Saturday, March 6, 2021

Travel Considerations

The common topic among my friends is discussing wishful travel plans. Lamenting over the the inability to cross boarders without going through layers of quarantines and Covid tests and the top destinations once restrictions are lifted come up in virtually every conversation. Although I willingly participate, the honest answer is I don't care that much. Yes, I do feel like I'm missing out on one of the advantages of living in Europe, but I also do really like Krakow and I like getting even more familiar with this city as I live through the few months we have left here. 

Well, I at least thought I was perfectly satisfied bumming around in Krakow, but a friend of mine recently move to Dubai and I am now seriously entertaining the harebrained idea of visiting her. 

Other than my friend, I have virtually no reason to visit Dubai. Visiting the Middle East has never been on my bucket list and a place that advertises itself as a "luxury tourism city" is even less appealing to me. Yet, I have spent the last two days looking at flights and accommodations (a minimum of $600 combined for the week) and how to visit Dubai on a budget (virtually impossible). Everything I find seems to indicate that it is a bad idea, but I still cannot fully talk myself out of it. I keep cycling through the same lists of arguments:

Pros:
  • See my friend
  • Visit someplace I would never otherwise go to
  • Easier access now than I probably will ever have again
  • Experience a brand new culture
  • Because I can!
Cons:
  • Base travel is expensive, and I would likely have to stay in a communal hostel room 
  • Additional costs (food, attractions) are also expensive
  • There are very few free and cheap activities and I don't want to spend upwards of $1000 to sunbathe for a week
  • The recommended things to see and do (go to the top of the highest building in the world, ride a camel in the desert) are not particularly appealing to me
  • There are not good transportation options within the city and it is a car-centric city, so travel from one attraction to the next is expensive
  • It's hot & I sunburn easily
  • The time frame I would be there would be during Ramadan, and it is highly recommended to be particularly modest and avoid eating in public during that time
  • It's a 5 hour flight
  • I would have to get Covid tests going both ways and possibly have to quarantine when I get back into Poland
  • It's not a good idea to travel during Covid, period.
Clearly, the cons way outweigh the pros, yet I can't shake the idea. It would be easier to give a definitive "no" if I knew that I could dedicate the time and money to another trip. Right now, unfortunately, my prospects of skiing in the Alps and enjoying the Irish country side are little to none. We can travel around Poland, and I wouldn't mind re-visiting Warsaw or spending a weekend Łódź, and from the limited research I've done so far it seems that Sweden's travel restrictions are similar to Dubai's, but I'm only keen on visiting European destinations with Cameron and he has a strict no-travel policy in effect right now. 

There is a definite possibility that other travel opportunities will open up as we move into spring and summer, but those aren't guarantees. I keep asking Cameron to just tell me a definite "no, please don't go to Dubai" or "yes, that would be a lot of fun for you" but Cameron does not speak in definites like that. Oh the woes! Please please please, if you have a strong option, one way or the other, let me know and receive me of my insufferable decision. 

No Dubai photos, but I do have this really lovely sunset view from outside my flat. 

Winter is coming to an end, as demonstrated from this left-behind snowman nose. Although I enjoy the  sunny weather, it seems like I should be doing something more. 

No matter the weather, zapiekanki make a great lunchtime treat. Cameron and I happen to live close to what I've dubbed "Zapiekanka Square" since there are about a dozen of these baguette-pizza vendors all working out of the same cylindrical building. 


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Covid Update 2021

Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed Covid case in Poland. Since then we've accumulated 1.6 million total confirmed cases and 43k Covid-related deaths. I've stopped checking in on the daily updates but I often have to search for the restrictions list since they have been in perpetual flux. Unfortunately I haven't found an English website that stays updated, so I often rely on Facebook notifications and periodic emails from the US Embassy. 

I'm quite a rule follower, even when the rules don't make complete sense; I like the security of knowing that someone else deemed that what I am doing is safe. That's why I'm ok going to a water aerobics class but am boycotting any restaurant that is open for in-person dining. I know I am a walking contradiction, but this has actually been grinding my gears a little–restaurants are struggling and are keen to reopen, and truly, how is sitting down for a meal any worse than being on the bus sitting across from someone who is not properly wearing a mask, but to intentionally do something blatantly illegal is wild to me! 

Restrictions were supposed to lift at the start of February, so many restaurants were preparing for a reopening (they were last allowed to have in-person diners in October), but instead the government announced an extension to the restrictions at that point with no changes to the eating in mandate. Expecting something that gets yanked out from under you is the worst, but some places were not shy about their frustration. Some restaurant owners are finding clever work arounds, such as rebranding themselves as a flower shop, but most are unabashedly defiant. Online you can find maps about places that are open despite the regulations. Apparently, there are so many that the government is having a hard time enforcing the rules and fining the offending businesses. 

