Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Anachronous Update: Malmö to Helsinki to Stockholm to Rättvik

Hello, all in the Nonsensosphere! I write to you from the future and the present. If your head is still in the timeframe of the blog, then I am a time-traveller, come back to klop kopf am vant (ask your Yiddish grandmother). If you head is in the timeframe of this current spaceship earth (as of now. I mean, now, as of now. Now. Oh, bugger.), then I shake your hand warmly (while passing you a surreptitious marble) and proceed:

I'm sorry to interrupt the flow, but I've just made my final plans for this leg of the nonsense research adventure. I'm in Malmö, Sweden presently (that is, August 26th, after having given lectures in Stockholm and Copenhagen--blogs to come!), headed for Helsinki tomorrow, where I will give a lecture at the University of Helsinki (many thanks, Sirke, Liisa, and Kaisu). I'll be in Helsinki until Sunday, when I hop on the Viking Cruise line for Stockholm. Monday morning I arrive and get on a train to Rättvik, Sweden, where I have rented a cottage for a month. Rättvik, I hear, is a lovely, distinctly Swedish town, on the shore of Lake Siljan and surrounded by forests full of bears (I'm hungry already). I'll be here on a writing retreat of sorts; many nonsensical projects are afoot, and so I shall lend ahand.

Stay tuned for Kevin's updates from the remainder of his time in Europe and my posts to catch us up to the present...

Michael Out

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

14 August, Leiden, The Netherlands

Friday, 14 August, 2009, Heyman at the helm

Today was a hallmark for us, as we were to meet with one of the icons of nonsense scholarship, Wim Tigges, now an emeritus professor at Leiden University. In order to explain the significance of this meeting, let me take you back into the trysts of mime, to 1993, when I was a wee lad snibbling my way through Oxford’s M.Phil program in English Romantics, of all things (by the way, Keats was a fine writer of nonsense, for those who might look askance at the Romantics. He invented the “amen” to nonsense: “T wang dillo dee”). During my readings of Locke, Hume, Burke, Wordsworth, Godwin, and Godknows what else, I somehow came across the name of Edward Lear and the phenomenon of literary nonsense. I had read Lear as a child, but I never imagined that one might study nonsense, that one might twists one’s Romantic M.Phil dissertation to write about it, or that one might actually get a doctorate in nonsense. Such a perilous course was unfathomable, unmentionable. I tucked such ideas into a corner of my noodle and looked to the immediate task: investigate the possibility of academic study of nonsense. Of course, I thought such an endeavor was unique: that I would be the trailblazer, bushwhacking my way with a sharpened flamingo through the forests of rhetorical rhubarb, to find the Golden Nonsense Nubbin. With fissures of grandeur and trailing clods of glory, I made my way to the Bodleian Library, for to make my Mark upon the World of Scholarship, plopped myself down in front of the three (or was it four?) different catalogues (oh the wonders of the Bod!), and promptly found that, wonder of wonders, I would not be the first. In fact, nonsense scholarship had started in the nineteenth century, and slowly gained ground and followers through the twentieth. While the field was not aswim in scholarship, as so many others were, it was still an established Topic. No mater, I thought, as I wiped off the figurative academic shaving-cream-pie-to-the-face, and promptly went on with the unmentionable course I mentioned above. My first real look at scholarship, then, came in the form of Wim Tigges’ seminal book An Anatomy of Nonsense, which defines the genre so sharply and so cogently, that I fell in love with it and decided to devote myself to it. That was sixteen years ago, and as you all know, I am as ever on the same swath of swag. I had limped my way into Romantics because, in the application process to Oxford I was forced to pick a time period, but now I had found my calling, an area of study that was both rigorous, hilarious, and, at least it seemed to me, two fingers up the snout of Academia. I went on to read many books of nonsense theory and criticism, but I always came back to Tigges, to his careful study that is indeed an anatomy, a careful dissection of a genre that desperately needed it, and an argument for its importance in literature, and indeed, life. You could say that I was a strict Tiggesian for some time, and while I’ve backed off somewhat from his hardline (something he, himself has also done, by the way), I still consider myself nestled against his theoretical bosom.

