Friday, August 12, 2005

Sopot IV

We drove into Central Poland, a land of less beauty, of more war time destruction and awful-communist era rebuilding (I swear to God if they COULD make anything ugly they did)....gray apartment blocks, concrete factories often abandoned...even the storks' nests began to disappear.

The village and towns are largely forgettable until a great Teutonic castle on a hill, a real travel poster candidate at a place unlovingly named Golub-Dobrzyun....and then entry into what ought to be an ultra-major European tourist goal for the GRAND TOUR, the great small university city of TORUN, the birthplace of Copernicus, a mostly brick Hanseatic era town on the Vistula. Its old town section, egg shaped and I would say roughly a mile and a half in length and half that in width, is utterly pure...yet not SO perfect in a gruesome Nantucket- Williamsburg way as to be itsy poo and cloying. There are some ugly buildings here and there (only a few) and the shops actually sell things like brassieres and hockey sticks and grapefruit....not just amber to the horizon. The town IS famous for the gingerbread (some recipes go back to the 14th century) and certain streets smell wonderfully of it baking.

The absolute gem is St Mary's, not the cathedral...St Mary's has no tower (the Dominicans were aghast as such ostentation the local legend says)....but the stained glass absolutely rivals Notre Dame or Strasbourg and is worth a trip to Europe....the altar is a great sunburst (Copernicus again?....a glowing orb in a somber building...thrilling, utterly thrilling..

Torun actually was THE center for all of Central Europe in glass staining and this craft is still practiced today in many local workshops...although most of them make things like parrot or smile-symbol plaques to hang in a window. Ugh. Torun is a magical place to prowl....there are three lovely hotels

Adam and I ate gingerbread (he ordered 16 different kinds of cookies which we split and ate in a diabetic orgy)...we poke into courtyards, into a couple of student bars (including one replete with ghastly momentos from the DDR including a TRABANT auto)....Adam does NOT drink alcohol (he says his Polish friends think he is a freak)....but is hardly a born again prohibitionist.

Torun has all manner of cheerful curiosities: a leaning tower, little bronze statues here and there of Polish folklore creatures (sort of like the papier mache pigs which were put for a merry short time around central Little Rock...and which were, of course, vandalized)....I did not want to leave yesterday to drive north to the THREE CITIES.....Gdynia (the Polish port the richest burg in the land), Gdansk and inbetween Sopot with its Germanic villas and this heap of a late Jugendstil hotel....

the Grand Hotel here is a gas...the beach is wonderful. The dining room has fairly repellent but important looking food, the breakfast is the worst I have had in Poland but immensely is a place which has not QUITE awakened from the recent Communist past although everyone could not be nicer. My room would no doubt please Eva Braun....the hotel DID please Hitler.


Sopot III

We head from positive-feeling Sejny through more lakelands, lakes connected by artful lock-filled canals, through Augustow (a sort of Bemidji, Minnesota in summer filled with people carrying rubber beach toys and kayaks) then through deep deep forests into Bialystok. Somewhere around here my aunt and uncle (I called Pawpaw and Aunt Byrd) had purchased a forest after Pawpaw, quite a rich man, had been forced near bankruptcy by prohibition (and the end of the stave business in which he had made a fortune)....they were bound for Montreal to board the old liner STEFAN BATORY when they received the news that Molotov and Ribbentrop had divided Poland...that their forest was now in the USSR.....and somewhere, perhaps on our drive, it must still stand. If I could find the deeds somewhere I could perhaps make a Bialystok lawyer's day to try and reclaim!

Bialystok (the "l" has a cross on it so the pronunciation is essentially
byaw-is-toke) was the Tsarist equivalent of German Lodz: a great textile center. The noble Braniscki family had a large palace here around which the town grew....mostly Jewish (something like 80% at the beginning of the end)....It has a wildly extravagant history.....from being Tsarist, it was for a short time at the end of WW1 the "capital" of Soviet Poland...ruled by the local biggie Red Felix Dzierzynski (who was the head of Lenin's first and perhaps most dreaded GPU-NKVD-KGB and other morphs)....his rule (he spoke to the masses from the balcony of the Branickich Palace, was replaced by that of Pilsudski, the Polish patriot from who actually mostly Lithuanian by roots from up the road......The nicest person I could find who was BORN in Bialystok was Ludwik Zamenhof the creator of ESPERANTO, which surely is one of history's most noble failures.

Polish people seem to laugh at Bialystok folk for their accents and for the fact that their city (much like Lodz) is unlovely. Unlike Lodz, it IS a backwater though it has a university. We stayed at a mammoth former state hotel which has a tropical theme park with waterslides (all inside...this is the coldest part of the whole nation) and an olympic pool. There is not much to see but we made the best of it. The ARMY Museum has THE Enigma Machine which the Polish underground found and which helped immeasurably in the Allied cause in WW2 breaking codes......There is an absolutely wrenchingly simple monument where the Great Synagogue, one of the largest in the world, was burned with, it is said, 2,000 of the religionists inside it.

Bialystok made a great base though for travels towards the Belarus Frontier. Poland and Belarus are sniping a good bit at each other. Belarus has a largely denied Polish minority (their large city of Grodno has a Polish majority) while Poland is giving its Belarus minority full rights: education, religion, etc. It is tense feeling at the actual border and one feels at the end of the earth there. We drove EAST and then on ghastly country roads, some of the only ones in Europe I can remember with no paving, through absolutely the TAIL END OF THE KNOWN EUROPEAN WORLD....past a goose collective which must have had 10,000 of the winged beasts....and into Kruszyniamy, a tatar-muslim village. We were lucky in finding the imam at the mosque, a dour, asiatic looking though rather welcoming soul who opened the mosque, walked us up the hill to the cememtery (for Tatars from all over Poland come to be is huge, beautifully situated under linden trees).....These mongol peoples have been around the area for a long time....the village traces back to 1386....and here they sit still, unmolested by Nazi, Polish fascist, Soviet or do-gooders.

