Warsaw: a perennial box of surprises?

I did expect some grimness – and there is, of course, plenty of it. Consider the area around the Palace of Culture and Science, and the huge empty space around the building itself.

I also expected interesting cemeteries, having read Rutu Modan’s The Property and also having seen many interesting photographs by Roman and Wanda taken on November 1st. The visit to Cmentarz Powązkowski (Powązki Cemetery) on my first day there, a Sunday, was great. Those Polish red lanterns by the tombs, next to elaborate and lovingly kept altars.

It was unfortunately impossible to visit the Jewish Cemetery – it was closed to the public during the Passover holiday.

What I did not expect was the dimension of the parks – they are enormous, with old trees and plenty of water (apparently diverted from the Vistula River in the 17th Century by some Italian architects – or Polish architects with Italian training – for the Royal Palaces), their playfulness, their utter “Romanticism” (for lack of a better word; although of course they predate the idea of Romanticism itself by more than a century). Among the most beautiful urban parks I have ever seen, anywhere. The Royal parks of Warsaw, south of the center, are marvelous public spaces.

What I also did not necessarily expect was the good quality of food. This is something new. For decades, food in Poland had a particularly bad reputation. Even in 2009, when I was in Poland (not in Warsaw), food was ok – there were some good things but nothing prepared me for this explosion of fresh ingredients, of interesting and clever preparations, for the way food is presented. What was more surprising to me was how good “normal daily food” seemed to be, at least in the area where I stayed (a rather well-to-do part of the city, yes). The way they prepared their daily lunches seemed naturally good, not pretentious at all.

An area I did expect – from having read plenty of material about the post-WWII reconstruction – was a well-redone Old City. It is there, indeed – surprisingly well-done. One may enter from a tram station through an automatic staircase. That in itself is a bit surprising and announcing the fact that the Old City is made in the 1950’s based on etchings and paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – with the original building techniques and materials.

Another big surprise was the area of the old buildings of the University. There I could not really know whether they are old or reconstructed — very-well — but I was very positively surprised by those buildings, public spaces, auditoriums. I cannot really place why at some point they almost seemed too well-kept, too renovated for a public university. Certainly in much better shape than most public universities (in New York, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Bogotá, in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem)… Is this something new in Warsaw? Or is it something specific to Poland, the way people seem to keep in excellent shape those buildings? I felt surprised… in a positive way, but there is something unexplained there (to me).

And then again, recent history. And the ghetto, the ghetto’s absence. Now residential buildings from the 1950s or 60s, wide avenues where the lively (and dense, and ragbag) ghetto used to be. Wide boulevards where there must have been cobblers, klezmer musicians, small shops of all kinds of bric-à-brac, a whole life that completely disappeared.

That was very painful, when in a smooth tramway (the smoothness and easiness of Warsaw’s public transit system was yet another very good thing) we glided through the wide boulevards – empty on Sunday – and Roman told me “here was the ghetto”. I asked, “what do you mean, here?”. He said, “here”. I felt pain to see the nothingness that has replaced it. I fell silent for a while. As the smooth tramway ride left the area I realized how suffocating it is to go through a nothingness where between 1939 and 1943 a brutal, utter disaster happened.

I asked Roman whether something like the Berlin “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) – those little pieces of pavement where the names of people who lived there and were killed or deported to the camps are engraved, sticking out a bit to make people “stumble” and remember – had been done there, in the Warsaw ghetto. He said “no… but maybe it should be done”.

At the Cmentarz Powązkowski

Those amazing parks of Warsaw

Eating in Warsaw (café food, not fancy places)

Stairway to… the Old City

The University of Warsaw (older area)

Wide boulevards – not quite the ghetto area, but this is roughly how it looks now…


about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.


To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.


So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.

P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:


Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.

A Story of a Certain Loneliness

JoannaWiszniewiczA month ago, during heady and hectic New York days, I reported on my reading of And Yet I Still Have Dreams (A Story of a Certain Loneliness), the strange and unique book written by Polish author Joanna Wiszniewicz from her interviews to “Alex,” a man who was an adolescent during the Warsaw ghetto years, who lived his own coming-of-age and transition from protected boy from a well-heeled Jewish family in Warsaw, through the Warsaw ghetto years and then in different camps (Majdanek, Budzyń, Auschwitz, and later Valhingen) – going from being 12 years old to 18 in such places. My earlier report was written during the reading of the first part of the book, and I kept thinking, while finishing reading it, that I absolutely needed to write a second, more complete, review. At least for myself, and for some friends who read this blog and might get interested, or for the unknown person who might stumble here.

