Poland

As we spend a couple of months or more each year in Greece, we have made it a point to take tours to various destinations in Europe. The tour guide will normally be Greek speaking, a disadvantage for me. On the other hand, it allows me to wander a bit and see what we are visiting instead of having my foot nailed to the floor while the guide drones on about whatever. This year, our tour choice  was Poland.

Day 1: Getting there.

Our Greek home is in Peraia,  a suburb of Thessaloniki. The tours originate from Athens so we have an extra leg. Athens is not my favorite airport. It is crowded, cluttered, clumsy and chaotic. It is certainly not what one would expect of a capitol city.

The tours have been using Aegean Airlines, a company that effectively replaced Olympic. They have a fleet of 60 Airbus A320’s, a crowded model with really tight seat spacing. I endured. I did not enjoy.

Our first destination was Krakow, wherein we found a very hospitable city centered around a plaza filled with restaurants, souvenir vendors and people. This, we found, is characteristic of every Polish city and impresses with the tidiness of streets and everything.

Day 2: The salt mine and the city.

 

On display in the mine are reminders of what such work meant in the time before mechanization. Some of the wooden machinery is very impressive.

In the morning, we began a descent into the Wielezka salt mine which, though now not operational, must have produced a few cubic miles of rock salt over the course of its more than 600 years of operation. More than just a mine, it contains a variety of sculpture, all in rock salt done by miners, that commemorate saints and kings and more. In all, the mine reaches depths over 1000 ft., and includes 178 miles of shafts and passages. In the course of the tour, you descend hundreds of steps. Wobbly legs are to be expected. The ascent is by elevator,

 

In the afternoon, we took a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. The cathedral is typical of the major churches throughout Poland, immense and magnificent.

The Jewish Quarter, by contrast, is very subdued. Prior to World War II, there were an estimated 80,000 Jews in the city. At the end of the war, a mere 7,000 had survived. Since then the Jewish population has virtually vanished. There are a few synagogues and no more than 200 Jews remaining.

This is characteristic of the entire tour. The simplest way to say it is that the Nazis thoroughly trashed Poland, and the Russians were none too careful in their reconquest. At the end of the war with the country mostly in ruins, Poland began a decades long reconstruction that continues to this day. There was more to come.

P1040688Day 3: Into the Heart of Darkness

As it is told, the Nazis originally only intended to force the Jews out of Europe. They considered sending them first to Siberia, but the invasion of Russia ended that. Then Zanzibar was considered. When they realized that it would be too expensive and probably not possible, the most expedient alternative was extermination, something they set about doing with typically Teutonic efficicency.  The Jews were rounded up and shipped to a number of concentration and extermination camps. The best known of these was near the Polish town of Oswciem, called by the Germans, Auschwitz.

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These tracks lead through the building to the selection area. As the prisoners descended from their train, a German officer would select those who would live or die.

Much of this camp remains and is now maintained as a tourist destination. It was situated around a set of brick barracks built for the Polish Army. To these were added additional crude wooden barracks to house the thousands of prisoners. The brick barracks and some of the wooden barracks still stand. The Nazis destroyed most of the extermination facilities when they realized that they were about to loose the war and the Russians were approaching. The gas chambers and crematoriums are mostly gone. A sobering display is housed in several of the brick barracks.

It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of all of this. Auschwitz alone accounted for some 1,500,000 Jews and others. The exhibits recount the treatment of prioners and the processing that sorted the capable from the less so. The latter went directly to the chambers. Those remaining were simply worked to death.

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A small assortment of artificial limbs.

The most harrowing part of the exhibits are all the possesions conficated from prisoners as they arrived. There are piles of luggage, shoes, brushes, eyglasses and more.  A large room is filled with human hair shaved from the corpses and sold to the textile industries. All this is only a fraction of what was taken, and that only at Auschwitz.

 

From the brick barracks, you are lead to the arrival tracks where the selections were made, and then into some of the wooden barracks. On display is a boxcar of the type in which prisoners were shipped to the camps. They would have little or no food or water. With as many as 80 people crammed into one boxcar, a trip that might last as long as ten days resulted in the deaths of many before they ever reached a camp.

 

These barracks were a minimal consruction that provided only shelter and no comfort at all. Imagine a half dozen people all crammed onto that shelf without mattress or blankets.

Once you have experienced this place, your perspective must change. Talking of the Holocaust without it is to deal with the abstract. Here at this place is the concrete and undeniable evidence and in overwhelming volume.