A few other recent restriction changes were interesting to me and worth noting. Face coverings must now be cloth or medical-type masks, meaning that scarves and visors are no longer considered appropriate. That's fine by me (all of my masks are cloth and I tend to hold my breath when I walk passed someone with just a visor), but Cameron suggested that perhaps my smog mask, since it uses plastic vents, may need to be retired. At least now as the weather is starting to warm up my need for the smog mask is decreasing. 

Museums are open again and we have taken advantage of that. We went to two branches of the National Museum, with the big draw being the Leonardo Da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine." Being in a museum felt surprisingly safe–there were very few other people and they were having everyone filter outside for cleaning sessions every two hours. Hotels are open, too, but most people suspect that they will close again soon. Nonetheless, I asked Cameron to take some time off next month and maybe we will consider taking a long weekend trip within Poland.

Speaking of holidays, I'm unfortunately becoming fairly pessimistic about the potential for international travel. I've pretty much resigned to the fact that we won't be skiing this year, and my hopes to visit Sweden, Georgia, and Ireland are feeling quite far-fetched. I've told my family that they should prepare to stay in the US this summer because I don't anticipate Europe will open up to American travelers this year, especially since vaccine distribution is quite delayed. But, good news is that we have filed out the forms to declare our interest in receiving the vaccine plus I now have my karta pobytu!

I really appreciate when museums seem grand, but it was extra surprising since this huge atrium existed inside of a building that I had walked past dozens of time without much thought. 

No surprise, a big part of historical art is religious. The little character on the bottom right definitely gave me pause here. 

Artifacts from the museum made me want to re-learn to play the recorder. 

One of the exhibits we saw was for decorative art. It made me think of all the cool things that I love that won't make sense to have during van life. 

I think this is really interesting. The top photo is a sketch (a little smaller than a standard piece of paper) and the bottom is an larger (probably nearly a meter long) inverted painted version of the sketch. 

Rightfully upheld as the most skillful piece within the museums we saw. If it appears to be poor quality, I promise it is just my inability to take good photos. 




Sunday, February 21, 2021

Van Plan Update

For the past two months I have been dedicating a significant amount of time each week to figuring out where Cameron and I should live post-Poland. It's not as easy as simply saying "oh, I liked Missoula the time I was there for work and I always thought I would like Maine," although that is a part of it. I am quite meticulous about the process and I want to find the best option, and I do believe perfect can exist. 

Now that I have narrowed our list of potential towns to live in to less than 50, I'm ready to share the first stages of the van plan process.

Step 1: What are our options?

I didn't want to neglect an opportunity, just because I hadn't heard of it before, so in addition to the list of towns and cities I already knew I was interested in, I asked for the recommendations of friends and family, took personality quizzes that resulted in the top places to live, and the "best places to live for ____" from various sources. I could have stopped there, but then I also researched the best places to visit and live state-by-state and and the top 50 towns and cities in the US and Canada. At this point I had an overwhelming 600+ cities, towns, and villages on the list. The next several steps were to narrow this massive number to less than 50.

Step 2: Livability Scores

For some of the places, I was jotting down notes on what to see while there or why it was an ideal spot, but for the most part I was still flying blind. I needed a way to make a massive cut, so I found a website that gave an overall livability scores and A-F rankings across various categories. For each place I marked down the livability score, any categories that the town scored an A in, and any categories that it scored a D or F in. Anything that scored less than 70 was nixed (bringing us to 371 places) and any towns with a D or F schools rating (brining us down to 302). 

A cut of 50% is great, but 300 is still a huge number to work with. That 302 number could have been a little smaller but there are a few places that I kept on the list even when they didn't meet the standards everywhere else was held to. This was true throughout the process, so places like Bellingham, WA and Hood River, OR made it onto the final list even though they weren't perfect. Some of those originally saved places (like Juneau and Anchorage, AK) did ultimately get cut in further rounds of review.

Step 3: Population Density, Median Age, Male/Female Ratio

I found another website that gave each municipality's population, population density, median age, and male-to-female ratio, among other statistics that I didn't care about. It's not like I started this project thinking "I need a town that has a perfect 1:1 male:female ratio," but I figured if the information was easily available I may as well track it. I ended up removing anyplace with a ratio greater than 1.5:1 or less than 0.5:1, as well as towns with a median age greater than 50. 

I figured that population density was more telling of how comfortable it would be for me to live somewhere than pure population count, but after compiling all of the data I realized I wasn't really sure what my ideal population density range was. I didn't end up cutting any places based on either population statistics, but the current top locations range from populations of 1,371,193 down to 1,282 and densities of 5,828 to 87 people per square mile. Surprisingly, the second largest city by population (Ottawa Ontario with a a population over 1 million) is the second least most densely populated (only 365 people per square mile). 

Step 4: What airport options are available?

