This past weekend I traveled to Warsaw, Poland (the land of some of my relatives!). It was an interesting trip, very different from what I have been doing during my other travels thus far. On Friday, I flew out of Brussels Charleroi with Jenna, Taylor, Marc, Marie-Pier, and Marie’s friend Mao. We originally booked our flight to Warsaw for something like 45 euros; it was going to be a cheap weekend in comparison to Dublin! We arrived in Warsaw and took out some Polish currency, or Zloty, in which 500 zl equaled about 120 euros, which lasted me the entire weekend. We then took a cab into the city center to our hostel. After our cab driver proceeded to get lost for about an hour, we had seen a decent amount of the city, but finally arrived at our accommodation. We got dropped off outside of what looked like an office building, but had “The Warsaw Hostel” sign on the outside. With much curiosity, we walked through an office building to the top floor where our hostel was actually located; definitely a different place than we have ever seen! The hostel was basically just one hallway of a converted office. The bathrooms and common area were really nice and there were only 3 rooms with beds. For 9 euro a night, it was definitely a steal! We dropped our things off and went straight to get some late lunch at a Polish chain that has homemade “dumplings”, or as we know them, pirogies! This. place. was. awesome. The waitresses were all dressed up in cute traditional Polish outfits and the menu was equal to a novel. I managed to order some classic potato dumplings and an onion and sausage concoction which was essentially heaven on earth so I would say I made a good choice. Despite being in a food coma after eating my meal and trying everyone else’s (my motto: there is no such thing as diet rules on exchange), we left to check out the city a little more before it got dark out. We found our way to the Palace of Culture and Science, which is the tallest building in Poland. There is a panoramic terrace on top of it, which we decided we would do on Saturday. Now, here is where our luck beings for the weekend. Mao’s boyfriend has a friend who lives in Warsaw. So she had been in contact with him and we worked out meeting up to go out for the night. So we met Nolan near the Palace and he was more than willing to give us a more personal tour of the Old Town of Warsaw at night. We walked and talked our way to Old Town and I learned a ton from talking with Nolan. Warsaw had been occupied and destroyed by Hitler during WWII, so it is now a relatively new city, rebuilt after the war. Many of the buildings in Old Town resemble those of other European cities with the intricate architecture and historic feel, but you can tell that they are all new. Right away I decided that this was really sad. I have been entranced with the beauty of historic cities like Brussels, Paris, London, and Zurich, but in Warsaw the same character and history did not exist. It was the first place that it hit home to me that WWII had happened in Europe, and it was a devastating event that really destroyed not only the buildings, but the Polish peoples’ home. However, I won’t let those facts diminish my opinion on the city today. I found Old Town to be beautiful. Many of the buildings had been rebuilt to resemble the originals, and they were great replicas. The streets were clean, colorful, and vibrant with energy of many people. It was nice to see Old Town at night; the buildings were beautifully illuminated and plenty ofd people were enjoying the mild weather on a Friday night. When we finished up in Old Town, we went back to the hostel to get ready for the night. While there, we managed to convince the hostel receptionist/our new friend, Ania, to join us because her shift was over. With Nolan as our fearless leader, the 6 of us and Ania made our way to the student bar area. The little strip of grungy bars reminded me of a student downtown in the States. There were numerous bars all next to each other with people milling around outside of them, socializing and enjoying the night. Since the Polish are famous for their vodka, I sucked it up and had some (my personal favorite turned out to be the lemon flavored– like lemonade right?). We ended up finding Nolan’s roommate, Daniel, at one of the bars so he joined us for the night as well. After hopping around to a few places and stopping at a pub to get some late night snacks, we headed back to the hostel. We could all proudly say that we had spent about 12 euros each on the entire night. Poland was turning out to be the mecca for broke college students on exchange.
