Monday, May 21, 2012

Pwutsk in Polish, Plotsk in Yiddish

Marilyn Monroe in Plotsk
It was always my intention to visit the town in Poland where my grandmother Mollie and her sister, my great aunt Sadie, were born.  Last year I simply drove through the outskirts of Plotsk, but this year I made it happen.  While in L.A. I made reservations at Starzynskie Hotel and Spa, and imagine my surprise when I arrived and it was lovely and luxurious inside!   My room was a suite, with a sitting room decorated with a painting of Polish movie star Marilyn Monroe, and a bedroom and bathroom.  The ceilings were about 12 feet high, and the entire wall was lined with high windows through which the expansive vista of the beautiful and curving River Wisla, the sun setting just off to one end.  The hotel even had a Spa, which means a hot tub, sauna, exercise room, showers and rooms for the masseuse – none of which I utilized, though I walked through and gazed at it all.  You’d think, by this description, that I live in utter poverty and have never been housed in Poland in elegant digs and didn’t actually investigate the hotel online beforehand, all of which are untrue, but I’m used to traveling/living rather humbly and cheaply and I’m always surprised when I don’t do that.  It felt really terrific to be in such nice surroundings!  “Duh,” my internal Adina says, “that’s why people stay in first class hotels.”  

Wisla River, boat, and granary
Who needs the great indoors when there’s a river outside, right?  I donned a sweater and took the stairs winding down Tumskie Hill, which is the bluff upon which the Hotel Starzynskie, other hotels, the medieval Benedictine cathedral and remains of the 14th century castle are enthroned. The hillside was covered with moist grass, flowers, occasional swarms of irritating gnats, teenaged girls dressed to seduce and teenaged boys smoking and clutching bottles of beer.
looking up at drinking teenagers

I tried to imagine Mollie and Sadie here 100 years ago chattering in Yiddish, but I could only picture them as teenagers in grandma dresses and grandma faces, so I turned my attention to the river shores and  continued my descent down the bluff to the bank.  It was still light, so I walked around a bit and then climbed back up Tumskie Hill, stepping over the teenagers and swatting my way through the flies.

Up on top, I walked through the cluster of beautiful red bricked medieval buildings surrounded by lushly blooming chestnut trees.    
another Wisla vista
Castle and Benedictine cathedral and abbey
What a great idea it was to come to Plotsk!

Turns out that not far away from the castle and Benedictine cathedral, the Jews set up shop in Plotsk in 1237.  Alas, had we only invested our community funds into solid stone fortresses and synagogues higher than the trees, they’d remember us better today!  Medieval Jews arrived in Plotsk because alongside the river it was a great spot for trade, and the Polish nobles and certainly, too, the Benedictine monks (though perhaps they would not admit it) invited in the Jewish merchants who supplied them with the goods and gossip from Paris, honey and furs from the forests, and grains from the peasants.  But Jewish homes in this wet and seasonally varied region simply did not leave traces, and gravestones, too, eventually eroded into blank rocky extrusions or sink into the moist ground.  We know of Jewish life in these regions because of official documents and Jewish writings, and these don’t make much of an impression when there are no visible, external remains.  Jews may appear in the popular legends of the majority population, such as the tales of Esther the Jewess–beloved by King Casimir–or various Jewish rogues, but the real contribution of Jews to the region’s civilization will simply be forgotten unless there are living, vocal Jews present who assert their place in public memory.

Michael at the cemetery gate

I saw the more recent Jewish part of the city the next day when I was treated to a personal tour by Plotsk resident Michael Levi, whom I’d met last year when I attended Reform synagogue Beit Warszawa in Warsaw.  He showed me the 19th-20th century main drag called Jerusalem Street (Ulica Jerozilimskie), which led right into the town square. Was it the Poles or the Jews themselves who identified the Jews as Middle Eastern people?  On Jerusalem Street today are the buildings that used to be Jewish shops and residences, a synagogue (now an empty hulk, on its way to transformation when the money appears), religious and less religious Jewish schools now standing empty or used for other purposes, and a plaque on what used to be the community rabbi’s home smack in the middle of things. 
fragile balcony sukka
He showed me a distinctive element of Plotsk Jewish residences: walled in balconies with retractable roofs (that part we just imagined) that were used for sukkot during the cold fall seasons.