It is not an easy book to review. It is also not an easy book to read. Alex, the “first voice”, the interviewee who tells the story, avoids very self-consciously the trappings of Holocaust literature; he addresses the first-hand experience of being a boy, then a youngster and finally a young man – coming of age in the midst of the collapse of a world – but avoiding also that simple, straightforward description.

Very young Alex is naïve, exactly in the way most 12 year old boys are, but perhaps even more so from having been raised in a quite protective environment. He knows that. He sees how after his father’s death (around the beginning of the war), his forceful and active mother takes over his administrative job at a hospital, and manages to secure a measure of “protection” for him, for her whole family – a protection that would of course erode during the ghetto years, but which nonetheless strongly helped the boy Alex to live those first ghetto years relatively unscathed.

Her protection extends to other members of the large family – uncle, grandfather, etc. The prewar world survives for a while, in an odd way, in the ghetto. And this is the first fantastic and amazing aspect of the book: it depicts in a rich way, through the (memory) eyes of a young child (remembered by an old American, the same person but in a totally different universe, thinking half a century later who he really was back then), the strong non-homogeneity of ghetto life, the stark differences between social classes somehow continuing along the ghetto, the attempt of a 12-year old to go on, without thinking too much of the consequences of little acts.

This contrasts sharply with usual Holocaust literature or movies. In many of them we see extremely mature reflections – with the normal primacy, naivety, directness, firstness of experience being overshadowed by the tertiary, reflected, mature, contrasted, wounded voice of the narrator. Primo Levi in the camp is told by Primo Levi the survivor, and it is the harsh, detached, unromantic tone of the survivor that we hear. For all the importance and greatness of other accounts, this was (for me) the first time I could read an unassuming, direct account – a phenomenological précis – of those years.

Life as usual (and very much not as usual – but it is these “as usual” features that are unique in this book) for the young boy: getting angry with his grandmother, telling her she is ignorant (and then feeling the remorse for having done that), growing up getting involved with other young men whom he admires, but who are vain (as all young men of that age) and admire… German soldiers. In the typical confusion of young age, those Jewish adolescents, who know perfectly well what Germans (or non-Jewish Poles) may do to them in the ghetto if they “trespass” some lines, at the same time have admiration for some of those Germans, with their shiny and elegant uniforms – one of them (who would go on to become a fighter during the uprising) even boasts of “being friend” with a German soldier in Warsaw – a young 15-year old Jew being a “friend” of a German soldier in Warsaw in 1942! Of course, these infatuations are exactly what must have happened – the “dual realities” we all live at those ages, but transferred to the confined and rarified atmosphere of the ghetto.

As the war continues, the earlier protection layers erode (although some remnants linger – like the fact that in a camp the Polish peasants would sell smuggled food to the inmates – and of course those who had money (or connections) in the “outside world” would have strong advantages. Alex had both – and at some times somebody “who knew his grandfather who…” proffers protection – extremely weak protection in those circumstances, of course, but still protection.

The details of the stories, the fact that they sound so specific and yet so universal, and the fact that the “point of view” is somehow allowed to evolve (like our own evolution in perspective from age 12 to age 18), to inflect, to transform itself – and is not post-coded into the voice of a disenchanted, wounded man (as in other accounts) is perhaps what impressed me most. Alex tells stories that were contradictory (for instance, people saying constantly “we will not survive this war” yet making plans for “after the war” – just like our own frequent and important contradictions in our own “normal” lives) and wonders a little about the presence of those contradictions – quarrels between his grandfather (a prominent lawyer in prewar Poland) and his former employees – their devotion to his family (the class system continued for a long while inside the ghetto and the camps) – all that salt of life, or meanders of memory and knowledge.

This is an extremely non-linear account. The point of view keeps meandering, going back and forth, enriching itself and forgetting how it did so – it is not the point of view “at infinity” from the survivor’s perspective.

