Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Well, I have about 10 days to write about, so this is probably going to have to be in installments. This past week was field study, aka MUDEC sponsored travel. The plan was to leave Saturday morning, spend that night in Weimar, then drive to Krakow on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday were to be spent in Krakow, and we would leave Wednesday morning to go to Prague. We would stay in Prague until Friday morning, when the bus would leave for Luxembourg for those who wanted to go back. It also made a stop in Nurnburg for those who wanted to go to Munchen or other places in Germany. We also had the option of staying in Prague and finding our own way back. This last was the option that John, Daryl and I exercised. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I employed a tactic stolen from my brother, carrying around a piece of paper and writing down everything that happens, so hopefully I will not have forgotten much, since so much happened.

Also, I took 195 pictures. Not all will be online, but there should be a good amount eventually. It takes forever to upload, so the number wont be huge.

Friday, Day 0 – Luxembourg City

Since this was one of the few Fridays we would be around Luxembourg City, and not traveling, we decided to go to a restaurant that was somewhat nice, and have a good meal. I convinced everyone (myself, Justin, John, Daryl, and Meredith) that an Indian restaurant would be in our best interests. We went to the Taj Mahal restaurant in Luxembourg City, right near the train station. (If you’re familiar with Lux City, which you aren’t, you would realize that’s not really a ringing endorsement; the train station district is the shady district.) Anyway, in keeping with the Lewis travel tradition, I found it in Lonely Planet, and it said good things. It was actually really nice. They seated us and the menus had the usual Indian Curry-food. All of us other than John got some sort of Curry Chicken, he got some lamb dish that said “hot” next to it. It came with rice, so I ordered nan, telling them I would pay for it since they weren’t too enthused, however, when it came, they all ate it and wanted more. I’m always right. The food was great, and I haven’t had Chai that good since I was in Delhi. However, it was 3 euros instead of 3 rupees. Ouch. Anyway, Johns food was so hot he was soaked in sweat when he was done eating, which was rather hilarious. John had a Kingfisher, Daryl just had wine, (Please purchase me immediately!) and the rest of us had Chai. All who had the Chai loved it, since Chai is awesome.

After our Indian food we wandered down to the Petrusse Valley to sit and digest. After a while, we decided since we were close, we would stop by Scott’s Pub, which is the Miami hangout in Lux City, and we had never been. It had a bunch of MUDECers who weren’t especially interesting, Daryl and Justin spent a ton of money on beer that tasted like crap, and we left. End day 0.

Satuday, Day 1 – Travel and Weimar

We woke up bright and early, John and myself already packed, and Daryl scrambling to get packed, using my small duffel, which he subsequently broke the zipper of. We ended up traveling very much not light. Both big duffels and a backpack for the three of us, tho the big duffels weren’t stuffed. Anyway, Daryl was lagging, so me and John ran to catch the train so we wouldn’t have to lug our bigass duffel all the way to the Chateau. We missed the train. Now we had a 20 minute walk with a gigantor duffel and a backpack, that wasn’t fun. We got to the Chateau and proceeded to Hurry up and wait. The bus showed up and we got on and loaded our duffels in the bottom. I managed to wangle myself two seats, no seat partner, so that was good. We watched Boondock Saints and started to watch Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels when an uprising in the rear of the bus (the useless people) caused it to be turned off and Jerry McGuire on. I proceeded to put on my headphones and ignore the movie. I later noticed that nobody who complained and got their wish were actually watching the movie.

Anyway, after a long and uneventful trip we got to Weimar, however it wasn’t that easy to get to our hostel. It turns out we were in the middle of the woods. It took our bus driver a while to find the place and when we did, we realized we would have to cab it into the city itself. That sucked, first negative point for Kay Sloan. (Kay Sloan is our English base course teacher, and therefore, the one in charge of planning and heading up the trip. Also along was Erin Schoen, the activities coordinator. More on Erin later.) We cabbed it into the city, which was cheap, but still a pain, and got food. We wandered the city and got thuringers, which were awesome, best I’ve had yet. We met some other people at a restaurant and sat there while they ate. Wiemar was really boring. It is a place iwht a lot of history and nothing to do. Goethe and Schiller are Gods there, and Nietzsche and others spent time there, but that doesn’t give you anything to do. We got some ice cream, my randomly picked flavor was coconut, which was unfortunate, but I survived. We headed back to the hostel and decided to not go to bed for a while, so as to make it easier to sleep on the bus, and played some poker. The girls we were playing had never played before, so of course they got some awesome cards and were winning. I was the second one out and started dealing, and somehow Daryl got an Ace or King every hand. Don’t ask me how. I wouldn’t know how to deal from the bottom or anything. Anyway, no money was involved, and John soon went out, and Daryl started (without my help) to take all their chips. We sat around talking for a while, and eventually went to bed. Meredith slept on our floor since her roommates locked her out and didn’t hear her pounding on the door.

