Twenty Years Ago Today

The dinner was infinite. Every two hours or so they brought out another course. And there were snacks on the tables at all times. We had cutlet for the main course followed later by meat and rice; the egg-roll-type things were served with barszcz; cold cuts stayed on the table all evening, too. And of course there was vodka. The seventy some odd bottles R made certainly did not go to waste.

There was a most interesting traditional dance. E began waltzing with R, then someone would approach them, clap, and cut in. Whenever someone was done dancing with E, he/she/they (often couples danced with E, making a strange circle) headed over to where R was. After dropping money into a hat held by some lady, the shook R’s hand and took a shot which R had poured.

During the dance the band would often stop playing and whoever was dancing with E would make up a verse, often belting it out while another sang the slightly out of tune harmony so common to this area. One lady must have taken six or more verses.

After this was completed, the crowd grabbed E and R and tossed them up and down. R had quite a frightful expression the entire time. It looked like a blast to me, but R solemnly informed me, “It’s dangerous! I could have smashed my head on the floor or the ceiling!”

Joe and I went out for a walk this morning to take some pictures. He did a lot this weekend to help me with my new camera. I feel much more confident in my picture-taking ability now.

Journal entry from my first Polish wedding

 

20 Years

When we arrived, we were all exhausted. It was not just the journey itself, a trip that included a five-plus hour wait on the tarmac at Dulles while we waited for some part or other to be flown from Atlanta and installed on the plane, replacing the broken whatever that was keeping us grounded. It was not the nauseating bus ride from Warsaw to Radom, where our training was to be held, a ride that included much swaying as memory serves as well as a lot of heat and an already-upset stomach for me. Framing all of this was the simple adventure the group of Americans (were there sixty-some of us, or was it eighty-something?) were embarking upon. A new country with a new language and new culture (new to us, anyway), a new job, a new everything.

We arrived at the training center to find a crowd of Poles — our host families, with whom we would be spending the next twelve weeks — milling about the crumbling parking area, walking around the building, just generally waiting. Kids from the surrounding apartment blocks were circling the main training building on roller blades, something that somehow surprised me and stuck with me as the most memorable element of our arrival. Somehow or other we were portioned off to the various families, and I set off in a Polish Fiat 126p — a Maluch, meaning “a small little thing” — with a mustachioed man and what I thought was his son. I never saw the man again, never figured out who he was. The young man I thought was his son was Piotr, the son of the woman who was putting me up for twelve weeks during training. My host brother and host mother — host family — though the relationship between my “brother” and me at times was so strained that even outsiders noticed the tension.

training

Of all things about that arrival, though, I most clearly remember those children on roller blades, circling the building, screaming and laughing in a language that was then unintelligible to me but now is an every day reality. Twenty years ago, though, it was gibberish. Poland, a mystery. The future, an adventure.

We were all so naive then. Well, I was so naive then. Naive about my motives. Naive about the impact I would have. Naive about my own ability. Naive about the future. No, not naive, perhaps. Just unable to guess at the turn of events that, twenty years later, would lead me to go on a walk with my Polish (now Polish-American) wife up the street with my son, who just learned to ride a bike really well (“Daddy, I’m really getting the hang of this!”) and my daughter on her new roller skates. Not roller blades, but roller skates — the variety I used myself as a kid, the type I would have expected to find kids wearing in Poland in 1996 instead of roller blades.

6-DSCF9457

Twenty years ago. June 3, 1996 — the day I arrived in Poland for the first time. The day it arrived in my heart and soul, never to leave.

Long Day

It has been an exhausting day. I had practice maturas from eight to nine, then I came home to do some planning. I taught class IIIA and then had an hour break, so I took the opportunity to run take some pictures in the cemetery while the snow was falling and everything was relatively untouched. I also took a picture off the Mastelas’ bridge – another attempt. Then I rushed back to school to wolf down some lunch and then head off to teach IA and IC, then tried yet another experiment with IVA. I had Anna B. and Monika K. conduct class for a while. It meant that we didn’t cover nearly as much as we should have, but I think it might actually work out if I give them enough time to prepare for their teaching engagement. We’ll see. I want to give them as many opportunities to speak somewhat authentic English as possible. After that Chhavi and I taught dancing for almost an hour. We came home and I had enough time to realize I was really tired before heading off for an hour of basketball. Afterwards I returned home and cooked dinner. So basically I’ve been going for fourteen hours straight without many real breaks.

