Swimming Against the Stream

Nazis

Candles and Cannons: Part 3

Baroque & Anti-Entropic

This is from a chapter for the original version of Gravity From Above that was never written about my journey in search of European Puppetry that would eventually become the beginning of my Gravity From Above project. This is the third part of a long chapter on Poland that initially has little to do with puppetry and everything to do with history and travel. It’s worth a read. More to come!

Poznan and Warsaw, Poland

April 4– 8, 2005

The Teatr Animacji in Poznan. Whoever expected a puppet theatre to be so big?

I located my hotel’s free breakfast the next day as I strolled down a long darkened hall towards an anonymous doorway. An elderly Polish man in a suit was just leaving. The morning fare was predominantly a few cold cuts, a wedge or two of cheese, a few dry buns and a little tea or coffee. I ate alone in a room without windows. I heard the rustling of an attendant behind a divider screen. I ate with a strange sense of unease. I left just as an older Polish couple arrived for their dining shift. At the end of the dark hallway I stepped again out into the oddly gritty streets. (When I arrived in Warsaw the next day I asked my friend Marta why there was so much sand on the streets, though there was far less in the capital. She said it was there to keep you from sliding on ice during the winter. That made sense in Warsaw, still here it was as though the streets were leaking sand.)

I had to find the Teatr Animacji this morning and soon if I wanted to attend a performance. I started at the very end of Aleje Niepodleglosci this time on the east side of the street and carefully sought out each number on each building. I inspected the buildings cautiously until the digits furtively revealed themselves. I have encountered obscure European numbering systems before but this street really excelled in numerical arcana. One building would be clearly marked. And another structure would have a tiny sign no bigger than one’s fist. The most cryptic glyphs were spray painted onto the featureless side of a brick edifice. At some length I found myself again in the twenties, completely bypassing the quested number 14. I doubled back. Only one structure existed that could possibly fulfill a theatrical function. I stepped through a brick gate into a large green lawn with a bronze monument dedicated to the carnivorous maw of the Second World War. Bodies in agony writhed from out of a vaginal Venus flytrap of bronze muck. Opposite this statue an impressive set of gray cement stairs mounted a piece of classical architecture surfeited with colonnade. The building had no visible numbers but upon entering the building I found that indeed it did contain the Teatr Animacji. Except there was one slight problem…

As I stepped up a small flight of marble stairs, I looked around. Off to the right side a plate glass door led down a long hallway, while directly before me was what looked like a ticket window also behind a plate glass door. As I stepped up to the landing an older gray haired janitorial sort of fellow looked at me in mild disapproval. He pointed to the clock and then to a sign while rambling on in the Polish tongue. Ah. They didn’t open until 10 AM and it was only a little after 9. Fine. I said dziekuje, which, by the way, is pronounced jien-koo-ya, and of course means ‘thank you’. And ‘thank you’ is the first word or phrase you should learn in any language since you will be, I have learned, or should be, thanking everyone that puts up with your linguistic foibles. I then wandered off to waste an hour. Rounding the block I came upon the actual entrance to the theatre on Sw. Marcin. There was a small white piece of paper with a note printed on it. But this certainly was the place. I peered inside and could see posters and puppet paraphernalia. I continued my way back over to Adam Mickiewicz Park. After sitting on a bench for a while reading more of The Seven Ages of Paris and then working on a few more phrases in the guidebook I eventually returned to the great number 14.

I entered the enclosed park, took a photo of the weird bronze and entered the building. As I approached the glass door the old man muttered something to a man in his young thirties. He stood up and spoke a few words in Polish. I summoned up my next great evolutionary leap, Czy Pan mowi po angielsku? No he didn’t speak English. The sign said something about a small fee in zlotys amounting to about three dollars. I assumed he was leading me to the theatre. I offered to give him the money. He looked at me strangely as he took it from me. Then he took me into a room displaying glass cases filled with Polish newspapers. He began to explain something to me. I looked at the newspapers more carefully. He could see that I was completely lost. The papers were about the incidents of 1956. Just then I realized that I was in a small museum dedicated to that event. I stopped him. And said the name of the theatre. Oh! He seemed to reply. He handed my zlotys back, he’d probably thought they were some sort of tip anyway. He pointed through the glass door down the long hallway. A small plaque read Teatr Animacji. I opened the door.