Figuring this out was a little tricky because just looking up "airports close to _____" ends up bringing up teeny tiny regional airports that only fly to 4 other teeny tiny towns in the surrounding counties. I ended up having to compile information from Google Maps and a flight booking service. Any place that was further than 60 miles from from an airport that could fly to El Paso, TX (with one layover or less) got nixed. This brought us down to 256 towns.

Step 5: Other City Demographics

At this point, 256 felt like way too much to still be dealing with and I was ready to start being a little more cut-throat about getting rid of spots on this list. Next I went through another series of categorical ratings with a little less willingness to keep ones who were missing the mark on the list. The next round of cuts were for towns that scored less than a B- on their crime rate or diversity scores, places with less than 20% of the population having a bachelors degree, a diversity rate greater than 20%, and median house costs greater than $700,000. 

Step 6: Skiing Options

At this point, I was still sitting on over 100 towns, and the more towns there are the longer it takes to research the next criteria. These 136 remaining places were still very spread across the US with a surprising number in Illinois and Ohio. I was getting sick of seeing so many midwest and southern towns dominating the list so it was time to bring in the ringer- proximity to good skiing. 

This, too, took layers of research involving Google Maps, looking up "best skiing near _______," ski area maps, and other resort-specific Googling. I ended up cutting towns that were over 100 miles away from a ski area, and that nearby ski area had to have a vertical drop of at least 500 feet and a ski summit greater than 1000 feet. I laughed when I saw the only option for Texans was to drive 600+ miles to Ski Apache, the small ski area in Ruidoso that I used to be an instructor at. No surprise, the big south eastern portion of the US got removed and our total town count dropped down to 74.

Step 7: Walking Scores

50 was the magic number, but still even this next round didn't quite get us there. I've gotten quite used to being able to walk to work and run all of my errands by foot, so tracking the walking scores was next. Once again, I relied on a website. Even though I was eager to get below 50, I still made some exceptions to the rule I set (towns must have a walking score of 30 or higher) so I was left with 62 remaining municipalities. 

Step 8: Final Cuts

I wasn't sure what else I could do with this list of 62. Even though I was able to find the average temperature highs and lows, finding a consistent way to track average humidity highs was impossible. Although high humidity is a big no no for me, it will have to be something we figure out as we go.

Another qualifier I was thinking of was distance to usable water (lake, ocean, river, etc.), but after the hassle of figuring out skiing, it didn't seem worth the work. At this point, I had seen each of these places on a map several times and knew that each of them were surrounded by blue splotches, so anyways I figured even if I did put in the work, it wouldn't result in any further cuts. 

Other considerations were for common natural disasters, local shopping options, annual town activities,  quality of public transportation, variety of restaurants, quality of healthcare... just too many, and none that I cared that much about. Eventually, it was a simple as Cameron saying "I don't want to live in French-speaking Quebec," so the 20-ish towns within the province of Quebec were removed, bringing us down to 43. It was quite a relief, and I will add the list to the bottom of this post.

So what's next?

This list of potential places to live was just one of three. I also have lists for places we want so see for social reasons and for personal activity interests. I'm in the process of mapping those all out to see what makes sense to see along the way to seeing these 43 spots. In addition to developing a loose route and timeline, I also want to research where we can park the van, where we can use the toilet, our shower options, our clothes washing options, public int hot-spots, etc. 

Cameron is starting to dig into our van options a bit more and researching what interior set up options might be best. Today, he started to inform me that for the low low price of $600 we could have a collapsable hot tub that only takes three hours to heat up! This is after he told me he wants to consider buying a brand new custom designed four wheel drive Sprinter cargo van rather than buying a used one *major eye roll*. We won't really have to make that decision until we move to the US and are actually able to make the purchase, but until then my goal is to plan everything that can be planned ahead of time.


Cameron was preoccupying himself in the evenings by building out a model camper trailer. It was very detailed and gave us some ideas about decoration and utility. 

The 43 top towns mapped out across the US and Canada. 

Here are the social sites. We'll try our best to hit all of these as well. The third list of "activities" is a few hundred locations long, so I'm still working on mapping that out. 

It seems like my life is confused with the van plan. A friend loaned me a puzzle with images of top tourist locations in the US and Canada- exactly what I am currently looking into. 


More model van photos. It was wild how very tiny and detailed the kit was. 