We drive north to the local big town, KRYNKI...and the little villages, mostly with wooden houses with an enormous number of huge stork nests, feel like shtetls...they WERE....a land right out of I.B. Singer, a land now of ghosts. Krynki is a spooky place. The imam told us that before the 2nd world war it had 10,000 people, 8,000 of whom were Jews. Today the synagogue building is a disused cinema with an old poster for GONE WITH THE WIND in tatters but recognizable. Back to Bialystok and a swim....

We leave in the morning to the famous synagogue town of Tykocin: it is one town where the synagogue (a slightly baroque-looking late gothic heap) is larger than the church. The Radziwill family came from around here and some of these Polish magnates apparently paid the Nazis NOT to destroy the edifice when they murdered the local here it sits: a great building serving no purpose than to be a pilgrimage site for Israeli youth coming to Poland.

We arrived about 20 minutes early and the renitent shrew who is the director would not let us in. I had a bit of a malefic fit.....then cross country to one of the most chilling sites in Europe, the small town (it is larger than a village) of Jebwabne. Here, in total contrast to the townspeople of Sejny, a group of vigilante-Ku Klux Klan type of local farmer/trouble makers committed one of the most horrible acts in a period of horrible acts. The town had been awarded to the USSR by the Molotov Ribbentrop pact...but was almost on the border of the General Government, the part of Poland which was under German control. When the local Vigliantes heard that the Germans were attacking Russia and BEFORE the Germans got there, they rounded up over 100 of the town's Jews, herded them into a barn and set it ablaze. For many years it was assumed that the Germans had done this....for the Nazi Einsaztgruppen did such things with abandon. Only when some honest townspeople began to tell the real story did the truth come out. The story was greatly publicized all over Poland (and the world...but the world doesn't listen very closely I fear) and the story has done much to teach the Polish people of those times....I hope that the gruesome happening (a mass lynching if you will) will be a historical purgative. There is absolutely no doubt that the Polish people are becoming intensely interested in their lost Jewish fellow countrymen today. At Jebwabne (and it is far from a main road) there were scores of Poles who had come to the simple, stirring monument (including a shard of the burned barn) to pay their respects. It was somehow an intensely personal place to visit and while my reaction may be illusory I came away feeling better about Poland.

You are probably deep in sleep...but one more follows!


Sopot II

Swieta Lipka was for me a different kind of mental purging from Stutthof.
The church in retrospect is this: a lovely baroque shell then done to death (it is the religious equivalent of a new Las Vegas hotel) with the wrong colors (blue and green to replicate I suppose malachite), gold which is too shiny, overrestored ugly religious paintings and frescoes.....I am sure that the Polish Americans from Hamtramck or Ypsilanti or wherever love the place.

Now we drive through the pretty lakelands, through the town the Poles call Kestrzyn (pronounced ken-shin more or less) to Gierlos....this in the Nazi times would have been through the Prussian town of Rastenburg to the Wolf's Lair headquarters of Hitler. I had pictured the area unpopulated, deeply forested, possessing a feeling of never never land. It isn't quite that.

Of course the headquarters site is in a thick copse (rather than great forest), one across which nets could be strung as camouflage to change with the seasons. The actual site of the Stauffenburg attempt on Hitler's life is a great pile of concrete....a rock crusher-like feeling...and what one makes out of it is what one brings to it. I was chilled. Even though the attempt was too little vastly too late (no one much tried to slay him while the Nazis were winning), had the attempt succeeded maybe a million people or their descendents would still be alive. Lodz, for example, had still over 100,000 in the ghetto when the attempt was made.

We drive down to the road to a tidy, rather suburban looking villa on a pretty lake: here was the house of Eva Braun. where Hitler could sneak away to from that farrago of military/political buildings....where Hitler could exult in his vegetarianism, play with his dog, possibly have sex with Frl Braun and be his other self. It was just odd as hell to sleep where SHE slept. From all reports she was a colorless little entity possibly with a bust size larger than her IQ....still, it felt odd to sleep in her house and to eat a Wienerschnitzel where Hitler had his mass of greens. Adam went swimming in the reedy lake and I ruminated.

The next morning we drove away on especially back lanes, stopping at the German actual MILITARY headquarters where there are still intact bunkers to explore and towers to ascend.....I ascended one, Adam several....then almost cheek-jowl along the Russian border (remember East Prussia was divided between Russia and Poland...) through Goldap (a scraggly place full of Russian whores who have come over for the day for the Polish largesse)....through intensely pretty countryside, rolling...out of what WAS German into what WAS Tsarist Russia and later intrinsically Poland....The area knmown as the Suwalszczyna...the land of the great writer Czeslaw Milosz, my favorite Polish author, for me a sort of combination of Faulner and Welty but in a highly agrarian Polish sense.

His NEW YORKER stories are fine, his novels magnificent, (he is a Nobelist), his poetry pretty damned obscure (but maybe it is the translation?) any rate, I felt him, FELT HIM as we wandered along.... passing a great double railway viaduct that the Germans had built in expectation of having a rail line east, now serving as a cynosure for picnics, etc. We head along the now-Lithuanian frontier to the remarkable town of Sejny.....the seat of a lovely mostly baroque church and one of the prettiest classical synagogues which remains in Poland.

