Why Poland? There’s More to This Country Than Pierogi!
On November 11, 2021, Poland celebrated 103 years of Independence or Narodowe Święto Niepodległości in Polish. In the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire and Poland ceased to exist for 123 years. Because of the destruction of the neighboring powers at the end of WWI, National Day in Poland is celebrated each year to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 from the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires.
In recent years, there has been an Independence March through the streets of Warsaw. It begins near the Palace of Culture and ends about 3 km away at the National Stadium. Me being me was naturally curious about this event. Mentioning it to students I was told it was best to stay home. Why I asked. They said sometimes trouble arises from extremist groups and it may not be safe for foreigners. As the day was approaching, my friend Tamara asked if I was going to the March. Now me being fair-haired with blue-green eyes, I kinda sorta blend in with the Polish population, that is until I speak. Tamara being a black woman, not so much. This would be the 4th year Tamara has attended the March. Her experience in past has been nothing but positive, so I decided to take others’ opinions with a grain of salt and meet her and 150,000 of our closest friends to celebrate Poland. What I witnessed was men, women, children, and seniors all decked out in white and red, waving flags and celebrating a country and a heritage they are proud of. I’m sure there were some hooligans around and some extremists with their anti-this and anti-that slogans, but we witnessed nothing but Polish people celebrating their independence.
The next day, I read and heard from others that indeed it was a peaceful celebration with less than 10 people being detained for causing trouble. The whole length of the March people were talking to us (thankfully Tamara knows a bit of Polish) and she was constantly asked to take photos with people. She became an internet sensation (many of my students commented that my friend was all over the internet) and there was even an article written, “Who is the Black Woman at the Independence Day March?”.
Why am I telling you about this? I often get asked, “Why Poland?”. Why have I decided to live in Poland? My original plan was to stay in Asia or more specifically SE Asia, but circumstances brought me here, to Warsaw. I started out talking about Independence Day and the March because it reinforced my views of this country I have come to call home. I also happened to start this blog a couple days after the march. I thought I would probably stay in Poland for a year or a year and a half, thanks to the pandemic I have been in Poland for nearly 2 years with plans to stay longer as I discover more and more reasons to answer, “why Poland?”.
I have probably mentioned that Warsaw is a great city. Poland’s capital is home to about 1.8 million people and 85% of the city was destroyed by the end of WWII. Most of Old Town Warsaw, including the Royal Castle, was destroyed. It was meticulously rebuilt using as many original bricks as possible and studying original architectural plans, photos and postcards. The rubble was even sifted through to gather reusable decorative items which were returned to their original places. Warsaw is home to 41 museums and 71 universities offering 983 study programs. It’s no wonder it attracts a large number of international students. Warsaw ranks in Europe’s top ten greenest and most eco-friendly cities. One of my favorite things about Warsaw is the fabulous public transportation system.
What about the rest of Poland? Poland boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites with the Historic Center of Krakow being the first recognized in 1978 and in 2021 the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians were added to the list.
Built during the 13th century and measured by land area, Poland is home to the largest castle in the world, the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork. 90% of Poland’s population has completed at least secondary education. In 1901, two Poles, Jan Szczepanik and Kazimierz Żegleń gave the world the bulletproof vest. In 1923, Warsaw-born Leo Gersenzang who in his 20’s emigrated to Chicago, invented cotton buds first calling them Baby Gays and later changing the name to Q-Tips. In 1887, a Pole of Jewish origin, Ludwik Zamenhof, is credited with the invention of the world’s most artificially created language, Esperanto.
Alicja Englard was born in 1923 in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland. During the war and occupation she studied philosophy in Warsaw. Surviving WWII using fake Aryan documents, she finished her doctorate in Basel Switzerland. Her dissertation on the lives of many dictators and despots like Hitler, Mao and Stalin came to the conclusion that every dictator was in fact a child victim of violence in the past. Her views on the ill effects of child beating were met with great speculation in Europe, which was more than accustomed to corporal forms of punishment. Because of her perseverance, Alicja Englard laid the foundations for what would later become law prohibiting violence against children or Children’s Rights.
Poland has a horrific history, some of which I have written about. Poland also has beautiful traditions, especially this time of year, the magical season of Christmas. As you may have figured out, I am finishing this blog over a month after I started and it is now Christmastime. In the spirit of the season, my English lessons leading up to Christmas, I asked students to share memories of their past celebrations.
I heard stories of live carp in the bathtub, fish scales placed in wallets, “less pierogi, less stress”, families playing board games, watching Kevin in “Home Alone” and even a grandma browsing the “Kama Sutra” someone had purchased for their recently married brother. Hearing these stories made me want to learn and understand the specialness of Christmas Eve and wiglia in Poland.
Unlike in the United States, most Polish Christmas celebrations, including the exchange of gifts, take place on Christmas Eve. The celebration begins with Wiglia or Christmas Eve dinner. Wiglia begins when the first star appears in the sky which is to remind everyone of the Star of Bethlehem. I was also told stories that the children were sent to the windows or outdoors to watch for the twinkle of the first star. It was then that Santa would sneak gifts under the tree.
Once the first star has been seen, the family gathers around the table. There is an extra place-setting at the table for the unexpected guest, to celebrate hospitality. Tradition has a small handful of hay placed under the tablecloth to symbolize Jesus’ birth in a manger. The feast then begins with grace and the breaking of the opłatek which is a Christmas wafer.
Nothing will be eaten until all guests have broken the opłatek and exchanged wishes for prosperity and good health in the coming year. Traditionally the wiglia consists of 12 dishes, 12 being a symbol of wealth and also representing the twelve Apostles. During the meal, all guests should have a taste of all 12 dishes to ensure good luck in the 12 months of the coming year. This is where I would have a problem. Nearly all the dishes contain either mushrooms or fish (remember the carp in the tub?) and I am not a fan of either. So, I guess I would only have about 2 months of luck. The Christmas Eve dinner is also void of meat.
The meal usually starts with barszcz which is a beetroot soup with tiny dumplings stuffed with dried porcini called uszka meaning “little ears”. Other traditional Christmas Eve soups you might find are soft-water fish soup (for example, carp), white borscht, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup. Other dishes include carp prepared in various styles, herring and of course pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms to name a few.
I also learned about a dish called kutia which is a mixture of cooked wheatgrains (wheatberry), cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds. This dish got mixed reviews from my students and seems to differ by region.
No wiglia would be complete without piernik or old fashioned gingerbread. Dating back as far as the 17th century, records of gingerbread can be found in the ancient city of Toruń, birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus. You might also be served poppyseed cake called makówki and finish the meal by sipping compote. Compote is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits – typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. It is supposed to help speed up digestion. The rest of the evening may be spent sharing songs and stories around the table until it is time for Pasterka or midnight mass.
That is a brief explanation of a typical Christmas Eve here in Poland. Although I didn’t experience wiglia, (I’m not complaining as I mentioned I don’t do mushrooms or fish) I did experience a lovely Christmas Eve. I met up with my friend Tamara (from the Independence March). We started in Old Town Market Square grabbed a hot cup of grzane wino or mulled wine and watched the city light up. We strolled through Old Town looking at the lights, listening to a saxophone player under the grand tree in front of the Royal Castle. We stopped for a cup of hot cherry vodka (that stuff is delicious) to continue our walk past the Presidential Palace and then up Nowy Świat (New World Street). Basically we walked what is known as the Royal Route. Warsaw was magical on Christmas Eve with lightly falling snow, sparkling lights everywhere and the spirit of the season was felt in everyone we passed.
We finished the evening at a 24 hour diner, one of the only places open on the eve of Christ’s birth.
Unlike Polish tradition of a meatless meal, we chowed down on giant burgers, French fries and red wine. Pretty perfect in my American in Poland eyes.
So back to my original musing…..Why Poland? When I moved here in February 2020, I would have said, “I don’t know, its Europe…I can run off to Paris for a weekend…I like Europe… I had a job offer.” 22 months later, I say, Poland is a beautiful and amazing country and I am trying to immerse myself in its culture. I like it here, I feel at home….why Poland? Why not Poland?
“To move, to breath, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.”
Hans Christian Anderson
Why I Am Grateful for the Global Pandemic
As the Thanksgiving season is upon us, it is time to consciously think about things we are grateful for. Sure, we all go through the list of family, friends, a place to live, a job, food to eat, etc. Now, before you jump down my neck and say, how can you be grateful for a global crisis that, according to Worldometer, has now affected over 250,000,000 people and has caused, along with other comorbidities, 5,000,000 plus deaths?”, let me explain.
In a few short months, we will be two years into what started out as “two weeks to flatten the curve”. Sometimes it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that two years have nearly passed and that I will have been living in Poland for two years and have received temporary residency. My original plan, although I should probably say “my original thought” as I didn’t really have a solid plan, was to spend just over a year in Poland.
Then I wanted to return to Bali and my Balinese family for a special ceremony that was planned at the temple in Peliatan. After a few months in Bali, possibly move on to a WorkAway in India, Kenya, or Tanzania and then consider a return to Poland. A mere six weeks after I arrived in Poland, the world stopped turning.
As the pandemic progressed, information from the State Department in the USA, encouraged American citizens abroad to return home. Having a job and a flat, I chose to stay in Warsaw. A choice in no way I regret and am thankful for. Henry Rollins once said, “a great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” Looking at my country, it seemed a bit chaotic. Since this is somewhat of a gratitude post, I’m not going to address that here. Other than working remotely, my life in Warsaw was copacetic. Although, it was becoming obvious that “two weeks to flatten the curve” wasn’t happening.
