Wednesday, June 15, 2011


After we put in our laundry and got settled in our hotel, we headed out to meet a Polish professor (Zygmunt Mazur) and his students. They are masters students in American literature, and we're having their last class of the year. We met at a rather nice restaurant near to Jagellonian University. Every now and then, Dr. Mazur asked a student to accompany him to another room to discuss their work, while the rest of us sat and talked.

After introductions, two of my students sat on one end and chatted with Dr. Mazur and half the students, while the other two students and I sat on the other end and chatted with the other half of the class. The students we spoke with were an eclectic bunch: Marek is planning on teaching English as a foreign language, possibly in China. He spoke English with a British accent, in part because he modeled his speech on the BBC. Theresa was rather quiet, so I'm not sure what she is doing, while Natalia is doing her masters on the Polish underground in Auschwitz (she, herself, in from Oswiencim). Barbara is doing her dissertation on James Fenimore Cooper as is an ex-pat American.

The American students in my section were somewhat shy about talking, so one suggested an ice breaker: one would ask a question (e.g., what sort of bagel would you be) and the rest had to answer. Several of Polish students weren't familiar with bagels, so I suggested peirogi. They all chose "Russkie"(which is the American students' favorite type - potato and cheese). Eventually, they began to talk and really hit it off. Barbara, Dr. Mazur, and I had a long talk about essence and social construct in identity. Barbara is a returning student, and thus somewhat older than the others (as someone who also went back to school later in life, we had a lot in common). She is of native American heritage and strongly believes in the idea that certain responses to natural stimuli can be biologically inherited.

It was a little too warm for a hot meal, so I had a salad nicoise and a lemonade; the students chose to get the alcoholic lemonades and mojitos. We talked until nearly 10 pm when it was time for the restaurant to close. I think several of the students shared facebook info so now they befriending each other (which is great! I really wanted them to get to know Poles as people and not just as "others"). If the timing works, we may meet Dr Mazur for breakfast on Sunday. Barbara lives just around the corner for our hostel, so she walked us back past the Jagellonian University.

I took the students down stairs to where the rec room, pool table, and bar is in the hostel. They are in separate buildings, which keeps the sleeping areas quiet. I ordered a Tatanka, which is half zubrowka vodka and half apple juice. It was delicious but strong. After I finished it, I said goodnight to the students and went upstairs.

The key to my room is beyond tempremental, but it opened quickly last night (not so this morning, where I struggled and cursed for five minutes). The bed is rather soft for my tastes, and the weather was cool but still somewhat damp. The drapes were better than the ones in Warsaw, but still too sheer (in Warsaw, I woke up at 3:50 am thinking it was dawn -- it was!). I forgot how little sunlight Polish curtains block. I managed to stay in bed until 6:30 am.

I'm not thrilled with the shower in the room (it drains slowly so after 5 minutes I needed to turn it off to prevent flooding the bathroom), and the sink looks as if it's about to fall off (it's listing badly, like the Titanic an hour after it hit the iceberg). Nonetheless, I had no problems and went downstairs after 7 am and picked up my laundry. I'm now set for the rest of the trip.

Breakfasts are continental: bread, margarine, jam, tea, and coffee. There are some characters staying here. One guy yesterday kept talking loudly to everyone in the kitchen about his legal difficulties in Ukraine and at the Polish border, and his girlfriend's unreasonable demands ("you know how women are" I heard him say). After he left, the Polish guy at the front desk came over to me and said, "that guy's crazy." At breakfast, I had a retired English teacher from Scotland sit at my table and start to talk, but he turned out to be rather hard of hearing and somewhat "off." He also had been in Ukraine. "How long," I asked? "Three months... no six months... no nine months... wait, I think it was twelve," he said.

Today we went to the Schindler factory. They asked me to arrive 20 minutes before 10, but the door was locked and didn't open until 10. Still, it worked out as we got in before two very large Polish high school tours. We briefly met a survivor who had been in Theresienstadt, but had no time to really talk to her.

The Schindler museum is a professionally done museum chronicalling the imprisonment and murder of the Jews of Krakow and the conquest and enslavement of the city. When I was here in 2007, they were still working on it. Like many new museums, this has all sorts of artifices to concretize the experience: floors and walls that recreate bombed neighborhoods, ghetto streets, or the Plaszow slave labor camp. I have mixed feelings about these sorts of recreations, as they veer too close to a Disneyland-like theme park. There was a moving memorial at the end called the "room of choices"in which there were brief quotes in various languages describing life and death decisions people made.

We found a restaurant opposite the main ghetto square for lunch. I ordered the daily special: dill soup, stuffed cabbage, and "kompot"-- a kind of fruit drink made from soaking strawberries in water. I also got the mizeria -- sliced cucumbers in sour cream. Two of the students liked my stuffed cabbage so much they ordered it after finishing their main courses. Afterwards, we walked to a coffee house for coffee and cake. I asked for a cafe au lait, but got a large cup of coffee with maybe an inch of steamed milk on top. I added four tablespoons of sugar to make it drinkable.

The sky was getting threatening and it was hot and humid, so we went across the square to the pharmacy that stood in the ghetto. The owner was the only non-Jew in the ghetto and did everything he could to help the Jews. Afterwards, we took the tram to Plaszow. The entire camp was torn down, but we saw where Amon Göth's house stood. He was the camp commandant, and he used to shoot at prisoners randomly for target practice. People live in it still and there's a sign up that it's for sale. At one point the humidity spiked and it started to drizzle, but the main rain fell mainly north of us. We went up to see the central memorials and then made our way back to Krakow.

We stopped off at a grocery store around the corner from the hostel. I picked up some butter and juice for the morning, along with a fresh banana and some joghurt. The students are all showering and then we're meeting for dinner at 6 pm. I'm going to take them to the former Jewish quarter where there are lots of cafes. Tomorrow, we're off to Tarnow.

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