Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The 100-day dance

Though the Polish education system has seen changes upon changes in the last couple of decades, the crowning of a high school education is still the passing of the Matura- the so-called 'maturity exam' which earns the student a diploma and the right to attend university.

The exams take place in May, but it is customary to celebrate them in January, approximately one hundred days earlier, with a school dance called the Studniówka.

Think of it as a sort of prom, or high school ball- it's a very important affair. Some schools choose to hold it in their gym, but many will rent out a hotel ballroom instead, which makes it easier for alcohol to circulate. One glass of champagne is the official allowed amount (18 is the legal drinking age in Poland), but we shall not speak of what is poured under the tables. My own studniówka lasted until seven o'clock the next morning, and I distinctly remember the hotel ushers asking us to leave, saying 'enough already'. The trick of the dance is that none but the most confident students can be certain of graduating, and the exam is months away. That certainly adds excitement!

So, precautions are taken that have little to do with studying. One superstition claims that in order to graduate, one must wear red underwear to the studniówka, then wear it again, unwashed, to the exam. In Warsaw, where I grew up, the custom is to go to the Old Town after your Studniówka, find the statues of poet Adam Mickiewicz and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, then jump around them on one leg. An unbroken skip around Mickiewicz will guarantee you a passing grade in literature and language, while Copernicus takes care of mathematics and strict sciences.

Seems simple enough, until you factor in the January snow, ice, and high heels.

But the most important tradition of the Studniówka is the first dance: traditionally and unquestionably a polonaise. Its roots lie in 16th century folk dances, and it is easy enough to learn. Even with two left feet all you need to do is follow the pair ahead of you, in time with the majestic music.

In some cities, the dance has been pulled out of the gyms and ballrooms and brought to the streets. In the bitter cold of January, hundreds of students file through the city, led in the dance by a pair or trio dressed in the historical garb of the 16th century 'szlachta'.

These boys would do fine in suits, but I maintain that even the
homeliest of men looks like a prince in a żupan and kontusz.

As they say 'We hope we don't see you here next year!'

Bystanders are welcome to join the dance and make the parade grow longer- it starts out as a column of pairs and ends up spreading across the whole width of the street with as many as sixteen people in one row. In Łódź, the students have been dancing for seven years now. One of the traditions for the dancers is to grab the statue of Tuwim by the nose as they pass it by (I wrote about the Lodzian poet Tuwim last year)- this is supposed to bring good luck.

So, we do wish them fortune and a calm mind during their upcoming exams. But they shouldn't thank us, no matter how polite that may seem- it's bad luck!

Meta information

The music you hear in the video is the most popular modern polonaise, composed by Wojciech Kilar for the Andrzej Wajda film 'Pan Tadeusz', based on an epic poem of the same name written by Adam Mickiewicz- the great Polish poet mentioned above. Here is the clip from the film featuring the score and the dance:

Wikipedia entry with links to articles about the clothes worn by Polish nobility 

Wikipedia entry about the Polonaise

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The shipyard where it all began.

Gdańsk- always a special one among our cities, always with something loud, something different going on. While it always had a particularly interesting and rebellious history, the modern world recognises it first of all as the backdrop for the Solidarity movement's stand against the Soviet Union.

You could say it all started in the shipyards.

The Stocznia Gdańska- Gdańsk shipyard.

First came the illegal strikes in August 1970- illegal, because under communist law, neither strikes nor the forming of independent trade unions were allowed without government approval and the endorsement of the only political Party- the communist party.

So the government responded with open fire, killing dozens and wounding more than a thousand. The years that followed brough repression and arrests for union leaders and activists- among them, shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa.

"Wałęsa" film set
The gate to the famous Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, with militia (police forces during martial law) parked
in front. Luckily, they're only actors! A film about Lech Wałęsa is being shot there right now.

But in 1980, the strike that ended communism in Poland began at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. In a move that was notably symbolic, Wałęsa, who had been fired from the shipyard four years earlier for his criticism of the union laws, leapt back over the wall and joined the strike. He was quickly appointed its leader.

The wave swept across Poland, unstoppable. Eventually, even the government-approved and party-controlled unions joined in.

