Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Quarter in Summary.

The following is the document I submitted to the foundation. Peruse as you will.

Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:

I knew quite well going into this endeavor that mine was a fairly ambitious project. It began as thirteen countries, twenty-four cities. On a very brief sidenote, when the members of the foundation informed me that I could not enter Russian soil, save Kaliningrad, I was initially irritated. Russian hockey is some of the best hockey on the planet, and I frankly hadn't the faintest what to do with the month I'd allocated for Moscow and Petersburg. I've since decided this was serendipitous; I'm replacing Russia with Moldova, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, which brings my country total from thirteen to seventeen, with the city total approaching forty. Hockey presence is minimal in the southernmost of these countries, but the places where there's the least hockey have yielded the most results and the most welcoming teammates. For example, I decided to start in Prague, the capital of a country that holds hockey high as its national game. Though I spent three weeks in Prague, I didn't get anything in but practice skates. I talked to coaches and players alike, and they weren't even willing to see how I skated. The ones who spoke English well enough to tell me "why" told me that the rosters were already set, and they didn't want to disrupt team chemistry. With important games on the line, I suppose that's understandable; I just wanted a chance. Brno was too small to have much of a pronounced hockey scene, though I public skated there with fair frequency. I found my first luck in Bratislava, where I met a group of guys who played once or twice a week. They played full contact, and there I saw an advantage. One of the first things I noticed about Czech and Slovakian hockey was that they trained their players much more in the departments of skating and passing than in hitting. This was to my advantage. I'll be the first to confess that I'm about average as hockey players go, but I'm good at skating, passing, and hitting. Even though these gentlemen could stickhandle through autobahn traffic, I could keep up with them in the passing and skating departments. I had a decided edge in the hitting skill subset, however. The first time I racked someone from the other team over my hip and saw him flip on his back in front of me, I thought to myself "okay, I can do this." My stint in Bratislava wasn't entirely injury-free, though good things came from both of my major injuries. Both of the times I got hit in the face were a result of the simple fact that my helmet repair kit...didn't, so my unguarded face was plenty exposed to the puck that hit it in game one and the stick that hit it in game two. Badges of honor, I tell you. Incidentally, when I got a puck to the face, I passed it off for a goal, and when I got a stick to the nose, even though I'd quelled the initial fountain of blood, my teammates were saying "are you okay? you should go change clothes." Being the stubborn hokejist I am, as soon as my alternate center came off the ice, to my teammates' surprise, I hopped on, and wouldn't you know it, I scored a gorgeous goal. Kosice was rather more of a wash for hockey, in a way similar to Brno. It was just too small to accommodate much hockey enthusiasm. Professionals, very small children, and figure skaters dominated the ice time, so opportunities for pick-up games were minimal. When I was in Slovakia's largest gothic cathedral, however, I saw a poster for a floor hockey league. I was excited until I found, upon further research, that it was a devout Catholic ball hockey league. Though I was already excluded on both counts, the tournament didn't start until a solid two weeks after I left Kosice. Before departure from Kosice, however, I made sure to pick up a pair of inline skates to improve my chances of playing. It paid off.

In the month since, my heart, soul and skates have been stitched to Krakow, Poland. Krakow has been by far my most productive location in all possible respects. I played over ten times in my four weeks in Krakow, and the range of talent and surface was amazing. I played with an intriguing mix of extreme amateurs and former professionals on a small rink which was less a rink and more a barn with an air conditioning system. Conversely, in the same complex of ice rinks, I played on the super-nice regulation-sized surface with a fairly solid bunch of showboats who knew how to score, but couldn't and wouldn't pass to save their own lives. It's so rare to meet players who are extremely talented and know how to fit on a team--it frankly amazed me to find this dearth of team-oriented talent to be a fact which retains consistency across the Atlantic Ocean. I made lots of friends in the locker room, from Mace, the economics student with a passion for American politics, to Marcin, a fortysomething pack-a-day smoking physical therapist who made a tidy living; in addition to his private practice, he is the lead violinist in one of Poland's most famous and innovative folk bands. He wanted to know if Chicago was close to Arkansas, since he might be going to Chicago in a couple of years to play for the Polish community there. In addition, I relived a lot of my original hockey days. I played on broken asphalt with people younger than me (high schoolers) until it was simply too dark to see the ball anymore. As though my ego weren't inflated enough, they were calling me "Gretzky" by the end of my first game with them, and they weren't even being sarcastic. Roller hockey is dangerous, since it tricks me into thinking that I rock really really hard at hockey in general. The roller hockey experiences brought back memories, as my blog will mention in more detail. Furthermore, I learned the majority of the Polish swear words I know on those nights. But one uniting factor gives me solace even after the most brutal of hockey games: the ceremonial post-game beer in the shower.

