Sunday, October 21, 2012

Birmingham, Baby

Ahh Birmingham, England's "second city".  I just looked up the statistics, and while it is true that Birmingham is the 2nd most populated city in the UK, it's a distant second at less than one-third the size of London, and in close competition with 3rd place Manchester.

In addition to the Poland trip we just took, this month we've paid lodging for 3 upcoming trips (Nov, Dec, and Feb).  Then, United Cargo FINALLY decided to charge me for the cats flights.  I'll admit I kind of forgot about it in the midst of all the other expenses as part of the move.  Point is, we need to reign in the travel spending for our shorter day trip weekends until we get back on track.

The clear choice to save money was a trip to Birmingham, only 50 miles away with plenty to see.  I've been hanging on to all my coins to be prepared with exact change for pay-and-display parking, and I'm glad I did.  I found a carpark just outside of the Bullring mall that covered me for 6 hours for £6.50.  Not cheap by any means, in Indy that same amount (about $10) would cover you for 24 hours at the downtown mall garage.  It was however a good deal relative to the cost of parking in the Bullring garage.

OK, enough obsessing about parking.  As you might guess, I don't have a lot of material to work with this week.

The futuristic Selfridges at Bullring Shopping Center from a distance
Up close
The Selfridges in London is 2nd only to Harrods, and here in Birmingham it just dominates.  We had fun walking around the food and drink areas.  I even found an upscale beef jerky display featuring about 15 different kinds, including the African version "biltong", which is popular out here.

Don't break eye contact!
So you might wonder why the hell I'd bother to blog about a trip to the mall -  it's really not about shopping for us.  These massive shopping centers in the heart of the bigger cities are where everyone is hanging out.  It's not "just the mall" in a big field like back at home; there are numerous shops and attractions around the mall that all benefit from the concentration of shoppers.

The usual architecture juxtaposition of very old with very new
It's fun to get caught up in the crowds, and walk around and watch people.  You're bound to find street performers and artists, some folks in costume collecting donations, and some folks that look like they're in costume but not.  Not to mention plenty of cafes, pubs, and sausage stands to refuel as needed.  It's all very pedestrian friendly, and all stages of life were well represented.  One in 10 people are in a pram (stroller) or a wheelchair, and all were having a good time.

The "American food" display, probably the only place to buy Lucky Charms in a 100 mile radius.  Hilarious.

Christmas displays were in full force at the massive department store Selfridges.  Yeah its too early to really care about Christmas yet, but it was fun to see what British folks will be buying this year.   I will say that the prearraged gift boxes are much classier out here; but we were at a pretty classy department store, not WalMart.

We wandered away from the mall and crowds slowly, following pedestrian signs to the Jewelry Quarter.  I later read that 40% of all jewelry in the UK is made here.  We walked around the block and it was literally one shop after the next;  I was surprised the storefronts were not more, shall we say, inviting.  I didn't feel that the stores really cared to compete with each other for business either.  I really don't understand why so many jewelry shops need to exist in such close proximity - if they were pubs I'd understand.

Like many things here, the reason most things exist as they are is because that's how it always was, and no one really remembers before that, so why bother changing it.  That's my impression anyway, but I'd love to hear some other explanations.

A clocktower in the Jewelry Quarter

After grabbing some street food (kangaroo burgers!), the final stop was the market.  I always find myself surrounded by beautiful cuts of mammals and fish when I have no means to transport them home in a reasonable amount of time.  And then I never return "just to buy food" because I have to consider the pain of the parking situation.  These markets are designed for the locals who can walk home, and I get depressed that I can't join them.  Next time I'll walk around all day with a cooler if there's a slight chance I can fill it somewhere.   The seafood selection was more than impressive considering  our inland location; and not in bad shape for it getting later in the afternoon.

We walked past the protein and toward the produce, where end-of-the-day bargains were beginning.  We found ourselves in a very fortuitous situation; yes we couldn't spend much, but at 4:30, the produce stands wanted to close up in the next 30 minutes, and I had my extra coins meant for parking weighing heavy in my pocket.

I didn't even have to haggle (I'm terrible at this anyway), they were selling large bowls of fruit and veg at £1.50 a pop.  I tried to grab bowls of things I knew were pricier at Sainsburys, like mangoes.   I also got a load of limes, peppers, okra, and some cauliflower and cabbage to round it off.

£4.50 later

I made roasted cauliflower with a chili, lime, and garlic.  One fun thing about limes is that when you roast the rind, they get chewy and slightly sweet, in addition to sour.  They taste like sour patch kids, and go well with the heat from the chilis.

