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Saturday
Aug202005

Disco bowling in Moscow

What a day! In the morning we visited the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin (so archetypically Russian that it is known as The Kremlin) was founded by Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is an enormous complex surrounded by 2.25km of walls (not the original 1360s white limestone walls but Ivan the Great's 1475 walls), with dozens of churches, cathedrals, museums, and major political buildings inside, spanning all eras of Russian history.

The highlights (for me) were a pile of 800 cannons captured from Napoleon in 1812 at Borodino, the golden domed Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, the Archangel Cathedral, with exquisite 1500's paintings and the tombs of all tsars from 1320-1690 (except Boris Godvnor), the tsars cannon (called the peaceful cannon, it has never been fired but was wheeled out to scare the Mongols in the 1200s with its 1m diameter), and Ivan the Great's bell tower. Next to the bell tower is Tsar-kolokol, a 202 tonne bell (the largest in the world) cast for Empress Anna Ivanovna (the one Luke likes) in 1730. Just after it was finished the workshop caught fire and the bell was doused with water, cracking it. I touched the 70 tonne piece that fell off for luck.

The Annunciation Cathedral was interesting because it had a porch built onto it for Ivan the Terrible to sit in, because he wasn't allowed to enter after he defied the Church to take a fourth wife.

When Napoleon took the Kremlin in 1812 he planted explosives in all the buildings before he evacuated, luckily Cossacks rode in and cut the fuses, so most buildings are original.

We also saw the amazing Armoury, with the staggering treasures accumulated by the tsars. Too many to mention, but my favourites were the tsar's Faberge eggs, the chalice of Yuri Longarm, a chain mail suit made up of 120 000 rings, each engraved with "God is with us", and the many ambassadors gifts. The silverware from 14th century England is important, because it is unique, as Oliver Cromwell melted down al the British silverware to mint coins after he executed the British kings and turned Britain into a republic (incidentally, this incident caused a cessation in trade between Russia and England, as the tsars did not approve of republics). I saw the Olympic dinner set, 120 pieces given from Napoleon to Alexander at Tilsbet in the 1807 peace treaty. One quirky item was a triple goblet, given to people as a practical joke. If they tried to drink it fast, they it spilt over themself and everyone laughed. If they knew the trick and sipped the interconnected chalices slowly everyone applauded.

Another quirky item was the double throne of Peter and Ivan, crowned as kings together as boys. Peter had a secret booth installed in the throne for an advisor to tell him what to say, giving him the reputation of being wise at age 10. Although, it was not in the end a false reputation, as Peter became Peter the Great, the wisest tsar, a skilled bootmaker, craftsman and shipwright in addition to being the first tsar to lead the army, conquering new territory and founding St Petersburg.

 After lunch Luke, John and I caught the metro to Kolomenskoye. It is world heritage listed, but most buildings were under repair, so it wasn't too impressive. We went to a cafe for coffee, beers and vodka and chatted about US politics. We met the Irish girls for dinner (borscht) and went bowling, which included half a dozen beers and a fair few vodka shots. Bowling was disco style too, which was very exciting. The Russian couple next to us accidently bowled a ball into our alley, and to make up for it Dimitri and Olya bought us a bottle of champagne, a flask of vodka, and four pizzas. Olya started bowling all of our shots (only gutter balls, she was wasted), and Monica started ballroom dancing with Dimitri. When Monica passed out I carried her to her room with Niamh and held a bucket for her to throw up in.



Friday
Aug192005

The Moscow Metro

Today Karen told me an amusing urban legend. Stalin was meeting with the city planners trying to fix the transportation issues. The metro system was excellent for getting in or out of Moscow, but took a long time to go from one outer spot to another. The city planners racked their brains, and couldn't fix the problem. Finally Stalin stood up, put his coffee cup down on the map, and said it was a problem for tomorrow. The next day they came back, lifted the coffee cup off the map and saw that it made a brown circle line around the city centre. The city planners applauded Stalin and built the brown circle line.



Thursday
Aug182005

The seedy side of Piter

Last night before catching the train to Moscow, we went on a walking tour of Piter run by Nochlezhka (Night Shelter). They are an NGO that looks after the homeless in Piter. Homelessness is a huge problem in Russia, with 10% of the population affected, including 54 000 in Piter alone. The big problem is because all Russians have a passport, but the passport needs to have a registration stamp with your current address in it. If you don't have this stamp you can't get a job, you can't get medical treatment, and you are not allowed to leave the city you are in. What a stupid system! The people that need the help can't get it. They end up sorting through garbage for something to eat and bottles to recycle. Our guide said she was touched when she saw someone sitting on the garbage reading a book she had found in it.

We pretty much just walked around Nevsky (and a few of the more dodgy areas just to the north), but it was interesting to hear a few new facts about Piter. For example, the bridge with four horses and four naked men holding them is locally called "18 ball bridge"... counts... 16 for the statues, when we asked why 18, she said it is because there is always a policeman standing on the bridge.