So! Enough background! Kevin and I found ourselves on our way to meet Wim Tigges, at his office in Leiden, a university town not too far outside Amsterdam. We took the train out there, had a quick breakfast, and proceeded to his office. We thought that he might be 9 feet tall, 90 pounds, and have 9-foot wild hair blowing in every 9th breeze, but he in fact turned out to be, well, quite like us: a fellow nonsense noodle. He graciously brought tea, sat down, and proceeded to tell us much about Dutch nonsense and to show us the many Dutch anthologies of nonsense.

I don’t think that in all our travels we have seen such a keen awareness of nonsense as here in The Netherlands. Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway, these and other countries did indeed have rich traditions, and keen awareness, yet to have so many anthologies, going back to the 1950s, shows an exceptional understanding and appreciation of the genre.

After much discussion, we went to the university canteen for lunch and then on a short tour of the town, with Wim as our guide. It is a city of canals, bridges, cobbles, and bikes all running through the narrow lanes of the old town.

We climbed the earthen mount and took in the cityscape, then hit some of the bookstores, where I bagged a copy of his very own translation of Edward Lear, whose title needs no translation: Babbels en crabbels van Edward Lear.

We went back to his office, where we had more tea and nonsense discussion on such topics such as the nature of Dutch nonsense and the potential aesthetic and political motivation behind it. He was incredibly generous not only in his offer to help us in various ways with the anthology, but also in giving us multiple copies of both of his nonsense books (the other being Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, an excellent collection of scholarly essays). These books are extremely hard to come by, and we will be distributing them to nonsense scholars around the world hungry for his work.

Lastly, as if he had not done enough for us already, we asked him if he might record some Dutch nursery rhymes. He was only too happy to do so. The first is a choosing rhyme and the second a song that is almost entirely Dutch gibberish—yet a piece that almost all Dutch people grow up knowing.

We left his office in a state of giddiness, bags full of books and photocopies of nonsense texts, had a celebratory beer by a canal (where we were not the only people in such a jubilant mood apparently),

and we made our way back to Amsterdam. As Lewis Carroll would say, it was a white stone day.

PS. I could tell you how to pronounce his name, but I would have to kill you. Hint: you'll find the answer somewhere in this blog entry.

Monday, August 24, 2009

11 August, Frankfurt, IRSCL Congress, Part 2

11 August, 2009
Frankfurt, IRSCL Congress
Part 2, Heyman, DDS

Kevin will be giving you the full details of our spectacular international nonsense panel at the IRSCL congress (click here for a gallery), so I will delight you with a few Frankfurt fits. First on our tour of fits is a tour I was not able to take. I had signed up for the Struwwelpeter Tour of Frankfurt, it being a Heinrich Hoffmann anniversary, but there were apparently not enough cool people at the Congress to fill up the trip, which was canceled. Here is a little taste of Our Hero, in old and some new incarnations.

Over the years, Hoffmann has sometimes been mentioned in the same breath with nonsense and Edward Lear in particular, but, even though his work and Lear’s may both exhibit an impatience with the typical didactic, preachy, and boring eighteenth century children’s books, Hoffmann is not writing nonsense. There are many ways to skin an evangelical, apparently.

The next character we encountered was lurking about the Caricature Museum. He thought he might blend into the shadows with his trench coat, but luckily we had set up a moose hunter's blind nearby, from which we were able to spring out, shine the spotlight on him, and snap these shots.

Kevin and I had wanted to call a special nonsense meeting while in Frankfurt, but we had trouble finding a suitable venue. If we had only known, we could have met here, a stone’s throw away from our hotel (click to enlarge).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting to Frankfurt the hard way... 7 August, 2009