From a practical standpoint, what's been interesting for me is the almost inverse correlation between how popular hockey is in a given place and how often I get to play there. Prague is unquestionably one of the world capitals of ice hockey. The game there is smooth, clean, and lightning fast. Kosice, though smaller than Bratislava, boasts the new U.S. Steel Kosice arena, one of the largest in the country, and as such hosts a lot of elite-level tournaments. The teams in Prague and Kosice were amazing, but, as mentioned, my negotiations with anyone and everyone were fruitless. For counterexample, other than HK Slovan, the Slovakian elite league champions, Bratislava has little hockey to its credit. Its youth teams are mediocre and its recreational teams are nigh-nonexistent. I found the only one in Bratislava, to the best of my knowledge. The team was reasonably welcoming, though they had a limited number of spots on any given week and I generally only got to play in the event of a cancellation. In furtherance, Krakow had the smallest scene I've encountered yet, but I found the warmest reception and the best, most frequent games there. Now I'm in Warszawa, which hasn't yielded much yet. I have some emails floating out in cyberspace, this time written in broken but understandable Polish, which I find an improvement over the hope that I bore the recipients of my emails in Krakow: namely that they would understand more English than I did Polish.

Speaking of Slavic languages, they're improving, by and large. My Czech was never good to begin with, my Slovak is functional, though not conversational, and my Polish is approaching decent, to my delight. I spent quality time with my phrasebook to memorize the art and literature vocabulary, and I use that to talk culture with Poles, some of whom have turned me on to some very good artists/bands. I turn you to Tadeusz Kantor in the art realm and Zion Train in the music realm, in particular. Recently I've started insisting that my hostel staffs speak to me in Polish, and only switch to English if I just don't "get it." I try my best to respond in kind, and it provides a self-crafted immersive atmosphere that enables me to pick up the language much more quickly. Moreover, I suppose the trip so far has been more pan-European that I might have initially imagined. Staying in hostels puts me in regular contact with Slavic natives, but also with people from all over Western Europe. We discuss literature and music, swap anecdotes. At the end of the day, we trade lists of authors, bands and artists (along with contact information). In other words, I'm getting a broader cultural education than I could have hoped for, and while it's perhaps unfortunate that English is something of a modern Esperanto, it's certainly been to my benefit when talking with Western Europeans. I haven't the faintest idea what I've going to do in the Baltics, honestly. Phrasebooks are well and good, but I hate spouting a language without knowing what does what, grammatically speaking. I see myself gesticulating wildly and then feeling very proud of myself when I finally manage to buy grapes in Estonia.

When I'm not playing hockey, I'm exploring the city, either with or without objectives. It frankly doesn't matter. In every case so far, my first full day in a given place has involved an abortive quest for any and all hockey rinks. I often pass quite close to my quarry, but this "no backtracking" policy I've acquired has proven both bane and boon. The bane is that I haven't gone for an excursion on my first day in a city and walked fewer than ten kilometers. But the boon also resides in these deathmarches into the dirt. I see lots of things I wouldn't otherwise. If there's one thing I've learned (and I promise you, I've learned more than one thing), it's this: though my project is hockey-centric, if I focus too much, I miss the entire point. Hockey happens, as does linguistic and cultural interaction. The challenge is filling the interstices. I realized this in Bratislava, where I'll admit that I spent a couple of days trying to figure out what in the hell to do with myself. Bratislava is not the most happening town in the western world, so between going from the largest to the very tiniest art galleries and buying Ulysses to fill out the hours, I just felt like I was marking time between games. It turned out that I was. I've learned since then that the best and most productive way to fill time involves meeting locals, even if only in a service capacity. As a non sequitur, though, Ulysses is the perfect book for my Watson year; a curious little man sets out on a long, strange journey and returns home by an extremely circuitous route. Here endeth the lesson.

I've also learned that I HATE travel days. I'm tempted to join PETA on a new angle and tell them that the iditarod is cruel, because if hauling things through cold weather sucks this much for me, then it must be much worse for dogs. Between being stuck in tiny castle towns, walking miles to find the Hidden Hostel, and walking miles more to find the rink in question, there simply must be a better way. The easiest way is ascetic Buddhism, where I renounce material possessions and just move on. It's a damn shame that you can't play hockey without material possessions. This is all exaggeration, though. Changing cities is simply the least pleasant of the routines I've carved for myself on this odyssey, and only forays to and from the train station are especially awful. Being able to graft structure onto this quasi-nomadic life has often proved my saving grace. From the checklists in my journal (and yes, I grade myself at the end of the day) to filling in my day's journey on my map with a pen, small rituals of organization help me get things done on the chaotic days, and give me the perseverance to fill in the gaps between chaotic days with more than just scrabble, drink, and idle distraction. As it currently stands, my life's structure is extant and reliable, but extremely adaptable, and I love it.

