The Year of Living Differently #11: The Rainy Horror Picture Show – Warsaw, Poland

10: The Rainy Horror Picture Show

WARSAW, POLAND – 7 August, 2002
I did not sleep well because I kept imagining the border guards would come banging on the train compartment door any moment. But the first knocks came only at 5am, more than 12 hours after we left Moscow. Yeah, one needed to think BIG in Russia.

Hot-looking redhead had helped me earlier with her ‘little’ English to fill up the customs declaration form, which was naturally entirely printed in Russian. So, through her help, I accurately ticked ‘NYET’ in the section which asked if I was in possession of firearms, drugs, antiques, bombs, ballet tutus… I should not have any problem leaving Russia.

The Belarussian border guards, however, took a long time to try and match my gorgeous photograph against my 5am face. He even gestured at me to tuck my 5am hair behind my ears for easier comparison. He gave up and handed my passport over to his colleague. This one, hopefully with a less stringent eye, eyeballed me for a long time, eyes flickering up-down-up-down. They must be thinking, “Darn, all these Asians look alike!! Is this Jackie Chan??” I decided to put on my dazzling smile much like what I did in the photo. That did the trick and my passport was handed back.

The Polish border guard had to radio back to check whether I needed a visa to enter Poland. Again, I was eyed with suspicion. After interrogating me and establishing that I only wanted to visit Warsaw and Krakow, in other words, I was not going to stay more than 30 days… I was released. Phew.

After Russia, Warsaw looked modern, civilised, efficient and smart. The streets looked clean, the trams looked new, the atmosphere felt friendlier. And then I went and sprained my ankle on one of those cobble-stoned streets. Great.

I arranged to meet a friend whom I met over the internet, Kasia. Surprisingly, she could sneak out of the office during the day and met up with me to show me a wee bit of Warsaw. Apparently, she said it had been raining for days before and today, I had brought sunshine. Oh, how lucky.

We wandered down to the Old Square of Warsaw. I was very impressed with the square, actually. It had a wonderful atmosphere and looked really pretty. I always loved little lanes and alleyways, twisting and turning. I guess my impression of places was always better when the sun was shining and the day was beautiful. But still, to think the entire city of Warsaw was bombed to the ground during WWII and all these ‘old’ buildings were reconstructed based on paintings by an artist because the original floor-plans were all destroyed (naturally, Kasia filled me in on this), the whole town square looked pretty charming and authentic.

Throughout this spin, I kept my eyes occasionally on the chests of the Polish women and realised the Nipple-mania I had observed in Russia was apparently non-existent here. So, what I had thought was a European phenomenon was actually just a Russian one. Well, you couldn’t say I was NOT being observant of the cultural differences between countries.

We skipped south to Lazienki Gardens. Well, I hobbled because my ankle had swollen to the size of a pregnant ankle. There was a breath-taking photo exhibition going on called EARTH FROM ABOVE by aerial photographer Yann-Arthus Bertrand. The unbelievably stunning photos taken from around the world were lined around the entire park. The photographer had published a book recently. Please visit www.yannarthusbertrand.com to see what I mean. They were spectacular.

WARSAW to KRAKOW, POLAND – 8 August, 2002
Left for Krakow with a room-mate, Doris from London. Once again, like Warsaw, there was a stupid hostel rule where one could not check-in when the hostel was ‘closed from 10am – 5pm’. We had to coax the receptionist to get out of her room, give us the luggage-room key so that we could store our backpacks in there. I bet she got rustled into action during the entire 10am – 5pm period as travellers came streaming in at all hours. So, one wondered why not just let us check-in during this period.

