Poland, love of mine.
It was long planned this summer a trip with my twin boys Daniel and David, 3 years and 4 months old. Where shall we go? Poland, Croatia, the South of France, North Cape, Ecuador? Some wild options! Christina is still here, we leave Vienna south to Carinthia for 5 days and live life in the van, try with my boys, teach them, speak to them in French, cook for them, bed them, go to toilet with them, cut up the apples for them, cuddle with them, go up mountain with them, explain snails to them, cows and horses too. So you may ask, why does Manfred speak French to them? Well, French is what they know a little (and me too!), as they recently attended kindergarten in Morocco, so something I can build on, German they’ll learn once they start kindergarten in Vienna later; and maybe I can keep their French alive for some time.
We come back to Vienna and still undecided we choose Poland, render visit to my friend Piotr in Warsaw. So we fetch new passports and drive via the Czech Republic to Krakow for some ice cream, beers for Christina and me! I realise that the boys have no sense of cars, traffic, don’t stop at roads, I have this scare and a wish to tie them up or take them on a leash wants to overcome me. Christina, still here, running after both is not such a problem because not unusual they head opposite directions.
There is one thing I realise, activity is the key. The more hours walking the better! Also be ready with food is key, hungry brains function badly. So after Krakow while Christina prepares our apple risotto the boys and I go for this first legendary walk that I still remember so vividly now that I write this almost 3 months later. Then it was such a novelty for me, soon it would be routine, walk my boys till they fall over.
After visiting Israel earlier, this is an addendum; a must-see to understand. Oświęcim is the Polish name and we find Auschwitz (wiki). At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 Nazi Germany committed itself to the Final Solution, the killing of all Jews in the occupied territories. A total of 6 Million Jews were sent to extermination camps, nearly 1 million of them were killed in Auschwitz. Some 200,000 others, Polish, Gypsies, Russians, were also killed. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the sub-camp were the industrialized gassings took place claimed more victims than any other German extermination camp, 20,000 per day. Trains delivered the prisoners, on the platform upon arrival 75% and more were sent for immediate gassing (children, women and children, those not fit for work, death 20 minutes later), the rest would die later of starvation, diseases, executions, pseudo scientific medical experiments (infamous Dr. Mengele; performed grisly experiments on 3000 twins, only 100 survived).
We see Auschwitz II-Birkenau first, the weather is a drizzle, cloudy, right for the sad occasion. The barbed wire, the fences, lightening behind and wooden watchtowers, the rail tracks, the platform of debarkation and selection, the wooden barracks, the chimneys of the barracks still stand, the gas chambers are further in the back. But the gas chambers are heaps of rubble, dismantled and bombed by the Nazis in an effort to destroyed evidence. What did I expect? Where did the ash go? The boys don’t know where we are, see the wagon and tracks as a play ground, it is hard to hold them back and enforce the calmness this site of mass murder requires, we leave.
Auschwitz I, the first and original camp is a museum today, we make clear to Daniel and David to be quiet for the next two hours, carry them on our backs, they fall asleep and we go on a comprehensive guided tour. Seeing the cells, hearing the tales, the stories of experiments, roll calls, escapes, tortures and executions is hard to swallow. But it is looking at collections of belongings of Jews from 67 years ago, a heap of glasses, combs, some 30m of suitcases stacked on top of each other, bearing names and addresses of victims, Vienna on a few of them, a 30m long display case of human hair, shoes and pots from the time, this is what makes the connection from numbers to real people. The truth in your teeth, the horror rubbed in your face, a way to comprehend! Auschwitz is a very sad place, looking away not a solution.
The rains get us near Czestochowa en route to Warsaw.
It rains and rains, most of the 10 days we spend in Warsaw, the world is going under water; we live life in the van. I still don’t know where to go, shall I now with the boys drive all the way up north, via Russia?
No need to rush, David is sick, has high fever, just burning something out of his little body. In Auschwitz the boys were so good, quiet for such a long time on the backs of Christina and I, no word, sleeping most of the tour as they were told. Soon then after on the road in Czestochowa when the heavy rains started David began behaving strangely. "The souls of the dead of Auschwitz hound him; children are so open, they may feel that," but no it was just a cold, then flu, a good heat of fever for 3 days.
So there we are in Warsaw, days and nights in the van, it rains cats and dogs. Every night the boys sleep in my arms left and right, I blow their noses, show them how to pee by themselves, clean their asses, feed them, teach them; their French gets only a little better every day. After 2 weeks I can even work the computer, sometimes, but already am buying a new keyboard after they poured their milk and honey over the laptop; a small accident de travail.
