2016-02-01 / ReBooted

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

Jill Gleeson

Immediately after hearing of the November terror attacks that devastated Paris I made a post on social media. After calling the perpetrators a few satisfying invectives I noted that I had a trip planned for France in May, a trip I’d still be taking – a trip I’d still be taking even if it had been scheduled for the following week. Or the following day. Because, as I wrote, if we start cancelling our travels, if we start staying home with our doors locked and our heads under the covers…well, then the terrorists win. I was going to fight them the only way I could, by continuing to travel and write about the beauty and joy and grace and kindness of the world and the people in it.

A few days later I received an invitation to visit Poland from the country’s tourism council. The trip would be in a couple weeks, before the Paris attacks had even faded from the headlines. My friends were worried, my family was alarmed. Poland seemed safer than other European countries, but was anywhere really safe anymore? I accepted the invitation at once, fighting apprehension I didn’t want to admit I was feeling. Bravado comes easily. Follow through, less so.

Poland was worth the anxiety. I knew little of it prior to my stay, which included time in Krakow and Warsaw. Vastly different, they both provided fascinating peeks into the long, often tragic history of the Slavic nation. Krakow boasts a lively, lovely Old Town that dates back to the mid-13th-century, when Mongols burned the original city to the ground. Krakow remembers the invasion each hour, when a trumpeter plays a haunting melody from the tower of the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica. The tune always ends abruptly, a tribute to the lookout who was felled, legend says, while still sounding the alarm on his horn.

Poland would be attacked many times over the ensuing centuries; for a time, divvied up between Prussia, Austria and Russia, it ceased to exist entirely. The country regained independence following World War I, but was occupied during the Second World War by the Germans, who set up the Auschwitz death camp not far from Krakow. I argued with myself long and hard about touring Auschwitz. I knew the experience would be difficult, but I felt I owed it to the victims to visit. It was far worse than I’d anticipated. Nothing you’ve seen or heard or can even imagine about Auschwitz can prepare you for the nearly unbearable reality of it. And yet last year almost 1.5 million people entered Auschwitz’s gates – many, I suppose, with the hope that by bearing witness to the horror they can prevent it from happening again.

Krakow survived World War II largely intact, but Warsaw was nearly bombed out of existence. Some 85 percent of the city was reduced to rubble, with much of the devastation occurring after the Warsaw Uprising, when residents rebelled against their oppressors. Their courage is honored in the Warsaw Rising Museum, which also contains a section dedicated to the grim years spent under communist rule. As the Germans slipped out of Poland the Russians slipped in, and the country would spend decades as a Soviet satellite state. When independence was finally regained in 1990, healing began.

If it all seems too traumatic, simply too sad, it is. And yet today Poland is a vibrant, modern nation, full of hustle and on the move. Krakow, which boasts the biggest market square in Europe, is charming and graceful, akin to Budapest, or Prague. Muscular, mysterious Warsaw, where Chopin’s heart resides at the soaring Holy Cross Church, is more like Berlin. With a smattering of historic buildings standing alongside shining skyscrapers, it looks to the future with energy and assurance. The time I spent within these two remarkable cities taught me more than history. There, I learned about the beauty of human resilience, about how fear can be fought with hope. It’s a lesson I plan to hold close. •SCM

Jill Gleeson dares to venture outside of her comfort zone and learns a lesson every time. Follow her adventures on Twitter @gopinkboots.

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