Oslo – The Train Incident
Friday 7 August, 2009

The above view of the city of Oslo was something we saw one too many times, as you shall see. Our last day in Oslo meant little more than going to the train station, catching the train to the airport, and sloping off towards Frankfurt for the IRSCL conference. But such simplicity often belies the prevalence of gremlins in the grill, of goblins in the upholstery, and gnomes in the gnapestry. We took the bus down to the center of town, where we figured we had just enough time to split up, go to the book stores, and look for some folk nonsense. After a quick search, we came up with nothing and headed to the rail station. At the ticket counter, I asked the young lady about the slow train to the airport, specifically saying I did not want the express (and priced double) airport express. She helpfully told us to take the train Lillehammer and gave us the track number and time. At the track, we watched as several express trains went off to the airport, but we were saving some money and waited patiently on the same platform, where the slow train (only about 10 minutes slower, really) would arrive. It did, and we were soon speeding off in Norwegian rail efficiency, past the seaside on the south side of Oslo, through the docks and by the neat, black-tiled roof houses. I sat looking out the window, in a vague haze, while Kevin began to sweat. He mentioned that he didn’t remember this scenery when we came in on the train, but then we figured that there might be multiple routes that went by the airport. We sat for a while, watching the scudding froth scud merrily (if scudding can be done in such a manner). At one point I got up to look at the stop, just to make sure we were not there. After about 15 or 20 minutes, Kevin could stew no more and asked a gentleman if we were on the way to the airport. The gentleman’s eyes bugged punctuation to his immediate “I’m afraid not.” Apparently, we had been heading in the exact opposite direction of the airport, towards Strömstad. And with a quick look at the map now, I can see that we were also not headed toward Lillehammer, and yet we were both in agreement on the track the ticket woman had told us. Where would we have ended up? Only the gremlins, goblins and gnomes know, but now with very little time, we were much farther away from the airport than when we had started. The kind gentleman was getting off at the next stop, and he walked with us off the train, to the platform, and checked timings. Another train would be coming in 15 minutes, so, after bidding farewell and thanks to our friend, Kevin and I plopped ourselves down on the bench, contemplating the fact that we were now quite unlikely to make our flight. Still, if we caught the next train and then an express, there might be a chance. The sun beat down. I pulled out my safari hat, consigned to the fate of the trains and the misery of the world. Kevin, however, was consigned to neither, and he went to check on the price of a cab. After a little haggling, Kevin got the cab driver to agree to a fee that would buy him not four platinum hubcaps for his cab, but certainly two, and as Kevin and I had both been platinum miners in our prodigal youth, we decided to cab it—an option, by the way, that we were not sure would get us there any quicker. At this point, though, having already spent a fortune on our stay in Oslo, we were fiscally numb, and so there we were, speeding down the highway, praying that we might just make our plane. Our driver was from Djibouti, and he had the habit of talking to us partly in Norwegian. He was jolly enough, but didn’t seem quite to know the way to the airport. After a wrong turn or two, some traffic, flow-impeding speeding cameras, and about 40 minutes, we arrived—and, yes, dear concerned reader, we just made our plane, with about 10 minutes to spare. The day was saved, and we were on our way to becoming Frankfurters.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Oslo, 3-4 August, 2009

Monday, Tuesday August 3-4, 2009
Heyman reporting

Our entry to Oslo, through the magic of airport scooters and Moomins in Helsinki airport, was smooth. We found ourselves in a large hostel/hotel on the northwest side of town, surrounded by all of the embassies and posh establishments of Sense. It was a perfect bunker from which to launch our usual assault. One of our greatest stumbling blocks had to be this location (pictured below), something so deviously sensical that we had to walk Plumpudding Flea’s spitting distance around it in order not to be ill.

The next morning, we arose from our cell, scrubbed and buffed our tonsures, said our nonsense matins (that is, ὄρθρος or oўтреня or oygeŵąlt), and headed down to the Norse Barnebokinstitutt, which translates not to the Norgegian Institutute on Books about Barns, but rather, the Norwegian Children’s Literature Institute. When Kevin had initially written emails to various scholars in Norway, he received an overwhelming and enthusiastic response, and since our time was limited, we arranged one larger meeting with seven souls, a nonsense gathering of Nordic proportions. The building which houses the Institute and children’s book library is also the university library and is a grand place with a large indoor courtyard café on the ground floor . When we found our way up to the children’s library section, we met Kirsten Ørjasæter, the Director, who took us on a short tour of the library. It is an impressive space, with ample collections, scholarly works, and beautiful spaces to work surrounded by stacks of Norwegian children’s books. We were given a short lesson on typical Norwegian children’s books from days of yore—adventure stories of solitary survival in the wilderness (think Jack London meets Robinson Crusoe, but with polar bears).

