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My Poland Journal: Index

Today is June 15th.

Exactly 1 year ago today, I left on an airplane with the rest of my drama class on a 15 day trip to Poland.  We saw the country, and we saw the theatre.

I took photos and wrote notes the entire time.

Over the course of the year, I’ve sporadically been putting those notes and photos online.  I find it appropriate, if not entirely coincidental, that my last entry should be published exactly one year from the day of our departure.

You’ll notice in my entries that I switch sporadically between past-tense and present-tense.  This is because half of the time, I’m quoting directly from my journal, and the other half, I’m quoting from memory.  I know that’s a writing faux pas, but I’m not planning on fixing it. Sorry.

So, without further ado, here is the index to My Poland Journal:

So there you have it.  It’s done.

And that’s all I really have to say about that.

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Poland – Part 11: Journey into Auschwitz, and Adventuring Alone in Krakow

Gathering Dust

It’s been about 5 – 6 months since my last Poland entry.  There are a myriad of excuses for this:  tough school year, busy Xmas holiday, relentless work load…

But I have to say I’ve kind of been avoiding writing this one on purpose.  Why?

Well, for starters, I don’t have any photos.  Long story short, before we got off the bus at Auschwitz, we were told there was no photography, so I left my camera on the bus.  Then it turned out that there was no photography in the buildings, so I missed out on getting some snaps outside.

I’ve been able to get my hands on some photos.  A big thanks to Alex Rubin and Anj Mulligan for letting me use theirs.  I’m not entirely sure how using someone else’s photos will affect my narrative, but we’ll see.

The other reason I’ve been avoiding this one is because I wrote so damn much about it.  39 pages from my journal were devoted to this day.

Why so much?  Well, to be honest, it was a pretty emotionally charged day.  A lot of people were crying during the tour.  My reaction was just to write down everything I could see and hear, as fast as I could.  I hope I got everything right.  Please correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong.

Anyhow, enough stalling.  Here we go.

June 24, 7:45AM

It was an early morning.  I showered, shaved, sent some email, and then hung out in the kitchen/common area with Yev, eating some cocoa-puffs while she boiled water for tea.

The breakfast lady was in a foul mood that morning.  She stormed in to the kitchen and started rearranging things with a violent efficiency, clicking her heels.  Yev and I were silent.  Finally, I said “Dzien dobry” (good morning) to break the tension.

Wow.  That was the last straw, I guess.  The breakfast lady flew into a huge Polish rant as she stormed around us.  We couldn’t understand a word, but she was clearly upset.

Yev said she reminded her of one of her Soviet schoolmasters.

I didn’t wait to see how the fury played out.  I got out of there.  Yev stayed behind.

Yev later told me that, after making a sandwich (which the breakfast lady saw her do), she made a super-quick pit-stop at the washroom, only to come back and find that her sandwich had been thrown in the garbage.  Presumably by the breakfast lady.

8:25AM

We boarded the bus and were en route.

It was a tense morning.  Tamara told us that the Auschwitz trip was optional, and so a few of us had stayed back.  The bus ride was unusually quiet.

I think everybody was preparing themselves.

9:45AM

I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera (or so I thought), so I left it on the bus.

After getting off the bus, we read a multi-lingual sign that set the behavioural tone for the rest of the tour:

Througout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim. In 1940, the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty subcamps.

The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deporters of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the settling for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz – men, women, and children – were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

When the SS realised that the end of war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oswiecim – Brzezinka on the sites of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979, these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.

PLEASE BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY RESPECTING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SUFFERED AND DIED HERE.

Next to this was a map of the compound.  Again, no photos, so something like this will have to do.

Looking at the map, my eyes were drawn to the familiar word “Canada”.  It turns out that, when new arrivals came to the camps, their belongings were stripped from them and sent to a special area of the camp called Canada for sorting and searching.  It was called Canada, because at the time, Canada was considered the land of plenty.  Here’s Wikipedia’s take on it.

Near the signs were, of all things, gift and souvenir shops, called the “informatory”.  Postcards, books, videos, photos…  seemed a bit in bad taste.  After seeing the gift shops, I noticed all of the smiling tourists around me, and I found that quite macabre.

It was particularly disturbing because of how quiet it was.  There were also “keep silence” signs all over the place.  So yeah, it was quiet.  Really quiet.

As we approached the entrance, we heard birds chirping.  It was overcast – the grass was still wet from the morning dew.

10:00AM

As we were reading the signs, Tamara had gone off to get the tour guide.  On her way back, her face was covered in tears.  She’d visited Auschwitz for a tour several times before, and firmly stated to us that she couldn’t bring herself to do it again.  So she went off to go wait in the bus.  It was an ominous moment.

All of the tour guides were dressed in black.  Ours was no exception.  After a brief, quiet hello, she gave us each a set of earphones and receiver.  This is how she would communicate with us during the tour.  This way, she wouldn’t have to yell for us all to hear her.  Instead, the tour became very personal, and she was able to speak softly to each of us individually.  I wrote in my journal that her voice was incredibly soft, caring, and soothing – and that she reminded me more of a nurse than a tour guide.  I really think part of her job was to soothe, as well as to educate.