So we had a fun day on a budget.  Being a bit worn out, we stayed in Saturday night and watched a Netflix movie - the first one we've seen since we've been here!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Tragedy in Oświęcim: Afield in Krakow Part 3 of 3

Oświęcim is the Polish name of the town where the German Third Reich established the Auschwitz concentration death camps in 1940.  The site where over 1,100,000 men, women, and children were murdered over the course of five years.  While Jews were the majority, I learned that many other groups who were victims, such as gypsies (romas), Soviet pow's, and homosexuals.

It's tough to write this entry, as I typically tend to keep things lighthearted.   We felt honored to have the opportunity to visit the memorial, and thought our friends and family would appreciate reading about our experience, just two of roughly one million visitors the museum will see this year.  

On a very busy Saturday, the museum and memorial was managed with the utmost respect to the victims of the camp.  Expert tour guides in a multitude of languages spoke in low voices wearing wireless lapel microphones, as we tourists listened through wireless headsets.  I'll mention some of the facts that had a lot of impact on me, but for more information, the museum's English website is a great source.

We booked this tour in advance - a van picked us up from the hotel in the morning along with some other British tourists in nearby hotels, and we watched a video on the one hour drive to the memorial.   The documentary covered the story around footage taken by the Russian camera crew the day Auschwitz was liberated, which was used as evidence of war crimes.

Once you start the tour and step into the camp, the gravity of the history sets in and leaves you speechless.  I can say during the 3.5 hour tour, I was completely absorbed, almost in disbelief of what I was seeing.  The silly things I tend to worry about day to day completely left my mind.
Entry gate into Auschwitz I - "Work sets you free"  

Our excellent English-speaking tour guide

Two electrified fences surrounded the camp

The buildings are mostly in their original state, with the museum performing what maintenance is necessary for the visitor experience.  Some of the buildings hold exhibits to help visualize the death which took place here.

Cans of zyklon B cyanide crystals used in the gas chambers - just 5 cans would be used to kill 1500 people

The victims were stripped of all their belongings before entering the chamber.  There were many displays of their belongings.

Artificial limbs from the disabled

Cooking vessels



Pictures were not allowed of the display of human hair from women and girls who were shaved upon entering the camp.  The Nazis would make fabric and socks from the hair - a massive pile was on display from the stockpile which was left behind when the camp was liberated.

Boarded up windows in the barracks facing the  execution wall

Reconstruction of the execution wall where prisoners would be shot in the back of the head.

We then walked through the gas chamber and cremation furnace - one of five that were used between the three sites.  I found it to be one of the more difficult parts of the tour.

After a short break we headed to Auschwitz II - Birkenau, a larger camp which was set up to handle the large number of prisoners.  A large amount of Birkenau was destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated - the tried to cover evidence of war crimes.  But many of the original structures remain.

The train entry to Birkenau

Perspective of the size of the camp

A railcar which would bring in prisoners

“Forever let this place be a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis
murdered about one and a half million men,
women and children, mainly Jews,
from various countries of Europe”

Human ash pit memorial

Rows of barracks

Four to a bunk

Latrines - always overcrowded.  Most had diarrhea or dysentery.  
The drive home was somber.  Our wonderful driver must have to deal with this every time.  After she dropped off the other passengers, I started to decompress and stroke up a conversation.  Her English was good enough to let us know a great dinner spot in Krakow near our hotel, we found a very nice street where we probably walked past 30 bars in less than five minutes.   She said it was the most concentrated watering hole in the city.   

We also had some time to finally walk around Krakow and see some of the famous buildings, like Wawel castle.  However we were too late to go inside any of them.  Oh well - time to order another wodka.

So long, Krakow!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Walk Around Zakopane: Afield in Krakow Part 2 of 3

We booked the economy double in the back garden at our hotel at $50 per night including breakfast and lobby wifi - very basic with two twin beds (pushed together) and a bathroom.  The nice thing was the location at the top edge of Kazimierz, easy walking distance to everything and surrounded by restaurants, bars, and historical points of interest.

But, there was no time for sightseeing yet - we had to catch a bus to Zakopane.  When breakfast is included at a hotel, I definitely take advantage.  One new experience was spreading lard on a piece of bread instead of butter.  Needed salt.

It was too brisk to enjoy the hotel patio
Thanks to the help from the front desk, we were able to sort out the tram system - a street car bus system that runs in the middle of the road.  Fares are by the minute, you can buy 30, 60, or 90 minute journeys.  3.40 zl each to get from our hotel back to the regional bus station, and then 20 zl each to get to Zakopane, a 2 hour trip.   There are no real savings by booking any sort of bus ticket in advance; everyone would just pay the bus driver directly.    We boarded the 9 am bus - the problem was that the driver didn't speak a lick of English.  I motioned to myself and Kerry and said "Zakopane", he pointed at his screen, I pretended to understand how much I owed and handed him a wad of bills, and he gave me change.  Dziejuke.

We packed some minimal provisions - rain jackets, 1L of water, my Polish phrase guide, some dried fruit and nuts, and some jerky.  Upon arrival, we discovered that public toilets, especially in bus or train stations have a 1 to 2 zl fee to use.  I've heard this is a European thing.  I had a stack of 0.10 and 0.20 zl coins - I think it was maybe 80 cents total - the attendant didn't even attempt to count it, and let me in.  I stuffed a small stack of paper towels into my backpack, and chugged water out of the sink to make up for the cost.

The next stop was the tourist info hut.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but we had no idea what to do or where to go.  I said we'd like to walk around, and the very helpful attendant freely gave us a tourist map where she traced a route to a mountain trail head, saying it would take about 4 to 5 hours round trip.

Oh, I didn't mention - Zakopane is a mountain ski town!

On the other side of the snowcapped mountain is Slovakia
Zakopane is a very popular ski resort town, but of course not in mid October.  We did walk by the ski jumping facility - I've never seen one in person before, and it looks absolutely terrifying.

Picture does not give justice to steepness of the landing zone
We didn't get too crazy on our hike - we wanted to get back before dusk (it was already 11:30), and we had limited provisions.  We could not have asked for better weather on a fall day however - cool, crisp, and sunny.  The leaves were just getting ready to change color.  Hike montage begins now.

Lots of selfshots this trip

Our trail followed a babbling brook 
The path up to the lookout spot

Polish trail signs - I think there's a rule of having at least 10 letters in names around here.  By the time I look down at my map I've already forgotten the trail name I was looking for!

Sustenance - tasty, but I would call it ham jerky, not bacon

Standing at the precipice - I had a wave of vertigo after I took this picture and had to sit down.

Beautiful view of the town

A cabin serving soup and beer - still 30 min walk from the town here

On our way back into the city, we spotted small ski chalets (or whatever you call them here) that I thought had very cool architecture with detailed woodworking, so I started snapping photos. It turned out the style is specific to Zakopane.   Man would it be cool to come back for a ski trip!

The sport of fitness had arrived in Zakopane - Kerry by a Reebok ad (CrossFit humor)

I gotta say something about the nature of art here. The fact that I was able to see how special the Zakopane architecture appeared, and then finding out that this style is recognized to be important by people who know far more about architecture than myself, says something about how intrinsic the definition of art is to us as humans.  We should all be able to look at something and see it's value; it'sno matter of opinion.   Opinion lies in whether you enjoy the artist's style or not.  You cannot refute the fact that is indeed art.  With this argument, I say that there are quite a few exhibits in the Tate Modern in London that are in fact NOT art, and these people throwing their garbage on walls need to get over themselves.

Back to the trip - of course by now we've racked up quite an appetite.  But we were unsure how to proceed.  It's 4:30, and we have a 2 hour ride ahead of us.  So we either get something to tide us over unti we can find a restaurant in Krakow, or we just walk into the most inviting place we can find.

We opted for the latter, and after an entertaining stroll down the main street, Kerry found what we were looking for.

Meat skewers and foil-wrapped potatoes everywhere
One final tangent to bring up an important point about our dinner from the previous night.  The one restaurant close to our hotel had the menu posted outside, and I said "this is the one".  We walked by 3 more places, and decided to go back to my chosen place.  Only then did Kerry consult her iphone where she kept a list of Krakow restaurants - low and behold my pick was her first pick based on trip advisor reviews!   All this to say we are developing a mutual knack to find good restaurants. 

And did we - nonstop polka played as piles of kielbasa and saurkraut were delivered to tables.  For 58 zl, we got the sharing platter.

Epic Polski meal time
After Kerry got her fill, it was a challenge to finish this beast of a sharing platter off.  It's hard to see in the above picture, but there was a bacon steak about 1/2 inch thick that had to be dealt with, in addition to sausages of various ilks, and chunks of lamb and pork from the skewers, and not to mention the half kilo of sauerkraut and two potatoes.  Let's just say I did not eat later that night.  We worked for this meal and I have no regrets.

After the bus dropped us off, we decided to walk back to our hotel to freshen up, where I snapped a few pictures.

Krakow's fashion mall

Train station

Wyborowa wodka break in the main square, under heated lamps
Miodula honey wodka

Rynek Glowny panorama at midnight
Thus ended a very full day.  And we still had one more ahead of us...