Today, I started a one-on-one English lesson with a new student. She asked me to “tell her my story”. I’m sure she had no idea what she was getting herself into. I finally ended my story explaining that because of the pandemic, I am still in Poland and have agreed to another school year and I have residency until 2024. I guess she is a glutton for punishment, she then asked me to tell her my feelings about Warsaw and life in Poland. Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the teacher here, but her question made me think. I didn’t need to think about how I felt about life in Poland, but it made me realize how much I came to appreciate Poland because of or maybe despite the pandemic. Without further ado, reasons I am grateful for the pandemic.
Having visited Warsaw once before in 2014, I knew it would be a great home base for travel throughout Europe. I pictured weekends in Paris, visiting family and friends in Germany, seeing Erwin in Norway, heading off to Finland or Sweden to see the Northern Lights, and picking up some new stamps in my passport along the way. Of course, those plans were shattered when the pandemic hit, and Poland closed its borders. I had a choice to sit at home or go out and explore my city. Although many things were closed, I started walking around my neighborhood.
This led to the discovery of remnants of the Mur Ghetto or Ghetto Wall. The memorials show the outline of the former ghetto which in 1940 had a total length of about 18km. There is a line on the sidewalk or street reading “mur getta”. I learned that if you can read the words straight on, you are outside the ghetto and if they appear upside down, you are inside the ghetto. Finding these memorials, I became curious as to what I didn’t know about Poland and WWII. As I researched, I discovered more and more places I wanted to visit not only in Warsaw but all of Poland.
Not usually being one for historical fiction, I was suddenly drawn to novels about Poland and WWII. With the pandemic in full swing, I had plenty of time to up my reading habit. Books like, “The Lilac Girls”, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, “The Rabbit Girls”, and “The Book of Lost Names” piqued my interest in other places in Warsaw and other cities across Poland.
Although I love zoos and often visit them, after reading “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and learning how Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews and hiding them in empty cages and even in their villa, I knew my visit to the Warsaw Zoo would have me see it in a different light. “The Lilac Girls” introduced me to Lublin, Poland, and the State Museum at Majdanek.
I had never heard of the Majdanek Concentration Camp and Lublin was only just over 2 hours by train from Warsaw. It was an easy day trip and one spring day I caught the train and because of a book, I visited a place I may never have known about.
Walking my neighborhood, I found out I was a couple of blocks away from the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The Warsaw Uprising broke out on Tuesday, August 1, 1944, at 17:00 PM. The interactive museum is difficult to take in during just one visit. Also near me is the Polin Museum. The Museum is a modern institution of culture – “it is a historical museum which presents the 1000 years of Jewish life in the Polish lands.” Again, too much to wrap your head around during just one visit. I live in the Wola District of Warsaw.
As I walked around my neighborhood, I noticed more and more markers on the street, signs on walls of buildings, and free-standing monuments. With so much history of Jewish Poland right in my neighborhood, I also spent time wandering around the Jewish Cemetery which is just a few tram stops from my house.
The city had me intrigued and I started t look for unique things to do and see. That’s how I discovered the Neon Museum and the Pinball Museum. Places I probably wouldn’t have discovered were it not for the pandemic situation. I also visited the Vodka Museum and the Stacja Muzeum (Train Museum). While visiting the Stacja Muzeum, I learned of a narrow-gauge rail museum in a nearby city. As restrictions around the country began to be eased, I started taking short day trips from Warsaw. One was to the city of Sochaczew to the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum which also offered a short train ride to the Kampinos Forest and a cookout. I didn’t know Poland had lavender fields and one day found myself on a train to the city of Żyrardów. From there I took an Uber to a Lawenda pod Skowronkami and came home with bouquets of fresh-picked lavender. In Warsaw I was enjoying the many parks, wandering around Old Town, and life near the Vistula River.
As summer was ending, I decided to take more than just day trips. My first adventure took me to the city of Kętrzyn which was the city nearest to Gierłoż. What caught my interest in Gierłoż? By this time I had been in Poland for over 6 months, I was hungry for more and more information especially related to WWII. As I was scrolling Facebook one day, I came across information about Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” or “Wilczy Szaniec”. Hitler’s abandoned eastern front military headquarters during WWII and site of an assassination attempt is an eerie reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Located in Gierłoż forest, I discovered I could stay on the grounds in a renovated WWII bunker and explore the grounds. I spent a day and a half wandering the grounds where Hitler spent more than 800 days during the war.
Come October, I decided to spend a few days at the Polish seaside on the Baltic Sea. I visited the tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia with a side trip by train to Hel Peninsula which is a 35-kilometer-long sand bar peninsula separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea. At the end of the Peninsula is the town of Hel. From Hel, I took a ferry back to Gdynia. The tri-cities are connected to each other by an intercity train which makes going back and forth quite simple. While in Gdansk I went to Westerplatte which was the site of the first clash between Poland and Germany thus the beginning of WWII. In Sopot, I discovered the longest wooden pier in Europe and the famous “crooked house”. Because of the pandemic, I was working remotely so it was great being able to travel and work at the same time.
The end of November brought thoughts of Christmas as Warsaw started to light up for the holidays. I took a late afternoon trip to Wilanów and the Garden of Lights. Wilanów is home to the Wilanów Palace often called the Polish Versailles and was the second home to various kings. I toured the Palace and by the time I finished the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and many displays. Old Town in Warsaw was brightly decorated and a great place to stroll while sipping a warm cup of grzane wino or mulled wine.
As December rolled in I decided to spend Christmas with friends, and we headed to the Tatra Mountains and the city of Zakopane. It was perfect as we were hiking the mountain on Christmas morning and light snow began falling. Christmas evening I took a sleigh ride around the city and to the base of the mountains at nightfall in that lightly falling snow. It was magical.
After Christmas, the pandemic restrictions tightened up a bit. Between that and the cold weather, I spent the first 3 months of the year mostly working and enjoying my city. As soon as the weather broke and restrictions were lifted, I was ready to see more of this country I was now calling home. Through my English classes and one of our lessons, I learned that many people in Poland make a Pilgrimage to the city of Częstochowa. The city is known for the famous Pauline Monastery of Jasna Góra, which is the home of the Black Madonna painting, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Every year, millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to Częstochowa to see it.
I decided to pay a visit to Częstochowa and see the Black Madonna over Easter weekend. Probably not one of my brightest decisions being there were still some restrictions and Poland being a very religious country, most everything was closed the entire weekend. No matter, I made the best of it by walking around the Old Town which had some amazing sculptures and eating kebabs, pizza, and McDonald’s as those were about the only restaurants open. I also visited the Jasna Góra twice. The Black Madonna is only available for viewing during certain hours, but I did manage to get in to see it. I was also able to be there for a part of Good Friday services. The other thing about Częstochowa was the beautiful building murals. My main goal was to see the Black Madonna at the Jasna Góra and I accomplished that task.
The first weekend in June I headed for Kraków. Kraków is home to the company I work for here in Poland, English Wizards. I had a checklist of things I wanted to accomplish while in town. I wanted to meet up with the people who had hired me (I was in China when I applied and everything was done by Skype), hang out in the Old Town, wander the streets of the Jewish Quarter, visit Auschwitz, see Wawel Castle, and go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A lot to pack into a long weekend, but I’m happy to report that all items got ticked. I spent the first evening bar hopping in the Kazimierz District with my fellow wizards and eating late night/early morning zapiekanki (Polish Pizza) at the Okrąglak. My hotel was in Old Town, so I had plenty of opportunities to wander the streets and eat and drink at the cafes. Making a visit to Auschwitz is an experience I will never forget. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was fascinating and walking around the Jewish Quarter in the Kazimierz district was very educational. I ended my long weekend with a BBQ at the English Wizard headquarters and got to meet many of my co-workers. Three hours by train and I was back in Warsaw. June flew by and before I knew it, it was time for my first trip out of Poland in 16 months. I was off to spend the summer in Bulgaria at Z-Camp, a youth sports and language camp on the Black Sea.
How can I be thankful for a global pandemic? I’m grateful for the opportunities it forced me to take. Don’t get me wrong, it’s heart-wrenching when I think about friends and family who have suffered and even died due to the pandemic. The divisions it has caused between friends and family are sad. Yes, the big picture of the last nearly 2 years is often bleak, jobs and businesses were lost. I am one of the fortunate ones who was able to work more because of the situation. I also decided to take advantage of the city and country where I chose to stay during this crisis. I know I saw more of Warsaw and Poland than I would have if the world hadn’t stopped turning and there is a good chance I wouldn’t even be in Poland right now. I am grateful that my eyes have been opened to a beautiful country that I knew so little about. I am more understanding of their horrific history, appreciative of their culture and traditions, grateful to my students who I now call friends, and in awe of the beautiful country, I am currently calling home. I challenge everyone during this season of Thanksgiving to look back and find something to be grateful for.
Thank you, Poland for making me feel like one of your own.
Credit for feature photo to Tomeyk_Krakow
What’s Gogh-ing On?
Suffering from severe depression and poverty which led to his suicide at age 37, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890) posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in art history. A Dutch post-impressionist painter, he created more than 2000 works in the last decade of his life, most of which date during his last two years.
Living in Paris in 2014/15, I took a day trip to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent the last days of his life (May-July 1890). On July 27th, although there were no witnesses it is believed he shot himself in the chest. He died 30 hours later, on July 29th with his brother Theo by his side as he uttered his last words, “the sadness will last forever”. Theo died the following January and was buried in Utrecht, Netherlands. In 1914 his widow had his body exhumed and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be re-buried beside his brother.
While in Auvers, I visited the Musee de l’Absinthe and had a taste of the “green fairy”, the church from the painting Church at Auvers-sur-Oise, the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, and the graves of Theo and Vincent at the cemetery in Auvers. I also visited Auberge Ravoux where on the upper floor you can view the room where Vincent Van Gogh died. It has been restored to its original.