I liked Sejny: the people of the town came together to restore the synagogue (which the Nazis had turned into a fire station) in deference to their slain Jewish compatriots.....a site perhaps unique in Poland....and today Sejny is the headquarters of the Borderland Association, a group to foster ties and exchanges with the Lithuanians and Belarussians for both borders almost abut the town....the town also has a well known Klezmar band which apparently (and to the pride of the town) came in second in a Klezmar competition in Brooklyn!.....a klezmar band minus Jews of course.


Northeastern Poland

Sopot, August is about 930 AM, the sky is steel colored as is the Baltic out my window: they seem to merge...and maybe Copernicus was wrong?

These notes will start a longish report and I figure it will bore you to death. I write these lines for myself...for future writing....and you, dear friend, just happen to be stuck with my musings.

Adam Serbinowski and I started out at 900 AM and drove to Stutthof....the particularly heinous (and somewhat forgotten) camp which the Nazis in Gdansk had actually started (as they did with their list of intellectuals- socialists-all Jews etc) while the city was still under the protection of the League of Nations. On the way, we drive past the former villa of the local gauleiter, FORSTER, with great hunting grounds. He was the malefic type of guy who would stock the woods with deer and wild boar and then kill then along with guest Nazi factota from Berlin. Stutthof, like the other camps I have seen, sits in pretty this case on a long sandy spit with weeping willows and Lorraine poplars all over the place...And yet, (perhaps it is what we brought to it) the place exerts a chill as we walk up to the main gate. No "Arbeit Mach Frei" here...merely a couple of watch towers and then barracks stretching almost to the horizon.

The ground here is particularly sandy and devoid of nutrients and this contributed to the general dysentary experienced by the prionsers. The "hospital" block was merely a killing field. A series of films are shown, oddly dispassionate for no adjectives are needed. After the initial complement of Gdansk Free City prisoners, others started arriving deracinated from as far away as Vienna....and slowly, methodically, the place turned into a killing center. When the Red Army had taken Koenigsburg (Kaliningrad) and were headed towards Stutthof, the living prisoners were marched out into still wet snow (many barefoot) for forced marches toward Germany. Again, I wonder at my motive for coming to such a place...but I feel like I am making a memorial to the victims. Stutthof must be remembered. It is probably the largest death camp where the majority of those murdered were not Jews.

We drove silently (Adam possesses the great quality of not having to make
conversation) south....on oak-tree lined country roads...He absolutely understood that I wanted only the back roads and little hamlets. These were mostly German until 1945, red brick, Hanseatic-looking with towering village churches, severe...once protestant of course, now catholic. We drove past some remarkable Frombork and its great Teutonic Knight castle (which our family had visited in our funky little rented Fiat from Sopot 30-odd years ago) and then deeper into Masuria, that land of East Prussia with Minnesota-like lakes and tidy little brick towns.
Terrific churches here and there (Ornata particularly)....and it is gratifying to see that the Polish inhabitants (many here came from what is now firmly Lithuania when the Germans were expelled) are as prim and orderly as the Teutons. There is an absolute noticeable absence of litter.

We head for the great Polish pilgrimage site of Swieta Lipka. Isn't it rather interesting that great miracles happen mostly in Roman Catholic regions? Hmmm......This site has to do with some poor clod who was a prisoner of the Teutonic Knights but who was released and who in gratitude placed a statue of the Virgin Mother on a lime which subsequent people came and were cured of this and that. The site is between two pretty little lakes....and is a baroque explosion, almost shocking after the inorante brick of the villages. There is a quite wonderful wrought iron gate (which has been painted a sort of nile green...the church hereabouts has no more taste than it does in LR where they put astroturf on the steps)..Inside is the predictable throng of mostly older women with Pillsbury Doughboy faces all looking reverent...a huge organ (fanciful too...done by a famous Jewish organ maker from Koenigsburg in the early 18th century) is playing with many objects on it jumping about not quite in synch....ah, a baroque Disneyland....and I feel a little guilty at being so fractious about a place which pleases the local masses so.

- F

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Arrival in Sopot

Sopot Thursday evening Aug 11th, 65 degrees and drizzly...

It is so dejavu all over again to be here at the Grand Hotel (where Hitler lounged after he took Gdansk to start the 2nd world war). I have a huge old fashioned room with a balcony overlooking the steel gray Baltic. A bathroom big enough for a convetion and the oddest bidet of my travels. So all is still right in the world.

I will write about my trip to Northern Poland in sections.

I feel as though I have been as close to the edge of the earth as I felt in Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. Northeast Poland is a glorious/evocative/often troubling/quite riveting place. First of all, the driver was a friend for life. His name is Adam Serbenowski, 36, who is recently separated from his wife and 10 year old son, a guy working now as an actuary (and making semi big bucks) but who was an English teacher for 3-4 years and misses using the language. He showed up in a splendid Nissan hatchback....all up to snuff. Adam is average height, slighter but with a strong build, a roman nose, a shaved head, good strong eyes...good looking but modest.....and his English knows all of the idioms and even latest sayings like "designated driver" and older ones like "move it or milk it." The only caveat is that his sense of direction is terrible...but we had good maps and I am a dandy navigator. We took only BACK roads...little 1 1/2 lane (at most) pavements which wandered through the Masury lakelands and into the borderlands with first Russia (the Kaliningrad district), Lithuania and finally Belarus. We saw sights from Hitler's assassination spot to the memorial for the Jewabne pogrom to the largest muslim village in Poland and I want to write about these places in a day or two to come. MASURKAS did a fabulous job of hotels...and in finding Adam....I really NEED to sleep and reflect before I can be remotely cogent. It is fun after just over 30 years to be in Sopot again...all grown up and oddly chic (especially after the ultra boonies of the last few days)...and I so remember such a happy family time here then. All goes awfully well...the Grand is dedicating a computer room to me at no cost (Poles continue to floor me with their frequent little courtesies) prepare to be bored beyong screaming.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

August 6th Gdansk

August 6th Gdansk....cloudless skies...then biting cold rain...then a sky and light right out of Vermeer....