Sunday, Day 2 – Travel and Krakow

We woke up nice and early and headed for Krakow. I was already sick of the bus, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the trip. Our passports got stamped at the border and we crossed into Poland and Eastern Europe. You could tell. Things got a lot more shady looking, and more run down. As we neared Krakow, we were starting to get a little scared. The outskirts of Krakow, where we were staying looked like we had jumped into Soviet Russia circa 1960. Our hostel’s previous life looked to have been a KGB prison. Thankfully it looked nicer inside than out. Soon after arriving we headed out with the whole group for a dinner. Andrew, a Bulgarian dude that worked at the hostel, served as our guide, and showed us how to get there and sat with us, tho he refused to have a free meal on us. He was a real cool guy, told us the Polish version of Hooters was called Rooster and had some funny stories to tell. When he mentioned how he liked American History X, I pointed to Daryl down the table, and asked if he reminded Andrew of Edward Norton in that movie and Andrew cracked up. The restaurant was real nice, and we had a big meal of soup and pirogues. Andrew took a few people out with him afterwards, but we were so exhausted we just went home and slept.

Monday, Day 3 – Krakow

This morning we had a tour of Old Krakow, so we left Soviet Russia and headed for the city center. We went from 1960 to 1760 in a 20 minute walk. The old town was really cool, the highlight by far being St. Mary’s cathedral which was cool on the outside and beyond incredible on the inside. It was full of bold and bright paintings, sculptures and all kinds of crazy religious art. The alter is a world famous piece with something like 18 parts, all illustrating parts of the Bible. In the tower of the cathedral, a trumpeter plays every hour, and stops in mid-note each time. This is in memory of a trumpeter who was sounding the alarm from the same tower and was hit by an arrow in mid-note. All through the old town were really cool buildings that were older than our country. Also, it had mostly escaped being bombed in the Second World War, so it was very much intact.

When we stopped for lunch, Daryl wandered off and was nowhere to be found, and since he has no cell phone, he was lost forever, so Meredith, John and I went on a mission for steak. We failed, the restaurant was closed. So we went to a pizzeria on the main square and had really bad pizza that tasted like the sauce was tomato soup. We met up with the group again and went on a tour of the Jewish quarter of the city. The Jewish population in Krakow went from 65.000 in 1930 to about 100 currently. We went inside a synagogue, one of the last functioning ones in Krakow, and also to a Jewish graveyard. A lot of what we saw was in the movie Schindler’s List. (I haven’t seen it, but I am told that a lot of it was filmed in that section of Krakow, even the specific scenes where some spots could be seen.) There were a lot of buildings that were in ruins because the ownership could not be cleared up. The families had been killed in the Holochaust and no clear line of succession could be found, so they just stood there, in ruins. We also took a tour of a photographic Holocaust museum. All of the pictures were taken by one Briton over a period of about 4 years, and he was the one who gave us the tour. With Auschwitz tomorrow, this was something of background information. The guide didn’t really have nice things to say about Auschwitz, mainly because it was so touristy, and it overshadowed the same number of people that were rounded up and shot in small villages all across Europe.

That evening we once again failed to find a steak place so we sat down at an outdoor café and got food there. However, it took an hour for them to get us our food, so we sat and talked, and stared every time our gorgeous waitress came by. We then made an attempt to go to a Jazz club but the one we went into was empty as a tomb. So we went down the street to a place called “Pub [something Polish]”. When we walked down 3 flights of stairs, we arrived in the bottom level of this bar. Heavy metal was blaring from the sound system, and it had the atmosphere of a cave. This was my kind of place. We hung out there for a while, and met some Americans who were studying in Berlin, and were in Krakow, seeing Auschwitz and such. We made it an early night, as we were tired and our companions were not being very fun. When we got back to the hostel, we went down to the common area and played some pool, and hung out with some other MUDECers, as well as used the free internet. While down there John spotted (and stole) a small (9”x12”ish) poster that had a small kid playing with letters, and the letters were ZSRR; all consonants, a microcosm of the Polish and Czech languages. “ZSRR!!” (pronounced zizzurrrr) became the rallying cry for the trip. We then hit the sack, in anticipation of Auschwitz the next day.

