Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Norway for the Holidays

Jeffrey and I have really enjoyed learning about some the Norwegian holiday season.  Of the many traditions, the food has to be one of the most unique.  The grocery stores here are filled with Christmas or "jule" food and drink like:
  • Pepperkaker - a gingerbread-type cookie in fun little shapes.  They are supposed to be easy to make at home, but the store-bought ones are so tasty.
  • Julebrus - Christmas soda! The bottles are decorated with Santa and reindeer.  There are two kinds that I've seen - brown and red - but the ones in the glass bottles are the best. I also mistakenly bought sugar-free julebrus... it was a sad day in the Burro house...
  • Juleøl - it seems like every brewery has a Christmas beer.
  • Pinnekjøtt - re-hydrated, salty pieces of lamb rib.  Not my fave, but our Norwegian friends love it.  
And the list goes on.  One of our more memorable experiences was dinner coordinated by good friends at City Bistro in Stavanger.  This restaurant wasn't chosen just by chance.  It is actually one of the few and best places to eat Lutefisk and Smalahove, so of course we ordered one of each.  

Wondering what's on Jeff's plate?
I got a little worried when the waitress brought out four shots of Aquavit without even asking if we wanted any.  We learned that the shots were considered an appetizer before the Smalahove.  I kept wondering why Jeff would need this sort of liquid courage... and then his plate was served.

Smalahove is half a sheep's head.  Not just the meat from a sheep's head like I'd imagined (and was still a little repulsed by) but actually a sheep's head.  Teeth, tongues, eyeball, cheeks - everything (except the brain)! I'd never seen anything like it.  Needless to say, Jeffrey downed those shots pretty quick, and he actually enjoyed his meal.  He said the eye was the best.  I also ate my Lutefisk and am grateful for the experience, but I don't think I'll be adding steamed fish that's been soaked in lye to my recipe book. 

Since we enjoyed our traditional Norwegian meal, we felt it only appropriate to invite some friends over for Thanksgiving!  We should have taken more pictures... but cooking so much food makes for a hectic day.  On the menu was turkey (obviously), giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, corn, homemade rolls and two pies - pecan and pumpkin!

There was almost no room in our tiny dining area for the table, but we made it work.  Good thing we all like each other!

Thankful for friends!

Now, we are getting ready for Christmas.  It sure FEELS like Christmas with these sub-freezing temperatures and a few inches of snow.  Our neighborhood has put up some garland and the houses have decorations in the windows - it's very festive.  I was lamenting that our tree wasn't going to fit in our house and Leif Christian let us borrow their tree once he realized we would enjoy it longer (generally, my Norwegian friends won't decorate until the 23rd or so and everything comes down around the New Year).  I'm so happy to have a tree in our living room with our one little strand of lights plugged into a converter and ornaments from our travels.  It's actually our first Christmas tree to decorate together since we've been married :)

We've had much to be thankful for this year, but we are especially thankful for our friends here in Norway that have become our family-away-from-family.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two Years Ago

Do you have a great story when asked "how did you two meet"?  It's funny... neither Jeffrey nor I can remember the moment we met.  I've come to accept this lame answer to an otherwise fun story-telling opportunity and have actually come to realize the beauty of it - we can't remember because it feels like we always knew each other. Of course there was a time when he was unaware of my existence (what a dark, lonely time it must have been - ha..).  Love isn't supposed to have an ending, right? So why should it have a beginning?  Love just is.  And, man, do I sure love him!

Fortunately, we have a few other good stories to share!  For example..

He asked me to marry him on Bow Bridge in Central Park on New Year's Day 2010.  It was freezing and I did not wear proper shoes (I thought we were just walking through the park on the way to dinner!), but our dear friends hiked all over the park to follow us and take pictures. I couldn't stop smiling...

Until I started crying (cue ugly sob face)...  

We were married on December 4, 2010, in a beautiful Tulsa, OK cathedral.  

And we were surrounded by so many people that love us as much as we love them.

So, we may not remember the moment we met, but I'll remember these moments forever. Especially that smile when he first saw me in my dress.

Happy Anniversary Jeffrey!

Thursday, November 8, 2012


This trip was kind of planned spur of the moment (at least compared to our trips to Greece and Prague/Vienna which were planned months in advance).  Like I said in my last post, our main motivation for visiting Krakow was to see Auschwitz, but this beautiful city exceeded our expectations!

We really enjoyed the location of our hotel because it was within easy walking distance to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and right in the middle of the Old Town.  Plus, our room was so cozy!  

Our room at Hotel Senacki

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and enjoyed our first stroll through Krakow's Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) on our way to lunch.  This square is enormous!  And even though the high-season for tourists was pretty much over, there was still a lot of activity - wreath and flower stalls, pigeons, and vendors selling obwarzanek (yummy!).  I'll admit, I had to look up the spelling of that one... but no research necessary to know if it's worth tasting - just don't call it a bagel...