We headed towards Auschwitz I.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

An Extremely Brief History of Auschwitz

Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, and eventually became the central administrative hub of the complex.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

The buildings of Auschwitz I were military barracks, originally constructed by and for the Polish army.  In the late 1930’s, Poland had been invaded, split up, and annexed to the Nazis and the Soviets.  So technically, Poland ceased to exist.  The Nazis saw the barracks in their new territory as “very convenient” for housing the growing number of Polish prisoners, especially considering the railroad junctions that led to it.  The Nazis set up shop, and the land and buildings became Auschwitz I.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Auschwitz I was originally established strictly for Polish prisoners, but eventually Gypsy’s and Soviet POW’s were held there as well.

Eventually, Auschwitz I got so packed with prisoners, that two more camps were built in close proximity.  Those camps were named Auschwitz II and III.

The Main Gate

This is the main gate to the camp:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The gate reads:

Arbeit Marcht Frei

Which translates to “Work Makes You Free”, or “Work Gives You Freedom”.

Surrounding the entire camp was a double electric fence:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

Entering the Camp

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The camp orchestra, composed entirely of prisoners, would play lively German marches as the prisoners were led into the camp.  It was humiliating and dehumanizing.  This also made it easier for the guards to count and keep the prisoners in step.

The men and women were then separated, and sent to different barracks.  There would be 800-1000 prisoners assigned per barrack, which only had 2 stories.  The prisoners in Auschwitz I were cramped to the extreme.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The roads we walked down were all empty and quiet, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them filled with the noise of thousands upon thousands of prisoners, being crammed into the buildings.

It was pretty disturbing.  In this shot, you can see me scrambling to scribble all of this information down in the background.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

We then entered one of the barracks, which had been converted into a museum.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

A sign loomed overhead reading:

The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

The Barracks

Auschwitz was almost in the center of occupied Europe.  With the already-established railroad system, the Nazis were able to send over 1,000,000 prisoners to Auschwitz.  The majority of those prisoners were Jewish.

It didn’t start out that way, but at some point during 1942-1943, Auschwitz became an extermination camp.

A sign on the wall broke down the prisoners as follows:

1,300,000 sent to Auschwitz
1,100,000 Jews
140,000 – 150,000 Poles
23,000 – Roma / Gipsy’s
15,000 – Soviet Prisoners
25,000 – Other

90% Jews

A large, glass, transparent urn in the barracks held human ashes in rememberence.

During the original invasion of Poland, the Nazis focused on capturing/executing as many Polish monks, priests, lawyers, leaders, and educated people as possible.  This was their method of “destroying” Poland’s culture and identity.  After an uprising in Warsaw, 13,000 Poles were sent to Auschwitz I as punishment.

Many photos were taken at Auschwitz by the SS for their own use.  Those black and white photos lined the walls of the museum.  We weren’t allowed to take photographs, so I can’t show them to you, but I can describe some of them.  Imagine black and white, blurry photos of extremely thin, extremely gaunt, bald people, wearing prisoner garb.  Imagine seeing photos of them digging graves for themselves, or jumping to a particular height for a guard’s amusement, or running at top speed in a big circle “just because”, so the guards could watch.

SS “doctors” were always present at prisoner arrival to “conduct selections” on who could work and who could be executed immediately.  There were photos on the wall of women, children, and old people, being sent to their death.  They look calm, because they didn’t know.

The Jews who weren’t executed immediately were put to work.  Some were sent to Auschwitz III, which was a work and manufacturing camp.  Prisoners were forced to make things there for the Nazis.

Other prisoners became Sonderkommandos, which means they assisted in the execution of other prisoners.  Sonderkommandos would work in the crematoriums and gas chambers, and were forced to witness and commit various horrible atrocities against other prisoners.

Gassing of prisoners took place underground.  A single gas chamber would have 2000 prisoners crammed inside of it at one time.  Prisoners who entered the gas chambers were told that they were taking showers.  Fake faucets in the ceilings and walls helped sell the illusion.

After the doors were shut, crystals of Cyclone B were dropped in through openings in the ceiling.  After 20 minutes, all were dead.  Sonderkommandos would then go in and carry the bodies to the crematorium.

Before the bodies were cremated, Sonderkommandos had to cut off the hair from the women.  The hair was packed into bags, and sent elsewhere to be turned into hair-cloth and other textiles.  The ashes of the prisoners were used as fertilizer.  Everything was reused.

At one point, we entered a room in the museum, where behind a large pane of glass, we saw mounds of human hair that had been found at the camp.  Massive quantities of dead prisoners hair.

This was the point in the tour that most people started to lose it.  Lots of tears.  Lots of crying.  I kept scribbling.