I have always been a fan of Van Gogh and especially The Starry Night which was painted during his stay in the St. Paul Asylum in Saint Remy. So, when I saw there was going to be a Van Gogh Exhibition during the time I was going to be in Paris in May 2019, I immediately checked with my fellow travelers and bought tickets. It was called Van Gogh: Starry Night and Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World and I was hooked.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the exhibition. It was housed at Atelier des Lumieres (light workshop), a 19th century restored foundry, in the 11th arrondissement, with much of its industrial architecture, including metal structures, a cistern, a basin, and a high brick chimney, left intact. Making use of 140 video projectors and 50 speakers, I was blown away, no pun intended. After sitting through the show twice, I commented to my cousins that it was probably the most amazing exhibition I have ever seen. The show consisted of 3 parts. The first created by filmmaker Thomas Vanz was a short cosmic display depicting the birth of the universe accompanied by dreamlike music called Verse.
This was followed by Dreamed Japan: Images of a Floating World by Danny Rose Studio. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese prints and they seemed to become an inspiration for some of his work. Following these two shorts was Starry Night, the 35-minute main feature. More than anything, I think what made this so outstanding for me was the playlist. It featured an eclectic mix which included Kozmic Blues by Janis Joplin, O Mio Bambino, Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto #2, Generique by Miles Davis, Mozart Recomposed during the Starry Night sequence, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone, and Brahms Concerto #2 in B Flat, to name a few. The space, the music, the video….perfect. I literally felt like I was in the paintings. I told everyone I knew that was going to Paris that it was a “must-see” and at 14 euro ($16) a ticket a great value.
Recently, when I started seeing Van Gogh experiences advertised in cities across the globe, I encouraged everyone to take the opportunity to see it. One thing that shocked me, however, was the ticket prices in the USA, regardless, I still insisted it was a must-see. When my roommate came home one night last week and asked if I saw that a Van Gogh Experience was opening in Warsaw on Friday, I went online that evening and bought a ticket (55 pln or $14) for opening day. Friday arrived and I was excited to be headed to experience Van Gogh again. I had one of the first ticket timeslots for the show.
The first thing I noticed upon entry was a large area, with high ceilings and some large screens placed throughout and hanging from the ceiling. A massive space with some stools randomly scattered about. Seeing photos and videos from various friends in the states who had seen the show, the spaces were very similar. I immediately made comparisons to Paris, which while being a large space, had felt more intimate. Okay, I know I am obsessed with Paris, it has my heart and everything there is perfect. Well, if you know me, you know what I mean. So maybe, just maybe, I am being a bit partial.
So I cleared my thoughts, found a seat ( there were fewer than 20 people in the room), and got ready to be immersed. The images were amazing although I felt like I was watching versus being one with them. The music was, meh. It just didn’t move me or draw me to the stories in the paintings. The show lasted 30 minutes and I didn’t hear Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which was one of my favorites from the Paris show. Did I miss it? I wanted to sit through it again to see if I was just being a Paris snob. In all honesty, after two viewings, I just didn’t think it was as good. Underwhelmed (is that a word), I took advantage of the beautiful weather and walked a bit before catching a bus to Old Town. I say underwhelmed because I wasn’t disappointed. It was, after all, a beautiful display of many of Van Gogh’s life works. I still encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if you can. What I am disappointed in is what they are charging for tickets in the USA, but that’s all I’m going to say about that subject.
When I got home that evening, I found my photos/videos from The Starry Night in Paris. No, I wasn’t being a Paris snob, the show was better. So, what’s Gogh-ing on? Time to GTS (Google That Shit). Much to my surprise, I made a startling discovery. There are currently four different, yes, you read that correctly, four different shows touring the world, and none are organized by Atelier des Lumieres which was responsible for Van Gogh: The Starry Night in Paris. Probably why I didn’t hear Nina Simone at the Warsaw Exhibition which was called Van Gogh Multi-Sensory Exhibition. The one currently in Cleveland Ohio is Immersive Van Gogh, I believe. Other shows are called; Van Gogh Alive, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience. Confusing, right? It is no wonder I have heard conflicting stories about this one being different from that one, better than, etc., depending on what city one saw it.
What does all this mean? It means the show I saw in Paris was one of the best exhibitions I have seen. I was underwhelmed in Warsaw but still enjoyed it. I am disappointed in ticket prices in the USA because no matter which show comes around your area, I think it is well worth seeing. I think it would be great for kids to see, but with the cost of tickets, I’m sure there are many who can’t afford to take a family of four.
I think the man who said, “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”, would be pleased that the world is seeing what he had in his heart.
If anyone is interested, the 3 parts of the Starry Night show in Paris listed above are links to the YouTube videos of the 2019 Exhibition. It is also this exhibition that was featured in an episode of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris”. I have also linked the Spotify soundtrack from the Paris exhibition and I recommend the movie “At Eternity’s Gate”
Luck Didn’t Get Me Here
It’s not quite 5 am in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, where I just woke up. For the past 21 months, it is the place I have called home. One of many places I have called home in recent years. I thought about going back to sleep, but I knew that when I woke up again, I wouldn’t feel as refreshed as I do now. I got up made a cappuccino and decided to put the pen to the paper. I’ve had a few thoughts rolling around in my head this past month. One stemmed from a conversation I had with Guy, a co-worker from my summer experience at Z-Camp, a youth language camp on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. We both said that we don’t like (I hesitate to use the word hate) when someone says, “oh, you’re so lucky”, in reference to our lifestyle.
Then, I was interviewed by Burton Cole from my hometown newspaper last month. One of the things he asked was, “what do you want people to know?” Finally, I was on a Zoom call with friends from the states. Talking about my life in Poland, I remarked that I had fallen into a great job. Marla quickly reminded me that I didn’t “fall into it” that I worked/planned to be where I am right now. In other words, it wasn’t luck.
I made a conscious choice for my current lifestyle in 2013. Although, most of my life I have had a goal of living life abroad even for a short time. I started to put this goal in motion in 2012 by researching ways to live/work abroad. Teaching English seemed to be the best option for me, and in January 2013 I started classes with the University of Miami of Florida to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certification or TEFL. The course was more intense than I expected and along with working full time, it consumed much of my after-work energy. That TEFL certification was the first step in finding a teaching job abroad. Of all the cities, in all the world I have for most of my life dreamed of living in Paris. So, that is where I started. I found 2 agencies and interviewed via Skype with one and a girl’s trip to Paris with my friend Teri to interview in person for the other.
Thrilled to have been offered a job with both, the research and planning began. What does it take to live in France and the EU? It isn’t so simple; you can’t just pack a bag and move to Paris. Ah, immigration laws, which I won’t get into here. Just know you need to apply for a special visa or temporary residency (rules differ between countries) to live and work in the EU.
I have a job in Paris, but what about my job back home? I have a place to live in Ohio, but where will I live in Paris? Will I need other insurance? How much stuff will I need to take with me? I had already decided this was a trial and planned to stay for 6 months. Still, that is at least two seasons, what should I pack? What part of the city do I want to live in? Each job offer would require me to travel to people’s homes, so I had no idea what arrondissement would be best. How much money should I have in reserve as a security blanket? As I researched the answers to these questions, I put a plan in place so that in August 2014, I was able to board a plane and start life in Paris. Was I lucky? The dictionary tells us that lucky is something that results from good fortune and chance. Chance didn’t land me in Paris. Over a year’s worth of research, planning and further education landed me in Paris. Everything didn’t quite go as planned in Paris, but that’s another story. The point is, I made it happen. I also came to the realization that this was the lifestyle I wanted at this point in my life. I returned to the US but, I needed to find another path to travel and live abroad again. Soon I was researching what I needed to do to live and teach in China. A far cry from life in Paris, but it was something I wanted to do, I just had to figure out how to make it happen. At least a lot of the research I had already done for Paris was helpful in this venture. A few months later I was boarding a plane for China and what I thought would be 6 months studying (I applied for a student visa), living, and working in the Middle Kingdom. As my 6-month visa was expiring, I knew I wanted more. Which is how 6-months turned into 4 years.
After 4 years of working and traveling the Middle Kingdom and other parts of Asia, I was ready to give up my China life. My next destination of choice was Bali. After 2 short visits, I knew I wanted to spend an extended period on the Island of the Gods.
I already had friends that I considered my Balinese family, but I had to find out how I could stay past the 60-day tourist visa limit. I also knew it was difficult to work in Indonesia as a foreigner, but I could volunteer and possibly apply for a social visa. In the end, I discovered it was easiest to purchase a visa on arrival. This is different from the visa on arrival that is free. The free one cannot be extended beyond the 60 days whereas a purchased ($25) VOA can be extended 4 times for 30 days each time. Also, customs and immigration are diligent about checking that arrival date stamp when you are leaving the country. Every day your visa is overstayed will cost you 1 million rupiahs or about $70. I can vouch for this as I personally know someone who overstayed their visa by not thinking about the fact that some months have 31 days. See what I mean about it taking a lot of research and planning? Was I lucky I was able to spend the better part of 5 months living in Bali? I will let you answer that.
Leaving Bali, I had already committed to a job in Poland but took a couple of months to return to the USA for the holidays. Fast forward to February 2020. I boarded a plane to Poland with a notebook of information on things I had to do after I arrived. I had a company, English Wizards, I would “work” for who would provide job leads, but it was still up to me to get hired. I contacted a language school (my company had sent them my CV) before leaving the USA, but they wanted to wait until I was physically on Polish soil before moving forward. Which basically meant that I would arrive in Poland with job opportunities, but no guarantee of a source of income. After landing a job, before I could be paid to work, I had to obtain a PESEL number. It is like a Tax ID as I would be paying taxes in Poland. You can’t get a PESEL number without a bank account.