November Projects

My anal-ity about writing in this every night has certainly disappeared. I really have nothing on my mind to write about tonight, but I thought I’d jot down a few things before going to bed.

I finally sent Jarek the stuff from my presentation next week. It’s good to be done with all of that, but I’m still plagued by those thoughts of, “Do I have enough material to last me forty-five minutes?” It’s just like the worries I have every night as I prepare my lessons, but here it’s a little different: I cannot just fake it without everyone knowing it. I’ll spend some time Sunday (probably more than I anticipate) preparing a little something extra. I’ve been thinking about having an open discussion about lesson planning in general, but to what ends? I can’t really think of where I’d want to lead the discussion, so what’s the point? I’ll do some more thinking on that as well.

Today we had the presentations in IB and they went rather well, I thought. Their projects aren’t quite as elaborate as IA’s or IC’s but they’re good all the same. Their presentations were much more effective because we had each person teach the class two or three new words from their projects and then had a bit of a review after every group had gone.

I think on a whole the projects were very successful. I think the students enjoyed doing them and probably thought it was an original assignment, coming from English teachers. The other teachers have all commented on the projects. (We’re keeping them in the teachers’ room while we grade them.) Everyone says they look nice and that it’s a good idea which should promote learning. I’m really pleased with how everything went. It gave me a nice feeling this afternoon looking at all those projects and think, “Hey – that was my idea.” I came up with a highly effective and educational learning project. Certainly it’s not original, but I thought of it myself with no outside help. I’m quite proud of myself. Ha.

This week has gone by so quickly. The time is just flying. November seems like it just began and it’s almost two-thirds over. Next week will go by rather quickly because I only have two days (because of the IST). Then we have three weeks until Christmas break begins. And then we’ll have just a few weeks before winter break. It’s really going to go by quickly now. And in some ways it can’t go by quickly enough. I have trouble going to sleep sometimes because I keep thinking about my homecoming, and that is happening more and more frequently. Two years stretched before me endlessly – now I’m down to a little over seven months. It’s almost three-fourths over . . .

Plums

It’s amazing how quickly plums can roll. You would think that since they’re not really round but more oblong—more like a small American football than a soccer ball—that they wouldn’t roll as much as they would wobble, doing a strange dance which could look like a drunken lame man hobbling down the street. But they did scoot through the bus with amazing speed.

When the bag full of plums sitting in the aisle tipped over, I didn’t imagine the comedy of the ensuing scene. Its owner, a drunken Polish man in dire need of a belt, was completely obvious to the fact that his plums were making their way throughout the bus, rolling down the aisle and under people’s feet. Finally, whether by intuition or chance, he realized what was happening and with a groggy grunt he turned around, bent over and began picking up the plums. First he had to put the bag back up, and this resulted in an immediate and new deluge of plums.

Containing my own amusement—for it’s not a good idea to laugh at a drunk man who’s loosing all his plums—I helped him put the bag back up and then grabbed a few of the plums and plunked them back into his bag.

After he replaced the fruit in his immediate reach, he began moving people’s legs aside with a gruff “Przepraszam” as he lurched for the plums which had rolled under passengers’ chairs. Pleased with the unexpected entertainment, we sober riders which him, glancing up occasionally to smile at each other as if to say, “If only this poor guy knew how stupid he looks.”

Finally he retrieved all the fruit that was within a few feet of him, but then he revealed just how tenacious he could be. Swaying with the bus which, combined with the high level of alcohol coursing through his veins, seemed to make him look a shade of nauseous green which is not healthy even for folks with the strongest stomachs, he stood up and stumbled toward the front of the bus, grasping the chairs for balance.

His destination: a small trove of plums which had rolled all the way to the front of the bus.

He brought back three or four, dropped them in his bag which he carefully rearranged to prevent the catastrophe from happening again, then slumped down into the floor—there were no empty seats—and leaned over in a drunken stupor. A lone plum, which had somehow eluded the man, sat balanced in the middle of the isle. Though the bus was swaying back and forth fiercely and though his comrades had set an amusing president, the plum did not roll at all but sat still, content to be alone and free.