Jody on Jerusalem Street
My grandma Mollie must have lived around here.  Her grandfather father, Naftali, was born in Plotsk and town records note his surname as Klejn, meaning little one – I guess, like me, his body was efficiently constructed.
 He didn’t like that name, apparently, because an official notice on his 1874 death certificate indicated that the family name should be designated Srebo, meaning silver; either he worked in silver or simply wanted a grander sounding name.  His son Nuta (Nathan, in Hebrew) Srebo was a furrier.  That means that he would buy pelts, sew them into outfits, and sell them in the town.  Nuta left Plotsk in 1910, joining his brother in Brooklyn, and the next year Nuta’s wife Rachel and their six children sailed from Antwerp to join him, and when they arrived they changed their name to Silver. Mollie, 16, was the oldest, and Sadie, just 8, was the fourth.  They lived in New York, where Mollie did piece work sewing fur collars onto coats and jackets.  She married a Rumanian Jew named Harry (Aharon, in Hebrew) Cohen and together they had three children.  She named one of them after her mother’s deceased father Meyer.  That was my dad, nicknamed Mike, who later changed his surname to Myers.

My grandma’s grandparents died in Plotsk, but there’s no way to see their graves.  The Nazis invaded Plotsk in September 1939 and in January herded the approximately 10,000 Jews into a ghetto within the town.  The Nazis did all sorts of heinous acts that cowed the population into submission, like rounding up random Jews and Poles and shooting them in the town square, an event memorialized in a monument in the town center.
Memorial built after the war in town center

A few thousand of the Poles were sent to concentration camps.  The Nazis used the Plotsk Jewish cemeteries for bombing practice.  The fragments were found and stored, though some of them have been plastered within a wall in one cemetery by the leaders of the 300 survivors who returned to Plotsk after the war.  It is rather sad to see, covered with graffiti, and Michael said it is a teen hangout.  

Plotsk cemetery wall
The Jews who died during the Nazi era, of course, never had gravestones.  Trapped in the ghetto along with many more Jews from surrounding towns, they were deported or shot nearby between February 20 and March 1, 1941.  It is somehow tempting, isn’t it, to reduce the history of the Jews of Plotsk to only this awful period and ignore the 800 other years of Jewish residence?   It is my own ignorance and the absence of any other mention of Jews in the city’s history-telling that makes this so easy.

Estera Restaurant from the inside
Although Michael is not descended from Plotsk Jews, he is very proud of the town’s past and wants to rebuild Jewish life there.  The post-war Jewish residents of Plotsk tried but could not succeed, and some time between 1948 and 1960 they sold the communal Jewish property to the city.  A few years ago, the city sold the synagogue back for just one Polish zloty.  There are several dozen people in the town with Jewish roots who form an entirely unofficial and private fellowship of sorts.  Michael has managed to gather them together for Friday night Shabbat services and meals on occasion, but such assemblies cannot regularly occur unless there is a community organizer. “We need a rabbi!” he insisted. This is true, and I have heard this many times in Poland. They need someone with a rabbinical degree, charismatic, a good organizer, with the psychotherapeutic training to help move Poland’s closeted and ambivalent and partial Jews to move toward serious commitment.  This rabbi should also have a magic wand in one hand that will eliminate the antisemitism embedded in Polish society and the Polish Catholic church, and in the other hand some magic powder to sprinkle over the country’s Jews that will end their quarrelsome ways. After a few hours of walking, we ate in the lovely Estera Restaurant, named after Casimier’s Jewess.

Michael then whisked me away to Plonsk, the birthplace of David Ben Gurion. This small town was kilometers away from Plotsk, but its Jews looked to the larger and older community for leadership.  They were sent there by the Nazis and met the same fate, and the Plonsk cemetery, too, was destroyed by bombs.  By car the town was about 20 minutes away through gorgeous wooded areas and fields of bright green and yellow.

memorial to David Ben Gurion
Plunsk is clearly proud of its connection to the larger world.

street signs in Plonsk town center
In the middle of the square is a street sign pointing to various world destinations, including Kibbutz Ramat Hanegev, Ben Gurion’s hideaway and retirement place in southern Israel.

