Driving through Poland is beautiful. It’s my favorite kind of countryside: bright green rolling hills, clusters of tall trees whose leaves gush in the wind, a little stream every and now and then, and flowers everywhere. At every stop we made, usually to buy chocolate or coffee, I breathed in deeply the smell of fresh cut grass, sometimes catching the whiff of a nearby vegetable garden. The Polish men all seem to have buzz cuts and sapphire blue eyes, and the women giggle shyly as they try out their English on us.
Rob’s quest for iced coffee while driving through eastern Europe has been amusing. It’s not common here. So far the countries we’ve been to call ice cream simply ‘ice’, or ‘eis’. (What they call their ice cubes, I don’t know.) The first time Rob asked for an iced coffee, he was handed an ice cream coffee float. At a gas station in Poland, he reduced himself to entering McDonalds’ McCafe and desperately tried to order an iced coffee there. Surely such an American establishment would understand what he was talking about. But the girl behind the counter thought he was asking for the Frappe, a blended coffee slushy. Even with the help of his iPhone language translator, none of the workers could fathom why this crazy boy was asking for plain coffee poured over a cup of ice. Finally he just learned to order a regular cup of Joe with a side cup of ice cubes and make it himself.
Just outside Prague is a mall, and maybe you’ll give us crap for visiting a regular shopping mall while on vacation when I could see the same thing at home, but remember, it had been raining almost nonstop since our arrival in Frankfurt. Eastern Europe is flooded right now. My point is that we were bored and in desperate need of a movie fix! And “Prince of Persia” was playing! Unlike Germany, where American films are dubbed over in German, the Czech Republic plays English-speaking movies in English, with Czech subtitles, as I think it should be. When I see a foreign film back home, I don’t expect it to be dubbed over in English; I expect to read the subtitles. This theater near Prague was really large and modern, comparable to the Arclight in Hollywood. It only cost us $5 each! “Prince of Persia” was a lot fun, the perfect way to cap off a rainy day of driving. Rob and I had both auditioned for the lead roles back in LA, and it’s always peculiar to see the movie you read the script of a long time ago, to see what costumes you would have worn if you had booked the role you auditioned for, and what locations you would have shot at.
If the German people are dorky, the Czech people are vain! I’d heard that eastern European women liked to wear skanky clothes and lots of make up, and it’s true. Mini skirts and tall boots abounded, eyeshadow up to here, dazzling high heels, giving the overall impression of being very put together. I don’t think their style is necessarily skanky, it’s just very tight. And short. I guess that may qualify as skanky. As for the men, I saw a lot of leather pants that I have to say were pulled off very well.
Since Rob has been doing most of the driving (and I do offer, but only once has he taken me up on it), I’ve been reading out loud to him from a book he randomly picked up in Frankfurt. It’s called “The Secret History of the World”, and it’s extremely intriguing to both of us. The author, Mark Booth, is educating us on the history of Mystery schools, secret societies, and esoteric philosophy. As the documentary “Zeitgeist” explores, which I am a huge fan of, this book explains how all religions stem from astrology and ancient mysticism. Iconography and Greek, Roman, and Egyptian legends are decoded and tied into modern science. It’s quite fascinating, if you’re into that kind of thing, but can get a little confusing and requires a wide open mind. Reading aloud makes this sort of book tricky, since I have scant knowledge on how to pronounce the names in Greek mythology. Much less do I know how to say the names of the Egyptian characters in their legends. I gave up on pronouncing things correctly and instead just place the accent where I see fit. Sorry, Plato.
Now onto Auschwitz… I’ve seen many Holocaust movies, and I recently watched a documentary on the development of Auschwitz, so part of me felt as if I’d been there already, or that I was visiting a movie set. Yet sadly as we all know, this was no set. When we arrived, I expected there to be a heavy sadness hanging over the place for obvious reasons. Instead, I was initially surprised at how beautiful it was, especially Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz is made up of two camps about two kilometers away from each other. The first, simply called Auschwitz, was where the Nazis had figured out how quickly Zyclon-B could exterminate mass amounts of people. Then they made Auschwitz-Birkenau with this being at the forefront of the minds, the train station layout designed to send everyone directly to the gas chambers after a handful had been selected for labor and medical experiments. The medical experiments are mind-boggling, especially the ones they performed on pregnant women that I hadn’t heard of before. After probing, cutting, and running all kinds of tests on both mother and fetus while the fetus was still in the womb, abortions were performed, followed by the sterilization of the woman. The doctors wanted some babies to come to full term, though, and so allowed pregnant mothers further into their last trimester to give birth, so the doctors could then experiment on infants until they died. If you want to read more specifics about the experiments, google them, for I don’t feel like recapping them in detail here.
The more I wandered in and out of various buildings, the more deeply the heavy sadness I’d expected kicked in, until I felt like I was going to throw up as I read plaque after plaque describing the rooms and what they were used for. Being underground felt the worst to me. Whether I was under the grassy knoll where thousands had been gassed to death, or in the basement of a building used as a prison/torture/interrogation center, being underground made me feel physically ill. It smelled like the sour leftovers of vomit, and I’m sure the blankets that were displayed behind glass were the originals, which I rather doubt were ever washed and so were probably contributing to the sickly smell.
At Birkenau you can see how the Germans tried to destroy the gas chambers and other incriminating evidence. I’m amazed they thought they could hide it, but suppose I shouldn’t be, given every other maniacal thing they’d done.
After Auschwitz, Rob and I just wanted to get out of Poland. I’m sure Krakow is nice, and the other parts of the countryside we didn’t get to see, but Rob was eager to get on our way to Croatia and I was excited for our stop in Vienna en route. I’d read in Saveur magazine of a bakery there called Demel, that promised the world’s best Russian Punch Cake. It was a given that I’d be trying it, since I’m in the area and all, so if Rob wanted to drive late into the night, I was happy to read to him.
Once we crossed over the Polish border and found ourselves back in the Czech Republic, I looked up from my reading for a moment and was stunned to see fireworks lighting up the sky ahead of us. The road Mazi was telling us to follow took us directly to the heart of a little town where the fireworks were coming from. We pulled over to enjoy whatever might be left of the show, which ended up being a good few minutes, and we were so close that we could see the ashes. I love fireworks. It’s one of the reasons the 4th of July is my favorite holiday, because when else do we get to sit on top of our cars or lay out on our blankets on a balmy summer evening and be dazzled by crackling sparkles and thundering explosions? Since I’ll be still be in Europe this 4th, I considered this Czech firework show a good substitute for the American one I’ll be missing. I intend to crash a party that I’m hopeful will be going on at a US Embassy, but who knows where Rob and I will be by then. Spain? Netherlands? Finland?
The fireworks were a cheery cap to an otherwise depressing day. We spent the night on the side of the road again, and pulled into Vienna the next morning. I didn’t expect much from Vienna, as no one’s ever told me I have to go there or raved about it. If all we did was visit Demel, I was fine with that. But when we pulled into the city, Rob and I were dumbstruck and immediately knew we’d be spending more than lunch there.