Friday, June 30, 2006

This is amazing.

I began reading Anielka by Bolesław Prus in March. It was entirely an exercise in Polish, intended to improve my vocabulary and grammatical intuition. When I read the first chapter, each time I encountered a word I was not sure of, I underlined it. I planned to look up all the underlined words later, and then reread the chapter. I underlined 109 words. It takes a long time to look up 109 words. I begin the exercise once, and after spending nearly two hours, I hadn’t finished all the words. I abandoned the project at that point.

By April, I decided to continue without worrying about the words I didn’t understand. As long as I understood the general shape of the story, I was willing to miss a few nuances here and there, and occasionally even abandon an entire sentence to oblivion. I think I mananged to read only one chapter per month in this way.

In May, I began to force myself to read two pages per day. Sometimes I missed a day, but I forged ahead with this plan, and read a little more than I had done in previous months. I also began to have a stronger sense of the story. I was still missing words, but was able to glean most of the meaning from context.

In June, something extraordinary happened. Not only did my “reading power” increase so that I could easily read an entire chapter at one sitting, instead of just two pages, but I ceased to read Anielka as an exercise to improve my Polish and began to read it as literature. I observed a theme repeated throughout the book, and I began to see the way in which the author was using the theme to make a statement about life and God.

In many chapters, the sparrows are mentioned. They reappear again and again, until the reader is forced into remembering that sparrows are supposed to be a reminder of God’s providential care for his children. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not, therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31) Prus doesn't come right out and say that, of course--he lets the sparrows say it for him, and there are fine details about what is going on with the sparrows that make the point clear. Anielka, along with her brother and mother, are abandoned by her father, and left without money, servants, and, although they don’t know it, their home has been sold. Chapter eleven is titled “W jaki sposób Bog czuwa nad sierotami” or “How God looks after orphans.”

Do you really want to know? Clearly, Prus did not have a high opinion of God. During the night, their house burns to the ground, and they are saved only because one of the villagers comes to their rescue. No one can determine how the fire started, but earlier in the chapter, the author tells about Anielka praying and asking God to bring her father back, and as she is looking out the window, she sees one or two stars fall. She imagines that they are angels or spirits being sent from God to help them. And then the house burns down, and even though no one knows how it happened, we are meant to “suspect” that God is behind it, or at the very least, that he does not care.

Frankly, I think Anielka's father is reprehensible, and running out on his family is the act of a coward. I have been told that this is a "sad" book, and I've also been warned that Anielka dies, so I wasn't expecting an L.M. Montgomery-style happy ending. However. I did not know that the book would try to cast God in the role of the villian, when Anielka's "Lord of the Manor" father is clearly responsible for nine-tenths of what befalls the children and their mother. After the house gets burned down, he behaves even more like a knave, but it is not my primary purpose to explain the book, which few of my readers can read anyway (I don't think it has been translated), and probably wouldn't want to if they could.

Regardless of the content of the book, what is significant to me is that I am reading this book as I would read any book, although much more slowly. I've read eight chapters this month--that's half the book!--and will finish it easily sometime during early July. I still don't understand every word, but that's okay. Just as I sometimes run across an unfamiliar word in English when I read, I can either glean the general meaning from the context, or look it up if necessary.

I am reading in Polish! That is what is so amazing. And I went back to chapter one and looked at the 109 underlined words, and I now know the meaning of 51 of them without consulting a dictionary. I guess that means my Polish has improved by 50%? I think that's wonderful, but I am not content, as there is clearly plenty of room for improvement. Thus, I shall keep Polish.

Monday, June 26, 2006

What a great book!

I cannot begin to say how wonderful I think this book is. And to think, I stumbled across it by "accident" while surfing the internet. Google is a boon to mankind (sometimes).

The Stapleford Center in England sponsored a research project on Biblical principles of education. The authors consulted scores of resources on the topic, and distilled their findings into five "strands of a rope" that, combined, make a Biblical model of education. I have rather greedily devoured this book, since it only arrived on Friday, and I'm about 3/4 of the way finished already. Every point the authors have made rings true and resonates with all the other reading I've done on education.