A delegation from there visits Plonsk every year and, from all indications, is warmly greeted by the natives.
friendship tree from Ramat HaNegev
DBG apartment under this restaurant
Every year they add a new leaf to a commemorative metal tree near a monument. DBG’s childhood digs are very modest–actually, I could only see the outside of where he lived as a child, since it was a basement apartment under a restaurant and it was closed and had no reference to regular opening hours.  In the chilly, wet air I thought wistfully of the desert heat.

I could barely keep my eyes open in Michael’s warm and comfortable car as he drove us back to Plotsk.  I’d drop off from time to time, then open my eyes to the now sunny Polish countryside, the fields dazzling in yellow flowered splendor.  We stopped in order to examine them closely, and we promised to write each other when we learned the identity of the plant.

Now I know: it is Brassica napus Linnaeus, known as rapeseed, rape, oilseed rape, and in this form, canola.  It is a flowering member of the plant family of mustards and cabbages.  The flowers fall off and the seeds can be crushed for what you all know as canola oil.

Michael dropped me off at my hotel and I took a nap in my own private Starzynski palace. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Torun, a Year Later, a Bit Tattered and Torn

Jody and Anna, happy to have met
 Last year at this time, I had an astonishing trip to Torun, the city in which Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer (the subject of my doctoral dissertation and first book) lived from 1823 until he died in 1874.  At the Higher School of Hebrew Philology in Torun I delivered a lecture on Kalischer to the townspeople.  Father Maksymin Tandek, a Franciscan monk who was the initiator and Rector of the school and an advocate for tolerance and appreciation of Poland’s Jewish heritage, impressed me with his charisma and energy.  I met Anna Bieniaszewska, curator of an exhibition on Torun Jews for the town archives (documents dating back to the 15th century, at least), and months ago I planned that on this trip I would go back to Torun and visit with her.  Lucyna agreed to come and serve as my translator.

fields in May
We met at the Central Warsaw train station in the morning, and the two hour train ride took us through Warsaw and its western environs.  The vista is filled with urban buildings and streets and signs, but as these structures become fewer and farther between, the incredible flatness of the land  becomes striking.  The next district to the west is Kojawsko-Pomorskie, and it has been farmed for at least 500 years. The land through   which the railway runs is vividly green but mostly shorn of trees, except for those that appear, really, to have been planted deliberately – in rows, or placed strategically next to houses and barns.  This region’s low flatness reminds me of the Netherlands, and although its neatness cannot compare to the impeccably tailored countryside of the Dutch, the sky here is just as huge. I even spied several wind machines.  During this spring season the crops are not visible except for some extraordinary plant I have not yet identified that is a vivid yellow. On the way back to Warsaw, when I took a bus, the road traversed the area closer to the River Wisla (both Warsaw and Torun were built alongside the river), and the terrain included slight rises and falls as well as lots of forest.  

At the end of our three-hour train ride we were met at the Torun railway station by Anna B.  She is as warm and funny and smart as ever.  For the next two hours she talked pretty much non-stop, and Lucyna would barely start translating during a pause before Anna would begin anew with another tale. The whole tale was told quite out of order and interrupted with editorial comments like “they are a little crazy” and “it’s because of the antisemites” and  “he is an angel,” oftentimes recited sequentially without pause.  That much Polish I could understand.  

a little bit disgusting
When we first arrived, we went to the Torun Archives, where we were treated to a private viewing of some very old documents: one from 1569 that licensed someone to trade, and one from the 1400s that was a complaint delivered to the town council against a trader who tried to pass off squirrel fur as sable – the little bit of squirrel fur is attached, as evidence.

  The documents were beautifully calligraphed on vellum, and the bottom of the parchment was folded over and punctured with two holes, through which was threaded a braided, colored tassel that ended with a round disk of brownish wax that was imprinted by the official seal.  

