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We spent a day in Lublin, Delaine’s Polish hometown.  After touring Majdanek with Paulina, she took us to Delaine’s office to meet up with “The Professor”. We wandered over to the Old Town (of course), found a lovely outdoor restaurant and once again, ate a great meal, watching the world wander through the main square.

Visiting Lublin was a perfect way to see the “real” Poland of today.  Crowds of tourists? Nope. Cosmopolitan? Not exactly. But look at the people in the photos that follow. They’re optimistic, religious and strong.  We were so blessed to experience Poland through the eyes of a dear friend, who loves his work and his life in his adopted homeland. A package tour just wouldn’t have been the same.

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Helsinki weekends… it’s kind of like heading to Seattle for good shopping and the football game if you live in Spokane, or heading to Spokane for shopping if you live in Montana, or heading to Minot for shopping and fine dining because you live in Regina. A lot of people from Turku head into Helsinki to catch a concert or just hang out.

But there’s more to Helsinki than that, especially with all of its museums and architecture. The ultimate experience is arriving by train to the central station. Architecturally you are taken back to a time where you expect to see Marlene Deitrich and Indiana Jones at every turn. Outside are the Kivimiehet, large stone men holding globes of light.  They are featured in the national train company advertising, generally doing something silly somewhere in Finland.  Do a search for Kivimiehet and VR on YouTube; you won’t need to understand Finnish to get the humour.  We had enjoyed the commercials for months prior to our Helsinki visit, so to stand outside the station and see how big they really are was pretty awesome.

But truth be told, we had come to Helsinki to shop. And so we did. Besides, it’s more fun when there’s a shopping mall with your name on it.  We hit two more Goth shops and found the HUGE bookstore where everyone in Finland does their book buying.  And being Helsinki there were more opportunities to get Finnish souvenirs.  The market square vendors were more attuned to the buying patterns of the hordes of cruise passengers, but you won’t catch us complaining about the Belgian Waffles and fresh squeezed orange juice stand. (Almost on par with the gaufres at the Brussels train station.)

On the touristy side we did our usual hop on a tram to see where it goes and saw parts of the city along the Green and Blue lines.  We have found that this is a great way to get a larger picture of a place.  (This back-fired for us in Riga, but we survived standing alongside roads waiting for driver’s coffee break to end.)  And since the shops were closed on Sunday due to it being Whitsun (aka Pentecost, a national holiday in Finland) we decided to cross the harbour by ferry and see Suomenlinna.

Suomenlinna was originally built in 1748 by the Swedes as a defence against the Russians.  In 1808 the Russian army came and the Swedes handed the fort over to them. In 1918 Finland declared itself as independent and took the fortress as its own. It is an incredible place to wander and explore. We spent most of the day poking around, with Davis gamboling over the granite boulders like a mountain goat.

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Our tour guide insisted that a day in Krakow was a must. And Delaine is always right, so Sunday morning we caught a taxi, scooted to the train station and hopped on the express train to Krakow.  The countryside was beautifully green, with red field poppies in bloom everywhere.

As we arrived in Krakow, the skies opened and it started to rain.  But Krakow is a beautiful city even in the rain, and we joined the crowds of tourists moving from sight to sight, craning our necks to take in everything.

Remember that by this time we had seen our fair share of Old Towns, so the architecture was quite familiar, and the medieval theme was getting to the point of “been there, seen that a couple of times before…” Yet Old Krakow takes you beyond the historical merchant centres with its numerous churches and shrines standing as a testament to the presence of the Church in this society and culture. Outside the doors signs asked tourists to refrain from entering during services, which is something we had never seen elsewhere.

We walked to the Wawel Hill to see the Royal Cathedral and Castle buildings along with hundreds of other tourists.  There’s a dragon living under the hill, but it decided to stay put during our visit. We dithered a bit over whether to stand in line to get tickets, then stand in line to enter the Castle, and ended up in the open courtyard for some time, escaping the crowds, rain beating down on our umbrellas, while Delaine taught us about the history of the royal family and who attacked when and how they were repelled or not.  By the time we wandered back to the ticket area, the lines had disappeared so off to the Cathedral we went.

