Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Year in Review

I guess it is really true what they say, time flies when you are having fun, and fun…well that doesn’t even begin to describe the past year. Since Krakow, I’ve been on many, many adventures. I fell in love - with a country - sailed the Mediterranean on a wooden ship, danced at a beach wedding and pirate disco, cliff jumped into the blue waters of Oludeniz and paraglided down to it’s beaches, watched the Dervishes whirl, been scrubbed and kneaded in a hammam, crossed a busy city intersection with a sheep, played backgammon in the lazy heat of the Taksim backstreets, celebrated Ramadan under the minarets of the Blue Mosque, been welcomed into the home of some of the warmest people I’ve ever met on my travels, slept in a cave (hotel), and floated over fairy chimneys watching the sun awake – all of this just in Turkey! I’ve witnessed a traditional cheese auction, spent some much needed time with friends & family in the fresh Pennsylvania country air, enjoyed the quintessential New York day complete with lunch at Tavern on the Green & carriage ride through Central Park, and laughed at the unusual attractions of the infamous Brooklyn institution, Coney Island. I’ve ran 10 miles 'dam to dam,' drank the finest Hungarian wines at the Buda castle, the purest beer at Oktoberfest, and watched guys surf in the center of Munich. I’ve floated in the Dead Sea, overlooked the Promised Land in the valley of Moses, hiked the mile long siq to the breathtaking site of the Treasury, and lived like a Bedouin in the desert - earning myself an Arabic name, Sharuq meaning “sunlight.” I’ve walked in the footsteps of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad, laid my hands on the Wailing Wall, made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, passing through a security wall separating two cultures, two religions, two people laying claim to the same land, and lived the Tel Aviv night, and beach, life. I’ve seen Christmas lights in orange trees in Athens and Dubrovnik, I’ve watched snow fall in Prague, Istanbul, and Amsterdam, I’ve visited the Christmas markets of Belgrade and Zagreb, bathed in beer in Ostrava, been to a bone church, and danced in the New Year in Morocco. I’ve shopped at the posh boutiques of Antwerp, welcomed a new baby cousin, Caroline, and celebrated 90 years of my Gram's remarkable life. I’ve dined on midnight satay in Singapore, hunted for Easter eggs in the pubs of the Norfolk broads, driven the Montenegrin coast, crossed the most spectacular bridge in Bosnia, and saw the shrine of The Three Kings in Cologne. And best of all, I’ve been able to share my life in Amsterdam with some of my loved ones; the girls who have made this experience so completely fantastic, Tracey & Maria, my best friends, Kim and Peabody, my fellow hometown girl, Rita, who set into motion the events that lead me where I am today, and my cousin, Kate, who joined me for the orange spectacle that is Queen’s Day. Recounting my experiences, I am reminded, yet again, just how truly blessed and fortunate I really am! Next on the agenda? Copenhagen, Barcelona, Paris, a visit from my good friend JA, and India!!

Turkish Mediterranean
Whirling Dervishes

Taksim - Istanbul


Alkmaar Kaasmarkt
Pine Creek, Pennsylvania
Tavern on the Green with Maria
Coney Island
Ready to Run, Dam to Dam

Oktoberfest with Kim & Peabod

Munich Sufers

The Dead Sea with Tracey

The Siq, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

Sunset Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Western (Wailing) Wall, Jerusalem

Muslim Quarter, Jerusalem, a crossroads of religion

Security Wall entering Palestinian controlled Bethlehem

Dubrovnik city walls

Christmas market, Prague
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Snowy Amsterdam

New Cemetery, Belgrade
Dolac market, Zagreb

Agadir, Morocco

Grote Markt, Antwerp
90 Years Young, My Beautiful Gram


Boating on the Norfolk Broads

Kotor, Montengro

Mostar, Bosnia

Maria and Tracey, the best friends an Amsterdam girl could ask for!

Me and Rita, continuing encounters around the globe...

Kim and Peabod, old friends but the same crazy fun

Me and Kate, Queen's Day 2010

Monday, June 1, 2009

After Auschwitz, I continued on to Krakow. The drive through the Polish villages took a while, but was quite worth it to get a glimpse of suburban side. After finally finding my old town hotel and ditching the car, I was able to do a little walking to get a sense of the city, which was one of few Polish cities to remain relatively undamaged during WWII. It was nice to stroll and admire the original architecture, not rebuilt versions like you’ll find in Warsaw and other cities. On the drive in I got a beautiful glimpse of the castle so I walked back to the same spot to take a photo and enjoy some much-needed coffee on a dreary spring day, from a floating café on the Vistula river. The next morning I got an early start so ventured off to the Wawel Castle, and explored some of the exhibits in the complex. I particularly enjoyed seeing the 16th & 17th century suits of armor, shields, swords, and other medieval weapons (sadly, no photos allowed!) and of course the statue of Krakow’s infamous citizen, Karol Józef Wojtyła more commonly known as Pope John Paul II. Note to readers without children, do not fall for the “dragon’s den” it’s only steep climb down the inside of the castle walls that ends in a cave and exit to the castle near the fire breathing steel dragon statue.
After the castle I walked on to Kazimierz and then on to Podgorze, the old Jewish districts. When Nazi Germany invaded, the Jewish population was forced into a walled zone known as the ghetto before being later sent to the concentration camps. The only pharmacy that stayed in the ghetto belonged to a Catholic who administered medicines to the ghetto residents, often free of charge. Tadeusz Pankiewicz and his staff also smuggled in food, information, and hid Jews facing deportation and so he saved countless Jews from the Holocaust. Just in front of the pharmacy is a memorial of 70 chairs that represent the furniture and remnants of other belongings that were discarded by the ghetto’s Jews as they were deported to death camps.
Another infamous name, Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, came to Krakow specifically to get labor for his enamelware plant from the Ghetto. Although it was initially only a business decision, eventually he sympathized with the Jews and took measures to protect as many as he could, personally intervening when 300 of his workers were deported to Auschwitz.
My last stop in Krakow was back to Rynek Glowny, the largest medieval town square in Europe, for a shop around the craft stalls in the Sukiennice or Cloth Market and a tasty, delicious, beautiful meal of pierogies and apple strudel at Wesele.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Auschwitz (Oświęcim)