Jody, Zevi, Anna
Lucyna also charmed by Zevi
We left my duffle bag there and walked around the extraordinary Old Town to see the new plaque and bronzed image on the Kalischer family building, then we went to see the plaque on the building that used to house the synagogue.  All the while we were regaled with the woes of Father M and his devoted flock, the intrigues and evil mischief of Radio Maryja - the right wing ultra nationalist homophobic antisemitic media entity directed by the priest Tadeusz Rydzyk -and the disinterested stance of the town council.  We were joined by Anna’s kind husband Adam, who also works in the archives, and together we walked through the 900 year old town.
spanking new Higher School of Hebrew Philology

It was primarily Father M who prevailed upon the town civic leaders to make the statue and plaque on the Kalischer house, buff up the cemetery, and make the public ceremony on September 21 to dedicate it all. Anna was Father M’s history expert, and the faculty from the Higher School of Hebrew Philology assisted.  The school and the city produced a 3-language brochure (Polish, Hebrew, and English) which featured explanations of the Jewish heritage in Torun along with illustrations of Zevi Hirsch and a photo of the Higher School of Hebrew Philology.

photo of Father M from Torun newspaper

"Catholic Radio in Your Home"
This event was a crowning achievement for the progressives in a town that is the headquarters of the notorious Radio Maryja. 

So when suddenly, shortly before Christmas, the Franciscan Order decreed that Father Maksymin had to leave Torun and go serve in Gdansk, his friends concluded that the decision was influenced by Radio Maryja. How could such a notoriously evil and powerful man permit such a charismatic paragon of virtue like Father M in his own town?

"Go sit out on the window ledge!"
Radio Maryja gives Torun a bad reputation among many Poles; more accurately, the town’s harboring of Rydzyk and his enterprise earns the town’s  reputation as a defender of reactionary Polish Catholicism.  Once Anna was traveling in southern Poland and arrived at a hotel just ahead of another woman, and there was only one room left.  It was a double, and Anna didn’t really want to share it, but the woman seemed nice, and so Anna agreed.  Upon hearing Anna tell the receptionist her address in Torun, the woman said, “Forget it, I’d rather sleep at the train station!”  Anna could hardly blame her, but she told us, “I slept stretched out over both beds.”

Teutonic Knights building, 13th century
Among Father M’s many admirers in Torun is a specific group who adores the priest and believes he is possessed of miraculous healing powers.  They reported that the Franciscans justified his banishment by saying that Father M’s miraculous healing powers were sorely needed by the Catholics of Gdansk.  Yet, when Father M’s followers arranged to bring six busloads of Toruners to Gdansk for a special mass with their former leader, the Franciscans cancelled the event a day in advance. A single busload of determined folks went anyway, and just before they arrived the Franciscans ordered Father M to Poznan.  You decide whether it was chance or divine intervention that brought the two parties together at a gas station along the road to Poznan!  The Toruners videotaped the encounter for all to see.  Since that day until now Father M has been in Poznan under lock and key – or, as they say in the church, “he is praying.”  Rumors have it that he is quite ill and is being denied proper medical care. It is quite sad, and I’m sorry that I won’t be able to see him.

Torun buildings
gorgeous ceiling detail
We walked around Old Town, with Adam as our tour guide, and it is simply beautiful.  All those red stones, finely crafted buildings, high, soaring churches and towers. All that divisiveness and hatred, and the place is so beautiful!!  The tall, soaring buildings of gorgeous red stone – perhaps I am too dazzled and don’t see the competitiveness and false grandeur that it may really represent.  Thank goodness that World Cup fever has penetrated here, bringing a spirit of unity to all!
Copernicus the football fan

They walked me to the bus station and arranged my bus ticket to Plock.  Lucyna strong-armed a college student waiting in line to be my protector on the journey and get me a taxi when we arrived at our destination, and I rode off into the green green countryside. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

