Polish Joys 4 – Cracow

I went to the main train station in Warsaw to buy a ticket to Cracow. The main station is located in the middle of the drab new urban center, but does have one interesting feature: the rear of it is attached to a gleaming new reflective-glass office complex by an undulating roof of steel and glass. It looks as if a bunch of shiny metal foam bubbled up between the two buildings and froze.

The man buying a ticket at the front of the line looked to be in his mid-30s, with patchy short hair, thick, smeared glasses, grey socks and well-worn sandals. He was discussing something with the woman behind the counter. These discussions are difficult in Poland, because there is always a pane of glass between you and the salesperson, and there is no face-high little hole to talk through. This means you either have to scream or bend down to the 4-inch slit at the very bottom of the glass. Both of which the guy in front of us did, for at least 10 minutes.

The conversation became animated, and there was vigorous shaking of heads on both sides. Eventually Poles, fearful of missing their trains, began to make pointed comments to the man in Polish, and I chimed in in English. The woman behind the counter motioned to the next person n line that the negotiations with Nutcase were at an end. The next guy in line went up to the counter and practically shoved Nutcase out of the way. I have no idea whether Nutcase even managed to successfully buy a train ticket. Throughout 3 or 4 further transactions, Nutcase stood next to the people buying tickets, clutching his grubby plastic bag, talking to himself, and making complex notes about train connections, prices, and discounts on the back of an envelope.

When I got to the window, I calmly presented a piece of paper, in Polish: "Express Train to Cracow, first-class, no smoking, aisle seat please." A Polish friend had written this out for me a few days earlier, and I kept re-using it, crossing out the old city names and putting in the new ones. Bring a small notepad to Poland and write down what you want. Why? Because everything in Poland is behind counters or windows, which means you have to ask for it. You could try to actually pronounce the Polish words, but you’ll have a rough time of it.

Some Polish words are perfectly friendly, like "Sopot," the name of a beach resort. Other words, however, have no vowels in them, such as cute little "czynny", which means opening hours. Or consider "Wrzeszcz", the name of a part of Gdansk. Take a look at that: just one frightened little ‘e’ hiding inside those all those spiky, threatening consonants. You pronounce it Vruh-zheshch. Or so I’m told. And even that’s not the end of the story: at least the ‘e’ in Wrzeszcz is just a normal ‘e.’ Many other Polish letters are fitted out with a colorful mix of cedilles and crosses and hatches and other diacritical marks (see here, a Polish-language website about the Polish alphabet). They look like normal Latin letters all dressed up in Polish folk costumes. And yes, these marks do change the pronounciation; they turn "l" into "w", and do all sorts of other things to other letters. You get advice like "pronounce ‘n’ but think of ‘y’." This all seems perfectly normal to Poles, but it will baffle us westerners. Much easier to just write things down.

But I digress. I got my train ticket, enjoyed a nice comfortable ride to Cracow, and checked in at the Hotel Batory. It’s a little out of my price range, but a friend recommended it to me because it serves outstanding Polish food. Which it does: tender, moist chicken cutlets, fried to greaseless perfection, served with boiled potatoes covered in a delicious garlic and dill butter; bigos, a type of stew made from beans, sauerkraut, and red wine; and zurek, a sour white borscht made with beans and sausage. The breakfast buffet featured tart, manly Polish garlic dill pickles (not cloying sweet gherkins), and yet more rich, deeply-smoked Polish sausage.

Cracow is Poland’s number one tourist destination, and for good reason. It features a compact, oval city center, almost untouched during WWII, that can be traversed on foot in perhaps 30 minutes (if you don’t stop in anywhere). Around the center is a greenbelt park, the Planty, that’s a perfect place to take a break on a hot day. Most of the things that are worth seeing in Cracow are located in the center, which is also packed with shops, bars and cafes of every description. At the south end of the city center — no more than 30 minutes by foot from anywhere — is Wawel Castle, a hilltop complex featuring a meticulously-reconstructed royal castle, Poland’s national cathedral, and other odds and sods, including a museum of oriental art captured from the Turks in the 17th century. The castle had been used as a field hospital by the Austrians in the 19th century during Poland’s partition, but was carefully reconstructed in the first half of the 20th century.