My experiences so far have touched the extremes of sublime and scary, and every point between, though with a reliably Slavic penchant for the bizarre. I've learned substantial amounts about the power of both language and sport, including the consoling power of language. When inundated for hours with the language of the day, sometimes nothing feels better than a relaxed conversation with an Anglophone or a few pages of Joyce. It's a beer in the shower for my brain. On the whole, it's been an amazing three months, and I never cease to be adequately...whelmed. I anticipate more more adventures and look forward to keeping you all in the loop. In the meantime, I'd once again like to express my gratitude to the foundation for its generosity, and leave all involved parties with my best assurance that their investment in me is a sound one.

With fondest wishes and body checks from the frozen north,

Joshua Brandon Harris


P.S. More detailed anecdones can be found on http://bladesandrails.blogspot.com, while photos can be found at the following locations:

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Defenestrated Luggage Chronicles.

My final hours in Krakow were relatively uneventful, but I've learned a couple of valuable trial-and-error style lessons in my city shift. It all started with a misbegotten plan. In a hairbrained scheme to save some money, I decided to, instead of doing the wise thing and either taking a night train or staying another night at Hostel Yellow, I decided it would be more fiscally advisable to stay up all night and then catch my 6:10 train. In retrospect, that was unadvisable at best.
I went out with the hostel crew and largely avoided the evils of strong drink, since I would have just passed out on the hostel couch. Little did I know that would be what happened anyway. Pubs and clubs were fine, and I said a lot of almost-tearful farewells to my buddies before heading back to the hostel to get my final load of luggage. (as a bit of an aside, one positive lesson I learned was that my life is much easier if I take my hockey bag and clothes to left luggage well before my train leaves--then I just have to take my carryon and sticks when I make the final sojourn to the station.) I returned to the hostel at 3:30 am, with just enough time for a nap, by my reckoning. Karolina was a sweetheart and let me sleep on the couch. The "waking up in time for my train" thing was simply not happening, though. I noted a lack of fixed times on the train ticket, with only validity dates. It seemed the ticket was valid for all of today. So I figured I'd roll the dice and go with my intuition on the subject. I left in a hurry nonetheless, without taking the time to check my email or anything. This proved nigh-unfortunate later. I grabbed the 10:19 train and I was sweating like a dog from nerves (and hauling what is now about 130 lbs of luggage) when the attendant came to check my ticket. Fortunately I was correct, and got to Warszawa without incident. Upon arrival, however, a teeming throng of people boarded the train with what seemed to be very little intent of letting me and my hockey bag (which was as wide as the damn train corridor) pass. Think fast, Josh.

Learning corner! Dictionary.com says:
to cause injury or death by forcible ejection from a window.

My luggage ain't dead, but one of the zippers popped upon impact on the platform. Yahoo. It was safe, don't worry. I made sure to shout "uwaga!" first. I was chased by a horde of small old men who were all very eager to help me...for a price. When I arrived in the street, taxis would slow down and keep pace with me until I waved them along. I was a source of potential business for half the western world. I got to the corner and realized I hadn't the faintest idea of where I was going. In my hurry to evacuate Hostel Yellow, I'd forgotten to photograph the directions, the tram numbers &c. Huhboy. In a series of deftly made small purchases, I got enough change for a map from a vending machine. I remembered the street, mercifully, and getting to the hostel was a simple enough endeavor, though Warszawa is a city of broad avenues...we're talking six to eight lanes. Hence the only way to cross the road is via what are known in Moscow as perechodi, or undercrossings. The idea of an escalator in Warszawa is more or less foreign, so I guess I know what it feels like for a 320-pound man to go up and down lots and lots of stairs. Just...yuck.

It was already getting dark when I arrived at 3:30. It occurs to me how much I'm going to relish the three to five hours of daylight (I'm optimistic, you see) I'll have in the Baltics, where the women are beautiful and the suicide rates are astronomical. It's apparently connected with the lack of light. At least it's not Finland, I guess...maybe THAT'S why the Finnish gentleman was so odd...perhaps the combination of darkness and alcohol had pickled his brain into mild psychosis.

First impressions of Warszawa are mixed, though I'm not in much position to judge yet; the only part I saw was in the 2km span from the train station to the hostel, where I saw eight-lane roads lined on both sides with imposing governmental and financial buildings. If Krakow is about culture, Warszawa is about money. It's a much harder city than Krakow, and it reminds me of Moscow in this respect. Would I spoke the language here as well as I do in Moscow. To my credit, however, I conversed in Polish for a solid hour on Saturday night, though I was corrected massively. All things in due time. The hostel is great, and the receptionist immediately struck up a conversation with me about America's role in globalization. I suspect I may do well here. Tomorrow I begin the hockey search.

You know the drill. It starts with a C and ends with an OMMENT.

Thanks for reading.



Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Krakow Cast; Malopolska Curtain Call

Once again I find myself shamefully tardy at updating this damn thing. You have my sincere apologies.

