Homeward Bound

And so we headed home…with a stopover in Paris en route. Karen’s brother, who had lived in Paris, had advised us on choice of hotel, located near the Eiffel Tower. We negotiated the RER (Réseau Express Régional) trains and Metro with aplomb.  Having survived the unpronounceable streets of Warsaw, we scoffed at a few simple accent marks. We dragged our suitcases from the Metro station to the hotel, navigating cobblestone-free sidewalks. It was easy. We were seasoned travelers.

As it begins, so it ends — with suitcases dragged through the city streets.  No cobblestones, no rain — but sidewalks crowded with people. What, we wondered, were all these people doing wandering around on a Thursday evening? The restaurants were overflowing.

Exhausted and ready to be home already, we retired to our room at the Hotel Muguet and were just settling down when something happened.

What next?  Make your choice:

Option one:  We heard explosions outside the window.

Option two: We heard explosions outside the window.

Yes, there really were explosions. We opened the drapes and discovered that we had a view of the Eiffel Tower — silhouetted against fireworks. It was July 14, the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille — also known as Bastille Day.

We watched the fireworks. We laughed. We flew home.

Final questions to consider:

This trip report is written in the form of a “choose-your-own-adventure” tale, but all choices lead to the same place. Is this a cheat? Or does it reflect a belief that many paths can lead to the same end?

Is the writer (that would be me) trying to get away with something? If so, did I succeed?

Do the questions above far exceed the reach of this report? If so, why? If not, why not?

Another Visit to the Underground

Decisions are such ephemeral things. Decisions made that night did not affect our activities the next day.

Very early the next day, we caught the train to Warsaw. We did, at the station, make a rookie mistake and try asking for tickets to Warsaw rather than writing down our destination. But of course it turns out that Warsaw is actually Warszawa, which is pronounced Var-shav-a.

Of course confusion with platforms and trains and we rushed hither and yon, but aided by an elderly Pole with a complicated story, we made it to the right platform and found our way back to Warsaw (oops, I mean Warszawa). We went back to the street with the cobblestones and the guesthouse we had left the week before.

Rainbow over the Cloth Hall in Warszawa
Rainbow over the Cloth Hall in Warszawa

Having left Krakow early, we had time for sightseeing in Warszawa, where we visited the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. In 1944, Polish freedom fighters rose up against the Nazi and met annihilation and retribution. The museum tells this fascinating story. With photographs, recordings, artifacts, and more, exhibits recreate the atmosphere and events of the struggle of 1944, paint a picture of the realities of life under the Nazis, and present the Uprising as an example of the strength of the Polish spirit. The movie “Death of a City” shows Warsaw before the War — and after the Nazi backlash executed thousands of Poles and destroyed every building of importance in to Polish culture.  It’s impossible to summarize the museum (and the history it presents) in a trip report. It’s overwhelming and inspiring — adjectives that equally well describe Poland and the Polish people overall.

What next?  Make your choice: 

Option one:  Inspired by tales of how the Polish resistance used Warsaw’s sewers as an escape routes and fueled by bison grass vodka, we headed down a manhole (make that a “person-hole”) to explore the city’s underground. Eventually, we came back up and caught a plane to Paris.

Option two:  We caught a plane to Paris.

What a Handsome Devil!

Having had it with organized tours, we decided to spend the next day on a self-guided walking tour of Krakow. (Translation: we had a map and a guidebook and we started walking.)

This is a fabulous way to see a fabulous city.  You can read about Krakow in many a guidebook and web page, so we won’t provide a full travelogue. Rather, we will give you our own personal highlights:

  • In Rynek Główny (the city’s largest market square), we eat breakfast while listening to a trio of accordion players belt out the William Tell Overture as horse drawn carriages clopped past.
  • The extravagant decoration of the basilica of the Virgin Mary (or Kosciol Mariacki) warms my heart. Every square inch of the interior is decorated with gold or stars or paintings or carvings.  What could be better? Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I say.
  •  We visit Galicia Jewish Museum, which was created to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to celebrate Polish Jewish culture. The permanent exhibition, Traces of Memory, offers a view of the Jewish past that was destroyed in Poland, documents the Holocaust, and offers a look at current efforts to preserve and recreate the memory of the Jewish past in Poland today.  The museum focuses on Galicia, an area now split between the Ukraine and Poland and coincidentally, the area from which my grandfather emigrated to Canada.
  • We descend 135 narrow stone steps in a dark passageway below Wawel Castle to the Dragon’s Cave. Legend has it that a dragon menaced the city until a prince fed it a sheep’s hide filled with sulfur. The dragon ate it in a single gulp, gulped water from the Wisla River, and then exploded — a fine mix of science and fantasy.  Today, a fire-breathing bronze dragon sculpture stands by the river at the exit from the Dragon’s Cave.
  • We learn the word for ice cream (lody, and no, I don’t know how to pronounce it but at least it doesn’t have any diacritical marks).  We search everywhere in an effort to find the very best ice cream shop. Everyone needs a quest. We thought this was a good one.
  • We mispronounce and drink Żubrówka at the Singer cafe in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. No, we do not sing — the bar is named for the Singer sewing machines that are scattered about on the tables.
  • We meet an amazingly personable devil, just outside the basilica of the Virgin Mary.
  • Back in the market square, we mispronounce (repeatedly) and drank more Żubrówka while watching performers working the crowd: an opera singer, a troupe of fire dancers, and a levitating magician.
Polish vodka poster; woman in a dress like a business suit, smoking a cigarette
Polish vodka poster

