I am back from an unnecessary and lazy break. My first post back will be dedicated to Nola. I don’t think these sorts of pictures need any commentary. This is convenient for me because I’m still the same lazy person that stopped blogging for 3 weeks!
Yesterday I took a day trip to Auschwitz–Oświęcim in Polish–which is about 100km away from Krakow. If some crazy compulsion has made you go to Poland, you should definitely see Auschwitz. I did the English guided tour. The tour guide didn’t say anything spectacular or anything that I didn’t know, but having a tour guide was a big virtue because it forces you to pay attention to everything. All told, the tour was four hours of walking around and seeing.
The only major qualm I have about the tour is that the guide and the text on the walls emphasized that Birkenau was the major death site (Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex-3km away from the main Auschwitz campus).
The blown-up crematoria (blown up by the Nazis as they were fleeing) are still just a big pile of brick and rubble.
This weekend I went to Warsaw to visit a graduate school friend. Going in, my expectations were low: all I had heard about Poland was that Krakow was old and beautiful and Warsaw was gray and ugly.
Warsaw was a totally wonderful surprise. The entire city was leveled (well, dynamited actually) during World War II by the Nazis as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising. So the entire “Old City” and “New City” have been rebuilt to pre-war specifications since then.
I suppose that I assumed that since after World War II Poland became the Sovietized “People’s Republic of Poland” that the city would look like some brutal concrete monstrosity.
To be sure, there are a good number of Soviet-era buildings in the city. But even these have their charms. The Palace of Culture and Science is one of several Stalin-era “palaces” (there are other similar buildings in Moscow). It’s the tallest building in Poland and the first building you are likely to notice when you get out of
Warsaw’s central train station. To Poles, the building probably symbolizes Russian domination. To everyone else, the building’s symbolism isn’t all that much different as the building virtually screams out “hey, look who is in charge here!” Of course, the Russians aren’t in charge now, and the building now houses a multiplex cinema, some radio and TV channels, as well as exhibition spaces. Anyway, my point is that this building–at least from a non-Polish perspective–is visually appealing, imposing, and socially and historically complex.
Despite the efforts of a post 1989 Poland to reorient (or, perhaps, de-Orient) the city toward the west, other traces of Sovietiana can be seen throughout Warsaw. There are friezes in the Soviet Realist style on the sides of some hulking buildings. Really it’s quite ironic to see these sculptures on the sides of buildings that now house western banks.
As you can see, I’m not really sure how to align these two photos properly and parallel to each other.
Anyway, right now I’m overstating the influence of Russia on today’s Poland. The city looks western European in most places, and basically American in other places, which is probably some metaphor for a geopolitical reality.
Greetings from Krakow.
Yesterday I spent a few hours wandering around the Wawel Castle. (Pronunciation guide: in Polish, the “w” makes the sound of the “v” in English, so the castle is pronounced “Vaa-vel.) As the sign says, it is the supreme monument to the Polish nation.
Before it was a supreme monument, it was a basically a royal city situated on a hill above the rest of Krakow. Within the walls of the Wawel complex there is a palace with royal apartments and state rooms. A huge Cathedralthat rivals any in France or Italy in sheer gilded decadence. Underneath the Cathedral there are the tombs of a lot of famous Poles, including every Polish monarch, as well as more modern Polish heroes like Jozef Pilsudski.
Once inside the Cathedral, visitors with steady legs can ascend the belltower. I have been told by more seasoned travelers that this is kind of stupid, but I liked it. The tower is narrow and the stairs are rickety and wooden and the bells are immense. The point of climbing to the top is not to get awesome views of the city (though those are to be had as well), but its to see the Zygmunt Bell. This bell was crafted in the 16th century supposedly from the armor of an army the Poles had defeated. The bell is not rung anymore except on extremely special occasions, and when that happens it takes 10 men to ring it.
To control crowds, there are only a set number of tickets available to some parts of the Wawel complex during the day. I was one of the last twenty to get tickets to the state rooms, and tickets to the private apartments were already sold out. The state rooms were pretty spectactular, though under-explained. The placards–in Polish and in English–didn’t really give visitors a sense of when certain pieces were acquired and why. For instance, I was especially confused about the addition of “first half of twentieth century” Persian rugs that were on every floor. Anyway, much of the castle is in an Italian Renassiance style since a 16h century Polish king commissioned the Italian architect Giovanni Trevano and the painter Tomasso Dolabella to carry out a restoration of the castle. There is also a large collection of Dutch art. My favorite room was the “Envoys Room,” which used to hold sessions of the “Lower House.” The ceiling of this room , which dates to the mid 16th century, has thirty wood-engraved heads staring down to the floor.
Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed in the interior of any of Wawel, so I can only leave you with links to the wikipedia pages above which have some pictures.
This afternoon we are off to Warsaw to visit a friend and to see the funeral of Bronislaw Geremek, who was important in the Solidarity movement.
Those of you who knew me as an undergrad know that I’ve seen a lot of monuments in my day. Hell, my senior thesis was basically a study of monuments and memorials around Richmond. But I’ve also seen my fair share in Atlanta and Boston, Arkansas, Florida and wherever else there are side-of-the-road plaques or town-center obelisks that people usually walk right past.