The Top 43

Of the top selections, there are three in Canada, all of which are in Ontario. Surprisingly to me, there are only a smattering in the North Eastern US. I'm also surprised at the relatively-high concentration in Michigan, a state I have never been to and never spent much time thinking about (although now I must say I am smitten with the mitten). What is no surprise to me, or I suppose anyone else, is the domination of the Pacific West and Mountain West states. What's my favorite of all of them on the list? Well, I do think it would be really fun if the Littles end up living in Littleton. 
RegionStateCity
Central CanadaOntarioCarleton Place
Central CanadaOntarioOttawa
Central CanadaOntarioRussell
East North CentralMichigan (MI)Berkley
East North CentralMichigan (MI)Grosse Pointe Park
East North CentralMichigan (MI)Grosse Pointe Woods
East North CentralMichigan (MI)Rochester
East North CentralWisconsin (WI)De Pere
Middle AtlanticNew York (NY)Cazenovia
Mountain WestArizona (AZ)Flagstaff
Mountain WestColorado (CO)Crested Butte
Mountain WestColorado (CO)Littleton
Mountain WestColorado (CO)Louisville
Mountain WestColorado (CO)Steamboat Springs
Mountain WestIdaho (ID)Boise
Mountain WestIdaho (ID)Coeur d'Alene
Mountain WestIdaho (ID)Meridian
Mountain WestMontana (MT)Missoula
Mountain WestMontana (MT)Whitefish
Mountain WestNew Mexico (NM)Los Alamos
Mountain WestUtah (UT)Mountain Green
Mountain WestUtah (UT)South Jordan
Mountain WestWyoming (WY)Buffalo
Mountain WestWyoming (WY)Jackson
New EnglandMassachusetts (MA)Milton
New EnglandMassachusetts (MA)Sharon
New EnglandMassachusetts (MA)Waltham
New EnglandVermont (VT)Montpelier
Pacific WestOregon (OR)Bend
Pacific WestOregon (OR)Corvallis
Pacific WestOregon (OR)Hood River
Pacific WestOregon (OR)Sherwood
Pacific WestOregon (OR)Sisters
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Bellingham
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Gig Harbor
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Kirkland
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Leavenworth
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Olympia
Pacific WestWashington (WA)Port Angeles
Prairie CanadaAlbertaCalgary
Prairie CanadaAlbertaOkotoks
South AtlanticVirginia (VA)Leesburg
South AtlanticVirginia (VA)Reston


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fat Thursday

Fat Thursday, also called Greasy Thursday or Tłusty Czartek, serves as the main celebratory day before Lent starts in Poland. Effectively, it is doughnut day and everyone goes out of their way to eat a few of the traditional pączki. Pączki are essentially jelly doughnuts. They can be filled with just about anything sweet (Nutella, mixed fruit, pudding...), but traditionally it is a rose jam on the inside, glazed on the outside, and topped with some candied orange peel. 

Fat Thursday is Poland's alternative to Shrove Tuesday. More than 100 million doughnuts are consumed in Poland on this day (that's approximately 3 doughnuts per person). Last year when I was working from the office there were stacks of pączki-filled boxes that were an open free-for-all. This year, I expect that people who are mostly working from home right now probably went to their offices to get a few pączki freebees. 

The biggest purchase I saw was a pair of nuns heaving around a huge blue IKEA bag filled with boxes that probably contained over 100 pączki, presumably to share with their convent. That being said, I do expect there were more individuals who were supporting their families' personal sweet dough needs this year. Cameron and I definitely had our fair share–four each, plus a fifth on Friday for good measure, but it took some effort. I could have gone into a grocery store or chain bakery to pick up some inferior pączki but I wanted to go to a pączki-specific pączkarnia.

Was it worth it?  I waited in line for over one hour. During that time I did a lot of jumping up and down to stay warm in the -12 degrees cold and I got pooped on by a bird. I was originally going to only get six pączki but after the wait I opted for eight, plus an extra one to give to our doorman. I wonder if the man in front of me had a similar mindset after his wait because he had so many boxes that I wasn't sure if he would be able to carry them all. 

I asked for a mix, so they gave us some traditional ones, some chocolate filled, and some raspberry filled ones. The first ones we ate were warm. The dough was light and the sugar melted in your mouth. Number two, a raspberry-filled one, was also pretty good but the texture was not nearly as nice and it was no longer warm. Each doughnut thereafter was a little bit of a struggle to get through but stuffing yourself to discomfort is all part of the fun! Plus, if you don't eat at least one paczek it's bad luck for the rest of the year. Or, as one old Polish proverb warns, "those who don't eat a stack of pączki on Fat Thursday will have an empty barn and their field destroyed by mice."


The round one in the top corner is one of the traditional rose-filled ones. The other triangular shapes are less common normally but I think they are probably quicker to make which is why they were prominent on Thursday. 

Seeing inside to the baking kitchen was heavenly after waiting in the cold for so long!

The window display always show a fun variety. Although not considered pączki, it's more and more common to see "American doughnuts" on display. 

Getting to the point where I could read the Dobra Pączkarnia sign took over 50 minutes. 

The people bypassing us on the trams were definitely interested in the long lines. A few people gave encouraging waves. 