What next?  Make your choice: 

Option one: After the third glass of vodka, Pat decides she will abandon writing in favor of levitation and fire dancing.

Option two: After the third glass of Żubrówka, Karen decides she will abandon writing in favor of opera singing and playing the accordion.

Questions to consider:

Did you know that I spent a year as the marketing director at The Crucible, Oakland’s school of fire arts? The Crucible offers classes in blacksmithing, welding, glass flame working, fire eating, and fire dancing, among other things. Do you think working at The Crucible means I am likely to abandon writing in favor of fire dancing? Or do you think I’ve already gotten the fire-dancing inclination out of my system?

Do you know how Karen feels about opera singing?  Are you sure?  Have you heard us sing to the winner of the Tiptree Award? Do you want to? (Consider your answer carefully.)

Notes from the Underground

As is so often the case, the truth lies in the gray areas between two extremes. Karen and I were given two boxes of Śliwka Nałęczowska w czekoladzie. One box made it back to the USA. Over the course of our remaining travels in Poland, the other box mysteriously and gradually became lighter and lighter — until we discovered it was empty.

Polish vodka poster: Beverages in flight
Polish vodka poster: Beverages in flight

How could such a thing happen? Alien abduction, perhaps. I have heard that aliens are fond of chocolate. It is also possible that Żubrówka was involved.

But again, I digress.

The next day, we boarded a bus for Krakow and had an uneventful journey. In Krakow, we descended into the depths of the earth and met the Devil. In that order, but not like it sounds.

Our descent was into the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Feeling that it was our duty as tourists to take at least one organized tour, we signed up for a tour of the salt mine, which some say inspired Tolkien’s descriptions of the mines of Moria. The mine is a Unesco World Heritage site, after all.

First, a few pertinent thoughts.

  • We cannot pronounce Wieliczka.  Can you?
  • The mining of salt at Wieliczka began in the 13th century and continued for the next 700 years. Commercial mining stopped in 1996.
  • The mine now functions as a tourist attraction. People come from all over to see the amazing underground chapel carved out of the salt by the miners. In the tunnels and chambers are great walls of salt, statues of gnomes and popes and saints, glittering salt chandeliers and the mandatory carving of the Last Supper. There is an underground post office that takes a very very long time to deliver a postcard. (My mother can attest to this.)
  • The mine includes a labyrinth of tunnels, over 180 miles (300 km) of them, on nine different levels.
  • There’s an underground lake in the mine and an underground sanatorium where chronic allergic diseases are treated. Rumor has it that the mine reaches a depth of 1072 feet (327 meters).

The official tour does not include the sanatorium. On the official tour, you must shuffle along in a tourist group, descending a wooden stairway of 378 steps and following a tour guide for about 3/4 of kilometer, staying with the group and never lingering behind to lick the damp gray walls to make sure they really are salt….not that anyone would ever do that.

What next?  Make your choice:

Option 1: Pat and Karen dutifully stayed with the group, mailed letters from the underground post office, and returned to the surface unscathed.

Option 2: Despite having watched many horror movies in which it is fatal to leave the group, Pat and Karen snuck away in a dark tunnel, licked the walls (yes, they are salt), liberated the bored residents of the sanatorium, and went skinny-dipping in the underground lake.  Eventually, the cops were called and the group was ejected. Karen and I talked our way out of trouble and eventually returned to our hotel dripping wet and leaving salt stains on the carpet.

Questions to consider: 

Do you really think Karen and I, co-founders of the Tiptree Award, would stay with the group? Really? How much do you know about us? Have you read any of our books?  Have you read any books that won the award?

