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Losing time

Many years ago, when I was living in London, I decided that the best thing about living in that particular capital was the number of cheap flights out of it. Every second paycheck, I’d pick a city I’d never been to before and take off. This wasn’t today or yesterday; it was long before digital cameras and blogging. I got holidays, too, of course, and one year I took a week or maybe ten days to visit Poland. I flew into Warsaw and then took the train to Kraków via Częstochowa. [I was toying with the idea of doing a series on the Black Madonnas of Europe and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa was high on my list. I have clear recollections of creeping around the shrine on my knees and feeling every inch of it.]

On the train to Kraków, I met an American woman (the lovely SvN) who told me about the chakra at Wawel Cathedral. That corner of the courtyard where time takes on new meaning.  She drew me a map and explained where I’d find it. Chances were that some yoga-head would be meditating there and would mark the spot.

IMG_3420 (600x800)IMG_3421 (800x600)I found it.  I can squat. I can’t sit cross-legged. So I compromised and sat with my back against the wall. I tried to tune out the world but nothing happened. I did manage to clear my mind for what seemed like a second or three and then the world came flooding back in. I got up, frustrated. Annoyed with myself that I couldn’t still my mind, that I couldn’t meditate. I checked my watch. Two hours had passed. Those few seconds were more than seconds. For two hours I’d been somewhere else – and I’ve no idea where.

IMG_3427 (800x600)This trip, I wanted to go back, to see if the same thing would happen. I took a taxi from my workshop and headed to the Cathedral. But it was closed. I got to wander the grounds for about ten minutes, before I was shepherded out. I didn’t make it inside the inner quad at all.

But I read up on it and it appears that sitting next to or even touching the wall is frowned upon.  In Your Pocket has this to say:

Castle staff […] consider the legend a nuisance and have done everything they can to deflect attention away from Wawel’s famous corner, including putting up a sign asking people to refrain from touching it (not working, fellas), roping it off, putting museum exhibits over top of it and having a guard stand nearby – as was the case during our last visit. Some people credit the chakra with protecting the city through its tumultuous history, but Wawel tour guides are stricken from speaking about the chakra stone, as you’ll quickly learn if you broach the topic with one. The Catholic Church and its firm followers also dismiss the legend of the chakra, despite the fact that its location at the most important spiritual site in the country (Wawel Cathedral), could just as easily be seen as a compliment. Whatever the case, there are indeed strange and powerful forces at work on Wawel Hill.

IMG_3432 (800x600)What I did get though was a lovely view of the city, an overview of a Kraków evening.  The boats moored on the Vistula River. The clubs and restaurants with their neon lights. The bridges that join the Jewish Quarter to the old Ghetto. And the dragon.

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IMG_3437 (600x800)Eons ago, when Poland was still a baby, there was a small village on the banks of the River Vistula, close to Wawel hill. At the base of the hill was a deep cave in which, rumour had it, a fierce dragon lived. The young people in the village didn’t believe the stories. They thought they knew better than their elders. One day some of them decided to go exploring. They found their way into the cave and disturbed the sleeping dragon who was rightly upset. Every day from then on, the dragon would steal a sheep or a young virgin and eat them. The village was in turmoil and lived in fear. But there was a hero – there’s always a hero. And depending on what you read, this hero was (a) a wise man, (b) the village shoemaker, or (c) the shoemaker’s apprentice. Whatever his job, we can agree that his name was Krac. Anyway, the clever chap mixed a thick yellow sulfur paste and painted it on some sheep. He then herded the sheep within sight of the dragon who did as dragons do and ate them.  The sulfur kicked in and the dragon, dying of thirst, went to the river and drank so much water, he exploded. The village was saved. Krac was the hero and the city that grew up around the hill was called Kraków.

You learn something new every day.

2016 Grateful 44

My grandfather had a chair by the fire that no one else sat in. My dad has one, too. I have my corner of the couch, the cushion perfectly moulded to me. I have my seat at the dining table, from which I hold court. When I lived in my cabin in Alaska, I’d alternate between the rocking chair and the recliner, depending on the mood, on what I was reading, on the time of day. I’ve had favourite park benches, rocks, and steps. I like to sit. I like chairs.