I stepped into the first doorway I could see that was open. A conservatively dressed woman sitting at an office desk looked up at me. “Prosze”, I ventured, “Czy Pani mowi po angielsku?” Another Polish linguistic tidbit Pan means something like Mr. and Pani means Mrs., except not quite. One has to be very formal in Polish when it comes to addressing each other. Thus Pan would be better translated as gentleman, Sir or even Lord and Pani certainly means Lady, not as in ‘the lady over there’ but as in Lady Diana Spencer. Thus in Polish eyes all people are actually Lords and Ladies, an interesting touch of truly aristocratic egalitarianism. Anyway the Lady before me said “Nie.” I spoke the phrase that meant, “Does anyone here speak English?” “She looked at me thoughtfully and said something that could only be translated as “Kindly wait just a moment.” And she walked down the hall. She poked her head into several doors, chirped a few Polish phrases and then came back saying what I was certain meant, “Sorry I’m afraid no one here speaks a blessed word of English.” Except I’m pretty sure she didn’t use the word ‘blessed’. So there it was: no English, strike one, and no interview, strike two. And I still hadn’t figured out anything about the repertoire of the theatre, though I had accidentally encountered the front entrance earlier.

I ambled around the block to study the entrance of this rather grand building a little more closely. That little note was beginning to worry me. What did it say? There was a word that looked vaguely familiar. I opened my guidebook: zamkniete meant ‘closed’ – not a good omen. But were they just closed for the moment or would they open a bit later? I didn’t see a word that seemed to be the Polish equivalent for Pope. An uneasy notion crept upon me, a notion that I was going to strike out all the way round.

I decided to move towards the old town. But before I did that I had one small task that I could take care of first. I needed to find an Internet Café. Thus far on my puppet sojourn I had not had any real difficulties locating such an establishment. And Poland, being connected to the big world in a thousand different ways, didn’t seem like it should pose much of a problem in finding a public connection. Poznan was after all a major trade center. But sometimes simple chores take on Herculean dimensions when you travel, especially when the language is consonantally fearsome as dear old Polish is. But I had a plan. First I would follow the directions in the Lonely Planet guidebook to the Internet Café listed under the Email & Internet Access heading for Poznan. I followed the single listing with my plan centrum. Then after 15 minutes of walking I came to the exact spot, which happened to be a gutted building undergoing a thorough remodeling process.

Plan Two was simplicity itself. I would locate the bookstore with English language books, then I would ask the friendly English-speaking staff where the nearest Internet connection might be found. There was a very tight logic to my idea. A little too tight. The Omnibus bookstore certainly did have an array of English language books: Lots of novels and a huge array of books on how to speak English. Ah it was so nice to be a native speaker in the ‘universal language’. What would travel be like if I spoke Romanian or Amharic? I was about to find out. I asked the intelligent looking sandy blonde haired girl behind the help desk if she spoke English? Pani did not. Did anyone? A quick whip round produced a ‘nie’. I then bought what looked to be a fascinating book by Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, Road-Side Dog. As I paid for the book I uttered the only words I could think of that might aid me in my quest. With my most imploring tone I asked the cashier the international phrase, “Internet Café???” This produced the desired result. He came to life and pointed across the street at… a bank. A bank? Okay why not. It’s Poland, who knows?

I entered the financial establishment a little sheepishly. It didn’t look so much like a bank as much as a pecuniary relay center for appropriately attired office staff to sit around making some sort of transactions. It was a medium sized blank walled square room. There were about three or four computer terminals at desks and four or five people in business suits knotted together near the rear of the office discussing something. A girl sat in a desk at the front. She was wearing a very smart black dress and sported pixie cut dark hair. She smiled and I asked the Lady if she spoke English. Yes indeed she did! And very well! And she was happy to practice it! Evidently it wasn’t the literary types or bookstore employees who were buying all of those how-to English books, rather it was the business community. Ah yes. Now I understood it. I began to ply her with inquisitions. Internet access? Sorry not here, this is just a place for banking customers. Where can I find one? She eagerly explained where one could be found down the same road as the now eviscerated email emporium. She said it was in a ‘tall new building’, I couldn’t miss it. Though she didn’t seem to know the exact name of the place. We talked a little about Alaska, which certainly excited her, and about her desire to spend time in America to finish learning English.