An American in Praga: Your Tax Dollars at Work

the grand entrance
My work in Poland for this trip is at the Warsaw University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS -- pronounced "ess vuh pess"), a private university with about 10,000 students. 
the beach at SWPS
(click on pictures to enlarge, btw)
 All of its courses are contained within one large building that is a reconstructed old factory.  Inside, one would not know that: rooms are spacious and bright, hallways are high and wide, and the built in classroom computer systems are quick and responsive.  Only the outside appears like the grounds of a factory.  Most of the students are Polish, but there's quite a large international contingent drawn from China (they go for the English language studies),Ukraine, and Belorussia. 
In the eyes of the Fulbright Specialists Program which is funding my work here, I am an expert in United States studies, with sub-specialization in religious studies and online pedagogy.   
There is no Jewish Studies category in the Fulbright Program -- religion is represented as a sub-category of sociology.  The Fulbright Program, which is run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the federal Department of State, was established in 1946 as part of the post-war effort to foster international academic exchange and improve the world, and at that point the field of religious studies was barely on the radar; even now, people (yes, even academics) don't understand that this field fosters cultural understanding and doesn't actively promote religion. 

students deep in concentration
My Fulbright Specialist proposal, constructed together with Lucyna and Piotr from the SWPS Institute of English Studies, detailed the lectures, workshops, and consultations I would offer over a 2-week period to share my expertise with faculty and students of the university, and to learn from them as well.  SWPS pays for my housing (at the nearby Hotel Felix) and gives me a per diem allowance for food, and the U.S. government covers the cost of a cheap airline flight and will pay me, afterwards, an honorarium for each day of work.  So far I have not disappointed: I am a little bundle of American good will and culture, and people seem interested in what I have to say. 

Poland today is very mono-cultural.  Everyone looks pretty much the same in terms of skin color, bone structure, and their religious background is overwhelmingly (94%) Catholic.  Of course, there are a small number of Gypsies, and now a growing Asian community (mostly Vietnamese).  Poland is very stingy about allowing in new immigrants, and with its history as a nation of laborers it certainly does not need to allow in temporary foreign workers.  There aren't any Muslims here yet, and judging from this strange mural on a
the fan helps cool the coming inferno
downtown wall,  an imminent Muslim presence is not eagerly anticipated.   I think, but I'm not sure, it shows Muslims bowing to 
a leader who is preaching imminent destruction.

 the closest Karen gets to Poland
 However, at SWPS I kept myself busy as the voice of American multiculturalism.  My inaugural lecture focused on the diverse kinds of American Jews.  This lecture included PowerPoint slides of hairstyles, hats, coats, and women's blouses.  I had three separate slides of smiling American rabbis, including some of my L.A. favorites. 

I gave two workshops providing students practice reading and analyzing English writing, using my May 2011 blog on eating kosher in Warsaw in Poland.  Another workshop featured my CSUN Israel class material teaching students to critically read online news.  This session included me teaching them (using maps and a glossary) about the Islamic Jihad, the Occupied Territories, and the policy of administrative detention.  We read the report on this incident that had been written by Amnesty International and re-published in an English-language Palestinian online newspaper.  Then the student read my CSUN students' posts critiquing the article.  It sounds ridiculously complicated, but the students were engaged and made good insights. 
Inspired by this multicultural theme, I went out with Lucyna to Tel Aviv Café and stopped in afterwards at the Beirut Café directly across the street.   
Each of them had a sign in their window promoting their hummus. In fact, there are lots of international food options in Warsaw today - even more than last year.  I've had tasty Mexican food in a restaurant called Frieda, boldly decorated in colorful scarves and about forty paintings of the stern-faced unibrow herself.

Right now, Warsaw is shining itself up for its upcoming debut as a major player in world affairs.  Next month, half of the EUFA soccer games will be played right here in Praga, the other half in Ukraine.  There are construction crews everywhere, and, infused with EU funds, the railway stations that last year looked like worn out Soviet structures now have a new face and are better illuminated.