The Dominican Fair in Gdansk is the local equivalent of LR's Riverfest with lots of people walking around eating waffles topped with schlag....the locals call them gofrys....(from gauffre?)....all kinds of folk groups entertaining...I am drawn to an authentic Sioux American troupe...all dressed out in buckskins (which looks like ultrasuede) wearing lavish headdresses of birds which probably never were. After their odd performance on Polish Radio, I speak with one of the real Americans: He can only speak Portuguese and one wonders if Vasco De got up the Missouri.

Everyone good natured. A lovely young woman stops me on the street (I am wearing a slicker Ellison gave me 20 years ago with SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE on it) to announce that she has applied to Sarah Lawrence, is Lithuanian and hopes that they will receive her in 2007!

Dinner tonight...the last splurge:

Amusement: A salmon carpaccio with dill...a vodka with a good Hevelius local beer...
First: Ecrevisse in a saffron sauce with little puff pastry doo-dahs
Main: A veal breast wrapped around feta, wild mushrooms and spinach (maybe
Dessert: Wild raspberries on a vanilla ice (not ice cream)with schlagobers and diced mint espresso and the obligatory Danziger Goldwasser (the latter makes me sneeze...I walk across the street to the Marina and sneeze for 20 minutes)

Poland is not what you think.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Gdansk Aug 5th

Gdansk Aug 5th, sunny, chilly.

A quick note or two only today...Took the train west just to sample the Pomeranian countryside: rolling, pleasing,deep forest copses, rich looking land with wheat and what looks to my urban eyes as peas....but surely not vast fields of them? Went to Slupsk which is pronounced SWOOPSK and is right enjoyable to say! It's a formerly mostly German town (and looks it), one of the few in the area which seems relatively unscathed by WWII....a rather nice local museum with the usual armor, stuffed birds, farm implements...but this one having a good picture gallery with early 20th century Polish stuff, some nice pieces, lots of portraits somehow greatly influenced by Egon Schiele.

Came back to Gdansk and wandered the streets...for the Dominican Market, a street market which is supposed to have gone back to the 13th century....who can count?...which explains all of the kitsch in every visible direction...lots of buskers about though which is fun. I had thought of buying my beloved granddaughter Jane something nice in amber but there is so damned much amber around that nothing looks very pretty. We'll see.

In Gdansk they are making a huge thing out of the 40th anniversary of SOLIDARITY and well they should...some terrific political posters around...I learn too that they are going to open the house of the Nazi boss of Danzig (Forster) to the public as a sort of chamber of horrors...He was a particularly bad one: He had helped organize a long list of locals (socialists/poles/jews of course/intellectuals to be arrested immediately when the invasion (he was in the loop)....they had already staked out the notorious STUTTHOF camp, one of the really worst ones, which I will visit on my way Sunday to the Wolf's Lair at Rastenburg....I am keen to stay there in Eva Braun's bungalow....maybe there are ghosts...(Unity Mitford said that Eva had absolutely "no conversation.").

The question for the day:

Czy moj polski jest tok zly????


Gdansk, August 4th

I woke with heavy rain and cold, Arkansas-like late November cold, weather. A good day to spend in museums and a good day to be in a city and not in the hinterlands. First to the Narodowe Museum, a great gothic heap restored from ashes.....lots and lots of gothic madonnas (after a while they look a bit like medieval barbie dolls), a Wal-Mart full of precious porcelain (though the early Delft...and not all blue...was something)...but what knocked me on my ass was the first Hans Memling Triptych. The huge thing was commissioned by the Medicis' banker...and was hijacked on its way to Italy by the Kapers, those Danzig pirates underwritten by the local oligarchy (they were Scots, Poles, Prussian, Kashubian and Lithuanian pirates.....the 15th-16th century equivalent of Air America/)...the great hulk of this triptych languished in Gdansk until Napoloean stole it after was returned to Danzig...then stolen again by the Nazis...only to be found in the DDR deep in a Thuringian air tight cave by the Russians...and returned again. It is larger than life and is bound to give anyone a nifty frisson....The center panel is all about the Second Coming of Christ, to the right is the left is heaven (a nice twist)...the angles and archangels are massive, the normal people lilluputian. I sat there for such a long time that the guard came up and asked, I think, if I were ill. The museum's other biggie is the only round painting Breughel Daddy ever did...and it, too is a glory. Afterwards I went to the mass at the Dominican Church, a great gothic heap, the only big builidng not blitzed in the liberation....a fine organ but a rather saturnine and definitely jejune congregation considering it is Poland.

Coming out of the mass the skies cleared almost biblically and again we are dealing with a sky which looks irradiated....again Magritte sans hats.