It was still incredibly busy inside the Cathedral, and it was overwhelming to try to take it all in, but Ron and Davis climbed the bell tower and we all walked through the crypts, ending with the new tombs of the Polish President and his wife, who were killed in a plane crash in May.  The honour guard there kept people moving along, especially the non-Poles.

We wrapped up our day with late lunch at a Georgian restaurant where we added a new regime of spices to our taste palate. We are not talking Southern Fried here, just an incredible mix of paprika, fresh cheese and who knows what else, but it was delicious and bountiful.  We slept on the train home to Warsaw, tummies full, feet damp, dreaming of archers, dragons, and the Apostles.

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You cannot turn a corner in Warsaw without encountering a plaque or statue commemorating the history that occurred in that very spot, and more often than not, the event had something to do with WWII.  The documentation of the  Warsaw Uprising includes a museum and memorial square which we visited during our stay.

The museum was well worth the visit, and we would highly recommend it.  That being said, it is difficult to read the accounts of what went on, and learning about the multiple betrayals the Polish Underground faced at the hands of their enemy the Nazis, and at the hands of their ally the Red Army, soon became overwhelming. Visual displays were often accompanied by soundtracks featuring interviews or the sounds of weaponry. Add that to the crowds moving through the displays, and it became a very noisy place. Outside the museum a rose garden was lined with photos of everday life taken during the months of the Uprising. The buzzing bees and rose perfume were a peaceful backdrop.

Walking into the Katyn Massacre exhibit was like walking into the very forest where 22,000 Polish POWS were executed by the Soviet Secret Police.  The floor was covered with soil and pine needles, softening your steps, releasing that dusty forest scent.  The sound of a single gunshot rang out every 5 seconds, depicting the individual executions.  The walls were covered with the names of those killed, and there were listening stations where you could watch interviews with family members.  At the end of the exhibit was a wreath commemorating the Polish delegation, including the president and his wife, that died in a plane crash as they travelled to a Katyn Massacre 70th anniversary memorial ceremony in Russia this past May.  These wounds run deep and run fresh to this day.

The Warsaw Uprising Monument is next to the Supreme Court, not far from the Old Town.  This large public square features two groups of sculptures: one depicting the escape from the sewers, and the other one showing the defence of the barricades.  We stood among the figures, and looked at the faces and their determination to live captured for those who could never understand what it meant to be a part of that time and those events.

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How on earth can it be time to go?

But it is time to get back on the plane and head back to Regina.  So stay tuned for upcoming episodes covering our last 6 weeks of this adventure.   Highlights include more Old Towns, sea kayaking adventures, knights jousting and living through the oldest rock music festival in Finland.

Just give us some time to get over the jetlag, ok? Kiitos!

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As part of our day trip to Lublin, we toured the Majdanek Concentration Camp.  This camp was in operation from 1941 to 1944.  The Red Army liberated the camp in July 1944 and later that year it was established as a museum area in order to preserve its history.  As you will see from the photos, this camp was on the edge of the city.  It was not hidden in the woods or behind high stone walls.  It was there in the open.  In addition to Majdanek there were several other detention camps and 7 execution areas located in and around Lublin during this time.  While the majority of inmates were Polish and Czech Jews, many non-Jewish Polish, Byelorussian, Ukranian and Russian POWs and intellectuals were sent there too.

This was Ron and Davis’ first time at a concentration camp.  I had visited Dachau, located outside Munich, Germany, back in 1984.  It was a blustery day, which only added to the sense of desolation in that space.  Among the visitors that day was a large group of Israeli soldiers.

Seeing this camp in conjunction with the Uprising Museum in Warsaw, and the Museum of the Occupations in Riga drove home the fact that had we been in any of these communities during those time periods our entire family would have been sent to a Nazi labour camp or deported by the Soviets for re-education.  This is based on our education level and economic standing.  It’s quite a reality check.