Tuesday, Day 4 – Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Iron Maiden?

The day dawned bright and clear and we boarded our bus to go to Auschwitz. The trip was mercifully only about an hour and a half, despite getting lost. Once there, we watched an old film about the place, then got ready for the tour.

I would first like to say that what I write will not properly convey what I felt when touring this place. I was not as hard hit as some, mainly because I’m a cold-hearted bastard, but you would have to be made of stone not to be affected. However, you cannot out in words how the place makes you feel, and any attempt will not do it justice. The only way to find out is to go there yourself. Onwards

The first part of the tour was in Auschwitz I, which is a former Polish Army barracks complex. To enter, you pass through a gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”, literally, “Work makes you free”. This gate is somewhat well known, so you may have heard of it. Just the look of it and walking through it is quite an experience; the gate has a sinister look to it. Inside, it almost looks like a college campus surrounded by barbed wire. The buildings are all solid brick, built before the war for the polish army, and there are trees and grass outside the buildings. Inside the buildings is a different story. This part of the camp has been made into a kind of museum, so the insides of most of the buildings have been rebuilt. The barracks we went into were filled with the massive amounts of items stolen from the Jews who were taken there. There was a room with a gigantic mound of shoes, another with combs and brushes, one with human hair, and so forth. This was staggering, but the way the tour guide acted, almost as if she were trying to prove something, was quite disconcerting. The whole first part of the tour seemed like the guide was almost on the defensive, trying real hard to show us how bad it was, and not really allowing us our own reactions to it.

After the mounds of stuff, we entered the one block that had been left as it originally was. This was the prison/torture/execution block. Prisoners who committed any infraction of the rules were put here. There were cells, interrogation rooms, and an execution wall outside. Some of the cells resembled “the box” of Cool Hand Luke – the size of a telephone booth, so as to keep you from being able to lie down and sleep. Outside was the wall where prisoners were shot for violating rules. They were originally shot in front of the brick wall, but the SS realized this was asking to get hit by a ricochet, so they built a wood and rubber barrier to catch the bullets. This was taken down when Birkenau was built and executions were done there instead, but a replica had been built, and people had left flowers and candles in front of it. As John pointed out, this building, even after 60 years, had a smell of death to it. It may have just been in our heads, but you could sense the death that had happened in this building.

After this we entered the experimental gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I. This was all done in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) when it was built, but the first trials and killings were done in the former armory for the Polish army. We walked through both the first room where they tested gassing the prisoners, and also through the crematorium in the next room over. This just felt vaguely wrong, as if I was trespassing on something that was not meant for tourists. I had the same aversion to taking pictures that I tend to get in working churches and mosques.

After this we stopped for a food break. (Auschwitz is very touristy and has a little café and all the usual souvenir shops and such.) Following the break Kay Sloan said that we were not going to have a guided tour of Birkenau, however, the bus would go there, and those who wanted to see it were welcome to get out and wander. This was better than a guided tour, most of us thought afterward. Where Auschwitz I had been made into a museum and a tourist attraction, Birkenau was left largely as it had been 60 years ago. Many of the buildings had been burned down and all that was left was a field of chimneys in one area. Some buildings were intact, even to the bunks inside. In a way, this gave us a much better idea of the camp than the tour did. The sheer scale was incredible, the buildings stretching as far as the eye could see.

With that part over, we headed back for Krakow. We were all exhausted, so we collapsed for a nap until dinnertime. We headed out to the Sioux Steak Ranches (that’s not even good grammar) this ridiculously over the top Western style restaurant on the town square. Meredith, John, and I were all able to get the steak we had been craving, and the others got some Mexican/Western US food as well. The food was good, though there wasn’t enough of it. The waitresses (all of them) however, were gorgeous, every single one of them. Between that and the good food, we were able to overlook the small portions. I headed to a souvenir shop and found a CCCP t-shirt with a hammer and sickle on the back of it.

