Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Monday, November 29, 2004

A Beautiful Not-Quite-Wrongness

One of the books I sometimes use in my teaching, Instant Grammar Lessons by Alan Battersby, has some matching exercises where you match the endings and beginnings of sentences. As the students and I have discovered, however, it's more fun to match the beginnings with the endings directly opposite, and the result usually makes some kind of sense and evokes a more interesting set of circumstances, or worldview, than the thick-skulled logic of the "right" answer. Here is an exercise with First Conditional:

If you heat water to 100 degrees Celsius, the boss will definitely fire you.
If the weather's fine, take the day off work.
If she doesn't get a good night's sleep, she can try again next year.
It's easy. If you push this button, all the plants are going to die.
If you take another week off work, you're going to have an accident.
Careful! Unless you slow down, she's always tired in the mornings.
Unless it rains soon, it boils.
She's clever, and provided she works hard, we can go to the coast tomorrow.
If you still feel awful tomorrow, she'll do well.
If she doesn't pass the exam this year, the camera rewinds automatically.

And for Second Conditional:

Late again! If you didn't stay up so late, her English would really improve.
If you were really ill, we could buy the house of our dreams.
If my English was absolutely perfect, you'd be able to get up in the mornings.
If his hair wasn't so long, there wouldn't be so many accidents.
If people didn't drive so fast on this road, we could sit outside in the garden.
If I had my address book with me, I could get a job as an interpreter.
If we won the lottery, I'd be able to phone her.
If Maria stayed in Britain for a year, I'd love to do more cooking.
If the weather wasn't so awful, he'd look much smarter.
If I had the time, I'd be more sympathetic.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Dark Meat, Bag Technicians, and Other Unsung Joys

Let us now thank the Small Man, and look forward to further
contributions from the noted poet, scholar, and all
around Jolly Good Fellow.

Hope everybody had a Happy Thanksgiving. It was a day of
considerable pain, worry and unpleasantness for some of my family back
home, but it looks like everything is going to be OK, so that's
something to be thankful for.

Didn't do much celebrating on Thursday except for having a pot-luck breakfast (mostly cakes, pies, and fruit; I brought the cheez&crackers) with my first class that morning.

Then Friday morning before class I brunched on a
turkey cutlet with a generous portion of steamed potatoes at my
favorite of the local "milk bars" (a milk bar in Poland means a
cafeteria that doesn't serve alcohol, a "bar" in Polish being a
cafeteria that serves wholesome, simple foodstuffs to students and
working people; "restaurant" ("restauracja") connotes something imposingly grand and
hifalutin). Actually for some of us the best part of "Turkey Day"
generally falls on Friday, or late Thursday night-- if you've had
Thanksgiving at home that is-- when you sneak to the fridge for the
leftovers while watching movies on the VCR.

One reason I like the "Viennese Bar" so much is that they have these trays you can use, if you have a large order, to carry the food to your table (they only have two, so you then must return them straightaway). The reason I like the trays so much is they have these pictures of food on a blue sky background with words in German and English floating around the pictures: "Baked Eggs," "Bier," "Kaffee und Kuchen," "Hot Dog with Sauerkraut," "Eggs and Bacon," and more. The whole thing reminds me of this pamphlet-sized 1950s Good Housekeeping cookbook I used to have called "Eggs & Cheese, Spaghetti & Rice," featuring such dishes as "Hi-Yi Sandwiches" and "Quick-Hoppin' John." Some sort of innocence that really never existed is evoked.

While eating the delicious breaded cutlet, I remembered the lament
of R. Burdik (my boss at the wine store where I worked in the late
nineties, mentioned in an earlier post), one day sometime around Thanksgiving 1999 probably: "I like dark meat. Most Americans don't like dark meat, 'cause it's got all
these interesting flavors. Everybody wants to keep it bland." If what I've heard is true, non-free-range turkeys are in fact bred in such a way as to maximize the ratio of white to dark meat, so he was on to something there. He also eschewed eating in restaurants because the chefs oversalted the food, depriving him of the meat and vegetables' inner potentialities of personality which he so passionately sought. I don't know about that-- I think if you're not the kind of culinary genius he claimed to be, and most of us aren't, a lot of New York restaurants have fun, sometimes profound experiences to offer. But I agree with him about the dark meat being the best part of the turkey. And you don't get that in a turkey cutlet at the Viennese Bar.

