Poland, Prague and Pierogis: 22 Days in Europe for U.N. Climate Talks
When we arrived in Oswiecim, Poland, on December 1, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to breathe. Americans take good air quality for granted, but in southern Poland, where residents burn coal, trash and various other things in their furnaces for heat in the cold, dark winters, smoke hangs in the air, forming halos over the street lamps. Towns smell like blacksmith shops, and lungs burn in the acrid pall.
Oswiecim isn’t merely a distant suburb of nearby Katowice or Krakow. Oswiecim is the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, which are now museums and monuments to the millions of people who were exterminated here during the Nazi era. Traces of atrocity are ubiquitous here, found in bunkers, bomb shelters, industrial buildings and even fenceposts—repurposed infrastructure from Hitler’s factories of death.
Today, the town hosts throngs of tourists visiting the Auschwitz, and it seems to evolved beyond its bleak past. My husband, Jacob, and I based ourselves in Oswiecim (pronounced Osh-VEE-en-cheem), for two weeks while I covered the United Nations Climate Change Conference—the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP24—in Katowice, Poland, for Bloomberg. Hotels in Katowice were booked when I was given the assignment, so we were forced to stay in an outlying area.
Representatives of more than 190 countries and roughly 30,000 people gathered Dec. 2-15 at the Spodek in Katowice for COP24, where delegates finalized the rules for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and agreed to take steps toward more aggressive climate pollution cuts in the next few years.
As the only coordinated global effort to address climate change, at the most basic level, the UNFCCC process aims to prevent global warming from becoming an existential crisis for humanity.
It was a political move on the part of Poland to host the world’s most prominent climate conference in Europe’s largest coal-producing region. The country wanted to highlight the coal industry’s prominent place in the Polish economy in part by conducting the conference at a site that literally sits atop on old coal mine just to the north of downtown Katowice. Today, that mine is the site of the Silesian museum and the Spodek.
For us, my COP24 assignment was an opportunity to get to know Poland and the surrounding regions in ways a tourist spending just a couple of days there likely wouldn’t. We weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived. After all, we were a married gay couple traveling in a country not known for its acceptance of gays. But as you might expect in most European countries, we didn’t experience a perceptible hint of homophobia anywhere in Poland.
For me, the visit to Poland was little more than work. We rented a car so Jacob could drive me to Katowice for the conference when needed, otherwise, I took a COP24 shuttle bus, commuting 90 minutes each way. We ate our meals either at the hotel restaurant or at a restaurant in town, which was often either Polish or Italian. We’d stock up on snacks and cheap wine at one of the local grocery stores—Lidl, Biedronka or Koffmann’s. After dinner, we’d retire to the hotel room, crash for the night and then do it all over the next day.
Good wine is cheap in Poland, usually less than $10USD per bottle, sometimes less than $5USD. In Central Europe, alcohol can be cheaper than water, which restaurants do not offer from the tap. When you ask for water, it’s either “sparkling” or “still,” and you pay for a small bottle of it.
On the surface, Poland can seem bleak. The region’s recent history of communism is evident in the Brutalist architecture in parts of Polish cities. The ghosts of genocide become tangible in the remaining trappings of the Holocaust. The pollution is evidence every breath of how far economies must evolve to solve our most pressing environmental challenges.
But we found the Polish people and cuisine to be as hearty and friendly as some areas can seem bleak. Krakow, despite the crowds, is radiant at sunset, with its cobblestone streets, Old World architecture and scent of pretzel stands wafting over the streetcars providing a sense of warmth on a cold December night.
In Katowice and even the smallest towns between the city and Oswiecim, elaborate Christmas displays and 20 or 30-foot tall Christmas trees lit up the town squares.
And the food… Poland is a meat-and-potatoes kind of place where green vegetables seem rare on dinner plates. I think I ate more pierogis and potato pancakes than I can count. All of it was amazingly delicious.
We began the trip in Munich, then flew to Krakow, rented a car and parked it in Oswiecim for nearly two weeks. We stayed in Katowice for the last two days of the conference before returning the rental car in Krakow, where we stayed for one night. Next, we took a train to Prague, stated there for two days, and then took a train back to Munich.