Krakow – the city of sex and business?
By Chloe Johnson
An icy chill smacks me in the face as I step out of Poland’s Krakow Airport which is freakishly quiet and surprisingly lacking human life.
Goosebumps blanket my body which is shivering as it tries to adjust to the 4 degrees Celsius weather, but my mind is soon distracted when a young local man springs up behind us.
‘Where you want to go?’
His enthusiasm to help bursts out of his body like a teenager on ecstasy for the first time as he races around trying to find a bus that will take us to our hostel in Pawia Street.
‘Yes, it’s this one you need,” he says pointing to a dark lonely bus.
He kisses his two fingers and shouts “welcome to the city of sex and business” before fleeing, leaving us gasping thank you under our breaths as we try to comprehend what had just happened in the last 30 seconds.
While I like to visit cities with little expectations I must admit that wasn’t the first sentence I expected to hear from a Pole, and it certainly wasn’t my impression of Krakow –home to one of the largest Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz.
I take in what he has said with a grain of salt and hop on the dark, dingy bus.
Facing my fears at Auschwitz
The next morning I wake in a sombre mood in preparation for the grim day ahead visiting Auschwitz.
It’s my first visit to a concentration camp and to be honest my tummy is doing little flips and I’m quite nervous about what I am going to see and hear. The camp is on the top of my list of things to see but it is also on the bottom.
For the last seven years I have tried to stay clear of anything that explores deaths and grim discoveries after my mother put herself through torture and ended her life one morning while I was at school.
But I am at a stage in the grieving process where I feel ready to face my fears and the desire to learn about the history of WW11 is stronger than the urge to keep hiding from reality.
My mind is quickly distracted as Mandy and I frantically try to find our way through the Galleria shopping mall to the entrance of the bus station.
“Down and right,” one shop assistant says.
“Up and left” another directs us.
Like two lost characters on the amazing race, we run left and right asking people along the way “autobus?, autobus?”
With the help of a wrinkled, grey-haired man sporting a cheese cutter hat and dirty work overalls, we finally find the bus to Auschwitz.
“Gdzie jest ten …” a man in the bus line attempts to speak to us, but we cut him off “sorry we don’t speak Polish.”
“Ah okay, so where are you from?” he asks, sounding extremely happy to hear English speakers.
We step onto the bus while saying “New Zealand, and you?”
Our country always works in our favour and almost works like a gate which foreigners consider open for conversation and friendships. It’s true, we Kiwis are a friendly bunch.
“New Zealand, wow” he says.
“I’m from Spain. What are your names?”
While he’s happy to hear our English my attention elevates when I hear the word Spain as I have been studying Spanish for the last five weeks.
“Me Llamas Chloe,” I proudly say in Spanish.
The walls which separate strangers have completely crumbled as our new friend, Arcadio, takes a seat in front of us. He turns and faces Mandy and I to continue chatting for the next 90 minutes.
His eyes are friendly, his laugh is contagious and his mind is deep in thought. Arcadio has been living in Poland for the last three years studying architecture as an adult student. He explains how Krakow became lodged in his mind after a family holiday as a child and today he is on his way to Babice to take photos of Polish country houses.
Conversation flows as we share stories of travels, our countries, and in particular, New Zealand Maoris. Arcadio has never heard of Maoris and is quite fascinated to learn NZ has a native race and language.
The chit chat thickens as we enter deep and meaningful conversations about relationships and the cycle of life. His views on life and the laws of attraction hold my entire attention like a little girl listening to her favourite bedtime story.
“This is Auschwitz museum, we are at Auschwitz museum” the bus driver says interrupting my deep thoughts.
On arrival we book a guided tour and are given a headset so we can listen to our guide who is wrapped up from head to toe in scarves, jackets, gloves and thick boots – a slight indication to the icy temperatures we may experience.
Her jet-black hair is cropped short and shapes around her dark sunglasses releasing a first impression of hardness and seriousness. But her voice is soft and I find myself zoning out to her voice which is making me sleepy.