The “afterwar” years’ account is also fascinating. At liberation, in French-occupied Germany, Alex first meets North African soldiers of the French army – who allow him and the other former inmates to pillage a German little town – they have the German population leave and allow them to take over. Alex tells the story of how they utterly destroyed the German dwellers’ pretty houses, how they themselves acted with utter hatred – he does not offer judgment but rather allows us to ponder the emptiness and resentfulness they must have felt. Then he is slowly both enchanted to be alive and well (a young survivor with no family and no country, enjoying having girlfriends and going to concerts in occupied Germany, somehow rebuilding himself) but at the same time ashamed of himself (not clear why), and wanting to be a normal European young man – detaching himself from Jewish identification.

Alex’s telling the story to the author Joanna Wiszniewicz (wonderful, I think, in her allowing that unique voice to emerge) was a difficult process. He did not want to speak about those events for decades, he emigrated soon to the United States, studied at City College in New York, and wanted to build a totally new life for himself in his new country. For many decades, he completely refused to identify as uniquely Jewish – he wanted to see himself as “American”. When people asked him where was he from he would say “Jew from Poland” – he also did not feel “just Polish” (the story of two opposed lines in his family, some of them very integrated and feeling very Polish, some not – is later reflected in himself).

However, later in life, about 20 years ago, something made him want to go back to that fundamental part of his formation, of his youth. That is not clearly surmised from the book. He travels to Poland, is interviewed by Joanna Wiszniewicz, a first book (in Polish) is written from that interview, then much later, in 2004, a translation to English by Regina Grol. Alex refuses to let his full name appear in the book, he explicitly claims he does not want his name to be associated with “Shoah business” as he calls it. Yet he gave the interviews (the author says however that she had to almost entirely rewrite the first version of the book, as he claimed it did not reflect his voice back then – she says she had to record six more tapes of interviews and let him read large tracts of the corrected versions before he approved – and even then without his full name!).

I wonder what could have brought a man in his sixties or seventies to engage in that harsh, deep and serious revision of his own earlier life – after decades of having shunned those accounts. I imagine the conversations with the author must have been extremely demanding – and her editorial work to go from the raw material to this book surely was as demanding, if not more, than the conversations themselves.

The end result is one of the best documents ever written of the memory of a man of mature age of his early years, growing up (slowly) in the middle of a brutal age – and allowing the perspective to continually evolve along the way. A phenomenological feat, among many other things.

And yet I still have dreams…

(A Story of a Certain Loneliness)

Joanna Wiszniewicz wrote in 1996 a memoir from “Alex”, an anonymous survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and three concentration camps – she interviewed him when he went back to Poland after more than 40 years in the US, and got from him a incredibly deep testimony. Now Regina Grol has translated it to English (And Yet I Still Have Dreams – A Story of a Certain Loneliness).

I am now reading the book, slowly. So far, what makes the book stand in sharp contrast to so many other Holocaust memoirs is the detached and reflexive tone, the fact that the interviewee’s voice, Alex’s voice, ponders on many subjects around what it really meant growing up as a Jewish Pole in prewar Warsaw. Not being a traditional Jew anymore, but not being a Pole – or at least not feeling fully as one, having a father who participated in Poland’s independence war, is at the same time comfortable as a Jew and as a citizen of the new country, but nevertheless knows that he is not “just another Pole”.

The book is perhaps (at least what I’ve read so far) the most phenomenologically aware account of the Holocaust I have ever read. Expectations, of oneself, of others, about identity, are discussed, calmly and with the distance of age. Case comparisons, between the two grand-fathers, between the mother and the father, and between all their approaches to modernity, to the paradox of becoming modern, as so many Eastern European Jews did during the first half of the last century, yet being still somehow part of a traditional culture, steeped in ways of doing things corresponding to other times.

The New York Public Library – as seen today (9.4.14) by av

Leyendo a Lem (II): libertad (?)

“Habéis amenazado a la biosfera, que es vuestro nido y vuestro anfitrión. No obstante, al final os habéis echado atrás. Con mayor o menor suerte conseguiréis revertir el proceso, pero ¿qué pasará luego? Seréis libres. No os estoy predicando una utopía genética ni un paraíso autoevolutivo, sino un escenario en que la libertad se revelará como la tarea más dura, dado que, por encima de la planicie de balbuceos emitidos por la millonagenaria y locuaz Evolución hacia la Naturaleza con carácter de aide-mémoire, por encima de este bajo mundo entrelazado en uno solo, se abre un universo de oportunidades aún no alcanzadas. Os lo mostraré como mejor sé: de lejos.

