Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life

My dear friend Sarah sent me a book in the mail the other day. It came across the pond highly recommended--she even sent me her copy.

Ever since the book arrived in our tiny, metal mailbox hole, I haven't been able to leave it. The book is a collection of Etty Hillesum's, a Jewish woman from Amsterdam, diary entries from 1941 through 1943. We know she will die in Auschwitz at the age of 29. And, although, she could have only chronicled her experiences and atrocities of living the Holocaust, she focused on her inner growth instead. She was only 27 when she started these writings, but each entry shows tangible psychological and spiritual growth. She reaches conclusions about life and happiness that most people might never even consider; and she expresses thoughts and feelings that, in anyone elses' words, could be too simple or too complex to seem real.

Every page is full of insights that are so clear that only after 150 pages, I feel like I'm starting to see the world with different eyes. Etty deliberately "works" on herself, in every moment, infusing love into every encounter. I can't help but think she found what she was looking for.

Some quotes:

--If you have a rich inner life, I would have said, there probably isn't all that much difference between the inside and outside of a camp.

--And sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.

--I know about the mounting human suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet--at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms around me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop. That is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any other senseless human atrocity will be ever be able to change it.

--If one finds the strength to deal with small things, one finds it to deal with the large ones as well.

--Even if there is only one decent German, they would deserve to be protected from the barbarian rabble and for that one German's sake one should not pour out one's hatred for the entire people.

--Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that's not too awful either, but never, never give up.

A Weekend in the Mountains

This is so cool -- this past weekend, a student that Bethanie and I both teach, invited us to his cabin in the mountains. So we headed up there with his whole family. It's funny cause we teach English to four out of six people in the family. Anyways, we went on a leg crushing hike on Saturday for like 6 hours. We walked through the woods along a long ridge in the shape of a horseshoe. The views were great. In the distance we could see the Czech Republic. That night we ate Polish sausage (even Bethanie had some--she couldn't resist) from the grill and sat around the camp fire. Sunday we slept in. Enjoyed coffee in the fresh mountain air, something we're not used to living in Katowice, and then went for another 2 hour hike in a setting that looked amazingly like Switzerland before catching the train home. Pretty good.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Train to Lviv

We scooted on through Tarnów, Debica, and Rzeszów before arriving in Przemysl, about 12 km from the Poland/Ukraine border. It was 1:15 a.m. as we shuffled to the queue of the sleeper train on the track opposite. Travelers hoping to pass from Poland into the Ukraine are required by circumstance to change trains in Przemysl. Unlike tracks in Poland and the rest of the European Union that are 4’ wide, Ukrainian trains run on tracks that are 4.5’ across for defensive purposes, i.e. to avoid being invaded by Germany, a commendable but nevertheless annoying design modification at this time of morning.

The “bouncer” we’ll call him for lack of a better word, didn’t as much welcome us to the train as intimidate us aboard. Though we were still on Polish soil we were clearly entering a place well beyond anything we had ever experienced. He spoke Ukrainian, a Slavic language like Polish and Czech. These languages share many words and I’ve been told that people from different Slavic countries can often communicate with each other. However, the little Polish I knew was proving useless now.

We boarded car two and were escorted its full length to our sleeping compartment at the far end of the corridor. To our shock and appreciation, our compartment was a two-person sleeper. In 2004 while in Italy we took a night train from Rome to Venice. Six people were crammed onto narrow bunks in a space not larger than 6’x6’ with a 7.5’ ceiling. If you’ve ever experienced something like this you know how uncomfortable it can be. If you haven’t, then take my word from it—sleeping in a closet full of strangers with sweaty feet doesn’t present the most restful seven hours.

The feel of the train was like what I would expect to find on one of those who-done-it murder mystery cruises where the passengers are part of some elaborate interactive performance and they have to find the killer before the killer finds them. The Persian rug beneath our feet was faded and tattered—some of its tassels missing. An olive curtain, intended to conceal our coats and shoes, hung from the ceiling a few inches from the light wood paneled wall opposite our bunks. I hoisted my bag up to the overhead rack, stretched for a moment, happy to no longer be weighed down by 15 kilos of clothes, and pulled back the single white lace curtain that covered the bottom half of the window. The window had no obvious opening mechanism. No school bus style thumb-operated tabs that caused the window to jerk down two inches at a time. Nothing. Not even a pull cord only to be used in emergencies.