 Warsaw football stadium space ship
Perhaps the thought of these upcoming World Cup games made me suggest to Lucyna a lecture topic featuring America's unique contribution to treating alcoholism, AA and 12-Step programs.  I gave the lecture today, and the students were quite attentive but far too quiet for my taste.  I felt a bit like an alien visiting from another planet, describing my advanced alien practices to the earthlings who were obviously thinking "Really?  People really do that??"  It depressed me a bit, until I remembered that my American students responded to this topic much the same way.  The Polish students, however, ever polite, gave me a round of applause before they went on their way.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Peoples and places * Monday, May 7, 2012 * the 30th day of the Omer

old Polish classy building
the Palace of Culture, a "gift" from the Soviets
This country is a jumble of mixtures and absences.  There is the looming presence of astonishingly ugly Communist-era architecture in the midst of the older, more decorative Polish styles or the post-1989 buildings that are modern and angular but not Soviet-like.

historic German home in Mazury
Many buildings in the Mazury lake region are in a German style because the land for centuries was East Prussia, but that region was taken from Germany and the Germans booted out after World War II.  Their absence is recognized because of the distinctive building styles and because there are so many German tourists coming to visit their "homeland," Lucyna says dryly (and with some satisfaction, since she loves having Mazury in Polish hands).   

Piotr Skurowski, a professor of American history at the Warsaw University of Social Sciences and Humanities, described what happened in Mazury when these the Polish Communist regime (puppet strings pulled by the Soviets) filled Mazury with new residents plucked from a variety of places with no real connection to each other except for their Polish ethnicity.  One policy established them on farms to be run according to communal principles but without the resources or leadership to make the farms functional. (Think of being forced to live on a failing kibbutz with unfamiliar Jews.)  So there was lots of misery and rampant alcoholism. Jobs were scarce in the repopulated towns, too.  Into all the towns that had been dominated by Jews and the place of residence for Germans, Lithuanians, and Byelorussians before they were murdered or expelled -- the Communist rulers placed Poles who lacked strong bonds with each other and whose enterprise was hampered by rigid and unhelpful policies.  After 1989, when the Communist regime fell, Poland had to rebuild itself economically and socially.  Today on the bus I met an American woman who has lived here for three years and enjoys it, she told me, because she likes seeing the evidence of change in a society that is so consciously rebuilding itself. 

Polish non-Russian Orthodox church
Here's an interesting re-make: a church in Bialystok that uses the Russian Orthodox liturgy and rules, yet the community wants to deny that Russian heritage but keep its traditions. It's gorgeous inside (no photos allowed) and out, new and old at the same time. Lucyna thinks that the congregants are Byelorussians but Polish patriots.   

Except in places where synagogues weren't destroyed and are currently marked as synagogues, Poles don't seem aware of the absence of the Jews.  The Jewish remnant mostly didn't want to stay and rebuild, and the few that remained in Poland were treated so poorly that they later left or went underground or assimilated during the Communist era.  There were barely enough Jews present in 1989 and after to stake a place in the new democratic Poland.  Today the estimate is that Warsaw has 2000 Jews, Bialystok has 4.  Why bother rebuilding when there are better places to go to?  When I'm in these cities now and observing life from the perspective of a historian, I'm mostly thinking in post-Jewish terms.  

a tram I could one day drive
And challenging myself to do something productive in a city where every word sounds like buzzing and reads like a series of incompatible consonants.  I left the hotel this morning in the rain and bought a tram ticket at a machine that, thank goodness, had directions for people who know to tap the British flag for English (not sure why there is still a sullen, silent, and unhelpful lady still sitting at the ticket window when these nifty machines are now in place).  I got one of the neat new trams -- this one had heat, wall maps of the route and video-screen written versions of the incomprehensible station announcements.  Since moving to L.A. in 1975 I have thought that when I retire I could be happy driving a Santa Monica Blue Bus, and today I thought the same about one of these new trams.   
What does it mean?
That's probably not going to happen, I realize.  Even though the sights are not as intriguing, gardening is really a better pastime. 


sunset outside my hotel window
Anyway, I went to the big mall in the town center and bought me a SIM card and re-charger for my phone (my number, for those who want to text/call for some reason, is +48 503 097 932).  I was as unsuccessful buying clothing for myself in a Polish store as I am in an American store.  Then I located the vegan restaurant that I'd found online and ate lunch, storing up a week's worth of spices from that one Vietnamese meal. I wandered around neighborhoods and random stores until catching the tram back to Praga.   It'll be an early night, because tomorrow my Fulbright work begins.    