Early this morning I bought some mineral water and eggs at the PLUS
supermarket (a Germain chain). I would have bought a few other
items, but I only had ten zloty. I decided while walking home,
however, that this was a blessing, and resolved from now on to go
to the supermarket only when I'm a bit short on cash. The reason is
that the German chain is too hard up or too tight-fisted to employ
baggers to bag your groceries for you, so that you have to pop your
groceries into the bag at a breakneck pace, and you're still engaged
in the business of doing that as you fumble for your cash, pay the
cashier, answer any questions or comments, etc., and you're
probably still doing it while the next customer begins their
bagging frenzy, creating a crowded and farcical contretemps. I know
this must sound like the ne plus ultra in imbecilic whining and
self-indulgent foppery; some of you may jest that I probably need
to employ my own personal umbrella-holder, like P. Diddy; but in
fact the lack of baggers can be a highly irritating, uncomfortable, and humiliating experience, as I suggest you confirm for yourselves if you ever have a chance. At
first I thought I must be deficient in the art of bagging: a matter
of speed, poise and aplomb, I thought. But I've strategized in line,
I've hopped up the pace of my bagging, and nothing seems to help.
The only thing would be to plop the groceries from the counter back
into the shopping cart and then bag elsewhere, but even then you're
always in somebody's way. Perhaps if they constructed a counter
with more space at the end... I guess you can glean from reading
this that my worries in life are few at the moment, and for that I'm truly


E.B. White, in his essay "On a Florida Key," describing the contents of the refrigerator in the beach cottage where he stayed while visiting in February, 1941:

This refrigerator contains the milk, the butter, and the eggs for tomorrow's breakfast. More milk will arrive in the morning, but I will save it for use on the morrow, so that every day I shall use the milk of the previous day, never taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy perfectly fresh milk. This is a situation which could be avoided if I had the guts to throw away a whole bottle of milk, but nobody has that much courage in the world today. It is a sin to throw away milk and we know it.

Or, I thought as I read, it could be avoided if you had the guts to drink the whole bottle of milk in one go, which is what I would probably do. But more than anything I thought of how delicious the milk must have been, perfectly fresh or next day, since I feel sure as I'm alive that it came in a glass bottle.

I wish I could tell you that all milk in Poland comes in glass bottles, but if I did, that would be a lie.

I'm off to celebrate Saint Andrew's Eve (actually on Tuesday: an orgy of fortune-telling and other devilment; but many celebrate on Saturday) by drinking a well-earned beer with my friend Tadek (I worked three hours today, he worked seven).

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Interruption from Ghalib

This is Tim's brother joining in. I'm studying Chinese literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. Last night I happened to go to a talk by a professor, in another part of my department, who studies various Indian languages, and he talked about this couplet by Ghalib:

When nothing was, then there was God. Had nothing been, God would have been.
My being has defeated me. Had I not been, what would have been?

(translated by Ralph Russell)

There were refreshments including wine after the talk, and the combination of wine and this poem made me deliriously happy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Hi There!

I've been taking a break from the madness of the internet cafe with its wretched continuous loop of techno and house music and its legions of lisping, adenoidal teenage miscreants grunting and hooting at each other during their extended binges of virtual homicidal mania. The only other places i can blog from are friends' apartments, where it's rude, and my school, where the library is often closed. I'm using the library just now, for example, but it closes in about ten minutes. So the internet cafe is the main hub of the operation.

Plus I've been working on a rather ambitious post going into further detail about my situation here, but somehow haven't quite got my head round it yet. Look out for something of considerable bulk and breadth, and some surprising extra special treats as well, I hope, in the coming days.

