Saturday, May 20, 2006

Warsaw: Łazienki and the Warsaw National Museum

It's the last day of the tour, tomorrow we leave. We went only to Łazienki today, but it was amazing. It's this park with a palace in the southern part of Warsaw, near the park with the Chopin monument. The palace itself is on a small island, surrounded by bridges and random birds (I noticed maybe seven peacocks outside). They make you put slippers on your shoes before entering the building — it was unclear why at first, but very quickly you come across exquisite wooden floors that they want to preserve. The entire palace is decorated with frescoes, gold leaf, statues in a very Greek/Roman influenced style, and very dark (in light, not spirit) paintings I won't try and classify with a few early Romantic pieces. Of course, at some point the Nazis stormed the palace and shattered most of the statues, but they've been reconstructed. One made a really big influence on me: Hercules, in the second or third room, who towers above you with a slain monster at his side. He just looked so overwhelmingly strong, but not in a comic book superhero way. It made me think, "Maybe he wasn't a myth, but a real person who was turned into one." All the rooms really must be seen, there's so much wonderful art; photographs and explanations wouldn't do it justice.

From Łazienki we came back to the hotel. We had a few hours until we were to meet again for dinner, so I set out on a mission to find Matejko's "Stańczyk". Fortunately, the Warsaw National Museum isn't too far, but I wanted lunch first. I decided I'd try something new: McDonald's in Poland. It didn't work out, the place was so packed I could barely move, and I decided to find something else. Walking by H&M I heard "King Without a Crown" playing from some speakers hidden in the building. Tak. I found my way to the underground and got some pizza for 3,20 złotych (about a dollar) — it was a great deal, fresh, with some toppings; what's more, it was tasty. With pizza in hand I began walking east down Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue), and stumbled across the museum after four or five blocks. Inside, I tried to figure out the "procedure" without looking like a helpless tourist... which, I should mention, was almost successful: I dropped off my backpack with the coat-check lady, walked through the metal detector without buzzing, and got a ticket. Unfortunately, when he told me to go "left on the first floor", I forgot that meant "go up the stairs first", so I was scolded by one of the museum workers in Polish for entering an exhibition I didn't have a ticket for. But it all worked out, and I found the Polish painters. It started with some newer work, then a few Zakopane folk artists, and finally moved into a more classical style. You could spend days there and not get bored, so I tried spending as much time as I could with the paintings and sculptures that caught my eye. One of the recent pieces by Jacek Malczewski surprised me: a very simple line drawing on a small piece of paper, some of the lightest markings I've ever seen, but it was so beautiful. I see subtlety like that everywhere, but I need to learn to express it as delicately as he does. Another, a painting by Kazimierz Sichulski, gave me an interesting idea: he had a triptych, a study for some stained glass, and it reminded me of early Art Nouveau. I'm no art history buff, but I'd like to know if those sort of studies influenced the style of the movement. Eventually I found Stańczyk, he was waiting at the very end with some other work by Matejko. I didn't know what size to expect, I never looked up the dimensions, but it was about what I had hoped. I remember some vague thoughts on the crumpled letter next to him, the curtains, the sadness in his eyes... I let the thoughts flash through me, the other paintings already had my mind for that day. As I was walking away, I could sympathize with him: "That's it, that's all for now." It said on the plaque next to the painting that Stańczyk takes on Matejko's features. I can see that.

I took a long way back to the hotel, once I got to Nowy Świat I walked up and down for a while. I ran across an amazing accordionist from the Ukraine, and his Polish partner in crime, Bartez, holding a tip cup. One of the most comical things I've seen yet, Bartez half-danced for nonexistent tips, with exaggerated movements, while his partner lived and died with the notes from his accordion. I gave them everything I had left, and said thanks for the beautiful music. It started raining, so I shuffled quickly back to the hotel.

There was a dinner tonight with some żurek, gołąbki ("Little Pigeons", beef wrapped in cabbage), and some dessert. I had a very sour white wine — it must have been young, or just bad. It was kind of nice to see everyone one last time... but the end of the day, for me, was with Stańczyk and the accordionist.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Gdynia to Warsaw via Malbork Castle

We're wrapping up the trip, there was a lot of driving today. We left Gdynia around 8:30, with the sun finally pouring through the sky (after three days of fog and rain). A few hours later, we arrived at Malbork castle, former residence of the Teutonic Knights. In my opinion, this is one of the coolest places we've visited yet. It's one of the most heavily fortified defenses you'll ever see, there are two moats and multiple walls, drawbridges with assault areas, everything. The guide who showed us around started every other sentence with "In case of an attack...", demonstrating all the defense possibilities. The Knights were an interesting bunch — at the time, essentially fighting monks. The place is laid out with so much thought, it's incredible. There's a central heating system, waste control for disease prevention, efficient and beautiful rooms everywhere... and In its modern incarnation, as a museum of sorts, it's really well laid out. There is so much history everywhere, and everything has a little story associated with it. For example, in the main "ballroom", or dining room, there was a cannonball stuck in the wall. Apparently, a few hundred years ago, there was an assassination attempt on the head Knight. They were all having a meeting, and someone tried to hit the single column in the middle of the room, trying to collapse the roof. They missed (obviously), but not by much. I'm sure the would-be-assassins outside the city walls were hunted down and slaughtered. Another one of the rooms was full of amber: the knights, when they were in control of the area, took control of the amber trade and hoarded a ton of it. One of the pieces on display had a huge air bubble inside it, maybe the size of my thumb — think how old the air is inside there. After that visit, we had some great soup and Beef Stroganoff at the nearby Restauracja Zamek.