I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz, the largest WWII Nazi concentration and extermination camp, to better understand the sufferings and losses endured during the holocaust but since it is in the rural south of Poland, I never felt quite right about making a trip solely for this purpose. So it was a happy coincidence when I had to make a work trip to Chorzow, Poland only 45 minutes away from Oświęcim, the Polish town later renamed by the Germans. I tried to emotionally prepare myself by reading as much as I could about the horrors that took place there, but there was no way to every fully ready to experience pure evil & hatred in such startling reality. My tour started at the lower camp, which was surprisingly small and pretty even, with neatly arranged red brick buildings that seemed much more reminisce of a college campus than a place of torture. Just after we walked through the barbed wire fences and gate with the motto, Arbeit macht frie, a cruel irony, roughly translating to “Work shall set you free,” we saw the spot where an orchestra played. Our guide explained this served two purposes, to keep the inmates in step so they could be easily counted and also to give outsiders the impression that this was truly a happy work camp. It is shocking that villagers, let alone world leaders, had absolutely no clue of the crimes being committed in their backyard. We visited several barracks in Auschwitz I, the walls adorned with photographs of victims and learned that many people – strong, young people – who came here did not survive 1 year. Inmate supervisors were threatened with their lives if their prisoners violated any rules, so often their actions against other prisoners was just as atrocious as the Nazis’. I fought tears near the execution wall and broke down completely when we visited the starvation and standing cells, a 1.5m space where four inmates would be forced together, standing for days. If anyone escaped from Auschwitz, 10 prisoners would be tortured or killed as retribution. Display cases in the barracks contained endless piles of items taken from prisoners, suitcases with names & addresses written on the outside, eyeglasses, shoes - one case just of children’s, and human hair. The Nazi’s recycled everything they took from their victims, for example Jewish hair was used as insulation in Nazi soldiers’ blankets. After the war, the camp commandant Rudolf Höss – who disguised himself as a farmer to escape punishment – was sentenced to death by hanging on the Auschwitz I grounds, across from the house where he lived with his family. Next to the gallows we saw the gas chamber, where pellets the size of an aspirin would be dropped through tiny holes in the ceiling to kill up to 1,000 people at a time. Immediately next door was a crematorium for easy disposal of the bodies. Feeling very somber and saddened, we boarded a bus for Birkenau, Auschwitz II, 3km away. This was the image of a concentration camp I was expecting, a massive barbed wire perimeter, huge wooden barracks, elevated guard stands, and of course the railway tracks that transported so many Jews to their death. It was here that over 1 million souls were taken, a drastic comparison to the 70,000 lost in Auschwitz I. I was immediately struck at how cold & windy it was, even on a June day, I could not fathom how anyone survived a winter in this place. The huge wooden barracks, which were originally designed as horse stables for 75 animals, slept over 1,000 inmates on wooden slab bunk beds. The toilets were a communal bench that did not have adequate drainage as such many suffered from disease. Our guide showed us the train platform where the selection process took place. Many believed they were coming to a work camp, which is why their arrivals were often so orderly and obedient. They were told that to avoid lice & disease in the camp they would first need to be showered so to leave their suitcases, with their names written, on the platform so that their possessions could be transferred to their barracks. One older Jewish woman even tried to tip a Nazi soldier who helped her with her bags they so believed their instructions. After the doctors separated the sick, elderly, children, & women with children from those who were able to work, each group would then be divided by sex. Believing they were only going off to the showers many did not protest. Inmates were assigned to take all the gold teeth off the bodies after the gassings, for them this was also a death sentence as eventually they would be killed to prevent them from telling the others what was happening.
When finally the Soviets came to liberate the camp, the Nazis bombed the gas chambers to cover up their crimes and evacuated the prisoners who could leave on a death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Only 1/3 of the 60k prisoners made it.
On the bus back, some people in our group who had remained very somber and quiet throughout the tour started to chat and we learned that an elderly Frenchwoman in our group had actually lost her mother in Auschwitz. Of course the entire experience there was extremely impactful but realizing that there are still victims of this incredible tragedy still living today made it all the more relevant to me. I can only hope that the past will set us of prejudice, free of hate.
But where there is hope, there is life. – Anne Frank