What's more, I've been spending a large amount of my time retreating into the world of P.G. Wodehouse. Had never read him before this autumn, but I just finished my third book of his and can't wait to read the fourth (the quartet happened to be languishing in a used bookstore across the street from my place of work, and on the day a few weeks ago when my TV went into a coma I decided to stock up on reading materials.) (The Idiot Box is now back in action, which is the ideal state of affairs. For whatever reason, I love to read with the faint murmur of the television in the background; I guess it gives the illusion of people being around, and sometimes something watchable comes along.) (Around the same time, my Discman was stolen from the internet cafe during an unguarded moment, restoring the balance not only of Good & Evil but of Self & World, as I could no longer succumb to the temptation to walk around in a solipsistic dreamscape, oblivious to the sounds of the city, closed off from it.) (Although I do love how the movement of everything-- on TV, or on the street-- always fits with whatever music you play against it like a choreographed ballet. In that sense maybe it's not solipsistic.)

It snowed here last weekend: gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. Usually Silesian snow quickly turns grey and black, but this time it didn't have a chance to since it continued snowing through yesterday and then had melted away entirely by this morning. Today's been a rainy one. As my good friend Khalis Ameen, ne Ernest Hill, would say: "Liquid sunshine."

Saturday, November 13, 2004

His Needs Are More... So He Gives Less

They showed Moonraker on TV last night. They were showing COMA, a thriller with one of Michael Douglas' earliest leading roles, on TCM (I no longer have cable, having decided it wasn't worth it, but apparently I'm now getting a free promotional month of TCM / Cartoon Network), a film I've never seen and which looked good, but I decided if I'm going to watch an Anglo/American film with a Polish "Lektor" (a man who reads a translation over the original dialogue, which is somewhat audible in the background), it might as well be something I've seen twice already and have no notion of taking at all seriously. Plus with Bond films it's always interesting to see how they translate the sexual innuendos, though I don't remember anything interesting in that line this time. (In any case Polish, compared with French or Russian, has a refreshingly large number of idioms in common with English.)

The annoying thing, of course, about the Lektor, besides the monotony of one person reading all the parts, is that when you hear the English dialogue you don't catch all of it but the attention you expend on it detracts from your appreciation of the translation. You get lost in a sort of No Man's Land. I would almost say that full-on dubbing, which has been gaining popularity in Russia (and is the default option in western Europe, and was apparently accepted by American audiences until the mid-80s), is better: at least there you have a crew (not a cast) of different voices doing their damnednest to capture the soul of the thing. But either method of dubbing tends to cut off my involvement with the film. There's something about voices. Fortunately, in Poland most foreign films on DVD or in theatres are subtitled, except cartoons (where dubbing makes sense to me). It's only on TV, or video, that you have to fear the tentacles of the Lektor.

The conventional wisdom is that Sean Connery was the best James Bond, and it is true that the "cat-like, animal" energy which Truffaut noticed in him in Hitchcock's Marnie differentiates him strongly from pretty-boy dandy and smoothie Roger Moore. I remember reading once in the libertarian magazine "Reason" how "Sean Connery is the only man who could ever play James Bond, for the simple reason that only he conveys the impression that he would readily strangle a pussycat were it necessary for the security of the British Empire." There definitely seems to be something about the young Connery that conjures up some kind of connection with things feline. But there is nothing feminine (or shall we say "feminine?") about him, while with Moore there most certainly is. The scene in Octopussy where Moore puts on clown makeup, and the scenes in several films where he is put through extreme physical torment (in Moonraker he gets whirled around in some kind of thingumabob and almost dies, and you really feel bad for him), demonstrate the point adequately I think.

My best friend in high school, a brilliant artist and musician by the name of Charlie Habanananda, once explained to me, in tenth grade, why Moore was doomed from the start: "He got crowded out by the special effects, so he had to treat the whole thing as a joke." At the time, this made sense, and for a long time since I had come to regard Moore as a tragic figure of extraordinary pathos. In fact, however, the special effects of the Moore-era films seem no more impressive, and only slightly more prominent, than in the Connery ones (I've seen something that claims that more money was spent on Moonraker than on the previous six Bond films, but watching it in 2004, or in 1992, you would find that hard to believe).

Speaking of special effects, there seems to be a convention of computer geeks taking place in the lounge of this internet cafe, where a demonstration of some new marvel of the cyber age is taking place, and the noise they are making is hindering my thought processes to the point where I must pause.