Our meeting was held in a conference room, and was attended by the following group of friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful souls. The following, in order from left to right:

Harald Bashe-Wiig, Lina Undrum Mañussen, Åse Marie Ommundsen, Anne Kristin Lande, Anna Beate Storm-Larsen,
Kirsten Ørjasæter, Asfrid Svensen

After we presented the basics of the Anthology, we had a quick-fire discussion where nonsense was being flung like squid. Kevin and I played squid-catcher as best we could, bagging many suggestions and taking furious notes. Our formal discussion broke up, but we continued to talk to individuals for some time, as they each had much to offer.

We came back to the Institute the next morning, to make copies of their many suggestions and gather bibliographical information. We were treated like gentlemen scholars, ensconced in the reading room with coffee and tea, and proceeded to reap the rewards. Here are a few shots of our workspace and some of the books we were looking at.

Note that some of these books are illustrated by Paul René Gauguin, the son of the Gauguin. We came away with much material and new nonsense friends. Many thanks to them!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Warsaw Poland (Part III)

Warsaw Poland (Part III)
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Kevin here.

Today we stopped into the Starbucks in Warsaw and met with Michal Zajac and Maria Kulik. Michal is a professor at The University of Warsaw, and Maria is the President of the Polish section of IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People). Michal and Maria, as a team, were a force to be reckoned with. They were full of advice, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Michael brought notes about the most important authors to produce literary nonsense for children in Poland. And Maria provided an impressive collection of publications in English created by the Polish section of IBBY, including including an almanac in English that covers Polish children's Literature from 1990 to 2005.

While everything Michal and Maria brought was helpful, it was probably Michal’s campaign to get us to go to Munich that will stick with me most. He’s right of course. Because our route this summer took us through eastern and northern Europe we had no stop planned in Munich, where there just happens to be one of the largest collections of children’s literature in the world, at the International Youth Libray ( Enticingly, because this collection in Munich is international, a quick search for nonsense for any given country or language might turn up results. Munich is high on our list of “Next-Time-For-Sures.”

A surprise for us was that Michal and Maria were so surprised at how much we liked Warsaw. Warsaw, apparently, does not have a reputation as a tourist hotspot. It’s famous more for business and industry, and isn’t known for its warmth or beauty. In fact, our guidebook, Lonely Planet, only gave a grudging recommendation for the place. But we found plenty of both warmth and beauty here. And the reconstructed old town is one of the most amazing testaments to the human spirit I’ve ever seen. Everyone should see this place.

On August 3rd, on our way from Warsaw to Oslo, Norway, we stopped for a few hours at Helsinki airport, where Mike stocked up on all things Mummin. He’s a huge fan of Tove Janssons surreal and quirky second world. I personally was tempted to stock up on Reindeer Jerky, but somehow just couldn’t do it. The temptation of the two wheeled push scooter was, however, too much for me. This is simply the most ingenious airport transportation system ever devised. Here is a film of my exhausted self, temporarily liberated from the shackles of my weariness by the fine flying sensation, a peculiar sensation that somehow felt like rule-breaking, of the most spectacular and inappropriate type:

Below is our one photo (so far) of Finland. Taken as the plane was approaching Helsinki:

Kev Out

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Return of Romanian graffiti and an update

Hello devoted nonsensophiles out there--Michael here. I bring you good news: there is much to come. We've gotten a little behind in our entries, partly because we were at the IRSCL congress in Frankfurt for a week. Kevin left this morning from Amsterdam, so it's a bit lonely here in De Pjip, Amsterdam. I promise we'll update the blog soon, with all the details from Oslo, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.