Standing in Rynek Glowny with St. Mary's Basilica in the background
 After lunch, we took a tram to Kazimierz.  It was close enough for a walk, but it's always fun to try out a city's public transportation (unless it's smelly... but this wasn't).    Before WWII, the Jewish population totaled around 65,000 and primarily lived in this area.  Sadly, only a few thousand survived the war, and now Krakow only has about 200 Jewish residents.  Before the war, though, this community thrived.  Thanks to its many synagogues, traditional restaurants, an incredible museum and a popular movie, the Jewish spirit is still intact.

We walked around the neighborhood and wandered across the Vistula River to Podgorze, the site of Krakow's ghetto and Schindler's Factory Museum.  Ghetto Heroes Square, right in the middle of Podgorze, has a monument consisting of several empty metal chairs.  The Jews were rounded up from the ghetto, leaving everything behind to sit and wait here for transport to death camps.  Just down the street from here is Schindler's Factory - now, an amazing museum.

On top of describing the inspiring story of Oskar Schindler, the museum is an interactive timeline of Krakovian life during the events leading up to and during WWII.   It has all of these touch screens if I wanted to learn more about a particular topic and different themed rooms (the German invasion, a 1940's tram car, life in the ghetto etc).  My favorite room was the Room of Choices.  The rotunda's cement walls are covered in real-life accounts of people that were opposed to the evil all around them and chose to help.  It reminded me that we are the choices we make. 

This one was a favorite.  There's no doubt in my mind that my siblings would have done the same for each other.

We ended the day walking through the drizzle, contemplating the history lesson we just had and preparing for the day ahead of us at Auschwitz.

The day after our trip to Oswiecim, we wandered around the Old Town.  We strolled through the Planty...

Reminisced about college life at Jagiellonian University (Copernicus and Pope John Paul II studied here!) ...

Jagiellonian University's beautiful courtyard

Played knights versus dragons outside the old city walls...

Florian's Gate

Krakow's Barbakan

And pretended to be princesses that lived in a castle (okay, maybe that was just me)...

Walking into the Wawel Castle grounds
Wawel's courtyard

One of my favorite sites of the Wawel Castle grounds was the cathedral.  I know nothing about architecture, but it's obvious that this one is made from a dozen different styles... and it just works!

Wawel Cathedral

Krakow is gorgeous, right?  Tourists visit the city, but not many compared to western European cities.  WWII hit Poland hard emotionally and economically.  After "liberation", the communists brought the steel industry, copious amounts of smog, and a regime based on intimidation and rationing - the country continued to struggle.  I read in my Rick Steves guide book that the communists even controlled hair dye so that there was only one color available - a shocking pinkish-red!  The Poles, known for their historical dissidence, carried out major protests and were met with martial law that lasted for two years in the early 1980s.  In 1989, the Polish people finally achieved the autonomy they had hoped for for so long.
The castle grounds
We had really lucked out with the weather in Krakow so far seeing as how it was supposed to rain the entire time and we hadn't felt one drop.  When we made it back to Rynek Glowny late in the afternoon, though, we could see the clouds rolling in.  We did a little shopping in the Cloth Hall and then took a break drinking the thickest, yummiest, dreamiest hot chocolate we've ever had.

Cloth Hall

The clouds did bring rain. Lots of it. So we made good use of the gigantic shopping mall near Krakow's train station.  Somehow, Jeffrey walked away with more merchandise - that never happens!  We enjoyed a delicious meal at an Argentinian steak house on our last night and woke up to a winter wonderland the day of our departure.  We were only there a few days but flew back to Norway with a greater understanding of Polish culture, the country's struggles during WWII, and an appreciation for this beautiful, hopeful city.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Learning from Auschwitz

Jeffrey and I returned from our trip to Krakow last week.  We enjoyed exploring the city's Old Town and I'm looking forward to writing more about that, but the main purpose of this trip was to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  On our ride to the site, we had trouble describing our emotions in an appropriate way.  Excited wasn't right. It sounded macabre to say we were looking forward to it even though we had been planning this tour for weeks.  Looking back, we were anxious, even nervous, to walk the grounds of a site responsible for one of humanity's most horrifying tragedies - the murder of at least 1.1 million innocent people.  

We arrived and joined a group of about 10 others and met our guide.  Even though having a guide is mandatory during the high season, I would definitely recommend them.  Our guide also encouraged us to take pictures, acting not as tourists but witnesses to the tragedies that took place here.  We had tried to reeducate ourselves about the camp's history, but hearing the descriptions and seeing them at the same time made it easier to take everything in.  We began our tour by walking under the infamous gate with message, Arbeit Macht Frei.  Cruelly, this message means "Work Brings Freedom". 

Victims were transported here from all over Europe, even from as far away as Norway.  Auschwitz I used the grounds of prewar Polish barracks to first hold Poles in 1940, a race the Nazis believed to be sub-human and were to be used as slaves to the new regime.  Although Jews were the preferred scapegoat of the Nazis for the world's problems, for almost 2 years the majority of the prisoners at Auschwitz were Poles.  During this time, the camp functioned primarily as a concentration camp where death was brought on slowly from deliberate inhuman conditions and starvation.  The double, electrified barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp divided life and death.