The hostel has been populated with an even stranger cast of characters than usual. Apparently an entire Orthodox Belorussian geriatric ward broke free of their cages to go on a tour of Krakow. A sundry collection of some forty babushki and dedushki between the ages of 65-80 arrived and stayed two nights. Deprived of Russian speakers as I am, I was delighted to have a captive forty of them. We talked poetry. Talking poetry with Slavic people, especially in their own language, invariably leads to a bottle of vodka being opened. A bottle of vodka being opened leads in turn to Josh singing "Vecherni Zvon," "Katyusha," and Cheburashka's birthday song in a Slavophilic Mitch Miller singalong (sans bouncing ball, sadly). Yes, that's right. I got decently (as in I maintained decency) hammered with Belorussian ancients. When they sang the Soviet National Anthem, however, I sat out. Something about it just didn't sit right with me. They went to bed and I spent the rest of the evening celebrating my youth by introducing the receptionist to the wide and wonderful world of dead baby jokes. What a tasteful creature I am.

Two days later there was a similar jailbreak, only it was a daycare kennel this time. Forty-odd children between the ages of 8-11 stormed the hostel and left a dirty wake of candy wrappers, gummy carpets, and discolored sheets, though I suppose it's equiprobable that the drunk Belorussians were involved in the latter respect. I kept being grateful for my capacities of social restraint, for the temptation to lean over the very littlest child and go "HEY KID, YA WANNA BEER???" was great indeed. I compromised with the devil on my shoulder by listening to a lot of Guns n' Roses at high volume; that seemed sufficiently deviant.

If I were to make a western about the characters I've met in this hostel, it would be called The Young, the Ancient, and the Bizarre. We've reviewed two of the three, but old and young are simple, because they're factual descriptions of people. Bizarre, however, comes in every flavor of skittle man has ever conceived.

Let's begin with the Finnish steelworker who never stopped being obliterate drunk as long as I saw him. He asked me and a couple of my acquaintances "where...you are from?" at least five times each, and he had considerable difficulty finding his own country on a map. These things fall far short of a b-double-e-double-r-u-n, beer run to the corner store with this gentleman and my Polish friend Radek. We found our beer and lined up at the register with due speed, but in the time it took me and Radek to check out, the Finnish fellow had changed his already impaired mind three times on what kind of intoxicant to purchase. We waited a bit on the other side of the register until he had change-of-heart number five, which prompted a rather stern-looking security guard to tell him he didn't need anything else to drink. I saw only the beginnings of the sloppy and heavily language-barriered argument that ensued. After about thirty seconds of his ridiculousness, Radek and I disavowed all knowledge of his existence. The night was not over, however. He stumbled in an hour and a half later, looking quite the worse for wear. I was on the internet playing my scrabble moves (as is my heathen custom). He waited about two minutes before sitting next to me and making rather unsubtle displays of impatience, which culminated in the best English he could muster "is...not just...for you." I told him politely in English and Russian to be patient, which met with a series of mumbled Finnish oaths, probably inciting me to do things that are not just lewd, but physically impossible. I'm uncertain whether or not he understood Russian, but I told him that I appreciated his suggestions, and then followed with my own catalog of Russian unrepeatables.

Then there was the Polish man in the bunk above me who awoke every morning promptly at five, turned on the light and paced loudly around the room for exactly fifteen minutes before putting on pants and going back to sleep.

There's also the strangeness that borders on something more sinister. Lastnight I was walking with an acquaintance to get a midnight snack. We walked past a bus stop where a youngish street drunk was sleeping on the bench...or so it seemed. We walked past and I noticed he was following us and gaining on us, though the straight line eluded him. He oscillated about three feet left to right for every six feet of forward motion. He approached me on my left side, but picked an extremely unfortunate location: there was about four and a half feet between him and the wall of a closed vegetable kiosk. He grabbed the sleeve of my coat with his right hand and balled his fist with his left. Without hesitating, I tucked my shoulder under his chin and used both hands to knock him headfirst into the steel grating on the kiosk front with a hit that would've made any NHLer proud. Who says sports don't have applicable skills off the field of play? At any rate, he dropped to his knees groaning and clutching his head. My acquaintance and I, though shaken up, went to the store as planned and, needless to say, we took the long way home. On my return trip, I noticed with relief and from a distance my assailant was back at his bus stop bench, so he can't've been hurt too badly. Maybe he'll think twice next time, but regardless, it was easily the scariest moment of the trip. Hopefully it stays that way. *knock wood* I'm just happy all parties escaped reasonably unhurt.

In more cheerful news, hockey is great here. There's a nice variety of skill levels, and only the really offense-minded talented showboat players don't know how to pass. Some things never change in that respect, kinda like the way I'm an above average skater and about average at everything else. We'll hopefully improve that in time. I've played seven games now, and it really irritates me that I'm running out of time here. Each change of city means another Iditarod leg, and another roll of the dice as to whether or not I can find a team. From where I sit now, it almost seems unlikely that I'll find a cast of characters as kind, interesting, or, at the very least, as entertaining as the cast I've found here, both in and out of the locker room. Krakow, I shall miss thee.

