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!

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