My main goal in Poland was to get to Auschwitz. It’s an hour outside of Krakow. But I wanted to stop off in the capitol first. I took the nine hour bus ride from Vilnius to Warsaw and arrived in late afternoon. The hostel was nice. It was called “Chillout Hostel” and it was in the center of the city on a quiet street. I was staying in small room of only four beds so the odds of a crazy person or heavy snorers was low. In fact, when I walked into the room there was only one other bed set up. Success. The other person in the room was a Polish guy. He worked in the tech industry and was in town for a few days. I thought it was interesting that he wanted to stay in a hostel for a work trip.
Two Romanian guys were pouring shots of flavored vodka in the common room so I took a few to try and make some contacts in Romania. There were two young Scottish girls there, a guy from Pittsburgh, and an older Israeli. The Israeli had to be in his late fifties and every time someone brought up a country he would comment on shady American dealings there. Everyone else in the crowd would look at the Pittsburgh guy and me and we shrugged it off and changed the subject. When the Israeli left for a minute the two Scotts complained about how insanely loud he snored in their room. “It was like a tornado in my ear,” one of them said. I smiled inside at the thought of my beautiful sleep that night.
I walked into my room and saw a bag on another bed – I knew, I just KNEW that it was the Israeli’s bag. Somehow he switched rooms into mine. I spent the night constantly waking up from the tornado of snores.
I woke up for good at 5am the next day in the midsts of a snoring symphony from the Israeli and Polish guy above me. There was a free walking tour at 10am so I walked the quiet Warsaw streets until then. Warsaw is a big, international city that got the shit kicked out of it in the 20th century. I thought that the Baltic States were used like a ping pong ball between Germany and Russia but my goodness how terribly Poland suffered. There are now only 440 buildings in the entire city still standing after all the bombs.
The tour I took was “Alternative Warsaw”. We walked across the bridge separating the center of the city and the poorer Praga district. It was morning when we walked through an archway into a courtyard. Our guide pointed out the bullet holes still in the wall from the wars – not ones you had to search for, these were massive holes ripped into the brick. There was a woman hanging out a window drinking a beer and screaming at a stumbling man below her. She smoked a cigarette and stared at all of us. The guide had warned us not to snap pictures unless we ask and also not to look the muscular men in the eye as we walk by. We went to a few of these courtyards, usually with the same scenery: bullet holes, drunks, and an immaculate statue of the Virgin Mary.
The neighborhood was beautiful, though. It looked like what I remember the east village looking like in the 90s. There were a few cafes on one block and a very old market where people traded illegal goods during the Soviet era.
I got back to the hostel to see that the Polish guy was sitting on a chair with his laptop and his bare feet on my bed. He looked at me and took them off and when I passed I realized that the smell that assisted the snoring in keeping me up was from this dude. He spoke on his phone until 11:30 at night when I needed to be up early for a train so we got in a little back and forth and I vowed to never stay in a hostel again. I’m 30. Perhaps it’s time.
I took a two hour express train down to Krakow and some locals helped me get the correct tram to my airbnb. My host invited me in and showed me how to lock the door, “two locks” and took me into a small room with a big bed and window. It was perfect. I asked her about the best way to get to Auschwitz and she said that I should google it. I then asked if there were any good bars or places to go out and she said, “I always go to different places.” She gave me a towel and walked into her room. Fair enough.
I put on Saving Private Ryan and slept nine hours straight.
My first full day in Krakow I went from cafe to cafe drinking tea and writing. I went to a “milk bar” restaurant (during the Soviet era these small restaurants popped up serving decent quality food for a ridiculously low price and after the fall of the Soviet Empire the Polish people kept them the same) and had delicious dumplings.
I passed by a music shop and walked in. There was a banjo on the wall – a Fender selling for about $355. I asked the guy if I could see it and he looked puzzled as he handed it to me. Then I asked if he minded if I played it to which he shrugged and pulled over a piano stool for me to sit. I tuned it up and played a quick rendition of “Booth Shot Lincoln.” It was a cheap banjo, but easy to play and I did a few songs. The shop worker stood with his back toward me checking on some other instruments and tapping his foot along to the beat. When I stopped he said, “You can stay here and play all day if you want. I love the sound of the banjo, but I never hear it.”
The next morning I woke up at 5am to get to Auschwitz concentration camp. I bought bus tickets the night before but couldn’t find any confirmation email so I wanted to get there early to sort that out. I walked the 25 minutes to the bus station and arrived early, but I got so lost within the bus station that I was terrified of missing my ride. I couldn’t find the bus company and ended up in the train station with five minutes to go. I saw a train leaving for Oświęcim (the Polish name for Auschwitz) and made a game-time decision to hop on. After I bought my ticket I sat down and stared out the window as we pulled away.
The ticket guy came over and looked at my ticket. I asked him when we arrive in Auschwitz and he gave me a funny look and put his hands up. He came back a few minutes later with a timetable and it showed that we would arrive in three hours. I hopped on the slow train. I didn’t have a guide for the tour and they only give away a certain amount of entrance passes each morning starting at 7:30 so I wanted to be there as soon as it opened. I’ve wanted to visit Auschwitz for a long time. Well, what a wonderful opportunity to view the Polish countryside.
We arrived at the station and only a few people were left on the train. I took a look around and saw . . . . nothing. “Well, this certainly looks like a place for a concentration camp,” I thought to myself. But shouldn’t there be more people or, like, a sign? I walked to one end of the station and saw nothing. So I walked across the tracks to the other side of the station and saw the information center. It was locked. But it was only 9:30am and the Auschwitz center is open to visitors until 6. I asked a few people if they spoke English and they all shook their heads no. A short bald guy was waiting for a taxi and I asked him, “How do I get to Auschwitz?”
“Auschwitz!” he said.
He put his bag down and rubbed his shiny head. “I think, you must go to Krakow, and then to Auschwitz.”
“What?” I said. “I just came from Krakow.” He looked at me confused. I pointed to the ground. “Is this Auschwitz?”
“Is this Auschwitz!” he replied with big eyes. “This is Ostrowiec!”
Oh, motherfucker! I took the slow train to the wrong town in the middle of fucking nowhere. He started laughing.
“Sprekenshe Deutsch?” he asked.
“No. Hablas Español?”
“No,” he laughed again. “Fuck, shit, damn.” He had his English curse words down.
We laughed about it for a while and he helped me get a bus ticket back to Krakow, another three hours. I walked around the small town until the bus was leaving, managed to find some chicken nuggets to eat, and slept the whole way back.
After I arrived in Krakow I immediately went to a bar to have a beer and some food. When I got wifi I had six messages from my airbnb host about how I turned the lock on the door twice when I left, instead of once, and I had locked them in the apartment. She was pissed. I apologized via the internet and she said that her boyfriend had to unscrew the whole thing. I guess I had heard wrong and was only supposed to turn it once and not twice? Seems important enough to have a sign if you ask me.
I had been at this bar the day before and had an incredible meal of sausage. But this time there was a large, tan, gay, Polish bartender who came over and started hitting on me and told me I looked like I needed vodka. “I do,” I said. “I took the wrong train to Auschwitz.”