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Part III of the Journal
My arrival at the Holiday Inn was a hoot! It was what I expectedand could have been anywhere. And it was funny. Until about twoseconds after I walked in and loudly said “Hello??”, there wasnobody in sight. Then, there were clerks and bellhops comingaround every corner and popping up behind every counter. I thinkthey thought a tour bus had arrived unannounced. Once theyfigured out it was just one person, all but the desk clerk andbell captain were soon gone again. It was 6:00 in the morningEastern By God Standard Bloc Time! Too early for business!
I got some zlotys with which to pay the cabby, who said the farewas 20,000 zlotys (a little less than two dollars). According tothe hotel clerk a couple of minutes later, the correct fare wasbetween 5,000 and 6,000 zlotys, but I wasn’t about to catch upwith the cab and hassle with the guy over seventy-five cents. All I wanted was a hot, refreshing bath and something to eat. SoI went along with the petty larceny. Besides, I’m alwaysprepared to get cheated or over-tip a little before I get ahandle on exchange rates and lifestyles. And I’d seen worse inHonduras and Brasil!
ORBIS brochures listed Holiday Inn as one of their resources. The freight, I knew, was $71.00 a night and included breakfast. I could handle three days of that! I would have to pay for mybreakfast that morning, the clerk told me, but that was fine withme. The main things I wanted were at hand. And I had made agood choice. There were two double beds and a long, deep tubwaiting for me in room 723. As soon as the bellboy was gone, Idrew a nice, hot bath and jumped in. Thirty minutes later, I puton a clean t-shirt and then went out to explore this new OldWorld kingdom. Food first, of course!
Boy, was I in for a surprise! The breakfast buffet seemed morelike a July 4 picnic spread. There were deviled and plain boiledeggs, several cheeses, fruits and melons, six kinds of cold cuts,four different breads, bacon, bean and pea salad, sausages,butter, juice and more. Plus coffee. I took a bit of this andsome of that and a little of this over here and went to a tableof my own. In five minutes, I was back for another plate full,except I decided to pass on more of this over here. I thoughtI’d died and gone to Heaven! At least, I felt that way on day 1and somewhat on day 2. Not so much on day 3, though. And not atall on day 4. By then, a change of menu was very much needed.
Next in the order of business was sightseeing. I had to figureout how I was going to get to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Brzezinka(Birkenau) and back. Tours were out of the question. ORBISwanted $99.00 for a half-day tour of both places plus a couple ofother places. Oswiecim was an hour’s drive by car. And thatcounted as part of the half a day! How could they get away withthat? I certainly wasn’t buying it! I also felt that to be onsomeone else’s (or a state’s) schedule meant seeing what someoneelse wanted you to see (and I was proved right). I had fifteenrolls of film and didn’t want to be rushed. But what to do?
I decided to wait for the ORBIS booth in the well-lighted lobbyto open at 8:00 and took a seat in one of the sofas near anashtray. Other guests had already started coming and going andthe Holiday Inn staff were either on duty or gearing up for theday’s operations. Some guests arrived and some checked out. Taxis and buses came and went as I sat and watched through theglass lobby doors and adjacent windows. Concessionaires openedtheir little shops that fronted on the lobby and which suppliedguests with snacks, souvenirs, magazines, film, amber, haircutsand goodies from Adidas. I got a chance to chat with a couple ofthe other guests as I waited.
One guy I met was a Marine Guard from Germany. The ambassador’sown! He had two weeks leave and he and a couple of buddies weretaking a three-day tour of camps and cathedrals. They had chosena three-day tour because it covered a lot of ground quickly. Ain’t that just like a Marine? The guy I talked to was motivatedby the knowledge he may never get another chance after his tourended in six months.
Others I met were Israelis and Jews from The States. Some weretaking the same bus tour the marine was on and some were onindependent travel as I was. Those not taking tours cited thesame concerns I had. They didn’t want a canned presentation. They also had come for the reason I had come – Tomorrow could betoo late. Looking back, I’m surprised at how many vignettes Iwent through from a little before 8:00 to a little after 9:00when the ORBIS booth next to the lobby doors opened. An ashtraycan draw a crowd, it seems.