It’s not easy to visit places such as this.  However, in doing so we honour those who lived and died there.  We have no idea of the hell they experienced, but maybe by witnessing what was left behind we will be in a position to fight against such monstrosities in our own societies.

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A friend from our college days invited us to visit Poland sometime during our sabbatical since we were in the neighbourhood anyway.  The way things worked out we had only just returned from Riga, got laundry done, sent Christopher and Lora on their way back to Canada, packed again, and got on a plane bound for Warsaw, all in the space of 5 days.  Obviously our luggage was confused because it stayed an extra day in Riga during the trip, rather than coming with us to Warsaw.  Oh well, it happened to everyone who flew out of Helsinki and Baltic Air did bring it to our apartment the next day, so we can’t complain too loudly.

So, we went to Poland, or to Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin, to be exact.  It was an odd trip for us as we did very little of the planning.  Delaine rented the apartment we would use as our base in Warsaw’s Old Town, and arranged for side trips to Krakow and Lublin.  Not only that, Delaine was our tour guide.  He has lived and taught in Poland for many years, and joy of joys! He speaks Polish! (Six months of getting by with broken English/Finnish/Estonian/Latvian and smiling has taken its toll.)  He was an excellent tour guide, able to bring the history, politics, current events, literature, and religion into every monument or building.  Dziękuję, Professor Swenson!

Most of Warsaw was essentially flattened during WWII, so the “old” buildings are replications, with the majority of the Old Town restored in the 1970s.  We stayed at the Scholars House, which was one of the few buildings which survived the Warsaw Uprising.  Wandering through the city you find monuments and plaques everywhere, reminding people of the history that had occurred in that specific spot. It could have been really overwhelming except for the glimpse of the indomitable spirit of the Polish people that was present in everything.  Poland was a Soviet satellite rather than a republic like Estonia and Latvia, and you can feel the difference.

Memories of Warsaw:

Another “Old Town” that was not so old, but beautiful.

The Palace complex.  As it became clear that the Nazis were going to invade, curators started to remove pieces of gold trim and other treasures from the Palace, and hid them in the forests.  The Palace was completely destroyed, and later  restored.  The original trim was incorporated into the restoration.

Eating in outdoor cafes.  Margaritas at Earl’s with Albert Street traffic zooming by is not the same.

Polish food.  8 years in Saskatchewan had prepared us for the perogies, sausages, and a great variety of soups to explore.  Sad to report that they do perogies much better in Poland.

Strolling through Old Warsaw in the late evening, snacking on ice cream cones and waffles with powdered sugar, listening to the street musicians.

Pope John Paul showing up EVERYWHERE in the form of plaques and statues.

Zooming down the streets in a taxi, weaving in and out of heavy traffic, with the driver singing “Fox on the Run” at the top of his lungs.  We always arrived in one piece, but there were times you wanted to kiss the ground once you got out of the taxi.

Watching the parade of brides and grooms at the Wedding Hall.  We were having lemonade one afternoon at a cafe just across from the Wedding Hall, where civil weddings take place.  Every 30 minutes a new wedding party emerged.  It was wonderful to watch as everyone celebrated for awhile: posing for photos, having a smoke, throwing the bouquet.  Then the sidewalk would clear for about 5 minutes or so, another fancy car would drive up, and eventually another wedding party would pour out.

HUGE advertising taking up the sides of buildings.

Another Stalin’s Birthday Cake, identical to the one in Riga.  Stalin liked to build these huge buildings as a “gift” to the cities under Soviet influence.  Warsaw had saved up the money for a metro, but Stalin took that money and “gave” the city this building instead.  “Thank you for your piece of s*** building, Mr. Stalin. We didn’t need a metro anyway” was our taxi driver’s comment, as we careened by on our way to the train station.

Vodka with bitter herbs, ice cold. Now that’s a night cap!

Catching up with an old friend. Spending time with Delaine and hearing his stories about life in Poland and the ‘Stans was the best part of the trip.  24 years ago none of us would have imagined us sitting in Warsaw, chatting over a fine meal about current events in Kyrgyzstan.

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