Wouldn’t Karen and I have dried off while in police custody? Why would we still be wet when we got back to the hotel? Does considering this detail influence your choice? If so, why? If not, why not?

Do you really think we would lick the walls of the mine?  Maybe I would, but Karen? I mean, she once belonged to the PTA.  Think about it.

Of Course, There Is Chocolate

Pawel, our conference organizer, seemed determined to make certain we experienced a great range of Polish culture — so we finished that day with a feast of Polish cuisine in a restored grain mill outside Lublin. We could not necessarily pronounce all the dishes that we ate, but we could (and did) enjoy them all.

The next day we returned to the university for discussion of gender and sexuality, of Hispanic SF, teaching SF, and much more, ending the day and the conference with the Awards Banquet at the Grand Hotel Lublinianka. The award presented to the Tiptree Motherboard was named for noted science fiction scholar Thomas D. Clareson, The Clareson Award has been presented annually since 1996. Past winners have included Frederik Pohl, James Gunn, David Hartwell, and Paul Kincaid.

Pat and Karen accept the Clareson Award
Pat and Karen accept the Clareson Award

At the ceremony, Karen expressed the Motherboard’s appreciation, saying, “As everyone in this room knows full well, when you join a volunteer organization you’d best expect virtue to be its own reward.  That’s not meant as a complaint.  Pat and I have loved every minute of running the Tiptree Award.  We’ve met amazing people and read amazing work and it’s all been a very good time.  But we did start the award with a specific mission, to support and encourage a kind of speculative literature we worried was not being recognized, a literature very important to us.  And it’s hard to see from the inside whether an impact has been made.  So we are enormously surprised, gratified, and grateful that you’ve chosen to honor us with this award.  It makes us hope that we are, perhaps, achieving those initial, fundamental goals.”

From its inception in 1990, the Tiptree Award has been associated with chocolate. The first award was a typewriter made of chocolate, and all subsequent awards have included chocolate. For that reason, the SFRA presented the Tiptree Motherboard with a delicious but difficult-to-pronounce addition to the usual plaque:  Plum in Chocolate or Śliwka Nałęczowska w czekoladzie.

Polish ad for chocolate beverage
Polish ad for chocolate beverage

What next?  Make your choice: 

Option 1:  Demonstrating our great will power, Karen and I transported the chocolate back to California, where we shared it with other Motherboard members Debbie Notkin, Jeanne Gomoll, Jeff Smith, and Ellen Klages.

Option 2: That night, Karen and I devoured all the chocolate, washing it down with Żubrówka, a specialty of Poland. (In English, Żubrówkais called bison grass vodka, but why call it that when the native Polish offers so many exciting diacritical marks and opportunities for mispronunciation?)

Before you make your choice, here are some questions to consider:

How do you feel about diacritical marks? If you like them, say Śliwka Nałęczowska w czekoladzie three times fast. Do you still like diacritical marks?

Is it proper to eat something you can’t pronounce? What if the item in question is chocolate? Does that change the rules?

Is unpronounceable chocolate better when washed down with an unpronounceable beverage?

Żubrówka can be mixed with chilled apple juice to make a drink known in the United Kingdom as a “Frisky Bison.” Do you think there is a name for a blend of Żubrówka and chocolate? Should there be? Or is the whole thing a very bad idea?

Time Travel of a Sort

Without further incident, we reached Lublin, a university town in eastern Poland, and found our way to the Maria Curie-Sklonowska University. There we found signs we could pronounce.  They said:  “Science Fiction Research Association: Dreams Not Only American.”

At that point, though still in Poland, we were home. We were among our own kind — the kind who consider the subversive potential of Firefly, who care deeply about ecofeminist transgression in the work of Octavia Butler and Molly Gloss, who are willing to discuss freak shows, the fictional history of ants, and so much more. Yes, it was strange to be sitting in a university classroom in Poland chatting about hive minds and interspecies dialog, but it was a very good kind of strange.

We participated in discussions of cognitive linguistics and the metaphors of mathematics.  It was heady stuff, ably organized by Pawel Frelik and supported by graduate students, junior faculty, and faculty of Marie Curie-Sklodowska University and the Catholic University of Lublin. In the program book, Pawel wrote, “not all of them converted to SF but I’m working on it.”  Based on discussions at the conference, I’d say he is succeeding.

In between lofty discussions of science fiction, we wandered the winding streets of Lublin’s Old Town, ate fabulous meals, and drank more than we care to admit. An afternoon excursion organized by the conference took us outside the city to Zamoyski Palace, a Baroque palace complex built in the 1740s and reconstructed and expanded in the early 1900s.  The interior of the palace itself is overwhelmingly opulent — marble stairways, family portraits, sculptures, elaborate stuccowork, velvet curtains, and 19th century furniture. By way of contrast, one of the outbuildings houses the Socialist-Realist Art Museum, with giant portraits of happy workers pouring milk and harvesting wheat.