Random observation of the day: The United States is slowly invading Poland. Normally, everything here costs some full number of złotys (10, 20, 2, etc.) I saw a sign for Pizza Hut, and it's 19,90 for a pizza. That extra 90 grosze are going to kill peoples pockets with change.

Random Polish oddity: All the light switches here are big panels you put pressure on. I have yet to see an American light switch. It's very elegant, but disconcerting.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Gdynia, Gdańsk and the Franke Factory

Our last full day in Gdynia, it was relatively uneventful. Everyone else spent a little more time seeing the "sights" around the city, and then took a boat to Westerplatte, while grandpa and I stayed behind for the morning. At 10:30, Mr. Iwanowski arrived, very punctually, to take us to the Franke factory. About a dozen years ago, Grandpa helped oversee the creation of the factory, which now manufactures steel products for McDonalds' kitchens, Ikea, Pizza Hut, and plenty other places. There were a few really interesting innovations they were making that helped productivity, I imagine that the people who formalized the sort of Software Design I've read about had some inspiration from these kind of environments.

From the factory, I met up with the rest of the group at an elaborately decorated restaurant with a funny atmosphere. We had lunch, went for some walks around the main street in Gdańsk again, and then headed back to the hotel. I finally got an internet connection tonight, so I can post some entries and finish some emails. Back to Warsaw tomorrow morning, grandpa's staring at me so I better go.

Gdynia, Sopot and Gdańsk

I was really tired this morning, like I was getting up for a day of classes in the middle of a semester. But I went anyway — downstairs with grandpa for some breakfast, and then to the bus with everyone else. Grandpa stayed behind to rest for the day and do laundry.

We started with the pier — it wasn't too much of a surprise, since I took a walk in that direction last night. It's nice to look over the pier and think: only a few times over the horizon is Norway and Sweden (I've been listening to the Kings of Convenience since I'm so close, and DJ Vadim, of course, since Russia [at least the part with Kaliningrad] is only a few dozen miles northeast). At the end of the pier are two monuments: one for Joseph Conrad, the Polish author, and another for everyone who's ever died at sea (at least, that's the gist I got from it). From the pier, we headed to Sopot, and got off a few blocks from the pier. On our way there, we passed the "Grand Hotel" — apparently it was Hitler's favorite place to stay when the area was under Nazi control, which makes it one of the few places that wasn't bombed during the second world war. Right now it's undergoing some reconstruction, to be reopened this summer. They should hang American war propaganda through the hotel about watching what you say (so you don't give information to spies) — but that could get kind of creepy to think that ghosts are listening.

After the pier and a few other beautiful spots, we went to a musical recital. A craftsman spent 25 years working on this single organ at the Oliwa cathedral, it has almost a hundred different voices and I forget how many thousand pipes. The organist recited a few Bach pieces that everyone could reocognize, but there was one really interesting piece in the middle that sounded incredibly modern, almost experimental electronica. I got the name of the composer, "B. Musiowcyk", from the sisters — but the last name doesn't appear on Google. I probably made a mistake in copying it ("musiowczyk"?) — if anyone knows the correct spelling, please let me know.

From Oliwa we went deeper into Gdańsk, the last of the "Tri-city" area. There's a huge shipyard that seems to be out of business (or maybe it's just slow this time of the year). By the shipyard is another monument to strikes/riots against the communist regime (like in Toruń), with three crosses to symbolize three nearby deaths. Then we drove to the main street on this island in the middle of the city, which is, essentially, the "market square" of Gdańsk. There are tons of amber stores, a few museums, and an abundance of beautiful facades. Each store in this area used to be a home, so the facades are decorated to tell a little story about the family inside... you can get a feeling for the town as it used to be by reading the buildings like books. We stopped in an amber store for a short explanation of its origin and refinement — one of the employees even gave a demonstration where he took some raw amber and sanded/polished it.

We had lunch at "Red Door Restaurant"; according to the menu, a "Cosy and tastefully furnished restaurant" that is open "from 12.00 till our last guest wishes to leave". Some more entertaining oddities from the English translation of the menu:

  • Herrings marinated in variousy ways
  • Chicken liver fried in a traditional way or not

We had some free time, and most everyone went straight for the amber stores. I decided to see a little more of the city outside the main street, so I picked a direction and started walking. I found a few more churches, an underground marketplace, and a group of maybe a hundred drunk university students singing "We all live in a Yellow Submarine" in Polish while parading through the streets. You never know what you'll find once you walk away from the other tourists...

There was some traffic, but eventually we got back to the hotel, some time around 5:00. Mr. Iwanowski was waiting with grandpa, and invited me to dinner. We went to Sopot, to this very small, funny restaurant with odd decorations... they were playing American music, very 80s jazz/blues-rock and disco influenced. The food more than made up for the oddities. It was a long dinner, Mr. Iwanowski's wife came as well, so they all spoke in Polish for the majority of the dinner. I listened even harder than I normally do — it was a bit tiring, but I followed some of the conversation.

The sun set a deep orange today, breaking through the low fog; hopefully the weather is better tomorrow.

Highlights: realizing, as the amber was sanded, that its dust is one of the main ingredients in church incense; a very small girl (maybe 4) going around with a large leaf, touching every puddle of water in the main street of Gdańsk; coming out of the underground, just the right light for a certain photograph.

Toruń: Copernicus, the Teutonic Knights, to Gdynia

We had a quick breakfast at the Helios hotel this morning (the entire place is covered in "art" from Copernicus' journals). I ran across something terrible on a piece of bread, some meat covered in a colorless gell reminiscent of tamarind. I was not in the mood. The rest was tasty, though. From breakfast, we went outside to the face the overcast weather. It wasn't overcast very long, because it started raining within a minute of our departure. This wouldn't have been so bad if we left on the bus, but this was our first walking tour. Needless to say, I was absolutely drenched after two plus hours in the rain. Most people were okay, grandpa rode in a rickshaw with an umbrella.