I arrived in Warsaw on February 3, 2020. Checked into my Airbnb (I wasn’t sure if I would stay in Warsaw or move to another city). It was also 40 minutes from the city center by bus, not exactly ideal. I landed a job the first week so I would need that PESEL number so I could get paid. I was able to open a bank account and then I needed to apply for my PESEL which needs to be done in Polish. English Wizards provided me with a step-by-step document to help me complete the paperwork on my own vs hiring someone to do it for me. All is good now, right? Not exactly, I arrived with a tourist visa which is only valid for 90 days. I have a job, a bank account, a PESEL number, an Airbnb to stay, what else could I possibly need. Again, EW had provided me with documents detailing the further steps I had to take to continue to live and work in Poland. Before my tourist visa would expire, I had to apply for a Karta Pobytu or temporary residency permit since I didn’t have time to apply for a working visa while I was in the states. It must be applied for in your home country, it was the holidays, I would have had to go to the Embassy in New York City. So temporary residency it would have to be. To apply for my Karta Pobytu, I had to have a rental contract and it couldn’t be an Airbnb. It had to be an official contract with a landlord. Now along with working, I had to apartment hunt in a city I wasn’t familiar with. After some research, I knew I wanted to live in the city center. Also, my job, teaching Business English at 3 different companies, was in the city center, so it just made sense. I found a shared flat that I liked and signed a 6-month lease in case I decided I wanted to move. It’s been 20 months and I am still in the same flat. Rental contract signed, now I could get my TRP. Wrong! I also had to have medical/emergency/accident insurance that met all the criteria of the government requirements for a foreigner. Next, another small task, haha, I had to have copies of all the pages in my passport with entry and exit visas for the last 5 years. For me, this means copying 2 passports as I had just renewed mine. Then, as part of the Karta Pobytu application, I had to list all the countries with the entry and exit dates in chronological order in Polish. Honestly, for me, it was kind of a nightmare if you have ever seen my passport. I also had to provide copies of my work permit (which I had applied for before arriving in Poland), a work contract, and the list went on.
Feeling satisfied, thanks to detailed instructions from EW, that the application was filled out correctly (in Polish, blue ink, all caps) I went online, paid my filing fee, and was ready to submit the paperwork. BOOM, the global pandemic hits in Poland and we are on lockdown. Everything would now need to be submitted by post instead of in person. I got my package of documents together and sent everything in and requested proof of delivery. Because of the pandemic, everything was at a standstill, and it was months before I heard anything. I finally received notification that my application was denied as it was missing a document. I could appeal or start a new application.
By now I had a roommate, Valeria, who worked in a company that helped people obtain their Karta Pobytu, so with her help, I decided to just reapply as some of my other documents would need updating. I had signed a new lease agreement, my work permit would be expiring, and I would need to submit my new one, etc. So together we prepared a whole new application, sent it by post, and played the waiting game. Finally, notification, I had the submitted wrong insurance. I could appeal and send in the correct proof of insurance. Valeria to the rescue, wrote my appeal since she speaks not only her native language of Russian but also Polish and English.
10 days ago, after 21 months in Poland, I finally received my 3-year temporary residency or Karta Pobytu. Was I lucky? Nah, I don’t think so. Maybe I would say I was lucky to have Valeria as a roommate, but luck didn’t land me in Paris, China, Bali, or Poland!
This has turned into a longer post than I expected, but I do ramble a bit. I mentioned I was recently interviewed by my hometown newspaper, the Tribune Chronicle. Burton Cole asked me what I wanted people to know. Simply put, I want people to know that Aldous Huxley had it right when he said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” When you immerse yourself in a culture and open your eyes, your mind, heart, and soul to their culture, foods, traditions, and differences, you just might see your own eyes looking back at you. People are mostly good. They want to be happy, enjoy their family and friends, eat good food, feel balanced, feel important to others, be free from social judgment, make a difference in the life of others, and live each day without regret. I want people to know that my lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
Yes, I have seen amazing places, met amazing people, but not everyone wants to squat over a hole for a toilet. Not everyone wants to travel/live abroad independently leaving behind the friends you have just made to have to start over in a new city or country. It isn’t always easy dealing with language barriers. Everyone can’t live without certain modern conveniences. In my over 7 years abroad, I have never had a clothes dryer. I must hang all my laundry to dry. For 2 years in China, I had to take my sopping clothes out of my “washer” and put them in a spinner before hanging them to dry. In my first 6 months in China, I had an electric conduction pad and a rice cooker to prepare all my meals.
I spent 6 months in a flat with only a squat toilet. Not everyone can pack up and leave family and friends behind in their home country and start over with only the things you can carry with you. I could go on and on about some of the perceived negatives of why living abroad isn’t for everyone. More importantly, I want to say if you think it is for you or you want to try it even for a short time, don’t make excuses, plan, do the research, pack a bag, and go. As this unknown author’s quote says, “it will be the scariest, most liberating, life-changing experience of your life. Try it at least once.”
I want people to know that luck didn’t get me here. If you still think I am lucky, well, don’t be surprised if I say, “I have made my own luck”.
A Day in Alexandria Egypt
Egypt…a country in the Northeastern corner of Africa linking it to the Middle East. When I think of Egypt, I think of the Land of the Pharaohs, the Nile River, Cleopatra (even though she had no Egyptian blood), the pyramids, the Sphinx, and of course Tutankhamun or King Tut. I never really thought about “Roman” Egypt even though I know Cleopatra was romantically involved with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Spending the summer working for English Wizards who sent me to Z Camp in Bulgaria, afforded me the perfect opportunity to visit Egypt. I spent a few days exploring Bulgaria at the end of camp and then headed to Cairo. I actually stayed in Giza so I could wake up each morning and see the Great Pyramids and Sphinx. I was enjoying all my time in Cairo and Giza but wanted to see other areas. Luxor/Valley of the Kings I decided was too far and time-consuming for this trip, so I decided on a day trip to Alexandria. I arranged for a private car, driver, and guide through Viator which I have used many times in the past all over the world.
Alexandria is the third-largest city in Egypt after Cairo and Giza. It is the seventh-largest city in Africa. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC on the site of an existing settlement named Rhacotis which became the Egyptian quarter of the city. Alexandria was best known for one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Being a lover of cemeteries and catacombs, the Necropolis, one of the seven wonders of the Middle Ages, especially caught my attention. Okay, enough history, let me get on with my visit to the city. That’s a lie because you know I will give you a bit, probably a lot, of the history of the sites I saw. What can I say, I like learning the history of what I am visiting?
Being about a 3-hour drive from Giza to Alexandria, the day started very early. I was very happy when my guide suggested we stop for a coffee before getting on the highway. Caffeinated, I settled in the backseat for the drive. As we were driving the guide gave me a bit of the history of the city and said our first stop would be the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa or “Mound of Shards”. So named because of the mounds of terra cotta shards that were found there. These items were left behind by those visiting the tombs, who would bring food and wine for their consumption during the visit. Being a place of death, they did not want to bring these containers home so they would break them and leave them.
Because of the period, you can find the merger of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture. You can see Egyptian statues wearing Roman-style garments or creatures from Greek and Roman mythology. You enter the catacombs by climbing down a circular stairway (99 steps) surrounding a shaft where the deceased bodies were lowered.
Between the second and fourth centuries, the facility was used as a burial chamber. It was rediscovered in 1900 when a donkey fell into the access shaft. It is believed that the catacombs were originally intended for one family, but for reasons unknown, expanded to house numerous other individuals. So far, 3 sarcophagi have been discovered along with other human and animal remains. The sarcophagi have non-removable tops, so it is assumed the bodies were inserted from behind. The entrance to the main burial chamber resembles a temple with two columns and numerous other carvings. I was seriously blown away by this visit.
After leaving the catacombs the temperature being hot AF, our first stop was for water, cold, please. Then we headed to see a Roman triumphal column. The Corinthian column known as Pompey’s Pillar sits among the ruins of a Roman complex called Serapeum. The Temple was built at the end of the 3rd century BC during the rule of Ptolemy to worship the god Serapis. So, who in the heck is Pompey and why does he have a column? In 60 BC, Pompey was part of the military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus. Pompey was also married to Caesar’s daughter Julia. After the deaths of Crassus and Julia, Pompey and Caesar began contending for the leadership of the Roman State in its entirety. This led to Caesar’s civil war, Pompey was defeated, fled to Ptolemaic Egypt where he was assassinated. But that still doesn’t explain why he has a pillar. It is said that when he was assassinated by Egyptians, they put his head in a jar and it was stored atop the column. Another theory from Crusaders of the Middles Ages is that Pompey’s ashes (not his head) were atop the column and gave it the Nickname “Pompey’s Pillar”.
Most historians now agree that this monument was built in 298 AD, in honor of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but the name Pompey’s Pillar has stuck. The column is flanked by 2 red granite sphynx statues which were discovered in 1906. It is believed they were built between 186 and 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VI Philopator.
As I mentioned previously, it was hot AF so after visiting the Pillar we made another stop for water. Funny thing, all this water and I didn’t have to pee…guess I was sweating it all out. Okay, hydrated and cooled off a bit it was time to head to our next venue, the Roman Amphitheatre.
It was discovered in the 1960s during excavations for a planned government building. It is believed that the amphitheater was built in the 4th century AD and used until the Arab invasion of the 7th century. The theatre, the only one of its kind discovered in Egypt had marble seating for around 700 people. With further excavations and research still being carried out, there is now a theory that the theatre may have been a small “lecture hall” and the whole site an ancient academic institution. Along with the ruins of the theatre, remains of Roman baths, columns, a residential district, a gymnasium, and a largely intact villa. It is called “Villa of the Birds” because of a large mosaic on the floor depicting several species of birds. Excavations continue at this site today.
Unearthed in 1998 by the Polish Archaeological Mission, the American Research Center in Egypt – in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Polish-Egyptian Preservation Mission, the Polish Center of Archaeology and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities then began work to conserve the mosaics in the Villa of the Birds. The mosaic shows a pigeon, a peacock, a parrot, a quail, and a water hen as well as a panther. It was fascinating to see people working at the site during my visit.
