Monday, September 8, 2014

Gdansk: Yesterday & Today

                          Angel casting away the sinners in Hans Memling's The Last Temptation

Okay, there’s a darkness here I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge. I call it the creep factor. It lurks behind the deep yellow, rust & green painted facades of the buildings in Old Town, threads through the black veins of amber, & burns in the eyes of the damned in Gdansk’s masterpiece, Hans Memling’s The Last Temptation. The creep factor reaches its zenith in the Artists’ Court, a vast hall decorated with enormous paintings (more tortured souls being dragged to Hell), large wooden boats suspended from high ceilings, old swords & weapons, & an armored warrior looming over us on a high landing. I imagine him glaring though it's hard to tell, his head being a deer’s, crowned with antlers.

Staring up at the deer-soldier, I tactfully ask our guide, Kristof, “Was the deer a noble animal?”

“No,” he says, “but hunting in the forest was the most noble act of all.”

A medieval hunting lodge, that's what this is, where apparently town leaders still welcome important people & heads of state to gather & drink.

Outside on the main street of Old Town, the sun shines, a guitarist strums a waltz, tourists bite into succulent pierogies at cafes or lick soft ice cream cones as they saunter past souvenir shops & twinkling displays of amber. The Old World charm factor does serious battle with the creep factor, & believe me, I’m more than ready to be charmed.  Why shouldn’t people sweep shadows & darkness under the cobbles? Shouldn’t they be allowed to forget?

After all, this curious little town was Danzig before it became Gdansk. Bombed in 1945. Scars remain. On our walking tour, Kristof takes us through one thousand years of Polish history—being tossed between Russia & Germany, & once even being erased from the map of the world—but he never once mentions the word, Jew. That loaded word, in itself potent enough to transform otherwise peaceful humans into antlered beast-faced monsters.

“There is a concentration camp 40 km from here,” says Kristof, without naming it, elaborating on who was killed there, or who did the killing.

I like Kristof, with his brush of dark hair, shy smile when we laugh at one of his jokes, & strange body tic—a swerve of his entire chest. He points out his wife’s favorite café, & the best place in town to eat pierogies: Udzika on Piwna Street, then steers us to one of the amber stores. Just doing his job.

Through the day I’ll eat pierogies (stuffed with chicken, raisins & nuts), drink Polish beer, linger at the amber stands, & gradually fall under the spell of desperately sweet confectioner’s sugar, sidewalk cafes, musicians serenading us with guitar & accordion, the piercing loveliness of the sunset over the bricks & cobbles, & the full moon peeking through the Ferris Wheel near the canal. It's an Old World elegance & charm I've read about & imagined, but never seen. 

Still, I find myself wandering through the Old Town gates, leaving color, lights & people behind, to a darker, seedier area. I slow down before a group of tattooed, pierced, spike-haired teens smoking & laughing in front of a coffee shop, very different from the cafes in Old Town. Its scrawled window advertises “Okie Dokie.” A new kind of coffee on my endless search for great java through the world? From inside, George Michael’s voice blasts: “Freedom!” 

And I keep going.


The morning sun is faint. 

I sit at a cafe, munch a blueberry-crammed pastry, & watch the amber merchants, the guitarist, & the beggars, the cafes, storefronts & cobbled streets already growing familiar. I leave the main street & wander down the amber street, where a tavern dedicated to Copernicus is now known for its gingerbread. Another guitarist in a blue beret plays, "My Way" & "Sunrise Sunset." The open door to the Biblioteka beckons-- a library!

The instant I enter, the young man behind the desk leaps to his feet as if he were waiting for me & brings out a volume & sets it on the desk. "Look at Danzig," he tells me as I page through large black & white photographs of razed buildings & rubble. "Can you believe this is where you are walking now?"

"Hard to believe," I admit.

"They had a choice after the war--to start over & completely rebuild the town or to repair & construct over the ruins. They chose the second option, & I believe it was the right one."

Every volume in the small library, with a winding wooden staircase leading to the second floor, is about Gdansk & its history. The smell of books & fresh green air through the open window & door are my nectar. 

The librarian asks eagerly where I'm from. "Pennsylvania?" he says, delighted. "The TV show, 'The Office,' takes place there."

Back on the amber street, the peaceful mood remains through the day, & every encounter I have with people of the town is pleasant. 

My friend & I take the train to Sopot, a beach town 18 km. from Gdansk. We arrive in early evening to find a pedestrian street lined with the ever-present Lody ice cream stands, cafes, restaurants, & even an H&M. A festival is taking place that seems to connect gardening & youth camping, a live band with two horns plays Jorge Ben's samba classic, "Mas Que Nada," & everywhere, families stroll. Baby carriages, pregnant women with bellies thrusting under skin-tight leotards, old couples & young holding hands. As in Gdansk, I see many women whose hair is dyed red--a defiantly artificial translucent orange. The men at their sides are in baggy pants or dapper with creamy suits.   

On our way to the beach, we pass the grand Grand Hotel, which sits rock-solid, protected by immaculate gardens, & faces the sea as if to say, "Don't dare try to get past me!" The hotel is enormous, a bastion of pre-war elegance that brings to mind Atlantic City's fabulous thousand-windowed hotels where Roosevelt & Truman stayed, & celebrities rode in rickshaws along the boardwalk. The Grand Hotel, Sopot, Old Town Gdansk are all trying to recreate pre-war elegance & charm, to open the story at "Once upon a time," before the children entered the dark forest. 

Let's stay with them for a while, at least until the sun goes down.   

 the Grand Hotel in Sopot, Poland

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