Krakow was even more charming and prettier than Warsaw. It was raining just slightly. Krakow had never been destroyed so most building and streets were the original ones. The Old Town was set in the middle, encircled by a park. The square was busy and, if one could believe the guidebook I borrowed from Doris, this square was the second-largest pigeon rearing farm after San Marco’s Square in Venice. Yes, they were everywhere and I kept wondering when I would step on one of them and crush their tiny bones under my boot, or send one tumbling with my kick (preferably from the foot without the swollen ankle). Hmmm…. actually, we were at risk as well. I should watch out for when to duck when they flew blindly towards me and pray they did not confuse me with the statue in the middle of the square where their favourite toilet was.

There was also Pope John Paul II mania going on here. He would be returning to his home town next week for a visit and everybody was looking forward to it. Well, many feared this might be his last chance to visit Krakow. There were posters, books about the Pope on sale everywhere. Penguin-like nuns, some wearing the stiff cardboard head-gear thing, had descended on Krakow as well to await his visit.

Stumbled upon a cinema screening ‘Gosford Park’. I had wanted to watch this. I had not seen a movie since the Mongollywood experience in Ulaan Baator. Sure, that left me panting for more. I bought the ticket for 8:30pm tonight. Then, I remembered the stupid hostel had a curfew at 11pm. I couldn’t get used to these rules. I was not a party animal so I did not need to be out at night most of the time, but still, this was an annoyance.

Thankfully, I caught the last tram just when it was about to leave but I had risked my life dashing across the road to catch it. And I just slipped in before the clock struck 11pm.

AUSCHWITZ, POLAND – 9 August, 2002
Doris and I went to the Auschwitz Museum today because it was her birthday tomorrow and she did not fancy visiting Auschwitz on her birthday. This was one of the group of concentration camps set up during WWII.

We were just in time to watch the introductory movie and then, we went on the organised tour. As befitting the solemn mood, it started to drizzle. I would certainly recommend going on a tour here. The images and exhibits you saw in the rooms of this ex-concentration camp left deeper impressions on you with explanations from the excellent tour-guide. Her for-you-to-ponder pauses, her grim descriptions, her drawing your attention to the details of the exhibits, left us thoughtful, sad and horrified.

I could not begin to explain this… but, one wonders about the extremely thin line between humans and monsters. Why? How? What went through their minds? How could they become like that? No answers, then or now. But the worst were the victims condemned to the camps. How they suffered.

The lump of spectacles were not just a lump of twisted metal and broken glass. Each had belonged to an individual. The mountain of hair was not just a mountain of lopped-off curls. Each lock was shorn from a lady. The wall of suitcases was not just bags and luggage stacked up one on top of another. Each had belonged to a person, old or young, who had written his or her name, date of birth and address, meaning to retrieve it.

While the images and stories were horrific, visiting Auschwitz was essential to me. One could attribute the practices of ‘those Aztec barbarians’, for example, who sacrificed thousands of people to their Gods, pierced into their chests to yank out their pumping hearts, etc… to ‘myths’ and ‘ancient practices’. Whatever. But the Holocaust had occurred in the 20th century. One could not turn a blind eye to it.

WIELICZKA, POLAND – 10 August, 2002
On a more cheerful note, in view of Doris’ birthday, we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Judging from the patient queue standing in the rain, it must also be a very popular spot among the locals.

Descending 200+ steps down to 90+ metres below brought us to tunnels and chambers. There were sculptures, usually about the history, practices, even legends of salt-mining, carved out of salt. The salt was 90% pure, mixed with gravel and sand, giving it a greenish tinge. One section even had gnomes!

The timber used to construct the shafts, stairs and tunnel-supports, were dated from 300+ years ago. The salt in the air had preserved the wood. Ironically, some of the salt sculptures were ‘eroded’ away either by itchy fingers from tourists or moisture from the air. We were allowed to touch the ceiling of a tunnel which had ‘cauliflower’ salt and taste it. Here, it was 100% salt.

