Warning: THIS ONE IS LONG... as the actress said to the bishop. ;)
Yes, thanks to my sister's diary, I have some idea what happened on each day and have attempted to faithfully reconstruct our path across Poland, since it was such a packed schedule I didn't manage to write anything during the week to refer back to. So, without further ado and without going into detail about some of the odder stuff that was written in the back...
After packing the last of the kids off on Saturday, we had an informal gathering with the Polish staff and handed out presents, all of which activity was quickly and mutinously relocated to Pizza Lucia. We folded before they did, crawling back to camp to reclaim a portion of the sleep lost over the preceding week. I have no idea by now whether it was this particular evening that giggling drunk people ran through the room at 4am trying to wake us up to see the aurora borealis but that was mildly amusing the morning after whenever it happened.
We set off first thing in the morning with most of the Polish staff still in tow, to be dropped off at various places along the route. As it turned out, Anya stuck around for almost the entire thing, which was cool. :)
The others delegated to shepherd us around were Marius, Halinka, Eva and the Sean Connery look-a-like scoutmaster chap whose name I never caught because we never asked him when he was sober. I apologise now for the hideous Anglicisation of names I'm likely to end up typing before this is done, and also for the fact I can't find all of the accent characters for Polish-I think some of them are Unicode, which I have as much experience of incorporating into web pages as I do salmon fishing. Just bear in mind that most places there's a 'w' in a place it's pronounced as a 'v', and sometimes where there's an 'l', it sounds like a 'w'. Those 'l' characters should actually have a diagonal cross through them. Therefore 'Krakow' = 'Krakov' and 'Wroclaw' = 'Vrokswav' or an approximation thereof.
Later that afternoon we visited the Raclawice Panorama, which is essentially a wrap-around frieze with some fake scenery in front and an audio track telling you about a big battle in Polish history. I didn't listen, and the comments I heard convinced me I'd made the right choice to spend fifteen minutes trying to work out which tree was most realistic. Well, it was nice and cool, and history before the C19th doesn't really interest me unless we keep going back until we get to Ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. This was followed by an open-top bus tour of town, which was entertaining because Marius was quite clearly taking the piss out of the descriptions he was being given by our crew to translate for us. The world needs more dry sarcasm. When we stopped off for lunch, I got a large plate of vitamins in cooked vegetable form—a shame, as I'd pointed at something deep-fried, but it's nice to know that other people are looking out for my arteries. An hour or so browsing music and baubles and buying ice cream in the attached mall, and we wound up at the first of several hostels. Strangely, Marius didn't room with me again after I'd played him some of my earlier-acquired Silverchair album. Or maybe it's just because I'm an anti-social bastich and don't really drink that much. It certainly wasn't through lack of trying—I got one bottle of Guinness the entire time we were in Poland, and that somehow managed to be fizzy. It didn't go with the breakfast pizza either, but I'm aware of getting hideously sidetracked so I shall move on...
The evening saw us introduced to more of many restaurants at which service was an apparently abstract curiousity. Wherever we went, the food was usually both plentiful and interesting, but the only instances I can recall where we ate within an hour of setting foot in a place were when unpopular decisions were made to order everyone the same thing. Even then it was usually an age before things arrived, including times it took as long as if we'd placed individual orders in the first place. I think a lot of us got into the habit of stockpiling snacks in case we weren't up to whatever was on offer at a given set meal—if you ever visit Poland, I recommend you check out the many wonderful types of chocolate. The ice cream—I've probably mentioned this lots already by now—is also very, very much worth going for. It seems however that, unless you luck out and find an equivalent to Pizza Lucia, you should expect to wait for food.
