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Of pigs and picturesque

Published July 16, 2006

[Photos: Jason Merritt]
Mountain roads lead to Zakopane, Poland’s Aspen.

Jason Merritt delights at his first snowball near a mountain lake in Zakopane.

The feeling of being confined is still overwhelming in Auschwitz.

Once upon a time in a far off land, two young Americans found themselves dizzy on vodka and knee-high in pigs. How could they possibly have arrived in such a magical world?

Well, on a first-class flight across the Atlantic, by way of a few stale English pubs and then on a creaky old Ryanair plane that goes bump through the air.

In just a few days after leaving sunny and comfortable St. Petersburg and getting our bearings in London, we're in Lodz, Poland, to stay with our Florida friend, Arek, who is visiting family, and his brother Robert. We're here for four days before returning to Britain to work at a boarding school south of London. It takes money to travel for months in Europe and we need some.

I have to say that I was nervous about Poland. But as it turned out, we were in the hands of two of the best guides you could find.

First thing, Arek arranges for a drive in the country to meet a family of one of his Polish friends from Florida. A family he'd never met.

We pop into the car, which is a compact sort of station wagon, and get onto a busy road. It's drizzling rain, and the roads are slippery, and I have never been so scared. To say he was tailgating is an understatement.

So we're bumping though these back roads in the rain, stopping to ask old women with laundry baskets where this family lived. No address necessary, just the family name. We pull down a road, and there they were, standing in the rain with an umbrella, waiting.

I expected to cram into some crusty old living room, sipping tea and sweating though awkward silences. Oh, but there's no need to feel awkward when there's WODKA! Amazing how good my Polish got after a few shots. And how fun the farm tour was. Lots of little piggies to love.

Unfortunately, the WODKA! effect lasted longer than I expected and the next day was a bit fuzzy. But even through the haze, I loved Krakow. We toured several beautiful cathedrals during mass, Wawel castle and the river Wisla. The old town is quaint and lively with a fresh spirit and good energy. We ate lunch at a cafe on the main square. Weirdly, though, the cafe had an American West theme.

One of our stops was the remnants of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim. We got there in the evening with only one hour of visiting time left, and the emptiness and waning light intensified the aching sadness. In my life, I have been places where the feeling of joy is nearly electric, but never have I experienced such anguish.

We wandered through the old barracks which serve as a museum for the Holocaust. As I walked out of the last barrack, a little girl in a stroller, who had been crying earlier, looked up at me with magical blue eyes and said something in Polish, then let out a giggle. Her innocence helped me slip off the cloak of mourning.

Our next adventure took us through mountain roads to Zakopane, Poland's Aspen.

We wandered through a cobblestone pedestrian area lined with shops and cafes, and kiosks selling souvenirs. We took a tram up the mountain and walked around the top where there are more kiosks.

On our second day in Zakopane, we took a horse carriage up another mountain. Well, almost up the mountain. After the comfy ride ended, we hiked up another mile and when we were very near the top, Robert told me to close my eyes and guided me backward the rest of the way.

He spun me around, ordered me to open my eyes and yelled "Surprise!" I could have caught a bunch of flies my mouth was open so wide. We were standing in front of this glassy little lake surrounded by mountains dotted with snow. The mountains were reflected in the lake, and we couldn't tell where the water ended and the mountains began.

We sat on rocks at the edge of the lake, watching the ducks, the vision etching itself in our hearts and minds, and Arek said, "This place makes me miss my country" when he's in Florida.

Poland is a country in transition. Old meets new and natural beauty is often blemished with remnants of communism; block buildings, industrialized neighborhoods and peeling billboards. It feels familiar, and at the same time slightly tilted from reality. It is a lovely nook of the world, which I hope gets a chance to thrive and blossom into its full potential.

Kate Wilson of St. Petersburg is writing periodically about her European travels during her five months abroad. Read her blog at

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 15:19:30]

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