Thursday, June 16, 2011


Wednesday evening, I took the students to Kazimierz to look for restaurants. We walked from the hotel (it's only 15 minutes away), and I showed them one of the more famous courtyards in the area, one that was used in Schindler's List and countless other movies. The market square is zapiekanki central (a strange, french-bread pizza looking thing that usually has ketchup squirted on top in place of tomato sauce).

We walked around several restaurants in Szeroka square and the students settled on Szara Kazimierz. As it happens, this is a Michelin guide recommended restaurant and a branch of the more famous location on the Rynek Glowny. We ate in the outside garden in the back, and it reminded me, a little, of the garden space at Cafe Einstein Stammhaus in Berlin.

I tried the mint tatanka to start (like a regular tatanka, but with mint liquer and mint leaves), it was delicious. Most everyone else had some raspberry-based drinks. We skipped the first course and went right to the main. I had the special: veal stew with roasted small potatoes (yummy), while the others got turnadoes of beef, roast ostrich, and the plank steak. It turns out the plank steak is what they are most famous for. For dessert, most of us got the strawberry tiramisu. Everyone enjoyed the meal immensely and declared it was the best of the trip. I'm going to take the students back here on Sunday evening for our final dinner.

When we got back to the hotel, a very large group (30) of graduating high school seniors from Estonia were trying to check in. I found out later that part of the problem was that the teachers were "shocked" to discover that they had to actually pay for the rooms. I went off to the bus station to scout out information on buses to Auschwitz and Zakopane, and when I came back three of the students were down in the pool room chatting with some of the Estonians.

When I came down for breakfast the next day, the kitchen tables were a collection of beer, vodka, rum, and coke bottles. Some of the Estonians had been out clubbing and never went to bed. One turned out to be the son of the chief justice of Estonia. Unlike my university, Estonian high schools do not seem to have rules on drinking on school trips. Most of them were still pretty shloshed. We swapped stories about drinking regulations and they concluded that America was far too rigid. They decided that unlike their teachers, I was a "cool guy," which was probably clouded by the alcohol.

One of my students told me that earlier they had found one Estonian student passed out, and he told them about the American tradition of drawing on passed-out students, so they (the Estonians) decided to paint a Hitler mustache on him. One can only imagine how that will go over when they visited Auschwitz later in the day.

The teachers came down and told the students to get ready to leave, but the son of the chief justice didn't want to leave all the rum behind. There was still a quarter of a bottle left, so he carefully poured some of the left over coca cola into it and the shook it up to mix. With his teacher standing behind him, he took a couple swigs. I told him I had to get a picture of that. Then they left for Auschwitz and then to Slovakia. This is a one-week graduation trip.

After the Estonians left, the clerk came over and told us about the difficulties they had with the Estonian teachers not wanting to pay their bill, when in wandered one of the students. We called him "boxer boy," since he had carefully drooped his pants so that most of his boxer shorts were visible. One of my students told me that during the early morning he had plopped down at the kitchen table to join the discussion while only wearing the boxers, but by the time I came down, he had put his pants on. Boxer boy was very drunk, and quite lost. It seems that while he had gone out with the others to get on the bus, somehow he was too drunk to do so, and the teachers hadn't noticed he was missing and the bus had left without him.

He was asking the desk clerk for directions to the castle, as he thought his group was going there first, but he kept leaving without the map. He was clearly dazed. He left dragging his suitcase and headed off in the direction of Wawel castle. Just as one of my students wished him good luck, his suitcase hit the curb and one of the wheels popped off and flew off. He continued to drag the suitcase down the street, the axel now scrapping the sidewalk. He kept looking around trying to figure out why his bag was so hard to pull. We never heard from him again.

Once my students were dressed and down, we headed off to Tarnow. This is a medium-sized Polish town about an 1.5 hours by local train from Krakow. We had one of the older, slower, and less comfortable trains, and it was rather warm and sticky on board (the weather is still awful). We stopped off at a bakery a little ways from the train station, and the snacks were so good, I went back for seconds. One student bought a huge piece of strawberry cake and shared it with the class. He still had over a third of left by the time we got back.

The primary purpose of our visit was the Ethnographic museum on the Roma. This is the first museum in the world dedicated to the history of what are commonly called Gypsies. Unfortunately, while the organizer of the museum is trained as an anthropologist, a good historian would have done a better job of covering the material. They had a Roma blacksmith out back teaching a class of school kids how to beat iron. I think in some ways, this is more of a political statement than pedagogic place, one meant to show that Roma are worthy of being studied.

From there we walked to the main square and then to Jews' Street to see a few memorials and ruins. It was about to rain so we darted into a pizza place and waited. And waited and waited and waited. I finally went in, managed to communicate through sign gestures that we wanted menus and food, and eventually a waitress appeared and took our order. The pizzas weren't bad, and then we continued on our way after the rain had passed.

The humidity was still near 100% as we got to the monument to the first Poles sent to Auschwitz. When the camp was opened in 1940, the Nazis seized 728 people from Tarnow, who were the first prisoners sent there. I had hoped to find the Jewish cemetery, but I got lost, it wasn't on any maps, and the directional signs disappeared. I asked several people, but none of them could understand my request. With the sky getting ominously dark, I suggested we hurry back to the train station.

While the students wanted to visit the bakery again, it was clear a bad storm was coming. By the time we reached it, rain was beginning to fall. Only two of us brought umbrellas, so we hurried on to the train station. The main hall was full of munchkins (Polish high school students) with backpacks and suitcases for an end-of-term school trip. We eventually found seats on a much nicer, state-of-the art train back to Krakow, with much needed air conditioning.

I don't think I would take students back to Tarnow. The Roma pavillion at Auschwitz is far more informative, and the one in Tarnow is just not worth the 3 hours round trip to get to it. I'm thinking that when I do this trip again, I'll split Auschwitz into two days, doing Auschwitz I (the Stammlager) on the first day, and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and the second.

After helping students run errands when we got back to Krakow I scouted out some restaurants for dinner. We ended up at Wesele just off the Rynek Glowny, another Michelin guide recommended place. We started off with salads (though one student tried and very much enjoyed the sour rye soup), as many of us are still trying to recover from vegetable withdrawal after Germany. Even though there haven't been any E-coli cases here, I wasn't going to try the alfafa sprouts on my salad caprese.

For a main course, I had the goose breast with dwarf apples and cranberry sauce. Two students had the steak, and one was unhappy that hers wasn't cooked medium, but rare. I ended up finishing hers (it was delicious). My goose tasted dry, but the sauce was yummy. For dessert almost all of us went with the strawberry cocktain, which tasted like a fresh strawberry smoothie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Very good. After that, it was back to the hotel.

Today, we head off in a little bit for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tomorrow will be a free day and I'm hoping for better weather when I head south to Zakopane. Supposedly a cold front is approaching, one we desperately need. This has been the hottest June in parts of Europe for many years. People are comparing it to the summer of 2003 when more than 10,000 people died from the heat. Last year, the weather was cool for almost the entire trip. This year has been the reverse, with high heat and humidity. Blech.

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