IMG_3329 (800x600)IMG_3332 (800x591)When it comes to monuments, I’ve been fascinated by the chair with the broken leg that sits outside the UN in Geneva.But this fascination paled when I was shown the chairs that sit in Plac Bohaterów Getta Square in the heart of the old ghetto in Kraków . My guide told me there were 65 in all, one for each 1000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. But I think she may have been confusing this with the monument in ulica Szeroka.  I didn’t count. But I did check it out and the memorial, designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak actually includes 70 chairs in total, one for each of the 1000 jews who lived in the ghetto. Who’s to say. And does it matter? There are 33 tall ones (1.4 m high) in the square itself and 37 smaller ones (1.2 m high) that sit around it. The larger ones are illuminated, which must make it pretty special to see at night. Passengers waiting to catch a bus or tram sit on the chairs as they wait a different transportation to that experienced by those jews deported from this very place. Eerie. I wonder how many stop to think or do they even see them any more?

IMG_3331 (800x600)As memorials go, these empty chairs are amongst the most poignant I’ve seen. A similar theme was used in the aftermath of the Oklahoma Bombing in the USA where 168 empty chairs stand witness to the 168 lives lost in that atrocity. I was in Oklahoma a few years ago and am raging I didn’t do my homework. Next time.

IMG_3339 (800x600)IMG_3342 (800x600)Still on the same side of the river in an area that has seen major redeveopments in recent years, sits Schindler’s factory, made famous by Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List  about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews by recruiting them to work in his factory. I stopped outside but didn’t go in. Sometimes it can all be too much. And it isn’t going anywhere. I think that when the Holocaust and its remembrance is crammed into a one-day tour of the city, it loses something. Yes, better remembered in any way than forgotten entirely but time is needed to reflect, to consider what happened, and to offer a prayer that nothing like it will ever happen again.

I challenge anyone to walk through the ghetto, sit on a chair, stand outside the factory door and not feel the urge to give thanks for simply being alive.

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There are no ugly women; just lazy ones

Helena Rubenstein, the world’s first self-made female millionaire, was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1872. She emigrated to Australia in 1902. With no money and little English, she packed a great complexion and jars of face cream in her luggage. When her supply ran out, she started making her own. With all the sheep in Australia, lanolin was in good supply.

By  1908, she was raking it in. She had plans for expansion. Again, on her own dime, in an era where women in business were not financed by banks, she moved to London. She married and had two sons.

In 1912, they all moved to Paris and she opened a salon. She set up a publishing company, too, the one that published Lady Chatterley’s Lover. All sorts of names and notables attended her salon, many of whose notoriety was still in the making. She was known for her dinner parties and her wit.

When WWI broke out, the family moved to New York where she opened her salon in 1915. This would mark the beginning of a lifelong rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, captured on film in The Powder and the Glory. She sold her US business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for just over $7 million and bought it all back for less than $1 million when the Great Depression hit. From there, it was onwards and upwards.

Her second marriage was to a  Georgian aristocrat 23 years her junior. [That must have been some face cream!] She spent money on art and clothes but took her own lunch to work. She set up foundations, gave scholarships, and employed most of her relatives in the business. She was some woman.

IMG_3361 (800x600)In Kraków last week, I stood outside the house in which she was born. It’s in the Jewish District of Kazimierz and is now a restaurant. Or so I was told. There seems to be a little confusion about exactly where. Earlier in the week, I’d seen the Oscar-nominated Hungarian movie Saul és fia (Son of Saul) so senses were particularly heightened. But Helena Rubenstein escaped before the madness descended on this part of the world. Her reasons for emigrating were most likely economic. And it made me think  of the millions of souls of potential who perished – not just Jews, but Catholics, Roma, artists, intellectuals – millions of lives wasted because of one man’s ideal.

