Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, July 17, 2017

Visiting Europe

          Have you personally visited any of Henry's destinations, or researched their present-day incarnations? Do you want to visit any of them yourself, in particular? Do you think you would experience a form of culture shock to take up residence in a place with such a deep historical heritage? How would it impact your "mind" to live in such a place, or alter your worldview?

          I have not visited any of Henry James’s destinations, but as I read English Hours, I was already planning to travel to several locations. I did travel to Scotland in 2014 and visited Robert Burns’s homeplace in Alloway and was enamored by St. Andrews and Edinburgh. As I walked the streets and visited the historic sites, I knew that I would return there in a moment. My visit occurred immediately prior to the Independence vote and I spoke to citizen throughout various cities and felt very comfortable there. The castles which I visited were a treasure trove of information that would have kept my interest for some time and I would have enjoyed staying indefinitely. I don’t think that I would have experienced as much culture shock as I did when I went to Gdansk, Poland or Poitiers, France, mainly because I could understand the language and I knew something of the history.

          My first trip to Europe was to Poland and that was truly a cultural shock and did impact my mind, made me appreciate our country, but humbled me when I saw evidence of the ancient and current history. The landscape that existed when my ancestors were there was probably similar in some respects even today, but the devastation from World War II even though sixty years ago was still etched in the consciousness and visible in old images. I kept a journal which I am including so that you can understand how traveling to another country may impact your life; it did mine. I wrote notes on my next trip to Poitiers, France, but sadly not nearly as extensive and I failed to capture the awe I felt walking down a sidewalk and then suddenly coming face-to-face with an enormous cathedral built in the 11th or 12th century; hundreds of years before we became a nation. I wish that I had spoken French, it would have been more enjoyable, but the people were for the most part very nice to me and helped even though there was a language barrier. In fact, I met a young woman who helped me when I got lost. She spoke Slovak, French, and English and inspired me to try and learn another language. We have kept in touch and she is about to have her first child very close to my birthday. I am including a link to Poitiers and if you can learn to speak or understand French, I highly recommend it as a place to go and be immersed in French culture; a little removed from the more tourist focused Paris.

          This is what attracted me to Henry’s description of the sites he visited and the “walks” he took. I know that most of them will look different today, but some will still have meadows and sheep in the fields and I would love to walk over the streets in Stratford where I know that Shakespeare would have travelled. It was a thrill for me to step into Robert Burns’s birthplace and know that Muhammed Ali had also been there; he would have had to bend down. I would love to have known what he thought. And it was a stroke of luck to see some of the original paintings related to Burns’s poem, Tam o’ Shanter, and walk through the cemetery and stand on the bridge over the River Doon made famous by that poem.


Link to Robert Burns home page - http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/
Link to Poitiers, France - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poitiers (note a famous philosopher was associated with it).

Part of My Journey to Poland – attached.

When I arrived at the airport in Gdansk, I experienced my first uneasiness, not quite fear, but I didn’t have any Polish currency and no one spoke enough English to help me figure out how to call them to let them know I was there.  I was directed to several locations, kiosks, etc. to buy a telephone card, but they didn’t understand what I needed.  Finally a lady behind one of the counters where they sold purses understood my plight enough that she went to several kiosks and finally came back and took out her cell phone and called the number and I spoke to Tadeusz.  I am deeply indebted to her, although I will never know her name.

Malgorzata said that they were sending a taxi to pick me up.  I waited outside the terminal, it was a little cool and breezy and I saw several taxis come up and was asked by a few – “taxi” and I asked if they were from the Villa Akme and they shook their head as if they didn’t understand, so I waited.  Finally, one taxi stopped and the driver mentioned my first name and I got in.  When we arrived at the Villa Akme, it appeared very nice as I passed through the gate and they came out and paid the driver the fare.  Now I met them for the first time and even though we couldn’t chat freely, they knew enough English that I felt comfortable and welcome.

They gave me my room key and directions to my room and I asked if I could freshen up and then come back to visit with them – I had not been able to wash up since Wednesday morning.  The room was nice and clean, two beds not like ones I was accustomed to at home, closer to the floor and with thinner mattresses, but comfortable.  The shower was one where you pulled two glass doors together.  After I freshen up, I went down and took my folder with an old map of the area and pictures of my family and death certificates of my grandparents and great-grandfather.  I shared them and then explained what I wanted to try to do while I was there.
We determined that if I wanted to visit Frombork as well as Malbork that I would have to go to Frombork first since that museum was closed on Sunday.  It appeared that the best way to get there and back was by bus.  They ordered dinner for me and it was my first taste of a red soup called xxxxx. it had dumplings stuff with  pork – and it was very good.  I also had the xxxxx. with shredded cabbage – a couple of types and  then I turned in for the night.  They asked me when I wanted breakfast and I said around 8 would be fine.  I slept well, awoke early so that I could try and see as much as I could.  Breakfast was very good – a variety of eggs, ham, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, some yogurt which I didn’t eat not knowing how it might affect me – I experience some lactose intolerance, so I tried to avoid most dairy products since I wasn’t sure about the availability of bathrooms especially since I was traveling on public transportation. For my drink, I had Coke which I knew over the next three days was not the beverage most people drank in the morning.

