I had been invited to be the guest of honor at the Swedish Small Press Expo in Stockholm. Since I would be in that part of the world, Egmont Polska, my Polish publisher, invited me to return to that country for a few days of signings and interviews. In the 5 or 6 years since Usagi was first introduced in Poland, all 21 books and Space Usagi have been published. Tomoe's Story comes out in the US in July, and it is already scheduled for November in Poland. My last trip to Europe was about six months ago, and much has happened in terms of air travel. Three airlines had declared bankruptcy, security had tightened, and, just last week, American Airlines had canceled about 2,000 flights. I had traveled a few days ago to Vermont, then on to Oregon, and back to Los Angeles. The Vermont/Oregon leg took me 29 hours to complete because of weather, so I was not looking forward to flying again so soon. I would be taking a United Airlines flight from LAX to Frankfurt and would have 40 minutes to rebook at Lufthansa-Frankfurt, get to my gate, then continue to Warsaw. I was told this would be no problem. No problem at all. There would be plenty of time.
Day 1-2: In which I miss my flight
I left LAX early Saturday afternoon. The flight to Germany went smoothly. I received my seat assignment at the gate at LAX. They did not have aisle seats, but I was given a seat next to the aisle in one of those extra-legroom rows, a $200 value on one of these flights. I had to write two stories on this trip--an 8 pager for Dark Horse Presents, and a 60 pager for a special project. I started on the longer story, and had most it it written by the time we landed. I don't sleep much on planes.
I had never flown to Frankfurt, so had no idea of the airport layout. I thought it would be a matter of walking over to my gate, checking in at Lufthansa, and flying out. The reality was, I had to go through passport control, check in at Lufthansa in the main lobby, and go through security. It took me an hour to get to my gate, and, of course, my flight had already left. I rebooked on the next flight, leaving three hours later. I tried calling Tomek, my editor, but could not get through. I hunkered in for a long wait, hoping someone would meet me at the other end.
The flight arrived at Chopin Airport at 7 pm Sunday. I exchanged some dollars for zlotys. When I was here almost 4 years ago, I had gotten almost 4 zlotys per US dollar. Now I got 2 for 1. I bypassed passport control, because I flew in from another EU country. Tomek was waiting for me outside of baggage claim. When I was not on my original flight, he inquired if I had rebooked for another. We went to his home for a delicious home-cooked meal with his wife, two children, and friends.
I got to the Campanile Hotel at 10:30, brushed my teeth, and fell asleep.
Day 3: In which I get no soup
I was on a 9 hour time difference. It takes my body clock a few days to adjust when I travel, so it was not surprising that I woke up at midnight. Though tired, I did not fall asleep again until 3, and by the time I was in a deep sleep, my alarm woke me up at 6. I breakfasted, and took a walk around the hotel area. The local train station and an open air marketplace was nearby. It was a beautiful day, and I would be blessed with wonderful weather for most of my trip. In the next week I would hear, "It was raining and cold last week." or, "There was snow on the ground not long ago."
Tomek and Kasia met me in the lobby at 9. Kasia would be escorting me to Krakow. A newspaper journalist arrived a short time later for my first interview of the day, and a television reporter and crew arrived 30 minutes later.
I checked out of the hotel, and Kasia and I taxi-ed over to the Central Train Station for the three hour ride to Krakow. A writer for a Japanese fan magazine accompanied us to Krakow and conducted an interview in our compartment.
We arrived at 2, and Kasia and I taxi-ed to the Hotel Campanile Krakow. The weather was sunny and warm, so we lunched outdoors. I had a fetuccini alfredo with smoked duck, asparagus and parmesean.
Kasia and me in Krakow
Krakow is a beautiful city, untouched during the wars. Part of the original city walls still stand, but a park was established in those sections that were torn down. Wawel Castle sits on the hill overlooking the town. The huge Cloth Hall is in the middle of Krakow's large central plaza. It now houses a vast multitude of shops. I bought some amber jewelry, gifts for the family. I really noticed the weakness of the dollar. Prices seemed to have doubled since the last time. An unexpected drawback to the weak dollar is that it is now just as economical for English speakers to buy American editions of books, rather the translated Polish ones.
We met my translator, Artur, at the hotel, and we went through four more interviews--two for radio. Artur was born in Poland, but his family had escaped and eventually made their way to Seattle. He is back working on his PHD. He took us on a tour of the city, including the window of the monastery where Pope John Paul 2 (a hometown boy) would lean out to talk to the people. There is a life-size picture of him in the window as if addressing a crowd. Then Artur led us to our next stop--a cafe/meeting hall. There was another interview, followed by a Q&A and a signing.