The first victory was achieved quickly: the communist government signed an agreement which granted workers the right to strike, and allowed the formation of independent trade unions.

This is how Solidarity was born- post-war Poland's first legal independent trade union and mass movement. With ten million members all across the country, it was a force the communist government had no choice but to reckon with. Even so, its steady fight for freedom lasted ten years.

There were hurdles along the way; compromises, negotiations, hard choices, controversies, invigilations, murders, prison sentences. During the 1981 martial law (which I wrote briefly about this december), Solidarity activists were arrested and detained en masse. In 1982, Solidarity was outlawed again, and had to move to the underground for four years. In 1983, Wałęsa received the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to resolve the conflict without resorting to violence. He always strove first and foremost to negotiate with the communists- a path which some will say was not radical enough. He could not even leave the country to receive the Prize, fearing that he would not be allowed back across the border.

History will judge us, they say. But the fact is that thanks to Solidarity's work, today, I live in a free country. I can speak my mind without being detained. I can challenge the laws and government if I find them unjust. I can purchase whatever goods I wish without needing permission from the government; I can own property, posess foreign currency, and travel abroad without restrictions. I can vote in an election and know that my vote will be counted fairly.

These and many other freedoms were denied to my parents for the majority of their lives. I myself was born into a country which did not guarantee me basic human rights. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had those rights restored while I was still a child.

There is more to be said about Gdańsk- much more to be said about Wałęsa, who eventually became our first non-communist President, about the work of Solidarity, and Poland's struggle to sever its communist bond with the USSR. I don't dare to try and explain it all on this fluffy blog ;). But there are many books and films which you can turn to. As we speak, Oscar-winner Andrzej Wajda is filming a biopic about Wałęsa at the same Gdańsk Shipyard (my photo of the shoot at the beginning of this post). I expect it will be a good primer to the subject.

So, if you're in Gdańsk, take a stroll away from the picturesque medieval part of town. Go West, past the train station, to the three crosses memorial for the fallen shipyard workers, the looming cranes, and the famous Second Gate. History was made here.

Shipyard wall and cranes, as seen from Ulica Robotnicza- 'Worker's Street'

Meta Information

Wikipedia entry about the Gdańsk shipyard:

Wikipedia entry about Lech Wałęsa:

Wikipedia entry about Solidarity:

Solidarity logo is copyrighted to Solidarity and used under the terms of fair use with the intent of identifying the organisation:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Great Orchestra

This is probably one of the most awesome things I will ever write about.

Every year in January, Poland explodes with a nationwide charity event called The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. The organisation collects money for a different cause every year, usually focusing on pediatric care and neo-natal medical equipment.

WOŚP, or GOCC- literally the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity.

This sounds ordinary enough until you find out that...

In 1993, during the very first Orchestra, the foundation raised 1,5 million U.S. dollars, an unexpected success. So, the Foundation was formed and a new event organised every year for the next 19 years...

And so, in just ONE day last year, the amount raised came to over 13 million U.S. dollars.

One day.  Crazy, no?

And the sum of 19 years of such days is a staggering 125 million USD.

It's an unquestionable fact by now that in Poland, for just one day, everyone's pockets open up. Children bring their jars of pennies, adults donate precious items and jewellery. A small coin or a bill- every little bit counts, and the evidence is in the numbers. Thirteen million dollars last year bought much-needed equipment to help hospitals treat newborns and young children with urological and kidney diseases.

WOŚP 2012
A heart made out of copper coins- people are encouraged to bring their smallest change and throw it
into the pattern. Many companies and businesses also brought bags of coins to add to the pile.

This year, the money collected will buy equipment to save prematurely born children, and insulin pumps for pregnant diabetics.

Thanks to the Orchestra and the equipment they finance, certain medical conditions which used to be a grave issue are now 100% treatable in Poland.

I believe that's the definition of awesome. The Orchestra's motto is 'We will play until the end of the world and one day longer', and for 20 years now they have lived up to it.

So, how do they do it?

Peace, love, and rock'n'roll. The hippyish philosophy works wonders on this one day a year. Free concerts are set up all over the country, with celebrities, musicians, sound and light companies and many, many other people donating their time. The national television's Channel Two dedicates the entire day to the event, transmitting live from all over the country.