The Catherine the Great square is strictly divided down the middle, with one side being the popular gay hangout, and the other being the old Russian chess champion side. We went to an old alternative theatre where they show Japanese movies from the 50's (apparently it is the only place in Piter which always smells like hash), and a local theatre that is the lesbian culture centre - interestingly the lesbian symbol in Piter in a double headed axe for some reason. We saw a Roma doing an act with a crocodile, and we passed by two pubs, one which has New Years Eve every night, and one which has a wedding every night.

We saw Paul I's castle, which he had painted peach because it was the colour of his lover's gloves. Paul I was murdered like every tsar except Alexander I (who drank himself to death).

In the bad neighbourhood we saw the common flats, where multiple families live in the same flat. Our guide told us that to divide the electricity bill, the single toilet in the flat can have a dozen light bulbs with a dozen switches, so each family uses their own light bulb. 15% of people in Piter still live in these common flats. Also, our guide read out the local graffiti, which is always things like "I love you". There is almost never mean graffiti in Russia.

Finally, we saw the small sparrow statues, down in the canal. The small gray birds flitter down around the canals. This statue is just by the law school, which is all boys and they are surrounded by a moat and wear all gray. There is a nursery rhyme which goes (when translated) "little gray bird where are you going, I'm going to the canal to have a vodka, two vodka, three vodka". Every child sings it.

Moscow

Overnight train to Moscow, how exotic! The largest city in Europe with 13 million people, but unlike Piter it has a wholly Russian feel to it. It was founded in the 1500's by Yuri Longarm who defeated the Tartars. It was made great by Ivan the Terrible, who founded the Kremlin and built St Basils. In 1703 the capital of Russia was moved to Piter, but the city still remained the hub of Russia, which has only increased since the Soviets moved the capital back.

We saw the seven sisters, huge neo-gothic skyscrapers built because Stalin feared that New York looked more powerful than Moscow. Lucky for him he had the guy who designed the Empire State Building in the Gulags, so he pulled him out of the labour camp and had him build the seven sisters.

We caught the metro through the city. Like Piter the stations were magnificent, with a variety and quality of decoration equal to that in the Hermitage and the best cathedrals. The stations were deep (they were built with bomb shelters in mind) but not as deep as Piter's. The metro network is the largest in the world, with 120 stations and 9 million users per day. I love a good public transport system. We caught a ferry along the Moscow River and saw the gold tipped onion domes of the Church of Christ our Saviour (built after 1812, destroyed by the Soviets and recently rebuilt to the original plans), as well as many small but exquisite Russian orthodox churches. We passed a 70m towering statue of Peter the Great. At least they call it Peter the Great, but actually it was commissioned by Santiago in the States as a statue of Christopher Colombus. They paid in advance for French architects to make me, but were horrified to see the result and turned it down. The architects tried selling it, but eventually they changed the face to pretend it was Peter the Great (still wearing old Spanish clothes) and gave it to Moscow. The residents of Moscow hate it so much there are attempts to blow it up every year, so it is under 24 hour surveillance. Walked around the Kremlin (all 70 acres of it), a massive red fortress wall containing many churches and political buildings, and saw Red Square and the amazing St Basil's church (with the most colourful patterns of onion domes). Saw the outside of the Mauleseum where Lenin's embalmed body is kept, and the building where the CHEKA (later to become KGB) was set up. Tried to find Noveskya, but failed.

Wednesday
Aug172005

Leningrad

Yesterday I saw a side of Piter that I haven't seen before - Leningrad. We did a walking tour with Peter's (an alternative tour guide style, it involves using public transport and walking a lot), who was excellent. During WWII (or as the Russian's call it, the Great Patriotic War), 28 million Russians died, more than all the other countries put together. Apart from Stalingrad, no city suffered as Leningrad did.

Leading up to the German invasion was the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact and the division of Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence". This allowed the Germans to take Poland, and the Russians to take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They also took a 200km strip of land from Finland in the Winter War (which lasted three months and killed 70 000 Finns and 200 000 Russians) to protect the northern approach to Leningrad. Because of this mutual pact, Stalin ordered there to be no aggression to the Germans when Hitler built up his forces on the Polish border. Germans did fly-overs across the border, and Stalin ordered the anti-aircraft guns not to fire. This put off the war for a few months, until, on the 22nd of June, 1941, the Germans flew over and dropped bombs. The Russians were so afraid of Stalin that even then they didn't fire the anti-aircraft guns, and for three days (until news reached Stalin in Moscow and he gave new orders) the Russian army sat and did nothing during the bombing, with tens of thousands killed in days. The line broken, the Russians had to retreat back, ceding hundreds of kilometres, such that by the 8th of September the Germans had reached Leningrad. They never meant to cause a siege, as Hitler planned on simply running over the city and removing it from the face of the earth (as the birthplace of communism), but general Zhukov was flown in, and through enormous sacrifice of life they managed to build a barrier to stop the Germans. Still, the Germans blocked off the southern route, and the Finns joined them and retook the land ceded in the Winter War, blocking off the northern route. Leningrad was then encircled, with the Baltic sea to the west, and Lake Ladoga to the east. The siege lasted for 900 days (until the 27th of Jan, 1944), during which over a million people were killed, which, with the evacuation of refugees, brought the population down from 3.3 million to 800 000.