This books begins by establishing the Bible as our authority, but readily admits that "authority" may be wielded in different ways. For example, much of the Bible is narrative. What if, instead of a commanding officer barking orders at his subordinates, he began the morning instructions with "once upon a time...?" There is no specific practice of education mandated by the Bible--yet the Bible can be applied to educational principles and practices at many levels.

The authors, David I. Smith and John Shortt, have obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about this. They are also teachers and have had experience in the classroom that sharpens their observations. The link above summarizes the information in the book, so I won't try to do that myself. Rather, I would suggest that it is a shame this book which was published in England is not more widely known and available to educators--both homeschoolers and Christian school teachers--in the United States. I was unable to find any mainstream outlet for purchasing the book, and I assume that means it must be ordered from the publisher.

In spite of the time and trouble that entails, and the inconvenience of international shipping, I hate to have this book neglected. Some homeschool book distributor in the US would be doing everyone a huge favor if they could arrange to sell this book. I would love to see it featured prominently at homeschool conventions, and discussed on homeschool message boards and forums everyone. One of the authors works in the US now, and might even be invited to speak to homeschoolers on the topics in the book.

I have nothing negative to say about this book except that it does sometimes fall into a bit of jargon, using terms like "meta narrative" and "narratival." (Is that a word?) It's not that bad overall, and the wonderful principles, each one related back to the Bible, are worth a few foggy paragraphs here and there. It's a small price to pay for a consideration of education that will both deepen and broaden the reader's understanding of how to apply the Bible to education.

What else can I say? Those of us who are fond of comparing education to a "feast for the mind" (ala Charlotte Mason) will delight in the chapters on metaphor. The finely-drawn contrast between Rousseau and Comenius is fascinating. Everyone who cares both about education and the relationship between the Bible and education will be short-changed if they miss this book. It was published in 2002, and I'm only sorry I didn't read it four years ago.

Edited to add: Here's another review to check out:

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Szczyt sezonu truskawek

"The peak of strawberry season" is upon us here in Krakow, and what a glorious time of year it is. This is the *only* time of year you can buy strawberries, and as the season peaks, the price drops until you pay the incredibly low sum I paid today--PLN2.50 per kilo, which is about 36 cents per pound. Isn't that amazing? At that price, one buys pounds and pounds of strawberries and gorges upon them. (I bought 2 kilos today--pretty much all a family of 6 can eat in a day, and they don't keep.)

Strawberry waffles

Strawberry pancakes

Strawberry muffins

Strawberry smoothies

Strawberry shortcake

Strawberry pie

Strawberry jam

And let's not forget--plain old berries, as many as you can eat

Did I mention that strawberries are never picked with white "shoulders" in Poland? Each and every berry is red and ripe and and luscious.

Next week the price will be doubled, probably, and doubled again the week after that. And then there won't be any more until next year, except for the occasional "pint" imported from Spain, but who wants those?

I must confess, I really haven't made all those things in my list. I've pretty much stuck to plain old berries, and the easiest item on the list: strawberry waffles. Pop waffle in toaster, spoon berries with sugar over the top, finish with spray whipped cream. So easy, all the kids except C can make their own.

And did you know, strawberries are the fruit lowest in carbs?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


I wrote, a bit earlier, about Massolit, that extremely unusual English-language bookstore here in Krakow. They are one of my sources of English books, but not the only one.

All around town are little shops with the same name--Antykwariat. It's as if every store that sold bread simply called itself "Bakery," but these stores sell books--specifically, used books. You might notice the word "antique" in there--although antiques are simply "antyki," and the books sold by an antykwariat are not necessarily antiques. I am familiar with probably eight or ten of these little shops, and no doubt there are more that I have not encountered.