Sunday, May 6, 2012

First days in Warsaw, May 4 and 5, the 27th and 28th of the Omer

notice the vegetation on the roof of Alkos Inn
I can hear a cuckoo bird along the Krutinia River a few yards away, and closer by are cheeps, whistles, chirps, and whirring wings.  I'm in the lake district, Mazury, a blessedly under-populated (of humans and cars) region of northeastern Poland.  Lucyna brought us yesterday to this cleverly-designed inn, and it's been like heaven.  It's 6 a.m. and she's still sleeping, but I'm on the terrace outside the room, looking at the trees on the slope down to the river.  The sun is up somewhere behind me, and it's warm enough so that my flannel pants, fleece jacket, and green tea protect from the morning chill.  This is the second time I've been in Poland, and because each time I've come during spring time, I (unlike most people, especially Jews) associate it not just with sad and cruel history alone but also with beautiful meadows, verdant fields and forests, blossoming chestnut trees, and reed-lined rivers.  The background photograph on this blog is a view from the canoe yesterday in late afternoon.  

I arrived on Friday afternoon at the Chopin airport in Warsaw, and, met by Lucyna, we took a taxi to the "service flat" owned by the Warsaw University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS), the institution sponsoring this Fulbright Specialist visit, where we stayed the night. 

enhancing the pizza

 We had dinner at an Italian restaurant.  Italian restaurants are ubiquitous in Poland, though the pizza and the Greek salad that are served are not at all like the California version of Italian food -- the feta cheese had a smooth, fine texture and although the pizza was quite good, the sauce is really bland!   But that's okay, because they bring a pitcher of extra sauce to the table that you can pour over the pizza, so you can sort of convince yourself that twice as much intensifies the flavor.

it was love at first sight
the view from Lucyna's balcony
The next morning we took a 3 hour train ride northeast to Bialystok.  There we drank tea and gulped down tasty fruit tarts with Lucyna's husband in their charming, cheery apartment, while their beloved and extremely fat cat--amazingly, this cat has no name, a phenomenon I filed away to ponder during a later, empty moment--coddled and hugged my little black backpack non-stop the entire visit (that, too, deserves some rumination). 

air vent disguised as a nest
We bid farewell to husband and feline and drove off in Lucyna's car to Mazury, the delightful Polish lake district about two hours to the northwest.The inn is called Alkos, which the receptionist told us means"the sacred and divine heart of the forest" in old Polish, but the two of us think that is probably New Age nonsense.  Really, who cares, since the place is exquisitely and carefully designed to be a treat for the eyes at every turn, a carefully crafted fantastical version of a Viking fortress for a king who loves his creature comforts.  We are happy to be the only guests here!  Alkos is part of a larger complex called Galindia, which has a "parent" inn with many guests, plus a full array of programs featuring faux Vikings with clubs, wenches dressed in flowing linen, and torches and nets and awesome wooden statues.   

Lucyna, ace canoer
We took advantage of the terrific regional food with real taste: Lucyna had
fruit blintzes, I had kasha and spinach and extraordinary mushrooms.  I know that does not sound exciting, but it was lip-smacking good and gave me Popeye-like energy for the strenuous exercise ahead.  We hiked back to Alkos via the forest path the long way (getting lost twice) and then got into one of the inn's canoes for a paddle up the river.  The Krutinia River was placid and gorgeous, and before long Lucyna (no coercion on my part, truly) admitted that she was enjoying canoeing and could see why I'm smitten by it. 

Krutinia reeds
There we were, Pocahontas and Hiawatha, gliding silently alongside the ducks, under the trees, between the reeds.  Birds warbled, insects clicked, and fish made bubbles.  When the sun was nearly all gone we returned to the inn's shore, drank steaming hot mint tea on our terrace, and went to sleep.