The directions to the bus stop were pretty easy, it was close by.  Malgorzata  gave me a combination of currencies totaling to 100 zloty and said that that should be enough to get me to Frombork and back with extra to spare and she cautioned me to be careful not to carry extra cash and to watch out for possible pickpockets – now I felt some anxiety.  It was a little chilly and unfortunately, I had left the sweater I had planned to bring with me on my bed at home, but they were very kind and loaned me their son’s coat and it came in very handy especially on the second day.  While I stood at the bus stop I noticed a couple of other people waiting to ride and I asked if they spoke any English – they just shook their head.  When the bus arrived, it was # 118 and I got on, I didn’t know what the fare was, so I handed the driver a 10 zloty bill and he gave me my first change in coins which of course I didn’t know what their value was and then he handed me two sets of three tickets.  I thought that was all I needed, it wasn’t until two days later that I learned that I was suppose to insert them in a little box and it would date and time stamp the ticket and that’s how they tracked how long you had been on the bus and how much you should have paid for the trip.

We arrived at the bus station and as I exited the bus I noticed everyone going down the steps into an underground passage, an area I would see several times during the next three days.  It wasn’t crowded, but there were a lot of open shops – clothes and an array of other items, but I didn’t have time to look at them closer, because I wanted to make sure that I got on the bus to Frombork.  Now I came face to face with the difficulty of communicating, it was very difficult trying to find how to get the bus to Frombork.  I asked several people if they spoke English, none did.  Now I began to feel something of what my ancestors must have felt.  I was in a strange place, I knew no one and with each person I asked I could become a possible target to be preyed upon and I was suddenly a little scared.  I exited and re-entered the station a couple of times, walked around one side and saw a middle aged gentleman with a back pack.  I took a chance and asked him if he spoke English, he said “a little” something that was welcome news to me during the next couple of days.  I told him, I was trying to get to Frombork.  He motioned for me to go downstairs and then said something that sounded like Information.  I went down and saw what appeared to be a ticket window.  I walked over and asked the lady behind the window if she spoke English, she shook her head and then I said Frombork and she pointed up the steps and said what sounded like 8.  I went upstairs and saw several buses, but I had no idea which one to take. After several more minutes I decided it wasn’t going to happen and I decided to just walk around Gdansk and try to find my way back to the Villa Akme.  I got to the end of the street passed all of the parked buses and then I thought of the little token one of my fellow employees gave me for good luck – On it was written, “You won’t waste tomorrow if you seize today.”  I decided to turn around and try one more time.  As I walked back down the steps, I saw a young woman with blonde hair carrying a pack, I asked her if she spoke English and she said those magical words -  “a little” and she saved me.  She told me to follow her and that she was going to the bus stop and would be taking the same bus, traveling a little further than Frombork.  As passengers crowded onto the bus, we got separated and she boarded first, but as she did, I saw her look down from the steps and smile to see that I was okay.  Once I made it onto the bus and paid my fare, I sat down in a seat in front of her and she told me that she would let me know where I needed to get off.

As the bus pulled out of the station, I looked back and wondered how successful I would be in finding my way back.  As we traveled along the narrow road, I saw my first turbo windmill near what appeared to be a chemical plant and then something magical happened; in the front of the bus I heard the Violent Femmes song, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me in English. I turned and looked back and said to my fellow passenger – it’s in English.  She smiled and said that they listened to songs in English – I wondered if they understood the lyrics, but I then I realized the beauty of music – you can enjoy the melody even if you don’t understand the lyrics.   As we traveled along, I saw some businesses that I recognized, a Ford car dealership and Coca Cola.  A lot of the buildings appeared off white to gray; I later learned that many were bricks covered with plaster. 

We crossed a river about ½ hour outside of Gdansk and then I saw several fields that had been ploughed, some worked up and tilled, the soil appeared as heavy deep rich dark brown clay.  I saw people in a field gathering up what looked like potatoes and saw a V-shaped machine digging up a row. We passed signs for towns like Nowy Dwor, Orlen, Stobna, Kepki, Bielnik and Janowo.  The roads were very narrow with entrances some time right off the main highway.  As you exit a town, you see a sign with a red line drawn through the name. The barns and houses are very close which would be nice in the winter time when you had to take care of the livestock, but might be a little too close in the summer.  Several of the houses looked bigger that a residential home.  I saw several homes with front yards filled with flowers and several more fields filled with greens of some sort.  The bus would stop and pick up additional passengers along the way.  At one stop a young girl got on and sat next to me.  I learned that she was a student; she seemed to understand a couple of words of English.  When she got up to leave she smiled and said something that made me think she was either wishing me to have a nice day or good bye.