The pleasant dark haired girl also told me that no theatres, including movies, were open today because it was a time of morning until the Pope’s burial on Friday. My friend Marta would later tell me that every cultural venue in Poland was shut for six days: every theatre, ballet, opera, cinema, concert and certainly every puppet show. And that was strike three on the business of seeing the Teatr Animacji. Shut out by the Pope. But I certainly wasn’t complaining. What I had already witnessed in Poland was worth a hundred puppet theatres.

And we would probably have continued talking another five minutes had we not been interrupted by a rather stern, tall, thin well-dressed stiff young man with a dirty blond crew cut. He took her off to the side and reprimanded her for talking too long with the obviously low-grade non-client, though no one else had come in and her job was exclusively greeting clients. She apologized. I told her I understood and said dziekuje. She smiled as I left.

The Old Town Square in Poznan.

I tracked down the clues now with all of the tenacity of a bloodhound. This time I didn’t even have a street number. After passing the husk of the old Internet Café I came to the corner the pleasant girl had mentioned. I looked around. I walked around the block. Nothing resembling a ‘tall new building’. I walked one more block down the street. Then I saw what seemed to be a tall recently constructed high-rise. I walked towards it analyzing each store window with respect and hope. I walked up the steps of the tall structure. As soon as I did I knew that this most likely wasn’t the place either. It certainly wasn’t an Internet Café. It was in fact an institute for higher learning, the words University were clearly visible. But I thought even if it wasn’t an Internet Café it might have public Internet facilities. The foyer of the tall building wasn’t anything like an American institution at all. If I didn’t know better I’d say I had come to a poorly lit New York subway arcade with a couple of little stores and an information window. I walked up to the appropriate window and a man wearing a loosely fitting work uniform pointed up a flight of stairs when I said the word ‘Internet?’ I walked tentatively across the hall. He stepped out of his booth to kindly make sure I got to where I should be. When I stepped on the correct incline he nodded sagely. I now was on a mezzanine that had a library on it. I walked through a set of glass doors and was immediately set upon by a guard who needed to straighten me out. He whined officially and pointed over to a bag check line. It was clear that my daypack was not appreciated in the library. I stood in a line for a few minutes there till I was handed an identification tag by the rather hip student attendant. Then I entered the library. I found a man who spoke a little English. He pointed in the general direction of the public machines. Then he walked away. I approached a frosted glass room, pushed at the door and it wouldn’t open. A sign I couldn’t read spoke a dire warning related to the machinery but it wasn’t letting me anywhere near them. I turned and walked aimlessly looking for clues. Finally the same man noticed my helplessness and approached me again. “Sorry. The computers are being worked on today.” And why didn’t he tell me this before starting out? Was this the only Internet facility for the whole school? But he did explain that if I walked across town again I would find an Internet Café on a street named Fredry. I collected my pack, descended the stairs, bought a drink at the little store and sallied out into the fray again.

And finally I did find it! The Cube Internet Café was just about exactly where I started my damned quest nearly two hours earlier. Now of course nothing crucial happened when I checked my email. And you might just be asking yourself why on earth he keeps dragging us through these labyrinthine searches through the bowels of a Polish city few of the readers will ever visit? (Of course if you weren’t asking any such question I beg your indulgence for a paragraph or two as I plow through my own baroque semi-Polish rationale.)