But at this stage, emergency exit or not, all we wanted to do was sleep. Unfortunately, we had yet to go through all the check-in procedures necessary for international train travel. First the bouncer returned and, after some mental math that took a fair amount of time, collected our fares. It seemed like a high price, but as the train was already in motion and we were obviously in no position to bargain we paid him without a word. Next the Polish and Ukrainian border guards stopped in to compare our passport photos to our present tired appearances and give us the necessary stamps to proceed. The latter guard decided to use the corner of our bottom bunk as her temporary base—collecting documents from down the hall and returning to our chamber to enter the details into her laptop before departing and then returning with a new set of passports to repeat the process. Again we were in no position to make a fuss and after 20 minutes we were able to lock our door and settle in for two hours of uninterrupted rocking along with a few moments of sleep. We would wake up in Lviv.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv, Lwow, Lvov. It has way too many names. But whatever it's called, it's fantastic! We visited the city for 3 days over our Easter holiday last week. It's amazing that a culture so different is just a train ride away.

We'll be posting several more blogs on the city (complete w/ picture collages) in the coming days. We had so many photos and so much to write that we couldn't fit it into just one, two, or five blogs.

check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lviv for more details in the meantime.

Fashionable Lviv

We all have an image of what Ukrainian fashion is. The skin-tight stone washed jeans with metal studs, super short mini-skirts, dramatic make-up, pleather jackets, and old women with scarves tied snuggly under their chins. The fashions of the 80s and 90s are still the fashions of today. I can now report that this is one stereotype that we found true.
I had hoped before arriving in Lviv that I could find a pair of jeans and a few t-shirt souvenirs to take back with me. I knew Molly is a fan of foreign t-shirts and Josh’s birthday is in just a few days, so we were excited to buy cheesy Cyrillic shirts for our siblings. Plus, Bhads and I have pretty much worn out our University of Vienna shirts we got on our first European adventure, and would’ve liked to replace them with one from Lviv. In short, we found two places to buy t-shirts: the university and a small souvenir shop. The university had 2 shirt designs, both only in XL, with a lion on one and the Virgin Mary on the other. They weren’t cheesy enough for us to buy or wear with confidence. The other shirts we found lived in a small shop on the Rynok Square. It was a tiny place, but the lack of things inside made the shop look enormous; you know that feeling when you get served a small piece of food on a large plate? That’s what it was. The man working the shop sat on his fold-up chair and drank his coffee, hardly seeming to notice the customers milling about his store. The shirts were displayed on the wall. The designs were bad, but not quite bad enough. Two of the shirts were in English; one saying “Vodka is Life” and the other “Merry Christmas from Lviv.” The others were variant colors of a big smiley face with a sentence of unknown Cyrillic written around it.
I can honestly say that we didn’t see anyone wearing anything with Cyrillic lettering the whole time we were there. All the shirts with text were printed in English. It doesn’t matter what they say, but English is a modern status symbol (see Bhad’s t-shirt blog below). It represents Pop Culture, wealth and prosperity; and in a country so impoverished and repressed as Ukraine I guess it’s only natural for people to strive towards that.
Besides t-shirts, we found people—especially women—wearing the most interesting things! Leather or pleather jackets in all shades of the rainbow (reminiscent of racing gear), permed hair and equally permed bangs, very tall boots with buckles and studs galore. Even a woman police officer we saw strolling across town was doing so wearing tall leather boots (see pic). I’m making an assumption here, but all of those years under Communism, where everyone was forced into anonymity and sameness, have created a black lash now against simplicity. Every purse in a shop window, every shoe, every boot, every pair of jeans are adorned with bright colors, metallics, jewels, and rivets. You just can’t find a piece of clothing that isn’t adorned with something.
On the other hand, the older generation seems to have stayed the same. This is probably similar in every culture, but it is so intriguing in Ukraine. The women, almost always, wear headscarves—usually in bright red, yellow, and blue traditional patterns. The men wear dark colored golf hats with their shirts and ties. We grew up with the image of the Ukrainian woman, round and fussy with a headscarf around her tired face. Even though some stereotypes proved true, many of the older women flashed hearty smiles and some even stopped on the sidewalk to chat with us. They would get tickled when we said we knew some Polish, and then cheerfully remind us that Lviv used to be Poland before the war. They’d say goodbye with a swish of the hand, and waddle off down the road, looking back to make sure we were doing the same.

Galicja's Eastern Capitol?