I had options to go to other bakeries closer to home but I wanted to have a variety in my pączki. Plus, even a few of them had their own lines. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Samochody (Cars)

Cars in Poland are very cute! Most are small, compact, 2- or 4-doors, manual, relatively small engines, and little-to-no frills. To give you a better sense, the top 3 car models registered in Poland in 2020 were Skoda Octavia, Toyota Corolla, and Toyota Yaris (aka Taargüs Taargüs). Every so often you'll find one of the Communism-era vehicles (typically Polski Fiat 126ps, aka Maluch, meaning baby or little one, which were the first affordable and reliable family cars). I could write a whole book (and at least should consider writing a blog post) on the residual impacts of Communism in Poland, but if you want to read a little more into the popular Communism cars of Poland I recommend checking out crazyguides.com

Seriously, look at this little cutie! This is one of the Baby Fiats, plus with an added roof-rack bonus. 

To my knowledge, there aren't any Polish car makers, but Poland does contribute significantly to Europe's car manufacturing industry. Fiat, Opel, Volkswagen, Toyota, and many more all have production plants in the country. Even though Toyotas are popular overall, the smaller models are far more common. Our 2.5 liter RAV4 seems like a monster in comparison to our roadside companions and while you can buy a RAV4 here, they only sell the smaller 2.0 liter engine. (It's apparently quite popular to import larger vehicles like ours into Poland and sells hem or a profit here). 

It may seem strange to share this post now, over one year since we moved our car to Poland, but I'm noticing this more recently since I now am finally able to drive the car rather than being fully reliant on Cameron. For its first year in Poland, only Cameron could legally drive the car unless we wanted to incur a 30,000 złoty import tax. Honestly, my new driver status is more of a relief for Cameron since he hates driving, but other than heading to a technical vehicle inspection while Cameron was working last week, I haven't made use of my newfound freedom.

Speaking of the technical inspection...it's something we have to do every year and shouldn't be much of a hassle. You bring your car in, pay 90 złoty, and 15 minutes later they are signing off on a piece of paper that says you passed. We didn't expect any issues since we had already gone through the process last year, but of course that was a mistake. Our inspection failed for two reasons: 1) our headlights were still angled in the US manner rather than EU standards, and 2) our license plate was too short...cholera!

Both of these were surprises and which was the most frustrating is a bit of a coin toss. We had paid someone last year to do the full transition to EU standards, and the car passed the inspection last year. I figured it must have just been a simple mistake (maybe the lights had just slipped from the higher angle over the course of the year?) and would be a simple fix. I found an English-speaking mechanic and dropped the car off. I got a call later that day saying that they needed to fully swap our the headlamp hardware and it was going to cost 2,600 złoty! I was expected something like 100-500 złoty...cholera! Well, it had to get done, so we paid. I at least was able to take back the US headlights and hopefully if we move the car back to the US with us it will be a little cheaper. 

Next was the license plate. The rules apparently changed on 20 December, 2020 (so only about a month before we took the car in for inspection) stating that if a vehicle could fit a full length license plate then it must have a full length license plate. When Cameron turned over our Washington plates last year they gave him a four-digit Polish license plat since they weren't sure if his car would fit the longer six or eight digit plates. The worst part of this rule change is going to the city offices and dealing with the bureaucracy of making the change. Surprisingly, it wasn't too bad. We went early in the day with the old license plates and our failed inspection report in hand. Although we couldn't quite verbally explain our need, our props carried the message and we now have temporary long plates on our car. 

If I had known that the car would continue to be such a hassle, I'm not sure if we would have decided to bring it to Europe. Especially with such limited travel possibilities in the last year, we haven't really been able to use it enough to make up the costs and headaches. Many people, especially in the city, don't have cars. Public transportation is regular and reliable and intercity trains and flights are pretty affordable but even anticipating that we felt attached to our vehicle. We initially said we'd sell our car in Poland, especially knowing there's a market for it, but we're now starting to discuss bringing it back with us. What will be more stressful: dealing with a moving company or dealing with selling the car?


               
So many cute little cars!

This one is a favorite because it's a tiny, has the roof-rack, looks boxy and rugged, plus it has a killer cool color. 

 

I especially like the mini cargo and transport vans. 

It's not uncommon to see these really compact four-door cars. I mostly like this one because of the pretty Polish architecture in the background. 

I used to have this car (a little coral-colored Hyundai Accent) when we lived in Seattle. It's the first time I've seen this car in Poland.

Bye bye (or should I say pa pa) to our mini license plate. The "K" (or more commonly "KR" on the longer license plates) stands for Krakow. In Poland, the license plate stays with the car when you sell it. 

These are the American headlights. They are HUGE. You can see a little bit of my bike in the lower left as a scale. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cha Cha Cha

It's time for another list of quirky things that I'v found while living in Poland. The first being, the title of this week's blog. In Polish, since a "ch" is pronounced just as an "h" I sometimes see people laughing in text as "cha cha cha" rather than "ha ha ha" (including my Polish instructor). Now if someone wanted to dance the Cha Cha I'm not sure how you would say that...maybe "cza cza"?