And that was what kept me amused for the rest of the bus ride from Kraków.

Journals

I got journals from IIB and IIIA today. I’ve already graded the journals from IIIA but I really dread starting on the big stack from IIB. It takes such a long time to grade those things because I always want to be fair. I don’t know if it’s possible in such a subjective thing as journals, but I try nonetheless. In some ways I wonder if they’re more trouble than they’re worth. That’s really a stupid thing to think because it does a great deal of good for the students—it provides an opportunity for them to write without worrying about mistakes or the eventual grade (for correctness, that is). The question is not whether or not to continue the assignment, but how to grade it more quickly and effectively.

I just noticed a drawback to the new grading system I’m using this year. I can’t get any kind of grade whatsoever until I have at least one grade in each area (test, journal, projects, etc). That will mean that we have to give a lot of assignments to each class. That won’t be too difficult, but it will be terribly time consuming to grade all those things and then put the grades in the computer.

One thing is certain: I am not doing all the grading like I did last year. I did it because I had so much more free time than Danuta did, but this year I’m going to get her to grade a few things. Of course that wasn’t the only reason: I was also worried that she would grade them too harshly. I always thought of those tests she gave IIB last year—some students received no credit whatsoever. I could never convince her that giving no credit for a test item is a bad idea. Perhaps this year I can talk her into it—but she is so stubborn at times.

Light

I survived the first of many Wednesdays, all of which will certainly be hellish. Eight lessons without a break is tough. But I will admit that it wasn’t as tough as I was expecting. I rather enjoyed each class, most of which are with the first class (group A, B, or C). I have IIIA to begin with, and then I have only first year students. And just as I did last year, I’m finding that I really like the first class. They’re all great, and even though I thought I had a good start with the first classes last year, I think I’m doing much better this year. I’m really connecting with them more effectively than I did last year.

I’m trying to learn students’ names of course, and there are already a few who stand out. In IA there’s a girl named Alina who has really marvelous English and seems eager and willing to use it. (I was surprised by the willingness of the whole class to use English, to be honest.) Rafał in IB reminds me of someone with his good-hearted mischievousness, but I cannot remember who. (Dominik during practicum in Radom?) In IC there’s Ba ka who reminds me of Żaneta from IIA. They even look similar.

I find now that the despression of Sunday night seems so very far away. I’ve no idea how I could have felt so bad. I look around and I think of how I’ll miss this place, even during next summer while I’m back in America. I’ll miss speaking Polish and teaching English. And I’ll even miss the smallness of this place, that which can cause such boredom if I’m not careful.

Today I got both class IB and IC to speak a little English. It was so simple, but it sounded so wonderful. They were only saying things like, “This is Bob,” or “What’s his name?” But to hear that from someone who has never before put together that many words in English was almost magical. I had forgotten how good I felt last year when IIB was beginning to say a little bit in English. It is that which makes me prefer first year classes in some way. To begin with, their easier to prepare for. But more importantly, I get a much greater sense of accomplishment from working with them.

New Classes

We had the opportunity to meet two of the three first classes today—IA and IC. It turns out that there are not as many students from class VIII that I taught last year as I thought there would. I recognized a few faces, but not many. Strangely enough there are almost as many boys as there are girls in that class. That’s a shock for Lipnica, especially when one considers both second classes and third class. I began talking to them in English and then Danuta gave a few rules and regulations in Polish. I think it will be a good class, but Danuta said it would be a difficult class. “Why?” I asked. “Because they responded much like IIIB always does,” she answered. I pointed out that it’s impossible to judge them from only one short class which had almost no interaction at all.

Class IC is a different story altogether. There are twenty-eight students in that class, and not a single boy. I walked in and said, “Hello girls and girls!” I talked to them in Polish at first to show them that my Polish is not perfect but it is understandable. I made the point that I don’t really worry about my mistakes because if I did, I would never be able to say anything. I said also that they will speak English much like I was speaking Polish. “We’ll speak like children and make a lot of mistakes, but it’s not a bad thing. We [Danuta and I] will never say you’re a bad student because you make mistakes.” I tried to encourage them and show them that making stupid mistakes—even funny mistakes—is to be expected. They were fairly quiet, but I think it was simply from nerves and not really from anything else. I now have the experience of IB last year to remind me that classes that begin with such difficulty often turn out to be the most rewarding.