My usual habit is to enter and browse for a minute, just to get an idea of how organized their books are. Some stores have neatly labeled shelves for history, literature, art, and so on. Others have books crammed into corners and stacked in piles in a chaotic state that makes the prospect of the shopkeeper knowing where anything might be found highly unlikely. After my brief assessment, I usually just ask if they have any books in English, and almost invariably, I will be directed to a single shelf (or sometimes a pile) in a remote corner, if anything can be called remote in a shop half the size of a single-car garage.

Nearly every one of these shops has a small cache of books in foreign languages--German, Italian, French, Russian, and of course, English. They don't get new inventory in that category very often, so I have found that one or two visits per year to each store are usually enough. I have found more books than I can remember in these little shops over the years, but there are a few splendid purchases I will never forget, such as the day I found a copy of A Child's History of Art (still in its paper dustjacket!). That book is hard to find anywhere, so finding a copy in Krakow was quite remarkable! Then there was the copy of the History of Flight, published by the Smithsonian and gorgeously illustrated, just in time for a Christmas gift for my only son, who loves airplanes. You just never know what might be under the dust.

I visited one of "my" antykwariaty (plural form) last week, and came out with quite a "haul," because of course I sometimes leave empty-handed. However, I will buy every book on the shelf that I think is worthwhile, as don't visit these shops often. My finds this time were:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I didn't already have a copy!)
The Mother by Pearl S. Buck (One of my favorite authors, and I haven't read this one before.)
The Cabala, Heaven's My Destination, and Our Town by Thornton Wilder. (This single volume was printed in Russia, and the preface and table of contents are all in Russian, but the text is English.)

Peter the Great by Alexei Tolstoy--a fictional biography in two volumes. (This one was printed in the USSR--it says so in English!)

I know that looks like a short list, but it is quite a few worthwhile books to find at one time, on the single shelf in the store devoted not only to English, but all foreign language books.

Obviously, I haven't visited any of these shops in over a year...I'll have to make a point of getting to each one I know sometime during the summer! There may be gold in them thar hills...of books.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I've fallen in love.

Krakow used to be a medieval, walled city. What used to be the moat around the outside of the wall was long ago filled in, and is now a narrow, lovely park that encircles the oldest part of the city, called the Planty. Most of the original wall is gone, but there is a small section that remains, along with just one of the old gates.

If you walk away from the main city square down Floriańska Street, you will reach Brama Floriańska, or Florian's Gate. On either side of the pointed archway, there stretches a short section of the original city wall. These ancient walls are used to showcase original paintings for sale. Every day, hundreds of colorful paintings of all sizes and subjects are hung up, and every evening they are taken down. I enjoy looking at them when I'm in the city, and even the recent contruction on both sides of the gate hasn't frightened the picture-sellers away.

I've often toyed with the idea of buying a painting, but nothing has ever struck a chord with me until a few weeks ago. I fell in love...with a painting. Not only is the subject matter deeping compelling to me, but the colors are perfect for my living room.

Surely you can guess which painting caught my eye, jumping out from the trite galloping horses, the ubiquitous city-scapes, and the inevitable abstracts?

I really want to own that painting, but I didn't even have the courage to ask the price. We asked the cost, long ago, of a little painting, and it was expensive. This is a nice medium-sized painting, not especially small. I've shown the painting to my kids when I had them with me in the city, and I pointed it out to my husband, who was brave enough to ask the price. Even if some bargaining were possible, it is still quite expensive, and I probably can't justify spending so much money on a piece of artwork.

But I do love this painting, and maybe, if it is not sold soon, I'll get up the courage to dicker with the seller and work out a price that I could manage by sacrificing elsewhere. You probably can't see it here, but the way the light is painted in the picture is just stunning. I was able to identify every painting on the wall done by the same artist, although every other picture featured ballet dancers. His light is distinctive. And it's a light I would like to be able to see, every single day, as I imagine a girl reading her favorite classic, or the Bible, or perhaps something personal, like her own diary.