On Saturday, we had plans to explore Warsaw and enjoy a relaxing day. We started out with a perfect soup and salad lunch and then went back to the Palace to do the panoramic view. 30 floors up, we had a good view of the city. Poland is very flat, and again you were able to tell that all of the buildings were new and modern. We were able to point out Old Town from above by the pretty burnt orange color of the clustered roofs. Luckily, we had another nice day on our hands, so we had a clear view of the city. So, here is where our Warsaw luck continues. We had plans to take Sunday to travel down to Krakow and do the Auschwitz tour. When we told Nolan about our plans to take the train, bus, etc. he ended up giving us a free rental car voucher that he had and did not need. So we went to the local Avis and rented a free 6 person car/insurance for 48 hours! With a free road trip in our future, the group split up for the afternoon. Jenna, Taylor, and I wandered back to Old Town to get a daytime view. We leisurely walked through the city, enjoying the sights, sounds, and an ice cream cone 🙂 I was again impressed by how clean and lively Warsaw is. The weather was also perfect, we were walking around in short sleeves and got to sit on a bench in the sun. It’s the little things that make the day great! By the afternoon, Jenna went off to get her haircut(!) and Taylor and I went to the mall. The mall was a really cool building, it was round and had a wavy mirrored rooftop from the outside. We met back up with Jenna an hour later and she was a new lady! The Polish hairdresser did a great job, despite the lack of English communication. Since Jenna and I have both had our haircut in Europe, it’s definitely Tay’s turn 🙂 We met back up with the Marc, Marie, and Mao at the hostel and relaxed a bit before heading out to find dinner. We got turned away from a few places that were full because of reservations, and after a near death experience via hunger we found the perfect sushi place. We were a bit put off by the night time restaurant experience in Poland, the servers either hated their jobs or just were not in the mood to deal with us. Regardless, we had a great meal and even better conversation. Nights like this are the ones that I want to remember years from now. We sat around a large table talking deeply for a few hours. We asked questions like, why did you go on exchange? If you could give one piece of advice what would it be? What are you most afraid of? Where are you the happiest?, and other things like that to get to know each other better. Having that conversation with 5 people that you’ve met in the past 2 months is really really great because it connects you on a personal level and solidifies a new relationship. We all felt pretty happy and lovey-dovey after that one 🙂 We finished up dinner pretty late and headed back to the hostel to get a decent night sleep because we were planning to hit the road early the next day.
So on Sunday we woke up around 6:30 and got on the road to Krakow by 7:30ish. With our road trip snacks and GPS we began our journey south to Auschwitz, which is about an hour outside of the major city Krakow. We made it in about 3 hours and began the most sobering day I’ve had while abroad. First of all, it’s amazing that you can pay 8 euros to see the site of the biggest mass murder in the history of the planet. We signed up for an English tour that began at 11:30 and would last until 3:00. The tour began at Auschwitz I, and would finish at Auschwitz-Birkenau (II). Right away, I will give props to our fabulous tour guide. She is a local Polish woman who, for 3 and a half hours, was able to flawlessly capture the emotion, intensity, and horror that took place at the Camp with class and respect. The tour was conducted in a group, but we all had headphones so that our guide could talk to us in a quieter way. We began at the infamous gated entrance that reads, “Arbeit macht frei” in German, or “Work brings freedom” in English. We proceeded to tour various blocks that were used as barracks for the prisoners, but are now redone to hold the museum exhibits. There were many photos and maps that described the Holocaust and the locations that the Nazi’s occupied during the war. We learned about the horrors that took place at the camps, like hunger, medical experiments, and torture. We saw photos of the prisoners and records of their names and information. We saw recovered shoes, suitcases, pots and pans, hair brushes, and more of the people who died there. We saw the “Death Wall” where hundreds of peoples’ lives ended. We walked through the torture chambers and barracks. And we ended the first half of the tour by walking through gas chamber 1, of which I could not bear to spend more than a minute inside. These details are all excruciating to put into words, but I need to say that this 8 euro tour was the single most horrifying, devastating, and tragic experience I have ever had. 1.3 million people lost their lives at Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis. I can confidently say that the museum does a sobering and brilliant job at preserving those peoples’ memories and lives and allowing tourists to give them the respect that they so deserve. Upon finishing the