So I don't know if ya'll know this, but travel within Europe is dangerously cheap. I say dangerously bc I have zero willpower and when you throw a cheap flight my way, I'll be hard pressed to turn it down. As a result, when Sassy found a round trip ticket to Krakow from Nuremberg for 20 euro - we look at RyanAir flights on our phones in our free time bc why have money when you could have plane tickets - the ticket and hostel were booked shortly thereafter. When you consider the transportation to and from the respective airports is about 3 euro and the hostel only costs 10 euro a night... it was a relatively easy decision, especially considering I'd never been to Poland. Now it did take more convincing than usual bc I have masters applications and Southeast Asia prep looming over my head seeing as I leave for Vietnam in four short days, but if you know me at all then you know that procrastination is my thing and those apps will get done eventually. I think.
Fast forward a few days and I'm waking up at 4am to shower and get ready for my 7am flight. I was a little slow moving considering the time, but I rolled out the door just in time for the 5am train to the airport. Much to my surprise, there was a beautiful layer of snow coating the inner city, which made my walk to the train station all the more pleasant. A quick one hour flight later and we were descending upon the winter wonderland that is Krakow. I was remotely concerned considering there was no distinction between the ground and the sky - it was all white - and I had only brought my Adidas, but there wasn't much I could do about that so I set my concerns aside and focused on the fact that this trip was so spur of the moment I hadn't actually looked up what to do in Krakow. Yup, seasoned traveler over here. Upon arrival at the metro (usually the public transportation is built into or under the airport so that travelers have easy access to their next destination) I realized that the ticket machine was only in Polish, which is a language I do not speak even a little bit. A few other travelers realized this too and we asked around to find out whether you could buy tickets on the actual train. Luckily the answer was yes, and I found a seat next to one of my fellow confused travelers. He was an older guy from Sweden who'd quit his 9 to 5 in IT bc they were overworking him and now he was traveling for a few months before finding a new job. He was excited to learn I was from Southern California as he'd studied at UCSD for a few years - he was so proud of it he even still carried the key chain, it was adorable. It wasn't until the lady came to check our tickets that I realized we had a problem - she didn't accept credit cards and I hadn't pulled money out of the ATM yet. Fantastic. Much to my surprise, my new travel companion immediately offered to pay for both of us. Now don't get me wrong, the ticket wasn't expensive by any means, but it was incredibly kind of him to do for someone he'd just met. Paying it forward may be my favorite travel trend of all time, and I plan to do just that the next chance I get. We chatted for another 20 minutes while the train took us into the city before parting ways and wishing each other well. I wandered in the general direction of my hostel - I only had a small backpack bc two nights doesn't require much in the way of luggage, so I was in no rush - only to realize upon arrival that there was a walking tour starting soon and if I wanted to make it I'd have to make a run for it. I quickly unloaded my bags and paid for my stay before aggressively power walking into the city center for the tour. Luckily it was worth the snow in my shoes as I fought to keep my Adidas on my feet - cool kids don't lace up their Adidas fully, idk if you guys know that, but it sure bites you in the ass when you've got somewhere to be. Whatever, at least I looked cool. In the next two hours I learned more about Polish history and culture than I even thought possible. I'm honestly surprised I learned anything considering my entire focus was on conducting blood flow to my extremities bc Poland was a whole other kind of cold, but I digress.
After the tour, I bee-lined it to the nearest coffee shop where I thawed out for awhile before heading to the grocery store for lunch food. **If you live gluten-free, Poland may not be the best place for you to go. And by that, I mean it may actually be the worst place for you to go. If you take the time to google traditional Polish food, you'll begin to understand where I mostly just cooked for myself in the hostel kitchen over the course of this short trip. Not speaking Polish is also decidedly unhelpful in this regard considering it's hard to read labels that just look like a jumble of letters you don't even recognize.** Now listen, grocery shopping in a foreign country is all fun and games till you've been staring at the same shelf for twenty minutes trying to figure out if you're looking at cream cheese or sour cream and get back to the hostel only to find that you chose very wrong. I cooked my incredibly unfortunate meal and rested for about 10 minutes before it was time for my tour of the salt mines outside of Krakow proper. I'm tellin' you, for someone who was googling what to do in this city at the airport before I got there, I was doing pretty well for myself. Three hours, 500 steps, and 135 meters into the ground later, I knew more about salt mining than I ever wanted to know. If you have any questions, don't ask me, bc this is not information I have stored in my brain for later use seeing as it's highly unlikely that I'll ever encounter a salt miner or a salt mining enthusiast. Though now that I've typed that, I probably will.
I had been running on fumes all day, so upon my return to the hostel I decided that I was not going to socialize with another human for the rest of the night. I even went so far as to fill up my water in the bathroom sink so as not to have to interact with everyone hanging out in the kitchen. Don't judge me, it was a long day. I did, however, talk to two American girls who were sophomores in college doing a semester abroad in Spain, and it wasn't until I mentioned that I'd done the same thing back when I was in my second year of university that I began to feel about 100 years old. Back when I was in school? Seriously? I just turned 23 yesterday and I sound like I fought in Nam and had to walk to school uphill both ways. In my defense, I studied in Spain three whole years ago and at this point that feels absolutely worlds away from where I am now. Sometimes I like to go back and look at old blog posts from my time there (which are on my home page under "Morgantown to Murcia" if you're curious... just sayin') just to wonder at how much has changed. When I finally accepted that I was older than dirt and got over the subsequent emotional turmoil, I made my way into bed and didn't move again until I woke up the next morning.