My year is 25% over, as of today, and as I thumb through my journal, it already astounds me how much I've learned and grown. The profusion of options before me continually boggles my mind, though my time is short and I must sally forth to buy this weekend's train ticket.

do widzenia!


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Maybe it Is All Small Stuff, But Sometimes, Small Stuff is Big Stuff.

Leaving Krakow is going to be difficult. There's hockey, culture, and oodles of interesting and friendly people here. Examples of each of the preceding three are documented in this post.

The glories of the internet are many and storied. I have discovered them in my time here, and, between ice and roller, I've since been waist-deep in hockey. I can only hope to find similar internet forums in subsequent cities and countries. I even have a login name on one forum, narolkach.pl. I'm amerikanin1215...go figure. I heard about a game on Wednesday, and went in plenty of time to what I thought was the right place. When no one was there at the given time, I started to get worried. Then some highschool kids showed up and started playing. I leaned on two things to give me confidence. First, I was relying on the transcultural bond that sport frequently affords. Second, I was a lot bigger than these guys. Turned out I was a good deal quicker too. They wanted me to show them stickhandling tricks, and they were beyond thrilled (and so was I, needless to say) when I actually did. After a game of 2 on 1 (two of them against me), they got excited and said they'd be back in fifteen minutes. They skated off toward a series of tall, dingy communist flats, and I sat down and assumed that we might just be done for the day. But no. They returned with all their friends from the neighborhood, and we played four-on-four until it was too dark to see anything at all.

Now I'll put in something of an interjection. Those of you who have known me for more than seven years probably remember the Batesville Roller Hockey Association, loose though it was. For those of you who don't, here you go. My hockey background ("career," if you will) began on a cracked and ruined tennis court on a college campus. It lay in the shadow of the modernist deathtrap Smith Science Building. Said building had notoriously moldy airducts and an unusually large collection of sundry preserved...parts...in its basement. On water breaks, I was often unsure if the water tasted of the ducts or the parts. But I digress. I'd play in all weather, whether 35 degrees or 105 degrees...sometimes much to my mother's chagrin. But after a while, there was more interest in Batesville than just me. At the peak of the...okay, I'll be self-important and abbreviate it...BRHA, we had sixteen participants. Because of Batesville's consistent bumper crop of news, we even made the front page of the paper one time. The start of my tenure at Sewanee killed the BRHA, unfortunately, but since the second most-common question I've recieved on this trip is "so how did you end up playing hockey in ARKANSAS?", then this should at least give you some shade of an answer. Here endeth the interjection.

Suffice to say that playing on an unfenced piece of asphalt in rural Krakow with a bunch of people who were younger than me brought back a lot of really fond memories, and a pretty substantial portion of me kept thinking "you know, this is really what athletics should be about...everyone getting together and having a good, competitive time." To put things in perspective, we played to ten goals. The other team wasn't happy, so we played to twenty. We weren't happy, so we played to thirty, and by the time we reached thirty, we couldn't see the ball anymore, so we called it a day.

Remarkably enough, though, the sportsmanship wasn't even the most amazing thing. The thing that touched me the most was the audience we drew. Families with dogs, old men drinking vodka from flasks--about twenty in total, all just enjoying watching us. The most remarkable and enduring audience member, though, was a wheelchair-bound double amputee. He had a great big smile on his face for the whole game, and if the ball went out of bounds, he'd insist on wheeling after it and grabbing it. After the game he said that he used to be quite the hokkejist himself, and that he loved watching such a good game.

On the way back to the hostel, some old ladies who had been watching us play were getting on my bus. One said it was good that we were playing sports; young people get in much less trouble that way. The other said that hockey was becoming very popular these days, and I played well. Unfortunately I couldn't answer very effectively (my Polish is still marginal, and I know better than to try Russian with the older generation), but I thanked them for watching and told them I was glad they enjoyed the game as they got off the bus.

Since then I've played two more games, each one about the same. The faces change a bit, but the atmosphere is just as friendly, and I honestly play better since I have an audience of total strangers watching. The stakes aren't exactly high, but it puts a bit of good-natured pressure on. Between learning street Polish from my teammates (when I say "street Polish," I mean only five percent of it is repeatable. That five percent is composed of pronouns and prepositions) and just playing without barriers, linguistic or otherwise, my roller hockey experiences of the past week have taught me a lot. In my Watson proposal, I talked a great deal about the universality of sport and the power of a game to reach across borders and language barriers. To be perfectly frank, I had no idea. I was making the emotional equivalent of an educated guess. I knew for a fact that if anyone cared about the game like I did, language and nationality simply wouldn't matter, and the field of play would be not just a field of competition, but a field for cultural interchange and learning as well. I can't really express how much it thrills me to find that my guess was correct.