The most impressive sight was the huge chamber-church which looked as big as a regular church. In fact, weddings could be held here. Everything was carved from salt. The chandeliers dangled 100% salt crystals. There was even a ‘The Last Supper’ 3-dimensional ‘painting’. It was only 10 cm thick but looked like the table was set in front of a deep room. A Pope John Paul II statue was there as well. I hope this time, he would have the chance to see it. This was apparently constructed for him before his last visit to Krakow but in the end, he had to cancel the trip, much to everyone’s disappointment.

KRAKOW to ZAKOPANE, POLAND – 11 August, 2002
Doris and I journeyed south to Zakopane, a moutain resort near the Tatra Mountains. We stayed in a charming hotel with wooden floor-boards and ceilings. Finally, we could pop in and out of our room any time we liked.

The main thoroughfare had been pedestrianised and was filled with touristy stuff. Another very obvious thing was the large number of ice-cream and waffle stalls. The Polish loved sweets. Even in Warsaw and Krakow, there seemed to be a sign for ‘LODY’ (ice-cream in Polish) at every other street. And this was not just any ice-cream. They were Poland’s own brands. I had the most phenomenal ice-cream here in Poland ever in my life. The Polish were so lucky! I am very sorry I had forgotten the name of the most delicious, heavenly brand but it was sold from ice-boxes with green letterings, starting with ‘Z’. Anyway, you would not miss it if you came to Poland. It was the best, the creamiest I had ever tasted. Despite my miserly ways, I willingly forked out money for lodys. My best memories of Poland were ice-cream-related.

LAKE MORSIE OKO, POLAND – 12 August, 2002

It was drizzling when we woke up. The weather had been rainy on and off these few days. Doris and I still wanted to go for a walk in the mountains and we prayed for good weather later. We took a bus to the Tatra Mountains region near the Slovakian border. There was a trek, we read, 9km long, that would take us to Lake Morsie Oko in the mountains.

It was not quite a trek in the mountains. It was a well-paved road meandering along the mountains and climbing gently to the lake. Kids and old people could do this trek without problems.

Misguided about how to treat a sprained ankle, I figured I should walk more in order to keep it flexible and get the blood circulating. The surrounding area was alpine and occasionally when the cloud broke, we could see the distant mountain peaks. It was a lovely walk, although it was not quite what I had expected.

However, by the time we reached the lake, the heavy clouds closed in and rain pelted down on us. Many people hurried into the restaurant by the lake. What a shame. Instead of enjoying walks around the lake, everyone was cooped up in there. I refused to let this happen and when the sky seemed to clear a wee bit, I told Doris I wanted to circle the lake. She, however, preferred to stay in the stuffy restaurant.

It rained harder and harder as I walked around the lake. I didn’t care after a while. The scenery was mystical and serene. I walked right to the bottom of two waterfalls. My sprained ankle hurt every time I landed on it, but I still had a wonderful time.

The restaurant was packed to the max when I returned. More people had arrived at the lake and with no other shelter from the rain, everyone crammed in there. It was a miracle I even found Doris. But the trek back was tortuous. The rain was relentless and my ankle was complaining. I am a flat-footer and after walking long distances, I tend to suffer desperately. Those darn arches… or rather, lack of arches. Somehow, although we took a shorter time to return, it felt much longer. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I chanted in my mind. I figured I had walked a little less than 20km today, there better be no more cellulite left on my thighs. We were thoroughly soaked and miserable when we arrived at the bus-stop. Everything was wet! Argh!!

That evening, I had a laugh while watching TV. Movies screened in Poland were left in their original languages, with Polish subtitles added. But TV series had their original language tuned to a lower volume and a guy… the most dead-panned, expressionless guy whose day job was probably doing make-up for the dearly-departed at the morgue, would do voice-overs for every single character in the programme – male or female, young or old. He actually just READ the script. No feelings, no exclamations, no surprises, nothing! Imagine when he did a love scene… It would sound like two humourless men making out. Eeeww!

