Tuesday, November 17, 2009

the blog of Nov. 14, 2006

reverence for life

The next time you see a vehicle bearing a "Bush-Cheney" bumper sticker, ask the owner why they like to promote murder, torture, and reckless abuse of power.

Ask them what's so great about exposing thousands of US soldiers and Iraqi citizens to Depleted Uranium (DU), a known carcinogenic substance.

The Bush administration needs to be held accountable for their complete lack of what the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer called "reverence for life". Furthermore, people who voted for or supported this need to understand that they were complicit.

the blog of Nov. 11, 2006

bleak + music = Manchester

The film "24 Hour Party People" should be interesting to anyone who got caught up in alternative music of the 80's. It helps put all that strange energy in perspective. Manchester would seem to be as bleak and intoxicated as a city can get; nevertheless something there has caused some great bands to happen: The Smiths, The Fall, The Buzzcocks, Magazine, James, Oasis. I appreciate the music and applaud the creativity, but can't shake the impression that the Mancunian vision is at times full of unhealthy pathologies.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

the blog of Oct. 20, 2006

the desert within

Deserts have such-and-such an effect on people, and when Theodore Monod writes about his eye-opening trek across Mauretania in the 1920's, about how the other-worldly landscapes and tenatious vegetation of the desert have an absolutely narcotic effect on the soul and psyche, I think he is tapping into something fairly universal that is not very different from my infatuation with the southwestern American deserts, and the knowledge that stepping into the desert is stepping into a seductively huge, strangely peaceful and easily overlooked region of our psyche, wherein rocks and plants and stars form the words of a forgotten language.

Saint-Exupery tapped into this same vein, but it looks like the overlooked Monod beat him by a decade.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

the blog of Sept. 2, 2006

Poland - part 3

A few notes on the Polish language: it might be fair to describe it as “Russian lite”, since it’s much softer sounding. Indeed the two languages are related, and I had the opportunity to hear them side by side. Compared to Polish, Russians sound like they’re freaking out. By that I mean Russians speak more insistently, as though eager to get their point across. Whether they actually are or not is another question.

We couldn’t help noticing so many words ending in “y”, which reminded me of Hungarian. It took a few days, but I finally figured out that “y” added to a noun makes it plural, hence billety (tickets), zloty (units of currency), planty, farby and all the rest. Don’t ask me to pronounce it though -- that’s not my forte. My forte is figuring out what words mean, whereas Lisa can pronounce them; together we made it work.

Our plan was to use Cracow as a base for exploring other points of interest, many of which were right there in the state of Malopolska (“Little Poland”). Lisa wanted to witness the Marian feast in Czestochowa, home of the famous “Black Madonna” icon, which annually attracts hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholic pilgrims. I wanted to explore the Cracow-Czestochowa Upland, the scenic corridor between the two cities, known for its limestone formations, castles, and ruins of castles. The seemingly logical plan was to spend the night near Ojcow National Park, then proceed to Czestochowa.

After checking out of the Hotel Regent, we took out money and trekked over to the bus station, heavy packs and all. To get to the bus station you had to pass through the train station, and there were heavy streams of travelers flowing in every direction. Lisa assured me that in Polish culture, if you accidentally slam into someone, it’s not only no big deal but completely normal. That was good to know since I’m always bumping into people in whatever culture I happen to find myself.

It was a day of close calls. We just barely made the complimentary breakfast at the hotel, and then we figured out what bus to take about a minute before it pilled out of the station. Once on the tightly packed bus we could relax a little and enjoy the scenery. The outer suburban ring around Cracow could have been anywhere in Western Europe or America. There were stations selling gas for over four zloty a liter (approximately $1.60), Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a huge Ikea. I remember hearing about Ikea in Poland, and at the time it was an exotic concept, but now that we were driving by it I realized it was as completely normal as Ikea in Hicksville or Huntington Beach.

The countryside felt more European, with the occasional castle appearing on the rolling hills. Also very European was the way all vehicles were flying down the narrow, perfectly paved freeway at top speed. I wondered how the roads here were in such good condition – none of the American style potholes one might expect in freezing cold Poland. Was it socialism at work? The novelty of capitalism? Or good old European know-how? One thing was clear – any notion I may have had about Poland being a backward country was jettisoned out the window that day. The evidence of my senses suggested that Poland had completely integrated into the European Union.