More water and off to our next stop, the Citadel of Qaitbay. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, the Citadel was considered one of the most important defensive strongholds not only for Egypt but all the coast.
It was erected on the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The Alexandria Lighthouse is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. An earthquake in the 11th century damaged the lighthouse and only the bottom survived and was used as a watchtower and a small mosque was built on top of it. An extremely destructive earthquake in the 14th century completely destroyed the lighthouse. Although it is believed that the remains of a Byzantine bath are thought to be built from the remains of the Alexandria Lighthouse.
In 1805 when Mohammed Ali became ruler of Egypt, he completely renovated the Citadel, but in 1882 the British bombarded Alexandria and the Citadel sustained great damage. It was neglected until 1904 when King Farouk wanted to turn it into a Royal Rest House and ordered it renovated. The most recent restoration was in 1984. The Citadel is now one of Alexandria’s most popular tourist attractions with beautiful views of the bay.
By now it is getting to be late afternoon and we still have a 3-hour drive back to Giza. I am hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry. One of the great things about being with a private guide, I didn’t have to go to the pre-planned everyone has to eat here type place. I asked my guide to please take me to a small local place to eat traditional Egyptian food. I was not disappointed. I can’t tell you what I ate, but they laid out a feast for me. Well-fed and hydrated, once in the car I quickly fell asleep to the sounds of Egyptian music.
That Time I Let a Stranger Bathe Me – My Experience at a Moroccan Hammam
It used to be when I thought of Morocco, I thought of an exotic country with desert, sultan tents, camels, incense, mint tea, busy market squares, tajines, and couscous.
Not that it isn’t all of that, well maybe not so much the sultan tents (but, they did exist on the rooftop of my Riad), there is so much more to this country.
I was continuing my journey coming from Cairo to Casablanca. The only thing I knew about Casablanca was Rick’s Café. I know, I know, Rick’s Café is entirely fictional and was nothing more than a Hollywood set for the movie “Casablanca”. So what, it’s been recreated in the city and how could I be in Casablanca and not visit Rick’s…?? My first evening I had a lovely meal and of course a gin Martini, “of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…”. Truly a night to remember…I know, I know…different movie.
My only other goal in Casablanca was a visit to the Hassan II Mosque. It is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world. With an estimated 4 million mosques in the world (2019), number 7 is a big deal. Inside, the mosque can accommodate 25,000 people, and the outside another 80,000 worshippers. I was blown away by this mosque. Its location directly on the North Atlantic Ocean isn’t too shabby either.
Casablanca is a large busy city and 2 days there was plenty. From Casablanca, I took the train to Marrakech where I had booked a Riad (guesthouse) in the heart of the Medina (historic old city). Unfortunately, due to covid, tourism is almost non-existent. Although visiting sites like Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace were quite enjoyable being mostly tourist-free, the great square Jemaa el-Fnaa was empty.
Normally filled with thousands of people watching magicians and snake charmers, eating, shopping, listening to storytellers and bands, or getting henna tattoos, it was virtually empty. I did see one guy with a monkey. Although this was a bit disappointing especially after reading my friend Cheryl’s experience in her book, “Morocco: A Journey Through the Sands of Time”, I found Marrakech every bit as exotic and entrancing as I imagined.
After that long introduction, on to the naked truth….
Although it had slipped my mind, my first introduction to a Moroccan Hammam was in Cheryl’s book. Hers seemed a bit harsher than my experience. Most recently my friend Tertia told me of her trip to Marrakech and said whatever you do, visit a Hammam and then plan to do nothing the rest of the day as you won’t have the energy. So what is a Hammam?
In Arabic, the word hammam means, “spreader of warmth”. A hammam is a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world. There are public and private hammams. One of the “Five Pillars of Islam” is prayer. It is customary before praying to perform ablutions. The two Islamic forms of ablution are ghusl, a full-body cleansing, and wudu, a cleansing of the face, hands, and feet. You will almost always find hammams in the vicinity of mosques as public cleansing is part of the weekly ritual/lifestyle of the Islamic culture. While many Islamic women are covered head to toe in public, they are naked in the hammam. It is a place of gathering, bathing, and maybe even a little gossip. People of Islamic faith often visit the hammam on Thursdays before Friday prayers.
Okay, so there are public and private hammams. I’m at the point in my life, after living in China and squatting over a hole with numerous other women to do my business, getting naked in a public bathhouse is no big deal. BUT (with one t, haha), since I had been warned I would feel like a jellyfish after, I decided to take advantage of the hammam treatment offered by my Riad. Not only that, but it has been hellish hot here (108°) so the thought of traipsing back to my Riad in the heat, dust, and chaos of the Medina after a bath didn’t seem appealing. Having been on the road for 11 weeks (secret meaning; I haven’t shaved in 11 weeks) I decided to also get waxed. I mean if someone is going to wash me head to toe, I may as well get smooth before getting exfoliated. She explained that since the scrub is also a skin treatment (because of the black soap and rhassoul), I should have the waxing done prior. Yes, waxing at times can feel like putting duct tape on your skin and ripping it off…not that I’ve ever tried “waxing” with duct tape, but it’s what I imagine. And yes, it does hurt a tiny bit in the more sensitive areas. Waxing is over it’s time to get scrubbed….
The young lady gave me a pair of disposable bikini briefs to put on. Honestly, they reminded me of an old fashion maxi pad without the padding but enough visuals. She then gave me my robe and led me to a marble “bath” room. Inside the room were several sizes of brass bowls and buckets along with smaller bowls, one filled with black goo or “beldi” and one with a reddish-grey claylike substance, “rhassoul” which eventually turned to a soft paste.
Moroccan black soap or beldi soap is a high-alkaline Castile soap made from olive oil and macerated olives with a gel-like consistency. This gives the soap its characteristic dark greenish-black color. Rhassoul is a cosmetic made of natural mineral clay mined from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is combined with water to clean the body and has been used by North African women for centuries to care for their skin and hair. Rhassoul contains silica, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, lithium, and trace elements. There was also the kessa exfoliating glove. It is traditionally used with black soap to help promote soft, clean, and beautiful skin. At one time they were made from goat hair. In a large marble sink, she had water running so the air was steamy. There was a long marble bench with a pad and after she took my robe, she instructed me to sit on the bench.
She then says sit for 5 minutes…. okay, the temperature is perfect, the sound of the running water relaxing (water should be flowing as standing water is seen as unclean), and I am alone with my thoughts and breathing in the steamy air. After 5 minutes, she returns. She has changed into leggings and a t-shirt and pulled her hair up. I guess it’s time to scrub me down. She gets the small bowl of beldi. She has me touch it and smell it. I must be honest here, although it is made from macerated olives, I thought it had a bit of a barnyard smell. Not that it’s all bad because I rather like a leathery barnyard smell. I did a bit of research later and found that sometimes amber musk is mixed into the black soap so I may have been picking up that musky undertone. Back to my bath…I am sitting on the marble bench; she fills one of the medium brass bowls from the marble sink with the flowing water and gently pours many bowls of perfectly warm water over my body. That was heavenly. After I was sufficiently wet, she takes the black soap and rubs it all over my body. She then told me to lay on the bench for 9 minutes. I have no idea if there is a significance to the 9 minutes or just part of the calculation in the length of the bath. Anyway, just as I was thinking she was never returning, and the soap was beginning to congeal on my skin the door opened, and she began pouring warm water on me. It didn’t wash the black soap off but just remoistened it. She then had me sit up and she took the kessa glove and began scrubbing my body. She had me lay down again and scrubbed me back and front before taking pumice and caring for my feet. Again she had me sit up and took bowls of warm water to rinse the residue from my freshly exfoliated skin. It’s an invigorating sensation and I still think it smelled mildly barnyardy. Next, she had me smell the clay-like substance which was very floral. She then proceeded to rub this all over my body and was instructed to lie down for another 9 minutes. The warmth, the sound of the flowing water, and my slightly tingling skin…. heaven on earth. When she returned, she had me sit up to be rinsed and then asked if it was okay if she washed my hair. Are you kidding me? In my opinion, one of the most relaxing things is having someone wash my hair. She washed my hair and then came the buckets full of warm water poured directly over my head. When my hair was sufficiently rinsed, she had me stand and braided my hair down my back. Again I was asked to sit, and she took lavender-scented soap and again washed my entire body, rinsed me with warm water, and then cooler water. She said the lavender was for me to relax before my massage.
She then handed me my robe and led me to a candle-lit room with soft music playing and an infuser filling the room with a lovely scent. I then got on the table, she dried my body and proceeded to give me a 90-minute massage with perfectly applied pressure using argan oil. After my massage, she told me to relax for 5 minutes, and then I was given some mint tea. After which, I stumbled in a daze back to my room.
That time I let a stranger bath me ranks up there with one of the top experiences of my life and I’m no rookie when it comes to spa treatments.
All joking aside, the bathing ritual is an important part of the Islamic culture, and I learned a lot from this experience and would not hesitate to use a public hammam. I only hope that my stories help bring to life the cultures, traditions, foods, and experiences that are so foreign to what we are used to. I may use a bit of humor when I write, but I have the utmost respect for the people I meet, the places I visit, and the experiences I have. Peace Out!
You’re Never Too Old To Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling Part II
I am currently sitting at my guesthouse in Giza, Egypt sipping my morning coffee and staring at the Giza Pyramid Complex. On the Giza Plateau sit the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. Three pyramids dominate the landscape and each one was built as the final resting place for a king from the 4th Dynasty also known as the “Golden Age” of the Old Kingdom. The 4th Dynasty lasted from 2613-2494 BC. It was a time of peace and prosperity.