We caught a tram to the southern defence line of Leningrad, which is in the outer suburbs. Trams are very cool in Piter, since they were made to railway gauge, which makes them unique. Therefore no one makes trams that work on them, so the old 1960's trams are still used. The tram network is the largest in the world. Down south we saw the intact "pill boxes" small reinforced concrete bunkers, which made up the line of defence with trenches linking up units. We also saw the "dragon teeth" - pyramid shaped concrete slabs, tank trenches (3m x 5m trenches), and "hedgehogs" (like giant caltrops made from railway lines) to stop the progression of tanks. Much of this is left along the front, so we walked along the line, looking at the old defences.

For the first 500 days of the siege, Leningrad was completely cut off. There was no firewood (so all the fireplaces were boarded up to prevent loss of heat, even now they are almost all boarded up), very little food (100g of bread was the daily ration), and no petrol or electricity to run transport. What the survivors remember the most is the silence of Leningrad during the siege, with no traffic on the street. People were too exhausted to do anything other then walk up the road to get filthy water from the canals (all water supplies were destroyed in the first wave of bombs). The first winter ('41/'42) was the third coldest winter on record, and people froze to death in their sleep without firewood. The only way limited supplies got into the city was via the "Road of Life" - when Lake Ladoga froze solid trucks could drive across the ice (always risky while the Germans were bombing the ice down), and when it was liquid boats could make the dangerous journey. The freezing/thawing times were the worst, Leningrad had to survive by itself. After a year and a half, a pincer movement succeeded, and the Russians retook a land-route so more supplies made it into the city.

We saw a KB85 tank (the heavy Russian tanks), and Peter told us about the T34, which has a fast highly mobile tank with a quick turret rotation speed, such that Russians used to drive through German lines, then turn around and fire before the Germans could, allowing them to win Kirsk, the largest tank battle in history.

We walked along the Alley of 900 days, lined with 900 birch trees, then visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, seeing a short film made up of silent black and white images caught during the siege. Very powerful, very solemn. Going on in the background was a metronome, the ticking of which was played on the only Leningrad radio station except when alarms were called or news was being broadcast. The metronome was meant to be like a heart-beat, and they speed it up during air raids. It is a very powerful symbol to the Leningrad survivors, since they listened to it religiously for 900 days. The radio station is still going even today, playing only the metronome.

We also walked around some of the Siege of Leningrad cemeteries, although many many more bodies are unburied. Even now 100-1000 bodies are found every year, and only a month ago a fully functional Soviet tank was pulled up from the river.

 

Back to Piter

While we were in the southern suburbs, Luke and I had lunch in a local bakery (mmm...). Peter joined us, and we discussed modern Russian politics (which I really should know more of than I do). We then visited the tallest Lenin statue in the world (9m) and saw the candy-cane style Chesma church, with its pink and white strips. So pretty you could eat it all up. We then caught the metro to the Haymarket, visited the flat where Dostoevsky lived while he wrote Crime and Punishment, then we walked to where Raskolnikov was meant to live, and followed his pathway down to Kokushkin most, looking out over the canal where he so often contemplated suicide, and through the streets to the pawn-brokers flat. This book meant so much to me when I read it, that it was very moving to be able to walk through the same streets myself, imagine Raskolnikov's emotions.

We had Georgian for dinner with the group, which was excellent. Including lots of beer and vodka toasts. I became quite lively, and possibly gave Luke and John shoulder rides down Nevsky Prospket. I woke up grumpy this morning, with a chipped tooth (? beer glass?)

 

Today

After a slow start, Luke and I spent the day wandered around the Hermitage. The beautiful Winter Palace of the Tsars, now filled with the largest art collection in the world. The tsars (especially Catherine the Great) bought up much artwork, then the Soviets pooled artwork pillaged from all over the USSR, finally, when the conquered Berlin, they took all the German artwork (including those pillaged from all over Europe by the Nazis). It is staggering. What I really enjoy more than the art is the actual rooms of the Hermitage itself, each with its own theme and with ornate ceilings and frescos. We saw all the original Classical Greek and Roman sculptures, 5000 year old Egyptian mummies, 500 000 year old paleolithic art, and ancient Russian culture. Excellent. For lunch Luke had cookies and cream icecream (the best he had ever had) and a hot chocolate, which was so thick he had to use a spoon (he said it was basically hot chocolate moose) and also the best he had ever had. For trying to be healthy I had the worst mushroom quiche I have ever had. I just bought Puskin's Tales of Belkin for the trans-Siberian.

Tuesday
Aug162005

St Petersburg

"Velcome to rrRussia", as the girls we shared the overnight sleeper bunker with said to us with a big grin, as we pulled into Moscow station.

Ah, back in lovely Piter! Last time I was here was with Jodie, during the white nights, and we wandered around the streets of Piter looking at the most magnificent of churches and the St Peter and Paul Fortress, a day looking at the treasures of the Hermitage, we spent a night watching the Kirov ballet perform Swan Lake at the Marinsky theatre. My favourite of cities, one I thought I would never see again, and now here I am!