A few more language-related ones that I like:

  • "Writing a mail"- I know exactly what it means (write an email) but I always half expect to receive a handwritten letter with beautiful script on thick parchment paper. 
  • "For example" is far more common than "like." I think it's the crutch some people use when they are looking for the right words. My Polish version of that is "myślę że" (I think that...) and "tak tak tak" (yes yes yes).
  • If you ask someone in Polish if they speak English, many people will automatically say "nie" (no). And then somewhere (early on) in the conversation they will realize my Polish is far worse than their English and they will start speaking in very proficient English. 
  • Even though it's common for people in Krakow to speak English, not everyone does and I think the music in retail stores reflects that. I get quite a chuckle when I hear a song in the mall with lyrics that include the N word and talking about watching someone touch themselves. That's what makes me want to buy new pants, I guess.
NASA- I don't know what it is but there are NASA shirts and sweaters everywhere! I've never seen them for sale but it is virtually guaranteed that anytime you see a crowd there will be at least one person (typically a boy between ages 9-24) with the logo on some part of his outfit. I'm not sure if it's a way of showing off that you have visited the US or if there is a broader reason for liking NASA. I tried to look up "why does Poland love NASA" and found some tenuous connections but if anyone knows the real reason then please let me know!

Public restrooms around town typically cost 2 złoty to use. They aren't particularly clean or well maintained but I've definatley been thankful for them before. As you move further away from the city center than they're more likely to be free, but less likely to be found. Malls and roadside rest stops are typically (but not always) free. 

Because I love bathrooms so much, I spend a lot of time critiquing them. One thing I really like about Polish public restrooms is the separation between the toilets and the sinks. The toilets are almost always in a sub room that's accessible through the the sink room. Per Cameron, male restrooms have the urinals and stalls in the sub room so that the sink space still stays separate. I suppose it is more hygienic to have less toilet air in the space that people are using as a powder room. 

Gift cards do not operate the same way that I'm used to. It's not like a debit card that hold's it's balance if you don't spend the full amount. I didn't know then when I spent 30 PLN from a 100 PLN gift card to Allegro (essentially the local version of Amazon). The next time I went to make an Allegro purchase, I assumed 70 PLN of it was covered, and was instead greeted with the message that my gift card number had already been used. You can also only use one gift card at a time, so if I have three 300 PLN gift cards and I want to make a 300PLN purchase, I can only use one 100 PLN worth of gift cards. I'm learning to be a little more strategic with my spending. 

Given Polish history, it may be no surprise that there is some animosity with Germany. I never how it's going to go if I say I'd lived in Germany before this. Also, if the stray German word comes out when I attempt to speak Polish I sometimes get a funny look. But now it's starting to swing the other say. Sometimes if I try to think in German I end up filling out the sentence with a few Polish words. It feels good. 

One of many NASA spottings. 

One of the few bathrooms that are not two separate rooms, but even so there's a significant barrier between the stalls and sinks. 

Wawel Cathedral in the snow. 

Barbican (one of the fortified gates from the old city walls) in the snow. 

The black Madonna underneath Florian's gate with a celebratory winter bouquet. 







Sunday, January 24, 2021

Concentration Camp

Most people who want to experience a concentration camp while visiting Krakow go to Auschwitz. And for good reason, too. Auschwitz is probably the most recognizable name of any concentration camp and it's only an hour west of Krakow. Although I haven't been yet, I know that visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is an immersive experience and makes it onto the to-do list of any history-savvy Krakow visitor. But, even though most tourists won't hear about it, Krakow is home to its own Nazi concentration camp within the city limits: the Krakow-Płaszów concentration camp ("Płaszów"). 

Unlike Auschwitz, the former structures of Płaszów have not been kept up. The only buildings that still remain intact on the property are the Grey House, a former Jewish-owned building-turned to Nazi offices and jailhouse in 1942, and Amon Göth's villa, which is easy to miss as it is not marked by any signage and its renovations camouflage it with surrounding neighborhood homes. The rest of the grounds are now considered a memorial park and nature preserve with large open fields and lightly wooded hills. As you walk around the park (~80 hectares now, but at its largest the camp covered ~150 hectares), there are informational signs, a few memorials and monuments, some rubble, and typically a smattering of people taking their dogs and families for walks. You don't see much indicating that the land used to be surrounded by an electrical barbed-wired fence with guard towers nor that train tracks used to run through the property. 

It really is quite peaceful, which makes it difficult to reconcile the idea that 40,000 prisoners were there between the years of 1942-1945, with a max of 25,000 at one time (not including those who passed through as a transit camp). The site itself had previously been two Jewish cemeteries, and after a month of renovations (i.e. knocking over the gravestones and using slave labor to erect shanty living quarters) the Krakow Jewish ghetto was liquidated and those fit for work were transferred to Płaszów. Although the camp was initially intended to house Krakow Jews, it also imprisoned a large number of Hungarian Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and Polish prisoners (largely from the Warsaw Uprising). 