For now, just to tide you over, I include here some links to more of the wonderful graffiti from Romania, some of which we recorded here in our early blogs.

and the link there to:

Hold on to your herrings--we'll be back with more soon.

ps. I'm proud to announce that today was the first day that I was properly recognized. I was walking through Sarphati Park in Amsterdam, and a group of shady guys on a bench called out "D'Artagnan!" to me. Not Doug Henning, mind you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Warsaw Poland (Part II)

Warsaw Poland (Part II)
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael and I have had a lot of good luck on this trip, ending up by accident in the right place, at the right time, and bumping into the right people. But on Saturday August 1, at 5:00 pm, our strange luck was turned up to eleven. We were seated in the middle of the oldest square in Warsaw, and two beers had just been delivered to our table. Hundreds of people milled about the square, tourists licking ice cream cones, young couples walking hand-in-hand, and vendors selling children’s games and flowers. Then, something very strange happened. At precisely 5:00 pm everyone stopped moving and fell silent. Those who had been walking stopped in their tracks. Those seated, stood up. And when I say everyone, I mean every single person stopped moving--at all. We learned later that even cars and busses and bikes on the roads had stopped.

And the whole city fell entirely silent except for the church bells, which rang for exactly 60 seconds.

I can’t begin to tell you how odd it is to see a city suddenly stop--freeze frame. People stood with ice cream cones, not licking them. People’s dogs stopped and sat down. Watching it was so surreal. At first I thought perhaps I was loosing my wits (what few wits I have left.) After one full minute the church bells quieted, and in an instant hundreds of people were moving again.

It didn’t take me long to ask the waitress what had just happened, and, as I supposed, the moment of silence was in reverence for those who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. By luck, we had ordered our beers five minutes before the 65th Anniversary--to the minute--of the beginning of the Uprising.

The Warsaw Uprising began when Polish Resistance fighters in Warsaw rebelled against the Nazi forces that held the town. The Polish fighters wanted to free the city from the Nazi’s before the immanent arrival of the approaching Soviet army. The fear was that if the Soviet’s took the city then Poland would be abandoned to the Soviets at the end of the war (how right they were). This rebellion happened shortly after D-Day and Polish expectations of help from the West were high. But no help came from the West, and the Soviet Army camped peacefully on the opposite side of the Vistula River and watched as Warsaw was flattened. In the end Nazi forces killed 200,000 people in Warsaw and destroyed every building in the city. The entire city was quite literally crushed. When the destruction was complete the Soviets waltzed in, kicked the Nazis out, and claimed Warsaw as their own.

In reverence to the Polish resistance fighters, each year, at precisely 5:00 pm, the people of Warsaw stop moving, fall silent and stand up for one minute. It is a beautiful, moving tradition.

What was once a flattened pile of smoky rubble is now a Unesco World Heritage site. In the 1950s, with no support from the Soviets, the people of Warsaw rebuilt their historic city centre. Using old photographs and memories, the city was painstakingly reconstructed, brick by brick. Hundreds and hundreds of buildings were rebuilt from scratch. This is a photo taken near where we were. And when looking at this photo remember that the buildings you are looking at were reconstructed from rubble in the 1950s. (Click on the image to enlarge):

And Mike offers us this film of the same area:


Warsaw, Poland 31 July-1 August

As we rode the train, our last train, into Warsaw, Kevin noted (with the help of our trusty Lonely Planet) with some incredulity that there was a bar/restaurant in Warsaw called Sense, a few blocks from our hotel. Surely this must be some conspiracy. Bratislava denied us entry into Nonsense Club & Restaurant (see this blog entry for the ugly details), but now we were being handed Sense on a plate? Could Eastern Europeans be so protective of their nonsense, and so eager to orient the world (or propagandize it) towards their sense? The only solution to this would be for us to visit Sense. And subvert it.