Furthermore, an excellent essay I read a few years ago in an anthology ("On the Screens of the World") of mid-1960s Russian film criticism-- supposed to be a review of "Goldfinger" but really an "Essay on Man" for the late twentieth century-- shows that even then, the dangers of the cinematic military-industrial complex that everyone associates with Star Wars were very clear from the early, "classic" Bond films. (Rest assured that the essay itself is not a piece of Soviet agitprop but bases its attack on aesthetic and cultural values; there really was a Krushchev "Thaw"-- in fact it produced some of the best films (and folk music) of the twentieth century. If you compare the essay-- (unfortunately I've been unable to find the title or author online)-- with Roland Barthes' structuralist essay on Bond from the same era, Barthes' analysis is by far the more simplistic.) The jokey cynicism, the video-game violence, the mindless gadgetry, the general sense of whoredom and nihilism were very much there to begin with. And the whole thing was, if nothing else, an orgy of money from the beginning, though nothing can compare with having to sit through an actual advertisement for Gillette razors in Dolby Stereo while waiting for Pierce Brosnan (by far the best Bond, in my opinion, since something about him reminds me of James Mason) to appear. Not to mention the horrible Smirnoff tie-ins, etc. etc. (The North Korean sequence in Die Another Day is, however, the best opening sequence in any Bond film, and the titles sequence with Bond being tortured with the traditional dancing girls juxtaposed over him is also up there. After he shaves his late-Mason-state-of-desiccation beard, nothing in the film is worthwhile except the surprising sword fight halfway through. Nothing restored my faith in post/modern cinema more than the fact that they put the fight in the middle rather than at the end.)

Personally, I find long chunks of the Connery films to be indigestible (have never yet sat or stayed awake through the entirety of Dr. No despite numerous attempts, though I will admit the opening sequence-- not an action sequence as in later Bonds-- is delightful), just as I find the endless battle at the end of the first Star Wars (A New Hope) insufferable and the space battle at the end of Moonraker as well. But when people compare Connery and Moore, I have to just say that a) it's the old apples and oranges dilemma and b) if anything, Moore's performance is truer to the spirit of bourgeois "Pure Fantasy" (usually sexist, and often racist) which the cycle inherited from Fleming, more "organic" than Connery's, you might say, though Connery is the more "organic" actor outside the cycle.

Connery is whiskey. Moore is champagne. Connery is steak. Moore is caviar paste (taramosalata I think the Greeks call it). Moore is Rossini, Connery: Respighi. Moore could not convincingly strangle a pussycat for England (or Western Civ., humanity or whatever), nor could he, convincingly or un, commit marital rape and emerge as what is taken for a "[basically] positive hero" as Connery does in Marnie. (The director being Hitchcock, the girl being "frigid", and the year being 1964. He (Connery/"Mark") then acts as therapist and finally "cures" her, somewhat, of a neurosis brought on by childhood trauma.) Moore would never have been cast in such a role (in fact Olivier was supposed to be cast as Mark, according to Hitchcock; I learned today that he also turned down the role of Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita).

He Looks at the World and Wants It All
And while both Moore's Bond and Connery's take the trappings of Bond life-- the martinis, the pate de foie gras, the Aston-Martin, Q's gadgets, and yes, lest we forget, the girls-- for granted, only Moore's, to my view, has a glint in his eye that suggests he actually enjoys them. Which makes me identify with him more. Makes me want to drink a beer with him more, to use one of the supposedly pivotal talking points of the recent presidential election. Plus if we agree that the whole enterprise is in some way inherently an exercise in infantile, often Oedipal wish-fulfillment-- constant alternation between danger and pleasure (no boredom-- no reality), with a happy ending in the arms of the beloved (often the ex of the dastardly villain, and who invariably gives James some admonishment, sounding almost like a loving, doting mother, in the final moments), then Connery's macho sturdiness is somehow incongruous. Connery, in real life of working-class background, in his Bond persona somehow touches on the essence of upper class taste as defined by Paul Fussell in the book Class: simple, unpretentious, organic (Fussell talks of hardwood floors, beat-up Chevies as symbols of the very very rich's disdain for gaudy ornament). Moore, in real life a St. Moritz chum of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the horribly tacky Taki, as Bond seems somehow more destined to appeal to middle class taste: polite, too British to be real, often slightly condescending. (Fussell is caricaturish and many find his book "cynical"; I merely use his images to make my case.) Where womanizing for Connery-Bond is just a pastime, for Moore-Bond, a weak man who happens to be lucky and clever, it is a weakness.

