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Sunday, July 26, 2009, in Gdańsk, Poland

Hi all. Yes, we’re still here, a combination of weather and the reality that we don’t want to get back to crowded Scandinavia until most of the summer vacationers have gone home. Last week, we had just arrived in Poland.

It was a little crowded on a summer weekend in Gdańsk marina. We were put in a temporary spot for the afternoon, and then we replaced the inside boat in a two-boat raft just under the harbor office. This gave us a front row seat to watch The Crane.

The Crane is the defining symbol of the Gdańsk town, a relic of its grand merchant days, a medieval focal point in the panorama of the old town. Yes, it’s a crane, used from at least the fourteenth century to lift cargo and to step masts onto ships. It was once the largest working crane in the world. In its earliest days, the twin treadwheels that hoisted or dropped the heavy cargo were activated by the brute effort of men walking up and down steps that were connected to them, like a medieval Stairmaster. It burnt down in the mid-fifteenth century and was rebuilt to its present architecture. It probably goes without saying by now that the version of today is a restoration from the rubble of World War II.

It’s a charming building whose upper floors jut out over the water, with two bulbous brick sides surrounding a two-story wooden gable. The fact that it’s smack in the midst of downtown would have led me to believe that the second floor wasn’t being used for much anymore. But within hours of our arrival, we heard a megaphone coming from the Crane���s general direction across the canal from our dock. In the canal were a bunch of temporary buoys, and surrounding them were people on Jet-Skis. Hundreds on onlookers lined the canal on the Crane side and on our side. And everybody was looking up.

What do you do with an 11-meter platform on a canal on a summer Saturday afternoon? Apparently the answer is that you have a diving competition. The buoys were brightly painted with the Red Bull logo, and people who obviously drink copious amounts of the stuff were lined up to dive from the top of the crane into the canal.

Each of these men, and they were all men, was in a swimsuit that Damon Runyon might say had “no more clothes on them than will make a pad for a crutch”. Each would appear in the dark eave of the crane’s upper level, stretch a bit, interact with the crowd (as much as they could nonverbally) and dive. The dives were as complicated as youd see in a tournament. I’m no Olympic judge, but these guys didn’t make much of a splash, either, even after twisting or somersaulting or diving off backwards, or all three. They’d then be picked up by someone on a Jet-Ski and whisked away, perhaps to dive again. From my distance, I couldn’t tell whether it was only a few guys or the entire cast of a Chippendales show.

We awoke the next morning to a dreary, rainy Sunday. Undaunted, we put on foul weather jackets and headed toward the main square and the tourist information office. The route – from the view from our boat and up the streets of the old town – was lined with houses once owned by wealthy burghers. Each was slightly different, and many were adorned with lavish carvings or intricate painting.

From the tourist office, one of the things we learned was that a large indoor mall was nearby and that it would be open on Sundays. Armed with maps and coffee, we walked up the Royal Route and across the old town to a modern, bustling mall. We had limited Internet service on board, only available on Art’s PC, and that wouldn’t satisfy, well, me. Poland’s mobile data services are very competitive with each other, and we were able to obtain accounts with two service providers for a small investment, and possibly meet our data communications needs for our entire visit to Poland.

Gdańsk is a destination on many Baltic cruises, and the old town was crowded with camera-laden people, many under umbrellas. Kiosk after kiosk displayed amber or novelty souvenirs. We had the luxury of waiting for better weather before we would take our walk through the historic area, and we walked back to the boat in mid-afternoon.

Art found a Polish TV station on the analog channel. We’d already seen “The Nanny” or, well, “Die Nanny” as dubbed, on German TV. Now we saw a different take on “The Nanny.” This show was in Polish and had as its star a Fran Drescher lookalike, who was wearing skin-tight faux leopard fabric from head to toe, topped by the requisite big hair. But this wasn’t Fran Drescher; it was a Polish actress, whining in Polish, lips completely synched. And all the other characters were Poles as well, in their Nanny roles. The set reminded me of the segment a home magazine used to do, where it would show you a sumptuously-decorated room and replicate the style with affordable off-the-shelf objects. Our best guess is that this show is the adaptation in Poland of The Nanny, just as “The Office” was successfully adapted in the US from the UK. So for all of us Americans who think that we’re exporting our literary “culture”, the truth appears to be that we’re exporting our guilty pleasures.

Here’s another thing that we’ve seen on television, something we haven’t seen elsewhere. I know that some American movies and shows are subtitled, like they are in many other places. But in Poland, when we watch TV, the English-language shows aren’t subtitled, and they aren’t exactly dubbed. They have…voiceovers. So you’ll see the action in a Hollywood movie, and there’s this Polish voiceover guy who apparently is doing a simultaneous translation of everyone in the movie. Art was watching an action movie called Point Break one night. Patrick Swayze, having a fit of some sort, says something in English and the voiceover guy says something, although a little less animatedly. Then Keanu Reeves says something and the voiceover guy interprets him. Then Lori Petty says something and so does our Polish guy, not even trying to sound female, always in that calm, documentary voice. It’s as if the movie is being critiqued constantly by some wonky reviewer on PBS.