Monday, we had dinner in a concentration camp. Yes, we'd arrived at Auschwitz. I hesitate to say that I was looking forward to this part of the tour, but I did think it was going to be the most worthwhile. In that respect it certainly didn't contradict expectations, but relatively little actually remains of Auschwitz—a few barracks and detention cells. The gas chambers contain reconstructed equipment; otherwise they would be as empty as when Nazi forces dismantled them in the hurried process of trying to destroy evidence. We had amazingly good tour guide; anyone who can speak at the speed she did whilst remaining coherent-let alone focused and emotive-is a rarity. For all the visual aids, as we were told, it doesn't help to think of Auschwitz in terms of numbers-Stalin is famously attributed as saying: "The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic." I think it captures as well as anything the terrible potential for abuse abstraction can enable. So... all I can do is encourage you to visit for yourselves, and respectfully suggest not taking photos. If you find yourself forgetting what people are capable of doing to each other, go back.
Later we travelled on to Krakow, which is moderately touristy without being oppressively so. The architecture in the town square is beautiful, and gets lit up at night... so it was toward the end of the evening, as we were ambling the perimeter of the Hall of Cloth, I happened to notice a stall still open and in the process of being packed up behind the iron grilles—with reproduction swords and axes. I resolved to try to check it out the next day and pre-emptively located a cash machine in case anything was both nice and affordable. After all, swords don't normally come that cheap in the UK, even ones designed merely for decorative purposes. The only comparative shop-front price I had was a tacky stainless steel Arthurian-style thing that's probably still on sale in Aberystwyth for £90.
So, I had reasons for wanting to be in town rather than wandering round an old building on Tuesday—and, to be honest, I enjoyed such things more when they were real school trips rather than just feeling like them. You traipse from room to room and wonder if the previous occupants thought about anything else other than putting out the best silver for visiting dignitaries. Steve really wanted to find the Krakow air museum, which is apparently famous for exhibiting the world's only jet-powered biplane. Knowing at least enough about planes to be aware that there are reasons these two facets of engineering usually remain separate, I was mildly curious myself. So, Zofia was going to draw, we were going to look at planes and I was going to try to buy a large piece of metal.
Promptly upon getting to the foot of the castle ramp, I bought two carved wooden chess sets for what seemed like a reasonable price, and squeezed them into my tote. This proved what an idiot I'd been in not emptying out my rucksack and bringing that instead, or at least a spare tote. After quick enquires as to when and where we were supposed to be meeting for lunch and when we were leaving, we scarpered. From what I was told later, we were lucky to have bunked the castle tour-our group's previous luck with guides ran out and Rob ended up having a theological argument with a woman who spoke very little English. Basically, the story of Wawel is a curious mix of Catholicism and superstition. It involves a dragon, and—somehow—a set of bones that had been dug up and fixed over a door in the castle, which were supposed to be lucky and protect the place. Rob's query of, "But don't you find that doctrinally incongruous?" was met with a mixture of blank incomprehension and the tourist-placatory affirmation: "We dug up bones at foot of hill. Is lucky."
Whilst all that fun was going on, our breakaway sect had managed to tram away from the centre of Krakow, accidentally fare-dodging because none of us remembered or twigged that tickets are bought at kiosks rather than on the trams themselves. Wandering in through the back of the air museum, we browsed around the roped-off section with the wrecks before realising our mistake and heading toward the ticket office. Random aside: a curiosity of Polish attractions is that some have a tariff for taking photos, which only one person in a group need pay. Anyway, most of the museum was open-air, we got to see the jet biplane, and the weather was glorious. I managed to read a fair chunk of Schooling, which I'd borrowed from Z having run out of other books. Good stuff, not to mention completely immersive. Could've quite happily stayed outside all day like that.
With some sort of plan in my head, we headed back to the Hall of Cloth. Reassuringly, the stall was just being unlocked, so I had a quick look around the rest of the place, including the spot opposite which had some very nice—not to mention seriously pricey—scabbarded pieces, although most were cavalry swords and similar. Returning to the point of most interest, I tried quizzing the elderly gentleman about the swords in the back of his display. Sadly, my German isn't much better than my Polish when it comes to anything but food, and, 'What do you have in dark metal, nothing golden or glitzy,' was way beyond it... anyway, to cut a long story short, Zofia very kindly intervened on my behalf and I picked up a bargain hand-and-a-half sword for a fraction over £30. Finally, I have an ornament—other than Transformers—that I actually like. And which I really must get around to cleaning up properly, yes indeed...