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Empty canisters of Zyklon B, the poison gas used to kill prisoners en masse.

Is there a lesson for us here? Of course there is. There are many lessons. First and foremost is that in the political discourse of the day, to liken anyone to the monsters who perpetrated the holocaust is reprehensible. To do so trivializes what was done and diminishes the memory of all those vicitms. We would do well to rethink our poisonous politics and begin to restore some to civility to it. I do not say that we would or could repeat that history but the less we appreciate the enormity of it and honor the dead whose ashes are scattered there, the more likely we are to visit our own heart of darkness.

The Beach at Peraia

Peraia, Greece, August 2019: Life on the beach of Peraia in summer is one long succession of  swimming, walking, relaxing, with leisurely lunches by the waterside. That is true for the human inhabitants. Maybe less so  for the other denizens.

IMG_20190731_234722_979The beach of Peraia is a four mile stretch of sandy beach varying in width from a few feet to a hundred or more. What sets it off from other like places is that the water is shallow well out from shore. Even as much as a hundred yards out it is possible to stand on the bottom. Though lacking in significant surf, it is still a popular recreational area and locals and foreigners alike flock here every summer.

Less recognized is the wildlife that also occupies these waters. The wide sandy bottom looks at first like an aquatic desert  but in fact there is an abundance of life to be found. It may not be a National Geographic coral reef with clouds of exotic fish but there is more to be found than meets the uncritical eye.

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Small fish abound along the beach. They seem unphased by human presence.

Stand for a moment a few yards out and watch. Very likely a number of small fish will come to investigate. Characteristically, they are elusive and well camouflaged, as are all the species here. There is little vegetation and no hiding place so species that thrive here are those that can blend in to the point of being invisible. At times those small fish seem able to bury themselves in the sand.

A note for would be fishermen: Forget your exotic tackle. No poppers, hoppers, droppers, no wooly buggers or redwing whizbangs. No spoons, spinners, none. What works for these little guys is bread. Throw a piece of bread in the water and you will start a feeding frenzy. Put a piece on your hook and expect a catch. Of course, they are barely bite size. For bigger fish, you need to get out on the water.

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A  conch snail still occupying his shell.

The keen eyed observer will ocasionally come across other oddities. Small conchs and snails are frequently found, usually by stepping on them. They are typically adorned with barnacles, the immobile barnacles taking advantage of the snails to bring them to food. Rocks of varying size are present sans barnacles, since they tend to get buried which would be unfortunate for any attached barnacles.

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This mildly perturbed Hermit crab is investigating the sudden change of scenery.

Many of the snail shells have been vacated in favor of small hermit crabs. I am not sure how the change in occupancy takes place but it is likely that the snails are the losers. Hold one of these for a minute or two and the crab will nervously investigate and sometimes try to escape.

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A razor clam shell left behind by a feeding crab(?)

A variety of shells litter the sea floor. Razor clams are present but only the empty shells will be found.  Michael was able to find a live razor clam a couple of years ago. Curiously, they were offered at a Madrid food court but there seems to be no market for them here.

Above, tiny crabs vie for exposed clams.

At the waters edge, tiny clams seem to be the choice of numerous small crabs. Since there is constant wave action (mostly from the wake of boats and ships in the bay) these clams are churned up and become crab bait. Numerous clam shells testify to their aundance -and fate. There are also tiny fish, typically about 1″ long,  frequently seen but which are so perfectly camouflaged that it takes considerable concentration to spot them.

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These little “now you see them, now you don’t fish are maybe an inch long. With an underwater camera, they are more visible. From above it is just lusck to spot them.

Of all the creatures found here, the oddest is the salp. At least, that is what I believe it is. The locals call them medusa, a generic for jellyfish, but they are not that. There are no tentacles. They are about 6″ in length and appear like a small, transparent cucumber. They pulse slowly and tend to stay near the surface. Probably filter feeders, they do not seem to have any predators.

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Salps can be elusive and difficult to photograph. It is bad enough that they are nearly transparent, but in bright sunlight and without my glasses, this is a lucky shot.

The most mysterious* aspect of them is that they will appear suddenly, a few one day, hundreds the next. And then they vanish just as suddenly. If you Google “salp”, a different creature wil be found. Out in the Mediteranean proper, they are found as long chains of individuals forming a tape like entity that can exceed 100′. These however, do not combine and merely float along, alarming the unwary and uninformed.