A friend of mine was having a rough time of things recently, and I mentioned in an email that little things make a difference, even if we don't know it at the time. I was trying to find something of substance to back up my point, and I think I have it. I can say with reasonable certainty that we were just playing, oblivious to our audience. But, as a 21-year-old, when you hear an elderly man without legs telling you that he remembers what it's like to play, and that he enjoyed the game, it just hits you. It kicks you in the chest in a way that counterbalances things like unfriendly people in the service industry and a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It makes you want to be good at being good.

And that's where I stand.

Doing his best,

J. Brandon Harris

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Hockeython and Other News.

I love Krakow all the more now that I've found a place to play. It amazes me what a little web research and a few emails in drastically simplified English will accomplish. I was rooting around on a couple of Polish amateur hockey forums, and my knowledge of Slavic word roots enabled me to piece together a contact in Krakow. I sent him an email, and to my great surprise, he wrote me back to tell me about a hockey game every Friday night at a small ice rink. When I say small ice rink, I'm not kidding. Some of my Batesville readers will recall the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was the winter outdoor rink by the White River. I certainly do, because I volunteered and helped out (read: skated for free) for the duration of the rink's existence. For my non-Batesville readers, the Batesville rink was roughly 1/3 regulation size, the ice was in deplorable condition all the time, and on rough days, the place was absolutely choked with a teeming throng of people joyfully falling on their asses with the novelty of it all. This place is an improvement: it's 1/2 regulation size, and they do run the Zamboni. The rink is basically in a barn, and most of the windows are cracked if not broken to pieces. It is, in other words, totally broke-ass. But I had more fun there than I have anywhere else on the trip so far. I showed up an hour early and had to gesticulate wildly at the security guard before he let me in. Said gesticulations included hockey stick movements, complete with swishing noises, the number ten, for ten o'clock, and pointing at my bag and saying "heavy, heavy" in every Slavic language I knew. I had a nice long chance to warm up, and then people started coming in. My teammates came from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels; some were retired pros, some had only been playing a couple of years. It was a great mix. When I started this year, I made a master checklist. On that checklist was "score three goals in any game." Well, I can check that off, but perhaps I should revise that to "score three goals in any game with a goalie." I got six last night, but it was open net, so big whoop. Granted, the net was only 3' wide by 1'6" tall, so I suppose that provides something of meritorious circumstance. Everyone was really friendly and eager to get to know me, how long I'd been playing hockey, what I was doing in Poland, what my family was like. The questions were neverending, and everyone seemed just as happy to practice their English as I was to work on my fledgling Polish. Then it was gametime. The rink staff was really laid-back; we paid for an hour, they let us play for 2 1/2. It was a war of attrition, and I was one of the last eight standing. I returned, spent, to the hostel to indulge in one of the greatest pleasures after any struggle: a beer in the shower. And today I feel like a million dollars (approximately 2.6 million zloty.) I have a roller hockey game this Wednesday, and another ice game next Saturday.

The other story is not quite so overwhelmingly positive. I met a girl from California this week. She has been in Europe for a year, and we had one of the most unfortunate conversations I've yet had with one of my fellow countrypersons. Countrypersons. Somebody slap me.

"I just don't understand why nobody speaks English here. I mean, in Budapest everybody speaks English. You'd think these people would understand that nobody speaks their language outside their little country, and they'd learn something everybody could understand"

After pointing out that there were over sixty English schools in Krakow alone, and that 80% of any foreign-language learning section in any Polish bookstore was devoted to English textbooks for Polish speakers, I also mentioned how the Slavic language family worked, and since fifteen-odd countries speak Slavic languages, the Slavic people can mostly understand each other, though perhaps not perfectly. Hungarian is related to...Finnish. Talk about linguistic isolation. She just didn't get it, so I put it another way. I thought I'd press the Californian button and play the migrant worker angle:

"So you think these things about Europe, but don't you think that Hispanic migrant workers should make at least a token effort to learn English?"

"Well, yeah, of course."

"Don't you think that's kind of...contradictory? Hypocritical, even?"

"But America is different."

"How, exactly? We're no better than anybody else, and I actually think if yours is the prevalent view, we're pretty much just culturally benighted and selfish."

After I explained what "benighted" meant, she rolled her eyes and said "whatever." It just blows my mind that someone can go to so many places and seen so many things and still have come away without learning anything about how the world works or how America really fits in. From my journal:

"God, the fact that this girl EXISTS makes me livid. The idea that someone can be exposed to other cultures so long and still have the cultural sensitivity, sophistication, and awareness of a sessile fucking bay scallop infuriates me to no end. ARGH."

Now I suppose you have a small idea of why I don't just publish my journal verbatim. Blog has more polish, less vitriol.

As promised, more, shorter updates from the Eastern front are forthcoming. Hang tough, keep reading, and COMMENT!