Flushed with this score, and pushing thoughts of how I was going to get it back into the country to the back of my mind, we headed off on the coach to the salt mines. Wieliczka is famous in Polish history for providing the mineral wealth to allow commercial expansion. It was a gift from—erm, some other country which I forget. Like many pseudo-mythical events, the tale of the area involves a romance between a princess and a man noble in heart if not means. Although a bit touristy—okay, a lot touristy—the carvings made by miners in chambers hundreds of feet below the surface were frequently beautiful. We got a group photo taken in the main chapel, since it was a convenient place to get everyone in one. I think everyone agreed that it was worth the several hundred steps down, especially since our guide was so fluent—not to mention charmingly sarcastic—and obviously enjoyed his job in a blasé 'seen-it-all-a-million-times' fashion. He also reminded me, for some unearthly reason, of Constable Goody from The Thin Blue Line. Anyway, it was very cool—literally, the mines being full of freezing purified air. Something else to visit if you're in the area.
Since the rest of the group hadn't had a chance to shop or find internet cafés, the period up to lunch on Wednesday was designated free time by popular protest. Krakow is a truly lovely place: it's a university town and Anya studies there, so we got to see and hear about some of the non-touristy attractions. I think many of us would have been happy to spend the rest of the week there. Anyway, I picked up a couple of carved wooden walking sticks, having been giving some serious thought to how to look charming and innocent at international borders and with that, we were off. To the rafts.
It was circa this time that the tour began to acquire rather a sour edge. Admittedly, few things could have bettered the previous few days. However, of all the boatmen we could have gotten in Kroscienko, we ended up with a wanker whose idea of a greeting was to flick us with wet branches. That almost put paid to the idea of taking photos, although I eventually braved a ton-and-a-half's worth of electronics to get some. I'm also not entirely sure who started the subsequent water fight between rafts, but that turned out rather fortunately for the best as well. There's a really cool photo of Pete and Marius with an ashtray, smoking and trying to look hard in sunglasses... and they had a go at punting the raft. At least some people were having fun on the river Dunajec, and the Pieniny mountain chain is really rather magnificent if you like that sort of thing. :)
Ultimately, this episode served to reconfirm my philosophy of avoiding any and all 'lock-in' situations—had we not been carrying cash, watches and assorted delicate valuables, the rafting would have been a hell of a lot more enjoyable. Also at this stage, other people began murmurings of annoyance with the tour itinerary, and the fact that we weren't being told much—if anything—about what conditions would be like at places we were to visit. Changing hotels and sleeping arrangements every couple of days (and not actually getting that much sleep) was also starting to take its toll. Everyone who hadn't previously had a cold seemed to be looking more under the weather, and some of us were more than ready for a time-out to catch our breath.
This came on Thursday. The day's activity was supposed to be some kind of mountain hike, which Chris, Sally, Pete, Josh, Rob and myself cheerfully absconded from to look around Zakopane. Following a pizza in a restaurant with the most apathetic staff ever, I hoped to find a hardware store and get some gaffa tape—but no such luck, nor did any of the kiosks around town have sticky tape of any form, although I did find a toy shop which sold Transformers knock-offs. Earlier in the day, whilst people were trying to track down the guy who was supposed to be our tour guide, I'd wandered around enough of the market to pick up a wolf t-shirt and some 100m range binoculars, so the remaining couple of hours passed with us sat on a hill watching people in the market through binoculars, after which we regrouped in a pub and met up with the bus of weary souls. Having had a day to recuperate at an easy pace, I remember feeling more a lot more content and optimistic at this point, especially as (if I'm remembering days in the correct order) the evening involved us finding an internet café, going on open-air fairground rides, trying different flavours of 'lody' (ice cream) and getting a decent amount of sleep. If that sounds like being easily pleased... *shrug* :)
A fair slice of Friday was spent wanting to gag our tour guide, Bogdan III—we'd started referring to unknown men entering our lives as 'Bogdan' after our Prague bus driver, the guy also known as 'Sean Connery' being Bogdan II—had about as much right to market himself as a tour guide in the medium of English as I would have in French when I was 15. Almost every sentence he used bore the prefix: "In zis moment..." and I don't think anyone ever really found out in the end what 'special meadows' were. The original plan was that we were going up Kasprowy Wierch mountain by cable car and walking back down. Walk? The management were beginning to realise just how long walking any distance as a whole party took, and that this would have taken us until nightfall unless we'd rolled. Wisdom indeed.
