Wednesday, February 5, 2014

First Visit to Poland: Basic Education

I am not as attracted to "fun in the sun" places as I used to be.   Now,  I want to learn about people, cultures, and the physical environment that shapes culture.  In this light,  a winter trip to Poland is not strange. I have no doubts that people in winter are more aware of visitors from other places.  In summer,  hordes of tourists descend upon European countries - the locals try to get out of town.   In spring and autumn,  people are pretty busy taking care of business.  In deep winter, life slows down (a bit) and strangers are more easily noticed - especially those carrying ice skates.

Travel to Poland from the USA is pretty easy.  Poland entered the European Union  in 2004.  No visas are needed for US citizens.   It's also part of the Schengen Area  - so one has to present a passport just once for travel within Schengen area countries.  There are no passport controls at internal borders.

Warsaw has nice trams. You can also take the bus.
After landing at Warsaw's Chopin airport,  I asked the taxi driver to drive me around the center of town before dropping me at my hotel - only a few minutes extra but it helped me get my bearings.  I only spent one full day in Warsaw - mainly to adjust to the time change before picking up a rental car for a ten day tour.  As much as I like train travel, car tours are the most flexible way to see things.  It's also another way to understand a country.  You see what the locals see every day.  If you stay off the highways, you can learn the names of supermarket chains,  common hotel names  (or perhaps the word hotel).  You try to pronounce street signs and city names as you drive by.  In Poland it's pretty easy to avoid long stretches of highways - they don't have many, and they occur in short stretches.  Before you know it, you are back on a small road and driving through villages, countryside and towns.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus -
North  Praga, Warsaw
 On the Sunday before I picked up the car, I went to the 400 meter ice track  near my hotel.  They told me that I was too late to use my speed skates. No speed skates during public skating - Polish custom?   A Dutch woman recognized my orange hat, and asked if I was Dutch. She invited me to skate during club hours.   So instead,  I did what a lot Poles do on Sunday -  I took the tram to church.  The church pews were pretty full. Poland has the highest church attendance rate in Europe.   I crossed the icy Vistula River twice that day. - In Polish it's spelled Wisła  -  the Ł  (L with stroke)  sounds similar to the English W - and the W in Polish sounds like the English V.
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Church of Saint Stephen - Mnichów 
On Monday,  I drove south from Warsaw to Krakow.  I found the local drivers to be good and patient.  The reason for this is now very clear to me - highly variable roads.  Major roads can change from pristine, multi-lane highways to bumpy, shoulderless, tracks - all in the space of a few kilometers.  But, on the average,  the roads are passable and well-used by large trucks and small cars.  The truckers are pretty good drivers  -  they need to be.  Driving in an unfamiliar place is rarely boring. The goal is not just to get from town to town  but to observe everything around you without crashing the car.  I'm always ready to stop, and turn around,  to check out something interesting. In the village of Mnichów in  Świętokrzyskie  (Holy Cross) Province,  I found an old wooden church that caught my eye.  It was the parish church of Saint Stephen.    In the parking area, a  bus was dropping off students after school.   


McDonald's - very new. 
A bit further down the road I came across a very new structure -  holy to some - and located right on the highway - American style - McDonald's.   The workers were interested in how the local stuff tasted compared to America.  After eating a chicken sandwich and an apple pie,  I gave them my benediction.  "Just like America",  I said. 
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St. Mary's  - Krakow
The next stop down the road was the city of Kraków  .  In winter, arriving some place in the dark is common.  In the morning,  I took the tram into the center which is near the "old town"  -  stare miasto in Polish.   Kraków  was not razed to the ground during WW2  like Warsaw was.  -  it was the capital of Germany's "General Government"  which included much Poland and western Ukraine.  It is an ancient city - the capital of Poland from 1038 until 1569.  Like Warsaw, the Vistula river cuts through the city.  The city looked especially good during my visit - the buildings and trees were coated in snow.   I spent some time at Saint Mary's basilica - famous for it's wooden altarpiece.  Like St. Mary's,  many churches in Krakow are in daily use  -  and are not always tourist friendly. I walked into the Church of St. Francis -  a nun sent me a message, via an raised eyebrow,  to get out and stop messing with the prayer waves.  Clearly,  I was distorting the signals.

Old Synagogue - Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland. 
Kraków's historical Jewish quarter is in the district called Kazimierz.  It was founded in 1335 by Casimir III the Great and named after him.  Jews had been living in the area since ~1200.  The Jewish population grew with Krakow.  In the 1930s,  about one third of Krakow's population was Jewish  (about 80,000 out of 240,000) .  An era of tolerance and coexistence ended with the invasion of the Nazis in  1939.   The Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.  It was liquidated by the Nazis between June 1942 and March 1943.  The Soviet army entered the city in January, 1945.

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