Poland

the new emotions that time brings

Very successful Warsaw Fulbrighter potluck yesterday. I spent the morning shopping, the afternoon cooking, and the evening eating. The hostess played her rented Russian harp, and we sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Greensleeves.”

Fulbrighter potluck, with harp!

I made potstickers (and wrappers), a vegetarian tofu/kapusta/szpinak stir-fry, and Nigella’s pistachio fudge, modified with cashews and coconuts. Others made barszcz, salad, peach cobbler, and pączki.

I CAN HAZ POTSTICKERS

It was great to all be gathered together again after not seeing each other en masse since orientation.

There were Fulbrighter children at the party, which was really nice. A break in the age-isolation chamber of theater/academia. Some of them are attending Polish schools, despite not having known any Polish before they arrived. One of them is at a sports-oriented elementary, and she told us that, last week, the girls had to run 100 laps of the gym, and the boys 110. If my memory of the fourth grade serves, we never did anything quite that hard-core.

Plans were made to go see the Battle of Warsaw film together, z napisami angielskimi. Also, scheming was commenced for Thanksgiving. I may or may not have told a vegetarian Fulbrighter that I could totally figure out how to make a tofurkey from scratch. I have a memory of saying “There must have been a time when some vegan chick had to do it herself, and that was the first tofurkey.” Foot, mouth, etc.

Roll call (and more food pictures):

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Poland

czwartek

Today was a checklist kind of Thursday. Getting things done. All day at the Bibilioteka Uniwersytecka w Warszawie. Wrote and sent off long-delayed article about Polish theater director. Studied for tense on the present tense; took, and survived, test on the present tense. A productive day, and I feel completely justified in doing nothing tomorrow except cooking.

Consequently, I went on a late-night shopping expedition to the Arkadia Carrefour, to get ingredients for potstickers, wrappers, and Nigella Lawson’s pistachio fudge* (and some lightweight plastic bowls, plates, forks, spoons, knives and cups) all for tomorrow’s Warsaw Fulbrighter potluck.

Ingredients I forgot that must be returned for tomorrow: tofu for the vegetarian version of the potstickers, sweetened condensed milk for the fudge, and sesame oil because it is my favorite ingredient of all time, and even though it is possible to make the potstickers without it, why would you?

Oh, and Julian Barnes won the Booker.

I feel as if I have arrived in Poland. I don’t know how this happened, or why it happened today as opposed to any other day in particular–but I feel, now more than before, that I’m here.

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Poland

Poland and Iran

Yesterday, after Polish class, I took the 503 bus south and attended a party with a bunch of Polish diplomats, economic policy and arts/culture policy folks, at the invitation of my Extraordinarily Cool Roommate.

One of them asked me to say something about the increased presence of “vulgarity” in contemporary Polish theater, by which he meant all the sex. I was entirely unable to answer this question–“vulgarity” for me means theater that’s polluted with commercialism, not anything having to do with sex or violence. Polish theater’s absence of overt commercialism makes it, for me, the opposite of “vulgar.” In fact, with the staircase spirit of tomorrow’s response to yesterday’s question, I would characterize it as leaning toward the sacred, and suggest that the profanity is often presented in service of the sacred.

Yes, some Polish theater I’ve seen does throw in too much sex, violence, and violent sex–it can become somewhat humorous at times–but I have never felt that this gesture was out of box-office concerns as much as that Polish-theater tendency towards extremes at all costs. It doesn’t strike me as vulgar as much as (occasionally) misguided in enthusiasm. And it doesn’t happen in every production. I tried to explain how I feel about all this, but I don’t think I satisfied him.

Basically, it’s hard for me to be cognizant of small changes in the Polish theater landscape, such as–for example–more sex onstage in the last few years than in the previous few years–because the overall contrast between what I see here and what I saw at home is so great that these minute distinctions don’t seem as important. Perhaps, if I were a regular observer of the scene, I’d be able to respond to his comment. But I’m not. I’m an outsider, and the grass looks greener here, and that’s as far as I can go. At the moment.

I asked another group of people how often they saw theater. “Not often. Five times a year.” Five times a year! Five times a year is very often, I said, where I come from. “Not for Warsaw.”

A number of them had just gotten back from a trip to Iran (more of the activities relating to the Polish EU presidency) and they shared pictures of Tehran, Persepolis, and more.

It was the first time I had seen so many pictures of Iran, in such short succession–all enlarged and projected on a wall–and I was fascinated. I’d really like to visit the country someday. Some of the mountains, the plants, and even the color of the sky were downright desert-Californian. And the Persepolis site has stone ruins in it that look too large to be real.