I had IIIA play “Taboo” today and they were really speaking a lot. I heard more English in those forty-five minutes than I’ve heard in a very long time. I was thrilled, and it seemed that they were actually enjoying it. I really don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow, but I’m not as worried about it now. I realize that they are willing to speak English if they have such tasks that allow them to make their own constructions as they need to.

Planning and Lonliness

Part of the problem is loneliness. I haven’t seen anyone today and I don’t know that I will. I’m thinking about going across the street, but what prevents me from doing that is the simple understanding that I still haven’t finished planning for tomorrow. I could say to myself, “You don’t have class until 9:50 tomorrow morning. You can wait and throw something together then.” But that’s exactly what I did last year and where did it get me? What did I accomplish? What did the students learn? How as my sanity? So I want to try to finish writing a lesson plan for tomorrow. But I know (or rather, “I expect”) that when I go back and sit down with a fresh outlook (as fresh as I can manage at this point), I’ll run into the same brick wall. “What the hell am I going to do tomorrow?”

That was a nightly battle last year and I assume that it’s going to be the same way this year. Every evening I struggled to come up with a lesson, forty-five minutes of business and productivity. When I finally came up with something and finished all the planning, I thought, “Whew—did it again. But I’ve no idea where I’ll get another activity from.” Yet somehow, I always managed to come up with something. It’s just that toward the end of the year, my “somethings” were turning out to be rather boring and ineffective. The students didn’t respond well at all and I was left wondering what the hell I could do differently. Part of my trouble now is that the same thing is happening at the beginning of the year. I think, “Well, I survived about four or five weeks of that last year, but I can’t do nine or ten months of it this year.”

I just don’t know what the problem is. Is it that I’m not doing enough planning? Am I leaving to much up to chance? Am I too often saying, “Okay, that’s a good idea but I’ll improvise the finer details tomorrow during the lesson”? Am I planning with the wrong objective? What is my objective? I guess if I’m honest, I’m still running on last year’s fourth-quarter improvisational objective: “Let’s fill these forty-five minutes.” I need to shift my priorities and not worry so much about filling the time as teaching them English and giving them opportunities to use the language authentically. […]

Part of the problem I have is with providing structure within the lesson. I come up with fairly good ideas for activities, but I then expect (today’s magic word) the students do come up with too much stuff on their own. I provide only the barest frame and then expect them to go out and buy the paint and canvas, think of a proper subject, and finish the piece of art. Take my last lesson with IIIA for example. I told them that since we weren’t going to be using books this year, we must decide on what we want to study and how. Now that was entirely too broad of a topic. They really don’t know what the possibilities are (both in subject matter and methodology) and so to expect them to discuss that (even with the gimick of “alter egoes”) was asking entirely too much.

I also don’t have enough of a long-term plan. I told IIIA that I hope to give them a syllabus at some point which gives them at least a rough idea of what we will be doing in the coming weeks. I need also to establish a routine, a weekly schedule so that I have some idea of where I need to go with the lesson before I even start planning it. And yet I’m really not sure how to go about doing that.

Once again, I know what I need (more structure; more long-term planning; more control over the class; more enthusiasm from my students), but I’ve no idea how to go about achieving these things. It’s the seemingly unbridgeable gap between theory and praxis. Even with a year’s experience, I don’t know how to overcome these problems.

I’ve no idea.

I’ve no ideas.

I’ve no ideal.

Early Termination

I rode to Jabłonka this afternoon to meet the new volunteer. I went yesterday but no one was home. I thought I’d seen him Friday night when I was going to Nowy Targ and when I knocked on his door—his name, for the sake of simplicity, is Evan—I was surprised to see an older man and behind him a tall, young man.

I asked, “Are you the new volunteer?”

And for a moment I thought I’d just made a fool of myself, for he looked at me with the strangest expression on his face. My mind switched immediately to Polish so that I could explain what happened, but he responded in time. I can’t remember exactly what I said—something like, “I just thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.”