As always, when reaching civilisation, we caught the subway. The Piter subway is the deepest in the world, because it is built on a swamp at sea level, so they needed to dig down into a clay layer to form waterproof tunnels. The stations look like museums, with ornate marble and statues, each with its own theme. The lady next to us in the metro has a mouth full of gold teeth, which is something you don't see every day. Hoping out, we were hit by a neon Fosters sign, which made Luke laugh.

Dropping off our backpacks at the comfy Soviet-era hotel we are staying at (and pausing for a nice long shower) we caught the metro back into the centre, and walked along Nevsky Prospket, the centre of Piter. We saw the many churches of every denomination, including Kazan which is done in a magnificent neo-classical style. I had seen it last time, but this time I could appreciate that it started in 1801, and was finished during the Napoleonic wars, so Kutuzov and Barclay are buried there, and have large statues out the front. The main players in War and Peace are surrounding me in Europe by their actions, in Europe events two hundred years ago seem so recent because you walk past the same church Napoleon liked, you see the column that Alexander the First erected when he "defeated" Napoleon. The 47.5m column is in between the magnificent Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Winter Palace, now the Hermitage, which was used by the tsars between 1762 and 1917 when they were all killed in the revolution) and the General Staff building (built in 1819 for use by the army, and topped with a Chariot of Victory for the Napoleonic wars). This most magnificent of squares has a special place in my heart, it truly is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

We walked up to the Niva, and stood on the bridge, watching the river flow past, then walked to St Isaac's cathedral. St Isaac's is one of the largest domed buildings in the world. When the Russians built it in 1818, the tsars had to build a new railway in order to cart in the 120 tonne blocks of granite from Finland (you can do that if you are a tsar). It is magnificent, the dome is covered in 100kg of gold leaf, letting it glimmer in the sun as a beacon from anywhere in Piter. We walked along the colonnade around the capola for a bird's-eye view of the city, with its strange blend of heavy industry, deep history and extravagant culture. We walked past the gold-spired Admirality too.

 We strolled along the canals of Piter, and along Anichkov most (a bridge), which was built in 1840. Interestingly there are statues of rearing horses on each corner, and on the South-West corner the horses penis is shaped like a face. Two tales explain this - one is that it is shaped like Napoleon, the other is that it is in the image of the sculptor’s unfaithful wife's lover. We visited the Church on Spilled Blood (so named because it is built in the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1883), the most glorious church built in Russian Orthodox style, with colourful domes and ornate work. It really is indescribable. I bought a 5 Kopeck coin that was minted in 1812, and imagined that it was used by those rebuilding after the sack of Moscow. Mmm... I love my Russian history, and nothing makes history more personal than being able to hold it in your hand and pretend that you were there.

After wandering around we meet up with our group for this part of the trip, with whom we pretty much only stay and catch the train with, giving us lots of free time to explore. The trip leader's name is Karen. We went out for dinner, and drank beer in an underground cavern that you wouldn't have spotted as a pub. Lots of fun.



Sunday
Aug142005

Latvia!

A bus trip to Latvia, because the train from Vilnius to Riga runs through Belarus, and they are a bit paranoid about foreigners. There was the most annoying American tourist on the bus seat behind me, he started making comments about "blacks not trying to integrate into white society" etc etc, so I started to argue with him and pummelled him on racism, lack of welfare, reduced rights for homosexuals. I don't think he really expected it and keep on saying things like "well... I can see that you have a point, but I don't think it would actually work", which I loved because I could use Scandinavian examples to demonstrate that it would. I disliked him (he was a really racist Texan military supplier in Iraq, a self proclaimed "fundamentalist conservative Christian) so I kept calm and used a debating style to crush him. Some of the people around started to laugh at him.

Yes, it is mean, but anytime someone tries to tell me that "blacks are criminal by nature", that "homosexual marriage degrades the holy tradition", "you can't trust Muslims unless they are afraid of you" or uses "y'all", then not disagreeing is tacitly agreeing. I don't see why only ignorant bigots should be outspoken. On gay marriage he actually changed his position, first he agreed that they should have the full rights of a married couple, as long as they didn't call it marriage (a big jump for a Republican Texan). I then asked why shouldn't they call it marriage, and he said that it destroyed the holiness of marriage. He was surprised to find out that Christians didn't actually invent marriage, so it should at least be considered to be a multi-religion event, and grudgingly accepted my argument that once the State was allowed to marry atheists without any religious personage involved, marriage stopped being a purely "holy" event. Luke stopped feeling sorry for him later on in the trip, when he stopped talking to me and started to badger the poor girl next to him into letting him sleep at her house that night. It was disgusting to listen.

In Riga now. Hop off the bus, and try to organise transport to St Petersburg. Hmm... all the buses booked until the 24th of August? Oh dear. But it was okay - the trains had spare first class seats for tonight, so a day and a half to look around, then off to Petie. Accommodation was harder - I have heard that it is tough in Riga, but I was still surprised that every single place in the Lonely Planet was booked out. We went to the information office, and she said (with a shocked look on her face) "you want accommodation in Riga". Luke and I fell in love with her as she rang up every place around, finding us a hotel room in a town close to Riga, and then (even better) two beds in Riga itself, even if it was above a stripclub.