first part of the tour, we headed over to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is the largest and most famed part of the camp. It is about 3 kilometers away from Auschwitz I, and is recognizable by the single train track leading through the brick watch tower and surrounding barbed fences. This part of the tour was entirely outside, and if it is possible to say, was a bit lighter than the first. We ended up speaking with our tour guide while we were walking through the area and learned a bit about her and she was able to answer our questions. At this site, we saw an original train car which transported prisoners to the camp, a womens barrack filled with wooden planks as “beds”, gas chambers 2 and 3 which had been destroyed, various kitchens and a “water closet” which was basically a trough of holes in the ground. The only non-original thing at the site was an international monument that had been constructed after the liberalization of the camp. It essentially signifies a warning to the world that we must recognize this atrocity in order to learn from it so that history may not repeat itself. Again, this was a very haunting and somber hour and a half and my disbelief in the human race continued. It is truly fascinating that one person had the power and control to create such an unspeakable event. I also learned that upon liberalization of the camps, the Nazis tried to erase and destroy all evidence of their evil actions; this included destruction of some buildings and structures and disposal of files, etc. I find this to be so interesting because the amount of documentation on the Holocaust is nauseating. Each prisoner had at least 3 photos of them taken. Their records where written in detail. Their belongings were kept as souvenirs. The camps were built solely for the purpose of carrying out mass murders. It is so hard for me to understand the logic behind that evil and then the efforts to erase it as if it had never happened. Nothing to this extent could ever possibly be erased. When the tour ended I had personally reached several conclusions. If I have the choice, I will NEVER return to Auschwitz. It is a haunting place, and one visit is more than enough to shock me for a lifetime. I am so sad for the people who had their lives ruined by the war and by the Holocaust. Though it is the one lessons that has stuck with me through years of history class, personally seeing the damage from such a catastrophic event makes it exponentially more real. I am sad that such a thing occurred to our population, and I am sad that it is relatively recent. On a slightly different note, I am also proud of Poland for putting such a thing on display in order to educate a new generation. If anything, it is so true that we must learn from events like this in order to move forward in society and continue to make it a better place. It put a lot of things into perspective for me, and I am thankful for my home country and the life that I am fortunate enough to live. Touring Auschwitz is something that will resonate with me for quite a long time, but I am proud of myself for doing the tour and reflecting on such an important event in history.
We left the camp around 3:00 and drove an hour to Krakow. Unfortunately it was raining a bit, but we were still able to see a decent portion of the city. Krakow is the city in Poland untouched by Hitler and the Nazis, so alternatively to Warsaw, it is rich with history and original buildings. We walked through several food and flower markets, and along a trail that circled the main square. We found the royal castle and did a little climb to get a view of the city from a hill. Krakow is beautiful, and it is known for its thriving nightlife among young people. I do not regret going to Warsaw, but I think that it would be a fun experience to visit Krakow for a weekend. To wrap up our night, we ate dinner at this perfectly cute little cafe. It was pink and frilly and cheap and delicious. We all ordered a large meal and dessert. I am thankful to have been with a group that willingly toured the most evil place on earth, but is mature and strong enough to end the night on a happy note, appreciating what we are given in life and cherishing every moment. We made the drive back to Warsaw (shoutout to our driver, Marc!!! You are an absolute champ and we gals thank you :)) and we were all finally able to sleep; it had been a long and exhausting day but worth it all in my opinion.
We were able to keep the car until Monday, so we had our own mode of transportation to get to the airport Monday morning. We made it with no problems (Warsaw luck!) and got on the flight home without a hitch. By late afternoon, I was back in LLN and ready to conquer another week, or 3 days, of class before heading out on our next adventure. This has been a pretty emotional and sappy post, but for personal reasons I can truly say that this was a weekend different from one I have ever had before. I laughed, cried, smiled, frowned, danced, and grieved through a long 2 and a half days and I definitely returned to Belgium with a new perspective on many things. So thank you, Poland, for giving me the opportunity to grow as a person and add another life changing weekend to my semester abroad.