In the morning, we took a walk that led us to the outdoor market. Table after table sold mushrooms and berries, just as the guidebook had said. Peas and cauliflower were everywhere. I was surprised to see sunflowers on many of the stands – just the heads, and looking slightly dried out. I didn’t know whether people cooked with them or peeled the seeds out of the pod, which I thought was a sort of thankless task. Later, we saw a young woman walking down the street, cradling a sunflower head, picking out seeds one by one and snacking on them.

We watched a woman fishing in a brine-filled container, selecting pickles for a customer waiting alongside. What criteria could she possibly be using for which to pick? Had the man requested her darkest pickles? The smallest ones? We never asked, so we’ll never know how to choose a proper pickle without squeezing it, or simply taking a bite, and throwing back the ones we don’t like.

We visited a bistro for lunch and ordered the national dish called bigos, or hunter’s stew. It’s been likened to the French cassoulet, if you were to substitute sauerkraut and cabbage for the beans, and, in fairness, replace most of the meat with nothing at all. But we enjoyed this bistro, just off of the main tourist street in town and charging prices we hadn’t seen for two courses since Spain in the days of the peseta.

The walk from the city gate to the canal where we were docked is called the Royal Way (or Royal Route), and we finally settled in to amble it armed with guidebook notes. This trip was the promenade from the gate to the city to the royal residence, and it wasn’t hard to imagine people lining up along the street to watch the carriages saunter by. Because we were docked at the eastern end, we worked our way backwards, beginning at the royal residence at the Green Gate and working our way to the city exit. The residence wasn’t used very often to house actual royals, perhaps related to the checkered sovereignty that Poland has had, but today former president Lech Walesa has his offices there.

From the moment we entered Long Street, we were again dazzled by the ornamentation on the painstakingly restored façades, one after another. Many were festooned with concrete sculptures inset into alcoves. Others paid homage to figures in Greek mythology with statues perched on the highest eaves. Some were gilded; some were covered in frescoes. Even the old Armory was lavishly designed. You’d think that as a warehouse for ammunition, and one that might blow up at any time, it might be a little more plain than its residential neighbors, but it stands up to any of them for beauty and opulence. These buildings are used now for commercial purposes. Some serve as museums; others have cafés or restaurants on the first floor, with umbrella-covered tables spilling into the walking street. One is the home of the tourist information center.

There’s a statue of Neptune in the center of the walk, in front of the Artus Court, which was a meeting place for the wealthy merchant burghers that was to resemble the Court of the legendary King Arthur. And perhaps it did in a most unseemly way – this is the spot where executions took place. During World War II, the statue of Neptune and many other treasures were dismantled and hidden. Neptune returned to its place in 1954. Nearby there’s a statue of Mercury, and Zeus towers over Diana and Apollo across the street. For a place that’s traditionally been devoutly Catholic, there’s an awful lot of pagan imagery around, and gorgeous imagery at that.

As penance for our lapse in spirituality, we went into the St. Mary’s Basilica later in the day, a huge church that can accommodate up to 25,000 people. There’s so much empty space under this roof that the amount of art seems disproportionately low, yet there is something to see in each of the more than thirty chapels, and the huge gilded alter looks modest in the cavernous nave.

Our modest itinerary, the weather, and our reluctance to rush back to Sweden all contributed to our decision to stay in Gdańsk for at least a week. The beauty of the city, and the wealth of things to do that weren’t just sightseeing, kept us walking into and out of the old town and its outskirts. It was crowded on the wide main street, and every tenth person was eating ice cream, or a waffle covered in whipped cream and blueberries, at any time of day after about ten in the morning. As the days went by, a festival was being built. One day, we’d see booths of plywood, and silkscreened façades would appear in pastel colors. Then the booths would be covered, and medieval illustrations would decorate the canvases. Then we’d start to see vendors arrive, some with giant pans, others with cotton candy that was apparently offered in five flavors, in five colors that didn’t match anything I ever consider to be food.

The festival is called St. Dominic’s, and it’s the biggest event of the year in Gdańsk. The festival was established in 1260 by Pope Alexander IV. It’s a market festival, originally involving about 400 ships. Apparently the 1310 version of this party was crashed by Teutonic knights, but that didn’t deter the revelers. World War II did, though, and the festival took a hiatus until the 1960s. Today’s festival is still about commerce, and it’s one of the largest open-air events in all of Europe.

The official beginning was on Saturday, and we positioned ourselves on the site of the first parade at Long Market, with only coffee and a pastry between us and the festivities. Long Street is always crowded with pedestrians, and on this morning they seemed to make up a parade of their own, flying paper flags, and chasing a variety of costumed animals who all seemed to have evolved to biped: an orange leopard, an elephant, a rabbit, and a goat that actually appeared to be famous. This goat, droopy horns and all, attracted a crowd of kids and mollified them with some sort of gift pulled from a knapsack held by the goat’s “handler”, or boyfriend, or co-star, as all of the interactions we could see were in Polish. The parade included a police band, and then a bevy of delegations followed from a variety of nearby countries, some with their own bands.