My second day was a long one. This was the day I had scheduled my tour of the concentration/extermination camp that is Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is about an hour outside of Krakow. This day was heavy in ways I had never experienced before. I used the car ride over to do everything I could to mentally prepare for what I was about to see, but no amount of preparation could have gotten me ready. Our tour guide was a Polish native whose great-grandfather had been a prisoner at Birkenau, and he seemed to know everything there is to know about the two camps. Something to note - Auschwitz was built first and was much smaller in size than Birkenau, which was built specifically as an extermination camp a couple of kilometers down the road. You read that right. Extermination. As in the word we use to talk about getting rid of a cockroach infestation. If that doesn't give you an insight into the conditions and mindset surrounding these camps, I don't know what will. It was all I could do not to visibly shudder as we walked under one of the many electric fences that stated "Arbeit macht frei" or "Work sets you free". The full extent of the irony of these three short words is something I am still incapable of grasping. Our guide took us through the process that deportees would undergo upon arrival, and I think it's something worth sharing. Please know that the next few lines will not be a fun read, so stop now if you're not prepared.
People were told by the Nazis that they were being moved to a new camp and to pack up no more than 25 to 50kg of their belongings. They were herded onto trains like cattle, and many didn't even make it to their destinations, as they perished during transport in the harsh winters and sweltering summers. They were brought to a camp that looked like any other and asked to stand in line as they were separated into two groups for "the selection". This was a process by which one man, usually a doctor, would decide who would live or die. A nod of his head or a point of his finger would change the fate of those standing in fearful exhaustion in front of him. Those who were strong and young enough to work were put into one group, while the elderly, the children, and pregnant women were put into another. The groups were led either to their new living spaces, brick or wooden structures with no heating or real protection from the elements, or else to the gas chambers. Those brought to the gas chambers were not yet made aware of their fate. They were told that they needed to be sanitized and were asked simply to strip down and tie their shoes together (so that the prisoners who would be forced to go through their belongings afterwards could more easily transport them). Up to 2,000 men, women, and children at one time were led into the chamber, which had fake shower heads in the ceiling, and it was then that Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide, was poured onto them through holes in the roof. It took no more than 25 minutes to kill 2,000 human beings. Two thousand people. Mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, friends. Real people. Prisoners of the camp were forced to cut the hair off the women's corpses so that it could be made into fabric or mattress filling, pull out their silver and gold teeth so that the metals could be melted down and traded for supplies, and collect their clothes and belongings - of course they had only brought their best bc they thought they were moving to a new home - so that they could be sent back to Germany for reuse. The entire process was meant to be nothing but efficient, and so it was. They streamlined mass murder. Over one million people killed just at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them Jews, in a few short years. In the museum, we walked by displays of emptied suit cases, children's shoes, and shaving brushes in piles up to the ceiling. It was all I could do not to notice that one of the suitcases had my mother's name written on it, and that the shave brushes looked like those of my father. You can read about it in books or see it in documentaries, but once you connect it to something real and tangible, your whole perspective turns upside down. At Birkenau, we walked almost exclusively outside, and it was absolutely freezing. The temperature made the experience ever more poignant as I thought of me in all my many layers in comparison with those who had suffered in nothing but patches of fabric as they were forced to work and live in simply unlivable conditions day in and day out. Work would never set them free, except perhaps into the welcome arms of death as they embraced it like a long awaited friend.
I did not enjoy writing this part of the post, but I did and still do feel that it was very necessary to share. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to experience and visit such an overwhelmingly emotionally provocative place with such a twisted history, because I believe that if we do not study history, we are truly doomed to repeat it. So please, love thy neighbor, and everybody else. Stand up for those around you. If you see that something isn't right, step in. Because nothing like this should ever happen again.
While Poland wasn't as socially exciting as my last bit of solo travel (ie. Copenhagen), it was certainly an unforgettable visit. I have no doubt that the brilliantly constructed architecture, snow dusted trees, and friendly inhabitants will have me making another trip someday soon, and I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone who asked. If you do go, might I suggest Schindler's Factory (much more uplifting than it sounds) and the Underground Museum. Both were recommended to me by several fellow travelers and I would love to have visited them this time around, but you can't be picky about how much time you have when your ticket only cost twenty euro.
In the meantime, I'm back in Germany after booking it to the airport bc I woke up late bc I am a 23 year old child who refuses to listen to her alarm. Funnily enough, two of the flight attendants recognized me when I got on the plane bc I've flown with RyanAir 10 times since I've been in Europe which made me feel equally proud and poor at the same time... but whatever. What is truly unbelievable to me is that this was my last flight within Europe for this trip considering I fly to Vietnam on Wednesday... But more on that later. For now, I have masters applications calling my name and I've been ignoring them for far too long not to answer.
Until next time boys and girls!
About the Author
Mouth like a sailor, great lacker of empathy, paper cut survivor, avid arguer, harsh critic of people who put clothes on their pets, easily distracte
USA, Mexico, Iceland, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, England, Poland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Scotland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Croatia, Greece
(in August in the US)