ZAKOPANE to KRAKOW, POLAND – 13 August, 2002

I am sorry to report this was yet another miserably wet day. I returned to Krakow and it rained for the rest of the day. I had no place to go during the 10am – 5pm lock-out period. I told you it was a stupid rule. So, I sat at the train station with homeless drunks milling around me, and wrote postcards.

Poland uses Latin alphabets. It was a nice change after the Cyrillic alphabets I had to mind-map while in Russia. Although I missed the good feeling I got when I could pronounce the Cyrillic Russian words, I was mighty pleased to be able to attempt to pronounce signs and stuff at a glance now in Poland. Yet, my mind was still working overtime in this area.

I had known about the Polish alphabet which was an ‘L’ with a slanted line across. Then, one day, I saw another new character and thought to myself, “Oh, they have another new ‘l’ that was similar to the ‘l’ with the slanted line. This one had a straight line across. OK.”

Stupid me. Took me 24 hours to realise a small ‘l’ with a straight line across was good old ‘t’! Dumb and dumber.

KRAKOW, POLAND to VIENNA, AUSTRIA – 14 August, 2002
I had read from a guidebook that the Wawel Castle was free on a Wednesday. Well, it was not. With not enough zloty and unwilling to withdraw more, I simply walked around the castle grounds. The weather was as atrocious as yesterday and the day before.

I was taking the night train tonight to Vienna. Once again, I had nowhere to hide from the rain except at the train station and then, a quick dash to the Cloth Hall at the main square which had some seats. I spent the entire day, reading, updating my journal and freezing my butt off.

After dinner, I allowed myself a final ice-cream treat. But, of course. And with 2.94zl left, I decided to head to the grocery shop and buy the item that was priced at exactly 2.94zl. It would be fate, I told myself. I hunted high and low, and did not find fate. I decided to buy a few items that added up to 2.94zl or thereabouts. I must have looked really suspicious. I picked up a few items, did mental sums, walked around, returned them to the shelves, hesitated at the corner, couldn’t decide what to buy, picked up other items, stopped by the cash register, decided not to buy these, went back to the shelves, etc… I did notice a staff member eyeing at me keenly. She was waiting for the chance to catch me red-handed at shop-lifting, I bet. Well, I had money… 2.94zl of it.

VIENNA to ENNS, AUSTRIA – 15 August, 2002
I was too miserly to buy a sleeper ticket and had just paid for a seat for the night train to Vienna last night. After the wonderful and, now I realised, wonderfully cheap sleeper trains in China and Russia, sleeping eight or so hours curled up on two seats was not nice, although I admitted that I was lucky I had two seats to curl up on.

I arrived in Vienna, not in the best of moods. I made my way to Enns, a small town and waited for Alex. I had travelled with Alex for the first 10 days of my trip, around Dali and Lijiang in China. He had mentioned that I should go visit him in Austria, since I was heading to Europe. So, I took him up on his offer.

It was great to meet him again! Alex quickly updated me on the latest news. Unbeknownst to me, the rain that I had been whining and whinging about in Poland, had apparently caused floods in the Czech Republic, Eastern Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, etc… In fact, I had most likely just missed the floods in Enns by a day or so. I was totally clueless about this when in Poland. That was the problem when you chose to study Trigonometry instead of Polish in school.

I interrogated him for more details. States of emergency had been declared in some towns in Eastern Germany and Western Czech. He said it was amazing that I could even cross the border to Czech and onwards to Austria this morning. He thought I would be stuck in Czech. I had fixed this date to meet Alex. But before I went to Zakopane, I was deciding if I ought to go to Prague instead. Just before I reserved the ticket, I was still thinking – Prague or Zakopane? So, in a way, I was lucky I went to Zakopane. I heard Prague was thoroughly flooded now.

More news about the floods in Austria. He told me the roads to Salzburg and Czech were closed for a couple of days. Everyone knew someone whose house was flooded. Some up to 10cm below the ceiling! 40,000 new cars that just arrived at a factory now needed to be written off the accounts, it seemed. It was just today that the flood appeared to have receded.

