Dog's Dinner

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

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me in a relaxed mood when I arrived at school at 11:20 and allowed for an unusually congenial time with the generally withdrawn German Philology students.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.


At 2:33 PM, Blogger Small Man said...

I sympathize with your theme in this series. I spent a semester near a perhaps even more polluted and smelly river in Shanghai. Actually I could see it from the window of my dorm room, and look across it to the apartments on the other side of river, their balconies constantly adorned by drying laundry. Often I would sit on my window ledge admiring the river, even though in retrospect the sight was not really aesthetically satisfying in any way. There's just something comforting about a river.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ice-cube, bacon, chicken liver, black rivers, germans speaking pigeon english and buildings of the misbegotten future in New York topped off by a transformation into a ship. Carry on hero and please recount the adventures of the four day weekend. Thanks for the words.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

I was just browsing various blogs as I was doing a search on the word poster, and I just wanted to say that I really like what you've done with your blog, even though it wasn't particularly related to what I searched for. I appreciate your postings, and your blog is a good example of how a blog should be done. I've only just recently started a Posters website - feel free to visit it when you get a chance if you wish. Much success, antonio.


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