That settled, we wandered around the streets of Riga, the usual routine in a new city. Riga is full of churches, giving it a beautiful skyline of spires, and the most gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings with elaborate design. One of the cute little surprises was the number of cats - we saw three kitten chase each other in and out of grates leading into the basement. So cute. At nightfall, Riga really came alive, but I found it rather unattractive. There were strip clubs everywhere (and we were constantly hassled to visit), and while sitting drinking in a bar we watched a group of girls pretend to have a hen's night, visiting each pub and asking tourists if they would give the bride 5 Lats ($10) for a kiss, to "help pay for the wedding". Would have been endearing if it wasn't a scam. Walking back to the hostel, the sky was the most magnificent swirl of black and the deepest blue you have ever seen.

Last night this crazy guy walked into the dorm and slept on someone else's bed. They weren't happy about it. He snored really badly.

Today we kept on investigating the city. We saw the 14th century Powder Tower, which still has Russian cannonballs embedded in it. We visited the House of Blackheads (the guild of unmarried merchants), originally built in 1344 but ripped down by the Soviets and rebuilt in 2000. We saw the Dome Cathedral, with the forth largest organ in the world, and the small and rather unimpressive Riga castle. St Peter's Cathedral was nice, built in 1209 it has a excellent viewing tower that we went up to look down on the city (it is not as nice from the sky). The tower kept on burning down when it was built, in 1667 they rebuilt it, and threw a sheet of glass from the top. The number of pieces it landed in was the number of years it would last. It landed on a bale of straw and didn't break (this seems rather unlikely to me...), and the next year burnt down again. When it was rebuilt in 1973 they threw another sheet of glass down, moved the straw, and it broke into thousands of pieces.

We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which Luke really enjoyed (I thought it was good too). Quite a similar history to Lithuania, with Soviet-Nazi-Soviet occupation (until 1991). We saw the Freedom Monument which was illegal to visit during the occupation. While waiting for Luke I had lunch in a Turkish restaurant, served by bellydancers.

Oh, and Latvia has bankomats too.

Not long now until... Russia!



Friday
Aug122005

Lithuania

Ah, lovely Lithuania.

We trained through Eastern Poland and Western Lithuania. The countryside became less manicured and populated as we travelled east, we started to see lots of cranes, horse, geese, and (of course) cows. Quite a bucolic feel. At the border the passport control soldiers came on, and carefully looked at our passports before stamping them (well, mine at least, Luke has the advantage of a British passport, but personally I like my stamps), occasionally stroking his gun. Ugh, I hate having people with guns around me. People are crazy, I don't like them having the ability to instantly kill me if they choose. Quite unlike the Polish passport guard, who got bored halfway through our cabin, and forgot to check my passport at all (no Polish stamp).

Further into Lithuania we started to see some of the ex-soviet heavy industry, including the nuclear power plant sister to that in Chernobyl. A stop over in the middle of nowhere (well, the middle of Lithuania, I guess) then off the quirky Vilnius.

And quirky was the right word for it. It had its charm, with beautiful buildings and churches, but nothing like Prague, Krakow or Warsaw. The buildings were not restored to the same level, but it had a very festive atmosphere to it. Luke and I sat down and had a few beers and a pizza (Luke still hasn't managed to find anything other than chips or pizza to eat in Europe, my pizza was a "vegetable pizza", which unlike my one in Prague did not have cucumber on), then just people-watched. Luke was happy to note that the girls were even prettier than in Poland, which I could hardly dispute with their beautiful long legs. Cultural difference was interesting - we almost never saw two Lithuanian girls walking around together without holding hands. I think it is lovely, physical contact enhances friendship, and it is pleasant to walk around holding hands with friends, and sad that you can only do this with a partner in most cultures.

Our second day in Vilnius started with an exit of Lithuania, and a visit to the Independent Republic of Uzupias. In Vilnius, after they achieved independence finally from the Prussians, Russians, Germans and Russians (again), a small group of idealistic artists declared their suburb Uzupias (in the bend in the River Vilnele) to be an Independent Republic. They have their own passport control (but we didn't see them, maybe they couldn't be bothered that day, hey Poland didn't try hard either) and own constitution, and Luke and I loved it.

We criss-crossed the Republic several times, and had breakfast in its only restaurant (mmm... omlette). The Republic was full of crumbling old buildings, lovely statues (such as the Angel of Uzupias in the middle, and a mermaid in the small river that surrounds it) and paintings. Their constitution is engraved on metal plaques in French, English and Lithuanian. While reading the constitution Luke was hit by a van, but it was only a nudge.

 

This is their constitution:

1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.

2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.

3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.

4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.

5. Everyone has the right to be unique.

6. Everyone has the right to love.

7. Everyone has the right to not be loved, but not necessarily.

8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.

9. Everyone has the right to idle.

10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.