In Elblag, I noticed that there were some houses with colored exteriors – pale yellow, and brown.  Some had alternating stripes – it was similar to orange, but not exactly.  The colors appeared to have a darker value.  North of Elblag there was a new subdivision with houses with more and brighter colors and most with tiled roofs.  Finally, I saw some signs that indicated that Frombork was close.  My fellow passenger who I had asked an occasional question and tried to learn how to say please and thank you told me when we reached the bus stop where I needed to get off.  I thanked her and told her to tell her Mom and Dad that they had raised a very nice daughter.  As I stepped off the bus, I was confronted by an enormous statue of Nicholas Copernicus in front of a huge castle.  Frombork is a small town with probably less than 3,000 people with charming houses with this huge castle on top of a hill overlooking the town.  I walked around it for several minutes until I located the entrance to it.  I went into the office and purchased tickets to see three parts of the structure.  One was the museum where I saw several of Copernicus’s writings, old books and maps of cities some dating back into the 1500s and also some of the devices (probably replicas of what he used). Standing there one develops an appreciation of his genius recognizing that without the help of a telescope, computer or space photography, he was able to determine that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around which had been the accepted and only allowed theory for over a thousand years and anyone who suggested otherwise was subject to torture and death.

In the museum, there was the Astrolabium and a Sphericum Opuseulum from Krakow around 1522 and something titled a Triquetrum.  The museum personnel were very strict – no pictures were allowed.  Next I climbed the Belfrey Tower where Jean Foucault’s pendulum hangs which demonstrated that the Earth rotates.  At the top of the tower I walked out onto a walkway that went around the tower and got a beautiful panoramic view of Frombork looking out on to the town and out on to the Wislana lagoon which should be connected to the Baltic Sea.  I can only imagine what it would look like at night – no light pollution here.  I saw a young couple exchange a kiss at the pendulum and I hated to have intruded on their moment of intimacy.

Walking out of the Tower I decided I need to use the bathroom and this was when I first learned that there was a fee accessed for using the bathroom, it was about $0.50, but the bathroom were very clean.  The last part of the castle that I had a ticket for was the cathedral, but I had already asked twice and both times, when I went to where I thought they had pointed for me to go, the door was locked.  This time I was lucky.  As I walked along the walkway, a woman came walking toward me.  I asked her if she spoke English, she didn’t.  Then I showed her my ticket and she motioned for me to follow her.  When we arrived at the door, she took out a key and unlocked the door and together we stepped into a foyer and then I followed her toward the sanctuary.  She made the sign of the cross and then went and sat down in one of the pews.  I went and sat down in a pew several behind hers and looked to the front and to the back spell bound by the incredible beauty in both directions.  Remembering how I was not allowed to take pictures in the museum, I approached her and took out my camera and motioned with it to her to see if it would be okay to take pictures and she nodded affirmatively.  I took a couple of pictures and then I wanted to know how old the cathedral was.  I took my little Polish phrase book and knelt beside her and point to the Polish word for old.  She understood what I was asking and she said “Copernicus” I said “Here when Copernicus here” and she nodded yes.  A couple more minutes passed and I decided it was time to go.  As I motioned to her that I was ready to go, she gave me an unexpected surprise. She motioned me to an area just outside of the inner sanctuary and pointed to the floor and then she made a motion with her hands clasped together as if it were someone was laying down to sleep and she let me know that it was where Copernicus would sleep.  I motioned to her that I would like to take her picture there, but she shook her head and indicated that she would take mine. I gave her the camera and then I knelt on the site believing it would be more respectful than standing.  Then I left the castle and wandered into town trying to find where the bus stop was for the return trip to Gdansk. I was a couple of hours early, but I didn’t want to miss the bus since it was the last one for the day.  After I located the stop, I walked around the little town square and saw an ATM with the Plus symbol.  I nervously inserted my ATM card wondering what would happen if it didn’t return it.  A little to my surprise I was able to get some local money and it returned my card.  I walked back to the bus stop and then up and down the sidewalk a block or two but always in sight of the bus stop.  Finally, I noticed that there were several people gathering there and I decided to walk back and just wait for the bus.


  1. Thank you, Don, I feel like I've really been to Poland!

    "Now I began to feel something of what my ancestors must have felt. I was in a strange place," - it's what so many displaced persons and immigrants must feel, every day. So shameful for politicians to make their sad plight even worse with hateful, unsympathetic words.

  2. Anonymous9:55 PM CDT

    Great post Don. Wow you have really traveled there haven't you. I love to travel too. I would really love to see Eastern Europe like Poland, Romania and the Mediterranean. I had the chance to see Greece though.