We tried to go to a different Jazz club this time and we were ridiculously underdressed for this one, so we ended up in the cave Heavy Metal bar this time. As I walked in, I heard “Man of Sorrows” by Bruce Dickinson playing, and I knew I was home. It came to the attention of two big scary looking Polish guys at the bar that I knew the songs, and was an Iron Maiden fan, and I was immediately greeted as a friend. A grand old time was had by all as we spent our last zlotys and sang along to Fear of the Dark, Tears of the Dragon, and Hallowed be thy Name. At one point, when John went to take a picture with the biggest scariest looking guy in front of the drinks poster, the guy lifted john off the ground with one arm. This picture is on webshots. Both are standing, and the guy is taller than John. He was nuts. His English was horrible, but since my Polish is nonexistent (and he could easily kill me) I didn’t complain. We had some good conversation about how bad System of a Down was and how awesome Iron Maiden was. At least that’s what I think he said. Anyway, he bought me a beer, we all sang loudly to Iron Maiden, and had a great time, as good a time as I have had in a good long time.

On the way home we ended up in pairs, with Meredith and me farthest along, then John and Daryl, then Justin and Jessica. Meredith and I made it home all right, maybe because she was yelling in Russian how much she loved Poland. Justin and Jessica were fine as well. John and Daryl, however, were stopped by the Polish police. They were asked for ID, and eventually let go, thankfully. A night in a Polish jail probably would not have been fun. I went to bed, as did Daryl, but Josh had some zlotys left (he hadn’t gone out yet that night) and he and John decided to go out again. After John stopped in and was told in no uncertain terms that a) Daryl and I didn’t want to go with and b) that if he valued his life, he should leave our room, the two went out and proceeded to blow 200 zlotys (~$65) on gigantic döner kabobs and whatever else.

Wednesday, Day 5 - Travel, Brno, and Prague

Day 5 dawned far too bright, far too early, and we were back on the bus. Everyone had very obviously rolled right out of bed onto the bus. Charlie, Thomas, Anna, and LC apparently didn’t get the memo on what time to be on the bus, so when Kay Sloan paid a visit, Charlie and Thomas said some unrepeatable words, and Anna and LC came running. By now we were all absolutely sick of the damn bus, and we had like a 10 hour drive to Prague ahead of us. Needless to say, it sucked. Erin (remember Erin? This is a song about Erin.) was her normal useless self, yelling about movies, never helping Kay Sloan with anything, and lying around like a beached whale. She was quickly making enemies of everyone on the trip. More on that later. We stopped in Brno, in the Ceska Republiky, for lunch and bathrooms. Unfortunately, it was a national holiday, and it took forever just to find somewhere open. Our hour long stop turned into close to two hours. We had some mediocre pizza and headed off to find a bathroom. The one next to the restaurant was closed, since apparently people don’t need to poop when a saint is born. We found a mall and paid for the bathroom there. On the way back we hit a bookstore, since we were running low on reading material. John bought a Terry Pratchett book, I bought a Ludlum book, and Daryl bought the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. We then realized we were ridiculously late for the bus. Having told Anna not to let it leave without us, we were sure it wouldn’t, but we didn’t want to piss off all 40 students on the trip. We booked it back to the bus and got there last, but only by a few minutes. It was back on the road.

When we finally pulled into Prague, we were so glad to be off the bus we literally flew into our hotel. We stopped suddenly, realizing that this was actually a pretty nice place, unlike our KGB prison of the last few days. There was a nice Café and a nice bar in the bottom floor, and our rooms were very spacious. We didn’t have time for much more than throwing our bags down, then it was time to head to U Fleku for a group dinner. After Kay Sloan led us in circles for a while, we got there. U Fleku is the most famous beer hall in Prague, and you could tell it was a beer hall. Before we were even seated waiters were putting beer down on the tables. It was dark and tasted like water. We ordered, I had some sort of chicken, it was good; I won the food battle. The goulash looked good too, but I would have that when I was paying for it, not MUDEC. There was a lot of singing and revelry in other rooms; we were pretty quiet, all tired from the ride. Charley (aka C-Unit) got up to make a toast toward the end of dinner and it went something like this:

“I would like to propose a toast. First, to Andrea, our bus driver, the best damn driver I’ve ever seen. [He really was, he fit that bus in spots I wouldn’t try to put a civic in.] Second to Kay Sloan, she has tried her best, and done a great job putting this together. And I would also like to toast Erin. [Remember Erin? This is a song about Erin] She’s done a lot of hanging out, and uh, hanging out, and really doing a great job of hanging out.”