The ride up was really cool… about twenty people crammed into a small box dangling thousands of feet above rocks and forests that could have been straight out of Jurassic Park. We obediently hummed the theme tune as per prompts, to the bemusement of several Polish strangers sharing a carriage with us. The minimal flat space at the observatory was likewise crammed, but even so, a chunk of our group decided not to venture out onto the mountain. Having got that far, my attitude was that I might as well, and was rewarded for my mild curiosity with bad weather and the sight of two Slovakian guards huddling beneath a waterproof, thousands of feet above sea level. (Slovakia isn't really bothered about tourists wandering on and over their borders at that height, and it's decidedly unlikely that anyone would try to flee Poland over such inhospitable terrain unless possessed of complete desperation, so the minimal border patrol was sane and appropriate.) We saw quite a lot of down before wandering into heavy showers—in freezing and unprotected conditions, a 'bit' of rain is like a 'few' bricks. Cocooned in a heavy wool jumper, propitiously purchased immediately after we got out of the cable car, I tightened grips on my hat and umbrella and headed back with the majority of the party who'd decided that making it to the next peak was irrelevant in those mists.
The rest of the day fizzled out quite propitiously. We got back down into Zakopane and tried to decide on a film to watch. We ended up at the wrong cinema, we went to McDonalds for food—this didn't go down at all well with a lot of people; nor did the executive decision to order everyone Big Macs. I began to wonder if the reason Eva stayed so thin was because she didn't eat, being as she's a vegetarian and a large number of our fixed meals were based on big chunks of meat. Rob ended up with four Big Macs after donations by healthier eaters, and several other people wound up with more than one. Various alternatives were then suggested we could do with the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, we were holding this discussion whilst sitting on steps directly in front of the main McDonalds entrance and the result was chaos. Steve and Zofia sensibly buggered off as soon as possible. Chris, Jane, Alexis and some others were going to try to get transport up to the toboggan run; some people went off to find a café; some of us were going to find out showing times for Terminator 3. I decided against this after clarifying that we couldn't get a showing for at least an hour, we were paying for our own tickets (this hadn't been the case when the idea was suggested—we were going to find a couple of films which everyone could watch), and we'd need to get taxis back afterwards. Frankly, this was more arsing about and disorganisation than I could be bothered with—what wasn't up in the air was that the coach was leaving at a certain time, so I went and sat by it for a couple of hours in the warm summer air. It was very relaxing and the first time I'd had to myself in quite a while. From the reports I heard of T3 later, this decision was exonerated.
So far so good as could have been expected, really. The next day was, regrettably, almost complete shit to its end. One of the things which made Bogdan III such a complete tosser was that he lacked the patience to wait for the party to regroup before moving on, and this attitude had begun to take hold in his precursor, Bogdan II, who was confusing decisive leadership with shouting 'Oi!' a lot and walking in the opposite direction. To tell the truth I was beginning to feel quite guilty that we'd recycled the original Bogdan's name and applied it to these two, because he'd been quite charming in his own way, even if he did snore rather loudly and keep other people in the dorm up.