Just a few other highlights: the Princes Czartoryski Museum, named for a branch of Polish nobility who swanned about in the late 18th and 19th centuries collecting art, features Leonardo’s glorious Portrait of Woman with Ermine, the most famous picture in any Polish museum. In the same room was perhaps the second most famous picture in Poland, Raphael’s Portrait of a Youth, which was looted by the Nazis in 1939, last seen in 1945, and has never been recovered. An empty frame is a poignant reminder of where it once stood. Of course, no visit to Poland is complete without seeing plenty of pictures by Polish artists. Like artists from many smaller European countries, Polish artists absorbed artistic trends during visits to the great European capitals, and then developed them further according to their own traditions and their unique personalities. There are many artists to discover, but I’ll just mention a few here. I was particularly taken with Jacek Malczewski, a symbolist who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Good collections of his pictures can be found in all Polish museums, including the National Museums in Gdansk, Warsaw, and Cracow.

Another fascinating personality is the composer Karol Szymanowski, who combined Wagnerianism with exotic Eastern tonalities. He’s considered to have brought musical modernism to Poland, and has been a pervasive influence on later Polish composers. Many streets and Philharmonic buildings in Poland are named after him. Simon Rattle, then Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, recorded three works of Szymanowski for the EMI label in 1994, to help introduce him to Western audiences. The CD is fascinating, if nDscf4524ot perfect. You can read an equally fascinating interview with Rattle here.

But back to Cracow. The Basilica of St. Mary’s, in the heart of Cracow, is probably the most harmoniously balanced, resplendent church I’ve ever visited. The altarpiece is a huge polyptych (altar with several folding panels covered with carved and painted reliefs) by the Nuremburg sculptor Veit Stoss. The work, whose central panel depicts the dying Virgin falling gently into the arms of St. James amid a crowd of mourning apostles, took 12 years to complete, and was unveiled in 1489. Behind the altarpiece are stunning 14th-century stained-glass windows. The interior of the church was painted in the late 19th century under the stewardship of the Polish artists Jan Matejko. It all fits to together, splendidly, seamlessly, rhythmically. It’s amazing. See the picture at left, or better yet, visit  Cracow.

After that, the Collegium Maius, one of Europe’s first universities, founded in 1400. You must sign up for a tour, which takes you through the main function rooms and the professors’ apartments, which are small and Spartan. They lived alone, like monks, since most of them were theologians and/or clergy.  Tiny rooms, chamber pots, and pictures of Cracow with functioning music boxes built into them (Polish national anthem) and working clocks integrated into the painting (i.e. the clock on the city hall tower, which is featured on the painting, tells the real time). The beds are short and like daybeds, because until the 18th century or so, it was thought that sleeping horizontally was bad for your health. They slept half-sitting up, propped on pillows.

The University’s treasury has the usual goblets and staffs and such, but it’s also sort of Poland’s cultural repository; famous Poles donate their awards to be displayed here. You can see Polish film director Andrzej Wajda’s awards (including an Oscar, the closest I’ve ever been to a real Oscar), and poet Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Prize.  Copernicus was a Pole, a fact of which you are reminded of on every streetcorner in Poland. You can visit a room dedicated to his stay at the University; it has room has facsimiles of the Italian doctorate he earned, his enrollment records showing he’d paid his fees to Cracow University on time, an 11th century Moorish astrolabe and other instruments he may have used. There’s also a globe from 1510 showing North America, but placing it south of Madagascar! A few facts I didn’t know about Copernicus: He was an expert on coinage and currency, and formulated Gresham’s Law before Gresham did. He also arranged to have his famous treatise on the movement of celestial bodies published on the eve of his death, perhaps to avoid problems with Church authorities.

This really only scratches the surface of what Cracow has to offer. I plan to return and spend at least a good week here, because there is much more history and culture than I could fit in. But if you needed a good explanation of why a visit to Cracow should be a part of any European tour, I hope I’ve provided it.