Like I said, Erin made some enemies. However, Frank, one of the dumber of our group butted in with something like “Erin has really done a lot, good job” destroying the backhanded toast C-Unit had done such a good job of. It was funny anyway. Anyway, we walked back, and got sort of a mini tour of Prague at night, and I was very impressed in my half-awake state. Daryl gave me a ride on his shoulders for a while, which was fun. The polar opposite of my exhausted state was Anna, the human version of a hummingbird, flitting in and out of groups of people jumping around and talking a mile a minute the whole time. And she is always like this. I have never seen so much energy in a human being in my life. Anyway, we got back to our hotel and fell asleep immediately.

I’m only halfway done. I feel sorry for you people. This is really long. Who knew I could write 6 pages on 5 days of travel? Ah well, deal with it, I’m having a great time, live vicariously through me. As Shakespeare says:

“Perseverance, dear my lord
Keeps honour bright: to have done, is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery”

That makes no sense at all to me, but it includes the word perseverance, and I gotta get some use out of this book of quotations I bought.

Thursday, Day 6 – Prague

We didn’t have anything to do with the group until the afternoon today, so we got to sleep in until the grand time of 9.30, when we had to get up or miss out on the continental breakfast. By this point, I was extremely sick of the plate of cold cuts and cheese and a roll that is the universal continental breakfast. I WANT EGGS! AND BACON! AND PANCAKES! End rant. I then decide to try the showers out at this place (this is not the first shower I have taken, just the one that I deigned to mention). Bathrooms were communal here, we didn’t have private ones, which was unfortunate. The showers were disgusting. I didn’t have sandals, mistakenly thinking that we would be in somewhat nice hostels and hotels, so I just went barefoot and ended up feeling just as dirty when I got out as when I got in. (Slight exaggeration, but they were gross.) Luckily I didn’t get foot herpes, unless it’s a type that lays dormant for a while. After the shower, John and I went wandering, since Daryl wanted to read. This wandering reinforced our opinion from the night before that Prague is a really cool city. All the buildings look really cool, with all different kinds of architecture. There are buildings that date from the middle ages, to buildings that are very modern, built after the tourist boom that has made Prague pretty rich.

After some ridiculously cheesy pizza for lunch (We eat a lot of pizza because it is generally both cheap and readable on the menu, important when the menu is in polish or Czech.) we headed to our tour of the city. Our guide’s name was Vaclav, which is the Czech version of John, as every other person is named that, including their first president Vaclav Havel, and their current one, Vaclav something. Anyway, he was a good guide, knowledgeable and funny. He addressed the usual complaint about the lack of vowels in their language by saying an entire sentence without using a single vowel. He tried to teach us Czech, which we all promptly forgot, since it has no similarity with a language any of us know. (With the exception of Meredith, since Russian is similar.) He said that Czech people consume the most beer per capita in the world: 165L per person per year. That includes all people all ages. That’s a European .5L beer a day, but since most babies aren’t drinking, it’s actually more. We saw sights like the Charles Bridge (.5km long and ancient), the Estates Theater (Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered there), the church where Tycho Brahe is buried, and various other cathedrals and towers from all different periods. One of the more interesting things I saw was an obviously Soviet built building in the middle of the city, surrounded by ornate buildings hundreds of years older. (I have a picture of it on webshots.) Daryl, John, and Justin thought we were walking across Charles Bridge, so they walked across, and we didn’t follow them. They missed the end of the tour, but by that time it was raining so we cut it short, thankfully. I was wearing a polo and no jacket, I was cold.

That night we went to the black light theater. My notes call it the black light LSD theater which might be more accurate. The whole thing was very weird, with midgets, spiders, people and other things cavorting around on stage in bright colors. I imagine it’s what an acid trip would be like. After that weird experience that guaranteed dreams of brightly colored spiders for everyone that night, we headed back to the hotel. We went down to the bar in the bottom of the hotel, where if you buy a drink, you can use computers with internet for free. There were a bunch of us, so a couple bottles of champagne were bought, and we invited Kay Sloan to come hang out. She eventually bought another bottle and taught Lane how to pop the cork out (think Hetal size, I’m surprised Lane didn’t fly away when it popped). Kay wanted to hear our thoughts on the trip and how to make it better, as this was the last night of the tour. (Don’t worry, its not the last night of MY trip…muahahaha.) Most of the comments revolved around more time in Prague, and possibly less in Krakow. Thus ended the trips final night. Daryl, John, and I had decided to stay in Prague Friday night and take an overnight train Saturday night to get home. This gave us two more full days.

End part 1.


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