After we settled into our hotel, we girded ourselves with all manner of potent nonsense paraphernalia, including the benevolent balderdash blunderbuss, two vintage bunko barettas (with plum pudding flags that shoot out the end), and a trained amphibious amphigory. None of these, mind you, are to be handled by nonsense neophytes. We headed out to Sense to do our worst. I present to you the exact moment of our assault:

Sense was not prepared for our hobgoblinry. With the help of some very tasty drinks, we proceeded to desecrate the establishment by creating all kinds of nonsense within its hallowed walls. I cannot describe the proceedings in detail because of the potential infringement upon the territory of certain secret Nonsense Societies, but I can say that nonsense pieces were produced, and a certain menu, that used to have the word “Sense” attached to various food items (as in “Sense Fries,” “Sense Pasta”), now has the word “Nonsense” as the descriptive moniker. When we left, we thought we heard the soft exogamous squish of Sense’s walls roiling and tumbling into a pile of quivering nonsensical noodles.

The next morning, perhaps not quite recovered from the Pastafarian Massacre, we had an appointment to meet at 1pm with Anna Fornalczyk, an academic who also works for a leading journal of translation in Poland. We were having a lovely relaxed morning at our hotel before the meeting, getting ready to depart, until we got a call from Anna around 12:30. I wasn’t able to receive the call, but suddenly a bat flew out of Kevin’s left ear as he said, “We were supposed to meet her at 12:15.” Somehow, even though he had written her the day before that we would meet her at 12:15, he had confused the times. To be fair, most of our recent meetings had been at 1… So we called her back, told her we’d be right there, did a quick primping (my switch-blade moustache comb is a delight--thank you AC!), and headed out. The meeting place, a bookstore closer in to the old town, was a bit farther than we had thought, so we hopped into a cab and were speeding our way through the streets of Warsaw… until we heard the marching band. As we sat in traffic, we could see ahead people marching in military uniforms and certainly hear the military bands. The cab driver drove around a little but then stopped on the side of the road, speaking a perfectly incomprehensible Polish to us and gesturing to the closed roads ahead. It seemed we were at a dead end. Back on the street, we realized that the cab had actually driven us slightly farther away than we had been at our hotel. Kevin switched into high gear at this point (and anyone who has walked beside Kevin knows his legs move with astounding velocity) as we wound our way through the city, past the parade of Polish military, and youth military groups. We had no idea at the time what the occasion might be, but there was no time to ask. We were extremely late, so we fast-walked our way about a mile in the hot sun, around the university, until we finally found Anna, waiting patiently in the bookshop. She was quite understanding, and as we gently sweat into the bookstore upholstery, she went through many texts that she had copied for us. She had a good sense of nonsense—a rare find—and had brought some promising pieces from both literary and folk tradition, from different time periods. She had also gone back to some very old volumes to dig out a few excellent folk texts. Lastly, she was kind enough to allow us to record her reciting two Polish children’s rhymes: click below to hear her.


Anna was gracious and helpful, patient with our lateness, and promised to provide more material, overall showing us, yet again, the rich nonsense tradition of Poland.

ps. This is not related to our trip in Poland, but I have to pass on a link I was sent by one Belle Rudetha Prannyshake (a devoted philollower and phrend), a lovely example that includes mustaches and Spanish and nonsense. Click here for the video!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Krakow Poland, July 30, 2009, Part II

Krakow, Part II, 29-30 July, Michael reporting...

One thing we were sure of in Krakow, it was that we were not on, nor were we interested in, nor do we ethically, morally, or florally support what this gentleman was advertising.

¡Viva Irregularity!

We also saw this small group of musicians, and a couple enjoying the music…

And then there was this… not only have we seen a rash of Michael Jackson biographies in bookstores throughout Europe, but even the puppeteers are getting into the spirit:

One notable event which we were happy to see was a long-standing Krakow tradition. Every hour, a trumpeter opens a window in the tower of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary and plays a melody, the same one since the Middle Ages. The trumpeter stops abruptly, to commemorate when a bugler was shot in the throat during the Mongol invasion of 1241. This same melody, by the way, was played on Radio Free Europe at the beginning of every broadcast.

