Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hostel Life (June 21)

There are plusses and minuses to staying in a hostel.

When I first planned this trip, I had not intended to stay in any hostels, but circumstances in Gdansk and Warsaw required it. I was quite pleased with my experiences in both places and began to wonder if I shouldn't have booked a hostel in Krakow as well. Then last night I got a reminder of the drawbacks to living here.

The plusses, of course, are easy to enumerate: plenty of English speakers to chat with and get advice from, laundry service, free internet service (although there is usually a line of people waiting to use it regardless of the hour). There are some drawbacks, however. Last night about 20 "anglo-saxons" (as they call them in Israel), i.e., brits, aussies, canadians, and americans, went out drinking in the pubs. As beer is incredibly cheap here, they came back around 11 pm with several six packs in tow, and proceeded to rearrange the tables in the dining room.

As it happens, the dining room is right over my room, and I couldn't figure out why I was hearing all this noise of heavy wooden tables and benches being pulling across the floor. Then the screaming and chanting started. I found out later they were doing drinking games. Finally around midnight, they shut the windows and so I could finally get some sleep.

I did sleep, by the way, all the way to 7:20 (a new record for me on this trip!). At breakfast, I got into a heated conversation with a woman from Vermont traveling with her son through Lithuania and Poland. When I mentioned that I was studying the Holocaust she asked me if I was going to Lithuania, and I told her not on this trip. Then she mentioned that Jews were responsible for torture in Lithuania, a fact, she claimed, that not many people knew about and she was trying to learn more about. I told her I didn't know what she was talking about, since no Jews actually collaborated with the Nazis (within the standard meaning of the term, meaning to have goals in common).

After much confusion, it turns out she was talking about Jews assisting the Soviets to torture Lithuanians. Then another person asked whether I thought Israel's treatment of the Palestinian was similar to the persecution that Jews were subjected to in history. That led me to make several heated responses about being careful with language and how much of the conflict has been the failure of the Palestinians to embrace peace. In the midst of this heated conversation, one brit, who appears to have been hung over from the drinking games of the night before, asked us if we could keep it down. I realized afterwards that I should have told him that turn about is fair play.

I went to Pawiak prison in the ghetto. This was the central prison of the Gestapo in the ghetto and both Jews and Poles were imprisoned there. However, you couldn't tell that from the display. As the Germans retreated in late 1944, the dynamited the building, but part of the prison has been reconstructed as a memorial. As you walk into the courtyard there is a statue of a barren tree, covered in death notices for people executed in the prison. Virtually all of them bear crosses.

Inside, there you can see the cells where prisoners were held, hear excerpts of letters and diaries kept by prisoners, and then see a scale model of what the prison looked like. There is then a main room with a series of displays about the history of the Nazi occupation and items relating to the prison. One section refers to the ghetto and the uprising, but none of the displays about the prisoners, their treatment, the items they created, or their spiritual life, includes anything about Jews. In fact, except for a few stray references in the midst of other texts, you would never know Jews were ever imprisoned in Pawiak.

After that I walked back to the Stare Miasto to eat at the cafeteria I visited yesterday. This time I got the schnitzel with hot sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. Then I took the bus to a suburb of Warsaw to visit the Palac Wilanow (that's pronounced "PA-watz vee-LAH-nuv" in Polish, by the way). This is the Polish version of Versailles: originally a summer retreat, it was developed into the summer palace of the Polish monarchy in the 17th and early 18th century. I took the tour of the internal rooms, which mostly contain the major portrait collections of the Polish nobility. While the palace was damaged during the war, most of it survived.

One of the nicest parts of the palace, by the way, was simply walking through the green, tree-covered park outside it. The shade from the trees really cooled the air, and there were song birds. I don't remember ever hearing song birds in American parks.

I came back to town and took care of some financial matters, including getting rid of my last Hungarian forints. I went to the Jazz Bistro around the corner where I tried to order the strawberry soup I had had two days ago at their other location, but by accident I ordered the chlodnik instead (a cold borscht soup with cream, and hard-boiled egg). It wasn't bad, but I sort of had my heart set on the strawberry (since both are strawberry yoghurt colored, I didn't realized til I tasted it that it wasn't what I had meant to order).

For the main course I ordered nalisniki (which are crepes) with asparagus and "firey chicken" (which they mean spicey) in a cream sauce. It was quite good. Then I decided to go for the special strawberry dessert. While the menu described it as cheese cakes with strawberry sauce, the waitress said it was different. I told her that was ok. It turned out to be two small crepes with a fresh strawberry puree. It was very good.

Then I rushed by tram to the opera to get my seat for The Magic Flute. It turned out to be a rather avant-garde production. It was set in a mid-century school, where the singers wore large paper-machet heads to look like school children. Sarastro was now the director of the school. Given the enlightenment message of the libretto, it was not inconsistent. The playbill had pictures of Columbine, so there was some reference to school violence, but I'm not sure what was intended.

Tamino appears wearing a black head with stylized cornrows and wearing red silk basketball shorts. Papageno looked like Dennis the Menace. The Queen of the Night looked like the evil queen in Snow White, only wearing poisonous green trousers under her red cape, and wearing her hair in two red points, each at least two feet tall. Her three ladies in waiting were equally bizarre: one looked like one of the ugly stepsisters from Cinderella, wearing purple robes and with equally purple hair; another looked like one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; and the third was made up to look like a dominatrix elf.

The music was good and the bizarre staging actually worked when it came to the various tests Tamino and Pamina must face at the end of Act II. This never really worked for me before, but now the test of fire involved two priests wearing klan robes burning books while a slide projector cast images of burning crosses. Tamino and Pamina had to extinguish the fire and save the books. The ordeal of water, on the other hand, seemed to be a reference to water boarding, but I couldn't figure it out.

The real star of the opera, however, is the character of Papageno. He gets most of the best lines and best arias, and is always the audience favorite.

When I came out of the opera, I was shocked to find it was drizzling (when I went in, it was hot and sunny). The forecast for tomorrow is 31 (low 80s F) with thunderstorms, so I will take an umbrella with me for my tour of the ghetto and Treblinka.

One last comment. I was confused a few days ago to see a statue of Charles de Gaulle in front of the former Communist Party headquarters. No one cold tell me why, but it turns out he helped Poland fight the Soviet Union in 1920. Opposite him is a large palm tree in the middle of the circle. It can't possibly survive the summer, but one of the women at the hostel explained that they bring in new leaves every year. She wasn't sure why though.

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