Monday, July 21, 2008

Sundays In Silesia

Spending four days traveling around Poland proved to be more exciting than I could have predicted.

The first two days, in Zakopane, were relatively uneventful affairs filled with cheese, beer, lamb and rain. Sofia, the woman whose home Marcin and I stayed in, was very nice and she made sure to stuff me full of food the first opportunity she got. Zakopane is in the Tatra mountains, and close to the border with Slovakia. Having exhausted the possibilities for photographing mountains and eating cheese, Marcin decided we'd go on a beer run in Slovakia.

In Slovakia we bought beer. I got yelled at by the angry gas station man for photographing his gas station, and I got waved at by the happy farmer. The happy farmer was particularly exciting since hardly anyone in Central Europe smiles much (with the exception a few of the guys at Platige). I don't smile much, either, so it must be genetic. Unfortunately, my photo of the happy farmer is pretty bad -- as it was taken just as we were narrowly avoiding a traffic accident, jostling me and causing a blurry and oddly framed image.

Sunday we went to Oświęcim, and to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. The museum at Auschwitz is quite extensive, and both impressive and depressing in its scope. A group of Israelis was visiting the site, which I can only imagine was a terribly emotional moment for them. My (Polish Catholic) grandparents were in labor camps in Germany during WWII, and while all Poles suffered greatly during the Nazi occupation (the museum addresses this), Jewish citizens (of all the occupied territories) suffered the worst. So what I was feeling, the Israeli visitors must have been feeling even more deeply. For many in Central and Eastern Europe, it seems that Jews are now considered mythical creatures from the past, so I felt the presence of the Israeli group was a good reminder for the other visitors that there are indeed Jewish people alive today.

We then spent the rest of our Sunday in Silesia, hitting Katowice, Bytom, Ruda Slonska, and Gliwicia. We took some nice photos of the Huta Katowice steelworks from a neighboring hillside, and of some interesting looking old factories in Bytom. My hotel in Gliwicia was near a railway siding, which was both interesting to observe and not very conducive to sleeping.

Monday we went to Częstochowa, where I saw the famous Black Madonna painting presiding above a morning Mass. The reliquary that was open to the public had other fabulous pieces of art (paintings and metalworks, mainly), and the museum had lots of interesting artifacts from the Jasna Góra monastery's political and military history -- including the repulsion of the Swedish army in 1655 during The Deluge).

In the Łódź district we stopped to take photos of the Bełchatów Power Station. This resulted in our being detained by the guards of the plant, after we stopped to take some photos near one of the coal feeder conveyor belts and Marcin asked one of the workers if it would be ok with him. During our nearly an hour spent at the guard offices, one of the guards proceeded to tell us pretty much everything a terrorist could want to know about the plant -- including telling us which photo had the sensitive municipal power feeder line that I'd inadvertently snapped a picture of (and wouldn't have known what it was without his info). So, had we been terrorists, we'd have gotten more info than we ever hoped for. Of course, as Bruce Schneier points out, terrorists don't generally take photos (and if they did, they would not likely stop and ask the workers for permission).

Police were brought in, and we were taken to the station. For the most part, the Police thought the whole situation was a waste of their time. Marcin pointed out that we were movie makers taking reference photos, and the chief of police believed him but said he was being pressured by the guards to do something. He decided he'd have one of the younger cops take a report. The police were mostly quite nice. The officer assigned to our "case" took our statement and (at the request of the head of the factory guards, who called the station) checked out Marcin's laptop to see what other photos we had. Afterwards, he gave us a map to a location where we could take photos of the power plant without any problems. Clearly he didn't think we were much of a terrorist threat. Neither the factory guards nor the police made me delete the photos that had caused such consternation, and once we were released we were thus free to take hundreds more photos of the facility.

A fine example of the absurd, time-and-money-wasting, feel-good nonsense that Bruce Schneier calls "security theater." At least in this case the police knew their time was being wasted, and were all too happy to have the affair be over and done with as quickly as possible. Maybe Polish police have a more realistic perspective on the true nature of crime and terrorism than their paranoid American counterparts, like the Rodeo Police who illegally drove me out of town (literally, with a squad car less than 10 feet off my bumper until I left the city limits) after I took photos of the refinery in town while standing on a public street.