Friday, November 20, 2015

Mozart, Soap and Dynamite

Mozart, Soap and Dynamite

Welcome back to my blog from Poznan! Activities continue apace as leaves continue to fall and blustery, drizzly days signal the promise of winter weather approaching. This post touches on an event in Poznan and a weekend visit to the city of Bydgoszcz (find a Polish friend to pronounce this one for you). I'll begin with an evening of Mozart that reveals important aspects of Polish culture.

Mozart's Requiem

This is a tale that speaks to the Pole's love of music, their strong faith and their welcoming warmth. It begins with an announcement on the Academy of Music website here that there would be a performance of Mozart's Requiem featuring full orchestra and choir on a recent Saturday evening. It would be held in a suburban Catholic church in Poznan. Robin and I extended an invitation to Danuta and Marek, who live here in Poznan, to join us for the concert. It gets a bit complicated here. We had never met Danuta or Marek, but we had a tenuous connection. There is a member of our church in Charlotte who has a brother living in St. Louis. That brother and his wife visited our church in Charlotte earlier this year on a Sunday morning, and we met them on that occasion. The brother's wife, as it turns out, is Polish and is from Poznan. We had a short but delightful conversation, and during the conversation, our new Polish acquaintance from St. Louis (but visiting Charlotte) promised to connect us with her parents in Poznan, Danuta and Marek. Still with me? Before leaving Charlotte for Poznan in September, I reached out to Danuta and Marek by e-mail, and they insisted we contact them when we arrived in Poznan. We did so, but we had not been able to coordinate getting together. The Mozart Requiem performance provided an opportunity.

A full choir and orchestra performing Mozart's Requiem
I e-mailed Marek and Danuta, inviting them to meet us at the suburban church for the Mozart concert. Marek was traveling, but Danuta would be delighted to join us. I was unaware that Danuta was a graduate of the Academy of Music that would be performing and is a professional classical musician. I looked like a genius, but it was a complete coincidence. So we finally met not only Danuta, but her brother and another friend who joined us for the concert. Afterward, her brother invited us all to his home for a delightful casual supper, and we talked well into the night like old friends, despite some language challenges. 
Casual supper with our new Polish friends in their home following the concert.

The evening illustrated several cultural aspects of Poland. One is the deep love and appreciation for great music. The church was full to the point of standing room only for this performance, and it was outstanding. Second, audience members had to wait to enter the church on this Saturday evening until the Mass was complete -- the church was also completely filled for that, leaving only a few minutes for the congregants to depart, the concert audience to enter and the orchestra and chorus to take their places. The vast majority of Poles faithfully attend church. Third, the evening reflected the warm Polish spirit as we U.S. American strangers with the most tenuous connection to Danuta and her brother were embraced and treated with generous hospitality.

Soap and Dynamite

Robin and I are trying to take advantage of our time in Poland to explore the country through weekend excursions. Our most recent one took us to Bydgoszcz, a city less than two hours northeast of Poznan by train. It turned out to be another gem we might easily have overlooked. Even some of our Polish friends asked, "Why would you want to go to Bydgoszcz?" Like many cities in Poland, especially in the west, Bydgoszcz formerly went by its German name: Bromberg. With nearly 400,000 residents, it's a substantial city, situated on the Brda River. We found the Old Market Square and the old streets of Mill Island quite interesting, but I will highlight just two primary attractions that make Bydgoszcz unique. First, I can check off my bucket list a visit to the Museum of Soap. Look no further than Bydgoszcz for this quirky oddity. More than the history of soap, this museum traces the history of personal hygiene from the Roman Empire and before to current practice. If that's not enough to compel you to visit, the modest entry fee entitles you to make your own bar of soap in the museum's workshop.

Robin being schooled in the mysterious craft of soap making.
The tour began, in fact, in the workshop where we were guided in selecting a mold to shape our bar of soap as well as choosing ingredients determining color, texture and fragrance. Our mixture was then placed in a refrigerator to cool and harden while we continued with the tour. We learned, for example, that during the Middle Ages, bathing was considered risky as it was associated with the plague. We also learned which countries eventually raised standards of personal cleanliness and which lagged far behind. I don't want to create an international incident here, so I'll keep that information to myself; you'll have to take the tour yourself if you want to know which countries are more fastidious in this department. Regardless, our bars of soap turned out beautifully.