We made it up the hill to Lake Morskie Oko very early in horse-drawn carts to be greeted with the most beautiful natural surroundings honestly I think I've seen. A few photos having been taken, we started off on a circuit around the lake. On the other side, we paused. Did we want to walk up to the second lake? It would take about half-an-hour each way, sensible footwear recommended. Z, having actually been to the second lake before, suggested those who wanted to go up do so, the others having said they were perfectly happy to wait or carry on around. No, says Bogdan, we can't split the party. I'd like you to bear in mind that this was the same hypocrite who had abandoned half of the group on top of a mountain only the day before. You can also bear in mind that we weren't scheduled to leave for a good while at this point—in fact, a time was asked for and specified. When Bogdan turned back around to find that Z and S had disappeared he started ranting about helicopters and rescue fees in even more woolly English, in spite of the fact the path they'd taken was a tourist trail with literally dozens of people streaming up and down it. I don't know what it is—you give some people a tiny bit of responsibility, and all of a sudden they start envisioning an ein völk, ein Reich deal and using phrases such as 'No discussion' with extreme abruptness.
So, walking around the lake might have been a worthwhile exercise had we stopped every so often to take photos or gone at a pace such that we didn't have to devote all our attention to rocks underfoot. Not long after completing the circuit it became apparent that our management committee wanted to leave sooner than they'd said earlier. Simmering a little, I counted how many days remained and stood trying to admire the view until Z & S returned in decent time, it having taken less long than suggested to get over the ridge and back. Bogdan was still being a hissy old maid and trying to justify his fabrication that the path—used by a couple of hundred people in the time I'd been watching through binoculars—was somehow dangerous and likely to necessitate the involvement of national rescue services. I hope next year's lot don't have to suffer the trials of a tour guide who abandons them in a storm on the border of Slovakia, can't understand or answer half of their questions and who makes up stuff as part of some private ego trip. I really do. :|
He wasn't quite done with us. We got diverted to an early C20th wooden chapel designed by Stanislaw Witkiewicz and shown Catholic icons and imagery painted onto glass slates, which were ostensibly done by his wife and mother. Or, as Rob put it afterwards: "So then he starts waving and pointing at one of a bearded man in a concentration camp: 'Zis picture is my wife!' ... why's Elaine giving me that look again?"
The day picked up for a while with an unscheduled trip back into Zakopane, which took us up a smaller cable car and down a miniature toboggan run-the others hadn't made it there on Friday, and everyone was quite up for it. It turned out not to be as big as the size of the hill suggested, but there were ice cream stalls and a decent view of the valley and the mountain range opposite. Again, we were told the wrong time to meet up. Luckily, we were all sitting in the big café, but the Miltonic lack of organisation or communication was really getting aggrieving.
The Highlander's Inn was our last stop before the marathon coach journey to Warsaw. It would have been nice... ooh, if we'd been told that we weren't going to eat for a couple of hours. We could have gone and got pizza and come back. It would have been nice if we weren't sitting next to a loud folk band. It would have been nice if the place had been big enough for the entire group to be able to sit together. It would have been nice if a conversation I was having hadn't been rudely interrupted, if I hadn't been re-seated adjacent to the staff who spoke the least English and if the whole place-including that damn band-had exploded In a big ball of fire. If that seems a little extreme... basically, treat me like a fifteen year old and I'll act like one; it's something I've noticed a lot of teachers doing on inset days when they're condescended to. Anyway, I tried having a conversation with Scoutmaster, managed to translate the fact that I only tend to drink wine at funerals with Zofia's help (which I think made it over as "I drink wine when people die"…) and the conversation rather fizzled out. A few people who weren't sitting quite so close to the band got into the dancing which was going on; as Alexis said several times during the month, coming to Poland and dancing lots of ceilidh was the last thing she'd expected. Pete kindly crashed me a cigarette and I discovered firsthand why the Polish brands only cost 40p. Lights are a bit of a false promise; almost all of the health risk and virtually none of the taste... if you're going to kill yourself slowly then you might as well savour the feeling, runs my logic.
Having exhausted the range of doodled communication possible with the bagpipes adjacent to us, we were eventually served a selection of dead animal flesh on a platter—melt-in-the-mouth delicious, no sarcasm—I slugged back my first and only vodka of the evening and three of us left to find waffles and more nicotine. Mmm, waffles. I feel I also ought to point out that I don't think cigarettes are ever a good idea, but I was reconsidering my will to live at the time and it proved very calming. Make sure that, if you do, give it up by twenty-five. Your lungs will thank you.
