Part of the program I didn’t know about until I got to Romania was the ten day trip we would be allowed. I don’t know how to feel about the vacation time I’ve had since coming here. On the one hand, I want to be with my kids. That was my purpose in going to Romania. On the other, I’ve been hungry to travel to places I’ve only read about, and may never make it back to. It makes me feel guilty, but as the Romanians say, “Aşa este” (That’s how it is).
Most of our group of five are history buffs, so we planned our trip accordingly: first we would go to Berlin, then Kraków, and finally Barcelona, to end the trip on a carefree note.
I’ll admit I had no desire to visit Germany before taking this trip. There are so many other interesting places in Europe-Paris, London, Rome. But when traveling in a group, compromises must be made. The one thing that was a dealbreaker for me was Poland. I’d been wanting to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau since I started reading about the Holocaust at age eight. I didn’t care where else we went. I figured I’d get some cheap chocolate out of Berlin and little else.
I wasn’t feeling any more optimistic after our flight from our layover, Cologne, was cancelled, and we ended up spending the night in the station while we waited for the 4 am train to Berlin. I felt like a tribute in the Hunger Games. I didn’t sleep, just checked the perimeter every few minutes to make sure our stuff wasn’t being stolen. (To be fair to Germany, there appeared to be no thieves, just large groups of loud, intoxicated people.)
After the train docked, we stumbled our way to our hostel and fell asleep. When we emerged toward evening, we found a spacious, quiet jewel of a city, filled with history and memory.
We took the free history walking tour on our second day, which was given by an animated Irish man who took his master’s degree in Totalitarian Regimes. He took us to all the major historical points: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, a section of the Berlin Wall, the former location of Checkpoint Charlie, and many others. When he led us to the parking lot pictured below, I knew we were at the site where, thousands of feet below, Hitler committed suicide as the Allies closed in on Berlin. The Germans don’t want to make note of this site; they’re worried any notoriety will lead to groups of neo-Nazi pilgrims. The area is denoted by a single sign. Still, it was chilling to think that below my feet was a place where one of the greatest mass murderers in history met his end.
The cuisine was much more delicious than I’d been expecting, as well. Berlin’s specialty is the currywurst, a sausage doused in curry sauce and served warm with fries. I don’t like bratwursts in the States; apparently that’s because I’ve never had real sausage before.
The best part of the Berlin leg of the trip, though, came from a totally unexpected quarter. We wanted to see the Soviet Memorial (we didn’t know there were three at the time). We spent a good portion of the day looking for it, finally arriving in Treptower Park.
This is the biggest of the three memorials built to commemorate the over 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle for Berlin. It is also home to the bodies of more than 5000 of these soldiers.
I don’t know what impressed me the most about the memorial. Maybe that it was so impossibly huge, yet we seemed to be the only people there. Maybe the thirty-foot tall statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child in one arm and a sword in the other, and crushing a swastika underfoot (I later learned that this statue was based on the actions of one Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who saved a German girl from the crossfire during the Battle of Berlin). In any case, it was my favorite part of our stay in the city.
When we finally arrived in the city around 10:30 pm, we were starving, but not optimistic about finding food. The lady at the front desk suggested we head to the old Jewish Quarter, where restaurants were open well into the night. We ended up eating spectacular Indian food while being serenaded by a violinist playing Dvořák and the Schindler’s List theme. (Incidentally, Steven Spielberg used the Jewish Quarter to film part of the movie.)
The next day, we headed out at 8 am for our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the way there, they played a documentary on the bus about the liberation of the camps by the Soviets. I saw some of the footage they shot for the first time. In one of the reels, I recognized two little girls: Eva Mozes and her twin sister, Miriam. I was able to hear Eva speak when I was a student at Utah State and have never forgotten the experience. She was a “Mengele twin,” one of those experimented on at Auschwitz by Nazi doctors. Her overwhelming desire to survive and protect her sister, and her later willingness to forgive those who had wronged her in irreversible ways are an inspiration to me.
I don’t think I can talk much about my experience in the camp, other than to say you’re suffocated by the weight of evil as soon as you walk in. When you see the personal possessions of innocent victims, the places where they were tortured and beaten and murdered, there are no words. There is no happy ending to the story, only a dedication: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” I left more firmly cemented in my resolve to speak up against persecution and hate. Even as an American, I think it’s easy to categorize someone as one thing or another based on their religion, sexual orientation, race, cultural customs, or a plethora of other factors. We feel threatened by what is different. But fear leads to shootings. Fear leads to bombings. Fear leads to Matthew Shepard and Emmett Till and so many, many others. Fear leads to more Holocausts.
The rest of the time in Kraków was spent quietly and reflectively. I was able to do some running along the lovely Wisła (Vistula) River. I saw the architectural patchwork of Wawel Castle, seat of Polish monarchs for hundreds of years, and mounds built by prehistoric groups to their sun god.
I didn’t initially like the pierogi (dumplings) that are a staple in Poland. I didn’t think they had enough sauce on top. Then I tried the spinach and mozzarella variety, and on our last morning, the strawberry ones that are smothered in cream. European food is still undefeated in its ability to make me act like an excited little kid.
Barcelona is a name I’ve heard thrown around a lot, particularly in connection with parties and the beach. I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m not a partier; my dancing is something that would only have been entertaining as part of an 1800s freak show. Also, social interactions are the worst.
The first thing to know about Barcelona is that it’s incredibly hot. Like, “fires of hell” hot. You know those little fans that they sell in all the tourist shops? Spanish women actually use those while waiting for the subway. And there IS a right way to fan yourself.
The second thing is that Barcelona has a history of being really into impressionistic and abstract art. The picture in the title is the weird, perpetually under construction facade of the La Sagrada Familia church, designed by Antoni Gaudi. It’s an impressionistic colossus that will only be fully completed sometime near 2030 (the entrance fees pay for its staggering yearly construction budget). I wasn’t quite sure what to think-structurally, it follows the Gothic style, but it looks so strange as to almost be a mockery of a church, rather than the building itself. Still, it is beautiful in its own way.
We spent a late afternoon on the beach (our hostel concierge said that it was crazy to go out before 3pm), which was extremely crowded, though I liked the water. It was so relaxing to just do nothing but swim back and forth languidly after traveling for so long. Afterward, I discovered that Spanish food is nothing like Mexican, but is still wonderful because it includes a lot of seafood. Paella is my new favorite dish. It’s such a serious business that they have to bring it out to you in a skillet.
The last day we were there, we rode a funicular (!) up a mountain to see the fantastic view.
We explored the beautiful church at the top and went for one last paella. All in all, Barcelona is probably the only place on our journey I wouldn’t return to, but I’m very happy to have experienced it.
Now that our trip is over, I’m glad to be back in Romania with my kids. Some of them are gone to the hospital for treatment, and I’m anxious to have them back. In the meantime, I’m practicing my passable Romanian and getting to love the people around me more every day.