Our guide for Toruń was very stern. He started us off with a memorial to Copernicus. In Toruń, there's almost as many Copernicus reminders as John Paul II references, which says something. From there we walked a block or two to an old "triangle": a church, university, and prison right next to each other. Apparently there used to be jokes about people going from one to the other, in circles, over their lifetime. I don't know which institution that bodes the worst for...

Another block or two and we stumbled across the old city walls from 1300. Some substantial portions still remain. Apparently the layout of the city itself hasn't changed since that time (you can still use city plans from 1300 to walk around). On our way around the city walls, our guide pointed out a leaning building — it doesn't lean like in Pisa, it's stable: it started falling while it was being built, and they corrected for the tilt with the rest of the construction. These are exactly the metaphors you don't want to see: "so long as you account for your major errors, you can stand the test of time". We stopped by Copernicus' home next; there's supposed to be a little museum inside, but that will have to wait for another day. We also saw the university he studied at — a little four story, 6-window wide building on one of the streets running perpendicular to the Wisła.

Once we had enough of Copernicus, we walked over to the former castle of the Teutonic Knights. It's completely in ruins now, with no plans for reconstruction (no original plans or paintings exist, so it can't be reconstructed). Then over to the marketplace for a little break. There's a fountain with sculpture of a boy playing fiddle and some frogs around him, it's a reminder of a story where he saves the city from frogs by luring outside the city with his music. I love those sort of stories... they can't be completely made up, I always wonder which elements are true.

After some free time we walked over to the gingerbread bakery (besides producing Copernicus, Toruń makes good gingerbread — astronomy and pastries, the two essentials). I learned how to make gingerbread, today: hot honey, cinnamon, cloves, anise, nutmeg, two types of flour, ground and mixed well, in the closet 12 weeks, kneaded, oiled, placed in a mold, baked for 10-15 minutes... and you're set. I'm sure I'm forgetting something essential... anyway, it was really good gingerbread in the end.

It was time for lunch, so we headed over to a local restaurant. Some of these restaurants have been around forever, I didn't check this one... the best part of the meal was the bullion. I finally had some Żywiec— it's a bit bitter, with a hint of fruitiness. Nice with the meal, but nothing too special. I'm no beer aficionado, so that's all I can say — I'm sure those aren't even the "right" words.

From lunch we left to Gdynia. Many hours later, we arrived — one of grandpa's friends, Mr. Iwanowski, arranged two rooms for us on the 11th floor, overlooking the sea. The smell of the air getting of the bus made me smile so big — there's nothing like a cool night by the ocean, especially after being inland for months. I went for a long walk (how could I not?), down to the end of the pier. Gdynia may tie with Zakopane for feeling like "home", and I haven't even really seen this place yet.

Highlights: making gingerbread, the smell of the ocean, Wyborowa at dinner.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Rydzyna to Toruń via Poznań

Waking up in a castle is a lot like waking up anywhere else. Maybe it's just because the ghosts didn't bother me... either way, I got a slow start around 7:00 and headed downstairs for breakfast with grandpa. The light coming through the windows was overwhelming — it was pouring through the curtains onto all this antique furniture and place settings, I didn't know what to do. So I just sat down and grabbed some food. A little salmon, some tea and eggs, a short walk outside to survey the lake, and I was restored from my recent royal rest. We went for a short tour before leaving the castle. We started in the games room — there were a few too many baby deer skulls on the wall for me, and in due time we moved on... Most of the rooms had some small architectural element that was preserved and built around, like a pearl, with the exception of the ballroom. The ballroom was gorgeous all around — frescoes on the ceiling, sculptures on the wall, 1.5 ton bronze and crystal chandelier from a church...

Leaving Rydzynia, we passed the small marketplace and it's "Cultural Center", a miniscule building that reminded me of Los Alamos-style Mexican architecture — something about the frills on the top of the facade.

Arriving in Poznań, we passed a few of the universities — primarily focused on economics, and one music hall. There was also a monument built for the various rebellions by Polish workers against the communist government, and a statue of the much loved Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Then we headed over to check out the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, burial place of various Polish rulers (including Mieszko I, who shows up on the 10 złoty note). It was interesting to go below ground and see where they'd dug up the rulers, but there were also some really beautiful chapels inside the cathedral. One that seemed to attract a lot of attention was circular, covered in paintings and gold leaf, but I was really interested in the ornate lettering on some of the plaques. I love seeing the Polish and Latin scripts spread around liberally.

From there we headed over to the market square to see the infamous goats. Yes, from the Town hall, every day at noon, emerge two robotic goats. They butt heads a few times (in remembrance of an old story about the opening of the marketplace) before returning inside. It's great to hear the school children nearby counting off each butt in Polish.

We had some free time, so I wandered around a bit. I found a nice little księgarnia with a dictionary of Polish etymology. I've been looking for one, but, as is to be expected, it's completely in Polish. So I'm going to have to learn a bit more before I can understand the origins of those simple, beautiful words that stick in my head... "deszcz", "księżyc" and the others that keep coming.

Grandpa and I met up with Ania and Wojtek, relatives of grandpa's highschool friends. Ania's studying architecture nearby — we talked about art, architecture, language, culture, history, our mutual disdain of politics... although she probably found out more about me than I of her — a rarity.

Back on the bus, in a few hours we arrived in Toruń — hometown of Copernicus. Finally, after a few days we have an internet connection, so I'll be working backwards and forwards from today (the midpoint of the trip), and by the end this little blog should form a semicoherent whole.

