Tears Part II: Sunrises and Pierogis

There are countless reasons I find Spanish is much more interesting than English, but I think I just discovered my favorite one. In the Spanish language there are two words that generally mean “for”: por and para. Any nonnative Spanish speaker will agree that, almost without a doubt, one of the most difficult parts of the language is learning when to use which one. After listening to Spaniards for the past four months, I’ve finally begun to get the hang of it. During my most recent Spanish class, my professor ended up explaining one case:

Para normally means something “like in order to,” e.g. “I practice in order to improve.” It also means “for,” e.g. “I made this present for you.” Por normally means “by,” “via,” or “per.” However, in certain (but less common) cases, it also means “for.” But this for isn’t just any for. It’s not that I bought these flowers for you, it’s not that I took notes in class for you when you were sick, it’s that I would drop everything for you. The way my professor put it, in this case, “for you” is closer to “because of my love for you.”

A few examples (excuse the spanglish):

“I would swim para ti“= If you were injured I’d take your place in the 100m freestyle race.

“I would swim por ti“= If you needed me, I’d cross oceans just to be there for you.

Your lifelong best friend hands you a box and says:

para ti”= I know how much you love cupcakes so I stopped by your favorite bakery this morning and got a box of them for you.

por ti”= I know your child needs a heart operation that you can’t afford but I made some sacrifices and scraped together the money to make it possible and put it inside this box for you.

That is D E E P.

As you probably already know, I spent a week in December traveling in Barcelona and Kraków. Spain has a strange calendar of fiestas, normally celebrating a random day off here and a random day off there. Dec 6th and 9th are always holidays and this year they happened to fall on a Tuesday and Thursday, so even though the rest of the university had school Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the Cornell program gave us the entire week off. I decided to take advantage and spend 10 days traveling to Barcelona, then to Krakow, and back to Santander. In my previous post I focused on my visit to Auschwitz in Poland, a very dismal but all-important part of the week, and now I’ll get to the rest of the trip!

I’ve never been entirely an extrovert or entirely an introvert, but traveling on my own for 10 days made me realize just how much of an introvert I can be, and it was almost a little scary. I thought that maybe I would get lonely after a couple of days, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though I enjoyed making a couple new friends along the way, by the end I felt almost unprepared to go back to socializing with people I already know. And yet sometimes after a weekend spent studying I’m convinced I’ll die if I don’t get some social interaction soon. So introvert of extrovert? The world may never know!

I spent the 5 days in Barcelona, which I spent exploring the Gothic quarter, attending a chocolate tasting workshop, exploring Montjuic, visiting the Monastery at Montserrat, watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell, and, of course, wandering in and around the Sagrada Familia itself for (literally) hours on end. Along the way I befriended a fantastic Australian student named Ray who has been studying in France for a semester. We kept bumping into each other so it was a good time!

There were actually two best parts and one was definitely standing in the middle of the Sagrada Familia with the morning sun shining through the stained glass windows and setting the entire nave aglow with soft rainbows. I do like the pictures that I snapped, but I assure you it was a million times more beautiful than anything any number of pixels can create. As with sadness I rarely cry out of happiness, but this entire week proved to be the exception to those rules because I just couldn’t help tearing up from the sheer magnificence of it all.

My other favorite part was watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell. It. Was. A M A Z I N G. See for yourself.

“The sun is the best painter.” –Antoni Gaudí

Now to Kraków. I didn’t realize until I got there that I had never been to eastern Europe before and I had never ever been in a country where I understood almost zero percent of the language. Everywhere I had ever been spoke either English or one of the romance languages, of which if you know one you can figure out enough to get by with the rest. Honestly, I felt rather uncomfortable speaking English, not because the people were rude or disdainful (in fact, quite the opposite), but because I felt like an uneducated/lazy American who has to rely on the fact that the rest of the world speaks my language in addition to their own. I know that’s not exactly the case, but it seems almost wrong to go to a different country and expect them to speak my language instead of going the extra distance to speak their own. But of course, you also couldn’t possibly learn every language of every country you travel to (you can only do so much duolingo in a month), so in that respect having a “universal language” is incredibly helpful. On the bright side, I picked up on the pronunciation pretty quickly so if I was asking for directions I could at least pronounce the place names correctly enough, and by the end I was able to ask for things like food and train tickets in Polish (until the other person would ask me a question beyond the basics and I would understand absolutely nothing).