Give me enlightenment or give me death,

J. Brandon Harris

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Good Lord, What a Week.

Since it's been a substantial while since I've updated you, I'll do this by chapters. I apologize for the delay, but I've been swamped in Krakow and loving every minute of it.

Strangers on a Train

In my last entry, I was on the way out of Kosice; I had just bought my train ticket and waited, sleep-deprived, in the internet cafes and phone booths for the seven-odd hours before my train. The sojourn to the train station was...lovely. My hockey bag has developed a (now duct-taped) hole, one of the wheels is torqued out of alignment, and, in summary, seventy pounds is no fun to shoulder all the way to the train station. But shoulder it I did, and found my train with little issue. I had no idea how spoiled I was. My previous train travel experiences on this trip have either involved new trains or refurbished old ones. I can say with reasonable certainty that this one hadn't been touched since...Brezhnev. For instance, I went to the bathroom. The light didn't work, the water didn't run, and after peeing in the cold dark, I stepped out of the rest room and looked to my right to see the train door gaping open into the deep and quickly passing Slovakian night. The train was close to empty, and I had a compartment to myself, which initially excited me, until a small unwashed and ill-kempt man in a uniform came to my compartment. He checked my ticket and was amicable enough, but explained that there was a problem with my baggage. I was pleased with how much I understood, and he said I had too much luggage. One ticket buys you one baggage space. It made partial sense, but A) it had never been a problem before, and B) there was no dearth of seating or storage space on this particular train. When he waffled on how much the "penalty" was going to be, I became suspicious. It ranged from 900 SK (about $36...more than the price of the ticket itself) to 300 SK (about $12). I told him I was just a poor student, and I only had a hundred crowns ($4). He put on a pensive face and gave it a moment's thought. Then he put on a comically exaggerated expression of "Well, I'm not supposed to do this, but..." and said that would be enough. I asked him if everything was in order. He replied "good for you, good for me." I asked him for a reciept; he shook my hand. Protest would have been futile, and he probably just wanted a little vodka or a pack of cigarettes. In the end, I just approached it as a small fee for a language lesson. Congrats, Josh! You just gave your first bribe!

Despite my 48-hour deprivation thereof, sleep was a nonentity on the train. I didn't want to incur further fines for laying down on the seats and exceeding my space allowance. At the border my Russian actually did me some good. The border guard spoke no English, and he had a few questions for me. Instead of being irritated, he just seemed relieved that I could understand him. The train trundled on into morning, and I...well...I stayed unfortunately awake.

Getting Settled

I arrived in Krakow in pitch dark, but I found my hostel with ease, and discovered immediately how much I would like it here. I saw the sign that said "check in at 14:00" and my heart sank at the prospect of going another eight hours without sleep. Kasha (receptionist extraordinaire), however, said "you look very tired, though, so if you'll put your luggage in the luggage room, you can go ahead and take your bed now." The hostel didn't accept cards, though, so my more immediate need lay in finding an ATM. I walked down to the bridge and saw the castle, Vavel, in the half-light. Though I was tired and beteeshirted in the 45-degree weather, I braved the cold and watched the sun rise over the castle. It was magnificent; the barest fingers of dawn pried my slouching lids open and cleaned the cobwebs from my cortical corners with ample dexterity. (God, I'm imagining what a whole entry written in that style would sound like...you'd need hip waders to read a paragraph.)

I returned at 6:15 and slept the sleep of the dead. I went out to get dinner and beer, and that was plenty of activities, by my estimation. As a sidenote, this place (Hostel Yellow) is heaven. Free breakfast, comfy beds, great atmosphere, free laundry, wonderful staff...for $11/night. If you're in Krakow, stay here. I got fantastic homemade pierogies and fried them up myself with a dill, cucumber, and tomato salad. Pavel, another receptionist, tells me that I should be a pierogi chef.

Poland 101

The next day consisted of a walking tour, over the course of which I learned some interesting things about Krakow, like the legend of the dragon Smog, who reputedly devoured virgins and livestock in medieval times (but then again, don't we all). This deflowerment and devourment displeased prince Krak greatly, so he put forth a decree that the hand of his daughter would go to whomsoever could slay Smog. Needless to say that,following said proclamation, the dragon had no shortage of crunchy knight snacks to supplement his regular diet of virgins and sheep. This all came to a screeching halt when the archetypal "little guy from circumstances" concocted a plan, which, of course, was to stuff a sheep with sulphur. I know that would have been the first thing to come to MY mind. The dragon ate the brimstone in sheep's clothing, and it made him so thirsty that he drank half the water in the Vistula and popped. All I could think of was the prospect of seething masses of dragon flesh all over Krakow. Here endeth the lesson.

Maybe sometime I'll tell you why saint fingers taste like sulphur.