Highlights: The morning light at Rydzyna, conversation over lunch, żubrówka over dinner.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Wrocław: The Square, Panorama, to Rydzyna

Opening the window around six in the morning, Wrocław was covered by fog. As usual, we had breakfast and headed out for a quick bus tour. The first thing I noticed was the thriving underground art scene — which is to say, there was a lot of graffiti. But it was really unique graffiti, there was quite a diversity in styles even amongst the tags (those quick black signature-type pieces). One of the fellows on the tour used to spray graffiti in America, and said that Germans and the Dutch were known for their graffiti — maybe it's rubbed off on the Poles as well?

The first place we stopped was this large "spire", a huge metal needle (a hundred feet at least) — apparently it was placed there for some sort of art exhibit nearby, and the people liked it so much it was never taken down. The guide explaining this to us, Waclaw (sounds like "Vatslav"), was particularly entertaining — he would ask us not to call him Wrocław, remind us that we "may attack with questions", reccomend where to go for the "biggest and most picturesque portions of ice cream in Western Poland", and inform us that the animals in the oldest zoo in Poland "have been looking at visitors since 1865".

After the bus tour we went to the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice, a 50 foot tall, 370 feet wide painting wrapped in a circle around a center viewing platform entered via tunnel. The painting depicts one of the first battles of the Kościuszko uprising, an attempt in 1794 to free Poland from Russian control. A veteran of the American revolutionary war (less than two decades ago), Kościuszko had some experience keeping unwelcome relatives away and defending radical new constitutions (Poland's constitution, the first in Europe, was passed only three years earlier on May 3rd, signaling serious improvements in universal political equality and government responsibility). With only a quick glance at the painting, it's hard to tell who's winning — in the end, the Poles successfully defended Racławice, despite their numerical disadvantage. More happens after that, of course, it's a much longer story, but I find it incredible how many times the Polish have been persecuted for simply defending the country's borders, while they cling to their eternally progressive ideology. I'm reminded of "Misread" by the Kings of Convenience:

How come no one told me
all throughout history
the lonliest people
were the ones who always spoke the truth?
The ones who made a difference
by withstanding the indifference...

Only a few hundred feet away from the panorama there's another reminder: a memorial to the 21,857 soldiers killed by Stalin in the Katyń massacre of 1940 — a sculpture depicts mother Poland pleading with the angel of death over a dead Polish soldier, shot in the back of his head.

We left the panorama and monument for the academy. Like a lot of other buildings, it was mostly destroyed by a 80 days of Russian bombing, but has been reconstructed since then. It held some of the most intricately detailed rooms I'd seen yet. One of them was meant to be a lecture hall, which seems completely unreasonable. I don't know how I would pay attention to a lecturer in a room like that. Another room, a concert hall, was a little less magnificent visually, but had wonderful acoustics. And it pretty much made my day to know that Edvard Grieg had once played in that same room.

From the academy we went to the market square for some free time. I looked around for a little, climbed the 302 steps of the tightly-wound spiral staircase at a nearby cathedral... but I needed to think about some things, so I did what I normally do: picked a direction, and started walking. After four or five blocks I was out of the main commercial district, and I came across bigger streets and an underground. The underground kept going, so I followed it, eventually led into a mall (I found out later that this is one of the biggest malls in the area). It was two o'clock, a little past lunchtime, but I couldn't find any distinctly Polish food. I didn't feel like sitting down, so I found a little "food court"-style restaurant that looked like they were making good food. I managed enough Polish to order a calzone without the cashier asking me to repeat myself. Still hungry, and now cocky as well, and tried to order a banana smoothie from the fresh juice stand. But my cover was let down... totally mispronouncing "bananowe", the girl smiled and asked, in English, if I'd like it in a big or small cup.

Returning to the square, a crowd had started to gather: a few hundred dreadlocked and buzz-cut students protesting political-religious involvement in the educational system, holding signs like "Jestem nieochrzczona" ("We are not baptized"), "Jestem ateista", "Jestem anarchista", and "Jestem pacyfista". They seemed kind, the first thing they said to everyone with their megaphone was "Dzień dobry!" ("Good day!"). A few policja stood away from the crowd, ensuring the peace was kept (a testament to free speech in Poland).

We all met up by the water fountain near the center of the square, and packed up once more to make our way towards Rydzyna, where we'd be staying at the castle overnight. Most of the castle is pretty cool — the rooms themselves are a bit large and minimalistic (I liked it, even if it's not very "castle-like"), but the exterior, hallways and lobby are all beautifully 17th century baroque. One of the coolest things is that, after being burnt during WWII, it was restored by locals. The Association of Polish Mechanical Engineers spent 19 years, starting in 1970, to reconstruct it from original photographs and plans.

After settling down in the castle, we walked maybe half a mile to a little cottage with a fire ring where we had dinner. A local folk band came to play, a family: a fiddler, accordionist, guitarist, and a little girl no more than 7 with a beautiful and unusually mature voice. She also played tambourine and made up her own dances &mash; a total performer, someone gave her the nickname "Britney Spearski". Despite the plague of mosquitoes, I had a good time, and even learned how to dance the polka and waltz from one of the ladies in our group. Being one of the few guys, this was probably a mistake, considering I didn't really get to sit down after that.