Any belongings or valuables brought by the prisoners into the camp were sent to the camps called Canada I and Canada II for processing.  The plunder ended up being part of the evidence that was used to prove the atrocities that had happened at the camp.  Like the piles of hair, we saw piles of glasses, piles of shoes, piles of Jewish prayer shawls, combs, brushes, suitcases, clothing, prosthetics, crutches, pottery, bowls, cutlery… everything was sorted.  The quantity was simply horrifying.

In my journal, I noted that the lighting in the barracks was quite muted, but that the exhibits (the hair, combs, etc) were under bright flourescents.  It was really macabre – like seeing a body at a morgue.

The next part of the exhibit was even more horrifying.  It turns out that 20% of the victims of the camp had been children (90% Jewish).  There was a room, absolutely packed to the brim, with children’s shoes.  So many shoes.

And that’s the thing – I noted this in my journal:  it’s not just the atrocity itself, but the sheer size of the atrocity that is so horrifying.  The piles of shoes and the hair really gave us a sense of that size.

Prisoners

Of the prisoners that weren’t immediately executed, 50% were Jewish.  Many were Polish.  All were treated like property.

There were some prisoners who were given some of the responsibilities of the guards – for example, being in charge of work units.  These prisoners were always German criminals.

The prisoners were deprived of all of their human characteristics.  No names.  Just numbers.  Photos were originally used for identification, but this was eventually changed to tattoos because a prisoner’s appearence would change too much.

The Nazis were meticulous record-keepers.  Prisoner IDs were linked to prisoner files that held details such as education, age, and history.

Hunger was rampant among the prisoners.  There wasn’t nearly enough food for all of them.

One sign we saw gave us a breakdown of the daily life of a prisoner.  I couldn’t get it all down, but the pattern was obvious:  prisoners were slowly killed with work.  They were punished and beaten.  Most lasted less than a year.

All non-Jewish children became prisoners.  These children were also often subject to horrific “scientific” experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.

Among other things, Mengele apparently wanted to find ways of creating twins and triplets, so that German “Aryans” could reproduce quickly.

Other atrocities were performed by Dr. Carl Clauberg who tortured Jewish women, in an attempt at finding ways of sterilizing them.

It was a lot to take in.  We went back outside.

Back Outside

We were at the execution wall.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Prisoners, often naked, were shot in the back of their heads.  It is estimated that 10,000 prisoners were shot at this wall.  There were also posts were prisoners could have their arms strung up behind them for hours, as torture, and as punishment.

There were also starvation cells.  In one of those cells, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death with 9 other men.

Eventually, we entered a building where the first experimental mass killings took place.  There were suffocation cells.  There were cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night.  Pretty horrific.

The “camp hospital” existed for propaganda, to keep the purpose of the extermination camp a secret.  The hospital was really the “crematorium waiting room”, since selections would often happen there.

Roll call was also used as prisoner punishment.  If a prisoner escaped, or it was suspected that a prisoner had escaped, the remaining prisoners would be punished.  They’d be lined up and counted outside of their barracks, again and again.  Sometimes they’d be out there for 20 hours straight.

Only 144 prisoners successfully escaped Auschwitz.  Captured escapees were tortured for information on their escape, and then executed.

Crematorium I was originally an ammo bunker.  The crematorium was dark…stone…dusty…gritty.  It was all so much monstrous efficiency.

Break

The first part of the tour was over.  We handed back our headsets and took a 10 minute break.

I wrote that the sun was warm, and that some of us were hungry.

12:05PM

We just got a small snack.  We’re all sitting outside.  Everybody is quiet.  Some of us are eating.  Some of us are drinking coffee.  Some of us are smoking.  Some of us are crying.  It’s pretty rough.  It’s hard to be an optimist here – hard to feel good, anyhow.  Just…devestated.

12:20PM

We’re late.  Our 10 minute break went on too long, and we’re late getting back on the bus.  We’re heading to the next camp.

The bus really has never been so quiet.  But what do we say to one another?  This is no place for joking around…no place for making quips.  What’s the first thing you say?

There are storm clouds in the distance.

It’s a 3km drive to the next camp.  Tamara says that there are no exhibits…just the barracks and other buildings, the railroad tracks, and the gas chambers.

Auschwitz II

We’re here.  I recognize where I am – I think I had seen it in Schindler’s List.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

It’s brick and fields, barbed wire, and wooden barracks.  It’s starting to rain gently.  Those of us with umbrellas put them up.

The fields here used to be Polish homes and farmland before the residents were evicted by the invaders.  The barracks were constructed from materials from destroyed buildings.

Not all of the barracks are still standing.  Some have been dismantled.  Others have crumbled with age.

The gas chambers have been destroyed, but the ruins are still there.

There’s grass and flowers now, but during the war, everything here was muddy and swampy.

We closed our umbrellas and went into the barracks.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The Barracks

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

The barracks reminded me of stables for horses.  Wooden bunks, and a single stone oven for heating.  At least 400 people per barrack.  No toilets inside.  No washrooms.  Just buckets and ditches in the ground, and barrels of water outside.