WOŚP 2012
The City Guard ride through Łódź brandishing the GOCC banner.

120 thousand volunteers walk around Poland that day. That's 120 thousand people who have to be trusted not to take the money and run- and, as the Foundation points out, the numbers suggest that an overwhelming majority proves to be honest. I was a volunteer a few times, it's a popular thing to do when you're a teenager- statistics say 11% of Poles were volunteers for the Orchestra at least once in their lives. You get a cardboard money bank, a laminated ID card, and several sheets of heart-shaped stickers. There are a few rules- you may not solicit any money before, or after the Finale Day. And knocking on people's doors is not allowed. But whoever drops money into the box gets a sticker, and so for the next few weeks you will see people walking around town with red hearts stuck to their coats and hats.

My friend and I way back in 1997 when I volunteered for the first time.
The angel wings definitely got people's attention.

WOŚP 2012
Pony sporting heart stickers during this year's horse parade in Łódź

Similarly, the equipment bought with the foundation's help is also marked with their symbol- you will  see the red heart on quite a few hospital machines and ambulances.

Ambulance with GOCC logo- Wikimedia Commons file by Wikimedia user Reytan.

But the streets is not the only place where it happens. Items of value are donated for special auctions- online, even regular users can decide to donate their proceeds to the Foundation thanks to an official partnership from the auction site. And celebrities do their part- this year for example we have an auction for an invitation to an NBA match from NBA player Marcin Gortat, a fountain pen belonging to the late president Kaczyński, and even a special custom made bike from Paul Jr. of Orange County Choppers.

(My favourite, however, must be the pilot hat of Captain Wrona- the skilled airline pilot who elegantly set a 767 plane down without any landing gear this last November.)

The day in which all the collections take place is called the Great Finale. It starts bright and early in the morning with tv transmissions from the man behind all of this madness- Jurek Owsiak, a cheerful 59 year-old in bright red glasses with a characteristic stutter. With the donated help of airlines, helicopters and various transport companies he travels around the country, going from town to town before returning to Warsaw for the "Light to the sky". At eight pm all over the country fireworks go off as a thank you to everyone who took part in the event, and everyone is encouraged to light a candle, flashlight, phone, anything they can, and raise it to the heavens to show that we are here, that we are one, and that we CAN achieve great things together.

9/365: Christmas Charity
GOCC Finale in Łódź, 2011.

Another way of saying 'thank you' is the yearly Woodstock Festival, also organised by the Orchestra in the summertime. It is currently the biggest open-air concert in Europe.

It's kind of insane. 

This festival, while also free to attend is financed separately from the January charity event, through different sponsors. One of the important things about GOCC is their careful and detailed account of how they spend the money- it makes them all the more trustworthy in the public sight, and that matters when you're trying to save children's lives!

As if all that weren't enough, the Foundation also teaches CPR in schools, recruits special Peace Rescue Patrols that volunteer in dispensing first aid at public events, and run nationwide programs for early cancer diagnostics, hearing screenings, treatment of retinopathy in preemies, and diabetic therapy for children. And then some more. In 2010, they organised an additional, almost spontaneous collection for the victims of heavy floods from that summer- handing out special, blue heart stickers.

Here's an English-language film they produced explaining what they do.

And if you're abroad, you can take part, too! Either by bidding on an auction, by donating, or by joining the crew. Here is a list of foreign staff bases- we have them in the US, on the British Isles, in Germany, and even in Afghanistan.

Til the end of the world, and one day longer!

Meta information:

GOCC (WOŚP) logo is copyrighted to WOŚP and used under the terms of fair use with the intent of identifying the organisation:

GOCC official website in english:

Wikipedia entry about Jurek Owsiak:

Image of ambulance from Wikimedia Commons:

Cavalcade of the Magi

January 6th is the famous Twelfth Night, Twelfth Day of Christmas, and is traditionally celebrated as the day in which the Magi, or Three Kings, finally arrived at the manger.