By the time we started walking back it was pretty dark, with the exception of the moonlight. I stood just outside the doors of the castle with a few people who were smoking while we finished a conversation. I forget what we were talking about, but something funny happened I'll remember for a while. While I was standing there, two girls walked by about thirty feet away. I glanced at one of them for a moment, and she looked away. I realized: everyone gets a first look, but it's the second one that counts: if you have decent timing, and catch them in the middle of the second look, you can elicit a wonderful blush. While still blushing, she sat down with her friend on a nearby bench. It was facing the other direction, but she promptly turned around and put her head on her arms, which were crossed on the back of the bench, giving me googly eyes for however long the conversation with the others went on. I finally went inside, giving her a little wave and a "dobranoc" — I don't think I've ever seen someone wave back so vigorously before.

Australian slang of the day (from Danuta):

  • lashing (LASH-ing) — raining (I have a feeling this is just a British English usage I haven't heard)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Zakopane to Wrocław via Wadowice

Today was mostly spent traveling North. We left Zakopane in the morning and got to Wadowice in less than two hours (about the same distance from Zakopane as Kraków). Wadowice is best known as the birthplace of John Paul II — one of the most celebrated figures throughout Poland (an overwhelming majority of the chapels we've visited make some reference to the pope, and at least half of them have a statue nearby). The city was busy preparing for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI later that month, restoring the church, putting up posters, working on the platform he'd stand on when addressing the masses. John Paul II's home church was pretty, but I found it severely disturbing that they were selling "Jesus memorabilia" inside the church — much less, next to John Paul II photos and pamphlets.

Grandpa and I stopped by the pharmacy next door, then walked over to a bus stop to wait for the others. Since it was going to take a while, I wandered around the city, finding plenty of hidden crevices and little shops. Something about the city reminds me of central Mexico, which is very odd, I can't put my finger on it.

Before driving to Wrocław (sounds like "Vrote-suave", about 260 km/160 mi from Wadowice), we had lunch at a very inviting restaurant. When you walk in the front door, you're met by columns with vines running up them, and led to your party's own beautifully furnished room. We were served some bullion and the best pirogies I've ever had by a dynamic hostess who reminded me of Sartre's waiter:

"...trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand..."

After the tasty lunch, we started heading for Wrocław — canola fields forever.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Kraków to Zakopane

It's a relatively short drive from Kraków to Zakopane, only two hours or so uphill (I think I heard someone say "101 kilometers", about 63 miles). You can see the snow-covered Carpathian mountains rise in the distance, towering over the cities in the valleys, only vaguely distinguishable from the sky (it's a big surprise when you're looking out the window and realize that those aren't clouds in the distance, but mountains). The other way you can tell you're getting close is the pitch on the roofs. They start to angle so radically that the fundamental architecture of the houses is modified. Zakopane itself has a wonderful atmosphere — people still making good, regular use of horses, wearing warm clothes out of habit even though the weather is comfortable. The people are great: getting off the bus, I noticed two jolly, unshaven guys sitting on a bench, with a cart nearby holding some wool and other little things, sharing conversation and a drink (perhaps some of that misleadingly named "Zakopane mountain tea" — almost 200 proof).

After arriving, we walked quickly through the marketplace to a tram that would take us up one of the mountains. The marketplace is hard to walk through quickly — there are so many enticing sights and smells. The mountain was definitely worth it, though. Once you get a few hundred feet from the tram station, you come across this huge field (presumably for skiing, in the winter). Laying on the grass, soaking up the sun from that altitude, looking over the city and the mountains, completely serene. Perfect.

We went back down the mountain to get lunch — white mushroom soup (local mushrooms, of course), and some sort of pancake dessert. I thought it was wonderful, but Grandpa has a more sensitive mouth for his native food, and I learned a new combination of some words I already knew: "To nie jest pyszna."

After lunch we were given a few hours free — finally! I walked up and down the 10 blocks or so of the marketplace street twice, stopping in every store and booth that looked unique (about half of them are the same, selling touristy goods). There is a whole half-block dedicated to cheeses, and another half-block populated by old women sewing socks and sweaters with thick yarn, some side streets near the middle where you can buy clothes, and plenty of places to find trinkets. One of my favorite characters was this man dressed up in traditional mountain attire — with his cane, beard, long hair, crazy hat — carrying a lamb on his shoulders, going up to people and having his picture taken with them (putting the lamb around their shoulders, of course). On my way through the second time, I noticed a crowd of maybe 30 people had formed in the middle of the street, surrounding a man shouting things in Polish. Sitting on a bike, he dared people to ride it — he would bet them a few złotych they couldn't. Sure enough, someone would take him up on his offer, and fall down after no more than three feet. He would demonstrate to the cynics that it can be done, and another would try. It took me a moment to realize what was going on: he'd modified the bike so the front wheel pointed in the opposite direction of your turning!

After the break, we stopped by another cathedral. This is the most elegant one I've seen yet — made completely from stone and wood, it has a glorious post-gothic mountain appeal to it. We drove around a little on our way back to the hotel and the guide pointed out an amazing tradition in this area: sometimes, you'll see stripes on houses. If they're white stripes, the couple inside was just married. If they're blue stripes, the person inside is "waiting for someone". Maybe I should start wearing blue stripes?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kraków: The Wawel and Wieliczka

We began the day with a bus tour through Kraków. In Warsaw, Kuba told me it's one of the bigger tourist attractions, while a Polish friend in New York tells me "it's just a bunch of old bricks", so I wasn't sure what to expect. It felt a bit like Warsaw, but older — the streets were more narrow, the architecture more traditional.