He responded haltingly, “Well, you’ve kind of come at a strange time.” My first thought was that he was going to go out with the older gentleman—his counterpart, I assumed. But he continued, “Because I’m ET-ing.”

“Perhaps there’s been a family emergency or something,” I thought.

However, I was wrong. He just didn’t like teaching—didn’t feel at all prepared, he said. I stayed and we talked for a few minutes, but that was about all I got out of him. I wasn’t really prying, for it is certainly none of my business. He’s going back to go to grad school.

In some ways the judgmental part of me screams, “What a wimp! He didn’t even last a week!” Yet I’ve no idea what was going on in his head and what kind of person he was. I just thought that it could have been one of those ET placements, like with that older lady in our group (whose name I can’t remember). Another part of me feels genuine sympathy for the kids in Jabłonka and the remaining teacher. When he was telling me why he was going, saying things like, “I just asked myself, ‘Where are you going to be happier in two years? In a year? In a month?’” I will admit that I was thinking, “Well, you might be happier, but what about the kids here? What will be best for them?”

Has a PCV made a commitment when he has gone to site? I think so, at least an implied commitment. I don’t think the PC administration tells potential schools during the initial interviews, “This is just a potential English teacher. S/he will come here and take a look around, and maybe s/he’ll stay, maybe not.” Of course I could be completely wrong. They could tell the schools something very similar to that—don’t get your hopes up, I guess.

All the same, I compare this to my own experience and mindset and I feel like he’s giving up entirely too soon. Of course it’s tough at first, but how can you judge an experience after only three days? If he had such serious doubts, wouldn’t they have shown themselves earlier? During training? Yet how can I judge such a thing? I’m only projecting—nothing constructive at all. One fact that I really haven’t considered that much is Evan’s counterpart, who was a little strange. I guess I might have had an entirely different experience if Danuta was a freak.

Ultimate Concerns

I also got a letter from C. B had showed her an early draft (the second draft) of “To Be Anointed” and she asked, “[Do] you still feel that way? Very thought provoking. I do like the way you think, the way you write. Very very much.” I reread it and I had forgotten about the final stanza. I like it, but I’m not sure about the rest of the poem. It reflects my previous flirtations with theism, and so now I think the only thing “Tugging / and pushing” was myself. I wonder how much of that was written out of an attempt to believe, an attempt to hear the things I wanted to hear myself say. We’re so often saying what we think others want to hear; how often do we do that with ourselves?

Do I still feel that way? I don’t think so. I think what I just wrote pretty much answers that question. I think theism is a dead end. I wonder what she meant by “thought provoking?” How exactly is it thought provoking? It assumes a certain theistic stance which I no longer hold, and I think if I read it not knowing who wrote it, I would find it a bit silly.

She wrote about a question on a test for her world religion class: “What aspect of your religion would you go-to-the-mat for, die for, stand up for? Why?” After defining religion, she said that she answered, “the respect Hinduism accords to believe. I told him I was brought up in a Hindu country and it teaches its adherents to live and let live. It’s a lesson I’m still learning and I hope some day to perfect. This [is] in response to your writing about evangelism.” I can’t say that there’s much of anything I would die for. I would give my life for certain people, I think, but I’m not sure there’s anything I believe so strongly that I would die for it. But what if someone held a gun to my head and say, “Profess a belief in Christ or I’ll kill you?” That’s such a silly hypothesis that I won’t even deal with it.

She talked of two theologian’s definition of religion. The first was Paul Tillich’s (I just read one of his essays a couple of weeks ago). He defined religion as ultimate concern. My text on the philosophy of religion says,

Religious faith, for Tillich, grows out of those experiences with which we invest ultimate value and to which we give our ultimate allegiance. Behind Tillich’s assertion that religious faith is ultimate concern lie two assumptions. The first assumption is that ultimate concern is common to all religions. . . . The second assumption is that no one is without some kind of faith in the sense of an ultimate concern.’