In Poland, January 6th has been a public holiday since 2011, and much like on Christmas day, all the stores, banks, shops and offices are closed. In 2009, the first large-scale cavalcade (a public parade of the Three Kings and their symbolic courts) took place in Warsaw. With several hundred participants and tens of thousands of spectators, it's one of the biggest nativity plays in Europe.

6/365:Crowds at Three Kings procession
Last year, it was freezing cold, but ten thousand people still showed up.
This year, there were more than three times as many!
And indeed, the whole thing is a large, open-air play. This year, more than 24 cities took part in the cavalcade, or as we call it in Polish, the Orszak Trzech Króli.

Pronounced Oar-shack Tscheh Crooley ;)

The public is encouraged to play along; paper crowns and song books are distributed to the crowd by volunteers.

Three Kings 2012
Everyone gets a crown.

 The Kings Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar ride through town, in a chariot, on a horse and on a camel, respectively.

Three Kings 2012
Right to left: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar.

Their courts are color-coded: children in red capes and silver helmets for Caspar, who represents the continent of Europe, green capes and rice hats for Melchior who represents Asia, and blue capes and headscarves for Balthasar and Africa. The courts gather by Sigismund's Column in the Old Town Square in Warsaw at noon for the Angelus prayer, then set out to walk to Piłsudski Square where a family acts in a live creche.

Three Kings 2012

But before they and the thousands of ordinary people following them can take their crowns off to pay respect to Jesus (who in Christian tradition is the King of Kings), they must face several obstacles.

Never fear: they are guided by the Star of Bethlehem.

This type of spinning star is traditionally used by carolers.

 Behind it come hosts of angels, traditionally played by blind and disabled children, and proper shepherds from the Southern mountains singing carols.

Three Kings 2012

Three Kings 2012

Among them walk the Cardinal Archbishop and clergy, mountain lifeguards, a choir, then at last the hosts of the kings.

Three Kings 2012
The absolutely ADORABLE hosts of the kings.

But on their way to Betlehem, they will be sorely tempted, for they must pass through the Republic of Pleasure, where the minions of Hell will offer them fantastic, lucrative deals in exchange for their souls.

Three Kings 2012
Hell's attorneys and business representatives, heckling passers-by to sign contracts for their souls.

Then, they will witness the battle of Good and Evil. On a pedestal, a choir of angels sings out virtues, while below, cloaked in clouds of sulphur, a band of devils screeches out sins.

Three Kings 2012

Suspended in uncertainty between them is a man, who climbs up and down a ladder, struggling with his vices and ambitions, unable yet to ascend to Heaven, unwilling still to descend to Hell.

Three Kings 2012
Poor fellow got a lot of exercise that day.

Betlehem draws near, but now the courts pass through the kingdom of Herod, who watches from his window and calls out: Where are you going? To see the newborn King?

Three Kings 2012

I am the only King, he claims, and demands to be told where the baby Jesus is, so that he may kill the usurper.

We know, of course, that the baby is in the manger, where the parade culminates with the giving of the gifts, and a blessing. Carols are sung out loud throughout the event, the public taking over in the gaps between mobile speakers.

Three Kings 2012
That donkey was singing quite a lot, too.

And that's how it was this year. Additional attractions were the performances of several young childrens' choirs, a choreographed banner dance, and a beautiful Chinese-style dragon at the head of the Asian group.

Three Kings 2012

Balthasar's camels, of course, were a highlight, as was the African-born King himself. Poland is a very pale-skinned country; though it is not exactly uncommon to see black people anymore, their presence in media, politics and other public events still causes interest. When you see someone who is not white in Poland, your first thought is 'a foreigner'; but the country is more diverse than many realise. King Balthasar, or rather mr. Martin Bol Deng Aleu, a native Sudanese forced to flee his country on account of his Christian faith, is a Polish citizen, and has been living here since 1996.

Three Kings 2012

It looks like the Cavalcade of the Magi, new as it is to Poland, has already become a proper tradition. Check it out next year!

And here's a pro tip- if you're watching in Warsaw, and can't get a good view on account of the crowd, go up to the viewing terrace on top of St. Anna's church tower. That's how I took the first photo in this post.

Meta information

Orszak Trzech Króli website (Polish only)

Wikipedia Entry on the Epiphany (Three Kings' Day)