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)

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