For these very reasons, however, Moore is the only one capable within the films' universe of undergoing moments of moral and emotional gravity. In Moonraker, when Moore's Bond is nearly killed in the thingumabob, he has a sudden flashback of Q. For a split second, I thought it was some kind of poignant memory: "Oh dear, I'll never get to see old Q again.. and we had so many cheery times together!" but then of course it turned out that he was merely remembering the thingumajig that Q had given him in case of emergency, which ended up saving his life. The point is that with Connery I wouldn't have dared to imagine such poignancy. And I like that about Moore.

To put it another way, I can see Connery-Bond getting very angry during a golf game... Moore-Bond, rather less so.

Toward the end of the film, in the final confrontation with the supervillain Hugo Drax (one of the more elegant of a number of elegant monikers among Bond villains, but the villain himself, played by the implacable Michel Lonsdale, really is outstanding; I suppose I especially like him because he greatly resembles my part-time employer at my second job in the grim neighboring town of Zabrze), Bond almost makes a speech against the blackguard's Nazi-esque eugenic scheme, but instead uses the Socratic method to subtly convince the slightly superhuman, slightly subhuman henchman Jaws to help him. Only Moore could have pulled this off convincingly, in my view. (In Octopussy he makes two high-strung speeches against mass-murder, one in clownface. He pulls it off. That's our boy.)

In any case, for me Moonraker, if only the space battle had somehow been avoided, would be probably the apex of the series. More than usually charming villain (instead of the usual embarrassing Bond film literalistic puns he makes brilliant linguistic reversals [searching the grey cells in vain for a cleverer term] such as "Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.") One of the five or six best songs of the whole series, good incidental music too. Smart girl (CIA agent played by Lois Chiles, the bitchy heiress in Death on the Nile) for Bond (at first resentful of his sexism, like Judi Dench's M; then concerned as she sees him half-dead after the scene I've now mentioned twice), not a sex toy or fickle kept woman of archfiend. To balance that out, a scene of Violence-Against-Woman that reveals the fundamental sadism of the whole Bond cycle in living color: a nice French girl who slept with Bond and helped him out early in the film is devoured by two vicious dogs (not graphic, but the pursuit is chilling). Since the time when Dostoevsky started publishing his writings we've all been aware that each masochist has an inner sadist with a masochist within who is a sadist at heart, and vice versa. The Bond films are hugely successful because the sadist in us identifies with the villain and his minions, the masochist with Bond in his moments of pain.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

How Much Can You Wishstand?

I've been meaning to tell you for ages that I bought in Gliwice a bunch of undershirts/tanktops ("vests," in British English) bearing the inscription "Durable Apparel Manufactured To Wishstand the Extreme Elements." A typo so profound and beautiful, it boggles the mind.

Tadek has a pseudo-Anglo/American shirt with a delightful Dadaist poem on it, must transcribe for you.

A River Runs Through It, or: A Few Words About Gliwice: Part III

"Today," in the words of the immortal Ice Cube, "was a good day." For those of you who don't know the song or don't remember it, let me quote you the first quatrain:

Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God
I dunno, but today seems kinda odd:
No barking from the dog, no smog
And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog!

Apart from the religious sentiment, it seems to me barely distinguishable from one of Cole Porter, Noel Coward or Lorenz Hart's light, easygoing bagatelles.

I wouldn't have said no to a spot of hog at the breakfast-table, but what I got was even better: mushroom soup. (Actually Poles, like Americans, generally prefer egg and cereal type things, with an occasional slab of tasty hog, but having been served liver for breakfast (sans bacon, let alone balsamic vinaigrette) in Russia, I'm "down for whatever.") Unlike most days (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and most Saturdays), I didn't have to teach at 8 AM, so I had time to drink two leisurely cups of coffee and read two E.B. White essays, "Children's Books" and "Motor Cars," while drinking my coffee and eating my soup. Which put me in a relaxed mood when I arrived at school at 11:20 and allowed for an unusually congenial time with the generally withdrawn German Philology students.