After driving around a bit, we went to the Wawel, Royal castle in Kraków (which was the capital of Poland until 1596, when King Sigismud III moved it to Warsaw). Supposedly, this castle was built on top of a dragon's lair. The legend goes that, early in Kraków's history, this dragon would regularly torment the countryside, killing farmers and eating young girls (which he especially liked). To appease the dragon, young girls were sacrificed at the mouth of the cave every so often. Eventually, there weren't any more girls left except one — the king's daughter, so the king decided to give his daughter as a wife to whomever might slay the dragon. Of course, many tried and failed, until one poor apprentice had a bright idea: he stuffed a lamb with sulfur... the dragon ate it, and could not satisfy his thirst — drinking half the Wisła! Promptly exploding, the dragon was defeated, and the apprentice was married to the king's daughter.

The castle itself is like a small town, there is "Sigismund's chapel", the main residence, and plenty of other little shops and homes within the walls. The main residence, which is now a museum of sorts, is incredible — there are so many paintings, tapestries, sculptures, pieces of furniture... everything. The final room we visited was the largest, with patterned marble floors, leather walls, chandeliers, candelabras by some thrones at one end, tapestries on the walls, engraved ceilings. The acoustics were to die for. If I was a poor peasant a few centuries ago, I might have aspired towards a more affluent position simply to attend the dances and concerts held there.

The cathedral holds the tombs of many members of the Jagiellon family, Polish royalty. One particularly interesting tomb was that of Jadwiga, a saint and monarch who was known for her charity (she donated her dresses, jewelry and various other items to help restore the Academy in Kraków, she founded hospitals etc.) She was very young when she died, maybe 25 years old, and was said to have had blue eyes and blonde hair — a beauty frozen in time above her coffin.

From the Wawel we headed to the market square to see St. Mary's Basilica, a 1,000 year old cathedral. Every hour a trumpeter plays the hejnał from the top of the basilica, stopping mid-note about 30 seconds into the tune. This is based on a children's story by J.P. Kelly where he tells of a trumpeter being shot through the throat by invading Tatars in 1241 — a story with no historic support, but it's a wonderful tradition.

The market square in Kraków is one of the most lively in all of Poland. I counted at least 6 street musicians (and a few groups of them), crowds of people, smartly dressed students, the long "cloth hall" in the center, filled with merchants with local goods and items imported from the mountains nearby, as well as a plethora of restaurants. For lunch I went with Jane to a Georgian restaurant. She's great, every day (sometimes twice) we'll have the same conversation:

Jane: So, is this your first time to Poland?
Me: Yes.
Jane: Do you like it so far?
Me: Yeah, there's so much beauty and tradition here — and a different kind than what I'm used to in America.
Jane: I love it here. This is my tenth visit.
Me: Wow.
Jane: When I tell my friends I'm going to Poland, they always ask me "What are you going there for?" But I just look at them and laugh.

Anyway, I don't think she realized it was a Georgian restaurant, and was just assuming that every ethnic-looking restaurant must be Polish. I have a soft spot for their alphabet and figured I'd take a break from all the Polish food for a moment. It wasn't bad at all; I'm no food expert but from my meal and the others I saw nearby, I'd say it's distinctly Eastern European, but reminiscent of popular Greek cuisine.

After meandering around the square for a while, we left for the Wieliczka salt mines. A few hundred feet below the surface, they have thousands of kilometers of man-made caves, many of them filled with salt-sculptures, salt-chandeliers, salt-everything. It's one of the quietest places I've ever been. It would be amazing to hear someone record an album in the largest room, St. Kinga's Chapel. They should really invite Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor on down.

Tomorrow we leave for Zakopane, in the mountains of Southern Poland.

Poor translation of the day (from the sign outside our dinner restaurant):

  • "You are hungry and thirsty, our business is to find remedy."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

To Kraków through Częstochowa and Oświęcim

We left for Kraków this morning. Most of the way down you see only big fields, isolated bales of hay, and steeples randomly peeping out from tree clusters. I spent a third of the ride reading, a third staring out the window imagining the stories of the people living in these little villages, and another third practicing that wonderful Polish tongue twister from the beginning of Brzechawa's poem:

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

("In the town of Szczebrzeszynie a beetle buzzes in the reed.", in English this might be approximated "f shtchebzheshinye hshonshtch bzhmi f tshtsinye") On our way to Kraków, we had two places to stop: Częstochowa, and Oświęcim.

Częstochowa seems like a quaint city, but I can't be sure — we only stopped to see Jasna Góra, the monastery housing the famous Black Madonna. Częstochowa is called the "holiest city in Poland" due to this icon, which was supposedly painted by the apostle Luke. Plenty of pilgrims come to visit, sometimes climbing the hill on their hands and knees. Fortunately, we bypassed that part and took the bus straight to the parking lot. The monastery is really beautiful, tiles, brick and cement on the outside, and grand ornamentation on the inside. Some of the walls still bear the marks of various attacks on the monastery (which the monks, and the "miraculous powers" of the icon have successfully defended against time after time). Walking around inside one of the cathedrals, the first thing to grab my attention was a painting of a very modern looking man — in what appeared to be his pajamas, holding a wooden rosary and looking upwards towards a bright light. It seemed rather odd, so I wrote his name down for later: Maximilian Kolbe.

After being led through various hallways and corridors, we were about to enter the main room where the Black Madonna was kept. As we entered, you could hear the chants of an unidentifiable choir — I didn't notice a director, just people singing. Then there were all the children in dresses and suits for first communion. That's when I realized we entered from the front — the icon was behind us. I didn't have any divine revelations or miraculous healings, but it is a pretty painting.

The sister showing us around took us through a few more rooms, then upstairs to the treasury. That's where I learned to read the "no cameras" signs more carefully (the armed guard kept his eye on me the rest of the time). The monastery has a surprising amount of unique jewelry and other valuables... one piece in specific stuck with me: Jesus on the cross, with a skull and crossbones at his feet. Only recently did I learn that this is a reference to the tradition that Jesus was crucified on the site of Adam's tomb, and not simply symbolic of Christ's victory over sin.