After our meeting with Monica, we had a little time so headed to the south side of Krakow, to the old Jewish quarter. In a sadly familiar pattern, the Jews were kicked out of Krakow proper in the fifteenth century and forced to live in the Kazimierz section, a far less grand area. By the early twentieth century, however, Krakow had become a thriving center for Jewish cultural and spiritual life, where they were even given their own house of parliament. When the Nazis occupied Poland, they also forced the Jews out of the city and into a ghetto, this time on the other side of the river, but then of course most were sent to the worst of the death camps, which happen to be close to Krakow: Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oscar Schindler's factory is near the Nazi Jewish ghetto. Kazimierz, which now holds very few actual Jews, is now a quaint and fashionable area with comfortably dilapidated buildings, large leafy courtyards, and an obvious cashing-in on the Jewish past. We walked around, exploring the small streets, noting that many of the cafes and shops had Jewish names, displayed in huge letters on the storefronts. A few of the grand old synagogues still stand, where a tiny population of Jews still worship. We skirted the edge of the Jewish cemetery, but could not find a way past the high walls, so high we could not even see inside. Our problem was solved when Kevin cleverly spotted a bar/café bordering the cemetery that had a terrace section on the roof. We promptly went inside and up, planting ourselves at a table high above the street allowing us to see down fully into the cemetery. The tombstones were all inscribed in Hebrew, and many of them had metal “hats” that allowed visitors to deposit the customary rocks (out of respect, for you non-Jews out there) without damaging the tombstones. The graves were quite crowded together, particularly in some sections, reminding me a little of the Prague Jewish cemetery, where the bodies are stacked fourteen deep and tombstones crowd the hillocked earth so tightly that earth is barely visible. For some reason, though, in Krakow the area in the center of the cemetery is just a blank green hill… perhaps an area where the stones had been removed or destroyed (it is amazing the Nazis left anything standing here at all), but judging from the crowdedness of the rest, it is probably still an area with many souls.

Krakow Poland, July 30, 2009

Krakow Poland
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kevin here.

Mike and I have seen a lot of beautiful town squares on this trip, but nothing compared with the majesty and elegance of Krakow’s central square. It was huge and colorful--and I’m pretty sure Mike will put up his traditional Cinema-360-Pan of it in the next blog. This city, so beautiful in every way, has an especially sophisticated and cool edge to it. The cafes where we rested, and sometimes wrote, were relaxed, shady, hip and chic. The lighting and lamps were often distinctive--indirect--and from unusual sources. In a number of bars and cafes there were hanging gourds, from which a thousand tiny holes had been drilled, and filled in with colored glass. Here’s a couple:

On Thursday the 30th we met Monika Wozniak in one of these ultra-relaxed urban bookstore cafes. Monika does academic work for the journal Przeklładaniec, which is dedicated to the academic discussion of translation. Her specialty is Italian-to-Polish translation and she is doing research currently on children’s literature. Monika confirmed for us some of the leading names in Polish literary nonsense and introduced us to a few new authors as well. She told us a few fascinating things about the connection between politics and nonsense in Polish literature. She described, for example, the communist attempt to introduce a new way of talking about ‘things’ in the 1950s. In what sounded like a very Orwellian plot, the Soviets required that writers in this era use, what the communists referred to as, “New Speak.” What exactly “New Speak” was, was difficult to describe. I asked Monika if “New Speak” was something like political correctness, or was possibly manifested by an Orwellian insistence on euphemisms. She said it was like those things, but that it was MORE than them too. According to Monika, New Wave Polish writers in the 1950s, such as Mrozék and Baranczek created what they described as a “new special language” and this new language rebelled directly against “New Speak,” and the result was often a rather sophisticated nonsense. In this Communist era, Monika explained, “Either you drink vodka, or you write nonsense.”

Monika also introduced us to the Polish nonsensical cabaret acts of Olga Lipinśka, which, in the 1970s, were also directed against communism. Lipinśka’s productions were carnivalesque, and reflected folk tradition, classics, New Speak, and slapstick. She noted that after the revolution of 1989, the nonsense featured in the cabarets lost its edge, because the oppressive government, and its oppressive language, was out of power.