As conditions worsened in Jewish ghettos across Europe, the Nazi administration saw the growing number of corpses as a sanitation problem.  Additionally, the Nazis found the psychological hardship was too great for SS men to perform mass executions of Jews (regardless of gender or age) by shooting them like the victims in German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  In January 1942, Hitler detailed his "final solution of the Jewish question", the Jewish ghettos were being liquidated, and Auschwitz, among others became a death camp for the extermination of European Jews and others whom the Nazis considered "undesirable". 

Seeing those numbers is appalling, but it can also be a little impersonal because it's so hard to imagine.  The museum tries to solve this with exhibits solely displaying the possessions of the victims like a room of shoes, hairbrushes, and suitcases.  This was only a fraction of the belongings stolen from the Jews as they stepped off the cattle cars, mistakenly thinking the worst was behind them.  Most disturbing was the room displaying 2 tons of human hair, primarily women's.  More than 7 tons were found by the liberating army.  Why was it kept?  To make blankets and jackets for the Nazis.  Auschwitz was truly a factory of death.  

More than 80,000 shoes of victims

Also on display were the belongings of children as more than 230 thousand children under the age of 18 were deported to Auschwitz.  Only 700 survived.

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz
After the "final solution" was imposed, most Jews deported to Auschwitz were sent to gas chambers, especially women with children.  This process was done quickly so as not to raise panic.  The museum even displayed pictures of families walking calmly, arm-in-arm toward the doors of the gas chambers.  Those selected for work could be sent to their deaths at any time through other random selections.  In the picture below, I am standing on the same spot that prisoners stood for selections during which SS doctors classified people as fit for work, fit for experimentation, or fit for death.  

Another view of the selection and roll-call area

Of those chosen for work, it was imperative that they follow the rules or they would be placed in Block 11.  A prison within a prison.  It was the most feared block and no one ever came out alive.  People were tortured here in starvation cells, darkness cells, and standing cells.  If the crime was punishable by immediate death, prisoners were taken to the wall in the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 and were shot.  One such victim of this block was Maksymilian Kolbe.  A prisoner from Kolbe's block managed to escape, so the Nazis punished the remaining inmates by selecting 10 of them to be put in a starvation cell until they died.  Kolbe offered to replace a man who had expressed concern about who would care for his family.  The Nazis agreed.  The man Kolbe replaced survived the Holocaust.

The single gas chamber and crematorium of Auschwitz I still stands because it functioned later as a bomb shelter for the Nazis.  Zyklon-B was dropped from holes in the ceiling to murder up to 700 people at a time.  "Special" laborers were forced to move the bodies to the adjoining crematorium.

A replica of the furnaces

Used canisters of Zyklon-B
In 1941, the single crematorium at Auschwitz I was determined inefficient and a second camp was built nearby.  Auschwitz II-Birkenau could hold 100,000 prisoners whereas Auschwitz I held no more than 20,000.  The majority - probably about 90% - of the victims of Auschwitz were murdered in Birkenau. 1 million people and 9 out of 10 were Jewish.

Birkenau's guard tower

Prisoners on the dividing platform. Women and children to the left, men to the right.

The dividing platform with an actual rail car serving as a memorial to the victims.

The remains of some barracks, identified by the still-standing chimney stacks
Women's barracks
As bad as Auschwitz I was, Birkenau was worse.  The barracks were designed as stables and up to 1,000 could be forced to sleep in just one.  This could mean up to 6 people per bunk, including the floor.  The grass shown in the pictures is recent.  In 1942, there was only mud, barracks packed with people, and smoke from the four crematoria.  Sanitation was abysmal at Birkenau and prisoners were allowed two trips the restroom a day.  

A latrine at Birkenau.

"On this site stood a wooden barrack where in 1944 more than 200 Jewish children between the ages of 2 and 16 were kept as prisoners.  These children, the majority of them twins, were used for criminal medical experiments by the SS doctor Josef Mengele.

The four crematoria each had the capacity to kill 4,400 people a day.  The ashes were spread in fields as fertilizer, were used to make cement blocks and roads in the camps, or were dumped into pits.  The Nazis tried to hide evidence of their crimes by destroying the crematoria with explosive as the Red Army approached.  The ruins are all that remain.

"To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.  Here lie their ashes.  May their souls rest in peace"

The monument at the back of the camp represents gravestones and a chimney of the crematorium.  A poignant realization that the only way to escape was as ash.

Walking on the grounds where more than 1 million men, women, and children were murdered because of their nationality, their beliefs, or their lifestyle had a profound affect on us.  It isn't my intention to give a history lesson, but it is my intention to make an impression.  Fear of those we don't understand or who are different, the need to blame, and spreading hate.  These crimes against humanity are still being committed every day - bullying, racism, homophobia etc.   The Holocaust was an extreme result of these ways of thinking.  We all have this one life. Why can't it be spent loving each other?  The aggressors are only part of the problem as there are people that witness these crimes and do nothing.  I've been one of them.  I won't be again. I hope you won't be either.