There were “toilets” outside, which were really just holes in the ground with wood frames built over them.

Members of the prison resistance would meet by the ditches/toilets, since the guards would never go near them (due to the smell, and disease).

Like Auschwitz I, there’s barbed wire everywhere.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The Gas Chambers, and Liberation

75% of Jews were gassed on arrival to the camp.

In November, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army could reach the camp.  Nazi soldiers began destroying the evidence of what had happened at the camp, starting with the gas chambers.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin
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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

In January, 1945, with the Red Army getting closer, SS command ordered that all prisoners at Auschwitz be executed.  This order was never carried out.  Instead, the camp was evacuated, and the prisoners were sent on death marches to another camp in Wodzisław Śląski.  Prisoners who were too sick or weak to march were left behind.  Those 7,500 prisoners were still there when the Red Army came to liberate them.

According to Wikipedia:

Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.

Final Words

Some of the buildings and ruins in Auschwitz II are sinking, and the museum is working hard to restore them.

Just past the last gas chamber is a large stone monument.  Large, Easter Island-like heads and monoliths.

At the base of the monument are numerous plaques, all in different languages.  Here’s the English one:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan
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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The monument is surrounded by flowers and wreaths.

The tour is now over.  We thank the tour-guide, and, in the rain, follow the train tracks back out the main entrance.  Birds chirp.  Grass grows.  Puddles. Life continues.

It’s no surprise to me that existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd came about in reaction to these atrocities.

And that’s it for my Auschwitz notes.

3:30PM

Just got off the bus.  Had a nice long nap – I think most of us did.  We’re back in Krakow.  It’s sunny and warm.  Tamara has given us free time now.

5:30PM

Had a nice big late lunch (or early dinner) with  Alex, Linn, Una, and Jiv.

Onion soup, garlic bread, and a banana-chili shake.  Nice!
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Onion soup, garlic bread, and a banana-chili shake. Nice!24-Jun-2009 11:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64

 

We discussed Auschwitz – it seemed OK to do now.  We all agreed that it was a devastating experience, but we were glad we did it.

Our moods were starting to lighten.

We also saw a guy in a beer suit walking around:

Giant beer suit!
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Giant beer suit!24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 
The giant beer suit stalks its prey...
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The giant beer suit stalks its prey…24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

And we also saw some breakdancers doing some moves in the market square.

Krakow breakdancers
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Krakow breakdancers24-Jun-2009 11:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 11:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 11:34, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

I caught some of it on video:

After eating, I went to the phone to call Em.

6:05PM

Just got off the phone with Em.  Told her all about Auschwitz.  Missing her a lot. I decided to try to make myself feel better by getting some lemon sorbet.  It’s a pretty good deal at 4z.  I found Alexi and Yev drinking coffee in the square, and joined them while I finished my cone.

I think Yev borrowed my camera and took these photos:

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24-Jun-2009 13:14, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.007 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 13:14, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

7:05PM

I’m on my own now.  There’s some big crowd in the square, and I hear clapping.  Buskers?

Ah, looks like another breakdance group.

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24-Jun-2009 14:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.23, 7.5mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

And there are accordion players here!  They’re playing some classical music.  Nice.

Krakow accordian players
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Krakow accordian players24-Jun-2009 14:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

And a mime painted all in gold (though in this shot, he looks like he’s on break):

Mr. Gold.
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Mr. Gold.24-Jun-2009 14:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.009 sec, ISO 64

 

There’s also a group of people giving out free hugs.

All of this activity is occurring around another statue of Adam Mickiewicz:

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24-Jun-2009 14:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.5, 15.5mm, 0.012 sec, ISO 64

 

7:15PM

I listen to the accordion players for a while.  They’re playing the William Tell Overture.

Eventually, I exit the square into a side street.  I hear violins…eventually, I see the players:

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24-Jun-2009 14:24, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 100

 

And I think I hear a dulcimer being played somewhere.

7:25PM

The street I strolled down is called Florianska.  At some earlier point, I had gotten the urge to check out some of the local music scene, and the girl at the hostel told me to walk down this street.  She said there was an indie rock bar around here called The Lizard, but I haven’t found it yet.  And I’m slowly approaching the end of the street.

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24-Jun-2009 14:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

So I haven’t found The Lizard.  My quest to find some indie music is a failure.  I did peer through the window of a closed music store, though.

Heading back, the sun is starting to set.

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24-Jun-2009 14:50, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

I’ve suddenly realized that there’s less than a week left in my trip.

7:30PM

I’m sitting in some park, listening to the birds.  While I recognize some of the calls, most of the birds sound really different than what I’m normally used to.

Thunder rumbles in the distance.  I think there will be another storm tonight.

7:50PM

I’m back in the square.  I hear bagpipes somewhere – the notes from the pipes are reverberating off of the walls.

Eventually, I see the piper.  He’s really far away, and I have to zoom in with my camera:

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24-Jun-2009 15:06, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.023 sec, ISO 64

 

The square seems pretty busy for a Wednesday night.  I imagine the place gets absolutely packed on weekends.