I spooked around the other good hotel, the HANZA, which rather artfully blends into the Hanseatic facades along the waterfront....and inside is a very successful blend of fake gothic and Lipschitz-like sculpture....I had a bar dinner....a vodka and local Hevelius beer (gassy but ok the beer)...then a chlodnik, a soup of veal reducation with almost hard boiled egg and smoked ham all nicely served in a lovely bread basket....then chicken somehow....and a good espresso. Again I am struck by how inately chic these people have, especially when I consider that the Gdansk guy is a sort of NEW Pole, the equivalent in the USA of someone living west of Ft Smith, with few aristocratic blood lines.

I can see why the Viennese treasure their Polish friends while the Germans, the non-Viennese-Austrians, the Russians all seem to loathe the Poles, very possibly for this natural if cositive chic. I sit by a window and the sky has turned cerulean with the pinkish clouds looking unlike our pinkish sunset clouds.

The day's malaprop on a poster involving the Polska Philharmonika Baltyka; an English transation. "The September premiere will reveal a punctuated Bartok."

So much for Gdansk today.


Friday, August 05, 2005

Gdansk 08/04

When the sun shines, the city shines with an efullugence which makes the spots jump around in the eyes!....Gdansk/Danzig was never very large....when it was the League of Nations Free City it barely had 400,000 people...and yet its historical role is mammoth....and not just the 20th century years. The Gdansk merchant class were as rich as pompous as the Spanish court in the 15th and 16th century, building great mansions and guildhalls, the renaissance rooms being lovingly restored and stuffed with the oddest things.

Neptune of course was huge and the fountains/bricabrac/furniture with Neptunian themes abound. Red was the color of choice in things...perhaps because winter up here is no doubt extremely monochrome. The city had huge minorities then: there are two sections of town called "Old" and "New" Scotland...a large and rather patrician Jewish community which the Nazis of course obliterated...even the odd Arab and Chinese: Such was the city's trade.

The inventor idiot-savant Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer here (and gave the United States of America a way of telling the weather which separates us from every single other bit of the known world). Schopenhauer was born here but his allegiance oddly was more to Poland than to Prussia which irritated Potsdam to the quick. I am a little chary of too much Malthus talk about place vs personality (how in God's name to explain the Zulus?) but some things seem for sure. Danzig/Gdansk produced rebels/heretics by the score. Look at Lech Walesa as the most recent example. He who is unfortunately alive and not martyred, he who was chucked out much as Churchill was. It's in the soil? It's in the air? One thing is for damned sure, the light here is wrenchingly beautiful when the sun does shine.

OK that's Gdansk for the moment. All is not bliss. The more highly restored areas are frantically popular with Polish tourists as ugly as any...street martkitchstands-and people do wander around rather distressingly eating ice cream cones and carrying balloons. There is enough amber to turn the world a hepatitis-yellow and much is sure to be fake. (The test: rub a kleenex on a piece of it...if light paper then adheres magnet-fashion, it is real). There are no antiques though: Too many wars, rapes, expulsions. The Soviets tried to move as many of the Poles out of their "liberated" city of Vilnius (Wilno) as possible and leave it to the Lithuanians. Many of these people ended here. One hopes in this century that these horrible sweeps of people might stop...I thought they had with Hitler and Stalin...but then came Bosnia and then came Rwanda. The Poles though have no one much in their borders to hate and I am sure it rather bewilders them.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Gdansk 08/03

Gdansk Wednesday Aug 3rd......700 PM.....the day has been in the 70s and alternates sunny (that Rene Magritte "umbrella" sky without the umbrellas) and moody....just right!

Today has been discovering the past, often the recent past. I took a little ferryboat to Westerplatte, the lovely green spit which guards Gdansk's harbor where the Nazis in their huge battleship Schleswig Holstein fired the first shots of the 2nd World War, September 1st, 1939.

Gdansk, lying where the mighty Vistula River which comes from the Tatras above Krakow and goes through Warsaw, empties into the Baltic. It has been a major place for a thousand years and Frederick the Great said whomever owned Danzig owned Poland. Hitler must have read his mentor. Today at Westerplatte, around the quite gruesome Socialist-realist monument to the martyred Polish defenders, there were two large German tour groups.....both noisy (endemic to groups) but particular hideous and largely pinquid. I was reminded of Japanese tourists on that boat trip I took to Pearl Harbor. The nerve! Not only were the Polish Westerplatte troops martyred, so were the workers in the city's Polish Post event so well done by that German-Kashubian (a local minor Slavic tribe) great Grunter Grass. Poland excels in martyrs.....Grass was born in Gdansk when it was the Free City of Danzig (a League of Nations invention) and even though German was his language he is revered here and he is not even dead---yet. The Poles like the Viennese do seem to prefer their heroes to be dead though a fair number of them are alas also chronic.

Aside: I also went to about a half dozen major churches today including St Mary's said to be the largest brick building in the entire world. It was ashes after the Soviet Liberation.....and the restoration as commented before is beyond brilliant. I wonder though about the role of the church. I noticed in Quebec that the almighty church has essentially become a tool of just weddings and funerals after the Anglicanization threat passed. Now that the Polish Pope is dead (and the mightily unsympathetic...and Bavarian to boot....Benedict rules), now that Communism is gone, I wonder if slowly the Church here will become just baptism, weddings and funerals.
It seemed to be me possible. Where once in Polish churches at almost any time of day there were throngs praying, today the crowds were sparse and remarkably prolish looking. If Rome loses the Polish spirit there will be a gap as big as Texas.

See, being in a city full of thoughts sure turns the juices on more than such vapid pits as Singapore and Dubai.