As traitorous as I feel for saying this, apart from the Sagrada Familia I liked Poland much more than Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a bit less touristy, or because it felt a bit more wintery with the freezing weather and Christmas markets, or maybe I’m just so accustomed to Spain now that Barcelona wasn’t quite as exciting. Regardless, as soon as I got there I knew that three days wasn’t going to be enough. There’s still an entire universe of history, Catholicism, St. Pope John Paul II, a monastery with a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary, and so much more that I didn’t have time to even begin exploring. Not to mention that I can no longer imagine my life without pierogis.

I went on a tour around the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, spent some time at Auschwitz, took the miner’s route at the Wieliczka Salt Mine (way more fun than the tourist route), and did some Christmas shopping at the Christmas market in the main square (while eating lots of pierogis), just to name a few things. I also found an adorable little bookshop/café where you can get coffee/dessert, pick out a book, and sit in one of their many rooms, either at a table or in a comfy armchair, and just read for hours. I only let myself go a couple of hours before closing time so that I couldn’t spend an entire day there.

 

As I mentioned briefly before, the people of Kraków were so kind overall. When someone started speaking to me in Polish and I had to respond in English, they switched languages automatically and continued the conversation with exactly the same friendliness as they had started. When I tried to speak Polish and crashed and burned halfway through the second sentence, the person would just give a friendly laugh, very much amused by and appreciative of my attempt, and then kindly ask if I’d prefer English. Even when I spoke English and the other person didn’t, they were incredibly understanding and patient and we would both use what little we knew of each other’s language to figure things out. In any situation, they were all so welcoming and kind. I absolutely cannot wait to (hopefully) return one day.

Despite the fact that I was having the time of my life, the ten days didn’t rush by like I though they would. They seemed to pass almost a little slower than usual; so much so that by the time I got home, Barcelona felt like forever ago. I’m not complaining though, it was a much needed break after a month of exams and it gave me a little more energy to push through the last couple of weeks before Christmas break. It was probably the longest but also best week of the semester (so far) 😉

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Tears Part I: Socks and Bricks

I think I’ve figured out why I don’t like writing:

  1. I never seem to have a pen and paper or my laptop with me when I have all these thoughts I feel like I need to write down before I forget about them. “Well that’s an easy fix Meriel, just carry a notebook with you!” I wish it were that simple. I do have a travel journal and a perfectly matching handy dandy pen to go with it (Chris you’re the bomb dot com) but there has been many a time when it’s not smart/possible to just stop and pull out a journal (e.g. on a metro, in the funicular, while I’m walking) and other times I simply can’t physically carry it with me (e.g. some places have limits on bag sizes and my journal doesn’t fit in a purse).
  2. My writing can’t keep up with my thoughts. Ever. If there’s one thing Cornell has taught (or perhaps more accurately, conditioned) me to do is to be constantly thinking. Whether it’s about the problem set I need to finish, the meeting I have to attend, wherever I need to be exactly 6.5 minutes after this class ends, the thank you letter I should probably write, or the GF Cornell Dining brownie I’m really craving (fact: they are amazing), my mind is pretty much always racing, jumping from one thing to the next.

Today I encountered both of these dilemmas because I visited Auschwitz, the most famous of the concentration/extermination camps from the Holocaust. I could only bring a small purse so I couldn’t bring my journal, and even if I had been able to, there were so many thoughts racing through my mind both during and afterwards that there’s no way even a fraction of them would’ve made it onto paper. As a result, this is only a fraction of a fraction, which, as you can see, is still quite a lot.