It’s a whole spectrum of age groups out this evening.  I’m also hearing a variety of languages.  Polish, English, and German for starters.  Italian too.  Mostly white people.  One or two exceptions.  Some rollerbladers.

The Trumpet

An ambulance raced by, driving through the crowded square. As it passed, I heard a trumpet playing a tune from the top of the cathedral, and then abruptly stop.

I heard the same tune over the bus radio when we first landed in Poland, but I think I forgot to write about it.  It has something to do with a trumpet player trying to warn the city of invaders, and then being shot in the throat whiel playing – hence, the sudden stop.

A crowd of people has formed in front of one of the cathedrals.  Lots of talk, buzzing, but no English.  Not sure what’s going on.  Is it a tour about to start?  Church service?  Mass?  At 8:07PM?

The Birds

I’ve noticed some noisy, high-pitched, tiny birds flying from building to building.  They’re abundant.  Maybe bats?  I feel like an idiot trying to take a photo of them, but I do it anyways:

These little noisy birds were everywhere
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These little noisy birds were everywhere24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 
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24-Jun-2009 15:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 64

 

The three men playing on the accordions are still there, and now that crowd is starting to move.  I guess the cathedral was acting like some big meeting point for a tour group.  The accordion players are doing the William Tell Overture again – they seem to have a repetoire of about 5 songs.

My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.

Click here to go to Part 11.5: Back to the Hostel

Click here to go back to Part 10: Journey to Krakow, Wawel Hill, and The Dragon.

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Ping!

I’ve done it again:  I’ve let dust gather on my blog.

Quick update:

  • I’ve finished my courses for this semester, and have gone into full-blown research mode.
  • My research proposal is going through ethics review, in order to make sure that I’m not going to blow things up (or hurt anybody if I do)
  • While my paperwork is reviewed, I’m refining my procedure and apparatus.  Better and better.
  • I’ve been accepted into Google Summer of Code this year – I’ll be working on Review Board.  Details about my project will be the subject of an upcoming post, which I will toss up shortly.
  • I may or may not be co-directing a radio play.  I’ll let you know.
  • The MarkUs team is about to release version 0.7, and a fresh batch of Summer students will soon be here at UofT to work on it!
  • I have not forgotten about the UCDP trip to Poland.  I still have to tell you what we saw and did at Auschwitz.  Cripes – it’s almost a year since I returned, and I’m only half-way through the whole story.  And there’s a ton more to tell.  Coming soon.

Stay tuned.

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A Few Things Drama Can Bring to Computer Science

So, yesterday I wrote:

[W]hat can Drama bring to Computer Science?

The easy one is presentation/communication skills.  A CS student might be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean they can present or communicate.  And if an idea can’t be communicated, it’s worthless.

But what else?  Any ideas?  I’m going to think about this for a bit, and I’ll see if I can come up with any more.

I posted the question on Twitter, and on my Facebook.  I was quite surprised by the amount of feedback I got back – apparently, quite a few people are interested in this topic.

Thanks for everybody who posted, or who came up to talk to me about this!  Let me summarize what I heard back:

  • Without a doubt, work in Drama hones movement/body senses.  It also trains us to use and take care of our body, and voice, like a musician would take care of a musical instrument.  Spending too much time hunkered over a keyboard can have detrimental effects on the body over time – I can personally admit to having absolutely awful shoulder tension, no doubt to my constant typing.  I only became aware of this tension, and how to deal with it, thanks to my work in Drama.  The dichotomy between body and mind is, in my humble opinion, a Western myth, and when you stop separating them, and get them to work together, amazing things can happen.  Just ask any contact improviser.
  • Drama is also emotional work.  No, this doesn’t mean we sit in a big circle and cry, and get credit for it.  Emotions are something that we study – how to mimic them, how to summon them out of ourselves, how to describe them, and abstractly represent them.  This is where Psychology, Drama, and Human-Computer Interaction might have some overlap.  In particular, it must be remembered that theatre is a communications medium between the actor(s) on stage, and the audience.  A webpage is also a communications medium.  Perhaps the theatre can teach a website a thing or two about communication.  I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have to say on all of this…
  • Drama folk are creative, and are used to doing impossible, unreasonable things.  If you ask them to fly, they’ll figure out a way of doing it.  It’ll probably be abstract, and involve crazy lighting effects, but they’ll do it.  Production Managers are used to getting crazy, impossible requests from Directors all the time.  In my opinion, that’s what Directors are for!  Sometimes (usually due to time constraints), the Production Manager just says no to the Director – usually, though, they just go ahead and make impossible things happen – like building a triple layered reflection box.  This thing was a beast, and used a ton of computing power for live, context sensitive visual effects. I’m proud to have been a part of that.
  • In Drama, if the project is no fun, the end result suffers.  I’m pretty sure the same goes for software.  Drama students have a way of finding the “game”, the “jeu”, and the “play” (that’s why it’s called a “play”, people!) in what they’re doing.  The best actors are the ones who are clearly having a great time on stage, and are sharing this with the audience.  I believe this is applicable to software development…
  • If you want to think about complex systems, think about the stage.  At any given moment, n actors are on stage, interacting with various bits of set or props, interacting with each other – and each has their own motivation and personal story.  It can’t be a coincidence that the I* modeling language orients itself around terms like “actors” and “goals”.  It also can’t be a coincidence that many adventure game engines refer to in-game sprites as actors…

But now I want to hit the big one.  There is one thing that I really think Drama can bring to Computer Science.  Drama students are very good at it.  From what I can tell, Computer Science students rarely get exposed to it.