I have been in Egypt, for 6 days. These magnificent structures are the first thing I see in the morning as my guesthouse (which I highly recommend) gave me a “pyramid view” room. They are also the last thing I see at night as each evening I go to the rooftop and watch the sunset over these structures. I still have trouble grasping the fact that I am looking at and have touched something over 4000 years old…. it’s mindboggling. The smallest of the 3 great pyramids was built for King Menkaure, his son, and his grandson. Don’t worry ladies, the queens got their own pyramids. The middle pyramid was built for King Khafre. The largest and oldest of the three was built for King Khufu 2589–2566 BC and is also known as the Pyramid of Cheops. At an original height of 146.5 (481 feet), it would take 3,800 years before another building would exceed it in height. This building would be Old St. Paul’s Cathedral (1300) in London.
The other structure that stands out and is right before my eyes is the Great Sphinx of Giza. The Sphinx is a limestone structure, and it appears to have the face of the Pharaoh, Khafre. The mythical creature also sits in from of the pyramid of Khafre. Not only is it one of the most recognizable monuments in the world, but it is also the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt.
The most amazing thing about this view is looking at the Great Pyramid and realizing it is the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the only one mostly intact. I will say it again, it’s mindboggling. There are other structures on the plateau, and I will talk about my experience later. I have always been fascinated by Egypt, hieroglyphics, the pyramids, and the Pharaohs, especially Tutankhamen. So, how did I end up ticking this bucket list item? I want to take a minute to say again, “You’re Never Too Old To Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling” or for that matter too young. A little over 7 years ago, I packed up my life and moved abroad. I have lived in Paris, China, Bali, and my current place of residence is Warsaw, Poland. In February of 2020, I got on a plane and landed in Poland to work for English Wizards. It is because of English Wizards I am fulfilling a dream. No, they didn’t send me to Egypt. They did however ask me if I was interested in working at a summer youth language camp in Bulgaria. You can read about that here. I jumped on the opportunity and started thinking about where I might go after the 7 weeks of camp finished since I had booked only a one-way ticket to Bulgaria. Greece, Turkey, Georgia, back to Romania were all thoughts passing through my wanderlust infected head. I even considered taking the train from Bulgaria to Istanbul. After a lot more thought, I realized the opportunity to add a new continent to my list was enticing. I looked up flights to Cairo and on impulse hit the button to buy the ticket. No looking back now. A week or so later, I hadn’t made any plans (ticket) to return to Warsaw from Cairo. Another bucket list crossed my mind. It must be easier to get back to Europe from Morocco than Egypt, right? Bingo…plane ticket to Casablanca booked and a return flight to Warsaw from Marrakech booked. I could figure out how to get from Casablanca to Marrakech later. By the way, I haven’t worked that out yet. Okay, I know I have gotten way off track from the Pyramids, but the point I really want to make is don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. You are never too old, trust me…I spent 7 weeks remembering what it is like to be with kids and seeing their energy 24/7. I turned 59 years young at Z Camp. Some nights I fell into bed exhausted and felt every one of those years and more. But it was an experience I will never forget and might even repeat. So, if I’m not too old, neither are you and you’re never too young. Take that gap year, take any opportunity thrown your way. I promise you won’t regret it. I also realize this kind of life isn’t for everyone. I just happen to love it. That’s how I ended up waking to the only remaining wonder of the ancient world. I’d like to tell you a bit more of my experience walking in the steps of pharaohs, the land where it is believed Moses was pulled from the Nile in a basket…it is indeed holy ground.
I arrived at my guesthouse in Giza just in time for sunset. I went straight to the roof with a bottle of water, trust me when I tell you it is hot here. I sat in awe as the sun dropped perfectly behind the Pyramid of Khafre. I was mesmerized. I decided at that moment that I would start the next day exploring the Giza Plateau. After a lovely Egyptian dinner of lamb chops and rice, my head hit the pillow and I had dreams of ancient Pharaohs.
My guesthouse sits directly across from the ticket office and entrance to the pyramids. The price for the initial ticket is 200 Egyptian pounds or about $13. Entrance to the Great Pyramid and any camel or carriage rides are extra and paid on site. I have to insert a warning here, once you have your ticket in hand, you will be bombarded by locals wanting to ride you up the hill in a carriage (for a price of course) or wanting to be your guide (for a price of course). They will tell you it is no cost, just tip what you feel. I was warned by the staff at the guest house not to fall for this. They have ways of making you part with more money than you wish.
For example, if you decide to ride a camel, get the price for on and off the camel. You may think $10 to “ride” a camel is a good price, but if you didn’t negotiate to get off the camel, you may be in for a surprise. “Ahhhh, $10 to ride madam, but $20 to get you down”. Since I rode a camel when I was in the Gobi Desert, I didn’t have a desire to repeat the experience.
I had already decided I wanted to walk from the entrance up to the pyramids and was able to call everyone and their offers off after many stern “Nos”. For the ones that were particularly persistent, I used the “maybe later” line. With tourism just starting to come back, everyone vies for your attention. Me with my light-colored hair (not to mention the colorful braids) stood out in the crowd a bit. This did bite me, when I left the guesthouse the next day and someone yelled, “Wendy, (everyone wants to know your name) you said you would come back for a carriage ride in the afternoon.” To which I replied, I am sorry, I was just too tired. Not entirely a lie as I was exhausted, although I had no intention of finding him later that day for a carriage ride.
As I started walking towards the Sphinx, I was approached by an older gentleman in what looked like traditional garb and an official-looking identification around his neck. He started up a conversation with me. He had a soft, gentle voice and asked me how I felt being here. After I answered him, I went on to explain, I was warned of all the “tricks” people will use to get your money. He said he wasn’t there to take my money. Yea, right. I continued walking and he continued with me telling me different things about the pyramids and again asking me how I felt. He then said I looked like someone who would like to meditate somewhere near the pyramids. He told me he would show me a spot I could sit and be with my thoughts.
Okay, I know it sounds hokey, but his conversation with me was pretty much exactly what I was feeling. I agreed to let him walk with me around the area. I also said again, I wasn’t paying him. He said, okay, just let me walk with you, show you some things, tell you some things, and at the end, I will walk away. I spent about 3 hours walking the complex and talking. I was the only “tourist” in the area we were walking in the beginning. He showed me some new excavation sites, some minor monuments and did indeed take me to a spot where I could put my hands on an ancient object with hieroglyphics and left me alone for several minutes with my thoughts and a few tears.
We left this area and went to the pyramids. I told him I wanted to go out into the desert to see them from afar. I knew I would have to pay for either the camel or a carriage. I explained I have already done the camel thing. We negotiated the carriage ride, and a young Egyptian boy rode me out into the desert.
The view was spectacular, and I took amazing photos and he returned me to the pyramid of King Menkaure. The pyramid was not open for viewing but I did take some photos at the entrance to the tomb.
I met back up with my walking companion and he took me up close and personal to the Great Sphinx. I even took some fun photos. It was starting to get very hot; it was just hot when we started out, a mere 93 but the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was climbing. I was hot, thirsty even though I had a bottle of water with me, and tired. As fascinated as I am with the pyramids, I knew it was time to end my visit.
We started walking toward the exit and he asked me if I was as happy. I was ecstatic but I also have learned that if asked if I am happy means I should make the person responsible for “my happiness” happy in return. In other words, a tip without asking. I had planned from the beginning to give him something as we parted. I handed him a generous tip, he smiled and walked me a bit further.
As we parted ways, he handed me a small ceramic scarab. The scarab is a symbol of renewal and rebirth. My visit to the Giza Pyramid Complex was complete. My soul was happy!
A few other pointers for a visit to Egypt:
It’s hot. Even if you think you can handle the heat, it drains you. You’ve heard it before but drink a lot of water. Rest in the shade when you can.
It’s hot. It drains the battery on your phone more quickly than normal. It’s wise to have a power pack. I didn’t and my phone died late in the afternoon before I could call an Uber. This also means no google maps or google translate. I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help make the hour trip from downtown Cairo back to Giza. It’s only about 14 km but Cairo/Giza traffic is mad.
It’s hot. Your laptop battery drains quickly when you are sitting on a rooftop looking at the pyramids while getting some work done.
Uber is easy to use and reliable.
Learn a few words in Arabic. Shukran = thanks La Shukran = no thanks
Don’t expect to find alcoholic beverages/cocktails. Places are few are far between where you can get alcohol.
Try the local food. Don’t be tempted to just duck into that KFC or Pizza Hut. Local food is inexpensive and tasty, give it a try first. If you don’t like it, there is always American fast food to be found.
Take your time. Don’t rush to see as many things as you can cram into a day. You will only end up, hot and exhausted and probably won’t recall half of what you saw. Take your time, read about what you are seeing, realize the magnitude of what you are seeing. Some of these structures are over 4000 years old.
Don’t count on air conditioning. May Ubers and taxis either have no air or don’t use it. The Egyptian Museum didn’t have air-con. Although, the newer museums do. My guesthouse had ice-cold air and cold water always available. This was a plus. Just don’t assume everywhere will have air conditioning.
Finally, get caught up in the crazy, chaotic, colorful Cairo scene.
And remember, you’re never too old or too young to make your life a story worth telling!
One is Silver and the Other Gold
Summer 2021 has found me in the seaside town of Kiten, Bulgaria situated on the Black Sea.
It is a resort town near the mouth of the Kiten river. It boasts two beaches, Atliman and Urdoviza. So what has brought me from Warsaw, Poland to Kiten, Bulgaria? Z Camp.
I was contacted by English Wizards and asked if I would be interested in working at an English Language and Sports Camp in Bulgaria. They had me at Bulgaria…
18 years ago, 4 young people from Gabrovo, Bulgaria came to Warren, Ohio USA, and the Trumbull County YMCA to spend one month working at the day camp. I was privileged to host one of the teens in my home. Of course, working at the YMCA and hosting, I got to know all 4 quite well and my partner and I even took them on a weekend excursion to Niagara Falls. Their time with us flew by and soon they returned to Bulgaria. Despite promises of a visit and taking many trips to Europe, I never made it to Bulgaria. However, one of the guys ended up coming to the states for university. Here he met his future bride and is now living in Virginia, so I have seen Pavel in recent years. Yani is currently living in Germany. Hristian is in Bulgaria and will hopefully be able to visit.