Our guide providing me with training in the use of a washboard, as if I didn't already have considerable experience!

A much more somber and disturbing sight we visited in Bydgoszcz, and one that I highly recommend, is a facility with the unlikely name of "The Exploseum." What is open to the public is a small fraction of what was once a major manufacturer of TNT, nitroglycerin and smokeless gunpowder for the Nazis during World War II. That's disturbing enough, but the more horrifying fact is that this work was carried out by 40,000 slave laborers, mostly Poles, but also Hungarian Jews, who were forced to work under the most appalling and dangerous conditions with little or no protective equipment. The tour of this facility is not for the squeamish. Life expectancy in some sections of this vast complex was six months before the laborers would succumb to the effects of the toxic and corrosive chemicals. The 2-hour tour in English was illuminating if unsettling. 

Our guide at the Exploseum describes the vast complex of the facility. A small yellow rectangle at the lower left of the board outlines the area that remains and is now open to the public.

A complex network of tunnels connected hundreds of the buildings on the site. They were not for the passage of workers but rather for the safe transport, via pipes, of the toxic and explosive liquids involved in the manufacture of the explosives. 

This view of one of the buildings reveals how materials were transferred from one step in the process to the next (note the holes in the concrete floors). The rooms are designed so any explosion would be channeled outward and cause less interruption to the production process.

The explosive manufacturing facility was concealed laterally by its placement deep in thick forest, and from the air by the planting of grass and other foliage on all the roofs. At its peak in 1944, it comprised more than 1,000 buildings, 250 miles of roads and 25 miles of railroad tracks servicing the operation. 

You can view more of our photos from Bydgoszcz at this Dropbox site: Bydgoszcz Photos

Finally, I'll end this post by noting that our visit to Bydgoszcz permitted us to connect with two other Fulbrighters. Maria and Victoria recently completed their bachelor's degrees and were awarded highly competitive Fulbright fellowships as ETA's -- English Teaching Assistants. They are teaching at a university in Bydgoszcz and joined Robin and me for a fine dinner in a picturesque restaurant on the bank of the Brdo River during our visit. We'll see them again next week when Fulbrighters in Poland gather in Warsaw Thursday for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, courtesy of the Polish Fulbright Commission.

Victoria and Maria join Robin and me for a delicious Polish dinner in Bydgoszcz.
As always, thanks for visiting my blog. Do widzenia!

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Fulbright Gathering, Some Accordions, and a lot of Candles

A Fulbright Gathering, Some Accordions, and a lot of Candles

U.S. Ambassador Paul Jones

I have a number of events to report on in this issue, and I'll start with a visit to Poznan by the top U.S. diplomat in Poland, recently appointed Ambassador Paul Jones. Ambassador Jones, just recently sworn in by Secretary of State John Kerry, is posted in Warsaw, but spent the day October 28 in Poznan, primarily at Adam Mickiewicz University, participating in a conference and meetings. One of those meetings was a gathering of current and former Fulbrighters, hence my attendance. That meeting brought together roughly 15 students and faculty members, the majority of whom were Polish scholars who had spent time on U.S. campuses through the Fulbright program. It was a chance for Ambassador Jones to see the positive impact of the Fulbright program on U.S./Polish relations and to appreciate the tangible results of these exchanges. One Polish scholar, for example, who had spent a season conducting research at the University of Notre Dame, said the experience completely shifted and refocused his understanding of and approach to research in his field (photochemistry), and it inspired him to help launch a laboratory in applied photochemistry in his home university in Poland. 
Fulbrighters meet with U.S. Ambassador Paul Jones (center, in dark suit with red necktie).
I was the only U.S. Fulbright faculty scholar attending the meeting, but there were several great Fulbright student scholars from the U.S. who are serving here in Poznan. Generally, these students teach courses in English at various colleges and universities in the city. Also, to my surprise, there was an active-duty U.S. Air Force officer attending the meeting. He is in Poznan under an Olmsted Foundation program that supports active duty military members pursuing advanced degrees internationally. This Air Force member is completing a doctorate with Adam Mickiewicz University here in Poznan. How nice and unexpected to find a fellow Air Force member here!