But yesterday in London, I discovered a new favorite. Right outside the Marble Arch coach/bus pickup there is a striking memorial to animals that died in war:
The somewhat unusual subject matter (unknown horses don’t usually get the same amount of granite as an unknown soldier), coupled with the high drama of the structure makes it a great monument. First of all, it is a monument to “all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Lets take a look at that sentence. First, it smacks you with the fact that not only did these animals die, but they died along with soldiers. Maybe they died next to the soldier. Maybe they provided comfort to a soldier during his last moments on earth.
Secondly, an era which produces a monument to animals seems to me like it would be a particularly ecumenical era–one that would not care to only memorialize British animals. So we are reminded that animals died under the banner of different flags as well. However, I am somewhat troubled by the fact that this is only a monument to British and allied animals. If, as the granite tells us, these animals “had no choice” then surely it should be a monument to non-allied animals as well.
Moving on: Though the bas-relief letters say “ANIMALS IN WAR”, the inscription underneath reminds us that animals have died in both wars and campaigns, which, when you think of it, is probably no surprise. But its good to be reminded of it anyway. Even smaller military missions, or perhaps just “expeditions” of sorts produce both animal and human casualties.
Finally-and this is my favorite part of the monument–the last portion of the inscription tells us that this is a memorial to working animals that have died “throughout time.” Now, those of us who think about wars probably have a pretty ready image of World War I or World War II, or possibly Vietnam in our heads. But these wars probably represented conflicts in which the fewest amount of animals were killed. The phrase “throughout time” makes viewers harken back to olden times in which humans were less reliant on technology and more reliant on animals for transportation. It forces viewers to create an image of something they’d probably never considered before: the amount of animals slaughtered during pre-industrial wars.
Then, to the side, there is the standing-alone phrase “They had no choice.” Now, I cannot speak for everybody, but this sentence made me think of two things. First, on the most superficial level, sadness for animals that suffered during war; and, more broadly, how people fail to consider–and indeed, are likely simply unable to consider–the non-human consequences of their actions. Secondly, that short phrase made me think that this monument was not only for animals, but could also be interpreted as an allegory, or a proxy monument, to people who had also “had no choice” in going to war and in dying in war.
Now, this monument is surely not understated, but I do like the image of the two saddled mules walking into the abyss and, presumably to their death. And as one of the few monuments of its kind (and certainly the only kind I’ve ever seen), why should it be understated?
I love the letter “x”. It is the most economical of all letters. It stands in for the sounds of four letters: ecks. It also stands in for cross or Christ: Peds-Xing; Xmas; and, my favorite, Xtina. And it can be used in sequence to mean a lot of different things:
x: don’t do it!/marks the spot/10
xx: Mexican beer/man chromosomes/20
xxx: moonshine/porn/chromosome problem/30
Naturally I have been happy to see that the British people make ample use of the letter: Brixton, Oxford, Exeter, and, my favorite, Vauxhall. I especially like Vauxhall because it has, over time, morphed to incorporate the x. Wikipedia tells me that the district of London was originally called Faulke’s Hall, later, Foxhall, and now, gloriously, Vauxhall.
The US can boast of at least one site to have followed a roughly similar xtymology (I just made that up, but I mean it to mean the way the process by which the letter X makes its way into a word’s spelling). The Bronx wasn’t always so tough-looking with those imposing crossing sticks at the end. Back in the 17th century, it was called Bronck’s Land, in honor of Dutch Sea-Captain Jonas Broncks. Wikipedia cannot tell me when the X finally replaced the “cks.” Looks like I’ll need to consult a real library for that one. But it should be noted that in both the British and the American example, the X does double duty: it not only replaces a k or a ck sound, but it also turns the possessive into a singular.
I can only pray that in time the X will replace superfluous letters in other English words. Imagine your grandpappy going to the Elx Hall, instead of the Elks Hall. I think they’d have no problem with the recruitment of young people if they changed their name in such a manner. Also it’s a lot more textable:
Q:OMG! WHERE R U?
What about snax? Or stinx? Or if it really smells it stinxxx.
Anyway, these are just a few suggestions I have for improving the English language. Don’t even get me started on German. There can be a true Volxich movement, a populist revolution of letters.
Some of you know that I went to Wimbledon a few days ago. I just thought I’d post a couple of pictures to make you tennis lovers salivate:
Wimbledon is exceptional for a few reasons. The first is that it is one of the only events of its size and importance to sell tickets the day of the event. Secondly: the price of admission is totally reasonable–only 17 pounds. You would think that these two factors would combine to create a motley and rowdy crew of same-day ticket buyers/groundlings. This brings me to the most exceptional thing about Wimbledon: despite the cheapness and availability of the tickets, everyone there is remarkably well-behaved. The whole thing has a very dignified air. Spectators (and I use this word deliberately instead of “fans”, which implies crass partisanship) sip their Pimms, eat their strawberries and cream, and clap politely after a good rally.