Vuestro dilema reside entre la magnificencia y la miseria. La elección es difícil dado que, para elevarse a la altura de las oportunidades desperdiciadas por la Evolución, tendréis que abandonar la miseria. En otras palabras y por desgracia: a vosotros mismos.

¿Y ahora qué? Diréis: no entregaremos nuestra miseria a este precio. Jamás. Que el genio omnífice permanezca encerrado dentro de la botella de la ciencia: ¡de ninguna manera lo dejaremos salir!”

Golem XIV, en Golem XIV de Stanisław Lem (1982)

The Gowanus Canal – Brooklyn, April 2013

Vacíos culturales míos: Lem


Ya varias personas me lo habían indicado: mi vacío cultural al no conocer a Stanisław Lem es escandaloso. Javier Moreno, Roman Kossak, mi padre, entre otros, me habían hablado tanto de Lem, que me parecía un poco vergonzoso no haber leído nada de él aún.

En la Feria del Libro de Bogotá hace una semana había (en el puesto de Siglo del Hombre Editores) una cantidad inmensa de libros interesantes, a muy buen precio. Había varios de Lem, editados en Impedimenta: libros bonitos, que se ven confiables – no puedo juzgar la traducción al no saber polaco, pero hasta ahora la lectura ha sido una inmersión en un universo mental constantemente sorprendente, constantemente abrumador y a la vez lleno de opiniones con las que normalmente estaría en desacuerdo fuerte, pero están formuladas de manera tan convincente y certera que me obligan a replantear mis propias respuestas.

Eso último es una señal del nivel increíble de Lem. Aparente “ciencia ficción” (situada en un futuro cercano, con Golem XIV, un computador originalmente programado para fines militares, que logró generar él mismo nueva inteligencia, a niveles impresionantes que lo hicieron dejar atrás, muy atrás, nuestro limitado nivel de humanos – y decidió abandonar los estrechos fines originales para los que había sido construido).

En realidad, más allá del nivel “ciencia ficción” el libro es un verdadero tratado filosófico, en este caso sobre la historia de la inteligencia humana, sobre su evolución y adaptación desde el Paleolítico (aparentemente tan lejano de nosotros, pero tan cercano desde el punto de vista de Golem XIV), sobre la invención de las culturas a lo largo de esa evolución, sobre lo sentimental/emocional en la construcción del “yo”, y la posibilidad (y necesidad) para una máquina como Golem XIV de simular esas dos categorías.

“Desde el punto de vista de vuestro paleolítico, el ser humano es casi tan perfecto como desde el punto de vista de vuestra tecnología actual. Y esto se debe a que el progreso acumulado entre el paleolítico y el cosmolítico es muy pequeño comparado con la concentración de inventiva ingenieril aplicada a vuestros cuerpos. Al no poder crear a un Homo sapiens artificial de carne y hueso, ni mucho menos a un Homo superior, de la misma manera en que no hubieran podido lograrlo los cavernícolas, simplemente porque la tarea -tanto ahora como entonces- resulta impracticable, admiráis la tecnología evolutiva por haber conseguido dar saltos de tamaña magnitud.

Sin embargo, la dificultad de cualquier tarea es relativa, dado que depende de la destreza motivadora del evaluador. Insisto en recordaros que voy a aplicar al ser humano medidas tecnológicas, es decir, reales, en lugar de términos provenientes de vuestra antropodicea.”

Golem XIV, en Golem XIV de Stanisław Lem – año 2027

Rutu Modan: The Property

ThePropertyRutu Modan again. With her graphic novel The Property. I found it in Strand, just amid thousands of other graphic novels, waiting.

Modan has written Exit Wounds (about the aftermath of a suicide attack in Tel Aviv, and the interwoven stories – reminiscent of Amores Perros perhaps, but in Israeli-Palestinian key) and Jamilti – a set of short stories of life in Israel. Together, Exit Wounds and Jamilti had already convinced me that she is one of the best graphic novel writers/drafts(wo)men alive – the stories are interwoven with the graphics in such exquisite and precise ways, the stories themselves saying so much about life (in Israel, yes, but really life itself). I was completely sure when I picked The Property from a table in the Strand that this would be a great read.