Today all of Gliwice was resplendent with the old White and Red, rippling forth from window and facade-- no, not wine, you dipsomaniac ruffians, the Polish flag. Tomorrow's Independence Day in Poland, you see. And that, for our hero, means another FOUR DAY WEEKEND... o joy, o rapture unforeseen!

A word of explanation: Gliwice wasn't always Polish. Until the end of the Second World War it was called "Gleiwitz" and belonged to Germany. Whereupon the Germans were driven out on Stalin's orders to points west, and Poles in Lvov, a Polish city from time immemorial but appropriated by the USSR (specifically the Ukrainian SSR) at that point in time, were driven here-- the poet Zagajewski being a case in point. (For Zagajewski, Lvov was a kind of Shangri-La, Gliwice an incredibly dreary comedown; in point of fact, for me at age 12 Boulder was a kind of Shangri-La, and Washington, DC, my new home, a comedown; but does this say more about the respective cities or about the unpleasant human fact of adolescence, and the glorification of the past in its refracted lens? I often wonder about a similar refraction I see when I meet middle-aged Poles and Russians who wax nostalgic over Communism. Yes, things are pretty grim now, there's not the solidarity among ordinary people that there was before, but doesn't the fact that these people were then young (and single) which they aren't now also sweeten the view of the past? Maybe it's a banal observation, but remember, banality was promised from the start.)

Return we to our story. So Gliwice wasn't always Polish. But Silesia was always Silesian, as far as anyone can remember. The Silesian region has its own "dialect," although I'll be damned if isn't a bona fide language, combining elements of Polish and German, sometimes hybrid, yet sometimes remote from either. But Silesia was German territory, at least from the time when there was such a thing as "Germany" (late 19th century?), and there were a lot of Germans here. Now, there are almost none (some old couples can be spotted at restaurants on the town square in summer; they often have to use some kind of pidgin English to make themselves understood.)

Sixty-five years, two months and nine days ago, Gliwice was the tinderbox from which great evil was kindled: it was here that Hitler started the war. Some of you may have read in William Shirer's Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler or elsewhere the passage in Hitler's diary or somewhere where he writes "I shall find a propaganda reason for the war...". Well, the "propaganda reason" was a fake "attack by Polish partisans" on the state-owned German radio tower in Gliwice, staged by SS men who brought corpses with them to leave at the scene, showing the viciousness of the Polish nationalists. The SS men "seized control" of the tower and broadcast in badly-accented Polish, "This radio station is now under Polish control!" If their accent was so fake, how could anyone fall for it? As Hitler said of his "propaganda reason," "It doesn't really matter."

So while you can't exactly compare Gliwice with Mount Doom where the one ring was forged (I guess that would be Vienna), it definitely has seen some dark deeds done in the night, though it actually suffered minimal damage during the war.

The radio tower still stands and is one of the more formidable sights in Gliwice. Zagajewski describes it as "an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower, in wood," but it's definitely much smaller, though it does remind one of the Eiffel. At night they light it up and it's quite stunning, apparently-- I confess I haven't gone to see it at night yet as it's far from my usual stomping-grounds. In the coming years there is going to be some kind of "Cosmic Object" there (a planetarium? unclear) and all kinds of pan-European scientific, scholarly and diplomatic conferences. But there is as I recall some kind of plaque right in front of the tower that says words to the effect of "We can forgive, but we won't forget."

Like all of Poland-- for that matter, like all of Europe-- Gliwice is a land of churches. The quasi-Gothic cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the stark All Saints' Church, the "War Veterans' Church" (just beside the black river, named for a priest-general from the war), and the small church on my way home from school, a broadly chiselled Madonna and Child protruding outward from the front, like the prow of a Viking boat, the church where my friend Tadek used to worship as a boy (he now attends Mass at a modern monstrosity in his neighborhood, Museum of Catholic Kitsch on the outside, school auditorium on the inside), are only a few examples.