11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.

12. A dog has the right to be a dog.

13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.

14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.

15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.

16. Everyone has the right to be happy.

17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.

18. Everyone has the right to be silent.

19. Everyone has the right to have faith.

20. No one has the right to violence.

21 16. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.

22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.

23. Everyone has the right to understand.

24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.

25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.

26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.

27. Everyone shall remember their name.

28. Everyone may share what they possess.

29. No one may share what they do not possess.

30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.

31. Everyone may be independent.

32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.

33. Everyone has the right to cry.

34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.

35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.

36. Everyone has the right to be an individual.

37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.

38. Everyone has the right to not be afraid.

39. Do not defeat.

40. Do not fight back.

41. Do not surrender.

 

After leaving Uzupias to return to Vilnius, Luke and I visited the Museum to Genocide Victims, which is in the old KGB/NKVD headquarters. The Lithuanians never really had a good time since the downfall of the Lithuanian empire, with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1940 sealing their doom. The agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets allowed Stalin to invade Lithuania and rule it, killing or deporting 40 000 Lithuanians. When the Nazis broke the pact and invaded Lithuania, they were much worse, killing 300 000 in concentration camps (including wiping out the Jews) between 1941-44. The Soviet recapture heralded a wave of retribution killings for "collaborating" with the Nazis (and paranoid Stalin random killing), with 200 000 killed or deported to Siberia. This wave of terror was started by Iron Felix, and run by the KGB/NKVD where the museum now is. It was interesting to see a painting of Iron Felix, about whom I have read so much but never seen a picture, and to tour the old Soviet prisons. We saw the room of water torture, which has a small platform in the middle of the room surrounded by ice-cold water, where the prisoners had to balance on the platform for days, or stand/sleep in ice-cold water and freeze to death. There was also a padded room for prisoners that went insane after torture, and there were pictures of the Lithuanian partisans who resisted the Soviets. So sad to think that only in 1990 did Lithuania finally become independent.

Afterwards for some lighter viewing we visited the world's only statue to Frank Zappa. We walked around Katedros aikete (the Cathedral Square) and visited the Vilnius Cathedral. We looked for the stebuklas (miracle tile, if you spin around it your wishes come true), but couldn't find it. We walked through the Old Town, and looked at the old Baroque churches, and St Anne's church (in gothic style). It was nice, but I'm not quite sure why Napoleon picked that one to say he wished he could take it home in the palm of his hand. We walked up to Gedimino Tower, the only remaining tower of the High Castle of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and visited the Higher Castle Museum.

It was sad to see that Lithuania has no "bankomats", preferring to call them ATMs.

Come evening, we sat in the Old Town to drink some pear cider (very easy to drink, nice and smooth, a little bit sweet), then wandered off to view the Red Army vistory statues on the Green Bridge (the only Soviet statues that weren't pulled down, because everyone says they look nice). Another few ciders, and then a beer wagon rode past (a mobile bar with eight people cycling and drinking beer, one working the keg and drinking beer, and one steering and drinking beer. Must be tough on the cobblestones), so we took that as a sign and went to drink in Uzupias. We had beer glasses that held a litre each (just as well, nothing keep you warm like a few litres of beer), and looked at the menu. My favourites were "rings of Squids" which sounds like a bad sci-fi movie, but I choose some type of vegetable bake. We then ordered this little wooden tray which came out with six double shots of various liquors. As we were sitting in the only bar in Uzupias, which overhangs the river, a kyaker shot past. Vilnius is a very peculiar city indeed.

Thursday
Aug112005

Polish nuns

The grand total of nuns we saw in Poland? 33. All single or in pairs, and there I was assuming that they only roam around in packs like in the movies.

Having missed the overnight train, we are now catching the morning train to Vilnius in Lithuania.



Wednesday
Aug102005

Warsaw

Painful train to Warsaw, where we found out that the train we wanted to catch to Vilnius is sold out. Change of plans, we are now staying the night in Warsaw and heading over to Vilnius by bus tomorrow.

Sore, tired, and still slightly hungover we walked into the centre of Warsaw. I had a beautiful lunch of mushroom soup. Has been difficult to accommodate my vegetarian diet with Luke's fries/pizza diet (he hasn't got to eat anything else so far on the trip), but this restaurant was a success, the meal was amazing. Just as well, since unlike Krakow, there are no blue pretzel carts (found on every street corner there) for us to have pretzel breakfast/lunch/dinner at. I think I'll miss the pretzels...

Warsaw is such a gorgeous city. Different from Prague and Krakow, very little is old, since WWII wiped out half the population and 85% of all the buildings in the city. However the rebuild tried to recreate the 17th century burgher architecture of the pre-war city, and it looks amazing. The old Town Square is picture-perfect, the most beautiful little building squashed together with tight winding streets. It really is a surreal feeling to walk into history itself.

Oddly enough, there are lots of brightly painted papier-mâché cows in Warsaw, of all different patterns. The one by the old Barbican had wings. I loved it, because all the little kids ran up to play with the cows, running around in circles, climbing on them, pretending to milk them. My paternal instinct knocked up a few notches watching a two year-old Polish girl all wrapped up in her winter jacket stumble around in absolute joy at getting to see a brightly painted cow. It touched my heart.