It was, indeed. In a way even better than the two previous books. The story unfolds in Poland, in Warsaw, between Regina Segal, an elderly Israeli woman and her granddaughter Mica. Both fly from Tel Aviv, the initial and original “mission in Warsaw” being to recover property – an apartment the family used to own in Warsaw before the war.

So the story starts, but very soon a much more complex web of connections with former Warsaw, the former story of Regina (with Roman Górski, a Polish boy back then) and various other situations arise. You need to read the story to unfold it.

Along the way, places of Warsaw (I city I do not know physically, but has already crossed my paths in conversation many times) appear, as in a dream: Grzybowska Street, the day of Zaduszki (so similar to Día de los Muertos in Mexico, so strange to imagine in Poland!), Warsaw’s Fotoplastikon, where you can apparently now see lost images of Saski Park and many other photographs of the city that disappeared, and where apparently before the war you could see images of… Sweden.

This other page has various nice images of the story. I particularly liked the images of 1939 on the Vistula River, with young Roman and Regina. Or those happening in Powązki, the cemetery, on the night of Zaduszki (the cover of the book above is that).

Thank you, Rutu Modan, for having written (and drafted) such a nice book!


“Here are the results of the 50 Watts’ Polish Book Cover Contest, which asked contestants to design the “Polish edition” of their favorite book. Poland’s incredibly rich history of book design can be seen in the new book 1000 Polish Book Covers.”

Works by Gabriela Morawetz were yesterday in the Museum/Church of Santa Clara, in the old city of Bogotá, as part of Fotográfica 2011.

We were walking in the old part of Bogotá with Roman Kossak, going slowly from San Francisco through Plaza de Bolívar down to Carrera 8 and Santa Clara. To Roman’s great surprise, some works of a Polish artist he knows quite well, Gabriela Morawetz, were being shown under the choir of Santa Clara.

There seems to be a lot of subtlety, transparency, watery textures, reflections through a glass darkly, mirrors, in her photographical work.

Definitely recommended!

Górecki at the Unsound Festival


“But what about the late Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki? Take his Symphony No. 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which sold more than a million copies when Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta recorded it with conductor David Zinman in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is fairly conventional; there are beautiful melodies and simple, affecting harmonies. Why is Gorecki here? Well, if there is an “ambient” approach to classical music, Gorecki employs it: His symphony unspools at a glacial pace, threatening to collapse at any moment under its own weight. The sense of tension and suspense created here is a result of a sonic architecture that is dramatically different from a Beethoven or Mahler symphony — and might be closer to the ambient music that Brian Eno was beginning to create at around the same time. Perhaps tellingly, the Norwegian group Deaf Center, an ambient band that wears its David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti influences on its sleeve, is set to open the Unsound show that will feature some of Gorecki’s music.”

Górecki at the Unsound Festival

Piotr Anderszewski. Un voyageur intranquille.

Trains and piano. I could take a trip by train forever, never quite stop, and be the happiest man.

This is what Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary does (yes, the same Monsaingeon of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations Documentary of yesteryear) with Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski.

In the documentary, Anderszewski goes around Poland, then on to Budapest and finally to Paris and Lisbon, on a special cart of a Polish train he adapted, with his piano. On his way, he plays, he stops in Poznań, Budapest, Warsaw, Zakopane, Paris, Lisbon and gives recitals. He visits his Hungarian grandmother, he explains how he couldn’t take any Chopin and how Chopin, trains, snow, war and Europe seemed intertwined. He deplores lost Warsaw. He explains how he quite piano and how he came back.

But mostly, he travels and travels.

We watched this movie with María Clara for hours and hours – I got it in Berlin right after being in Cracow, Zakopane, Wrocław, Poznań, with my head and heart full of Poland. We then watched it again with Roman, with my father, with some other dear people.

This youtube teaser has some of it. The movie’s train scenes are the best in the world.

