Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Krakow and Auschwitz

After spending a few wonderful days in L'viv, Brandt and I boarded the midnight train to Krakow, Poland. (A superstar, but he didn't get far). The train was mostly empty, and moments before it departed we wondered whether we were going to be completely alone.

I figured that the current crisis in Ukraine has probably diminished travel in the area generally, including train travel throughout the country and across its borders. I especially figured that western visitors would likely be totally absent, besides the ones who don't care about their lives, like us.

Then we heard the strong accent of a 70-year-old woman from Philadelphia, a transplant, we later discovered, in "Flarida."

"Beau! At least put some underwear on if you're going to sit in there with the door open!"

Moments later she stepped inside our cabin, introduced herself as "Ida," and began telling us every intimate detail about her life.

We were confused. Seeing an elderly couple from the United States of God Bless America traveling on a train in the middle of western Ukraine at night during a revolution was like finding a nun at Woodstock '69.

Ida and Beau explained that their parents were Ukrainian and that they decided to take a few months to wander eastern Europe to get in touch with their roots. They were on week two of those "few months."

They talked our ears off and finally wandered to their own separate cabins to go to sleep.

A few hours later we reached the border of Poland. Reminiscent of European travel in the 1940s, Ukrainian border patrol agents stormed the train and began riffling through our things, interrogating us about our purposes in being in Ukraine, and demanding documentation for every stitch of fabric with which we were attempting to flee the country.

Border Patrol: And just what are these?!

Eli: These are paintings.

Border Patrol: And what do you think you are doing with them?

Eli: Looking at them. Because they're pretty?

Border Patrol: Well we will have to confiscate them unless you can provide documentation for them.

Eli: That's absurd. We bought these from street artists. These are not priceless pieces. I also bought this candy bar. Do you want documentation for that, too?

Border Patrol: Yes.

Eli: Oh. Never mind. I'm done talking. Pay no attention to me!

The border patrol folks took our passports and marched off of the train. Just then Ida frantically showed up in our cabin.

Ida: They're treating us like we're doing something wrong! Like we're prisoners. PRISONERS!

I can't help but feel every time I cross any international border that I, in fact, AM doing something wrong. And although I have never done what the kids call "drugs" in my life, nor have I sold or bought them, nor could I probably even give more than three accurate facts about "drugs"--despite all of that, I am always 100% sure at every international border that every kind of drug known to man is going to be found spilling out of all of my things and also inside little plastic bags I somehow accidentally swallowed and for which I am acting as a mule.

Not that I know what any of that is, Cathie.

The border patrol entered and exited the train a dozen times, demanding answers to their hundreds of questions. And normally when someone asks me that many questions about myself I really like it because OPPORTUNITY TO TALK ABOUT ME. But in this instance, it wasn't that fun. Because these people didn't seem to want to get to know me. They were just doing their job.


Eventually the border patrol let us escape Ukraine with our things. I like to think my 2:00 AM cantankerous communication style had something to do with it. But it might have had more to do with the fact that Beau wasn't wearing any underwear and they probably just really wanted that train of four very tired and obnoxious Americans to become Poland's problem.

After a full night of interrogation, we eventually made it into Krakow. As we exited the train Brandt and I commented that Ida and Beau would be dead or missing within 24 hours.

It was two days later that we happened to run into them again at the train station. They were hauling their GIANT red roller suitcases across cobblestone when we saw them.

Ida: We're done with this place. We're getting out of Krakow. Three more weeks in Europe and we're heading home. Boys. I got a good life in Flarida. What am I doing here? Look us up sometime if you're ever in the area.

Just as well. After spending a few days touring the gorgeous city and visiting the ever disturbing Auschwitz, we were ready to head to Warsaw to catch our flight home, too.

And so here you have it--some pictures of Krakow and Auschwitz:

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. The important question is, did you get to keep your paintings??

    1. Obviously Hilary meant candy bar. Cuz I mean, chocolate.

  2. Cuz chocolates from Europe are delicious!!!! Yummmm...

    1. It was probably just a Snickers.

  3. Let me know if you make it up to Warsaw and need a place to crash.

  4. Woo-woo. (I am now officially the Stranger Pip to your Gladys Knight)

  5. This reminds me of a story I heard Walter Matthau tell...

    Walter Matthau and his wife had taken a trip to Auschwitz. As they were about to enter one of the gas chambers with their tour guide, a woman runs up to him. "Oh my God, Mr. Matthau!, I am such a huge fan of yours! Would you mind giving me an autograph?"

    He says"What!! Absolutely not. That's completely inappropriate. I can't believe you would even ask me that here." then he and his wife and the guide go into the chamber.
    Later that day he's walking out of the compound, and the woman approaches him again. "I just want you to know," she says "You ruined my trip to Auschwitz!"

    1. I gave always loved Walter Matthau but now I love him even MORE.

    2. Is it really bad that the highlight of my day is seeing that Eli replied to my post????? You're hair is looking fabulous today, btw!! :)

  6. I love how you nailed how we say, "Flarida" in Philly. I actually had to say it out loud a few times to see if I actually say it that way. LOL

    1. Yes! That was my favorite part of the whole story :)

  7. Every time you say midnight train I start singing Journey and its starting to get really annoying since the version playing in my head is from GLEE

  8. Mmmm, European chocolate. Scrumptious. Great photos, though. I can't even imagine what it's like to walk through Auschwitz.
    Country Girl's Daybook: Jesus, Photography, Fashion, & Food

  9. I dream of one day living on cobblestone streets lined with colorful old buildings just like these. Also...I choose to believe you actually have these conversations. Thanks to you and Daniel, and some meow/name that tune post, my daughter and I often end a confusing conversation with a sigh and "zigazig-ahhhh". It's our "twice up the barrel"!

  10. A few years ago when we were touring Germany we went to Dachau. Your Auschwitz photos remind me a lot of that. So haunting to walk through those areas and see what those people went through.

  11. I hope Ida and Beau are all right. I imagine them being found in a river, stuffed inside their giant suitcases.

  12. I have a necklace from Krakow. Bought from a street vendor. And I read a Russian memoirish book about train travel in that area. I am so there.

  13. I feel the same way about being guilty for things that I could not possibly be guilty of. Whenever I find myself alone in a room that isn't mine (like a classroom when I was still a student or someone's house who I don't know very well), I always feel like I need to leave as quickly as possible because something is going to happen and it will somehow be my fault even though I didn't do anything, like something will be broken or stolen.

  14. That picture in the church with the sunlight streaming down is just so amazing. You captured the architecture so brilliantly, I now have a renewed awe of Europe. Thank you for sharing.

  15. When we lived in Germany, Dachau was only two train stops away from our house. We only visited once, when visiting relatives pressured us into it. We brought our 11 month old daughter along, not realizing how strict the rules about noise and reverence were inside the museum. Needless to say, she and I spent a lot of time outside, wandering around the barracks. You know what was amazing? That's where my daughter took her first steps. Right in front of the gates with "Arbeit macht frei" written on them. It was such an amazing experience, watching my beautiful little girl giggling and walking towards me with her arms outstretched, across the grassy field where such unspeakable things had happened decades before. It felt deeply symbolic and holy, somehow.