But even putting the churches aside, there are some fine architectural specimens in town. Zagajewski describes most of the architecture as being "Prussian Secessionist" or something, and I guess he's right. But there is another name for some of it, and that's "Jugendstil" ("The Youth Style," a fin-de-siecle sensation you can see to spectacular effect in, for example, Riga, Latvia, or Ljubljana, Slovenia). Extravagant colors: mauve, salmon, amber and cornflower, appear as you navigate the backstreets of town, and faces begin to pop out of columns and parapets, implacable death-masks of cruel gods. The Post Office, on the other hand, is (on the outside) a gem of medieval Germanic gingerbread. On the inside.... I don't want to think or talk about it.

Ironically, many postcards of Gliwice emphasize the drab Brezhnev-era architecture of the Polytechnika, which in fact resembles some of the buildings on the CU-Boulder campus. Though sometimes those buildings can have a kind of elegiac charm, as a remnant of "what they thought the future would look like, back in 1962." One of my favorite examples of this type of thing is the building at the bottom of Columbus Circle in New York City.

In Gliwice, it's all about the river, man. If you forget about the smell (and sometimes the smell of exhaust from passing cars overpowers it), it's beautiful to look at. The first time I visited here, before I saw the Polytechnika or got to know the scene in any way, there was something deeply consoling and reassuring about the river. Its blackness makes you think of sculptures in black marble swerving and swiveling in its motion. And it's always fun to do something I learned how to do while staring at the Neva in St. Petersburg, and then honed while looking at the Boulder Creek: you stare long enough at the water, and you begin to feel that you're actually gliding forward through it on a ship.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

A River Runs Through It, or: A Few Words About Gliwice: Part II

The difference being that in Gliwice, the Tracksuit Guys make no pretense of going to school. There is, as far as I know, no official football team at the Politechnika, and the football fans here are what we Yanks would call soccer fans, or to be precise, hooligans, whose allegiance is claimed not by the PS (Politechnika Śląska) but by non-universitary professional teams like Visla (Wisła) and Piast (takes its name from a line of kings). In fact their allegiance is not to any team or player but to a two-pronged grand strategy: Getting Smashed and Smashing Faces. Anyone who has read Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, which for those who haven't I deliriously recommend as a barrel of terrifying laughs, will have some concept of the culture. Whether or not you accept the argument, made, if I'm not mistaken, by Buford in the book, that British hooligans are The Worst In The World.

Not that the Tracksuit Guys are all football hooligans or vice versa, but there is inevitably some overlap as the Tracksuit Guys' main occupations are drinking and fighting and the football hooligans' the same. The Tracksuit Guys are thuggish, just like the football fans, but unlike them, they are also generally well-built and accompanied by shapely blonde women who are either dizzyingly beautiful or Barbiesque to a repugnant extreme. This feature is highly reminiscent of Boulder. In Boulder, however, when one of these vulgarly appetizing (or should I say, appetizingly vulgar?) creatures had a tan, you would generally surmise she was from California; here in Gliwice, where tanning salons outnumber internet cafes something like 15 to 3, it's a pretty safe bet she has been under the lamp for a good many hours, unless perhaps her rich Tracksuit Guy has been able to spirit her away to Turkey or Egypt recently.

A week ago I was on my way to the internet cafe from work when a well-oiled T-Guy, red as a lobster, sitting in a parked car with two other well-lubricated G's and a fourth, the silent driver, a bit like the silent Fourth Droog in Clockwork Orange, whom I hope was at least middlingly sober, started hurling spiteful oaths at me, with the other two louts repeating the occasional fragment of his monologue in a kind of Call-and-Response reminiscent of the best work of The Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas. The gist of it was that I ought to be ashamed of myself for what I did the last time we had seen each other-- which in fact was never. However, I was grimly assured, we would meet again, and my hash would be properly settled. After a brief interchange wherein I nonchalantly protested my innocence, the dour quartet trundled off.

I was mildly disquieted by the incident for some time thereafter, going through a sequence of possibilities in my head: 1) Could it be possible that I had somewhere, somehow actually offended this man, by stepping on his foot accidentally and not apologizing or by appearing to flirt with or stare at his blonde? (No doubt he has one.) Could he have not shown his reaction at the time or could I have failed to notice it, and therefore not registered the slightest memory of his face? I deemed this highly improbable. 2) Could it be another instance supporting the Doppelganger theory I mentioned in the post called "Six Doubles" (just today, by the way, I saw another double, of a friend from NY; but I have to admit I've yet to see more than one double of someone, let alone six)? A Hitchcockian case of mistaken identity, a metaphysical transference of guilt? Possible, but also unlikely.