I am rather uneasy with that definition of religion. At the same time, it does encompass things like materialism which takes on a certain religious fanaticism with some people. I guess I’m uneasy with it because it implies that, despite my claims to the contrary, I am a religious person. It opens a dangerous door, for that means that all people are religious. It reminds me of D’s claim that all people have to believe in something. Am I falling into the other ditch? Some people are so theistic that it’s sickening; am I growing so anti-theistic that it’s sickening?

In that case, my ultimate concern – my religion, so to speak – must be people. I would be defined as a “secular humanist” in that my primary concern has to do with people’s lives on earth, right now. It shows its fruit in the joy I have in teaching, for I believe in some way I am indeed making a difference. Tillich holds that “faith provides unity and focus to the human personality” (Stewart 152) and this is a good description of how I feel about teaching. It gives me a focus, and it provides some hope for me. “An ecstatic experience is one that leads beyond the immediacy of the moment or, to use a parallel term, an experience that transcends the selfish tendencies of our nature” (Stewart 153). I know that sometimes while teaching I’ve had moments that seem to transcend the moment. Usually it has come at those moments when someone finally catches hold of the principle I’m trying to teach him/her and it sets their whole face aglow.

I look forward to teaching back in the States. I really enjoy what I’m doing here, but I’m working with these kids on such an elementary level that it can be a little empty at times. Of course there’s not much which is deeper than language, but I’m just teaching the very basics of English. I want to encourage students to think, to analyze and question, and teaching English to liceum kids doesn’t provide this. Of course I keep trying to convince myself that I’m not here for myself, but for the kids. Maybe I’m only fooling myself.

Long Trip Home

It has been a very long journey to this moment: I am finally home, and I finally have my computer. I am no longer cut off from the technology that I became so dependent on in the past. Perhaps it was a good thing that I was without it for so long, but I am certainly not going to give it up just to make this good thing better.

The trip from Sopot to Lipnica was hellish. Saturday morning I left with Julie N. and Grace on an 8:50 train to Warszawa to pick up my computer. I got to Warszawa around one and decided it would be best to get a little more money, so I headed to the poczta in Centralna and waited in line for half an hour for my money. Then I went to pick up a ticket to Kraków, waiting in line for another half hour. “Prosze jeden bilet do Kraków, druga klasa, na ‘Express’ pociag,” I said. “Nie ma druga klasa,” said the lady behind the glass. “Pierwrza bedzie dobra,” I said. After a moment, she said it: “Nie ma.”

“Crap!” I yelled so loud that I’m sure the whole station heard me. I stormed out of the station and the tension continued to build. I asked a taxi driver how much it would cost to get to Bukowinska. The answer: about thirty zloty. I knew that Julie was supposed to be at the Marriot for a while, so I headed over there and we chatted, allowing me time to calm down. She loaned me 50 zl as a precaution and off I went. I bought a tram ticket, road out to Bukowinska and picked up my computer. Then I went back to Centralna to try to decide what to do. I decided to go to Zabrze and stay with Mike D. I knew it would take a little bit more money, but not as much as getting a hotel room in Warszawa. First I went to Katowice. The train was thirty minutes late, leaving at 8:10, so I ended up waiting about two hours for that train. The actual trip took three hours, then I hopped another train for the final half hour to Zabrze. I found Druker’s place; I knocked on the door; no one answered. I finally got a hotel room for 23 zl and just crashed. Then today I took the 10:53 to Kraków and from there the 1:00 bus to Chyżne. Mike M. was on it, so we chatted for most of the way. Just outside of Spytkowice we ran into traffic problems – an auto accident due to all the heavy vacation traffic. We spent an hour there, then I had about a forty minute wait in Jabłonka for the bus to Lipnica. All told, it took me ten and a half hours to get to Sopot and thirty-two and a half to get back. That’s forty-three hours of traveling.

Skipping Class

I’m in the main church here in Sopot, skipping the first language lesson of the day. I needed some time alone, I decided. Who knows what PC administration might say.

This church is really quite small and relative modern. The walls are white with bricks along the edges serving as a border. It makes the whole thing look a bit like Lego blocks. The church yesterday in Gda sk was enormous. With its thin pillars and high, arched ceiling, it was the epitome of Gothic architecture. The entire interior was white, a creamy, Liquid Paper kind of dirty white. There was an enormous organ which J. S. Bach supposedly loved, an altar made in the fifteenth century that was at least twenty feet tall, and a huge crucifix with Mary and Peter (?) Standing at the base of the cross, with a skull at the bottom (Golgotha, I guess). There was another crucifix with a strikingly lifelike face which had an intriguing legend attached: The unknown artist hung a man on a cross and watched as he died to obtain an accurate likeness.