Some Accordions

I've posted before (and will continue posting!) about the wonderful concerts conducted frequently in the Aula Nowa of the Academy of Music here in Poznan. Last week, I could not resist attending a concert featuring accordions. In the U.S., it's an instrument associated with polka bands and perhaps French and Italian bistros. On this evening, though, the accordion was convincingly presented as a versatile and inspirational classical instrument capable of a wide-ranging repertoire. The men and women who played, students in the Academy, quickly dissipated any preconceived notions I might have had of tedious renditions of "Lady of Spain." In trios or solos, sometimes supported by other orchestral instruments, the performances were captivating and highly impressive. The concluding piece was performed by nine accordionists backed by percussion, a bassoon and a flute (I can't imagine there is a large library of music composed for such an ensemble!) and genuinely rocked the house. 

One accordion piece (plus strings) included choreography.

Nine accordionists plus other musicians combined for an impressive composition.
I had not previously seen the style of instrument most musicians played. I'm more familiar with an accordion with buttons for chords on the left hand and traditional piano-style keys on the right. These, however, featured buttons on both hands. As a reed instrument, this makes sense -- borrowing more from the oboe or the clarinet. Regardless, it was an impressive evening, and it considerably expanded my impression of the virtuosity required to master this instrument.

Candles, Candles, Candles

This past weekend marked Halloween, and in the U.S., this has become a much larger holiday than I recall from my youth. Additionally, the event has transitioned from a mild opportunity for kids to dress up as football players or ballerinas into a celebration of the dark, sinister and macabre. In terms of focus on decorations and merchandising, Halloween is threatening to eclipse Christmas. This is not the case at all in Poland, and it provides an excellent opportunity to highlight a stark difference between the two cultures.

There was some acknowledgement here in Poland of Halloween, and I saw a handful of people that night in costumes -- exclusively a few college students on their way to or from parties. Overall, though, Halloween is barely a blip. Here, instead, the focus is on November 1 rather than October 31, and it's one of the most important holidays of the year, earning a rare 3-day weekend. November 1 is All Saints Day. On this day, Poles honor their ancestors who have passed. Commercial activity ceases, and families visit the graves of their relatives, even if that means traveling long distances.

Respect for the deceased is manifest in the placement of flowers and candles on grave sites. For weeks before All Saints Day, stores feature special displays of elaborate, votive candles and candle holders. Flower shops and kiosks dramatically increase their inventories as the day approaches.

Polish families and individuals head to cemeteries at dusk on November 1, All Saints Day, to honor deceased relatives.
On Sunday evening, November 1, Robin and I visited one of the largest cemeteries in the area, Park Cytadela, situated on the site of Fort Winiary, a 19th century fortification built by the Prussians who occupied the region at that time. The 100-hectare (250 acre) park includes a number of distinct cemeteries, most of which are related to various conflicts. On this cool but pleasant evening, the effect was mesmerizing. Hundreds and hundreds of people meandered reflectively through the gravestones, placing bouquets and candles on and around each headstone. There were families, individuals and small groups solemnly commemorating All Saints Day in this moving display of reverence. It was astonishing to watch even groups of teens seeking out headstones that were not adorned and placing candles and flowers upon them. It didn't seem to matter whether the visitors knew the deceased; the point was to remember their lives and sacrifices. Many of the graves mark the remains of soldiers who lost their lives during World War II. There are graves of Poles, Russians, Germans and others. On this day, their nationality did not matter. All graves were honored.

Headstones are decorated with flowers and candles.

Children are included as parents demonstrate the importance of remembering lost relatives and others.

The grave of a British soldier, age 30, killed in 1941, remembered by the Poles.

The reflective quality of the evening is somber and peaceful.

A Polish man, in his early 20s and probably killed in the war in 1945, is honored.

How different from the holiday being celebrated in the U.S.

That's it for today. Thanks, as always, for your visit. Do widzenia!