But in these 2 nights were David has high fever he also has these horrible nightmares when he doesn’t recognise me until I step outside of the van into the cold and wet, only then his bad dream is over, he quietens in a big sigh. But 3 times in that one fevery night in the middle of Warsaw residential, is much. And then once he is himself again he goes, "Papa, il pleut beaucoup", it rains a lot!
So there I am once on the second floor in a mall in eastern Warsaw far from central posting a comment on my site while it rains outside, while the boys play oh so peacefully on the indoor playground. After an hour and a half, we go and while I fix the shoes of one guy, Daniel the other escapes, so while I run after David Daniel escapes and so forward, a game for them, a disaster for me, eventually I have security called and can find Daniel at the main gate on ground floor. An incident to get slightly furious; I am still learning.
So there reunited we go to maybe find a pizza place on the very ground floor of the very mall. And it seems they understand walk hand in hand beside me, till they find the pool full of water, nothing deep, but water still fascinates. The pool encircles the lifts and around the lifts leads a small ledge. And there they escape to. No way, they voluntarily will come back. I look away, when I look back Daniel pees into the water. No way! I look the other way. When I look back again I see them both pee in the pool and enjoying it. Can’t be! I look away to not to attract attention. I need to get them. They play the escape game again, when I try to catch them on one side they seek refuge to the other side, 5 times or so, - obviously until one, David falls into the pool. Crawls out, seeks help; stands there completely wet. Good bye Pizza.
I never have been more pleased.
So how can I prevent them from peeing in the pool?
So how can I prevent them from peeling the wallpaper off the inside of the van? How can I prevent them from turning the lights on when they play in the front cabin of the car? How can I prevent them from opening the doors and escape? That is easy: strap the doors together; the strap then makes a good training rig for them. Not a save playground you will say but ... How can I prevent them from opening the windows and escape when they play or at night? The danger is them escaping not falling out, they’re master climbers. Easy too! Take the handles off. How do I remember where I stashed the handles away? No answer to that; lost one really quickly, the second soon after, buy a new clip-on handle near Gdansk. Also never let the handle on the dash board. Hue.
How can I prevent them from running off in a mall or city centre? Tie them up, put them on a leash? Maybe the sole solution; they have no concept of getting lost and stolen. How can I make them stop at the road? No concept of traffic and its dangers. How can I prevent them from running away in two directions? Leash them. I don’t like the leash thing. Eventually after 2 months I would be surprised how easy it all is, but these first days and weeks are strenuous.
How can I prevent them from throwing stones at each other, or worse bite each other? They are very social, play peacefully for hours with each other and others but at times use their prime weapon with ferocity. How can I prevent them from stepping in every puddle they find? Don’t, buy them gum boots. But it is so hard to find them in Poland. I would find them in Vilnius.
So how can I prevent them from peeling the wallpaper off the inside of the van? How?
We have come to Warsaw pretty much to meet my old friend Piotr. But with the two rambunctious boys and the rains staying in his flat proves disastrous; their energy would just come out, uncontrolled, uncontrollable. P.S. 3 months later I would wryly smile about these incidents, we would sit at a table and people would comment how well behaved the two boys are. It is difficult these early days, but how can we let off steam when the rains really don’t permit it?
Warsaw should be more. Warsaw could be so interesting, has this history, was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis, house by house, block after block, 200,000 died, burnt through use of flame throwers, Hitler angry after the uprising. There is this parting street, houses right remained untouched, were inhabited by Germans, everything left fell to the flames.
In Warsaw I see the limitations of travelling with children, it is different, the culture or history of the place move far to the back ground, the children’s playground and where it is to the front, best is in the back of a pub with wifi, check the escape tunnels for the boys first, their activity is the main thing, so it is...
Eventually after a week the weather clears, soon Christina prepares to leave, takes a plane then, so it is. On my and the boy’s way out of Warsaw we drive by the Palace of Culture and Science again, I am fascinated by Soviet monumental architecture. Warsaw is already north 52° 15’, sun rises early, sets late. I am dedicated to go north all the way.
Toruń, Kolobrzeg, the coast to Gdansk.
The future is bright, this may become the grand journey north with Daniel and David. For me it is driving the boys, full of thoughts, be prepared, for food and pooh needs, I will have to prepare also for colder weather. I drive in silence with myself and my thoughts when they sleep. Talk, talk and talk to them, name the world, horses, bulldozers, ships and airplanes; teach them when they’re awake, and stop so often, show them cities, woods, beaches. But how not lose them? I am still learning. Kind of first real stop is Toruń, world heritage site (wiki), the boys run off, have their great idea, enter every shop, every restaurant, which means they disappear so often. They enjoy it, call home, have some fries at McDonalds; leave many behind, for the pigeons! Very chaotic, very energetic, I can hardly control where we go.