  • “Mysterious” is the favorite adjective of hack science writers everywhere.

The video above is probably the business end of a razor clam. The fronds appear as a black spot on the sand but when disturbed, they quickly hide.

One might think that the featureless seafloor along the Peraia beach would be bereft of life. It is anything but and a visit here will soon show otherwise. Maybe you should take a trip and swim here. You never know what might be under your feet.

 

What to do With TrainHenge?

Stonehenge is a fascinating monument of mysterious origin. Are we building a similar monument?

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This structure is north of Fresno, on the south side of the San Joaquin River.

The saga of California’s high speed rail project took an unexpected turn when newly elected governor Gavin Newsom decided to cut the project in half. Originally planned to extend from San Diego in the far south to the SF bay area and Sacramento, Newsom’s change of direction would reduce it to the Bakersfield to Merced segment, a distance of about 165 miles. The project is ~as expected~ well over budget, underfunded, and behind schedule. Not one inch of track has been laid but hulking monuments loom over the landscape. If the project is never finished ~and that is a distinct possibility~ one wonders what will become of them.

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The Last Spike at Promontory, Utah. Building railroads was much easier then. We celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event in May.

The project is a victim of the fact that those once open spaces are no longer open. When the first trans-continental railroad was constructed, right-of-way acquisition was a simple matter of surveying a route and laying track. Native Americans might have objected, but most of the land was under federal control and thus readily available. The structures being built in Fresno for HSR reflect the difficulty of finding a usable route. Rather than building on the ground, the planners have chosen to create an aerial path through the city.

As is typical in such instances, this project was sold on questionable premises. First, of course, was the original cost estimate. It was so far below reality that  no one even mentions it anymore. Then it was the promise that it would pay for itself. That might have worked had the original cost held but at $66 billion and rising, it would be a long time happening. Amtrak currently quotes a Bakersfield to Sacramento ticket at about $45. Considering the faster service, one might expect an HSR ticket for the same route to be double. The segment to be built, if it extended to Sacramento, might cost $20 billion. If so, it would take more than 22,000,000 tickets to recover that cost.

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The overpass structure south of Fresno. What could it become?

Traffic reduction was another selling point. It is reasonable to think that some reduction would occur. If so, why is the San Francisco – San Jose corridor still a traffic nightmare? The California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, operates the Cal Train service over that route and claims 65,000 average daily riders. The impact on traffic for all that is vanishingly small. To have any significant impact on valley traffic, the HSR system would have to carry at least ten time that number of passengers. Are there a half million  people eager to ride the train each day?

The critics of the project are legion and most of the arguments against have merit, as I have noted. One argument, however, is as fallacious as anything that has been offered in support of it. That is that trains are obsolete. This is a useless argument from the outset, and ultimately meaningless. Yes, it is an old technology in its essence. (I have a poster commemorating 100 Hundred Years of the Railroad that was produced by the Baltimore & Ohio for a centenary pageant in 1927, to illustrate how old it is.) If age is the criterion, the automobile and the airplane, competing transportation technologies are more than a century old. Should we be searching for replacements?

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We are always “putting America to work”.

A line from Bakersfield to Sacramento may still be worth the trouble and expense, though I stand by the arguments that it will never recover its costs and have little impact on traffic. In fact, that route may be ideally suited to a high speed rail system just because the competing technologies do not serve us well. Anyone in the valley, especially south of Sacramento, knows the pain of trying to fly anywhere. If one were to book a flight from Bakersfield to Sacramento, the airlines typically will soak you about $500 and sned you to LAX or SFO in the process. And there is the enjoyable prospect of being scrutinized, x-rayed, maybe frisked or even strip searched in the bargain. Oh, and be sure to leave behind that bottle of whatever that is too large and anything vaguely resembling a weapon.

One more thing on which no price can be placed. People like trains. Given the choice between a bus or the train, most will gladly take the train. The same thing is true of streetcars or trolleys. There is something appealing about trains that cannot be quantified.

Stonehenge is a mystery to us. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. It has its own problems, mostly that it is a popular destination hampered by traffic problems. Perhaps Trainhenge will not be forgotten, all the troubles of its beginnings digitally preserved for the ages…maybe. But if the rail project is not continued, what will it become?

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These Stonehenge tourists can tell you about the traffic problem. They did manage to survive left-hand driving…