Polish Joys 3 — Warsaw

Apologies in advance for any formatting problems; I’m posting from a basement cage in Krakow. Here are a few loose, unedited observations from my visit to Warsaw:

I arrived on the 22nd in Warsaw and wandered up Nowy Swiat until I found a square dedicated to a famous bishop who died in 1981. There was an open-air history exhibition featuring photos and stories from the local newspaper in the 1960s. It was called something like "our little piece of stability." There were pictures of various incidents of Warsaw life: fashion shows on the wall of the old city, streetcar reppairs, street-beautification campaigns during which all citizene were encouraged to participate, lines outside food stores, beaches on the side of the Vistula, and many other things besides. One letter reprinted from the newspaper was from a man whose "diabolically jealous" wife refused to believe that his delay in returning home had been caused by tram repairs; he called upon other citizens who’d used the same tram to write into the newspaper and confirm the story. At around 9 pm, a film began on an outdoor screen. It was a collection of black and white documentary newsreels from the 50s and 60s. It wasn’t propaganda, it just showed ordinary people at work — steelworkers bent over forges, newspapermen delivering newspapers, one oddly well-dressed woman activating a railway switch almost in passing, old women collecting milk, and people lining up outside of food shops. I couldn’t understand the narration, which was a pity, since the young, hip audience laughed frequently, and I couldn’t tell whether the humor was intentional in the film or a by-product of its socialist quaintness. One particularly odd feature was that the film was interrupted by episodes that looked like spy documentaries, with stop-action surveillance photos and descriptions of "figurant" (subject) x or y. I got the idea this was ironic, perhaps they were trying to valorize the ordinary worker by implying that delivering newspapers was all part of the grand work of building a socialist utopia.

The next day I dropped by the national museum. It’s got odd opening hours and even odder security policies (you must pass through a security checkpoint near the main entrance, even though at least half of the collection is in side galleries that you can visit long before you come near the main entrance. The museum boasts a decent collection of ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts, including many wall-paintings from an 8th century Coptic Cathedral which was sunk in the mid 1960s when Nasser built the Aswan high dam.

There are also many Polish painters from the 18th and 19th centuries, including Jacek Malczewksi, a Symbolist active at the turn of the 20th century who seems to have developed a complex private autobiographical private mythology that’s well worth exploring.

The high point, for me, was the collection of Gothic altarpieces from Poland and neighboring regions. Marvelously vivid and contorted sculptures of Christ being whipped and scourged and crucified. They’re graphic and expressive enough to send a chill down the spine of even the most secular visitor. Especially since, in many sculptures, Christ, as well as Joseph and the thieves both repentant and un, are wearing wigs of real human hair!

The next day I popped over to the 10th Anniversary Stadium, a neglected stadium on the working-class east side of the Vistula which has been converted into a daily open-air market. The stalls are run by a motley assortment of Africans, gypsies, Poles and other Eastern Europeans, and Vietnamese. Most shops feature simple goods for poor people — cheap clothes and cookware, tools, fishing poles, imitation sneakers, CDs and DVDs, batteries, electronic goods, portable phone parts, and the like. There was one booth run by a Russian which had heaps of both Soviet and Nazi paraphernalia, including foot-high busts of the Führer. One woman ran a DVD shop which apparently specialized in used pornography. As I dallied over Hustler’s 1996 offerings, she glanced at me through a cloud of blue cigarette smoke with an expression that said "I’ve seen it all."

The market stretches out to cover the entire former parking grounds. There must be three thousand stalls. As I wandered through the thick, steaming warrens (it was at least 35 degrees), the scene became ever more surreal. Womens’ wear owners had rented half-mannequins to show off cheap pantyhose, one man sat sweating behind a big box containing at least 20 women’s legs, all sticking foot-upward, each clad in a different kind of pantyhose. It looked like a fetishistic flower display. Huge portions of the grounds have been taken over by Vietnamese. The women sit in the alleyways eating ang gossiping. The men rested prone on the ground under the tables. As soon as I stopped in front of a table, a Vietnamese guy would pop up behind the table like a jack-in-the-box and address me in what I can only assume was Polish with a heavy Vietnamese accent. The market’s been there so long that it’s developed its own corrugated-shack infrastructure — there’s a corrugated-shack police station, corrugated-metal-shack toilets, and even a corrugated-shack food court selling Vietnamese, Polish and Middle Eastern food. The grills are mostly improvised from sheet metal and tinfoil.