I decided, after conferring with Rafał (in the conversation where he outlined the dynamics of the conflict of cultures reported in last blog) and Janusz, the proprietor of the internet cafe, that in fact the most plausible analysis of the situation would reckon that it was

3) A stupid joke, perpetrated out of Tracksuit Guys' sheer love of stirring up a ruckus, which had fortunately not, in this case, curdled into actual bloodlust.

But I was somewhat shaken in the minutes following the exchange, which leads me to believe that, loudly though I may protest to the contrary, I have some hard-fighting vestigial belief in Original Sin left in me.

A Link for You

Silly, but fun.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A River Runs Through It, or: A Few Words About Gliwice: Part I

[Been taking it easy for a few days. We had a four-day weekend, a real joy for me as I usually work Friday evenings and Saturdays-- and we have another one coming up soon, yippee!!! Read a bunch, more on that later. Plus the Poles had All Saints' Day where they visit the graves of dead loved ones and remember them, and I tagged along for part of that, and then we had the election and so on, and a good friend and former student returned from England and that was exciting. I thought some people might be interested to know a little more about where exactly I am in space...]

The town where I currently (not "presently," for you half-literate hangers-on; that would mean, in English, "immediately" or "very soon") live and work is a town called Gliwice, pronouned "Glee-VEE-tse." As you can see from the top right hand corner of the page, it's in a place called Silesia, in the southwest of Poland-- Upper Silesia, to be precise. Silesia in Polish is "Shlonsk." It makes you think of an elephant's trunk, perhaps, even if you don't know that the word for elephant in Polish is "słon" (swon), in Russian "slon."

Gliwice has a population of about 200,000. A black river runs through the town, and it (the river) smells of shit, frankly. I thought this might be the result of postwar pollution until I read Adam Zagajewski's Two Cities, where he describes it as having been the same when he came here from Lvov right after the war. Students have told me that a plan is in the works to improve Ol' Man River's condition in the coming years, but I'm skeptical.

On the other hand, 70% of the town is lush green verdure, and it shows. If you talk to people in other parts of Poland, they won't believe you when you tell them that, but it's true. They'll shake their heads and say something like, "No, Upper Silesia is probably the most depressing, ugliest and poorest place in Poland." Which is flat wrong, as in fact anybody knows that the eastern regions bordering Byelorussia and Ukraine are the really grim parts of Poland. I guess part of the reason is Upper Silesia and Gliwice were always known for their coal mines, a pivotal feature of the economy here for many years. But that's now changed, as the coal mines were closed some years ago. As you would expect, many jobs were lost. But then the German car maker OPEL brought their factory here 6 years ago and there was much celebrating, as it brought new jobs. Apparently it didn't bring quite the boom that was hoped for, but most people have somehow been able to muddle through. Anyone for another statistic? Gliwice apparently is home, proportionally speaking, to the highest number of cellphones in Poland.

Gliwice's been compared to Grosse Pointe, MI, in that it's the somewhat nicer or less awful neighbor to a huge, ugly industrial city (here, Katowice; there, Detroit). But me it always somehow reminds of Boulder, where I grew up. It's like Boulder in that it's a college town, host to the Silesian Polytechnika or Polytechnic, a university with departments of everything from robotics to architecture to administration, but no humanities or arts.

And it's like Boulder in that there is a kind of sometimes not so merry war on here between different youth subcultures, as an acquaintance of mine from the internet cafe, one Rafał, was explaining to me the other day. Rafał, a Politechnika student of mixed Irish and Italian ancestry who looks Greek or Spanish, is a metalhead, and he was telling me how the metalheads and the punks can't stand each other. These two groups both tolerate the hippies, of whom there are less than I remember there being in Boulder, but when you look at them it's sometimes hard to tell the hippies and the metalheads apart. The metalheads just want to listen to their music, man; the punks are for total destruction of the established order, anarchy is freedom, man. The hippies presumably just want to smoke pot and make love, not war. But nobody likes the "Tracksuit Guys," or as we might call them, "jocks," and they don't like anybody else.