When the sun shines, the city shines with an efullugence which makes the spots jump around in the eyes! Gdansk/Danzig was never very large. When it was the League of Nations Free City it barely had 400,000 people, and yet its historical role is mammoth - and not just the 20th century years. The Gdansk merchant class were as rich as pompous as the Spanish court in the 15th and 16th century, building great mansions and guildhalls, the renaissance rooms being lovingly restored and stuffed with the oddest things. Neptune of course was huge and the fountains/bricabrac/furniture with Neptunian themes abound.

Red was the color of choice in things, perhaps because winter up here is no doubt extremely monochrome. The city had huge minorities then: there are two sections of town called "Old" and "New" Scotland, a large and rather patrician Jewish community which the Nazis of course obliterated and even the odd Arab and Chinaman: Such was the city's trade. The inventor idiot-savant Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer here (and gave the United States of America a way of telling the weather which separates us from every single other bit of the known world, a situation not likely to change with our present yahoo government). Schopenhauer was born here but his allegiance oddly was more to Poland than to Prussia which irritated Potsdam to the quick. I am a little chary of too much Malthus talk about place vs personality (how in god's name to explain the Zulus?) but some things seem for sure. Danzig/Gdansk produced rebels/heretics by the score. Look at Lech Walesa as the most recent example. He who is unfortunately alive and not martyred, he who was chucked out much as Churchill was. It's in the soil? It's in the air? One thing is for damned sure, the light here is wrenchingly beautiful when the sun does shine.

OK that's Gdansk for the moment. All is not bliss. The more highly restored areas arerantically popular with Polish tourists as ugly as any...street martkitchstands-and people do wander around rather distressingly eating ice cream cones and carrying balloons. There is enough amber to turn the world a hepatitis-yellow and much is sure to be fake. (The test: rub a kleenex on a piece of it...if light paper then adheres magnet-fashion, it is real)....there are no antiques though: too many wars, rapes, expulsions. The Soviets tried to move as many of the Poles out of their "liberated" city of Vilnius (Wilno) as possible and leave it to the Lithuanians. Many of these people ended here. One hopes in this century that these horrible sweeps of people might stop...I thought they had with Hitler and Stalin...but then came Bosnia and then came Rwanda. The Poles though have no one much in their borders to hate and I am sure it rather bewilders them.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Arrival in Gdansk

August 2nd...arrival in Gdansk....

Magic has returned to my life. When I last saw Gdansk it was still largely in ruins...and that was I believe in the early 70s...well, the Poles have done an astonishing job. They are said to be the finest RESTORERS in the world...just look at what they did in Warsaw...and in moving Abu Simbel...but what is here will take anyones' breath away: the old Hanseatic angles, the lavish red brick (the largest red brick building on earth is the St Marys here), the odd wonderful is quite breathtaking...and I haven't really had time yet to prowl.

My little Podewils Hotel is a find...located right on the old Marina (with lots of pretty yachts and schooners from around the world) overlooking the skyline of Hanseatic facades across the narrow room is sort of chintz with a big portrait of someone's gt gt grandfather and huge furniture which is vaguely Biedermeier....the staff falls all over itself...sensational malaprop after malaprop in English..."your boat tomorrow goes from here is leaves. Understand?" all with a huge smile. "Yes your laundry can be done for clothes must be closed."

Dinner in a few minutes and that will be interesting...hope that they have something Polish. I remember a famous dinner with Tina with friends in Warsaw: it consisted of a few slices of smoked salmon and gallons of Wyborowa....and I remember Tina Poe sitting at the Bristol Hotel the next morning swearing that we were indeed having an earthquake...hmmmm.....The elan is all here, the lovely Polish wryness...but add to that a new outlook: my GOD a huge IKEA store is across the street from the tidy little Lech Walesa Airport.

I am trying to figure out Polish diacritical LODZ can be Walesa can be far I have not prevailed...the name of a nearby Gdansk suburb defeats me: wreszcz with a diacritical mark on the e to created an "n" sound...hmmmmm again...

off to dinner...

Now a report on dinner....

Well, it turns out that Podewils is famous in N Europe for its kitchen....some Parisian food writer said that there were "two great restaurants east of Liege" is Stikalai in Vilnius which I know well and the other is Podewils. Here is dinner:

5 breads are brought with an "amusement" which turns out to be a perfect little quenelle of Marsurian pike (The Masuria area of former E Prussia is just SE of here and is much like Minnesota in the lake dept)....three with dill, one with garlic, one with beetroot....the breads ethereal...

I order the Polish soup...not a borscht but rather a very intense veal stock with wild mushrooms and bits of smoked ham. Then the pork with boletus. I ask what in the hell a boletus is. I get the same answer Elisabeth Spiola gives when asked "what is tarhanya?" Elisabeth's answer: "Tarhanya IST tarhanya!". Well, Boletus is a local cepe and unlike some which are greasy and limp this one is huge and assertive and takes of the wild. The pork is a thin skirt steak which has been marinated in vodka and some kind of berries known only to Balts....and it is served with fresh white asparagus and pommes anna (ala Antoine's in their glory days)....

Dessert is another mysterious northern berry in a custard flan....with coffee and a local liqueur made of yet another berry. The whole dinner quite green in the current parlance...and sensational. It also ain't cheap...with a glass of Wyborowa and a glass of a mid priced Cabernet from the Cote du Rhone dinner tops $100 minus tip - barely. Will dine here ONCE more on the trip....this time to try his idea of the "fusion of Japan, Provence and Vienna".....(sounds like our buddy Micheal Coudenhove Kalergi whose grandfather was the emperor of Japan's brother...and who knows lives in Tokyo).

Fred is amused...Fred is happy.....Fred is drunk but reeling instead from fellow diners were from Hamburg, Neuilly sur Seine, Warsaw and Vienna and they were a trencherman lot...and, dear friends, Poland is not quite what you think.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Au secours...Imdat...Hilfe for I am surrounded by Bavarians

Munich Airport Aug 2nd...Lufthansa is about 70 degrees and clouds and after Dubai's wretched air and awful heat I feel that God smiles on the world even if it IS Bavaria!

More about Dubai; The opulent vulgarity of the Bellagio like Taj Palace being the high point, everything else was heinous. The airport is unbelievable...and not just the policy of having to pay baksheesh to get through passport control having taken me 1 hour and 18 minutes surrounded by bad air conditioning and much deodorant walks and walks...goes inexplicably up stairs and down others...yes there are escalators and moving sidewalks but it is like boarding mechanical devices to get through a maze.....departure is worse....there was no snorkel for my airbus so a full complement of passnegers had to cram into a bus and then sit here and there broiling for 20 odd minutes....whereupon, at the arrival of the plane, those A type Bavarians knock one out of the way to reach the steps.

Emirates is badly overrated...the airbus used on most flights to Europe has a very cramed 2 3 2 seating in opposed to everyone else's 2 2 2.,...first class has 8 seats and everyone sitting up there was of the "more equal than others" crowd....the menu looked good, the nice steward whom I think was Egyptian TRIED but the food had little taste....more for show.....even though a lobster tail is daring airline food....and the cheeses were first rate....the champagne was from an unknown house though it WAS champers....acidy tasting....the reds were C minus....I can hardly wait to spread the word about ego mad Emirates.

CHANGING planes in 'Dubai might not be horrid...but a couple of guys I talked to said that Emirates had a lousy lost bag record and these guys are stuck with flying it often.

It was a fine flight from a viewers point: Baghdad off to the right in a haze of dust-sand...Aleppo, maybe the oldest city in the world, I place I like enormously, sitting in its natural bowl in the semi desert...then the fabulously wild Taurus Mts of Turkey....east of Ankara and over the Black Sea...then Transylvania looking green and cool. Vienna looking bright and ravishing in the sun....and now to Munich to its new and physically imposing and especially workable airport, arguably now the best in Europe. The Kempinski, cool and Teutonic with a sort of take of mock-modern-biedermeier furniture, very decent. It's the best airport hotel I know other than 'Vancouver' Grand Fairmont....all right in the world.

Again I puzzled at the people who didn't look from the plane window...even over Iraq.....maybe they think they're over Chad.....Off to Gdansk in an hour and knowing that the people will be ever so much more sympathetic than these Putzi Hanfstaengls who surround me now.....


Monday, August 01, 2005

Yes Dubai Does Exist is Aug 1st, I am in the Emirate's VIP is 650 AM and already over 90 degrees going up to a purported 110....sure it is dry...but an egg will fry on your egg.

I arrived at the Taj late late late but it was all rectified by the most opulent suite since the Noel Coward in Bangkok's Oriental....a HUGE living room (maybe 750 sq ft) with everything electrical known to Edison and Bill Gates....a bedroom almost as large with a mammoth sultan-sized the bathroom, a complete 4 person SAUNA (a first), a huge jacuzzi tub big enough for four, enough products to stock a Walgreens....all complimentary on top of the minimum rate I was paying...they sent up a fruit basket (ugh) though it had lovely local dates in it (the one thing which Dubai seems to actually produce)...and then at 500 AM a guy who whispers softly for a wakeup call (no phone call) and has laid a great breakfast on my dining room table off the living is all quite absurd, appar. very Dubai....and I felt like the highest roller at "poshest" Las Vegas hotel.


Left singapore on time and flew wrenchingly over the Aceh tip of Sumatra...I could almost peerceive of the swath of the tsunami...then the fun started as we approached India (which is having the worse monsoon in 90 years): we were a bucking bronco in the sky. It certainly was not SQ's fault and they managed to serve a lovely oriental luncheon....part of which ended up on the ceiling of the plane in one of the big downdrafts...people PAY for such a ride at the State Fair....I was not totally amused....then arrival Dubai: the storm had somehow jammed the cargo doors on the Boeing....and after the heinous hour of going through passport control here (it is wickedly can PAY a type of baksheesh to be "edpedited" but I heard George Orwell whispering to me about "more than equal" there was a 3 hour wait as they jimmied with the door and finally opened it manually which takes winding up a 120 day clock the nice Singapore rep allowed....YES dear Yasir from Peshawar was waiting still after all of this time to whisk me to the Taj Palace and the rest is history per above.

I did not walk in Dubai..I had been here once before....what's to find in a city built more quickly than Cammack Village was. The whole thing is so ghastly that it will take me a bit of time to ingest the horrors. In my living room were the local publications...the SOIREE/Town and Country types...all involving cosmetic surgery, renewal spas, dentists, new restaurants and useless consumer goods.

Nice Yasir told me that of the 700,000 people living here (there are over 3 Mil in the Emirates...and Abu Dahbi is still the capital) opnly 20% are real Emiratis (or whatever they call themselves) a class they don't seem quite as obnoxious as the Kuwaitis up the sea....but Yasir says after 5 years here he hasn't ONE local friend. The entire economy seems based on multi nationals at the top (no European looks over 35 years old), about 5 times as many serfs (Paks, Indians, Sri Lankans, Banglas, Philippinos)....and the whole thing strikes me as one big sickness.

I am sure if I lived here I would find good company (there were awfully nice people from Dubai on ARANUI...French) but the weather is so ghastly, the scrim of sand seems to semi-obliterate the sky, the architecture is so silly.....I would require every Duabi-ite to read THOREAU....

I am about to fly to Munich...that place which seems to have given birth to everyting rotten in German history (remember Hitler the Austrian was a shocking failure in his own land)....but there one can breathe.....

All of this costs a lot of money and I need a bit of sangfroid to justify it.


A Second Take on Singapore

Singapore July is 945 AM and already about 85 degrees with the humidity of a soiled diaper.....

Before getting into Singapore some final thoughts on the vastness of
Australia....especially when flown across on the bias! I know that from
six miles above, not much of a land can be felt. Those prevailing colors of kaolin-ecru/beige/a muted burnt siena were pretty sopoforic...and yes below were aboriginal settlements (blenging organically into the whole), no doubt roos and dingos and emus and camels (imported). Still, despite the visual torpor of things I can't not take my eyes from an airplane window. I remember so many stunning sights from 5-6 miles up: the most amazing aurora borealis, Kabul burning, Venice from on high. I don't understand how anyone can NOT look out of the window. What if we crashed and LIVED (and the solipsim in me suggests I would): how would one know where they were? The Captain mentioned AYERS ROCK way off to the south...that rocky monolith which so many travelers go 2000 miles to see (possibly because it is the only thing of prominence to see in the boring landscape ala Sedona, Arizona?)...the guy across from me didn't even look out. It sure reminded me of one of the better moments between clients in the old days at Poe Travel:
"Where did you go on vacation?"
"The Cayman Islands"
"Where are they?"
"I don't know, we flew."
It is one of my oft told stories but one which is true true true.

Yesterday I was determined to find worth in Singapore. The Brits took these marshy bottoms at about the same time Little Rock was being founded (1820), drained some stuff, built their great city to protect their routes to the spices and the opium....the Portuguese and Dutch had sailed past for almost 300 years but never bothered for the landscape was daunting. The Brits found a people who were Malay-Indonesian (the two languages seem as close as Danish to Swedish) and as the city was founded attracted masses of Chinese from four distinct areas, they are now the chief population.

Through the years the marshes have been drained....a great deal of land has been added (I don't say "reclaimed" because how can something be "re" when it never existed in human history?).....the rest is history. the Japanese came in the back door of Invincible Fortress Singapore, surprising the Brits (I am reminded of those Arkies who were massacred by the Mormons at Mountain Meadows in Utah 80-odd years earlier)...and the Japanese were typically beastly to everone except the large Indian population (as they tried to set up that Axis-friendly state under Bose).....after VJ day Singapore and Malaya joined to form MALAYSIA....Singaore pulled out....Malaysia still has the rather inexplicable "sia" in its name (revanchism?) and here we are.

I was determined to find something of value in this dictatorship. Daddy Li who ruled forever it seems is gone and Baby Li has taken over....sounds like Papa Doc and Baby Doc in Port au Prince except the plumbing works here thank you. The place has been a semi-benevolent dictatorship (OUR kind the CIA might have said in its glory days?) ever since. It is a nation with ridiculous laws, thousands of them....possessing more than 5 stick s of chewing gum is a felony and chewing one is may not drive over the causeway to Johore in Malaysia without a 2/3rd full tank of gas:
buy gas at twice the price in Singapore (Baby Li owns some stations?).....Paul Theroux has written extensively that his forced years in Singapore (to earn a living) were the most painful of his life. Daddy Li had a NPD problem as big as Bill Clinton, Orson Wells or Bolshoi Catherine though Baby Li seems less narcissistic.....and things DO work. I am reminded often of Switzerland (although in that nation most people can not NAME their head of state...if you do not believe me poll some Swiss) but like a perfectly poached egg it is pleasant but gives us relatively little to ponder.

So yesterday was my day to be what my late friend Chris Kazan called a "Kulturmensch": the national museum is closed for renovation but alot of it has been moved into a pompous, wonderful Victorian building called the MUSEUM OF ASIAN CIVILIZATION (how is THAT for a name to put you to sleep?)'s a good place with some very good khmer stuff (I figure local movers and shakers got it all pretty cheaply), some lovely early Chinese porcelains particularly celadon. There was also a traveling show of VATICAN ART but much as Victoria send second rate stuff to the colonies the Vatican seems to follow suit: lots of "ascribed to" stuff, a lot of trash...but nicely displayed. Typical of Singapore: nicely displayed. There is a terrific Singapore History Museum....with only a bit of political cant in it.....a rather darling museum of world philately (I love weird little both the clock museum and the museum of "medieval anatomy" in Vienna.

One gets easily from one place to the next. Taxis are plentiful and air conditioned. The subway is spotless (and it is s MIRACLE when you consider that they excavated through porridge to build it) yet I never thought I would be anyplace where I rather missed graffiti). Lots of buildings look like they had pharoahs as architects. Costs are reasonable, the GOODPARK HOTEL is a find of finds (but the cognescenti of Singapore know it...Raffles is for LA and Texas)...people are pleasant....though a little grizzled Chinese lady tried to charge me double for a liter of water in her vile little shop).....Reading the STRAITS TIMES in the morning has about the oopmh of reading the Pulaski Heights Junior High TIP TOP TIMES of my youth....but if you come to Singapore I will have some A+ notes for you and you may even like the place. I would sure rather live here than in that other dictatorship up north with the golf loving-marilyn monroe-loving monster ghoul in Pyongyang.

Cheerio, FRED