We realized that there was little to learn from the mayor’s speech, and we left our coffee shop perch and made our way through some of the many streets that were lined with vendors. What the marketplace lacked in variety, it made up in quantity. There were dozens of kiosks selling amber, and many selling paintings, many selling shoes, and many selling novelties. In every walking street there was one live infomercial host slicing cabbage with the flick of a peeler and another shining some sort of metal with some magical potion. There was a row of vendors selling the sort of stuff you’d see in a garage sale bin. One guy had a large plastic box filled with used bottle corks. I wondered if you were supposed to buy the whole box of them or carefully pick out the corks you wanted. And how would you decide? Did you have to sniff them? The event seemed a cross between a flea market and a crafts fair and a medieval village.

We focused, as we often do, on food. We ate a smoked cheese of sheep’s milk that had been warmed on a portable grill and served by two men in some sort of traditional costume resembling lederhosen. This cheese came from the southern part of the country, and just as we left the booth, Art realized that this region was probably the homeland of his ancestors. We didn’t go for the street food that most people seemed to be buying, a large slice of rye bread, slathered with pork fat, topped by sliced pickle.

Lots of street food around meant that it was a good opportunity for us to try kielbasa, which sounds like it is a special kind of Polish sausage. It isn’t. Kielbasa is simply the Polish word for any kind of sausage. Indeed, the only sausage we’d seen around town that isn’t called kielbasa is called “hot dog.” We stayed away from those. There are dozens of types of kielbasa in the supermarket, but we were happy to leave our first experience to the pros.

There were several food courts sprinkled around the vast marketplace, and in each one, there was a large choice of vendors, and each vendor served a half dozen types of food. This sounds like it represents a lot of choice, but in fact, each of the food vendors sold the very same menu as each of the others. So we had a choice of kielbasa, shasklik, a pork dish in sauerkraut and some other options, but the only thing that differentiated one kiosk from another was its latitude and longitude. And the hat worn by its workers. We closed our eyes, spun ourselves around in circles, and finally picked a booth when it looked like we needed to get shelter from impending rain. The kielbasa was great, and the rain poured down on schedule. After lunch, we walked to another side of the fair just in time to hear a soprano and a tenor sing “Singin’ in the Rain” in English, accompanied by a pianist.

In the evening, I succumbed to a chocolate crèpe filled with Nutella (hazelnut chocolate ganache for those who haven’t yet had the supreme pleasure) and cherries (hey, it’s fruit, in season, so we’re just trying to be healthy). Our waiter was inspired by my relentless questioning and brought over a sample of Goldwasser liqueur. The name sounds German because Gdańsk was German at its creation in 1598, though the original inventor was a Dutchman who lived in town. Or you can choose to believe the legend that the beverage was created by Neptune in the fountain in the middle of Long Square. Apparently Neptune was so irate (or very pleased, according to one variation) that passers-by were tossing coins into his fountain that he pierced the water with his trident. This turned the water into Goldwasser, which is a concoction of roots and herbs and actually has 22-carat gold flecks floating around in it. This brew was a triumph of alchemy, a way to turn water into gold and to produce the elusive magic elixir so desired by the superstitious. Peter the Great and his descendent-in-law Catherine were allegedly both fans of this vodka-like, 40-percent spirit. The syrupy drink contains something like twenty herbal ingredients, including cardamom, coriander, juniper, cinnamon, lavender, cloves and thyme and tastes complex and fiery, with fruity and anisette overtones. And, with gold flecks swirling in every sip, it looks opulent and a little bit decadent.

We made our way back to the Coal Market for an evening concert, catching the end of a jazz-rock band called Voo Voo and watching a video of a Santana performance. This video was launched from a PC behind a translucent screen propped up on the stage. The PC was behind the screen and we were in front of it. This meant that Carlos Santana, or anatnaS solraC, was playing left-handed guitar, which was a little frustrating for me to follow. At some point I wondered whether this Saturday night show was simply using the free festival WiFi and downloading our entertainment from YouTube. It was good anyway.

But the real show was just beneath the stage. In the daytime, little kids are always sent up by their parents to dance around while an outdoor performance is in progress. Even earlier on this day, a little ballerina tyke, with her hair in a ponytail framed by a bushy bow, provided dance accompaniment to the soprano and tenor on stage. The evening’s performance also had those who were overcome by the music expressing themselves in the alley between the seats and the stage. But these people were adults. And it was Saturday night, and the Goldwasser reserves in Gdańsk had apparently been depleted by more than just us. At one point, a tipsy Susan Boyle lookalike took the platform and danced her heart out, oblivious to the cackling of the group or the applause she got when the video finished. It would have been fabulous if her dancing was on par with Susan Boyle�����������������������������s singing. Alas, her dancing was more along the lines of Susan Boyle’s glamour.

We’ll be leaving Gdańsk in a few days, but we’ve had a great time here. We miss you and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Love, Karen (and Art)