In light of earlier events, it should come as absolutely no surprise that when we got back to the Inn—ahead of the leaving window specified—the coach was starting to pull out. Thusly, another big 'thank you' to June who, I found out later, had to remind our happily drunk team leaders we were coming back. Sigh. If we hadn't felt like trusting much of the itinerary before then, we certainly didn't for the rest of the trip. Fortunately, most people were cheerful and pissed and, by then, I'd burnt out on having a response to the situation. There's a perverse but reassuring sense of harmony when things start careering downhill and you just shrug, accept and get on with it.
About eight hours later that morning, we set off for Warsaw. This took almost the day, but fortunately other people had brought more books and we were also kept amused by the passing around of leavers' books, which had started early. After the previous night's carousing, most people weren't up to much, Daniel especially. Reassuringly, the green bile he was emitting didn't appear to contain blood, so I didn't rate the likelihood of internal damage as being too high... Pete (the one in Bristol) will back me up on this, recalling some events and people during our first year at uni. We stopped at a café which completely screwed up half of our orders and added about an hour to the journey, but that was accepted as pretty much inevitable. I started writing a dissection of elitist salvation in religion that I'll get around to finishing and posting sometime—I think Rob might quite appreciate.
In Warsaw we went to the hotel, which was closed. We could have picked up Fergal (Claire's SO, who had come across to Poland to meet her) but communication at camp had ensured that Halinka and 'Sean' hadn't been told about this, even though he'd been able to arrange the accommodation through it. Daniel, very stupidly, had been dragged along to Pizza Hut with the rest of us. Which escape completed, a group of us sat around in the hotel lobby late into the evening, talking and laying out our grievances about the trip thus far. I'm sure Fergal wondered what he'd stepped into.
Monday we got taken on a tour of the reconstructed palace of Warsaw. Though not the ruling palace for most of Poland's turbulent history, it's of significance because of the many fabulous rescued and restored historical treasures salvaged in the time before Hitler carpet-bombed it. Our guide—thankfully—was fluent, charming and interested in her history. Other than the palace, there isn't really anything in Warsaw, so I took some photos of the better graffiti instead. Lunch was in the jazz bistro we were recommended, which was a little heavily priced, but everyone managed to find something on the menu or chip in a bit extra for what was some really, really gorgeous food. We went back to the same place later that evening and I had pasta both times—something with a lot of olive oil the first, and with flavoursome tiny yellow mushrooms the second. This managed to trump what was previously the best food I'd had in Poland, which was the goulash & garlic bread Marius recommended when we went out with the kids during the second week of camp. Yummy.
Later, we went off into Warsaw to do a bit of shopping. Some of our group were lucky enough to chat to one of the most nationally popular voice-actors, who was doing a poster signing in the mall. S, Z and myself walked around for a while, picked up a few things and demolished a tub of ice cream in front of the Palace of Culture we were to visit afterwards. It's an interesting building... colossally tall but nondescript, built I think under communist rule. Now it contains a celebration of popular culture, with rotating exhibits—music at the time we went. After eating in the trendy restaurant again, most of us picked up some alcohol and went back to the hotel to hold illicit gatherings. I'll not write any more of that for fear of causing embarrassment to various people. I'll just give you photos, if you ask. ;)
And that was that. Apart from a marathon 24hr journey back through Germany and other parts of Europe, we'd made it, alive and pretty much unscathed. I'd like to thank everyone—and I mean everyone, however much time I spent around them—for making this whole experience so memorable. It sounds like a cheap line, and it's clichéd as hell. It doesn't make it any less true.
Photos, selected from a combined stock of several hundred and undoubtedly offending lots of people by inadvertently missing out things they felt were unmissable are here. There are a bunch more of camp at the official website, which can be found here.
Get in touch if you want me to burn you a CD copy of the photos collected so far. :)