That thing is collaboration skills.

I already know that a few of my fellow Drama students will laugh at that – and say, “there are plenty of people in this department without collaboration skills”.  Yes, this is true.  But they tend not to do very well, or produce anything too interesting.

For me, the best, most exciting stuff comes when I’m with a group, and we’re not sure where we’re going with a project, but we just try things. We all throw a bunch of ideas in the middle, and try to put them on their feet.  The most unexpected things can happen.

Two years ago, I took a course in Experimental Theatre.  We were broken down into groups of 3 or 4 right at the beginning of the term, and given this challenge – show us what you like to see in theatre.  Show us what you think good theatre looks like.

That was it.  A blank canvas.  No script.  No “spec”.  Just each other.  It felt hopeless at first – we’d improv things, trying to get a feel for what our group wanted to do.  Nothing would happen, it’d fall flat.  We were lost.

But slowly, something started to piece itself together.  We found some material that we wanted to play with (The Wizard of Oz), and a subject that we liked – “home”.  What it means to be home, why people leave their homes, why we miss home, why we can’t stand home, what if we can’t get home, etc.  We divided the work up into 4 sections – 1 for each of us:  Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man.

It’s really hard to describe what we did.  The characters and structure from The Wizard of Oz was just a playground for a huge meditation on what “home” meant to different people.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the Robert Dziekanski Taser Incident happened just a week or so before we were to present.  It integrated perfectly into our piece.

When we finally presented it, some people were incredulous, others nauseous, others outraged.  Some were crying.  We had a huge class debate on whether or not it was appropriate to include the film clip of the Taser Incident in our piece.

But a lot of people really got something out of it.  And I believe a bunch of people from that class went to a protest rally about the incident that took place only a few days later.  I heard a lot of really positive things.  We were so excited by it that we almost took it to the Toronto Fringe Festival.

In my opinion, that was one of the most interesting, educational, horrifying, and rewarding art pieces I’d ever been involved in.  And it all started from nothing.

When are Computer Science students grouped up, and told to make whatever they want?  When are they given total freedom to just go crazy, and come up with something beautiful?  Something unique?  When are they given the frightening prospect of a blank canvas?  Maybe I’m being naive – but where are the collaborative creativity assignments in computer science education?

Now, I can imagine someone shouting – “but what about those group assignments!  What about CSC318, or CSC301?  Those were collaborative!”.

My friend, thanks for trying, but there’s a distinct difference between group problem solving, and collaborative creation.  In my mind, for collaborative creation at its best, the ensemble starts with nothing and must create something from it.  It’s the difference between having a script to toy with, and not having a script at all.

And don’t just tell me that an independent study fits the bill.  The word “independent” sabotages the whole idea – the key word is collaborate.

Oh, and did I mention that Artful Making sounds like an excellent book? Why don’t you go to their website, and read the forward by Google’s own Dr. Eric Schmidt.  I found it very illuminating.  I think this is going to the top of my to-read list.

Thanks to Blake Winton, Veronica Wong, Cam Gorrie, Jorge Aranda, Neil Ernst, Peter Freund, Jennifer Dowding, and Yev Falkovich for their input on this.  Yes, those little conversations made an impact!

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Poland – Part 1: Departures and Arrivals

Note:  As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a hostel in Warsaw.  It’s 5AM, and the cable to connect my camera to a computer is buried at the bottom of my backpack.  So, while there are photos to go along with this story, they’re going to have to be added later.

June 15 – 2:45PM EST

I’ve been to Pearson Airport in Toronto a few times before, but only ever to pick up some passenger after they’ve come back from a trip.

I’ve never been one of those “departure” people.

Well, today was my day.  And man, it was confusing.

It started off smoothly enough.  My Dad, girlfriend Emily, and her sister Cassie, had brought me to Pearson to see me off.  I was able to get my boarding pass from a machine (which was nice and easy), after finding fellow passengers Reid, Anj, and Olya.  What a relief to see those three, because I honestly had no idea where I was in the airport, and had no idea what was going on.  Pearson is huge, and I was only in Terminal 1.

After our goodbyes, I stood in a line to get my carry-on bags scanned.