Tony is married with a son and another on the way in August. She is living in Gabrovo. Her husband and 6-year-old son were attending a karate camp near where my camp is located. When she found out it was the same weekend I was arriving, she made the 3.5-hour trip to spend the afternoon with me. They picked me up at my camp and took me shopping for a few items I needed. Then we walked around town, had some pizza, and video chatted with another very special friend, Margie back in the states. Her husband Steve made all the arrangements to bring the kids to the Trumbull County YMCA. We then returned to my hotel and spent some time sitting by the pool catching up. I can’t tell you what it meant to me that she made this happen. Our visit ended way too soon, and they had to get back to their camp and mine was starting the next day.
When this opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t say no. So here I am…country number 38 of my travels and currently in week four of Z-Camp in Kiten, Bulgaria.
What could be better than spending part of your summer on the beautiful south coast of the Bulgarian Black Sea? This year since we kicked our summer camp off on July 4th, which just happens to be American Independence Day, our first weekly theme was “The USA”. As the campers arrived on Sunday, greeting old friends from prior camps, and meeting new friends who are experiencing Z Camp for the first time, the American Folk Song, “Make New Friends” came to mind. “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. A circle’s round it has no end that’s how long I’m gonna be your friend.” Eyes lit up, and smiles formed as campers saw friends they hadn’t seen in a year. Shy glances and eyes filled with wonder from new campers as they looked around and saw their home for the next couple of weeks. Luggage was stowed in assigned rooms, phones were turned in, money was put in the “bank” and kids were in swimsuits and jumping in the crystal waters of the camp pool. I should mention here that this isn’t a typical camp you think about in the USA. Camps in Bulgaria are housed in hotels and make use of the hotel facilities and grounds.
Soon it was dinnertime. Everyone was famished because swimming can certainly make you hungry. Old friends sitting together catching up, new campers getting accustomed to the routine and meeting other “newbies”, staff trying to make everyone feel welcome and laughter filled the air. After dinner, we gathered at the classroom area and everyone received their phone so they could call mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or whoever they needed to let know that all was great at Z Camp.
Z-Campers turn their phones into staff at arrival and have access to them once a day, in the evening after dinner. As the days went on, it was interesting to see that many didn’t even use their allotted time. They made their necessary calls, turned the phone back in, and got on with whatever activity they were engaged in. Of course, there are some addicted to social media and had to post a daily tik tok or Instagram shot, but for the most part, I was surprised to see how easily they parted with their treasured smartphones.
The first evening activity was ice breakers. This means time for fun! Z Camp’s super-fabulous activity staff had plenty of great games planned. We heard more laughter and saw more friendships being made. We even set off “sparklers” and shouted, “Happy 4th of July”. However, the long day and excitement was catching up with our campers and yawns started becoming contagious. Time for our first night’s sleep at camp.
Welcome to day one. Since Z Camp is an English and Sports Camp, one of the first things we did was test English levels. Campers were split into four groups and one of the teaching staff administered the test. Instructions were given in English and Bulgarian to make sure the campers all understand what they should do.
Everyone was happy when the testing was behind them because they knew that meant they would go to the beach in the afternoon. Lots of fun in the sun was followed by dinner and then evening activity which was a quiz night. Time to see how much they knew about the USA.
We woke to rain on day 2 of camp. By the way, wake up is 07:20 with breakfast at 07:50. After breakfast, it is usually beach time. When it rains the itinerary is switched up a bit in hopes that the weather breaks and we can go to the beach or swim in the pool in the afternoon. On a typical day, we have one English lesson in the morning and two after lunch. This rainy day we had two lessons in the morning. The testing the day before allowed the academic director to divide the kids into appropriate classrooms for their age and English level. Also scheduled in a typical afternoon are sports activities, after all, Z Camp is a language and sports camp.
Anyways, you get the idea. We get up…we have breakfast…we go to the beach…we have English lessons…we have lunch…we have two English lessons…we have an afternoon snack…we do sports…we have dinner…we have phone time…we have an evening activity…bedtime is 21:30 with lights out at 22:00. There is a security person on duty overnight on the wings of the 2 floors boys on one, girls on the other) occupied by Z Camp and staff. Then on occasion, some of the staff sit at the outdoor pool bar and relaxes a bit after very active days. As a side note, all staff isn’t present at all activities, we do have some needed downtime.
Since we have a rolling enrollment with some kids leaving on Saturday mornings and a new bunch arriving on Sunday afternoons, we have a new theme each week and switch up the activities as much as possible. Kids stay two, three, or four weeks at a time so we do our best to keep it interesting. Time certainly flies by at camp which is how I have arrived at week four in the blink of an eye. We also take 2 off-site excursions each week. I’ve taken you through a couple of typical days but now a little about some of our activities and excursions.
Did you know Bulgaria has a prehistoric rock formation just a few kilometers north of the city of Primorsko? It is a natural rock formation consisting of megaliths of hardened magma that erupted from a Mesozoic era volcano. If you don’t know what a megalith is, Z campers can tell you because they have been there. A megalith is a large prehistoric stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. … Most extant megaliths were erected between the Neolithic period. The site is an open-air museum maintained by the Burgas Historical Society. Beglik Tash is visited annually by 40,000 tourists and is affectionately called the Bulgarian Stonehenge by the locals. It’s cool we could visit while at Z Camp. It was great fun trying to squeeze through the crevices and climb around the rocks.
After leaving Beglik Tash we arrived at the Strandzha Nature Park, we had lunch, and then boarded a boat for an hour-long river cruise on the Veleka River. If you didn’t want to cruise you could paddle kayaks up and down the river. After the boat ride, we did some rifle shooting and then back in the boats for a water gun fight. Everyone returned to shore soaked to the skin. Veleka River is part of Sredna Gora Tectonic Zone in Strandzha Natural Park. It empties into the Black Sea.
During the week the campers can also choose from a variety of sports activities, including volleyball, windsurfing, football, tennis, horseback riding, and swimming. Evening activities range from movie night, karaoke, board games, and quizzes to a murder mystery night.
Four weeks have flown by. I started this blog with a story from 18 years ago. I had just had a visit from one of the four “kids” who came from Gabrovo, Bulgaria to Warren, Ohio. It seems fitting that I should end it today with a visit from another one of those kids. Hristian and his girlfriend Dessi decided to take a holiday at the sea. They were staying in the nearby town of Sozopol so Hristian would be able to visit. We shed a few tears and shared a lot of laughs. It is amazing and I am blessed that after 18 years it feels like yesterday. We met up in Kiten and had lunch at the seaside. We then went for a cocktail and had a video chat with Margie back in the states. I’m good at catching her just as she is waking, sorry Margie. I think she forgives me. We didn’t say goodbye but see you soon as we made plans for me to visit Veliko Tarnovo and stay with Hristian before going to Sofia to catch my flight to Cairo.
I am truly blessed to have met these young people 18 years ago. I am fortunate to have traveled to 38 countries of this beautiful world and met people I may never see again but consider my friends. I have met people I consider family. I never thought I would get to Bulgaria yet here I am at a summer camp teaching English. I have great co-workers and have shared laughs and tears. I think of my friends and family back in the states and sharing these moments with them. As Nishan Panwar said, “Sometimes it’s not about the journey or the destination, but the people you meet along the way.”
“Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. A circle’s round it has no end that’s how long I’m gonna be your friend.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Never Forget
Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free…
Imagine traveling for days with 60-80 people in each “wagon”… Imagine arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau and being met by SS guards…Imagine being told to leave all your earthly belongings in a pile while you are escorted to a “shower”… Imagine being ordered to strip naked… Imagine that “shower” was a gas chamber…Imagine the fear…
For the hundreds of thousands of human beings, people, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, gypsies, Soviets, men, women, and children… they didn’t have to imagine. It was their reality…
For some, their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…mere hours!
I read this quote and thought it was a good starting place. “Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories awareness that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again. This is the work of humans, and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return.” Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner.
Relocating to Poland, yes, I knew of Auschwitz and some of the other camps, but I didn’t realize the magnitude. Sure, we tell ourselves we know of the horrors, but do we? Between 1933 and 1945 Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites. These other sites also included the ghettos. In March of 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened outside of Munich. Dachau was primarily used for political prisoners. It was liberated in April 1945 making it the longest-running camp in operation.
Since arriving in Poland in February of 2020, I have visited Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Although, I will dedicate this post solely to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau and address Majdanek in a future post.
To most of the world, Auschwitz is probably the best-known symbol of the holocaust. Although Auschwitz is often spoken about as if it is one camp, it is actually 3 separate camps; Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) also called Buna. The original camp was opened in 1940 on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oświęcim. The Germans changed the name of the city to “Auschwitz” and this also became the name of the camp. The German name has led some to think the camp was in Germany, but it is in Poland approximately 75 km west of Krakow. Its location put it at the center of German-occupied Europe. Not only did the camp expand into 3 main camps, but also 40 sub-camps. It is estimated that 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz alone and beginning in 1942 became the scene of the largest mass murder in human history.
Many of the men, the women, and the children of Jewish decent were sent directly after their arrival to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers. Their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…..mere hours.
Most of us have seen pictures of Auschwitz and other camps, but nothing can prepare you for the reality of coming face to face with the entrance to Auschwitz I with the inscription Arbeit macht frei (work will make you free). The guide, with his gentle, soft voice and sad undertone led us solemnly through the gate, and then we stopped at the rear of a building, the camp kitchen. This, he told us, was where the camp orchestra played. Nice touch, right?!…prisoners playing music is the first thing you see/hear upon coming to camp…NOT. Of course, there was a more sinister use of the music which was played as the inmates left camp in the early morning and returned in the late evening from their labor. As one inmate stated, “the coordination of the marching labor commandos to the inexorable rhythm of the music, which many inmates sensed only subliminally because of exhaustion and apathy.” Another prisoner said, “we often returned from the field with a comrade’s corpse in our arms and had to march to the beat of the music with our left leg.” The music was also played during public punishments and executions as a demonstration of unlimited SS power. However, another prisoner, Franz Danimann, said that the Leonore Overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio which was performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive.