And this made me think about abortion and the screening tests for unborn children and the parents who for better or worse decide whether or not to carry to term babies who are less than perfect. I wonder what Hitler’s mum might have done with the benefit of hindsight. But then the same might be said for Henry Ford – given the number of lives lost to automobile accidents. And my mind took another leap and bounced to risk aversity and how many of us live our lives in fear of things that never happen. And that led to potential and the fulfilling thereof.  Parents reliving their own failed sports careers through their children? Is that right? And then I started on emancipation and the movie My Sister’s Keeper that I’d heard about. A story of a young girl of 12 who’d sued her parents for medical emancipation. They’d had her so that she could be a donor for her sibling. And from there to movies and how they no longer seem to imitate life but take on a life of their own. And what about our constant need to be entertained, and our low boredom thresholds. And why don’t we read any more? Surely a beautiful mind is light years again of a beautiful face – but then beautiful faces are there for the taking – as Rubenstein said – there are no ugly women; just lazy ones.  I wonder what she’d have made of me ….

PS – Son of Saul – worth seeing – a whole new take on life in concentration camps. Playing in Toldi with subtitles 8.45 Mondays and Tuesdays.

 

 

Grateful 29

I have been having the strangest dreams lately. One night, I was trapped in a huge old building and the only way out was through what I thought was a morgue. I panicked as I’d never seen a dead body but was happy to discover that the old people inside were all alive – barely. They were all priests and nuns, though, and to get out, I had to talk to each one of them about their lives. Some had very odd stories – like the priest who used to be a scientist and then changed to hairdressing when he burned his hair in a bunsen burner.

In another dream, I was working for four generations of a very rich family. As I’d talk to prince or pauper and generally like to interact with people, this was okay for  a while. The family had two labrador pups. Animals and me get on – to a point. They don’t bother me and I don’t bother them. I’m not a cat person or a dog person – they’re grand but since losing a succession of pets as a child I’ve remained completely detached. Yet as this dream progressed, I got more and more annoyed with the adults, to the point that I practically despised them and more and more attached to the pups to the point that when one went missing, I walked the streets in the pouring rain to find him and when I did, he was dead and I was devastated.

In yet another dream this week, the cops called to the house to do a routine search for a missing person. In my car they found a letter from a mate in Orkney telling me that I’d have to live with a certain knowledge for the rest of my life – and another card suggesting that I get rid of the knife. Naturally they were curious – but  I was more concerned with them not finding the charcoaled remains of yet another body my mates had given me to dispose of. That one scared me senseless. It was most uncomfortable to be accused of something I didn’t do and very difficult indeed to convince these so-called mates that they had to ‘fess up or else I’d rat them out.

Another night, I was a nurse. I was black, in my 20s, with short bobbed wavy hair. And I had ankles. I didn’t want to work with people, just machines. I was about to x-ray this old man Henry for pneumonia when he fell off his crutches and collapsed. My supervisor (a nasty old cow) told to pick him up by putting my index fingers under his chin. When this didn’t work, I hooked my legs around him and then stood up. He began to walk without his crutches…and then everyone wanted a piece of me.

The night before last, I dreamt that it was around Valentine’s Day and I’d been asked out by two lads, each of whom wanted us to double date with some very odd couples. One was quite young, the other my age. The one my age was very pale and blonde and seemingly harmless. He was being grilled by a concerned mate of mine. My mate was some kind of former South African policeman who asked yer man whether a white card had been taped to his passport. It had. He then proceeded to tell the blonde chap that this meant he was black. There’s nothing quite like a throwaway comment to change someone’s life.

Last night, I was living in this huge old country house, at a crossroads. A bunch of itinerants drove in and set up outside the local pub/garage. The gardai were called and there was bedlam. The sea came out of nowhere and the itinerants turned into pirates. Two chased me inside the house and I was frantically trying to lock doors with no keys, gates with no locks. I ended up in a room full of china with one of them pointing a gun at me.

This week, I’m grateful for my dreams, for whatever insight they’re trying to give me, and for the entertainment value they offer. I’d take my dreams any day over the reality of the Irish boys in Poland and that 4-0 defeat against Spain.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52