Leaving the city, we stopped by a little restaurant on the outskirts. I'm guessing it had a capacity of forty people, and we were the only guests. Great food — the typical starter "salad" (various shredded vegetables), great bread, żurek and some meat and noodles I can't quite remember.

50 km from Kraków is Oświęcim, better known as Auschwitz. Once I noticed the architecture start to change, I stopped taking pictures for the day. What can you say? Walking around Auschwitz, you can still hear the birds chirp... I was reminded of Vonnegut: "Poo-tee-weet". Then Zosima's older brother from The Brother's Karamazov:

" must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?"

It's true. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed by anguish for our condition, and joy for the hope of our redemption. And in the midst of the hatred, there is hope: as we walked by the various rooms for different means of death (starvation, suffocation, etc.), our guide stopped at one and told us a story.

Imagine that you are a prisoner here, working day in and day out, surrounded by death. Now, imagine that another prisoner has escaped. In order to keep this from happening, the Nazis execute ten prisoners for every escapee. Now imagine you are amongst a crowd of thousands, while they select their ten prisoners. Then something unexpected happens — a man offers to give up his life in exchange for one of the men that was selected, so he can have a chance at being reunited with his wife and young children. Surprised, the Nazis oblige. Of course, they can't say that they starved him to death, so they write on his death certificate: "Maximilian Kolbe, died from a heart attack."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Warsaw: Łazienki, Jewish Ghetto, Royal Castle and Market Square

We started the day with a drive around Warsaw — over to Łazienki park to see the sculpture of Chopin, Poland's beloved composer. It's incredibly romantic: he's sitting under a willow tree, bending with the leaves and the wind, eyes closed. It reminds me of something my Ghanaian drumming professor once told me: "Sit down. Listen... to the wind. There are two sounds you hear: one, there is a tree, two there is no tree." Leaving the park, I noticed a sculpture of Józef Piłsudski, a Polish revolutionary who helped restore the Polish state to unity 123 years after it was partitioned by Napoleon.

After the park, we drove through the former Jewish Ghetto, where the uprising took place in 1943 (one of the events described by The Pianist). Almost everything is completely restored, but you can still get a feeling for what happened if you walk around.

We stopped by a cathedral or two, and then headed towards the Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski). Our guide was this old, eccentric Polish man with wisps of white hair around his temples and a well trimmed beard, "from a poor peasant family in the mountains." The place is packed with tapestries, statues, busts, paintings, and covered in marble and gold leaf. Some of the tapestries were huge, maybe 40 feet long and 20 feet tall; it would take a year to produce just one square meter. One of the guest rooms was occupied by Napoleon as he came through Warsaw, and they keep his desk in there. All sorts of things have been donated to the castle — the desk was donated by the French, who, according to our guide, "give out a new desk of Napoleon's every year". That's not as bad as the American donations, which were busts of people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — our guide kept sarcastically muttering "bloody American imperialists...", but with such a smile that made it hard to feel insulted.

From the castle we stopped by two cathedrals on our way over to the old market square. There's a little theater in one corner of the square, part of a small museum on the 1944 rising and World War II, they show a short film every hour or so, it was really crazy to see footage of the old town during the war, and then walk back outside to the restored city all around. I meandered around for a while after the movie, finding Kamienne Schodki and the statue of the youngest soldier in the Home Army.

After the Old Town visit, we took a short break and went to a Chopin recital by Robert Skiera at the Szuster Palace. He played all the well-known pieces, and threw in a few others as well. It's the first time I've heard "Revolution" sound like a war cry rather than a lament.

Australian slang of the day (from Danuta):

  • pucy (PYOO-see, adjective) — weak, no good
  • piker (PIE-kuh, noun) — chicken, coward

Monday, May 08, 2006

Warsaw: The Uprising

Amazing breakfast this morning (with the exception of that one egg I broke open, expecting it to be boiled). They serve a very calm earl grey, apple pancakes, and a variety of other treats. After breakfast we caught a cab for a ride to The Warsaw Rising Museum. There's this problem in Warsaw with "Mafia Taxis" — if you don't see a city-issued number on it, they will charge up to five times the normal rate. But the taxis outside the hotel are safe — the one we took had a very kind driver, his father fought in the Uprising like Grandpa, so they got along very well.

The museum was almost too much. The entire place has a heartbeat, literally, you can hear it as you walk around — wherever you are inside, the spirit of the city is alive. A kind girl named Yola, who had a subtle but infectious enthusiasm, showed me around. She spoke quickly, always saying "What's more..."; as a placeholder, an exclamation, a rhetorical question... there are more uses to the phrase than I realized. There's too much in the museum to describe here, you really have to see it for yourself, but a few things made huge impressions on me... There's this one wall in the center of the museum that spans all three stories, with names inscribed of people who fought in the war. If you put your ear up to the wall you can hear recordings from the uprising. It goes like this: yelling, gunfire, yelling, gunfire, and then it cuts to one of the most beautiful chants I've ever heard, perfectly balanced, slow and resolute, but joyful. It felt like a couple millennia of tradition made immediate. I asked Yola, and she said it sounds like a hymn she knew from church. I was reminded of an article I read recently that made me frustrated — Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life", was writing about selecting music for contemporary worship services:

Speed up the tempo. Many worship services sound more like a funeral than a festival. The Bible says, "Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs." (Psalm 100:2) John Bisango, pastor emeritus of the 22,000-member First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, says, "Funeral dirge anthems and stiff-collared song leaders will kill a church faster than anything else in the world!"