Well there is a good reason for telling you my progressions through all of these mazes. This is, as I have stated before, Poland. As deeply as I was impressed by the faith of the Polish people in their hour of mourning, to a degree unmatched by any American Christian event, so was I also reminded to comical and absurd degrees of the strange labyrinth of practical devices that makes up the warp and woof of Polish life. Not bureaucratic France, certainly not Germany nor even their Slavic cousin culture the Czech Republic, were nearly as baroque and inverted in basic living as the Poles were. These are of course the pronouncements of an American who is probably much too saturated in and prejudiced towards the belief that directness is to be valued over subtlety. But it isn’t subtlety that I’m discussing here. And this is a judgement that has nothing to do with intelligence. Nor is it anything to do with the fact that I don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Hungarian either, which is as purely alien as a European language can be. But I never walked around in circles in Budapest the way I did in Poland.

Let me illustrate this principle with one of the more ingenious and less offensive Polish jokes I’ve heard. Being part Polish I think I can get away with this. Although every true Pole will be saying to themselves right now, “Why? Why do they have to tell Polish jokes in America? After all we Poles love America. Chicago is one of the greatest Polish cities on earth. And the kielbasy at Kowalski’s in Hamtramck, Michigan is just like they make it in Lodz. Why?” Well what can I say? Humor is one of the most difficult aspects in any society for a foreigner to understand. And ethnic jokes running the spectrum from lighthearted sweetness to unmitigated bile are the bedrock of American humor. In truth you aren’t really considered part of the American stew until you earn your place on the list of the joke rosters. There are no Cambodian jokes therefore there are no Cambodians in America. It’s not true of course. But it means that the Cambodian communities really haven’t registered their presence yet. But there certainly are Vietnamese; the jokes usually start with something about missing dogs in the neighborhood. And there certainly are Polish people in America.

So here’s the little joke. How do Polish people tie their shoes? You wait a beat. Then you put a foot on a nearby step, box or low chair. Then you bend down to tie your shoe. But! Instead of reaching for the shoe on the step you pass it by to go for the one still firmly planted below on the ground. I’ve never known this not to raise a few smiles. It’s a simple trick of misdirection really. And while some people might think that this represents stupidity I would beg to differ. I think it illustrates the principle I’ve been trying to get at. That is that things do get done: but never exactly in the way that you are thinking. This is a good, if ridiculous, illustration of the baroque approach that Polish culture sometimes takes. Maybe the best way to describe this is as a form of imaginative individualism. Again I quote my Lonely Planet Poland: “Poles are remarkable individuals, each of them with their own solution for any dilemma within the family or the nation” or city planning or communications technology or building maintenance. Each issue is confronted as if no one had ever thought about it ever before. Hence the new approach to shoe security. I know exactly what this is, I draw upon this weird trait all of the time myself, being a good part Polish. The American in me wants to find common sense tried and true technological procedures. My inner Pole wants the novel romantic solution. My outer American reads the instruction manual, my inner Pole sticks his hands past the ‘don’t-open-the-back-of-this-electronic-box” warnings straight into the live electrical system convinced that there is a conspiracy to keep us tech-simple. (Every Pole now reading this immediately knows I’m right – there is a conspiracy. There is always a conspiracy!) I got my first CD player that way. I just took it home and fixed it. I had never opened one prior to that. I still don’t know a darned thing about digital circuitry, I probably never will. I’m just part Polish. Blessed with a baroque mind. I promise to provide an even better demonstration of this principle a little later on in this chapter.