Wednesday
Aug102005

Krakow

Yesterday Luke and I went on a bike tour of Krakow. We rode around several neighbourhoods with intense soccer rivalry between the two local teams, Krakovin and Wisla. We saw much graffiti including an interesting one which wrote (in Polish) "Stripes Wisla, Krakovin whores". Whore is the most offensive word in Slavic countries. Supporters for Krakovin painted over whore, turned 'stripes' into 'fools', and drew a Star of David over Wisla, because years ago (when there were Jews in Krakow) Wisla allowed Jews to join and Krakovin didn't. This is still used as an insult against Wisla, which is so offensive.

We rode around the Krakow castle. Krakow was originally terrorised by a dragon (who ate virgins), which the King called knights in to kill. They all died until one day Krak turned up. He was promised the King's daughter's hand in marriage if he could kill the dragon, but he knew he couldn't kill it with a sword. Instead, he killed a sheep, filled it with sulphur and left it outside the lair. The dragon came out and ate it, the fire started in its belly so it ran down to the river to drink. It drank and drank until it exploded, and Krak became the next king, renaming the city after himself.

 We cycled around the Town Square and the Church of St Mary. It has two towers, which are uneven in height, very unusual for a church. It is because the design was given to two brothers who wanted the same woman. They competed by trying to build the highest tower each (of course), until one brother stabbed the other to death, and made his tower higher. Actually, the reason why the towers are of different height is because the Town Council only gave permission for them to build the Church if they could use the tower as a watch tower, which requires a 360 degree view (hence it had to be higher than the other). During the Mongol invasion of Poland, legend has it that the watchman saw the Mongols coming and blew the warning tune on his trumpet, but halfway through the song was struck in the throat by a Mongol arrow, mid-note. Now every hour the city plays the same tune from each of the four windows of the tower, always ending with a break in the tune at the same note where the watchman died. To me it seems odd that they play it four times with the death rattle each time.

The Town Square (the largest medieval town square in Europe at 200m x 200m) was surrounded by gorgeous old buildings. It was so much nicer today in the sun than the day before when it was wet and empty. There were so many people out, and thousands of pigeons, covering everything and landing on everyone. I ate Georgian cheese pie, which was beautiful, and listened to a Polish language cover of Celion Dion, which was not.

We saw where Pope John Paul II was Archbishop, and I found out that he made more saints than every other Pope put together. Pfft.

The Jewish quarter

The bike tour included some important Jewish sites. The Jews were invited to Krakow by one of the early kings of Poland, who wanted to stimulate business. Since Christians were not allowed to charge interest on loans (the sin of usury), a Christian community tended to have very little business investment. Jews were allowed to be money lenders and financiers (in fact they could pretty much only be professionals, since they were blocked from the guilds and from owning land), so they stimulated the economy and became rich in the process, which (combined with having a distinct and insular culture) is what stimulated so much racism towards them. 1000 Jews came to Krakow, which was 10% of the city population at that time, and more came as the city grew, giving a 25% Jewish population. One of the later kings decided to segregate the Jews from the Catholics so he forced them out of the city onto a near island, which was developed as the Jewish quarter. Interestingly the Catholics charged the Jews a fee for "clock usage" since, while out of site, the Jews were close enough to be able to hear the Catholic clock strike the hour, and thus were told the time. Very stingy. We rode around the old Jewish Town Square, and the oldest Synagogue in Europe (now a museum, since Krakow has no Jews).

We saw the old Jewish cemetery, which is now abandoned and overgrown, because of the 60 000 Jews in Krakow in the 40s, all but 1500 died in the holocaust, and all survivors left the country afterwards. There are now no decedents of the people buried there, except for a few overseas, so it stands neglected. It is hugely crowded, with graves up to 14 layers deep, as befits a tiny graveyard that served a quarter of the population of the city.

History repeated itself for the Jews, but at a far worse level. When the Nazis took over Krakow they wanted to segregate the Jews further. They still hadn't decided what to do with them, to kill or steralise them? Either way, they needed to control them first, and the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) was too open. So they forced the Jews to pack up once again, and crossed them over the bridge into a satellite town (Podgorze) of Krakow that could easily be walled off (in Schlinder's List the Jews crossed the bridge in the wrong direction because Speilberg could not get permission to set up cameras on the correct side of the bridge).

Things were not looking good for the Jewish Ghetto. The Nazis made the Ghetto wall in the shape of orthodox Jewish gravestones (a round top), as a not-so-subtle hint to those within of their future fate. The German's had to travel through the Ghetto to get to Krakow, so holes were made in either side of the Ghetto, but SS soldiers rode the tram each time and closed off the windows to block normal German business men from seeing what was occurring in the Ghetto, or from using the trip to feed supplies to the Jews. Within the Ghetto the Jews starved, with supplies periodically thrown over the wall, and the only exit was for slave labour workers, who were rewarded with 650 calories per day of cabbage soup and stale bread.