It was used as a labor camp, with a high concentration of women and children compared to other work camps. Although children were allowed there (at least in the beginning) they had to pull their weight, too. The hardest labor was working in the nearby quarries while children and the elderly tended to work as brush makers. Other labor included: sewing uniforms, electrical and automotive work, printing documents, and serving in armament factories, among other things. 

While some inmates stayed at the camp indefinitely (typically just a few months given the harsh labor conditions, starvation, typhus, and sadistic commander), for others it was merely a stop on the way to be killed at Auschwitz. That proved to be the case for many of the children. As one of the signposts indicates, in 1944, the Commandant Amon Göth declared that all of the children would be sent to "kindergarten," which truly meant that they were rounded up and sent to be gassed the next day. 

Göth was a brutal character. He started his first day at camp in February, 1943 by killing two of the camp's Jewish policemen, and then every day thereafter he shot at least one person before breakfast. In addition to regular shootings (it is thought that he singlehandedly murdered around 500 prisoners), hangings were common, and Göth also trained his two dogs (a Great Dane and a German Sheppard mix) to tear prisoners to death. He was also fond of collective punishment and mass murders. Göth stayed at the camp until September, 1944, when the Nazi Party charged him with theft of property (one of the roles at Płaszów was to sort through the gold and other valuables that were collected from the imprisoned and dead), violation of camp regulations & prisoner punishment, and failure to provide adequate food to the prisoners. After the war, he was tried by the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland and was hanged in Krakow in September, 1946. 

Though each of the 19 main informational signs have a quote from a Płaszów survivor and a small paragraph of information, they gloss over the true hardships of living in Płaszów (you know it was bad if the Nazi government decided the commander was being too brutal). Largely due to Göth's influence, Płaszów had one of the highest death rates of any labor camp. A typical week might consist of three or four truckloads of new laborers to replace those condemned to mass execution. As described by Halina Nelken, who was at Płaszów as a 20-year-old, the condemned were walked into a trench, ordered to strip naked, shot, and then covered with dirt as all other inmates watched. 

Clearly, fear was ever-present, as was hunger. One of the quotes posted in the park is from Aren Blumenkranz: "And, really they were getting maximum productivity out of us. We should have had a free Sunday once for three weeks, but just on that day a wagon of coal to be loaded was arriving or another job was found for us so time off was out of the question. Our food for a 12-hour working day was 1.4 kg of break weekly and 1 litter of thin soup daily." Those who worked as Jewish police at the camp were given double rations of thicker soup and more bread of higher quality, but they then were tasked with whipping fellow inmates (lashings were a common punishment). Once Göth was replaced, diets began to occasionally include eggs, sugar, and powdered milk.

Surprisingly to me, there was also some outside help. A few support groups and individuals were tolerated by the Germans and provided additional food and medicine to the camp. Some prisoners were employed outside of the camp (at Oskar Schindler's factory, for example), and could exchange their wages (which was by no means a required exchange for their labor) for additional food rations. While the extra nutrition was necessary, those found with smuggled items, even an extra piece of food, were subject to whippings or death. 

Those who are familiar with Schindler's List will recognize the concentration camp's name. If you look on a map, you'll see that Oskar Schindler's factory sits about 2km from the Płaszów SS Headquarters. A significant portion of the Jews that survived Płaszów were contracted out as staff at the enamel factory. For the movie, Steven Spielberg elected not to use the actual Płaszów site in order to leave it as is and honor the memory of its victims. The scenes that you see in the film are reconstructions built inside the Liban quarry (which actually was used for forced labor for many Płaszów inmates). 

The camp began to close down when threats from the Red Army became more prominent in summer of 1944. Most prisoners were deported to other concentration camps and the remaining few-hundred were tasked with breaking down the barracks and exhuming the bodies from 11 mass graves (in an attempt to hide the crimes). As documented by the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, it took 17 truckloads to rid the site of the human ashes. In the end, those remaining few were marched to Auschwitz to meet their ends. 

Now, there are a few monuments around the park, the most prominent of which is the 7 meter "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism in Krakow," carved by Ryszard Szczypiński and designed by architect Witold Cęckiewicz. The huge limestone block is a "homage to the martyrs murdered by Nazi genocide in 1943-1945," as is carved into the back of the stone. Another prominent one is a large cross topped with barbed wire, which marks one of the execution sites. It's strange that from the main part of the park you look over at a large hardware store and the cellar of Göth's house, which used to house his maids, is now being used as a wine cellar for the family that currently lives there. I have some mixed thoughts about the modernization of things, but I'm glad that in general Krakow makes space to acknowledge its history while making peace with the idea that time moves on and things change. 