65 years

Yesterday night, I was listening (with rapture) to the Terezín/Theresienstadt CD I received on the mail yesterday. One of the composers, Ilse Weber, who was a writer of stories and songs for children in Prague before the war, composed four of the songs in the compilation while she was in the Theresienstadt camp. She went to join her husband with their son in Auschwitz (only her husband survived – he devoted part of the rest of his life to collecting his wife’s writings and songs). Listening to the beauty of her lullaby (Wiegala wiegala weier – click on the Ilse Weber link above to hear a rendering), or listening to Ade, Kamerad – a farewell song of two friends when one of them is about to go on the Polentransport, the train to Poland, left me airless.

Here is Todesfuge by Paul Celan, as found in Entartete Musik and with the translation from this blog with translations into English of many poems (I am following Gavin Plumley’s idea of posting Paul Celan – essentially, reblogging, as it were – the starkness of Celan’s words in the Todesfuge is irreplaceable):

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Black milk of daybreak we drink it come evening
we drink it come midday come morning we drink it come night
we drink it and drink it
we spade out a grave in the air there it won’t feel so tight
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the Teutonic nightfall
the gold of your hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are aglitter he whistles his hounds out 
he whistles his Jews off has them spade out a grave in the ground
he orders us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
we drink you and drink you
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the Teutonic nightfall the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith we spade out a grave in the air there it won’t feel so tight

He yells you there dig deeper and you there sing and play
He grabs the nightstick at his belt and swings it his eye has gone blue
You there dig deeper and you there play loud for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
We drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
We drink you and drink you
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith he plays with the vipers
he yells play sweeter for death Death is a German-born master
yells scrape the strings darker you’ll rise through the air like smoke
and have a grave in the clouds there it won’t feel so tight

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday Death is a German-born master
We drink you come evening come morning we drink you and drink you
Death is a German-born master his eye has gone blue
He shoots with lead bullets he shoots you his aim is so true
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
he lets his hounds loose on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and dreams a dream Death is a German-born master

The gold of your hair Margarete
The ash of your hair Shulamith

lonely traveling

Today, with María Clara, our neighbor Sebastián and his girlfriend Paula, we discussed about traveling. He seems to be allergic to traveling – something weird for someone as young as he is, and as veered in the ancient Greek language (Sebastián seems to have gathered firsthand from his grandfather an enormous amount of knowledge of Ancient and Classical Greek – his grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the subjects here in Bogotá) – I am sure Sebastián would certainly (crazily) enjoy living for a while in modern Greece.

One of the subjects that appeared in the discussion was the pleasure, the immense pleasure of traveling alone. Of course, traveling in good company, traveling with MC, or with MC and good friends (with MC and Alejo in deep winter in Savonia is one of the best trips I remember – as was going with MC and Al and Fr from Jerusalem to Petra), has always been fantastic. Nobody would say the opposite (however, there is nothing more nerve-racking than bad company on a trip !!!).

Traveling alone is different. Always difficult to start (for me). The ultimate conversations with myself have happened on that boat from Stockholm to Riga, or walking alone in the fog of that weirdly beautiful city. Or walking at 4 am in New York City after a sleepless night, watching the city waking up (Korean grocers stacking up, sleepy policemen looking suspiciously at the few of us walking at that time in the Bowery, until suddenly the frenzy restarts and the whirlwind reappears), looking for a health club to do some exercise at 6 am…

Or getting lost. (Not quite.) In Zakopane, by the mountains last summer, the rain would not let up. I decided to go ahead and escape the crowds (in Poland crowds may be connected to some visit by John Paul II at some point – I could not stand those pilgrims). By escaping the crowds in the mountains I ended up among trees and endless rain, with no decent map and only the slope to give me a sense of where to go – fearing going down the Tatras on the wrong side, or meeting a mountain bear, or Polish hunters…

In the end, the slope led me down some village (?) and to a bus that had the blessed label “Zakopane” in front. It was like in Colombia – you just wave the bus and it stops. Inside the bus I felt exactly like in a colectivo in some vereda near Chía. The decoration of the bus was exactly the same, the people talking were identical (Polish versions of campesinos sabaneros, with the same hats and wool sweaters and red faces). Only the music was different. Nothing like getting lost by yourself in “the end of the world” and finding there a familiar set of people (all of them speaking something you do not understand).

Completely soaked (down to underwear and socks), smelling of the herbs of grass of the slopes of Zakopane, a little scared – but incredibly happy was I that day.