thus was in better condition, having been maintained longer. You could go from one castle to the next by a motorized gondola (and I mean a boat here, not a cable car), but you sort of had to have a full boat for them to be willing to ferry you across the reservoir to the other castle, and we got stuck in the rain on the other side. I think we must have had only 3 truly summery days in Poland, but what days they were. But, even the rain was okay, just knowing it was in the mid-40s Celsius and humid enough to make paint fall off the walls back in the Emirates.


Malopolska (Little Poland) and Silesia (Slask), July 7

We left the Pieniny and headed for Gliwice where my wife's sister lives, stopping off at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow. I had heard about it for years, but I would finally get to see this massive salt mine, where I had heard there were even ballrooms deep underground carved out of the huge salt deposits. There is in fact such a room with the floor tiles in fact just the etched and polished rock salt floor of the chamber. It also had relief sculptures on the walls of biblical scenes. If you touched the walls and licked your fingers, you could definitely taste the salt. At the end of the tour there is another large and modern hall that apparently can be booked for meetings and wedding receptions, and it is a very nice space, I must say, and a dangerous one in which to seriously drink alcohol. They say that you can drink a lot more down at the depth of the ballroom without feeling the effects of the alcohol, due to the pressure difference from the surface, but if you drink too much and then go to the surface, the drunkenness hits you full force, and you are simply falling-down drunk. An interesting concept anyway. We did not test it out though and headed toward Gliwice, stopping yet again to take in an amazing huge ruin of a castle called Ogrodzieniec, which looks like the best possible location in Poland for a heavy metal festival. Really, very surreal and humongous white rock formations surround the castle and have been included in the fortification walls, creating this very weird energy for the area. When you stand in the castle and look around, it would have been impossible for an enemy to surprise you in this castle, as it commanded a great view of the plains around. I figure the castle owners must have just decided to live in the city, maybe got a 16th century condominium in Krakow and let the old castle go to seed. So it's been begging for Ozzfest to show up and jam out for 500 years or so.


Oswiecim and Brzezinka, July 11

My wife's sister and her husband agreed to accompany us to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Brzezinka (Birkenau), to visit the death camps and pay our respects. Before the Germans invaded Poland, Oswiecim was a Polish military garrison. The Germans converted it into what it became. Germany's first order of business in Poland was to destroy Poland as a country, and to make its people subservient workers in the new Germany. Those who were not likely to be subservient were not necessary and were worked to death rather quickly, if they were not shot outright for speaking out. Of course the leaders of the Polish society, the intellectuals, the priests and nuns, the politicians were declared enemies and were eliminated very quickly. At the time, Poland had the greatest numbers of Jews of any country in Europe, and at the beginning, nobody knew how many Jews were being killed, it was simply Poles, Jewish and Catholic and whatever else, that were being killed at the camp. Many thousands of Poles died at Auschwitz, and over a million more Jews of many nationalities. When you look at Auschwitz today, you don't feel that it was as terrible as it surely was, it's just a military base, a set of brick barracks that under other circumstances would have been acceptable accommodations during wartime. Even going into the ovens, knowing that people were poisoned and cremated there, doesn't really get the point across. There is a short film made by the Russian army that liberated Oswiecim that you can watch when you enter, the worst part of which is the footage of the people who had been experimented on by Mengele. That almost made us sick. The film was a strong piece of documentation, and it helped us see the place in its time, and to see the disbelief in the hopeless faces of the liberated was very poignant.

To really get the point though, it is worth it to walk (you can get a bus, but I recommend walking as it will give you time to process a bit) the 3 kilometers down the road, over the train tracks to Brzezinka (Birkenau). As my Grandad says, "Holy man!". It was a death factory. The train line going in actually splits into 3 sidings inside, and it was very much the end of the line. People arriving there were of two types, those well enough to work themselves to death, and those feeble enough to be put in the "showers" right away. The size of the place was amazing, we are talking 20 Auschwitzes, and what is on display may be less than half of the actual size of the place when operational. Unlike the brick army barracks at Auschwitz, Birkenau had uninsulated wooden barns for its victims, not fit for furry animals in the winter. Nobody that was there was intended to survive the place, that was for sure, and the monumental size of the place was shocking.

At the end of the train tracks is a monument that fortunately sums it up for me: "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from many countries of Europe." There are over 20 plaques that say this, in most of Europe's languages.

I left feeling that Germany could never repay its debt to the world. By the way, for the record, I am one-half German/Swiss, and not at all Jewish or Polish.


Kutno, Baseball, and Warsaw - July 12th – 14th

We went back to Gliwice, and a day or two later we headed back up north, stopping in Kutno, European home of Little League baseball, from where we took a day trip to Warsaw. Kutno is definitely off of the tourist map, home of a pharmaceutical plant, and has one of the worst train stations in Poland, according to our friend Gosia, who would know, having to transfer there every time she went home to see her parents from Gdansk. My wife's grandparents lived there pre-war and during, and the family still have close friends there who are also the children of Polish Home Army operatives (the Resistance!) who hid in the woods and sabotaged the Germans when they could. So the family friendship stuck, and my wife's family have always gone to Kutno to visit them ever since. Our Kutno relations, as we call them, own a black currant farm, and many fruit trees, so we pigged out on cherries and red currants, and strawberries right out of the garden.

We watched a Little League game at the Stan Musial Memorial Stadium, where Holland played Germany. The guys wearing orange won. The funny bit about the German team was that they weren't even German, they were all American kids. They tell me that when the Europe and Middle East finals get played, also in Kutno (it really is the European capital of Little League baseball), the Saudi Arabian team is usually there, and it also is all American kids.

The following day, we went to Warsaw, and though I had been there maybe 5 times before, I finally realized that the scene at the end of The Pianist, where he is walking in this huge devastated city, that that was Warsaw, and it was just flattened at the end of the war. And Poland had to completely rebuild it. I never really got that until this time. I had walked around the Old Town of Warsaw, without realizing that most of it was in fact only 50 or so years old. Warsaw is still rebuilding to this day, and is starting to look like a major European city, with a subway, and skyscrapers, basically coming into its own as the capital of the European Union's largest new member.


July 15, Gdansk

We left Kutno, traveling through Torun, a nice town, and birthplace of Mikolaj Kopernik, known to most as Copernicus. It's got a great old town which is definitely worth seeing, but I'll leave off on that. It made for a nice stop for lunch and a quick look about, but I suspect that it could be a fun place to spend a day or two.

We drove back to Gdansk, sticking to the lesser-used roads, the voivodship highways, rather than the national routes where most everyone drives like a maniac. This way I was the only crazy driver on the road. We found during the whole trip that if the main roads were too nutty, the alternates were often very peaceful and often quite unused, making for some very pleasant driving. In a country where two lane roads are most common, the empty road is usually the better one. We had covered over 2000 kilometers (1250 miles or so) on two lane roads in about two weeks, covering about half the circumference of Poland, in a car with a 50 horsepower engine, which got between 35 and 55 miles to the gallon. It handled extremely well and while driving a stick is fun at times, it is not my preferred method of doing a lot of intensive driving. Nonetheless, I was impressed with the funny little car that took us so far.

Again we saw many storks in flight and in the fields, and in the many nests in the lake-filled farmlands to the south of Gdansk, and our trip felt complete as we got nearer the ring road that would lead us past the airport to the Slowacki Road that goes through the Tri-city forest park to the morained hills of Morena, where my wife's family lives in one of the many ten-story sociorealist blocks of flats overlooking the Bay of Gdansk.


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