Before WW2, Lviv was the eastern capitol of the Polish region of Galicia, and at that time Galicia had the second largest Jewish population in the world. Yet, of course, those Jews are gone now. After the war, the Polish border shifted westward (Germany lost land, including Katowice and Wroclaw, as a reparation), and Lviv was left on the outskirts. Ukraine swept up the eastern Galician region and Lviv has been Ukrainian ever since.
We assumed that since Lviv was such a center for Jewish learning and culture before the war, there would be some remnants or even recreations of this in places throughout the city. Krakow has restored its Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, with numerous museums, bookstores, synagogues, cemeteries, concerts, restaurants, gift shops, and tours. And it’s bustling. But Lviv had nothing of the sort. I mean nothing. We were shocked.
We walked by one of the two synagogues in the city the first day we arrived. It was tucked away in a neighborhood close to the train station and guarded by an 8’ tall metal fence. The façade was freshly painted yellow, but dotted with bright blue paint splotches, clearly vandalized. We reached the gate and gave it a push. It was locked, so we turned to keep on back to the city. I glanced across the street, and a small elderly lady was peeking out from behind her lace curtain gesturing “Back! Back!” Confused, we looked back towards the synagogue to see an old man opening the metal gate. He peered at us and said something in Ukrainian and we rushed back towards him. “Can we see inside?” we asked in broken Polish. He smiled and responded that the synagogue was being remodeled so it was closed. After thanking him and wishing him a happy holiday, as well as mouthing thanks to the lady behind the curtain, we walked on.
A couple of days later, we found the second synagogue. We knew where it was on our map, but we couldn’t seem to find it in reality. The neighborhood was very neglected (pictured), the buildings and pavement crumbly, but it didn’t feel unsafe. Bhad plucked up the courage to ask a passer-by where the synagogue was, and he pointed us left on the next block. No wonder we missed it! The building was slung in the same disheveled tone as its neighbors, windows foggy with dust, and no clear indication that it was an important site. We approached the door and rung the doorbell (pictured along with metal plate over the place were the mezuzah used to be). No answer. So we knocked and we rang again. Of course, still no answer. A small woman with a blue hat was making her way down the sloped street towards us, calling out something in Ukrainian. She helped us understand her with gestures to her eyes and indications at the door. We exclaimed “Tak!” as she searched under her layers for the keys hanging on a long string.
She let us in, laughing and muttering things in her language, as if two tourists wanting to see her synagogue were of the oddest things that could’ve happened on a Friday morning. Waving her hands towards the main sanctuary entrance, she motioned for us to go on in while she settled her things on the table in the hall. The sanctuary was large and filled with movie-theater-style chairs, posters and pictures hung to the walls, and the ceiling seemed to climb higher as we stood there. One wall was dedicated to the Holocaust victims, and showed enlarged photos of crying children and old men with circular glasses being tormented by Nazi officers. There was also text to accompany. Our friend joined us in the sanctuary and pointed to that wall, saying “Niemcy…,” briefly commenting that it concerned Germany. We couldn’t read the Cyrillic, but we clearly understood what it meant. Another wall was covered in pictures of school kids performing plays during holidays, Hebrew classes, and other members of the community. There were old posters dedicated to the Shoah (the Holocaust), theater performances, and one that read: Mazel Tov, painted with a dancing couple (all pictured). The back wall was empty except for a few marble plaques dedicating the remodeling of the synagogue to certain members of the community and officially naming it Shalom Alechem. It was all written in Ukrainian, English, and Hebrew.
After talking, or more aptly trying to pick out keywords in Polish, with our friend, we thanked her and left. We were so lucky to have arrived at that door seconds before she appeared coming down the hill, and so appreciative to have such a caring and intimate tour.