Leaving the site of the camp orchestra we moved to the barracks. Auschwitz I originally consisted of 22 brick buildings, eight of which were 2-story. A second story was added to the others later and an additional 8 new ones built. I visited on a warm sunny day in June (2021). As I looked around, I saw nice brick buildings, green grass, flowers, and trees. It almost looked like an apartment complex. The guide, in his quiet voice, reminded us that the camp did not look like this when it was a “camp”. With the number of people confined to this space, trampling to and from the work fields, standing for hours during the role, and general moving about, there wouldn’t have been grass. It would have been dirt and mud and many of the trees were planted later. He told us to picture it on a grey day in November and malnourished people without proper outer garments milling about.
Next, he led us to a building. Upon entering we are met by a sign that read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
In the first room, we entered there was no photography permitted. Behind the glass wall, out of the nearly 8 tons that were found when Auschwitz was liberated, is 4000 pounds of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners before they were sent to the gas chamber. It is here you really start to feel the human element. As you look at the hundreds of pieces of braided hair still intact, you start to picture faces, you imagine what it would have felt like to have your hair lobbed off “because of lice”. You try to picture the woman with the long braid, what color were her eyes? But all you can picture is a woman with fear in her eyes still not realizing these were her last moments on earth.
Next, you walk into a room, and behind that glass wall are pairs of children’s shoes…not just 10 or 20 pairs but 100s or 1000s…then comes the room filled with the shoes of adults. 110,000 pairs of shoes were found after the camp was liberated. You see a glass wall behind which are some of the 88 pounds of eyeglasses left behind. Then there are the 246 prayer shawls and the 12,000 pots and pans brought to the camp by people who thought they would be resettled. Finally, behind a glass wall, the 100s of empty canisters of Zyklon B. Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s. It consisted of hydrogen cyanide, as well as a cautionary eye irritant. Our guide told us 1 canister contained enough pellets to kill 1000 people. Imagine…this is just one building at one camp.
It is difficult just reading about the horrors of Auschwitz, but coming face to face with portraits of the men and women in striped uniforms lining the corridor as we entered Barracks 6, the prisoners barrack, is haunting. Looking into their eyes, seeing their nationality, their date of birth, and date of death you realize not one of these faces looking back at you survived Auschwitz.
From the prisoners’ barracks, we slowly and silently made our way to Barracks 11, the Camp Jail and Death Wall. Walking to the entrance of Barrack 11 the first thing you notice is a fenced-in courtyard and a wall we would later learn was the Death Wall.
It was here that the SS shot several thousand prisoners between 1941 and 1944. The SS also shot more than 5000 “police prisoners” at the death wall. Executions by shooting and hanging took place in the side yard at the “death wall” where so-called “punishment by the post” and flogging was also inflicted. The total number of prisoners brought to the camp for execution from outside the camp is not known. As we walked through the building we were told the Germans held court here. We saw the living conditions in the “regular” cells and then were told the horrors of the basement.
The basement had starvation cells, dark cells, cells with no fresh air, and standing cells which held 4 prisoners for 3 to 10 days with only room for them to stand. The first trials of mass killing of people with Zyklon B were held in the basement. Finally, exiting the building you walk past the death wall.
It is hard to comprehend what took place at that wall when the guide tells you to take notice of the Barrack across the courtyard with the blackened windows, Block 10. It was here that German gynecologist, Professor Carl Clauberg, carried out criminal sterilization experiments on women prisoners.
As we are slowly making our way back through the camp, I can’t comprehend that I have seen only 3 buildings out of 30 and this is only one camp out of more than 44,000 camps and incarceration sites. I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Even if I can’t find the words, deep inside I will never forget how I felt. We continued our walk, past the kitchen and the site of the camp orchestra. It was also here that roll call took place and also the public hangings on the multiple gallows while the camp orchestra played.
As we were finishing our tour of Auschwitz I, our guide led us toward what looked like a small hill. Before the war, it was a Polish Army ammunition bunker. As soon as I entered the first barren room, I knew something more evil had taken place here. Then I saw the ovens….
The largest room was designated as a morgue to hold the bodies of murdered prisoners. Crematorium furnaces capable of reducing 340 corpses to ashes per day were installed in the adjacent room. From the autumn of 1941 to the beginning of December 1942 the morgue served as a gas chamber. The yard outside, surrounded by a concrete fence served as an undressing room. SS men used Zyklon B to kill thousands of Jews and several large groups of Soviet prisoners of war here. For the most part, the building has been preserved in its original condition. When the gas chambers in Birkenau were operating, the furnaces and chimney here were dismantled.
With the construction of the higher capacity crematorium at Birkenau, 4,576 corpses could be burned per day in the 5 crematoria.
“You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory” Signage in the gas chamber/crematorium.
After finishing the Auschwitz I tour, I was numb. I was thankful for some time to regroup before we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Maybe even more chilling than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I is the entrance to Birkenau also known as the “Gate of Death.”
Leaving Auschwitz I, we had a short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arriving at Birkenau, you are left off some distance from the camp and given instructions to walk along a road to the entrance of the camp and our guide would meet us there. It seemed strange that we were left off so far from the entrance…. Until, as you are walking along the railroad tracks, you see the brick structure which was the main SS guardhouse, and you follow the rail to the gate through which the trains with wagons stuffed full of people passed. For many who passed through this gate, not knowing that it was their last day on earth…. then you understand the unimaginable.
Our guide led us through the entrance gate, and we paused. Spread out in front of us 432 acres of land, 300+ buildings mostly wooden barracks, some brick barracks, and the remnants of barracks, we stared at what was the largest center for the extermination of Jews. Our guide asked us to walk silently along the tracks until we came to “the ramp”. The trains stopped at the ramp or unloading platform that was the central point in the camp.
This spot was the destination for trains carrying more than a half-million Jewish deportees to Auschwitz. Most of the new arrivals were classified by SS doctors as unfit for labor and murdered that same day in nearby gas chambers.
Placed at the ramp in 2009, the Wagon is a reminder of the conditions in which the people were brought to the camps. It is also a symbol of the Holocaust as it took place in Auschwitz.
We continued walking to the end of the railroad platform. Here between the ruins of the gas chamber and crematoriums, which were blown up in January 1945 by the SS, 800 meters (.5 miles) from the main gate, stands the monument to the victims of Auschwitz…the nearly 1 million Jews – men, women, and children – and the prisoners of other nationalities who either died or were murdered in the camp. Not far from the ruins, there is a pond…one of the places where human ashes were strewn.
As we made our way back, we stopped in one of the brick barracks, part of the women’s camp. Left mostly as it was, we were shown the living conditions of the camp. Designed for 700 people, containing 60 3 tier bunks. Each of the 180 sleeping places had a nominal capacity of 4 people (in practice, 6 or 7). Prisoners slept on straw scattered on the boards of the bunk without pillows. The lower bunk was often a dirt or brick floor. Several people shared a single blanket and many of the small stoves to heat the interior were for show or insufficient to heat the interiors. The sickest were always on the bottom and between the odor of sweat, the excrement, and vomit dripping from above, they had little chance of survival. The barracks were usually lice and rat-infested also.
As we made our way out of the camp, I paused at the entrance gate to the women’s camp. Like at Auschwitz I, the camp orchestra played marches while the women were going to work and then returning to camp. As I paused, I tried to imagine what it was like…I couldn’t, as it is incomprehensible. Even after hearing the stories and seeing the evidence, it is nearly impossible to imagine the atrocities. Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz.
Throughout both camps are actual photographs showing life at Auschwitz. Photos of the people on the ramp, including images of the SS carrying out selections on the new arrivals. Images of people going to the gas chambers or awaiting death, as well as the sorting of things that belonged to the murdered. After the liberation of the camp over 200 photographs, which the SS didn’t destroy, taken at Birkenau were found, along with about 39,000 negatives of newly arrived prisoners. I was physically and emotionally drained when I returned to Krakow that evening.
The site of the former camps was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. I have only touched on what I saw and what I felt on this day. It was overwhelming and something I will never forget. I would like to end with something I read in a booklet I purchased, Auschwitz-Birkenau the Past and the Present as I think it has a powerful message.
“In keeping with the act passed by the Polish Parliament in 1947, the task of the museum was to safeguard the former camp, its buildings, and environs. To gather evidence and materials concerning German atrocities committed at Auschwitz, to subject them to scientific scrutiny, and to make them publicly available.
Despite this, there is still much debate amongst former prisoners, museum experts, conservationists, historians, teachers, and the mass media on how to organize, manage and develop the museum.
Even before the museum was opened, people wondered whether it should limit itself to reconstructing history, or rather explaining and clarifying the principal mechanisms underlying the criminal system. Views on the matter differed radically: some believed that the site should be plowed over, others demanded that every single object be retained and protected.
The very word “museum” is also a topic for debate. Not everyone accepts the name “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum”. Some believe that the former camp is a cemetery, others that it is a place of memory, a monument, others still regard it as a memorial institute, research, and education center on those who were killed. The museum, in fact, fulfills all of these functions, as they do not cancel out, but rather complement one another.”
“Auschwitz is forever a painful expression of the world’s bad conscience. The remains of the Nazi death camp remind us of the darkest moments of human history.” Donations can be made via the website www.auschwitz.org
I commend the people of Poland and the administration of the museum as one of the basic activities of the center involves cooperation with young people and teachers from Poland and abroad.