What a contrast to my visit to Budapest in 1985. Then, there was this dreary east-bloc pall hanging over everything, a palpable sense of constriction that made that otherwise picturesque city feel a little sad. A slightly different but no less bleak atmosphere greeted Richard and I when we wandered around East Berlin around the same time. But this Poland of 2006 was a different animal. Maybe the sunny sky and all the accompanying color affected my impression. But looking at the people around me, the sense I got was that they were mostly young and healthy and happy, and that the society on the whole was young and undergoing a dynamic period of growth. I’d heard about the “Polish economic miracle”, but it was interesting to experience it firsthand.

Not being sure where the main stop for Ojcow National Park was, I went to the front of the bus and asked the driver to let us know. He gestured to the effect that it was at the bottom of the hill. The road then went from being completely surrounded by fields to being completely surrounded by forest, with no transition. I knew we were in the park, and signaled Lisa to get ready. As it turned out, most people on the bus were going to Ojcow, which is one of Poland’s smaller National Parks but very well used, being just outside the city.

There was a funny green wooden building inside of which a man was selling something. A British woman and her daughter were holding a Lonely Planet guide, the universal sign of English speakers. Unfortunately, apart from a few pleasantries, they were unable to help me make heads or tails of how to proceed. While I wondered if we were expected to pay an entrance fee, I noticed that people were lining up to buy the park map, which I realized would be a good thing to have. It proved very useful indeed.

The ongoing struggle of the trip was finding a place to stay every night. Lonely Planet listed a hostel inside the park, and we lost no time hiking the shady, leafy trail that led to it. I found the hiking pleasant and invigorating, but unfortunately Lisa bitched about what a pain it was. When we got to the hostel, a woman who knew no English seemed to be telling us there were no rooms. So we proceeded to plan B.

We hiked back to the center of Ojcow and passed a beautiful old hotel, wondered why the guide didn’t list it -- if it was even open, had vacancies or was affordable. Maybe we should have asked, but instead we followed Lonely Planet’s advice and inquired elsewhere about a room for the night. The building we were directed to was perfectly charming on the outside, but the inside was another story. We suddenly found ourselves straining to communicate with the proprietor, a friendly woman who showed us a room and charged us roughly $6 US. She also seemed to say that American visitors are rare in these parts. The room turned out to be a real “you get what you pay for” type deal, but we were desperate to find something and pleased at the price.

Relieved of our backpacks, we stepped out into the sunny park. First we checked out the “town”, which consisted of one “road” that was mainly used by walkers and bicyclists, and a smattering of homes, restaurants, and other buildings. We walked to the south end and decided to have a beer at a pleasant outdoor café. The beer was indeed pleasant, after which we wandered back to the north end. Right behind the bus stop were the ruins of some aristocrat’s castle perched on a limestone cliff. We hiked to the top, where we were asked to pay a small fee. Then, after passing under a stately tower, we entered another tower that featured a display about the deceased aristocrats. That was fine, even if it was all in Polish. But the rest of the ruin was disappointing, because it was no more than footprint. Plus, hiking with beer in my system makes me cranky. While I enjoy a good beer, as a rule it makes me sleepy.

Back in the “town” we found a good restaurant with an outdoor table and a view of a little dog barking at some goats. We noticed that Poland was full of little “yapper” dogs. It was also full of smokers, which was the only problem with our outdoor table. Otherwise, the coffee was excellent, the pierogis perfect, and the purple pickled cabbage out of this world.

After dinner we went for a stroll along the main road, which was surprisingly delightful. There was a meadow bursting with wildflowers that may have been weeds – I don’t know what’s native here – and noisy cicada-like insects. Then, built directly over a stream, a beautiful wooden chapel in shades of ochre. A little bit further was a roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary carved directly into a wall of limestone, full of candles and flowers. The general flavor of the place was a lot like rural Austria. Then, at an outdoor café, we saw a cat, which was notable because although Poland was full of little yapper dogs, we saw very few cats. Before turning around we crossed a bridge, and encountered a troop of youths clad in black and green -- scouts or soldiers or something in between.

Back at Ojcow we bought some ice cream pops. We ate them slowly on a bench, and I studied the wrapper, which listed the ingredients in at least five languages -- languages like Czech and Hungarian and Lithuanian. All at the same time, the light began to slip away, drops of rain began to appear, and a deep tiredness came over us. We decided to retire to our room of questionable cleanliness.