That was my first mistake.  Wasted 20 minutes getting to the front of that line, only to find out that I had to go to another line somewhere else in the airport to check my stowed luggage.  So there was some momentary panic while I raced around the airport, trying to find the right place.

So, lesson one:  it’s always OK to ask when you’re way out of your element, and it usually makes things go faster.  I knew this already, but this was a clear-cut example.

3:20PM EST

After some more running around, and a trip along a few moving sidewalks, I made it to our departure gate, where Olya, Reid, and Anj were already waiting.

Waiting in Pearson to take off
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Waiting in Pearson to take off15-Jun-2009 16:15, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.026 sec, ISO 64

 
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15-Jun-2009 16:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 
Not our plane, but it was my first time seeing a double decker, so I thought I'd take a picture.
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Not our plane, but it was my first time seeing a double decker, so I thought I'd take a picture.15-Jun-2009 16:37, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 7.67, 16.0mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 
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15-Jun-2009 16:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64

 
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15-Jun-2009 16:39, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.71, 5.8mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 

Eventually, the rest of our comrads showed up.  And now, for your edification, here’s a list of the UCDP people who were flying with me that day:

  • Anj Mulligan
  • Reid Linforth
  • Olya Ryabets
  • Jiv Parasram
  • Ryan Cooley
  • Chantelle Hedden
  • Alexi Marchel
  • Yev Falkovich
  • Peter Freund
  • Alex Rubin

After a lot of sitting around and waiting, we board our flight.  After even more waiting, the plane begins to move.

Take-off:  6:00PM EST

Our plane took off at exactly 6PM EST.  We were half an hour behind schedule.  Already, my companions were taking bets on whether or not we’d miss our connecting flight from Frankfurt (not Brussels, sorry!) to Warsaw.  We only had 50 minutes once we had landed in Frankfurt, so it was going to be tight.

Anyhow, we’re in the air.  And I’m excited, of course.  I haven’t been in a plane since a flight to Toronto from Miami in 2004, and I sure as hell haven’t flown outside North America.  This was going to be a new experience for me.

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15-Jun-2009 19:06, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 5.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64

 
My inflight entertainment console
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My inflight entertainment console15-Jun-2009 18:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.385 sec, ISO 100

 

It didn’t take long for three minor disasters to happen:

  1. I had packed a bag of mixed nuts/cashews in my carry-on.  To my dismay, when I opened my backpack, I found that the bag had exploded and that my carry-on was filled with loose nuts.  A bunch spilled on the floor, and immediately I began worrying about other passengers who might have nut allergies…all it takes is a whiff, and bam – out like a light.
    Trailmix disaster
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    Trailmix disaster15-Jun-2009 19:30, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100

     

    Anyhow, Ryan Cooley helped me clean/conceal the mess as much as possible, and I did my best to clean up the mess inside my bag.  Reminded me a bit of this story I had written earlier in the year…

  2. The pen I’ve been keeping my notes with started leaking.  Ink all over my hand, and some on my shirt.  Yech.  Luckily, I brought spares…
  3. The instructional safety video, which was supposed to be broadcast to the screens in front of each of us, did not work in my row.  It looked like scrambled cable.  Had to crane my neck to see it on someone else’s screen.  Not too bad, but it’s a bit discouraging when the mandatory safety video doesn’t work.

The flight was mostly eventless.  Besides some minor turbulence (which freaked out one of our more sensitive flyers), there wasn’t much to do.  My Dad had let me borrow his noise-cancelling headphones, which were awesome.  I listened to classical music on XM radio while I wrote my notes.

6:37PM EST

Food started making its way down the aisles, and it smelled pretty good…

But then we hit a patch of turbulence.  One of my companions is really not into flying, and so we consoled them while the plane shook around us.  The calming thing was that the flight attendants looked calm as ever, and kept handing out food.

I chose the pasta.  And a Canada Dry ginger ale.

Dinner!  Tasty.
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Dinner! Tasty.15-Jun-2009 19:44, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 141

 

I hear a few of my comrads are already taking advantage of the free beer/wine/spirits on board.  Hilarity ensues.

6:52PM EST

Great meal.  Pasta in tomato sauce, a bun, some veggies in dressing, and chocolate mousse for dessert!  Felt very pampered and content.  Was reminded again of this Louis CK video.

And it’s even better knowing I haven’t paid a cent for it!  Free always tastes better…

7:00PM EST

Around this time, I figured out that the in-flight mapping system wasn’t working, and I had no idea where we were.

I trusted our pilot knew where he was going.

Also around this time, Yev started saying that the shadows were getting longer…the sun was going down…the shortest night of my life was coming.

I’m reminded of a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey – the scene near the beginning (after the ape fights), where a character is flying to a space station.  Our flight feels futuristic.  Maybe it’s the lighting.  Maybe it’s all of the video screens winking at me.  Maybe I’m just over dramatizing it.

Night-time on the plane
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Night-time on the plane15-Jun-2009 21:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 250

 

Or maybe it was that Phillip Glass music I was listening to…

At this point, I’ve decided that I’m bored, and that I’m going to watch an in-flight movie.  After some deliberation, I choose The Watchmen, which I had already seen, but didn’t mind watching again.