The skies are blue and the sun is shining but the air is crisp and cold. A sharp burst of wind pierces through my jacket while I stand at the entrance of the world’s largest concentration camp which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work results in Freedom”.
We are guided down empty paths and through brick prisoner blocks which are labelled with numbers stamped onto brown signs at the entrance.
The barracks are enclosed by barbwire fences, which sadly, spark a reaction for photo opportunities, rather than a saddened emotion as expected.
It’s not until we enter the blocks that I am faced with images of starvation and children being separated from their mothers. Stained white and blue striped clothing of prisoners hang behind a glass case and the cold wooden rooms where they slept at night (if they made it) were blocked off by wrought iron doors for us to peep through.
Emotions thicken as we exit one block and enter another, each with their own disturbing sections revealing the pain and suffering that innocent families were put through.
Although there are some emotions floating around my body, I am feeling guilty at my lack of genuine sadness as I struggle to comprehend what really happened in the 1940s. I’m frustrated because the images of live skeletons are staring at me, the prison cells and gas chambers are right in front of me but it isn’t pulling on my heart strings.
Then, I enter Block 4 where there is a room filled with decaying human hair which was cut from around 140,000 women to use when making blankets and mats. The mass of golden-grey matted hair, some still plaited in pony-tails, triggers my reflux and I am forced to take deep breaths to stop myself from vomiting.
Turning the corner, there are more rooms but this time filled with children’s shoes. They are worn, they are leather and they are generally black and brown. Although, one weathered white shoe sits on the top of the pile with its laces undone and for some reason I am drawn to this one shoe.
Block 4 not only triggers emotions but it lodges in my photographic memory wiping out my effort during the last 7 years to avoid death and grim visions.
I then realise, maybe I wasn’t quite ready.
The other side of Krakow
The next night it isn’t the icy chill that smacks me in the face but cigarette smoke which suffocates restaurants and clubs. It appears it is still legal to smoke indoors.
After walking around Krakow’s Old Town searching for somewhere to have a quiet drink we soon learn that quiet drinks don’t really exist and the Polish are all about immersing themselves in hard house music, even at 7.30pm.
We eventually stumble across a neon lit club where Katy Perry and Michael Jackson echo onto the street.
We cringe with hesitation but we are thirsty and don’t know where else to go so we walk up the stairs, pass through an ID check and enter yet another smoke-filled room.
I ignore my tingling nose and stinging eyes while attempting to order a Malibu and pineapple before heading to the lounge area.
Within minutes we attract our first enemies.
Two men start ranting at us but become silent after realising we don’t speak Polish. They start using Mr Bean gestures in an attempt to say “piss off, you’re in our seats”.
It’s quite humorous to us but their bulging facial veins give me the impression it’s time to move, so we pack up our things and head to the dance floor where it seems there is less anger.
Although there is no anger there is certainly aggression as the Poles’ dominate the dance floor with moves that put John Travolta to shame.
A tall, thin attractive blonde woman dressed in white knee high boots and a cropped white top stands out from the crowd as she loses herself in the music. She flicks her hair back and forth in sync with large hip swings and booty shakes. She definitely has our attention but it seems the local boys aren’t overly impressed.
Couples grind up on each other, while some are happy grinding by themselves oozing sex appeal and releasing potent pheromones.
A vivid image of the decaying hair at Auschwitz flashes in my mind and I begin to feel guilty for having a good time.
It’s at that moment I realise Krakow’s brutal history is just that – history. A respected, recognised and important past which shapes the city I am standing in. But right now, it seems Krakow is a city brimming with young people who just want to party.
Who knows, one day it might knock Amsterdam off the radar and become the ‘city of sex and business.’
Chloe is a journalist from New Zealand who fled the news desk to live the travel writing dream. At 25 years old she has already lived in America, NZ, Australia and the UK and has stepped on the soil of more than 16 countries, with many more to discover. You can read more of Chloe’s travel stories at Backpacking Journalist and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.