The tour was full of colorful stories. We went to the window from wence then-cardinal J.P. II would preach to Polish youth about maintaining faith under the iron hand of Communism. We also went to and town square, the Schindler factory, and the Jewish Ghetto. The last two were good (though insufficient) introductions to the next day's activity.

The Worst Place on Earth

I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a Californian and an Australian the following day. Auschwitz was depressing and thoroughly awful, but bearable. The experimental gas chamber and Dr. Mengele's first office were the worst places, though. The room with a glassed-in 30-meter by four-meter by two-meter enclosure containing two tons of victims' hair (the raw material for cheap fabric) really gave me an idea of the scale and the absolutely indescribable horror that tainted this remarkably beautiful Polish countryside.

What surprised me most, however, was that Auschwitz I was the comprehensible part. We walked the two kilometers to the much larger sister camp, Birkenau. When I saw it from a quarter-mile away, a chill ran through me and I just stopped walking, as did my companions. It took a minute to process Birkenau's size: two square kilometers of bunkers and death facilities that at any given time housed 90,000 inmates. I walked in and couldn't think of anything. I was reaching for some kind of consolation, or explanation, or solace, or anything at all, really, but all of those things were conspicuously absent. I sat down at the corner of the first gas chamber that was built specifically for the purpose of murder, as opposed to being a converted air raid shelter, and cried for what felt like twenty minutes, although I'm not very sure. The thing that kicked me in the chest was no longer the size, but the ruthless, inhuman efficiency of the todmacht. I considered the horrifying fact that the camp did not birth itself. Someone was paid to design it and implement the plans. The structure was fearfully symmetrical, designed to assuage panic and crush even the merest vestiges of hope. I won't say anymore, just know that any description I have attached to Birkenau carries not even an angstrom of adequacy in comparison to actually being there. If you're ever in Krakow, it is my opinion that you have an obligation as a human being to go, pay respects, and learn whatever you can from the senselessness of it all.

A Day of Rest.

I woke up the next day feeling emotionally disemboweled. Though the events of the day preceding broke something inside me, I felt something else growing in its place: a dawning understanding of the human capacities not only for evil but for good as well. To keep myself from having a mood the color of gunmetal for the rest of the week, I took the day out and went skating all over Krakow in search of hockey rinks, and discovered that hockey is far from plentiful here. I'm going to improvise in the coming week and do whatever I can to find some inline options. I've even sent some emails out on roller hockey forums in hopes that A) someone will speak English better than I speak Polish, and B) that someone will be interested in my interest. More on that as it develops. I also learned that skating on cobblestone bears absoutely no resemblance to fun.

When I was up until 6:30 AM for reasons that defy rational explanation (I was playing scrabble on the internet and talking to my parents online...decidedly not rational behavior at that hour.), I heard American voices, discussing a visit to the Wieliczka salt mines. Since I was dazed and loopy, I decided it would be a stellar idea to go and talk to them in my compromised state. And so I did, and found my weekend travel companions. It was really refreshing to meet Americans who are in Eastern Europe to do more than drop off the face of the planet to order the whore sampler with a side of absinthe.

We went to Wieliczka two days later, and it was remarkable. Hundreds of kilometers of rock salt tunnels and caverns underlay the town of Wieliczka--in fact, if the mine collapsed, so would the town; hence they stopped salt extraction in 1996. Only two kilometers are open to the public, and those two, in addition to having details on the history of salt extraction, also had lots of statues carved out of solid salt. Many were also illuminated from within. It was amazing, especially the chapel, where reliefs of the annunciation and last supper dominated the walls, while the most recent addition, the larger-than-life statue of Pope John Paul II presided over the underground analogue to the narthex. For positive reasons this time, it really defied description.

The UNH kids and I became as close as people can be after only having known each other two days, so the next day we all forayed to Zakopane, a mountain town near the Slovakian border. I'll post the link to the pictures as soon as I download them to facebook, which won't happen until I find internet that is more satisfactory, but suffice to say that the only place I've ever been that rivals Zakopane for mountain beauty is Switzerland. And Poland is a hell of a lot cheaper. We rode the gondola up the mountain for an astounding view of the Tatras, and saw a cow with what appeared to be five-gallon udders. The poor girl was in dire need of milking. Then we played on a ropes course before it was time to go home, which we did. It was perhaps the best weekend of the trip so far, and I have Allyssa [;-)] Randy, Kirsten, and Marissa to thank for it. So thanks guys.

In conclusion, Poland is stellar, and in the past week I've seen everything from the awful to the amazing, and I honestly like it that way, as long as I learn from everything I encounter. So far, so good, on that front.

And today I'm doing my penance for being so woefully out of touch with the rest of the world. Since it's taken me the better part of the day to write this epic saga of a week in the life, I'm going to try to have a format shift: more, shorter entries. Tell me which you would prefer, and do remember to comment!

Happiest he's been in a while,

J. Brandon Harris