There are a few of these signs on the perimeter of the park: "Dear Visitors! You are entering the site of the former Nazi German concentration camp "Płaszów". Please respect the grievous history of the site."


The barbed cross on the hill Hujowa Górka marks one of the mass execution sites. Apparently, the name is a bit of wordplay: a combination of Albert Hujar's name, who was the SS officer who ordered the first executions here, and the Polish words chujowa/chujowka/chuj, which is a vulgarity encompassing bitch/shit/prick/cock...you get the idea. 

The most imposing monument is visible from the nearby main road, Kamieńskiego. Nearby the "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism in Krakow" (also sometimes known as the "Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts") are two smaller memorials to remember the Hungarian Jewish women and all Jewish women of the camp. 

One of the 19 primary informational signs, this one discussing the mass executions/burials. You can also see the monolithic memorial in the background. 

The biggest area of the park is made up of large flat fields. Pre-war, these were Jewish cemeteries that were plowed-down and converted to barracks and factory areas during the time the camp was in operation. It is not uncommon to see picnickers and dog walkers in these fields. 

The lower end of the main field, in the south eastern end section of the park are piles of large ruble, which once were the pre-burial hall of the new cemetery of the Krakow Jewish Community. During the camp's existence, it was repurposed as a utility building that housed stables, pig farms, rabbit hutches, etc. It was partially detonated for Göth's amusement one night, and the remaining stucture was blown up in 1944 as part of the camp's final destruction. 

The smaller of the two former Jewish cemeteries still has some grave markers. The Germans removed these from their original locations and flattened them to make a road in the camp. The Schindler's List replica of the gravestone road (shown in the black-and white screenshot from the movie) can be found at the bottom of the Liban Quarry.

Looking up at that cemetery, you can see that there are a fair amount of gravestone remains. These were mostly buried and became Roll Call Square, which was sandwiched between the men's and women's barracks. They were only uncovered in the 2000s as part of conservation efforts. 

The Grey House is the only intact building within the memorial park grounds. The upper floors were used for administrative purposes and the basement was a prison and torture chamber. The upper photo is the original and the lower black-and-white photo is the version built for Schindler's List's set

A view looking up from near the Grey House to the main fields. The monument you can see memorializes the 13 Jews who were murdered in the first WWII mass execution. That happened on the marked site on September 10, 1939, before it became the Krakow-Płaszów concentration camp. 
Nearby, though not pictured here, is another memorial marking a pre-camp event. A new tombstone has been built marking the burial place of Sara Schenirer, the founder of the first Jewish girls school in Krakow. 

I could be very wrong about this, but from the descriptions I've read I think that these remains, though technically no within the camp grounds, are the remains of the movie set-version of Amon Göth's villa and stables buildings. If I'm right, then the ring marked in the grass outlines the infamous balcony that Göth shot prisoners from in the movie. Likely that wasn't common practice in real life, given the orientation of Göth's actual house in relation to the prisoners' camp area. That being said, the black-and-white photo is of the true Amon Göth on the original home's balcony.

A map outlining the previous orientation of the camp (from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/plaszow). Unfortunately, there is nothing this detailed within the park, making it hard to visualize the historical structures. 

I also like this map (from https://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/kl-plaszow-concentration-camp-in-krakow_73759f) since it shows the location of the former Jewish cemeteries and Göth's Villa.


In some ways it is nice that the signage isn't emotionally overpowering. It allows visitors to find some peace and enjoy the landscape, if that's what they choose to do. 

~~~

Normally I don't cite many resources, but since I am relying on others for the historical accuracy of this post, I want to at least share the websites that I consulted. I also am relaying information I got from the signs posted throughout the park. The specific numbers of prisoners (total and murdered) is unknown since the prisoner index was destroyed. The estimations vary across sources so I used the numbers that are on display in the memorial park or that I was seeing most commonly:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/krakow-plaszow-concentration-camp 

https://www.britannica.com/place/Plaszow

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/plaszow 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amon_Göth#Płaszów 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kraków-Płaszów_concentration_camp#cite_note-:6-21 

https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-horrors-of-the-krak%25C3%25B3w-p%25C5%2582asz%25C3%25B3w-concentration-camp

https://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/kl-plaszow-concentration-camp-in-krakow_73759f

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/plaszow-history-and-overview

http://www.krakow.travel/en/17761-krakow-plaszow-nazi-german-concentration-camp

https://krakville.com/blog/2019/09/schindlers-factory 

https://www.memorialmuseums.org/eng/denkmaeler/view/81/Memorial-to-the-Victims-of-the-Płaszów-Concentration-Camp#

https://www.timesofisrael.com/notorious-nazis-house-of-horrors-to-become-a-luxury-villa/

https://war-documentary.info/where-was-schindlers-list-filmed/