Then we get to the Polish East Sea, a hazy undertaking is Kolobrzeg, I would classify it as for olds, useless, turn your back on it but the boys teach better. There are the swans, sand, poles; so many things to do, run and ride, let off energy; seems this is key! Siphon off their energy! Also think, beach is great, they cannot run away.
Kolobrzeg, this 22nd of May, 54° N, sunrises at 4.40 a.m. still 30 days to go till that longest day.
The coast remains fully engulfed in fog till Rowy further east, Leba then is clear, night again rainy. We make it still to its nature reserve, forests, grand dunes and adjacent beach. Cold and windy, two bikers reach Lacka dune, wind in back from Rowy (some 30km west), via the beach and Daniel spots a plane, David has had a Tantrum earlier, is bound to my back, but on the way back they both go up and down the dunes. P.s. 2 months later I would remember this as the last Tantrum, none of the two would ever again go completely wild.
We reach Gdansk via Gdynia and Sopot. Ships are fascinating. Gdansk, the shipyards, is where Solidarność (wiki) started, where Lech Wałęsa comes from, is where revolution was taking place. Also in Gdynia, where is a photo exhibition, of some strike and police crushing it, or is it earlier re the Polish 1970 protests? I have no time to find out. The boys would just go anywhere.
Gdansk (wiki) is Hanseatic, Prussian and Polish; it is a jewel, striking is it was rebuilt in a huge effort after WW2. We come, it rains. But then after a Pizza, the long promised one for the boys the skies clear a bit and pre dusk sun filters through. While I still lock the car the boys take off, takes me nearly 3 minutes to find them. They escape or try to a few more times while walking the Long Street and Long Market. I make them walk hand in hand, but this is always short lived, they run off. I am short of a heart attack when we get to the streets.
Gdansk in the morning and another pizza, inedible I would have said, the boys chew on it a bit, my fish and chips has been frozen, a beer helps a bit, such awful food, such a nice sunny walk on the pier. Later back in the van the bright side: I manage to edit some photos, write a little update, post through an on and off wifi connection that I capture right in the centre of town. It has to be possible to keep the page running while travelling with the boys. P.s. Two months later all would be so easy. The boys and I would cooperate.
Malbork, Frombork, North/East Poland, Bialystok, Bialowieza.
Then we head out. Malbork/Marienburg is not far, Crusader/Teutonic capital/German brick castle, I go with the boys on a 2 hour audio guided tour; so much is possible! Up and down narrow staircases, they enjoy it at times, in the end they are just tired and me too.
Interesting, there was once a battle of Gruenwald, 1410, the biggest in the Middle Ages in which then vast Lithuania and Poland defeated the Teutonic (German) knights (wiki). Puzzled to see Crusaders up here!
The country further on turns beautiful to wild, such a fascinating part of Europe harbouring a rich history as a tolerant land, a bastion of paganism, out of a tactical political ploy by the aristocracy with all beliefs permitted, so we come around some more Crusader stuff, Frombork/Frauenburg (wiki) soon is on our way, religion served the Teutons as a pretext for their wars. The mediaeval word reysa (now German Reise for voyage) referred to an annual Teutonic pageant, followed by a multi-week rape-and-pillage excursion into Lithuania, a sort of seasonal mini-crusade. The Lithuanians would retaliate - and so the area between Gdansk and Vilnius was not exactly a popular place for people to settle (friend Nick told me this, so interesting).
Poland’s north, we are close to Russian Kaliningrad, and east is all lakes, fields, forests and marshes, villages with brick cathedrals, towers, castles and churches, cemeteries, memorials and bunkers from WW2. Particular spooky is Hitler’s Wolfschanze (Wolf's Lair, wiki), Hitler’s Eastern headquarters, a moist, dark, rotten site in a dark forest, clouds of mosquitoes hound and kind of make you feel the presence of the Devil to date.
We drop a bit south, in Bialystok we sneak in on the academic picnic on the medical university campus, its 60 years celebrations, the heat is up and I receive a free beer, the boys a lemonade, then another, I am craving for another beer, but the boys run round, escape between hundreds of students. Better pack up and sneak out again.
The further we drive East the more orthodox churches we find, houses in villages have wooden planks, there is a more Russian feel to it, it is a country of storks, cattle and horses; - and, they really exist, Bison, in the Zubrow nature reserves near Bialowieza. These oxen/buffaloes are the pride of every Pole, a kind of a holy animal that features on beer, vodka and bank logos. The boys love them too and the other deer in the park, wolves and pumas here in the park.