Meanwhile foodstuff and adventure were calling. As long as I was in Poznan I might as well find the old medieval heart of town, if it hadn’t been leveled during the Second World War. I passed another busy looking bar mleczny that was crowded with Poles loading up their plates with mashed potatoes and pierogi. I opened up my guidebook and started refreshing myself on the numbers. I was going to point at whatever I desired and say the number one, jeden. Once I got in and waited in line things became much more confusing immediately. I wasn’t asserting myself properly. The servers were ignoring me. Too many people were coming and going. I realized quickly that I had to make myself visible to the white smocked counter staff if I wanted to eat. I’d had this problem years ago when I had first moved to New York City. I had just started working and I wanted pizza for lunch. I stepped into a very typical, very New York, very busy pizza joint. Having come from California and it being 1980 I was not familiar with buying individual wedges of pizza. In California at the time, you usually called up the Round Table Pizza or wherever and ordered the whole pie, separate portions were called a ‘piece’. So armed with this woefully inadequate knowledge I bellied up the pizza counter and said “Could I have a piece of pizza?” I assumed that Tony or Joey or whoever was tending the till had heard me and was happily rolling that little pizza blade across the pie to carve me out a fine sample of New York real estate. Five minutes passed, people came and went. I said it again amidst the oceanic hordes breaking against the glass counter. Evidently I know absolutely nothing about ignorance, but being ignored is not bliss. I realized that I was doing something radically wrong. What was the proper way to ask for a piece? A smooth black brother slid up the bar and simply said “Gimme a slice,” and voilà a piece of pizza magically appeared. The word was ‘slice’. No other sound would even register to Sal or Vinnie cutting the pies. I uttered the word, bravely, alone, unaccompanied by the actual name of the doughy substance and lo and behold there it was! I learned a fateful lesson that day. Learn the rules if you want to eat. So I looked next to me and copied the routines and rituals of Polish ordering, using my mangled pronunciations of the labels and magic words like prosze and jeden and always dziekuje. Fish appeared on my plate, mashed potatoes and a glass of an American cola drink, which is also a universal word, hence easy to say. Forgive me for my political incorrectitude, but do you happen to know offhand the Polish word for apple juice? I finally took my tray over to a table to be shared with an older Polish man, who graciously waved me to sit while vocalizing in polite whining tones.

After a satisfying lunch I followed the map down into the Stary Rynek, the old town square. I came to the old town hall in the middle of the square. It too was decorated with pictures of the Pope and a line of perhaps thirty people stood near the medieval whipping post to sign a memorial card. People signed their names quickly; the line’s length never changed though. Another impromptu shrine of flowers and candles flourished. Polish flags and Papal flags constantly filled my eyes everywhere I walked.

I did have business to perform however. Due to the vagaries of my travel plans I had to actually buy my ticket from the German border to Poland. So I needed to inaugurate my Eastern Rail pass to continue. I marched back across town over the Towarowa overpass down the long flight of stairs into the gray glowny. Validating one’s pass is a quick painless procedure. You walk up to a train window. You hand them the pass. They ask for a passport. They stamp the pass. Done. But this is Poland. Am I going to relay another long episode? Yes. You must understand. Briefly it went like this. I go up to a window. “Czy Pani mowi po angielsku?”Nie.” She points down the line and says Pani at jeden speaks English. I move three windows down. I wait in line for someone to finish his transaction. The large-boned blonde woman steps away to smoke without acknowledging my presence in the least. She puts up a sign that says she’ll be back in five minutes. I wait. Ten minutes pass. She removes the sign. The telephone rings. She talks for another five minutes. Finally is she is available. Old communist goldbricking habits die hard, I assume. “Czy Pani mowi po angielsku? ””Nie.” I show her my rail pass. She takes it and calls in her supervisor, or least he’s another worker. They talk back and forth animatedly in commiserating tones like they have no idea what this is. They’ve never seen a rail pass before. Finally the man leans over and makes a stamping gesture with his hands. I nod enthusiastically and say “Tak. Tak.” Yes! Yes! She finally stamps it. A half an hour for this. But at least I had my pass. I wouldn’t have to go endure this again anywhere else on my trip.

I rested on my bed at the Hotel Topaz. I had since yesterday been sneezing violently every now and then. I do have the very occasional fit of hay fever. I had supposed that I had finally caught up with early spring. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that it was more violent in my hotel room than out of it. And now I was snottily sneezing again. I suspected that it might be that intense biochemical agent that was liberating my bathroom from germs. I closed the door to that room and things settled a little. I deduced that it was still too early for pollen in Poznan; it had to be the toxin in the loo. I never had another sneezing fit during the rest of my travels.

As I lay there I flipped through the channels. Apart from the German stations the Polish channels continued nonstop coverage of the life of Karl Wojtyla, the Pope lying in state at the Vatican, with local news coverage of tributes and processions. The only Polish entertainment to break up the mood was an array of 1950s biblical spectacles. They were airing Quo Vadis, original book written by Pole Henryk Sienkiewicz. I suddenly heard a word of English. Then I realized that the whole movie was in English. What luck for me! Except for one glitch. It was neither dubbed nor subtitled. The Polish broadcasters had, of course, figured out something else. In Poland, movies on the box have their scripts read by announcers over the actors’ voices. So you can just barely make out the English language beneath a man who is reading all of the voices, male and female alike. It’s oddly disconcerting to see Deborah Kerr talking and to hear a smooth authoritative Polish actor reading her lines. The Poles themselves don’t really like this arrangement. They don’t mind subtitles. But what can you do? It was time to change the channel.

The late Wojciech Kilar whose piece Angelus sent shivers down my spine in 2005.

I pressed the remote. Suddenly I was transported to a large gathering in Warsaw, a memorial mass for Pope John Paul II. I was immediately arrested by the music. It was most likely Wojciech Kilar. It sounded like a mass. A soprano was singing with such sorrow and fire that I thought the TV set would melt right there. Kilar’s music is somber, deep, the reflection of Poland’s tragic historical epic. Here were perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Warsaw’s Ogrod Saski, the park in the center of the city. I found out later that my friend Marta was there at the park as I watched. I wished I were there right then myself. I would indeed be exactly there for another memorial before the end of the week. But right now the music filling the room from this little box was dark and majestic. This was music you would never hear in America in a similar setting. But then again what similar setting? How do I convey to an outsider what the Pope’s life and death meant to Poland? I don’t really know how to do it. No figure in American life carries anything near the universal respect that the Pope did in Poland. No President, celebrity, or religious figure is even comparable. Plus we are so divided in our allegiances, so cynical in our suspicions, so pickled in the charade of gossip that it is impossible to imagine anyone meaning that much to us across so broad a spectrum. To my American friends I can only say this, try to imagine that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were the same person. Now amplify that by ten and you will have a small idea of what the Pope meant to Poland.

Penderecki and Gorecki two more great Polish composers who have passed on since 2005.

Kilar’s music also reminded me of another interesting fact about Poland. It is a large European country of 38,000,000 people. It has more great living composers as I write than any other country on Earth. Kilar, Gorecki, Penderecki, even Zbigniew Preisner is notable for his Kieslowski soundtracks and his Requiem. [Note from 2020: Alas the three great titans have passed on. But new Polish composers have arrived on the scene.] How many living American composers can you name? Now French composers? German? Russian? English? I mean living composers? Yes there are composers, but nowhere are they so important to the lifeblood of a nation as in Poland. Will Philip Glass’ music be played when Billy Graham dies? Jimmy Carter? Bob Dylan? Here was this extraordinary music playing on national television. And it is a tribute to the Poles that this is their culture at the beginning of the 21st Century. And in some respect that too is also a tribute to the late Pope.

It was time to roam the streets of Poznan one last time. It was dark as I stood again in Adam Mickiewicz Square. There were maybe one hundred and fifty, perhaps two hundred, people standing about or lighting candles in the dark. It was sprinkling now and then. Some folks were keeping the flames lit. Others were still arriving with their votive candles. A young girl lit a few tea candles being careful to keep her long brown hair out of the flames. Some stood in prayer or silent thought. At the base of the Mickiewicz University steps a large heart made of candles flickered in the night. The smell of paraffin hung in the air directly over the shrines. The cool of the air found pockets of warmth, waxy and human. The area beneath the 1956 monument was now nearly full. As the mourners faded away others restless in thought took their place. It was astonishing that one man could touch so many people for the good. Sometimes it seems that only the Hitlers or the Lenins are able to change the course of world events – only those who move with the entropic flow towards decay, towards that which is meanest in us; only those appealing to our fears, our selfishness, our greed and above all our crippling need to feel protected. Yet it was undeniable to me. This man, Pope John Paul the Second, had moved against the stream. And if only for a time an example was set of faith and love. I dawdled as I made my way back to the snarling guard dogs patrolling the caged parking lot of the hotel. Maybe I hadn’t found any puppets here in Poznan but I had found something unforeseen, a living example of that force pulling from above which is indeed greater than that holding us from below.

Too be continued…

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

December 10th 2020 (Annus horribilis)

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