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!

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