There were also pictures of the anti-Israel propaganda posters that the government has on the subway in Tehran. There is something shocking about great graphic design being used for anti-ethnic statements. The images were so polished, so clean, so professional-looking. They were like Apple design posters. A Star of David in dust on the floor, being swept up by a broom. A swastika inscribed in the star (talk about a disturbing image for a room full of Polish diplomats in Warsaw…) And one, so over-the-top as to be ridiculous–out of a SNL sketch about Nazis or something–Stars of David on a roll of toilet paper.

I don’t want to overemphasize this point. There were hundreds of slides of beautiful landscapes in Iran, of families and children, of people praying, of people selling herbs and beans and plants in a market, of mosques and mosaics and bas-relief stone carvings and ancient stone columns and some of the most gorgeous mountains and canyons I’d ever seen. Polish diplomats having dinner with friends in Iran, posing in front of blue-tiled fountains and jagged hills.

All in all, the posters seemed altogether out of context with all the other images of this beautiful, hospitable, picturesque country. Except for one sequence. There were also pictures from a protest in what the Polish diplomats said was a more conservative neighborhood–angry protesters holding “Down with USA” signs (in English as well as Farsi–all these signs and posters had English translations on them). One of the diplomats said that the translation was inaccurate–that the Farsi said “Death to the USA,” not “Down with.”

My favorite picture from this series was of a little boy with his head leaning on a “Death to the USA” sign, half-asleep. It was very ambiguous. It looked as if he didn’t really care about the protests.

Iran must be a complicated place to be in now. I would really like to see it for myself, some day.

Took a taxi home. (First time doing that in Warsaw, too.)

To change the subject (let’s)–this morning, I uploaded a whole bunch of new Parallel Octave sound files onto the site. You can listen here. Gertrude Stein, Swinburne, Blake, Whitman, and (of course) another version of Emperor of Ice-Cream. I’m so proud of what the group is doing. I miss them. I must try to have some kind of similar thing happen here in Poland, at some point.

Next Baltimore ParOct session this Sunday from 1-2:30 pm. More Gertrude Stein and some Amy Lowell.

And right now, I’m writing, at home, on a laptop, and having one of those Calvin and Hobbes moments where you try to convince one fly to fly out the window and another three come in. Scheduling interviews. Planning for a potluck with friends on Friday. In the hallway, my roommate’s father affixes new glass panels to a door. A tranquil existence. A very calm Wednesday. An ordinary day in Warsaw.

Let’s let Julian Barnes have the last word. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m going through the book (much easier to do this in a Kindle-for-Mac version) and posting my favorite passages. But this one is oddly appropriate to this post’s discussion, and it has a variation on that Greek messenger speech “And only I have escaped to tell you” line.

A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.

I survived. “He survived to tell the tale”—that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

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Poland, theater

Of course we were pretentious–what is youth for?

Off to the university library for some Polish class homework. One of the pleasures of a new city is navigating the different routes to your destination; I’m not at the point yet that I know the best routes from hither to thither, so I try new buses and things. The 118, the 503, the 105, the 128…

The library has a cafe on the ground level where you can get a cup of tea for 4 PLN and a bowl of soup for 5. (Again, divide by 3 for USD.) I’ll camp out there and do review homework until class this evening.

This morning, organizing logistics for some upcoming interviews with people, and realizing my October and November are getting quite full. In the next four weeks, I’ll be going to Wroclaw twice, Krakow once, and Lublin once. I was trying to make a list of available evenings in Warsaw when I could conduct an interview, and was surprised to only have a handful of them.

Later tonight, I’m going to go to a party at the house of a friend of a friend, in a hitherto-unvisited neighborhood, near the Muranow metro stop.

Julian Barnes wants to take over for a bit here:

Of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for? We used terms like “Weltanschauung” and “Sturm und Drang,” enjoyed saying “That’s philosophically self-evident,” and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive. Our parents saw things differently, picturing their children as innocents suddenly exposed to noxious influence. So Colin’s mother referred to me as his “dark angel”; my father blamed Alex when he found me reading The Communist Manifesto; Colin was fingered by Alex’s parents when they caught him with a hard-boiled American crime novel. And so on. It was the same with sex. Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

This particular quote makes me realize there are some similarities in Barnes’s project in this book to that of Donna Tartt in The Secret History. Intellectual coming-of-age and corruption. But Barnes, unlike Tartt, leaves the young people behind quickly to go to looking back at them from the point of view of an older character.

