Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tuesday 9/29: A Rainy Day

I forgot to mention, on Monday night a new guest arrived at the hostel. Eric. He quickly established himself as "One Who Behaves in a Most Ungentlemanlike Manner," being unnecessarily rude to other guests and acting like an all-around tool. So when I wandered into the bathroom on Tuesday morning and heard him singing in the shower, I executed a most devious plan while brushing my teeth. There are four sinks and four showers in the bathroom. He was the only one in the shower and I was the only one at a sink. While he sang, I quietly turned the sinks on, one by one. On hot. Full blast. It only took a moment before he yelped, "#$%^% &*^%*@ that's cold!!!" I let the sinks run on hot just long enough to draw out the suffering, and then I quietly turned them off. He began singing again, and I let him shower in peace. For another minute. Then I turned all the sinks on cold, full-blast. More howling from Eric. He never even knew anyone was in the bathroom. Devious plans do not often arise while brushing one's teeth, so one must take full advantage of every opportunity. Eric was a lot nicer after that.

The only set item on our agenda for Tuesday was a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Not exactly a chipper excursion, and the weather was kind enough to set the appropriate somber mood. It took about an hour on a tour bus to get to Auschwitz, which was worth it just to see the Polish countryside. Oh heart ache, it was beautiful! I really could see myself moving to somewhere in the greater Krakow area for a few years. Everything is lush and green (a dangerous sign of cold and rain, according to my mom) and the houses are painted bright colors with sheep hanging out in the yard. It's very different from the America I've seen so far, but not extremely "foreign" and insane like Ukraine is. Auschwitz, I found, is a bit on the Disneyland side, as far as tourism is concerned. It's free to get in and walk around, but if you want any information a guided tour is very useful. Everybody walked around with a headset, and a tour guide herded us from building to building and room to room. Our tour guide would walk us into a room, give her speech, and then quickly usher us out the door so the next group could take our place. Often there were several tour groups in a room, and the headsets were really helpful in hearing the guide's voice. The mood was quiet and respectful, but not dramatically sad and grave (I was worried somebody would burst out in tears or something). At one point, an old British gentleman interrupted the guide to ask, "Excuse me, but why did they want to kill the Jews?" I really liked that man. He was very curious and sincere, and his English accent interruptions kept me from floating away in the Polish guide's grave speeches.

We saw hundreds of prison portraits, and I paused to read their eyes. Some of the young men stared with burning defiance, some looked out with small smiles. Most of the old men just looked tired. There were whole rooms filled with shoes, glasses, suitcases, and human hair.  At the end of the Auschwitz tour, we saw the gas chambers. I stood a little bit away from the group and watched the horrifying irony of a group of healthy people lining up to enter the gas chamber by their own free will. We went to Birkenau, and saw the train platform that received incoming prisoners, before they knew what was even happening. A whole field of mostly-destroyed barracks showed how many people were packed into the place. It was miserably cold outside, and we were only there in September.

It was not exactly cheerful, but it was not as sad as might be expected. Throughout school, I've read first-hand accounts about concentration camps and watched movies that made my body react to the sadness before my brain could even figure out why (Night and Fog, Professor?). Books and movies made it more real to me than actually walking around the camps. Maybe it was the headphones and the guide's monotone narration, or maybe it was just too much to take in. I don't know, but we were exhausted afterwards.

The bus dropped us off in Krakow right by the castle, Wawel. (W's in Polish are pronounced like V's. Think "Krakov" and "Vavel.") We had seen the outside when we rode bikes, but we never had a chance to go inside and check it out. It cost money to go inside the actual rooms, but the grounds inside the walls were free and beautiful. We spent way too long jumping off a bench and taking photos.

At the hostel, I ran into one of the guys staying in our dorm room. A quiet German boy (very good-looking), travelling by himself, but we had never actually seen him awake. We talked for a bit and he said he was going to listen to some live classical music that evening in a cathedral. He gave me the flyer for it, but the four of us were really tired. We zonked out for a couple hours and woke up just a few minutes before eight, when the concert was starting. Nobody really intended to go, but at the last second we all decided that it sounded cool. We power-walked to the cathedral, but we were twenty minutes late and the gates were closed. We must have done something really good earlier in life, because luck was on our side: We arrived at the cathedral just as the one stage-hand/ticker-taker/worker for the concert came outside to take in a sign. I quickly asked him, "Is it too late to get tickets?" He looked at us for a bit, rolled his eyes, and sighed, "Fine, follow me. You're a little late, aren't you?" I barely managed to mumble more than a thank-you. We headed for the front door, but he shook his head and led us around to a small, side entrance where all the props and supplies were stored. We paid admission straight to him, and he let us into the main cathedral through another small door. The concert was much smaller than we expected. A string quintet stood on the floor, not even on a platform, in front of fewer than a hundred folding chairs. Our obvious late arrival was a bit embarrassing, but four chairs sat vacant right by the entrance. We quietly sat down, and let the music suck us in. Saint Peter and Paul's church was built in the 12th century, with every arch and adornment expected of such a building. The musicians were relaxed, and at the end of every song they smiled at each other like old friends. The high vaulted ceiling made the music hit me from every direction, like a tangible force trying to knock me over and fill me up at the same time. The concert ended quietly, without a "Thank you for coming, folks" or anything like that. The music simply ended and everybody stood up and walked out the front door. The church lights were off before I made it outside, and the music still swam through me.

To get out of the cold rain, we took shelter in a funky cafe. Hot chocolate is one of my favorite reasons for being alive, but this was not like any I had ever tasted before. Instead of a milky mug full of cocoa, this was more like somebody melted a bar of dark chocolate into a cup. Rich, intense, and sinfully scrumptious. We sat and talked until our eyes drooped. Outside on the street, the rain was coming down harder than ever. Two of us had umbrellas, but two of us did not. The umbrella-less gave up on staying dry, and took to jumping in every available puddle. I had an umbrella, but I soon joined them in running down the street, my hair plastered against my forehead. All four of us breathlessly sang "Singin' in the Rain" as we ran down the cobblestone street, twirling our umbrellas over our heads and jumping in puddles (or avoiding them in my case; I only brought one pair of shoes). The other pedestrians trying to stay out of the rain smiled and waved as we jumped, danced, and ran by.

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