"Funeral dirge anthems"? Nothing provides solace like tradition, and nothing comforts in a time of war like memory. Reread Psalms. The Nazis knew this, it's why they completely destroyed the universities and replaced street signs that referred to Polish stories and beloved heroes. These are the things that made 30,000 Poles rise, only 10% of them armed, against 20,000 fully armed Nazis, taking down 500 on the first day, holding out for 63 days, and eventually killing somewhere between 10,000-17,000 Nazis.

From the museum we went over to the intersection where the entrance to the sewer that Grandpa crawled through is located. More than five thousand people were evacuated from Warsaw through these sewers — "It's hard to imagine, but it was covered in ruins at the time. They make wonderful protection."

We rested for a while back at the hotel and then met up with the rest of the tour group. There are 18 of us total, so far we are two of the three guys, and I'm the youngest. The median age is probably about 60 years. One of them, Danuta, is visiting from Australia; she's a bit saucy. Another, Jane, seems slightly senile. For example, Grandpa tries to grab a chair for Danuta to sit in:

Danuta: "Why are you helping?"
Grandpa: "Because this is a man's job!"
Danuta: "Oh my — if we left those jobs for the men, where would we be? Left for dead!"
Random Interjection: "Especially if your husband dies."
Jane: "Ah, that happened to me once."

Pleasant surprises: Steak tatar for lunch; Grandpa's story about the first Polish McDonalds: "The communists wanted to serve Vodka, but we wouldn't allow for it."; the 240 to 120 volt transformer exploding, followed by the realization we didn't need it.

Poor translations of the day (from the Asian-Polish fusion menu at hotel restaurant):

  • St. James playing tomato with the devil
  • Lotta marinated burning on a stake, stuffed passers-by watching

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Troy to Warsaw

After a night without sleep, moving some things from my RPI dorm to The Mothership, Jem took me to the airport to catch a plane from Albany to Newark. The Newark airport is surreal, there are more characters there than any other airport I've ever been to, each of them acting out little stories. Walking to Grandpa's gate (so we could meet upon his arrival), I noticed this old, short Asian custodian — he could have played the part of the silent cross-legged zen master in an ancient kung fu movie. He had some silly slogan on the back of his shirt — something about the quality of his service (exactly the sort of thing an airport would put on a custodian's shirt). Watching closely, I could see that he really was giving all of himself to his vocation: each new trash bag a job well done. I timed things so I could drop a glass bottle into his most recently replaced bag... we both heard it bounce off the bottom of the synthetic can, smiling at each other with mutual satisfaction. Like I said, a zen master.

A few hours later Grandpa arrived and we found the LOT desk, checking in again for the flight to Warsaw. Grandpa, ever the terrorist, was patted down... and we continued on towards our full flight. With the stewardesses speaking Polish, I felt like we had already arrived. Inside the little seat back there was a little magazine with various drinks and cigarettes for sale... I noticed the first Polish oddity: every cigarette pack, throughout the entire country, has a notice on it. These aren't subtle notices like in the United States, where it says, in small print, "Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy". They have huge lettering, at least a third of the front, put simply: "Smoking kills." or "Smoking seriously harms you and others around you."

Eventually arriving in Warsaw to a very foggy afternoon, we met up with Mirka (my grandma's cousin, an editor of a health magazine in Warsaw) and Kuba (her sister's son, from South Poland). I met Mirka once before when she visited San Diego — she's great; she reminds me of a James Bond villain, but she's so kind. I hadn't met Kuba before, but I already had respect for him: he'd asked Grandpa to bring a copy of Psyence Fiction, which is, apparently, hard to find in Poland. I asked where to find the best Polish hip-hop, and he pointed me to O.S.T.R. [pl|en]. Not bad at all.

We took a bus to the Novotel hotel in central Warsaw, and rested for an hour or so on the 11th floor — room 1124. We headed downstairs for an early dinner with Grandpa's cousin Krzysztof, who works with the import/export organization in Poland, his girlfriend Eva, Dr. Sadowski (Grandpa's friend from Illinois, a kidney research specialist and member of the Polish Sciences Academy) and Mrs. Sadowski. I mostly spoke with Kuba over dinner and got a better idea of the mindset of the Polish youth, their perspective on the rest of the world. Europe in general is hard for them to romanticize because it's all so near and immediate. He holds the UK on a small pedestal though, he says he'd like to move there and become a music journalist.

After dinner I was itching to look around and breathe in a little bit of this place, so I went for a walk — towards the Palace of Culture and Science, one of the tallest buildings in Warsaw, a remnant of communist rule, commissioned by Stalin and built by Poles with their own resources. Over by one of the entrances I noticed that a hot dog and beer vendor set up a set of speakers and was playing some music he liked. The UK returned in the form of Mattafix's "Forgotten". In some ways, Warsaw feels like a big American city. In other ways, it's completely different... some of the things that caught me off guard: the abundance of parks, street musicians, and odd underground stores.

Tomorrow we'll be meeting up with the rest of the group, I have no idea what the demographics will be like. It doesn't really matter, though — I'm really excited to be here, and can't wait to see more.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Seduction of Inaccessability

Someone just drove past blasting some hard funk from a few decades ago. I find it odd that we have millenia of musical traditions to draw from, and we generally listen to the last half-century alone. But this isn't too surprising, we do this with all sorts of things, and for a very practical reason: it's easier to access some things than others. The culture of the moment will preserve that which it can relate to best, and the things that are best preserved are easiest to obtain. In some ways this seems like a good thing — it's best to weed out the irrelevant. It also explains why inaccessible, obscure, "eclectic" things are so interesting: they're essentially a rebellion against the cultural climate.