Shortly after 9:00, a slight, short, light-haired kid in histwenties opened up for ORBIS. He spoke English, but not verywell. It took some time and the intervention of a Polish cabbyfluent in English to get across the idea that I wanted to tourAuschwitz and Birkenau on my own and wanted advice from him. Once that was clear, the cabby and he consulted in Polish and theORBIS kid asked if I wanted a driver. I asked how much. Heasked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go and stay untilI was ready to come back.
At that, the cabby went out and got one of the other hacks whowas standing around in the foyer between the inner and outerlobby doors. The guy he brought back also spoke fluent English. The second cabby and I then talked for a few minutes and I got anoffer of 500,000 zlotys (about $55.00) for as much as I wanted tosee, provided we were back at the hotel by 5:00. Done, I said,and, after I bought a bottle of Polish water, we headed for hiscab, which was a white and well-kept late model Audi.
I was glad to have an English-speaking driver. There’s nothingworse than riding through new territory and being unable to askwhat’s that or where are we now. And I had lots of questions aswe drove out through city streets, down village roads and out onthe four-lane highway. There was so much to see. Of course, westarted with the small talk. I learned he had gotten his Audiused three years before for $5,000.00 through a friend inGermany. He didn’t believe me when I told him I drove a 1979Pontiac. He thought Americans bought a new car every other year. I told him that some did, but not me.
As we grew comfortable with each other, my questions turned tothe land and the houses and the other things we passed. In eachof the villages we went through were log homes, barns, and sheds and masonry homes and some homes of both logs and masonry. Therewere few totally stick-built houses. Some homes had shingledroofs and others had red tile or slate roofs. A few even hadthatched roofs and I saw one with a sod roof. Nearly every househad flower beds out front and many had fenced yards.
Everything I saw excited me and I learned a lot. The well-maintained and decorated log homes, for example, were a hundredor more years old and many had been in the same family forgenerations. Newer homes tended to be drab, concrete stuccoedaffairs with splashes of color on doors or shutters. As familieshad grown over generations, additions had been built and somehomes had been expanded two or three times, which accounts forthe mixed construction.
Signs of joy in life were everywhere. Each home had itsparticular flavor and some were truly unique. There were flowersand bushes and vines and trees in the yards. I saw colorfulCatholic shrines in front of some houses, placed, I was told, inremembrance of loved ones or in thanks for fortunes preserved orsimply out of piety. And get this. Two of the houses had SovietMigs on pedestals in the front yard, red star and all! Just likeyou’d see at any self-respecting air force base and put there inremembrance of or homage to some villager’s military service or,possibly, as political statements. On the way out, we passed alake with a small marina which, in the gray light of a damp andovercast morning, reminded me of a scene in Polanski’s Knife inthe Water.
There wasn’t much to see in the farmland along the uncrowdedconcrete highway except for the occasional gallery forest orother stands of hardwoods and soft. But the driver and I talkedabout it anyway. He asked if we have similar trees in The Statesand I said I thought yes, but couldn’t name them. I asked whatcrops would be grown and noted that we rarely used horses or oxenfor plowing these days, as some farmers were doing as we passed. My comment got me a lesson in primogeniture and socialism.
It seems that before Moscow Nights descended, laws of inheritancehad had the effect of carving family farms into ever smallerplots as they were divvied up among sons. Sales and shiftingfamily alliances had also caused once adjacent family plots to beso badly separated that one family’s individual plots might be anhalf-mile or more apart. Soviet land reform had made things evenworse by redistributing land among the citizenry, including citydwellers. By now, the fragmentation was so bad and the plots sosmall that there was no point in using tractors. Change wascoming slowly, the driver said, as families pieced togetherlarger farms by buying out plots owned by neighbors, relatives,and people in the cities.
Outside the villages, I saw no barns or equipment sheds orutility buildings other than a scattered few shanties I firsttook to be rock bottom in Polish housing (there are no homeless). I also saw no fences or hedgerows or property markers. But I waswrong about the shanties. They weren’t homes. They were weekendhouses for the landowners. Mostly, they belonged to citydwellers or villagers who would come out on weekends to plant orharvest or hoe.
End of Part III