After two decades of frequently learning about various aspects of one the largest genocides of the 20th century, a few years of AP history classes, and the phrase “60 million Jews” forever ingrained in my brain, I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on the scale of the Holocaust. Looking back I realized that I absolutely did not.

While visiting Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, Auschwitz I Museum, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau,* there were countless thoughts and emotions wreaking havoc in my mind, but I’m just going to focus on the three things that truly struck me:

#1: The “Room of Choices”

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Room of Choices (a stock photo)

The entirety of Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum was incredibly well done, but one of the last rooms was especially overwhelming (as it’s intended to be), both visually and emotionally. It’s a relatively small circular room with several rotating columns (each in a different language). The white walls and columns are entirely covered with fragments of memories and quotes from survivors, witnesses, and people who had the chance to hide/rescue Jews. I wish I had taken a picture but in the moment, taking a photo was the last thing on my mind. There were snippets of valiance: a sister who volunteered to be deported solely because she wanted to protect her younger brother who had been randomly selected. There were also harrowing regrets: a farmer who turned away a Jewish family who asked to hide in his house during a raid, only to then witness their capture when they subsequently hid in the bushes outside his home.

#2: A girl’s recount of her mom giving her own socks to her and her brother, one each, before the siblings were transported to a different camp. I’ll spare you the rest of the story because I’m sure you can imagine how it ends. I myself could hardly read the rest after that because my vision became so blurred with tears.

#3: The silent forest of brick “chimneys”

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A very small glimpse of the hundreds of towers

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the vast majority of the killing took place, was incredibly eerie for several reasons. It was strange to see the main gate, railway, and watchtowers because I felt as though I was simply looking at a photo from a history book, except this time I couldn’t just turn the page. The trees were bare, the land relatively flat so there was absolutely no protection from the wind and simply walking from one end of the camp to the other took about 10 minutes. To the left were rows of dilapidated wooden sheds, the “bunks” where the prisoners slept. To the right were rows upon rows upon rows, as far as I could see, of brick towers. This side probably used to be a mirror image of the wooden sheds except there were only outlines where the walls used to stand, with two towers in each silhouette. They resembled chimneys but I wouldn’t believe for a second that they were used for warmth, cooking, or anything of the sort. The most unsettling part was that despite the highway located not far away, all the tour groups meandering around, and the incessant wind, the camp somehow remained in almost complete silence. It was as though even the slightest sound was absorbed back into the muddy ground. I could fill a book with all my heartbreaking realizations, but essentially every train of thought always came back around to a single phrase: “I can’t even imagine…”

I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.

Oddly enough, I very rarely cry when I’m overwhelmingly sad, and this today was the rarity. Honestly, I was incredibly self-conscious while standing in front of a wall of text, sniffling and hiccupping while trying to make it to the end of the sock story, and standing frozen in front of the brick towers (still crying a bit) for what felt like an eternity because I simply could not processes the sheer size of the camp. It even sounds rather silly having written it down. But I absolutely believe it was anything but a waste to shed a few (hundred) tears on behalf of those who couldn’t in order to remain courageous for the sake of others.

While I  wouldn’t describe the visit as easy or pleasant, it’s a humbling opportunity that, if you ever have the chance, I would highly recommend. Perhaps the most important thing that has resulted from this experience is that I left with a permanent reminder to act upon and speak nothing but kindness, always.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

-Anne Frank

 

*Oskar Schindler’s Factory (the focus of “Schindler’s List”) is museum in the office building where the factory used to be (all traces of the factory’s existence were removed when Schindler fled the Nazis). Auschwitz I is the concentration camp with brick building “blocks” and one gas chamber, used as more of a labor camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is an expansion of Auschwitz I but it’s a few kilometers away and built on a much larger scale, including five gas chambers, each twice the size of that in Auschwitz I.