The room was indeed dingy, but the hope was that tiredness would override that detail. And initially it did. As I sat half asleep by the open window, it began pouring torrentially outside, and I was glad we had this room (as opposed to sleeping outdoors in the mud). Before long I was fully asleep on the bed of questionable cleanliness.

Lord knows how many hours passed, but when I awoke I found myself in a state of sensory deprivation, and had no idea where I was. No crickets, no birds, and no light – it was terrifying. Then I remembered that I was in the strange room of questionable cleanliness, and that prevented me from going back to sleep. Instead I lay awake thinking about radio towers. There’s a certain kind of futuristic radio tower that I’d seen in the distance in Cracow. For some reason this kind of radio tower is found in countries like France, Canada, Japan, and South Africa, but to my knowledge not in the US. As I pondered that question, it occurred to me that in places where there are no mountains to place radio transmitters, very tall, artificial structures must be built. And then it dawned on me that most of the great American skyscrapers – the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers, and so forth – were also radio towers.

As I continued to reflect on the history of radio broadcasting, of which New York City was a major center, light started to fill up the dingy room. I knew it was going to be a long time before my next proper night of sleep.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

the blog of Aug. 31, 2006


I thought that European history and geography were among my fortes. The other day I was surprised to stumble on something I'd somehow never heard of: the Baltic duchy of Courland.

Located somewhere in or around Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Russia, the duchy of Courland was apparently quite powerful in some earlier century.

Courland was a player in the heyday of Baltic shipping and trade. They even got in on the imperial game, and had at least two far flung colonies: some island off Africa, and the better known Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean.

My question to the world is: have any of you heard of Courland?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

the blog of Aug. 27, 2006 (2)

Poland - part 2

The morning brought a new day for me and Poland. The rain had stopped, rays of sun nudged me awake, and a blue sky greeted me from the window. Lisa was semi-comatose but told me to feel free to take a walk while she slept. I decided to do just that.

An entire day had been lost flying, but now I had that pleasure of suddenly finding myself on another continent. What I saw on the streets was recognizably Europe, and the sights and sounds brought me directly back to my European backpacking days. The feeling of being on a Polish street is not significantly different from being on a French or German street. There is the same strange combination of drab and colorful surroundings that is to me very distinct from America. Narrow streets with tiny cars which interestingly parked on the sidewalks.

This particular neighborhood, Kazimierz, includes the old Jewish quarter. After Steven Spielberg filmed “Schindler’s List” here in the early ‘90’s, this formerly neglected area turned into a vibrant bohemian enclave, with cafes, galleries, and restaurants of every kind popping up everywhere. The result is very NYC East Village, as the area is still somewhat run down and the influx of tourists and artists is relatively new. There are some stately old buildings, including our hotel (the Regent) and a massive cathedral in a tree-lined courtyard; there was also a large open-air marketplace where vendors were busily selling used clothing, jewelry, vegetables, framed pictures of various popes, and laundry detergent.

Back at the hotel Lisa got up just in time for us to catch the complimentary breakfast, a standard continental affair with a choice of juices, yogurts, rolls, cheese and jam. It was also apparent the Poles like their coffee strong, which suited me just fine.

To make our lives easier we booked a second night at the hotel, and then set out to discover Cracow. Just north of Kazimierz, overlooking the Vistula River, is a hill supporting the most famous castle in Poland: Wawel. It is actually an entire medieval complex including the cathedral where the kings and bishops of early Poland are entombed. As the former seat of government, Wawel is considered the spiritual heart of the Polish state. There is an old myth that a dragon resided in a lair beneath the castle; then there is a newer myth that Wawel is home to one the earth’s seven chakras, a center of energy. Sure enough, we saw people meditating in the northwestern corner of the royal courtyard.

There were lots of tourists wandering around Wawel. A Unesco World Heritage site, it has been impeccably preserved. The interior of the castle houses a network of museums and restaurants, while the well-landscaped grounds lend it a park-like atmosphere, with costumed musicians playing medieval accordion music. If I had to compare the general feeling of the place to anything, it would definitely be the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, even though the climate couldn’t be more different.