There you have it. I really liked The Sense of an Ending. I could read the entire thing over again, right now.

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Poland

A thoroughly satisfying Saturday

Yesterday, ran some post-office and shopping errands in the morning, and then went with my roommate M. and her friend A. to see a screening of the Albanian film “Amnesty,” directed by Buyar Alimani, at the Warsaw Film Festival. It was at the Kinoteka, in the Pałac Kultury i Nauki. I really enjoyed the visual language of the film–it’s about people dealing with a lack of opportunity in their society–unemployment, too many people in prison, etc.–and oftentimes the film would be silent and still when there was nothing to say. Very graceful movement, very slowly unfolding. Lovely.

Afterwards we went for hummus and Shiraz in the Teatr Dramatyczny-lobby adjacent cafe in the Pałac and had the longest in-Polish conversation I have managed to sustain thus far.

And then M. and I ate dinner at home and defrosted the freezer in her seventies-era Russian-made refrigerator. Just another Saturday night in Warsaw. I introduced her to the idea (American, energy-wasteful) of using a hair dryer to expedite the process.

As much as I miss having rehearsals to actively participate in at the moment, it is important to point out to myself that when I do have such rehearsals, I can’t take place in such luxuriously extended socializing–I can’t just let one thing unfold into the next without being aware of “wasted” time. I need to enjoy this period of relative quiet, because one thing that’s certain, knowing me, is that there will–soon enough–be another period of relative whirlwindiness.

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Poland

end-of-week roundup

I was in Wroclaw for a few days this week, seeing Teatr ZAR’s ANHELLI: The Calling, the 3rd part of “Gospels of Childhood.” I saw Parts 1 and 2 in 2009 with the US Artists initiative. At the performance, I also had a surprise sighting of P., from Baltimore, in town for Dialog. Very cool to see the trilogy completed, and also to see a familiar face.

Got back in Warsaw mid-week. Continuing to write articles about everything I’ve been seeing here. Continuing with Polish language class, with more Polish film (“Gateway to Europe”).

And having some very interesting conversations–some spontaneous, some more planned– with friends and fellow artists. Today I met with a friend and talked about lyrics and “song verse” vs. “speech verse” for almost 3 hours. It is a pleasure to be able to geek out on scansion.

It feels as if I’ve found more people to talk to, more often, here in Warsaw. One of the tough things to leave behind about the MFA was the sense of community–good to have a new one forming here.

And I also got the first haircut I’ve had in over a year.

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film, Poland, politics

Last night,

after buying a train ticket for my trip to Wrocław tomorrow, I went to the first evening of the Warsaw Film Festival, at the Kinoteka in the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, and saw the European premiere of an incredible documentary, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom,” about the career and murder of journalist Anna Politovskaya.

She was killed, in all likelihood (her murder is still very much unsolved) as retaliation for her conducting hard-hitting investigative journalism, about Chechnya and refugee issues within Russia. Her writing was heavily critical of the Russian government.

Yesterday’s date (10/8/11) was the five-year anniversary of the attack on Politovskaya, and her death. The film had been screened earlier that day for an audience of her family members in Russia.

The producer, Malcolm Dixelius, was present for a Q&A with the audience afterwards.

Here’s more about the film, from an August Variety review:

Profoundly moving, politically provocative and apt to provoke moral outrage in anyone short of Vladimir Putin, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” is acclaimed documentarian Maria Goldovskaya’s portrait of her longtime friend Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist whose still-unsolved 2006 murder remains a symbol of the national corruption she tried to expose. Goldovskaya does not concern herself with the killing as much as with Politkovskaya’s character and the conflicts in Chechnya she covered so doggedly, presumably leading to her death. Festival play and likely ecstatic word of mouth should lead to a specialty run beyond the pic’s Oscar-qualifying DocuWeeks berth.

Pic reps a very personal follow-up to Goldovskaya’s 1991 docu “A Taste of Freedom,” in which Politkovskaya and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Russian TV personality Sasha, were subjects. That film was made during Russia’s honeymoon with democracy; that things haven’t quite worked out is clear from the title of the new pic, which was originally intended to be a sequel set in the post-Putin era.

In preparation for a film that would have reassessed the course of Russian history since the fall of communism, Goldovskaya interviewed Politkovskaya extensively, yielding the powerful, poignant conversations that are at the heart of “A Bitter Taste of Freedom.” Politkovskaya, whose public persona seemed rather severe (especially to Westerners who saw her only in still photographs), is heartbreakingly lovely here, not just physically, but artistically: From the resolve she brings to her work, she seems to know she’s sealing her own fate.

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