Around the walls of this church in Sopot are representations of the stations of the cross. I don’t know what they are, but they are all very similar: Christ on the way to Golgotha carrying the cross through a dark and empty landscape encountering several people along the way. Christ is always painted with a tired and somewhat painfully confused visage, almost childlike in some pictures.

People filter into the church to pray. Some even carry bags with the fruits of their morning shopping. It’s as if they are just dropping in on their way home. It’s rather strange. Are they offering their own prayers, or the Bisquick prayers they’re taught as children? I cannot understand the prewritten, memorized prayer. How can that mean anything? I remember the woman in Wraclaw who glanced at her watched as she muttered her prayer. It’s just another part of the ritual and repetition meant to keep people from thinking on their own.

At the top of the penis-shaped arch over the alter is the eagle/chicken national symbol of Poland. A nice combination of religion and nationalism.

As I look around, I notice the arches on the side of the church have a particularly noticeable penile shape, complete with a tapered tip. I wonder why that is. The WCG of old could explain it, but I’m not sure it’s attributable to Satan’s evil influence . . .

Crucifix

There are crucifixes in each and every classroom at my school.  Separation of church and state is not a goal of the Polish democracy.  So every day I teach with a little statue of a man nailed to a tree hanging right above my head.  “It gives some people comfort,” says Danuta, my counterpart English teacher.  I suppose that’s possible.

Early in the first semester the director told me to come down to the new English classroom to tell him where I wanted the bulletin boards.  (The boards were actually sheets of styrofoam attached to the wall.  Economical.)  He drilled the holes, put up the styrofoam, then drilled the hole for the crucifix.  I wondered how he would respond if I said, “I don’t want that in my classroom.”  No doubt he would be confused, and maybe (probably?) a bit upset with my irreverence.  Of course I said nothing.  “When in Poland . . . ”

It’s got me to thinking about the whole religious symbolism in Christianity.  The cross is a sacred symbol because it represents Christ’s death to millions of Christians around the world.  It is a simple character, almost reminiscent of minimalism in its barest form.  Most people wear crosses because it is an outward expression of their inner convictions.  Yet I wonder: If Jesus had slipped in the shower and bonked his head, would we be wearing Soap-On-A-Rope?  Would giant bath-size Dial bars replace steeples at churches?  Would we make bathing motions every time we enter a church?  It would shed new light on what Pilate said: “Okay, I wash my hands of the whole issue!”

Anyone seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian?  Remember the scene where they’re trying to decide what symbol they’ll use to indicate that they are followers of Brian?  “The shoe!  The shoe!”  I suppose that scene prefigures my own speculations.  Yet both point out how virtually arbitrary religious symbols are.  If Christ were to be put to death today, I suppose twenty-first century Christians would use the electric chair or a hangman’s noose as the primary symbol.

The crucifixes are just one indication of how strong Catholicism is in Poland.  For many, to be Polish is to be Catholic.  They are virtually synonymous.  In fact, next to every crucifix is a relief in plastic of the national symbol of Poland.  Religion and nationalism, hand in hand, as they so often are.

Waiting in Krakow

Location: Krakow Glowny Train Station Waiting Room

I’ve about an hour until I leave for Sopot on a horrific six hour train ride. I’m in the waiting area, sitting beside the first woman I’ve ever heard say kurwa. She turned toward me as she laughed – many teeth were missing and the few that remained were any and all colors except white. Two police officers are winding through the crowd – no, three – asking questions I don’t understand. They’ve said nothing to me, and I am a little grateful. Two tired bums sit with blank expressions. They probably haven’t shaved or bathed in weeks. A drunk just bumped into me and he apologized with glazed eyes. An old man sits across from me, his hands folding in his lap and gazing quietly with almost childlike eyes. A group of gypsies sit together, looking at photographs. Some people read, some eat, and we all wait.

Waiting is not something I will miss when I return to America.