Wawel was nice but the best part of Cracow was yet to come. The road from the castle led to a triangular place with a display about the Solidarity movement, and after looking at that, we continued along a street called Grodzka, which was bustling with activity. We had just entered Old Town and were surrounded on all sides by perfectly preserved historic architecture in uplifting shades of peach and yellow ochre. I had always imagined Cracow to be a dark city, but I was wrong. What I soon realized was that Cracow, as a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, belonged to the Viennese school of stately, candied architecture and coffee house culture.

On a more Polish note we passed a shop called “Greenpoint,” but unlike my former grimy Brooklyn neighborhood, this was a high-end fashion boutique. I wondered if there was a branch in Greenpoint, or if the one here was a branch of a New York clothier. Either way it seemed like another expression of my Polish destiny.

Grodzka deposited us in the star attraction of Cracow: the Rynek Glowny, or town square -- the largest such square in Europe. I’d read about it, but being there exceeded my expectations. There were not only architectural marvels but people everywhere – walking, standing, sitting in cafes drinking tall glasses of piwo (beer). It was a living, breathing town square, a welcoming place, and the true heart of present day Cracow.

At the center of the square was long structure called the Cloth Hall. We entered the south end and found ourselves in a long, open-air hall lined with vendors on either side. The vendors were selling mainly souvenirs and jewelry, and there was a considerable buzz to the place. The majority of the jewelry was amber, a natural abundance of which is found along the Baltic coast. The hall was a pleasant diversion and I was briefly reminded of the longer and narrower market place we visited in Kyoto.

All around the square and the Cloth Hall were large outdoor cafes where the serious business of eating, drinking, and people watching occurred. We planted ourselves in one next to the Cloth Hall, and in retrospect this was one of the best. In accord with Lisa’s desire for classic Polish food, we ordered plates of pierogi kapusta and pierogi russki, fresh and sprinkled with dill. We washed them down with a dark Okocim, one of the better Polish beers. A lot of calories perhaps, but delicious and vegetarian.

We noticed that most of the younger Poles in the city spoke English, and that there was a considerable amount of bilingual signage, making it a little easier to get by with our feeble grasp of Polish.

After the meal we explored many back streets, the Barbican and Florian gates, and the Planty – the park surrounding the periphery of Old Town like a moat. I’d wanted to see the art museum on the upper floor of the Cloth Hall, but it was closed. By way of compensation, we found a large gallery featuring the paintings of Olga Boznanska (1865-1940). Her work was somewhere between completely boring and perfectly subtle, the best pieces conjuring up sleepy childhood afternoons in Sea Cliff spent staring at slabs of jade, African violets and dust particles suspended in rays of sunlight.

After that we felt a little sleepy ourselves and went back to the hotel for a nap. When I realized I hadn’t had my afternoon coffee, we got up and went to the café down the street that was full of burlap sacks and photos of someone plucking beans at a tropical coffee plantation. While sitting in the café, loud music wafted in from without; upon investigation we discovered a band giving a free concert from the top of a building at the open-air marketplace. We joined the crowd on the street to listen to a set of Polish punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.

Then we wandered around in search of a possible dinner. My instincts drew me to the far eastern edge of the Kazimierz district, where a number of ethnic restaurants surrounded a tree-lined, cobblestone square. We ended up at an Indian restaurant that claimed to have the only Tandoori oven in Cracow. Lisa said it was strange to go to a foreign country and then have foreign food (as opposed to native dishes), and in a sense she was right. But I knew I needed Indian food for balance, and even though the waiters were Polish and the Tandoori wasn’t working, the curried peas were still good, and the gentle flow of wind and people passing by our candle-lit outdoor table provided the perfect atmosphere for my sleepy, jet-lagged brain.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

the blog of Aug. 27, 2006

French, German, and English

The French laguage: more c's than k's

The German language: more k's than c's

The English language: c's and k's in equal proportion

Monday, November 02, 2009

the blog of Aug. 22, 2006

Poland - part 1

The day before our flight it was all over the news that a terrorist plot to blow up US-bound planes flying from the UK had just been foiled by British intelligence. Not the kind of thing you want to hear, but it's good to know that 007 is doing his job. Then there's the argument that, with all the increased security measures, these are the safest times to fly. This may be true, but we did have to make some packing adjustments after the "no liquids, creams, or gels" pronouncement.