By 8:30 we were on our way to a restaurant noted for its "down to earth Polish food". I had the baked pig's knuckle. I knew it as a German dish but had never had it. I had also asked for soup, but our waiter said, "No. No soup for you. Knuckle." He gave very good advice. The pig's knuckle was huge--more than a kilo (2.2 pounds), and came with a side of fresh horse radish. It was delicious, but there was quite a bit left over. We also had bread with lard and cracklings. Salt from the local mines could be sprinkled on the lard for taste. Tomek called to tell us that this morning's TV interview ran on the evening news in Warsaw.
Day 4: In which I get punched in the gut
Intellectually, I had known about Auschwitz. I had read books, seen documentaries, seen it referenced countless times in movies and television. But knowing about it and being there, however removed by time and circumstances, are two different things. Yesterday, Artur had said, "Going to Auschwitz is like getting punched in the gut." It is true, but I did not know when the punch would come, or how forceful it would be.
Auschwitz should be alone and lonely, so I was surprised to see a community around it. It looks inviting at first, with its neat rows of red brick buildings and lush green lawns, almost like a college campus. But the horror builds on itself. It builds when you see the electrified barb wire fences, the guard towers, and as you pass through the gates with the slogan, "Work will set you free." It builds as you walk through the prisoners' line up yard, pass the gallows, and enter their barracks. It builds when you see those empty cans of gas crystals, pass the medical experiments building, the torture cells, and see the Death Wall. For me, the punch came as soon as I set foot in the room of hair. More than a ton of human hair, bleached gray with time, behind a glass wall. This was just a small part of the hair that was collected and shipped or would be shipped to mills for making cloth for uniforms. The punches continued through the rooms of suitcases marked with their owners' names, displays of clothing, eye glasses, and the hall of shoes, It was a pummeling by the time we entered the gas chamber and crematorium. We took a break--we had to take a break--after that.
But the Nazis were not killing fast enough, so they build Auschwitz 2 at nearby Birkenau. Now, instead of hundreds, they could kill more than four thousand a day. Auschwitz 2 was set apart from any community, with railroad tracks going straight to the dividing platform. Doctors would quickly evaluate each person. Those that were fit would be ordered to the barracks. Those that were not--pregnant women, children, the infirm-- were sent to the gas chambers disguised as showers. Just their ruins remain, having been destroyed by the Nazis toward the end of the war to cover their crimes. Most of the wooden barracks are gone as well, but the brick ones remain. It is a huge camp, to match the size of the atrocities committed here. The conditions were worse than at the first camp. I was glad the clouds had rolled in, making for a dreary day. Yesterday would have been too nice a day for Auschwitz. A short, light rain began to fall as we left.
We arrived in Katowice (Ka-toe-wit-se) a little later than expected. Humbert and a co-worker from the Imago book store had picked us up in Krakow, and were our drivers today. I had my first interview over lunch at a Russian restaurant. I had a stew, but not like any I had ever had. It was a dry stew, with grilled meats and vegetables. Then it was off to Imago for the signing, followed by a public interview and Q&A at a conference center that was organized by members of the science fiction book club. I was given an anthology of SF stories written by Polish authors, in English. Then it was off to another Russian dinner. I had peppered duck baked in honey. It was a curious blend of savory and sweet. I drank blackberry juice.
Day 5: In which we return to Warsaw
Kasia and I took the 9 am train to Warsaw, a three hour journey. We caught a cab from Warsaw Central to the Marriott Courtyard, literally meters away from the Chopin Airport terminal. We lunched in the restaurant. I had pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, with beets.
Kasia had to leave, but first introduced me to Johanna who would be my escort in Warsaw. I had a newspaper interview in the hotel lobby, then we taxi-ed to a bookstore for a television interview and signing. Tomek dropped by to say farewell. It was his wedding anniversary, so could not accompany me today.
We metroed to my next signing at a store in the central metro station. Post signing, an interview for a children's TV show.
We dined with Jarek, my Polish translator. He is a science fiction novelist, but works on Usagi because he enjoys my stories. I had the baked goose with julienne beets, and creme brulee with strawberries.
Day 6: If it's Thursday, it must be Sweden
I checked out of the hotel at 6, and walked across the street to the terminal. I was taking an 8 am Lot Polish Air flight to Stockholm.
Most of Poland was a blur. I was there three full days, with 15 interviews and 5 signings in three cities. However, I had a great time. The people there are wonderful, and Krakow is one of my favorite cities. Thanks have to go to Egmont Polska for inviting me over and taking care of me, and to the Polish contingent of the Usagi Dojo for meeting me in Warsaw. You can see through my work that I love history. I never imagined I would ever make it to Auschwitz, but it was the high point of this trip.
I did write that 8 page story. The plot for the 60 pager however, turned out to be too long. I will serialize it as a three-part 72 page story, maybe in a year or two.
Here are links to a few blogs about my trip to Poland: