Monday, October 29, 2012

9 years later

In my 4.5 short years of living in Europe, I've been back to the home country on three separate occasions. First time back was in 2010 for my cousin's wedding. A year and a half later I was invited to spend a sunny Christmas with my grandmother followed by a New Years in New York. Most recently though, and 8 months after my last visit, I went back for the most memorable visit of all.

My sister's wedding brought all 7 members of my family together after nearly a decade.

December 30, 2003:

August 24, 2012:

Plus the two male additions since that December day, 9 years ago:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Let's talk Polish

As in their food, not the language. Because they know where it's at. Not with desserts though. They could use vast amounts of improvement in that arena.

First there's the Polish bagel. I doubt locals even know the name of it. I know I sure don't. But who needs to with vender stands on every street corner? The daily made bread rings are boiled instead of baked. It gives the bread a rather bland taste, but they fix that by seasoning it up with poppy or sesame seeds. Rumor has it, New Yorkers have Yiddish immigrants to thank for their morning breakfast staple. Good thing the original version doesn't have New York prices. 50 Euro cent boiled bagel? Yes please!

The unknown named Polish bagel thingie. 
Next up is the Jewish Quarter pizza-sandwich, ketchup, meats and/or vegetable, cheesy, bread-loaf masterpiece. They claim it's called a zapiekanki. Is that even a word? Ten points to anyone who can pronounce it. Five points to anyone who even takes the time to read the entire word without skimming it. Zapiekanki. I might come up with an uber delicious cheesy pizza-sandwich concoction myself and throw a few letters together, claiming it to be Polish. Something like, cortupanktzetzki. Bam. Golden.

Zapiekanki can be found at various vender windows of a circular building situated in the middle of the Jewish quarter market square. They're cheap. They're big. They're cheesy. They're extremely tasty. They're eaten by no less than 75 people strewn across the square at one time. And they're highly recommended. By me. If that's worth anything.

Zapiekanki in all its glory, modeled by a local
Moving on. Why is it that weird culinary creations are called delicacies?  Foie gras? French delicacy. Monkey brains? Chinese delicacy. Haggis? Scottish delicacy. Balut... (look it up)? Filipino, Vietnamese and Cambodian delicacy. Smalec? Polish delicacy.

A not-too-happy-with-me man as I eyed his smalec.
I think he told me to get my own.
I couldn't understand him so I smiled and took his picture instead.
I was completely fascinated with what I saw. A wooden stand in the middle of Krakow center square. Loaves of fresh, delicious looking bread. A giant pot stuffed to the brim with chunky bacon filled lard. A man cutting the loaves into large slices and slathering it with the fatty substance. And a long line of people impatiently waiting to fill their mouths with a large bite.

I wasn't going to try it. Eating fat, filled in fat, saved only by a piece of bread was a bit overboard. But the look of delight on the faces of those who enjoyed it got the better of me. I bought a slice of smalec. I ate a large portion. And I felt completely sick to my stomach after. 

But my stomach was saved when I wandered into a small square holding the annual Summer pierogi festival.

The city sponsored event filled the air with karaoke styled, professional entertainment on a large stage overlooking the square.

The other three edges of the square were saved for wooden stands, each owned by a separate restaurant in the city. They sold a handful of their own variation of the classic Polish dish. Potato and cheese filled dumplings. Meat and spinach filled dumplings. Blueberry filled dumplings. Chocolate and strawberry filled dumplings.

Problem is, I never even made it a quarter of the way around the square before I was a filled dumpling.
(cue the drums:  da-dum. dum!)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is this any type of life?

washing facility
Prisoners of Auschwitz were allowed two bathroom visits a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. If they were found relieving themselves at any other time, they were punished.

We walked into the bathroom; a long narrow bunker with an equally long concrete slab dotted with 100, 10-inch circles. There were doors at either end.

"Guards would stand at the doors," our guide stated. "From that door one guard would let in 100 people. The moment the first person entered, the guard at the other end started counting down from 10. 'Zehn, neun, acht, seiben, sechs...,' he would shout. They all had to be on their way out by the time he reached 'one', or would be severely punished."

They had to run. They had to run to use the toilet. They only had 10 seconds in which to do so. They had to strip down in front of 99 other prisoners and two guards in order to release whatever meager amount of food or liquid was built up inside them. In 10 seconds.

"The best jobs prisoners had were to work in the lavatories, cleaning the waste," our guide continued. Our eyes widened. "It's true. No guard would come near the lavatories during the day. That allowed the workers to use the toilet whenever they needed, for as long as they needed."

Due to malnutrition, however, many suffered from severe diarrhea. For that reason alone, prisoners all shared a top bunk (read: slat) to sleep on.

sleeping bunkers
Sleeping conditions were made worse by freezing winters, non-insulated bunkers with gaping holes and open space between the roof and outer walls. There were, however, two fireplaces to warm the large, drafty complex. Two fireplaces with an opening so small it barely emitted heat.

I was left to wonder, after having walked the path to the crematorium only a few minutes earlier, were those who faced immediate death after their arrival in Auschwitz the lucky ones?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


"So we can see that people were monsters. They still are. Nothing's changed. Nothing's changed," our tour guide stated in front of crematorium #2. She had been speaking about the death laborers, prisoners of the camp themselves, who ripped gold teeth out of the recently deceased before throwing their bodies in the furnace. It was the fact that the laborers became so desensitized by it all, eating and drinking while working, that instigated her comment. Today crematorium #2 lies in heaps of rubble. It was the first of four crematoria built in Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

Birkenau was created for the sole purpose of being an extermination camp. The 175 acre compound was designed for 200,000 prisoners. An estimated 1.3 million died within its barbed-wire fenced walls. Between 1942-1944, Jews (and other minority groups) were shipped in from all over Europe.

Thinking they were going to a place where they could be free, and knowing they could only bring one suitcase worth of items per person, they took only their most valuable possessions. Upon arrival, all suitcases were taken to a bunker nicknamed "Kanada", as Canada was a representation of wealth and prosperity, before being rummaged through for valuables to be shipped to Germany.

Those who survived the grueling train ride were then separated. Males filed to the right, women to the left. The train tracks acting as a barrier between the two gender groups and their perspective bunkers. They each lined up in front of a doctor who judged each individual by appearance. He directed some towards the bunkers and others on a death march.

I timed the walk. The one hundreds of thousands took from the moment the doctor, playing God, cast off to their death.

They didn't know where the path led, what awaited them at the end. Some must have been scared though, nervous maybe, having been separated from their loved ones after such a grueling trip. Mothers might have consoled their children as they shuffled forward. Quiet words may have been passed from one person to another. I could see them with every step I took... . I saw them each second of my 5 minutes walk to the end of the dirt road. They continued forward, beyond grounds I could tread. They gathered within the protection of trees and were commanded to remove their clothes; clothes left crumpled on the forest floor.

Naked, and most likely humiliated, they advanced towards the large brick building before them. "It's just a shower," they were told, "to clean you up after your long journey." The doors of the crematorium were shut; their journey was over.