Our Ukrainian Home

We had been warned that hotels in Lviv were pricey and, well, bad. Bhadri researched mid-range hotels and found the general price to be around 500 hrivny (100 dollars), which is outrageous for Eastern Europe. With that price you’d expect luxury coming out your ears. But the reality was that despite the high price these hotels were still dirty, uncomfortable, and not necessarily close to the city center. Also, Lviv has problems with it’s water system—hot water is delegated to different parts of the city at different times, so most of the day you will be without.
Thankfully, we had a very pleasant stay in Lviv. Bhad found a website advertising apartments for short-term rent and followed up. In case you’re ever going to Lviv and need accommodation, check their website out: http://www.inlviv.info/. They were really nice and have loads of apartments. For a one-bedroom apartment in the city center, it was 250 hrivny, and it included a king sized bed, a bathtub, satellite tv, and a full kitchen! Plus, it had it’s own water system which meant there was hot water all day. It was incredible.
The day we arrived, exhausted from an all-night train journey and culture-shocked, we had quite a time finding the place. After about 3 hours of texting the company, not texting back because our phone wouldn’t work, hunting down their signless office, and finally trekking back to the apartment to friendly Oksana and her baby girl warmly inviting us inside. The owner, Oksana, was the nicest woman and keen to chat with us a bit in English before heading out for the day. I made buddies with her 2-yr old girl, Sulamika, before she handed us the keys and took leave.
We crashed on the massive plushness of the bed and sighed. What a day. Really, what a two days. We’d been awake now for about 48 hours, with a few winks on the train between customs officials and conductors visits. It was good to feel settled.
After a luxurious bath and a few Reeses Easter eggs (provided by my dear Mom) we’d rationed, we set out into town to buy foodstuffs for dinner. This was possibly the second hardest thing we’d done all day, next to finding our apartment. There were no food stores. How is this possible? Poland has a food store, stand, or shop every 25 meters. We searched for about 45 minutes in the city center before finding an inside market, where we bought eggs, vodka, coffee, and creamer—the essentials. We took our goods home and, after a cup of coffee (100% instant, as it boasted on it’s label), whipped up a tasty dinner. Note: the eggs in the photo are real. They were florescent yellow, I kid you not.
Our stay in this apartment was delightful. We made some delicious home-cooked meals, took some soothing baths, slept more soundly than we have in months, and got to watch hours of BBC news and international soccer.

Around Lviv, Ukraine

We covered quite a bit of ground during the three days we were in Lviv. And, although we got more and more comfortable with the city, we were constantly shocked and impressed by it. Lviv was both run-down and beautiful, impoverished and enchanting, exotic and familiar.

Statues and monuments were sprinkled across the city. Most were of old, stoic men, but others were of Greek gods and goddesses, angels, the Virgin Mary, or Communist-style abstract sculptures. A 35’ Soviet-esque statue of a man whose name we have no idea (engraved at the base in Cyrillic) stood opposite the university at the entrance of a large, planned park. He was a bit intimidating, although the bright and sunny day did add an element of playfulness to his rigid features (pictured). We set up our camera on his marble base and put the timer on. That’s us in front of the university building, standing next to the other couple taking photos (pictured). St. Ed’s has nothing on Univ of Lviv—it’s like a palace…of learning. A castle for culture. An estate of knowledge. Anyways, it was pretty.

We found some very interesting gems in Lviv that seemed to be dropped straight out of the 1950’s. The market we visited, where we found good instant coffee (no, that wasn’t a typo—it was actually delicious) and florescent yellow eggs, weighed all of their bulk goods on a white scale (pictured) that was as old as the hills. And instead of typing your total up on a cash register, they used a wooden abacus (shown in the bottom left-hand corner of the market picture). They shuffled the wooden balls quicker than anyone could type—it was wonderful. The cars were another thing. Most of the cars in the city were oldies with a strong Soviet flavor. Probably from the 60’s, these cars were consistently in tiptop shape and chugged around town with attitude. We found an old Red Cross van one day, deep olive green with perfectly round headlights, parked right outside a church. We goggled for a moment and continued our walk. Quite a few of the trams seemed to be from the same period. By far the most quirky thing we found was the drink machine (pictured). We’re still not sure how it works, but there is a glass glass already loaded and you can choose between two options: one costing 25¢ and the other 10¢. We wondered: does everyone share the same glass?

The small, cobbled streets on the Rynok (the main square) were little packages of the past. Cellar coffee shops deep under the streets, soaring Orthodox churches topped with silver domes, tiny shops with Catholic bishops’ and priests’ gold embroidered silk robes displayed in the windows, the healthy-looking stray dogs laying belly-up to the sun on the green grass, the merchants selling their boxes of turnips and beets on the sidewalk, the cars zooming past pedestrians and missing a collision by inches, couples walking hand in hand, licking their ice cream cones on even the chilliest day.

The architecture on the square was amazingly well maintained and charming, similar to Krakow. But it felt very different from it’s Polish equivalent. We rarely, rarely heard English spoken and it seemed like we were the only foreigners in the city. No one gawked or got angry with us because we were tourists, it was like Lviv hadn’t had the international exposure yet to make the locals hate us. In every archway there was a courtyard, filled with laundry draped over long lines, wooden balconies sloping at a dangerous angle, and other archways, windows and doors that kaleidoscoped your view. The signs and advertisements where all in Ukrainian/Cyrillic so we couldn’t figure out where we were or what we were looking at until we peeked in a window or popped in a door. Every city block held a new mystery.