I may never own this painting, but I think I will always love it just the same.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A vist to Zakopane

On Thursday of last week, we drove to Zakopane (zah-koe-PAHN-eh). You've never heard of it, right? Read on!

Poland has no natural borders to the east and west, which has always been a problem for them since Germany and Russia have historically nudged them from each side. However, there are natural borders to the north and south. The northern border is the Baltic Sea, and the southern border is marked by a river and High Tatra mountains, which are part of the same chain as the Swiss Alps. These gorgeous mountains are snow-capped year round.

Zakopane is a major tourist destination in Poland. In winter, it's a ski resort, and in the summer the mountains are a great place to hike. Zakopane has even made a bid for the Olympics, but I don't expect to see them held here in my lifetime--the infrastructure is just too weak. Right now, Zakopane can only be reached from Krakow (which has the nearest airport) by a two-lane road that is always clogged with travelers, and most of the accommodations in town are not hotels, but guest rooms in individual homes (which advertise if they include private bathrooms, so you know some of them don't).

I haven't been down there for several years, so it was lovely to visit again. It's always fun to shop in the markets, where it is possible to buy hand-crafted items that reflect the mountain traditions. Lots of wood carvings, wool slippers and sheepskins, and table linens.

The architecture in this region is different from elsewhere in Poland. Mostly, they use a lot of wood, which is rare in the city, and sometimes the wood is elaborately embellished with carving. Even new buildings are done in this style, and I am astonished at the work that must go into it.
The kids played at a playground made from interestingly-shaped pieces of wood. The whole thing was surrounded by this whimsical fence.

It was much colder than it should be in June, but we had a good time, and I'd like to go back this summer and do some hiking. Certainly, I hope we don't wait another four years before we visit again, since it only takes a little more than an hour to drive from Krakow (although you wouldn't want to go on the weekend unless you enjoy enormous, choking crowds of people).

I bought a lovely platter, hand-carved from a large slice of wood, so at least I will have a memento of the mountain culture here in the city.

If you ever have the chance to visit us in Krakow, Zakopane is definitely worth a visit as well. The mountains are truly stunning, even if you don't want to climb, ski, or hike.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I want to know.

I've discovered that there are whole blogs devoted to books and reading, and I've bookmarked a few of them, which means I'll get back to them from time to time. I haven't dared to let myself explore the realm of "litblogging" too widely, because I simply do not have the time. One of the bloggers I've particularly enjoyed...

(And yes, I know I'm supposed to identify and link, but that is so time-consuming ,for me, and if I take the time to do it, I might never get this written. I promise to devote a bit more time to it in future, and link to all the blogs I like best.)

...astounds me with the quantity of books she reads. I think maybe she lives alone and so doesn't have the distractions that a family presents to that many hours of reading, but she does have a job. In any case, she reads a lot of books, and most of them appear to be fiction. There was a time in my life when I probably wouldn't have observed that fact, because I, too, read virtually nothing but fiction--and lots of it. But now, I read less fiction, and I'm trying to understand why, because I get just as immersed in an author's world as I ever did, and I enjoy escapist literature (almost) as much as I ever did. But still, even with the limited time I can devote to reading, I give up some of that time to reading non-fiction, and sometimes the non-fiction is fairly...intense. (For example, I gave up a significant block of time this week to most of Book One from Augustine's Confessions.)

Now why, after a lifetime devoted to fiction, and with time to read more limited than ever, am I sacrificing reading fiction to reading non-fiction? I enjoy the non-fiction books, but not at all in the same way I enjoy fiction. I mean, I'm enjoying reading the non-fiction, but it isn't fun in any conventional sense. So why am I doing this? That is the question that reading the book-blogs has raised for me.

And the best answer I can come up with is that I can't bear not knowing what is in those non-fiction books. To put it in as few words as possible, I want to know. Period.

And you came to this blog because you wanted to read about living in Poland, which is what I said I was going to write about didn't you? And so the next post will be devoted to yesterday's day-trip to Zakopane, and I shall share a few pictures of the gorgeous mountains.