The next day we took the "Monterey Airbus" to the San Francisco airport, which is as modern and architecturally impressive as they get. There was some terrible traffic going to the airport (supposedly due to some sporting event), but once there, almost zero traffic -- the opposite of the LAX or LaGuardia experience. The international terminal was surprisingly empty, and for all the news reports about crowds and delays, our wait in the Lufthansa line wasn't more than twenty minutes.

The flight to Munich, which spans nine time zones, was rougher than the return a week later. The route consisted of an extreme northern arc over Canada, Greenland, and Scotland. The flight path, as well as the flight time (10-12 hours), resembled the one to Japan, but the flight itself wasn't as comfortable. While the service and amenities were good, there were many small ways that Japan Airlines surpassed their German counterpart. The latter's rough edges included the loud slapping of landing gear, weird turbulence around the arctic circle unlike any I've experienced, and the monitor indicating that it was some minus sixty degrees outside the plane. The general sense was that flying from San Francisco to Munich is a very unnatural act.

In Munich we had three hours to pass before the more local flight to Cracow. The Munich airport was a little like the San Francisco airport -- clean and modern and nearly empty. There was an abundance of shops and restaurants, some very high end, and for a moment I felt like I was at the Americana shopping center in Manhasset. Many of the shops were full of World Cup bric-a-brac, as barely a month had passed since that big event. We took the opportunity to purchase some Euro and Polish "Zwoty" at a currency exchange. Unlike every Safeway supermarket in California, the Bavarian woman at the exchange recognized my last name as French and pronounced it perfectly.

Upon learning that liquids, creams, or gels were not considered a threat to the flight to Cracow, we bought toothpaste, deoderant, and body wash. Then we ate a grilled "Panino" sandwich at a cafe. With even more time to kill, we found a waiting area that provided free coffee and newspapers. I even gave a crack at reading the German ones. It had been some twenty years since my last trip to Europe, and it was good to savor the details.

The plane to Cracow probably flew over the Czech Republic. This information wasn't volunteered, but if you look at a map it makes sense. When we landed in Cracow, the air was moist, the tarmac wet, and the little airport near empty. Lisa had done some research about how to take the bus into town, but it was approaching 11 pm and we were understandably disoriented. We bought bus tickets at a news stand and wandered out to the bus stop. A large, circular Coca-Cola sign confirmed what we have all heard: an eager embrace of western capitalism. We tried to make heads or tails of the bus schedule, and since it was saturday, the outlook didn't look good. A bus finally arrived, but then parked and shut down. I approached the driver, a young, Slavic-looking man, and we proceeded to have a completely confused exchange of hand signals and mispronounced words. Fortunately a pair of women appeared who I recognized from the plane; their first laguage was apparently French, but they also spoke Polish and English. Before long it was established that the bus was headed downtown, but we would have to wait.

A few notes on Cracow. Like many Central European cities Cracow has multiple spellings that are interchanged shamelessly. There is Cracow with a "c" and Krakow with a "k", as well as the German "Krakau" and French "Cracovie". Cracow is the former capital of Poland -- prior to Warsaw -- and is considered the spiritual heart of the Polish state. The Old Town is some seven or eight hundred years old, a historic area that miraculously escaped the ravages of Europe's many wars. What I didn't realize until recently is that Cracow is a major tourist destination within Europe, attracting droves of visitors.

That wasn't exactly clear the night of our arrival, as the bus plowed into the darkness, stopping to pick up drunken skateboard kids, and a heavy rain began to pour. We weren't even certain what exit to get off at. It's true we could have taken a cab, but we were wary of being ripped off, and willing to rough the bus. As soon as we reached the edge of Old Town we disembarked, and although it was raining, I had studied the map well enough to get us to our hotel. It was a little scary, walking through a strange city with heavy backpacks in the pouring rain, surrounded by grafitti and drunks, but around midnight we reached our hotel in the Kazimierz district, just south of Old Town. After checking in, an older man, presumably the bellhop, helped us with our luggage and the strange Polish door locks that need to be turned twice.

Unbelievably jet-lagged and disoriented, I tried to sleep, but with mixed results. As I lay in the foreign bed, the fact of being in Poland weighed on me, its problematic history, which the pouring rain outside seemed to exacerbate. Then the long and turbulent relationship between the Germanic and Slavic peoples weighed on me and kept me up for a few hours. But the fact that the hotel room itself was fairly clean and decent and comfortable helped sleep eventually win out.