I mentioned dragons before in this voyage, and I need to return to that subject briefly, because no visit to Krakow would be complete without mentioning Krak, the great flying lizard-beast that, tradition tells, lived in a cave beneath Wawel Castle in Krakow. If you go to the castle today you might notice the drainpipes, which are shaped like dragons: (click to enlarge)

From the castle’s edge there is also a mysterious entrance into what is known as, “The Dragon’s Den.” This spiral staircase leads down along the outer wall of one of the highest ramparts, and then disappears into the bowls of the rock below. Bravely following this dizzy staircase you are eventually emptied out into a surprisingly chilly and gloomy/roomy natural rock cave, far far below the castle. There is a creepy dungeon here, and more than enough room to park at least two mid-size dragons. Because there is a light at the end of this tunnel, you follow it, and eventually you break out into the open air under a small grove of trees nestled along the banks of the Vistula River. Then, just when you think you are now safe from dragons, there is the sound of a flame thrower, and you look up to notice that, yes, in fact there is a statue of Krak here, and yes, the statue is shooting great balls of orange flames out of its mouth. The maw of the dragon bursts forth flames for about five seconds, once every couple minutes. Quite remarkable. Remind me not to climb on this statue. Here is a picture of it:

Although it was tricky, Michael managed to catch a quick movie of the statue actually breathing fire:


Monday, August 3, 2009

Wroclaw Poland (Part II)

Wroclaw Poland
Sunday, July 26 to Wednesday, July 29 2009

Of all the countries we have visited so far on this trip Poland promised to yield the most overwhelming crop of literary nonsense. Unlike other countries we have visited, where we met one or two scholars, we already had three appointments scheduled in Poland when we crossed the border--and three more introductions on top of that by the time we would leave. Poland would bring us much good stuff.

I’ve always harbored a special reverence and respect for Poland, and a deep regret that the U.S. and other allies in World War II left Poland to the Soviets after the Polish had fought alongside the allies throughout the entire war. My wife’s grandfather, Wladeslaw Iwanowski, was killed at Monte Casino, fighting the Nazis in one of the last battles of World War II. And then his country was given away to the Soviets.

So while I have a soft spot for Poland, and while Poland promised to offer us more nonsense than we could handle I must yet report one mind-numbing incident in Wroclaw. Poland ostensibly left communism, and its inherent inefficiencies, behind twenty years ago. Poland is a modern nation, the most prosperous and advanced of the countries we visited in Eastern Europe. But all this progress seems to have missed one official office--The Post Office. By the time we arrived in Poland we had been collecting nonsense for more than two weeks now. We had simply no more room for the nonsense we were collecting so we decided to mail a box home. When we told Majka that we had to mail a box from the Post Office her brow furrowed, and she murmured, “The line can be long there.”

I should note that in this post office there is only one window (and one person) that handles packages, and every citizen in Wroclaw who has a package to be mailed must go to that one window and see that one lady, whom I shall from here-forward refer to as The Post Office Marm. We got in this line with our two boxes all packed and when we got to the window we were handed two forms, printed helpfully in Polish and French, and we were whisked away. I’ve got some French, so after a while we managed to fill in the forms. By this time the line had grown, and we had no choice but to get in again, at the back. The line moved more slowly now. When we finally got up to the front the Post Office Marm looked at our forms and noticed that we had used return addresses from the United States--because that’s where we live. “Nie Nie Nie,” we were scoffed at. It was made to clear to us then that we must have a Polish address in order to mail the box. “But we don’t live here,” we exclaimed. Then she pointed at the form and said “Hotel.” And she took our original forms and threw those away and gave us new ones and sent us away.

A short while later we had refilled in the forms so that it looked like we lived at our hotel in Wroclaw. We stood up to get back in line and at that moment a woman appeared in line before us, scooting in with her little cart. Fine, she can go first. Well, it turns out this woman had twenty-eight small packages. And then came the real surprise. Much to our horror we watched as the Post Office Marm began to process the first of these twenty-eight small packages... and it is a sad tale. Fifteen minutes later this first of the twenty-eight packages had been processed. And then the Post Office Marm reached up and took the second package and started in on that one. And yes, fifteen minutes later the third... etc.

By the end of this ordeal we had spent about three hours in the Post Office mailing our two boxes. Feeling emotionally numb, and as Michael put it, “flattened,” we removed ourselves to a pub.

Below are a couple pictures of some of the books we mailed back to the States: