7th September: Old Town Square, Krakow (Poland), 16:11
It’s a bit of a change in tone to go from frivolous tales of drunken debauchery and absinthe ice cream to the most horrific, systematic genocide in history, but I’m going to start this entry on Auschwitz, where we spent the morning and early afternoon today. I felt mildly guilty about bitching about the princely sum of £26 for an adult ticket, which has scuppered my plans to recoup my budget from the jaws of overspending while we’re here. Why am I counting? It’s Auschwitz!! Systematic genocide!! Stop thinking about your bank balance, Jen!!
It seems bizarre to think that the sun could shine over such a miserable place, that there could be such cheery weather over the horrid, dingy rooms where so many suffered, that beachworthy weather was met by total joylessness on the faces of our fellow tourists, but the whole scene of bleakness and vastness was mocked by absolutely glorious weather, which felt totally inappropriate. It could only have felt real with snow on the ground.
Not much would have made the sights seem real, admittedly. It was scarcely comprehensible to think that the room-sized bundle of hair and the enormous piles of shoes, bags and combs were just a fraction of the belongings stolen from the doomed inmates when they arrived, or that 4 to 5 people could have slept in a square metre standing block, or that three-tier wooden ‘beds’ designed for horses could fit more than 15 people. We went through the only remaining gas chamber with lumps in our throats. But sadness quickly turned to anger when some absolute twonk on our tour started chuckling heartily in the chamber and crematoria at some ridiculous comment by his wife. I’m rarely one to get sanctimonious, but how can you laugh at a site of mass genocide?! I couldn’t see a single other person on the entire site who had the capacity to break a smile there, let alone laugh in the gas chamber.
I was particularly struck by one face among an exhibit with hundreds of pictures of victims on the walls, accompanied by names, birthdates, dates of arrival and death dates. Rows upon rows of sunken, despairing eyes stared out with hopeless expressions, which was haunting enough. But among them, one woman was defiant: she smiled. It was a mischievous smile, as though she were daring her captors to break her. The death date tells us they did. It broke my heart.
It certainly put my night-training, foot-aching, Scrabble-losing, hand-washing woes into perspective. To begin with the night train: ever since I can remember, I have been afraid of being on the top bunk of bunk beds. Ones with sturdy, thick ladders are fine, but the majority are as thick as matchsticks, and so most attempts to overcome this fear at friends’ houses have resulted in me screaming and either being paralysed by fear or clumsily trying to jump over the side rather than face the ladder. Imagine my joy on discovering I was on the top of a 3-tier bunk bed on the night train!
On scrambling to the top, I refused to get down until we got to Krakow, some 8 1/2 hours later. This wouldn’t have been too bad if I could have sat up on the bed. But, alas, even my infamously short self was unable to sit up, unless one counts ‘torso upright and neck contorted so one’s head is on one’s shoulder’, which I don’t. Left with no choice but to lay down for the whole journey, I had to READ A BOOK (Emma by Jane Austen, which I’ve been meaning to read for years, inspired by Clueless) and slept fairly well. So not all bad.
However, 7 hours of sleep was not enough to refresh me or make me relish the half-hour search for the relevant tram stop/tram, which ultimately proved unsuccessful, leading us to trek across the city for half an hour. We reached an unsavoury-looking area which was quickly dubbed ‘the ghetto’ and, wouldn’t you know it, this was where our hostel was. The receptionist told us we couldn’t check into for another 6 hours – so, my plans for sleep and a shower scuppered, we joined a free walking tour in the Old Town.
Much to our relief, the Old Town is lovely; up to that point we’d been distinctly unimpressed with the city. Our tour guide Gosia was incredibly personable and regaled us with folklore involving exploding dragons, cases of architecture-induced fratricide, and heroic bugle players shot through the throat. There were also true stories about football hooligans bonding over a dead Pope, along with some sly social commentary – on discussing a local dragon’s penchant for eating young virgin girls, she told us that Krakovians say that these days, the dragon would starve. Enjoyed the tour immensely even if it made our feet hurt.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of seeing Scottish stag parties comprised of men in dresses and romper suits, watching some miserable cow on Countdown after we managed to stream it from the hostel (I SWEAR I smiled more than that when I filmed…), spending £2.50 on a pizza at the local pizzeria, and playing a frenzied game of Scrabble which Emily won by a single point.
It then occurred to us that we could restore our piles of laundry to a wearable state by doing some laundry. A lack of plugs in the bathroom sink, a grotty kitchen sink and no washing machine meant we had to get creative with a giant saucepan. The results are yet to be confirmed, but it gave us something to do while our roomies butchered Rihanna songs in the common room. Thankfully we were tired enough once we’d finished to sleep through the rest of their hideous caterwauling.
A man just muttered angrily at us in Polish. Time to go and find the freaky ginger pigeon we’ve dubbed Emily’s twin.
A fairly solemn and slightly sunburnt Jen
12th September: Train to Vienna, 12:56
Eek! Haven’t updated in an age; not so much from being super-busy than from not having a table/my journal to hand. Not much major news to update on. We’re currently on the train, which is sitting in Budapest Keleti station, and enjoying for the last time the irresistably jaunty announcement jingles they play in the station. Whoever composed them clearly has a love of old school video games, and is also a genius – it’s impossible not to be cheered by them.
So, major day-by-day update…
SATURDAY EVENING: Went to a very cheap Polish restaurant in the Old Town and were served by two of the mardiest-looking waitresses known to man; admittedly my attempts to subtly decant water from the huge bottle we’d bought from the mini-mart into the glass of water I’d already drained probably made me look shifty, thus incurring their passive-aggressive wrath. Despite their sour expressions, the food was nice – the roast potatoes with garlic butter weren’t as good as I’d hoped they’d be, but the meat pierogi (another good Countdown word) were very tasty. Really enjoying Eastern European cuisine.
Still reeling from the kitschy ‘rustic’ decor of the place, we headed for an internet cafe so I could gorge myself on the delights of the World Wide Web and Emily could upload her photos. Little else of any consequence occurred that evening, except for a ridiculous sense of personal achievement gained by managing to get a huge bottle of fizzy water (yuk) down to a state of drinkable stillness through a great deal of endurance and perseverance (ie jiggling it constantly with the lid off).
SUNDAY: Took the opportunity to have a beautiful, sacred lie-in until 11, while reading Countdown fan mail (not an exaggeration – I had a very sweet message from an Irish superfan, which was very touching) and eventually packing my bag, though not before taking a picture of the entirely unexplainable picture of a horse’s head on the bathroom wall.
Emily meanwhile was at the Human Body exhibition, featuring plastinated (no, me neither) bodies, which she came to the conclusion were East Asian judging by their height and, er, ‘length’. When she returned, we headed for the grassy verge by the river to bask in the still glorious weather for several hours, before getting a healthy, nutritious meal from down the road at Telepizza and finding cheap water and sweets to spend our last few (emphasis on few) zlotys. The water was imperative, as our delightfully sociable Chinese roommates in Prague had, as a thoughtful leaving present, given me her cold, and my throat was beginning to feel mildly cheese-grated, while my nose was doing its best Niagara Falls impersonation.
Stuck for things to do, and not in the mood to explore the city – we felt we’d exhausted its daytime pleasures – we cracked out the hostel’s jigsaw (which later transpired to be of Budapest). After some initial struggle, we made it to 90% completion. It was in vain: our obsessive personalities were not obsessive enough to convince us that finishing the jigsaw was more important than catching the night train to Budapest (though it was a close call). And catch it we did, after a tense tram ride to the station spent fearing a fine for not buying a ticket (we couldn’t afford it and were still yet to see a ticket machine).
I can confirm that sleeping on the bottom bunk of a night train is preferable to sleeping at the top. There were pros and cons to both (more luggage space at the top, but more effort to get it up there; less fear of the bunk above you collapsing at the top, but also more fear of falling out) but ease of bathroom access, the provision of a table on which to balance essentials and increased comfort of the bed itself meant that the bottom won out overall.
That said, I slept better on the top bunk to Krakow than on the bottom bunk from it, primarily due to my cold. Over the course of the day it had morphed from the beginnings of one, with a slight sore throat, to a full-on can’t-breathe-unless-I’ve-blown-my-nose-hideously-loudly, good-God-my-throat-is-raw, someone-please-kill-me-now killer cold, to Emily’s horror. She was petrified of catching it, but being in a claustrophobic room which was essentially hosting a game of Sardines, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. (Besides, she should feel privileged to catch the germs of a minor daytime TV superstar.)
As a result, sleeping was fractious, fragmented and generally ineffective as far as making me feel better was concerned, especially since I woke up every time we violently thudded into a station. Thank god the train had a lot of paper towels, or we may all have drowned in my ocean of nasal mucus.
AND ON THAT CHARMING NOTE, STAY TUNED FOR OUR ADVENTURES IN BUDAPEST!