I crossed back to the chic part of Warsaw on the new Holy Cross Bridge, which features nice broad pedestrian walkways and shady places to stop and enjoy the view. Along the Ulica Dobra (which seems to mean Good Street) I wandered into a chic bookstore (it’s near the Uni) and bought a pack of abstract drawings and other odd cards from this hip place, which has a fake-cowhide swing in the middle and 3 floors of books, mainly art and literature. One bald guy sat at a table, with a laptop, many books, and handwritten notes in front of him. He appeared to be a regular, since the coffee waitress from the café section treated him familiarly.

I haliled a cab to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw. It’s housed in the former library of the Jewish community here. Built in 1936, it was one of the only buildings related to Jewish life in Warsaw to have survive the war in any shape at all. You can still see burn marks on the floor and stairs. It used to be attached to the main synagogue, which was blown up bu Jürgen Stroop of the SS in 1943. The second floor contains a thorough and well-presented documentary exposition of life in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. The accompanynig documentary film has an English version and is quite moving, despite one or two unconvincing sound-effects and the fact that one of the English voice-overs is from an Englishman with a fairly strong Yorkshire accent, which hardly passes to the texts written by educated Warsaw Jews. On the third floor is a collection of art either by Polish Jews or by Polish artists on Jewish themes. With depressing regularity, the date of the artists’ death is listed as 1943 or 1944. The museum’s guidebook, like almost everything else in Poland, has been expertly translated into flawless English.

Then it was about a 30 minute walk to the former grounds of the Ghetto. One park, which contains the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, is named Willy Brandt Square, after the German Social Democrat Chancellor. On 12 December 1970, when Brandt visited the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he fell wordlessly to his knees to express German contrition to the Polish people for the unspeakable suffering inflicted by the Nazi occupiers. There is much debate in Germany over the so-called Kniefall (was it planned? Was it genuine?) but it seemes to have made an impression; there is a simple bronze plaque in one corner of the park commemorating this silent expression of remorse.

Small stones and candles had also been placed on the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising leaders itself. While I was there two large tour buses disgorged Jewish teenagers speaking American English. Many were wearing kippas, and one waved a large Israeili flag while the tour guide explained basic facts about the ghetto. Small stones have been put on horizontal surfaces by Jewish visitors. Other, smaller Israeli flags had been wedged into crevices in the monument itself.

A French woman approached me as I was looking at the (artistically) rather unspectacular Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, offering her services as a guide. She observed that the Polish guides "don’t tell you everything," for instance the fact that the monument was actually created in France in 1948. I politely declined her services, sensing a possible tourist scam.

After chatting with her a little longer, I think I was wrong. A poorly-worded memorial plaque, or an allegedly slanted tourist guide’s description can rankle deeply. The culture of remembrance of the suffering of Poland under the Nazis is one of the most densely-packed ideological minefields anywhere. Millions of Poles were brutally exploited and murdered; their cities razed to the ground, their churches and museums bombed, their civilian population decimated. Jews, on the other hand, do not want the world to forget that although Poland was brutally victimized, Poland still exists. The huge and thriving Jewish community in Poland, however, was wiped out. The film in the Jewish Historical Institute describes the relationships between Poles and Jews before WWII as "defying easy characterization" but "generally harmonious". One part of the exhibit highlights the fact that the Polish government-in-exile created a committee for the welfare of the Jews in Poland, which was unique among the governments in exile then. The guidebook notes that 1 in 3 of the recipients of "Righteous Among the Nations of the World" recipients (for those who saved or protected Jews) was Polish, but also notes Polish anti-Semitic propaganda and books about the massacre at Jedwabne. It’s against this background that the ideological conflicts at the monument play out.

After seeing the monument, you follow a series of black marble memorial tablets (only in Polish and Hebrew, alas) through the former Jewish ghetto, ending with the famous Umschlagplatz (transfer area) where Jews were assembled for deportation to Treblinka. You see this place memorably depicted in Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist."

The U-platz is a rather simple affair consisting of a small oblong square surrounded by white marble walls about 3m tall, with inscriptions in Polish, English, and Hebrew, and a list of typical Jewish first names of the period. Mila street (from Mila 18 fame) retains its original name; other streets have been named after other leaders of the uprising. The bunker at Mila 18, the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization, which organized the Ghetto Uprising, has been left intact, a mound has been erected on top of it and a simple memorial stone set atop it. I found it the most tasteful and understated monument along the way.

Polish Joys 2

Another quick update from Poland. It was a hot few days in Gdansk. The old women walked around with parasols, and if they had no parasols handy, they used plastic bags. I and a friend visited Malbork, which is a gigantic castle whose heart was built in the 14th century by Teutonic knights. Polish trains are on time and pretty nice, but the train stations are stupendously confusing. Before getting on the train, I was treated to a loud debate between two platforms concerning which one was the right one for the Malbork train. Gdanksers took sides, and argued at length. Each side of the argument insisted they were waiting at the right platform. Then, as the train approached the right platform, the very people who’d been loudly insisting the wrong platform was the right one picked up their bags and sweatily made their way to the right one. Which is the one I happened to be standing on, purely, and I add purely, by random chance.

Malbork is stunningly huge and strangely beautiful, given that it was a purely functional defensive fortress.  To get there, you walk through a broad enclosed courtyard, then no fewer than three (3) defensive enclosures, each featuring its own moat. Murder holes, arrow slits, and crenellations abound — northern Poland has for centuries been one of the most hotly-contested areas on the face of the earth, and even the Teutonic knights, who built the complex, could only hold on to it for a couple of centuries. It was heavily damaged during WWII, but like almost everything else in Poland, has been lovingly and faithfully restored. You can wander freely around, visiting the banqueting hall, kitchen, torture chamber (they stationed musicians outside to cover up the victims’ screams), and the St. Anne Chapel, which is a ghostly ruin in the process of being restored. While we were there, a gigantic medieval fair was in progress, which meant plenty of re-created medieval combat, processions with standards, people walking around on stilts terrifying the passers-by, and music from sackbutters and fagottists.

The National Museum in Gdansk is housed in an unobtrusively-restored Franciscan monastery. There’s a giant section featuring porcelain and faience, but all the visitors go immediately to the second floor, where Hans Memling’s Last Judgment triptych is to be found. Memling and his studio painted th it on commission for the Medici’s banker, who wanted to install it in a Florentine Church. A Gdansk pirate named Bennecke had other ideas, he seized it, along with scads of treasure, in 1473. Gdansk held on to it through the centuries, even when Russian and Prussian potentates tried all manner of blandishments and bribes to acquire it. The Nazis took it, then the Russians, but it was returned to Gdansk in 1956. Fortunately for English-speaking visitors, there is a 3-page long description of the symbolism and history of the painting which perfectly mixes academic knowledge with lively commentary.  I spent 30 minutes before this mesmerizing picture, and other visitors did the same. So much to enjoy (especially the devils with butterfly wings), so much to decode (the gate to Heaven is housed in a minutely detailed Gothic cathedral that’s as much of a joy to see as real bricks-and-mortar Gothic cathedrals). There are also interesting pictures from Polish painters of the 18th and 19th centuries, which I’d love to describe, but I’m stuck in a hot Warsaw Internet cafe without access to my notes, so I’ll spare you the details.

Then it was off to Oliwa, a suburb of Gdanks which features an odd little cathedral with a world-famous organ. The housing is meticulously carved and features numerous angels who play real trumpets and ring real bells. I was lucky enough to visit during the summer organ festival. A student from Cracow played a program of mainly Polish composers, and did so with panache and verve.

I finished up in Gdansk with a nice little walk through the countryside in the Bretowo suburb, where I was staying. Gdansk does, in fact, have lots of Socialist high-rise housing, but the virtue of stacking people on top of each other is that this leaves plenty of room for luscious countryside to remain unpaved and undeveloped. To the west of Gdansk are miles of lovely deciduous forests growing on rolling, sandy hills.

That’s all for now. I’m not finding Poland to be filled with wireless hotspots, so these dispatches are typed hastily on sticky keyboards in anonymous Internet cafes. I hope you enjoy them nevertheless.

German Joys Book Review: La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme

Lucian Boia, a Romanian historian and historiographer who specializes in the history of the imagination, originally wrote La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme ("The Scientific Mythology of Communism") in 1993.  The French publisher Les Belles Lettres republished it in 1999; here’s the book’s website. As no translator is credited, it appears Boia wrote the book in French.

Boia’s subject is the role of science in Communist mythology. It was a relationship of mutual influence: Communism trumpeted its inherent superiority to "idealistic" or "bourgeois" Western thinking by stressing its roots in the objective, materialist scientific laws of social organization discovered by Marx and Engels. Once established, Communism, in turn, attempted to use scientific achievement, like sporting prowess, to demonstrate the inherent superiority of Communist society to the decadent West.

The problem, though, was that Communist thinkers and apparatchiks were driven by two foolish ideas. The first was that scientific procedures such as the scientific method and peer review were tainted by their bourgeois origins. The second, related mistake, was imagining that many limits on progress imposed by human nature, the natural environment, or even the laws of physics were artifacts of the ideology of capitalism and could be transcended with enough Stakhanovite effort.

Once these artificial ideological bourgeois shackles were cast off, the "Glorious March of Reason" (the title of the book’s first chapter) could resume. As Boia demonstrates, Communist scientific thinking had a millenarian turn. The march had a definite destination, the New Society, in which social injustice and class division would be finally abolished — soon to be followed into oblivion by money, religion, and even the State itself.

In the future, clever socialist machines would do most of the work, and humans, freed of the bonds that shackled them to their jobs, would develop their personality without hindrance. "We are here clearly in the presence of a mythology," Boia notes, "[i]ts lack of modesty or scale betray it. Only mythologies and religions offered simple, global, and ineluctable answers to the multitude of questions that torment the human spirit. Where science searches in a process without pause or end, mythology already knows the answer."

The most important architexts of the mythology, were, of course the Founding Fathers: Marx, Engels, Lenin, and to a lesser degree Trotsky and Stalin. Withing the eerie Führerkult of Marxism,a passing comment by one of these "scientific" demi-Gods on some aspect of biology or psychology could influence research for generations. Engels is one of the key figures. Marx only hinted at the potential application of dialectical reasoning outside in other contexts than social criticism. Engels, however, saw it as his duty to demonstrate that a dialectical-materialist analysis of historical forces explained the emergence — and charted the necessary future — of a variety of social institutions.

Manual labor, for instance, was essential to Engels’ thinking, because, in his understanding, monkeys advanced to a higher level of development by using their hands. There was thus a dialectical relationship between manual labor and intellectual development that could form the basis of new socialist societies. It’s easy to laugh at Engels’ pomposity until you realize that these passages of his Anti-Dühring provided an ideological basis for the later emergence of manual-labor based re-education camps in Communist nations. Of course, it wasn’t the only basis for the work camps; every Communist dictator could understand the desirablility of turning potential opponents and "undesirables" into an exploitable, expendable work-force. And through this scientific "re-education" through manual labor, socialist governments could correct what they called the "errors of nature" (inconveniently-located deserts, forests, or patches of tundra). Entire rivers could be diverted, gigantic dams built, and mines operated without the need for pesky safety measures.

Boia observes that the "harder" the science, the more resistant it was to ideological distortion. Geologists and physicists were pretty much left alone, and the Soviet space program, of course, recorded extraordinary achievements. One exception to this rule was the life sciences. Socialism could hardly accept the ruthless competition of Darwinism, and one of the fathers of modern genetics was — good grief — an Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. How could a proper Socialist biology be built on this stinking bourgeois-clerical foundation? Stalin found his biologist in the "peasant" scientists Trofim Lysenko, whose invented jargon ("vernalization"), crackpot theories, and confabulated research results dominated Soviet biology for decades. Boia mines the Lysenko story for its many absurdities delicious ironies, while also noting that Lysenko abused and oppressed scientists who didn’t agree with him, and his "Lysenkian" experiments sometimes led to mass hunger.

Boia’s book is a delight to read. It’s not a comprehensive history of science under socialism; it’s rather a well-integrated series of essays arising out of that history: the fraught relationship between scientific and socialist thought, socialist theories of human development and personality, socialism’s self-proclaimed mission to correct "nature’s mistakes."  Boia writes with essayistic verve and wears his research lightly. You could be forgiven for thinking that Boia wrote the book primarily to savor human folly. He’s especially fond of quoting Western commentators and scientists (such as George Bernard Shaw, and innumerable obscure Frenchmen) who were taken in by Communism’s persistent claim to be the only truly "scientific" ideology created by humankind. Shaw himself praised Stalin’s collectivization and harshly criticized "bourgeois" agriculture precisely as millions of peasants, unknown to the Englishman, were starving to death.

Cringe-making, darkly humorous episodes like this help make Boia’s argument: always distrust utopian visions of human perfection and progress, whatever form they take.

Polish Joys 1 — Gdansk

Landed in Gdansnk yesterday, and find it charming. The customs officials were amused that an American was living in Germany, but let me in and gave me a nice, juicy passport stamp to boot. Then off to reside with a Polish friend in a small bungalow-style house in a suburb of Gdansk. As soon as you get out of Gdansk proper, the city sort of peters out and is replaced by winding dirt roads leading through private orchards and hillside forests, interspersed with Socialist-era housing blocks, which look pretty much like they look all over Eastern Europe. The countryside appears idyllic, with pleasant, airy deciduous forests ranging along gentle hills.

The inner city, which was painstakingly rebuilt after being annihilated by the Nazis (who started WWII in this city), is lovely. It features row after row of townhouses with colorful Dutch facades, and scads of pleasant Gothic churches, as well as a city hall with a delicate 81m spire. The fortress-like St. Mary’s basilica isn’t very pleasant from the outside, but features plenty of sensational Gothic church decoration from Gdansk artists and other artisans imported mainly from northern Europe. If you climb the 300+ steps to the tower, the view is amazing. You can event rent Lorgnetki (binoculars, spelling approximate!) from a sad old man with a big, bulbous nose.  Most of the church inscriptions are in German, since this city more-or-less belonged to Germany for most of its existence (don’t ask me the details).

Then it was off to the Baltic sea resort of Sopot, a popular spot for tourists and Polish families.  Polish people behave themselves well in public; public drinking is prohibited in big gathering spots, and the ubiquity of children keeps inappropriate behavior (i.e., public puking) to a minimum.  Sopot proper is picturesque, but perhaps a little too wedding-cakey for my taste. The vibe is relaxed and cultivated. A sculptor of Dr. Haffner, who discovered the spa resort’s healthful properties, shows him seated on a rock, legs crossed and gazing pensively into the distance. He’s in full 18th-century regalia, with his top-hat and walking-stick ranged on the ground beside him.

Sopot boasts a loungy club, Sfinks, where Polish DJs use old-school vinyl 12" to whip up sinuous, genre-crossing beats in an balmy, tent-like outdoor setting, all the while drinking piwo (beer) and chain-smoking. Which everyone else is also doing. So far, no major discoveries in the realm of Polish beer (they seem to like light, sweet lagers over here), but the sausage is fabulous: spicy, slightly gristly in a good way, and fresh-tasting.

Once again, I find young, educated Eastern Europeans delightful company; they’re future-oriented, curious, hard-working and enterprising. This is a sharp contrast to certain sectors of Old Europe, where even the young, educated folks can’t stop bitching about politics, bitching about the job market, bitching about the shiftiness and stupidity of the lower classes, bitching about the decline of noble national traditions in the face of global competition, bitching about the fact that their countries don’t have much influence on the world stage anymore, etc. It’s a lot more fun to live in a country where the educated young people believe the nation has its worst times behind it, as opposed to ahead of it.

This is typical of a lot of folks I meet from behind the former Iron Curtain. They understand their countries have problems, but radiate a quiet confidence that these problems are slowly on their way to being fixed, and that the future belongs to those who adapt, find niches, and take risks, not those who cling desperately, bitterly and enviously to outmoded social institutions. I wouldn’t mind resettling somewhere here, except for the fact that I’d have to learn Polish (yikes!) and would probably get paid about the same in of zlotys as Euros. (The Zloty/Euro rate is about about 4-to-1).

That’s enough for now, since it’s a balmy, but not brutally hot day, and plenty of sightseeing awaits.

German Words of the Week: Afterkind & Afterwelt

Translators live by one golden rule: if you ever see a cheap old dictionary in your source language (i.e., the language you translate out of), buy it. A German-English technical dictionary from 1955, a dictionary of turn-of the century German slang, a tourist phrasebook from 1970, they’re all worth buying. In such books — and sometimes nowhere else — you can find out that the strange word you just red in a novel about Communist Party intrigue is 1950’s East German slang for "nuclear meltdown."

Following this rule, I recently bought the Kleines Lexikon Untergegangener Wörter ("Small Dictionary of Lost Words") as soon as I saw it in a local bookstall. It was written by Nabil Osman (an Egyptian student of German lexicography) in 1972. It’s a curious collection of words that dropped out of the German language around 1800 or so, for a variety of reasons (regularization of spelling, the substitution of German-based expressions for Latin-based ones, etc.). The words Afterkind ("After-child") and Afterwelt ("After-world) appear on pp. 26-27. Afterkind is an illegitimate child, one conceived "after" (i.e. outside of) marriage; the Afterwelt is the afterworld, just as it would be in English.

What’s wrong with these words? After all, so to speak, they are nice cognates of the English word "after," so you could say they contribute to intercultural understanding. The problem, however, is that the German word After is a homonym (same word = different meanings). The other meaning of After, and the one that became dominant in Germany about two centuries ago, is, err, "anus". You can see the problem. But it wasn’t just "Anuschild" and "Anusworld" that had to go, the change in the meaning of After, according to the Lexikon, triggered a regular verbal genocide — 110 German words were ruthlessly exterminated in the early 19th century because of their "deadly closeness" in pronunciation to a certain piece of excretory equipment.

Caspar David Friedrich in Essen

Last Wednesday I and a friend dropped by the Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen. I have always had a soft spot for Friedrich, who is considered the greatest German Romantic painter and is best-known for his brooding, metaphysically-charged landscapes. Typical subjects are two monks wandering next to the see, or a neglected cemetery in winter, in which snow drifts against the gravestones of long-forgotten peasants, or a lone wanderer atop a rocky precipice, contemplating a fog-shrouded rocky landscape. Friedrich’s reputation has had its ups and downs. He was practically ignored for years after his death, and his religious paintings have been accused of kitsch. Those pesky Nazis clasped him to their stinking bosom, praising the "German spirit" of his art. But after all that, he still speaks to me.

I have never been disappointed by the Museum Folkwang before, and I wasn’t now. Yes, I know what you’re asking: "What’s a Folkwang?"  There are probably a million reasons they can’t do this, but the Folkwang should change its name. People assume it is a peculiar little collection devoted to, err, Folkwangs, or the 16th-century Bohemian glass sculptor Hans-Joachim Folkwang. But no, the Museum Folkwang is a big, fascinating museum of modern art right in the heart of Essen, Germany, which will be Europe’s cultural capital in 2010.

Essen is part of the industrial Ruhrgebeit. Industrialists tend to become very rich, then they tend to collect art, and then they give it to nearby museums after they die. This has been very good for the Folkwang. It boasts an impressive and diverse permanent collection from the 19th-century onward. The highlight is an almost unrivalled collection of German expressionists, but there are also well-chosen van Goghs, Dalis, surrealists, Dadaists, and a few impressionists. It’s all housed in a purpose-built museum complex which isn’t very exciting, but is easy to navigate and also boasts a nice outdoor cafe.

The exhibition (G), which is subtitled "The invention of Romanticism," is thoughtful and unobtrusive. It’s laid out in 13 rooms, loosely organized along thematic lines, but also with a chronological component. The themes include Friedrich’s use of geometry, religious subjects in his painting, and types of Friedrichian landscapes. It highlights many aspects of Friedrich’s art that were unknown to me, including his wonderfully vivid, finely-detailed sketches of family members, done while he was in his 20s, and his preparatory sketches.

The trees and rocks in Friedrich paintings are all rendered with meticulous realism, yet also seem have their own personalities; sometimes brooding and impassive, sometimes bold and questing, sometimes eerie and treacherous. The exhibition shows you the effort and contemplation required to achieve these effects. There’s nothing quite like the way Friedrich handles light, when he’s in top form. A glorious brooding valley-landscape featuring ruins at dusk captures perfectly that brief stage of sunset in which objects themselves seem to glow in the dying light.

Toward the end of his life, Friedrich — always an extremely intense and metaphysical chap — began to lose touch with reality, and his works became progressively more otherworldly. He began a large cycle of paintings dealing with allegories of music, and also experimented with painting on transparent media, which could then be illuminated by a candle placed behind them. His aim was to combine these paintings with music, which the Folkwang does to wonderful effect, choosing a composition for two glass harmonicas(!). The effect is indeed eerie and fascinating.

All in all, a lovely experience. If you get the opportunity, pay Caspar — and Essen — a visit.