In Krakow at the start of the war, there were 60 000 Jews. They were stuffed into the Ghetto in numbers that gave about 20 people per room. New Jews were carted in from around the country, to concentrate them. When they arrived they were asked one simple question "What do you do?". Those that were tradesmen or skilled labour where sent into the Ghetto, while those who were professionals were sent to Auschwitz. In total 260 000 Jews entered the Ghetto, but due to the death rate it only housed ~40 000 at a time.

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich presented the "Final solution" in the Wansee conference. The entire plan for Ghetto slave labour, transport across Europe, and ultimately eradication of the Jewish population was structured down to the last detail. On Saturday, March the 14th, 1943, it was time for the Krakow Ghetto to be "liquidated". The soldiers moved in and told the Jews they were being relocated once again, marched them into cattle cars and sent them to the eradication camp in Treblinka (not Aschwitz for some reason). The Jewish doctors in the intensive care hospital in the quarter (there were three hospitals so the Nazis could tell the Red Cross the Jews were being looked after, but they had no supplies) knew their patients would be killed rather than transported, so they poisoned them all with cyanide infusions. 4000 Jews didn't believe the relocation, and hid in the Ghetto. They hid in every possible spot, in holes in the walls, floors, ceilings, in pianos or in the furniture. The Nazis waited for 16 hours, then came in with sniffer dogs and stethoscopes and shot every Jew they found.

Today the Ghetto is the worst area in Krakow. It is dangerous to go in at night, and sometimes the bike tour gets rocks thrown at it. Much of it was redeveloped during the Communist era, and few historic buildings are left. Only 10m of the wall remains, and there are no monuments to the tragedy that occurred.

Oscar Schlinder

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing Schlinder's flat and factory (neither are protected as museums, you wouldn't know the historic value they have without being told). Oscar Schlinder was a German Nazi party member who wanted to make money. Lots of money. The war was his ticket to fortune. He had the connections and the style, so he turned up in Krakow, wined and dined the Gestapo officers, and was given a choice of any Jewish house he wanted. He picked one right in the centre of the town, the owners of which were shipped out. He then bought from the State a Jewish factory stolen from the owners, and started to produce mess kits for the army. He hired Jewish slaves from the SS because they were cheaper than Polish workers, and he made lots of money and was very happy. One thing that soured his happiness was when the Jews started to turn up late. They were being forced to shovel snow in the Jewish ghetto as a punishment. Less hours of labour meant less money for Schlinder, so he threw elaborate parties with alcohol and women for the SS officers, to charm them into giving his workers exemption from this degrading punishment. For profit only, but this kindness made Jewish workers beg to work for him. Schlinder continued being the disgusting person he was until one day he had an epiphany, and decided that what he was doing was immoral. He tried to help his workers in little ways, bribing the SS to allow him to hire the eldery or sick, knowing that these workers would be killed otherwise. When the war turned against the Germans, mess kits became irrelevant as opposed to ammunition, so the SS forced Schlinder to swap production. They wanted him to move out, they would "liquidate" his Jews and give him new ones in the new factory. He had to bribe the SS with a bag of diamonds to be allowed to give a list of "essential" Jewish workers that he could take with him. He had one night, so he stayed up writing a list of all the Jews he knew, with his Jewish accountant, Stern. 1098 names were written on Schlinders list, 1098 Jews to be killed where allowed to go to his new factory. Then one day the war was over. The SS gave orders for all remaining Jews to be killed. Schlinder went to the SS guards in his factory (16 year old boys with machine guns) and said "I know what your orders are. You can obey them, and go home to your family as murderers, or you can ignore them, and return as men". They allowed the Jews to surive until liberation by the Red Army. Schlinder was arrested as a Nazi and slave camp owner, but after 4 months his previous slaves interceded on his behalf, telling the Americans what he had done for them. Schlinder moved to Argintina and tried to start a farm for capybura which went bankrupt. He moved back to West Germany and started numerous companies which all failed, he died broken and poor in 1974. There are now 7000 "Schlinder's Jews" descended from those he saved.

Interestingly, after Spielberg heard about this story he wanted to film it, but Hollywood would not support the project, calling it a "European arthouse picture". In the end Universal offered Spielberg a deal - they would support "Schlinder's list" on the condition that he also directed "Jurassic Park.

It is interesting that it was not only the Jews that were persecuted, the Nazis were also terrible to the Poles. The intent was to create a slave labour nation, so they banned education for Poles, and for six years no Poles went to school or university.

A cheerful end to an intense few days

For our last night in Krakow, Luke and I went to an Irish pub (with a sign on the door saying "No Kebabs") that was having a trivia night. The first round was Polish entertainment. We came last. Then geography, we thought we would do well, but no, it was all about various counties of Ireland. Then sport. By the time the final round came 'round we were chatting to Emma and Steff (two English teachers from Liverpool) and missed the Science round, but I'm sure we deserved our last place. We stayed out chatting and drinking with Emma and Steff until 4am, when we finally collapsed.

Up at 8 this morning to train to Warsaw.

Second ever hangover.