Enns was a small town, with nothing going on. Today was a public holiday in Austria. That meant dead towns everywhere anyway. Alex brought me up to the clock tower and showed me bits of his town – the Danube river, the Enns river, where they met, a church, where he went through his horrible army experience, another church, a concentration camp, etc… What I remembered more was, of course, the lovely home-cooked meal courtesy of Alex’s mom. Schnitzel and salad! Boy, I had been so looking forward to this since… yeah, Russia! Lovely, warm, nutritious food.

We drove out to Linz, the major town nearby, and checked out the river level. The river was flowing strongly near the top of the banks, threatening to flood over anytime. But he believed the worst was over for Austria. But not for the Czech Republic and Germany.

We then headed out to a spot near a dam where he usually went swimming in the Enns river. We walked across the dam and to his horror, the pavement leading to where he went for his swims was totally carved away by the floods. We could see fragments of the tarred road jutting out way across in the river, near the opposite bank. How did they get there? The force needed to gouge out the paved road and then fling them across to the opposite bank and lodge there in the river must had been immense! He was almost in tears. His beloved tiny little spot! The trees used to line about 1.5 metres from the bank. But now, they were all uprooted and cleared, leaving a 5 metre or so gap between the bank and the remaining trees.

Alex’s mom was obsessed about the floods and kept switching channels to the news, reporting about the floods. It looked really bad.

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA – 16 August, 2002
Amazingly, it was sunny and blue today. I had not seen this sort of weather for many days now. The road to Salzburg was clear, Alex learnt from the internet. We could head to Salzburg today.

I had loved the movie The Sound of Music and must have watched it 10 times or so. It would be nice to visit the town where it was filmed. Not that I could remember the scenes. I was not that obsessed. But I found it strange that Alex had never seen this movie before.

Salzburg looked really grand just as we approached it. There was a huge mountain in the middle of the town, seemingly getting in the way of everything. But the authorities had converted the mountain into a city car-park. How ingenious! We expected to see many Mozart imposters but spotted only one. The rest must had taken time off in view of the floods.

This would be the most touristy town in Austria, I figured. Everywhere were souvenir stalls and tourists checking out souvenirs. One read: ‘THERE ARE NO KANGAROOS IN AUSTRIA’. Well, we could guess which nationality of tourists that was written for.

I was told that all shops along the streets in the main square had to have their decorations in line with the town council’s requirements to keep the authentic style and maintain the charm. Lovely, intricate, Baroque-style (I may be wrong about the style here but it looked Baroque to me) wrought-iron sign-boards stuck out from the shop-fronts. It was picture-perfect everywhere. And I had not even started on the mountain scenery around.

Up at the castle on the hill, Alex pointed out “All this lovely mountain area is Austria. Beautiful, huh? The flat boring bit over there is Germany.”

More news about the flood catastrophe on the news channel. Cars were swept away, entire towns went under, chemical leak from factories, etc… Gosh.

WINDISCHGARSTEN, AUSTRIA – 17 August, 2002
We decided to head out for a drive around the mountains today. No particular destination in mind. I was not really keen on visiting the famous sights in Europe. I had come to Europe to drop by and visit the friends I had here. It would be nice to see where they lived, how it was like in a regular town. It was also chilling-out time for me before I embarked on my trip to South America.

The road, at first, was curvy and it cut through undulating farm-lands and meadows. There was nothing much to see out there, and yet everything looked beautiful. Soon, rolling hills graduated to alpine heights. Houses and cattle lined the valley, with the Alps to the left and right of us. It was very peaceful and scenic. The air was crystal clear. Of the five years most likely shaven off from my lifetime for inhaling copious amount of second-hand smoke in China, I probably got back about half a year or so just by breathing in Austrian air.