Jewish Cemetery Lublin — photo by Emmanuel Dyan
Jewish Cemetery Lublin — photo by Emmanuel Dyan

We returned from Zamoyski Palace to visit a darker era of Polish history.  Lublin was founded during the 9th century and grew into a thriving town, a hub of local and foreign trade. In the fourteenth century, Jews first came to the town, part of a Jewish emigration spurred by the invitation of King Casimir (Kazmierz). Royal edicts warranted Jewish safety and religious freedom, encouraging Jews to bring skills and manpower to Poland. Over the following centuries, while Jews were often persecuted in Western Europe, the Jewish population of Poland grew

By 1939, over 40,000 Jews lived in Lublin, making up about 1/3 of the population.  The passage from the Christian to the Jewish portion of the city was Grodzka Gate. At the time of World War II, the “Jewish City” within the city had been developing for almost 400 years.

Today, an exhibition at Grodzka Gate documents Lublin’s Jewish community before the Holocaust. Titled “The Memory of the Place,” exhibits have been created from primary sources. Aerial photos and town planning documents show the extent of the Jewish quarter that was demolished by invading Nazis. In darkened hallways, small openings provide glimpses of the past in the form of hundreds of black-and-white photos of vanished people and businesses, while recordings play the sounds of Lublin, circa 1940.   Placards — each with a photo of an individual and that person’s testimonials — tell the tale of the Holocaust as it affected individuals, both Jewish and Christian.

The effect of the exhibition is hard to describe. It’s overwhelming, saddening, and impossible to comprehend. As an American, World War II is an event in the distant past: important to be sure, but distant in time. In Poland, the same event seems much more recent, much more raw.

What next?  No funny choices here, sorry.

Forget the Cobblestones. What about the Escalators?

You made your choice — which may say more about you than about us. One way or the other, we reached the train station, and that’s a good thing.

Being savvy travelers, we asked for the platform number when we bought our tickets to Lublin. By asked, I mean we scrawled the word peron (Polish for “platform”) in a notebook and slid it through the opening in the ticket window like bank robbers.

Why this approach? Why didn’t we simply sound out the Polish words?  Before leaving for Poland, I had consulted the website How to Pronounce Polish Words. According to that site: Once you learn how to pronounce the 32 letters of the alphabet and the digraphs above, reading Polish will become very simple and straightforward.

The beginning of that sentence is deceptively optimistic: Once you learn…. As if this accomplishment were simple and could be taken for granted.

The Poles are very enthusiastic about diacritical marks. Using diacritical marks, they have created nine Polish letters, each with its own corresponding sound. These letters and these sounds are not used in English.  The letters in question are ą ć ę ł ń ó ś ź ż.

How to Pronounce Polish Words has many warnings for the hapless foreigner who tries to sound out Polish words. Take, for example, the letter ę. How to Pronounce advises caution with this letter, saying “This sound is absolutely impossible for a foreigner to comprehend unless they hear it in person… it starts like the English “eh” and ends with an “wwww” sound with a thick French accent (please ask a Polish speaker to pronounce it for you to learn it correctly)”

Hmmm.  Do you wonder that we decided to make liberal use of the written word?

The woman at the ticket window scrawled a number on a paper and we were filled with confidence as we lugged our suitcases down a broken escalator to platform number one.

A word here about escalators. A broken escalator, as you may know, is a bit like funhouse stairs. The steps are not a consistent height and you walk on them with trepidation, never sure that they will remain still. People walking on stationary escalators have an odd sense of imbalance and dizziness that neuroscientists have dubbed the “broken escalator phenomenon. ” Yes, that really is what researchers call it. In Polish, that would be “złamane zjawisko ruchomych schodów.” Good luck pronouncing it.

But I digress. Meanwhile, back on the platform at the Warsaw station, we noticed that two other travelers were waiting — a mother and son, by the look of them. Being friendly Americans, we asked them where they were going. They too were going to Lublin.

This exchange of information was conducted with limited English on their part and absolutely no Polish on our part. It was a cordial communication, with many smiles and nods.

We waited on the platform, sure that we were in the right place. But then another traveler came along, and exchanged a few words with the mother.

The mother looked alarmed.  She and her son grabbed their luggage and gestured for us to follow them up the broken escalator to the walkway over the tracks and then back down another (also broken) escalator to platform #2.