8:10PM EST

It was pretty dark outside our windows at this point.  Yev seemed to think that we were over Greenland, but how she could tell that through all the cloud cover, I have no idea.

I kept watching the movie.

9:15PM EST

At this point, I decided to get up and walk around a bit.  I stretched.  Our trip to Frankfurt is about half over.  So is The Watchmen, for that matter, but I decided to try to sleep instead of finishing it.

11:00PM EST

I had no luck sleeping at all, despite amazing noise-cancelling headphone technology.  I rolled about.  I chatted with my travel mates.  I listened to music.

It was starting to get light out outside.  The sun was coming up.

I don’t think anyone slept that much during the flight.  I saw a few people dosing, but that was it.

Rubin clocks out.  Jiv is not amused.
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Rubin clocks out. Jiv is not amused.15-Jun-2009 22:51, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100

 

I knew that I’d have to stay awake for as much of the following day as possible, so it was a bit discouraging to be unable to sleep.  I pretty much figured I’d spend most of the next day in a daze.

11:20PM EST

Breakfast arrived, and according to Yev, we were flying over land again!

It's getting late, and we're over land again.  Greenland?
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It's getting late, and we're over land again. Greenland?15-Jun-2009 21:15, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.417 sec, ISO 100

 

Breakfast is a muffin, yogurt, and orange juice.  Nice.

Breakfast - muffin, orange juice, and yogurt
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Breakfast – muffin, orange juice, and yogurt16-Jun-2009 00:26, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 250

 

Muffin was good, but non-descript.  No idea what flavour it was, but I liked it.

When they brought the food, I asked the flight attendant what land we were flying over.  He said he had no idea, but that we would be landing in about an hour.

Maybe if I knew how fast we were going, I could figure out where we might be.

I found it strange that the captain never really addressed the passengers.  Never told us the route, altitude, speed, etc.  Things are changing, I guess.

11:45PM EST

It was almost midnight back home, and the sun was rising where we were.

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16-Jun-2009 00:40, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.085 sec, ISO 100

 

I had no idea what time it was.  My body felt very confused and disoriented.  I felt like I’d been up all night, and I guess I had been…all 3 hours of it.

June 16 – 12:25AM EST

We began our descent around here.  Phase 1 of our journey was about to end.

Why do all pilots sound the same?  Always with that croaky voice… or maybe it’s the microphones that they use.

Lots of turbulence going down, but it was a smooth landing.

June 16 – 3:15AM EST, 9:15AM Local

I still hadn’t adjusted my watch yet, and that was starting to freak me out.

So, the main event was that we missed our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Warsaw.  We were about 20 minutes too late.  50 minutes is not even close to enough time to get processed at the Frankfurt airport.

Alex explains:

Missed our connecting flight?  You bet!
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Missed our connecting flight? You bet!16-Jun-2009 03:02, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.182 sec, ISO 100

 
Yev is so meta
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Yev is so meta16-Jun-2009 03:02, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.094 sec, ISO 100

 

So Frankfurt airport was my first taste of Europe.  My impressions?  Honestly?  Not that different.  I didn’t feel like I was in a foreign place, really – except I couldn’t read any of the advertisements.  Everything else had English attached, so that was nice.

After some chit-chatting with Air Canada, we were booked on a later flight.  There was a lot of running around, lots of in-between-destinations stress, and we almost missed that flight too.  But we made it.

Getting our new flight
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Getting our new flight16-Jun-2009 03:34, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.11 sec, ISO 100

 

A couple of casualties though:

  1. Ryan Cooley left his windbreaker on the plane that brought us from Toronto
  2. Reid Linforth lost his watch during the security check in Frankfurt.  That really sucked for him.

At this point, I could really feel how tired I am.  My body was buzzing.  I had been awake since 9:30AM EST, and it was 3:22AM EST at that point.

The plane we took from Frankfurt was much, much smaller than the one from Toronto.  It was only going to be flying for an hour, and it looked like a lot of the passengers took this trip every day.  I tried to nap on the plane, but no luck.

4:08AM EST, 10:08AM Local

We were on route to Warsaw.

We were served some kind of cheese sandwich for our in-flight meal, which was good.  Really wasn’t sure what was in it, and sure didn’t take a picture.  Why?  I was starving.  Scarfed the thing right down.  Hadn’t slept, hungry, grumpy.

There was lots of turbulence in the smaller airplane.  Pretty shaky.  Kinda scary.

I wiped my face with a lemon scented wet-nap to wake myself up, and had a cup of tea.

Eventually, I got into a conversation with the lady sitting next to me about theatre.  She was a Bulgarian business-woman going to some sort of seminar.  We talked about Poland, sight-seeing, and Bulgarian theatre.

And then we landed.

And we were in Poland.

Click here to go to Part 2: Dazed in Warsaw

Click here to go back to the Prologue

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