We turned up a mountain road and stopped by a lovely little restaurant. It had started to rain, unfortunately. The fog covered up the mountains around us and clouds slowly moved in.

The variety of dairy products here in Austria was mind-boggling. Alex had looked up his Deutsch-Englisch dictionary to try and describe ‘Topfen’ to me. It was curd cheese or cream cheese. Whatever. That meant absolutely nothing to me. The only cheese my mom bothered to buy from the supermarket came sliced and individually wrapped. He also ordered buttermilk. Sourish and not bad. But the name put me off.

We stopped by Windischgarten on the way back. This was a beautiful, quiet little town with gorgeous houses, complete with tiny, colourful flowers sticking out of most windows, lining the winding alleys. The buildings were all from 1700 / 1800 or so, lovingly restored, with descriptions on what they were used for since they were built – Tailor, Bakery, Shop, etc… Charming.

Another traditional culture of Austria to sample: the confectionary-cafe culture. There were all these opulently decorated cakes staring at you from the counter. One would order the cakes and some coffee and sit on the lovely seats and table and while away the time, like what the elderly ladies around us were doing. This was definitely NOT Starbucks.

Alex spotted in the newspaper a picture of Cesky Krumlov, an old town in Czech Republic just across the border where he frequently went with his friends. It was also hit badly by the floods, he sighed.

CESKY KRUMLOV & BUDEJOVICE, CZECH REPUBLIC – 18 August, 2002
Despite news about the floods in Cesky Krumlov, we were curious to head out there to survey the flooded regions.

“OK, if we leave at 9am, we could get there by 12 noon or so, in time for lunch.” I had said last night, when planning when to head out to Czech Republic.

“Three hours?!?! Where do you think we are going? Italy? It’s just one hour to the border.” This was Alex’s way of telling me he refused to wake up early.

Oh, ok. Austria is small. Unlike Russia. I needed to think SMALL now.

We parked our car somewhere and walked towards the gate that led to the city centre. There was a soldier stationed there with a barrier across to block people from entering. Apparently, only residents of Cesky Krumlov could go in. We muttered something to him in German and walked in. He didn’t even bother to challenge us.

The road just around the bridge was gone. The bitumen was twisted and broken into pieces, revealing the rocks underneath. At the bridge, I saw the sheer force of the water crashing along. It was frightening. The water level was below the banks now. But one could make out the wet lines on the side of the buildings and it was really high!

All the shops were closed, of course. Residents were tossing out boxes, cardboards, cupboards. Yeah, I tried to imagine if my home was flooded all the way up to three-quarters of the height of the room. EVERYTHING would be destroyed. The people all looked harassed and solemn. The smell of cleaning detergent was in the air. Many were wiping down furniture and cookers and cleaning the floor. We dared not look into the cellars.

The town was gorgeous. But the air hanging around it now was quiet and sad. Then, a group of Taiwanese tourists arrived and snapped pictures of the fortress, etc…

On the way back to Austria after a late lunch, we drove on windy roads with the forest on either side. The ladies with bad eye make-up, messed-up hair and tight skimpy dresses you saw standing along the side of the road were NOT hitch-hikers looking for a ride. Well, they WERE looking for a ride, in a sense… if you know what I mean, at a price. Gosh, they looked terrible. Alex wanted to stop by the side and once she came running, to speed off again. We spotted a couple in the woods. Further on, a car was parked by the side. We zoomed by too fast to see if the car was rocking. It had an ‘A’ Euro plate. ‘A’ for ‘Austria’, I had been trained so far by Alex on how to recognise where the cars were registered to.

“Hmmm…. Why ‘A’ for Austria? And not ‘O’ for ‘Osterreich”, I asked.
“Because we spell it out in English that way,” he replied promptly.
“Yeah? Then, explain ‘D’ for Deutschland and ‘E’ for Espana.”
Silence…
“Sh*t!! WHY???” he barked now.

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