We waited on platform #2 while the mother conferred with a few people in Polish. Then she smiled and shrugged and went back up the (still broken) escalator and back down the original broken escalator to platform #1. We followed, lugging our suitcases and looking about like nervous cats.

And then, as you might expect (as indeed we did expect), a train pulled into platform #2 and our native guides dashed back up the broken escalator and down the broken escalator to reach the train just in time.

What next?  Make your choice: 

Option one:  We tried to follow our guides, but were slowed by those pesky suitcases. While we were on the walkway above platform 2, the train began to pull out of the station.

Unwilling to miss an important academic conference, Karen flung her bag over the railing and leapt onto the moving train.  Not to be outdone, I followed, abandoning my heavy bag. Having perfected her technique while watching Emma Peel in the Avengers, Karen landed successfully.  I landed, but slipped. Catlike in her reflexes, Karen grabbed my hand and saved me from certain death beneath the wheels of the train.

Option two: We ran down the escalator and reached the train in plenty of time.

Before you make your choice, here are some questions to consider:

Do you think Karen really learned this skill from watching Avengers reruns? Is the Avengers even shown in Santa Cruz?

Is it really possible to run down a stationary escalator without tumbling head over heels to the amusement and concern of all onlookers?  Have you tried it? Do you want to? Is it possible while carrying a heavy suitcase and cursing about diacritical marks?

Important Things to Know about Cobblestones

Warsaw has some lovely cobblestone streets. The word “cobblestone” comes from the very old English word “cob”, which meant (among other things) “big rounded lump.” Someone added the prefix “le” to “cob”, transforming the meaning from “big rounded lump” to “smallish rounded lump” and then added “stone.”

That’s all very interesting, but that’s not the most important thing about cobblestones. The most important thing is this:  cobblestone streets are much less charming when you are dragging your wheeled suitcase over these rounded lumps while wrestling with an umbrella.

We learned this when we took a night flight from San Francisco to Warsaw and landed in the rain.  We took a taxi to our hotel, which was on one of those lovely cobblestone streets. And so we learned that cobblestones in the rain are annoying.

This is the sort of information a writer can really use. Next time I write a scene in some fantasy environment — like a dreadfully picturesque village with ponies and peasants and that sort of thing — I will have a deep understanding of those cobblestones. If I have a character running down a cobblestone street I will be very careful lest she or he turn an ankle.

So we dragged our suitcases over the cobblestones until we found our guesthouse. This process involved climbing up 131 stone steps to the keeper of the keys at the New World Hostel at #27 Nowy Swiat. Then climbing down 131 stone steps and trudging across the cobblestones while dragging the suitcases and then climbing 60 more stone steps, lugging the suitcases up each one.   But who’s counting?

At last we reached our guesthouse and the cobblestones regained their charm and even the steps seemed rather quaint. Until the next morning, when it was time to repeat the process in reverse.

What next?  Make your choice: 

Option one: During the night, I considered the problem of the suitcases and the stairs at length and arrived at a solution. Using our umbrellas, I constructed a parachute of sorts, lashed the suitcases to this contraption, and hurled them out the window. They floated to a safe landing. We hurried down the stairs, grabbed our suitcases, and caught a cab to the Central Train Station.

Option two: In the morning, rejuvenated by a good sleep, we lugged our suitcases down the stairs and caught a cab to the Central Train Station.

Poland — A Trip Report by Pat Murphy

This is what happens when you send a couple of fiction writers to Eastern Europe to collect a prestigious award. You get a trip report several months late* and parts of it are entirely fictitious.

You could consider this as a good thing or as a bad thing. That’s your choice. As always, the Tiptree Award encourages you, as a reader to think deeply, to question the narrative, to imagine the possibilities, and (of course) make your own choices. Therefore, at various points in this trip report, you will have the opportunity to decide what really happened.  Can you find the true story?

Stop. Consider that question for a moment. The true story?  Oh, come now! You’ve read my fiction. You know that truth is not always easily defined.

I will begin with the facts: In 2011, the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) honored the Motherboard of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award with the 2011 Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service. The Clareson Award was presented in a ceremony in Lublin, Poland, on July 9. The Tiptree Award sent Motherboard members Karen Joy Fowler and me to Poland to accept the award.

Of course, the facts don’t begin to tell the story — true or false.  For that, you need a narrative — and a bit of fiction.

Begin here with a very important discussion of cobblestones.

The bottom of Pat's purse
The bottom of Pat’s purse

*Of course “late” is a relative term. Personally, I say that a trip is not over until you put away the map — and just yesterday I found a dog-eared map of Warsaw at the bottom of my purse. So by my reckoning, the trip just ended.