Fascinated or Consternated? Yes? No? Simply Regrouping

Dzień dobry z Krakowa w poniedziałek rano,

To był produktywny tydzień i czuję, że poczyniłem pewne ważne postępy w moim początkowym nabywaniu języka polskiego, ale nigdy nie jestem zadowolona, że to wystarczy (It was a productive week, and I feel I made some important progress in my beginning acquisition of Polish, but I am never really content that it is enough.). Those who know me are probably not that surprised. What I have been forced to realizing is that learning a language as an older human is so much more difficult than it was for me at a point earlier in my life (e.g. late 20s, when I crammed two years of Greek into a summer). There are the three components of language as I often noted for others. Much like a three- legged stool: vocabulary, patterns, and grammar. The first two are about memorization and the grammar is more about comprehension. When I learned German or worked to teach myself Spanish, this sort of pattern worked, though more effectively for German than in Spanish. It certainly worked for Greek and, maybe to a perhaps lesser extent for Latin. Hebrew was in a world of its own and while last summer this seemed to work generally for Polish, this summer has been a much different story. It has pushed my comfort level off the cliff and caused me fear and tears (and I mean that literally). So what is the difference in a year, particularly when last summer, while hard work, was so enjoyable?

These questions have consumed me this last week and a half and caused me to ponder the learning process in ways I never fathomed. There are a couple things that I believe have happened in the last 12 months to create this dilemma of feeling like a failure. First, I think both my ears and my eyesight have changed (and not degrees is improvement). Second, the grammar is more complex and while it is comprehendible, it takes more time to master and there is little time to manage that complexity. In other words, I am not as quick as I once was. Third, my own failure to review and reconnect with the previous work before arriving caused a lack of foundation, or more accurately the losing of the foundation I had. Each of these elements have created a perfect storm that has resulted in my failing to manage what I believed possible. What I have realized as the way I have learned in past is no longer effective. I am reminded of what Mr. Galán would note when I attempted Spanish. He said regularly, “You just need to speak and use it. You need to listen and try to understand.” He was (and is) correct. The problem becomes a much more complex and more of a struggle because I am afraid of making mistakes. My overwhelming desire to be perfect at it paralyzes me. So then the question becomes is there somewhere between using my grammatical life jacket and just jumping in the water and not being afraid when I cannot see the bottom. I use this metaphor because I know the actual fear of not knowing where the bottom is and how that paralyzes me also.

I do think I have come up with a plan. The first thing is to step back and review at my own pace the work I did last summer and to move forward with the additional work done over the last two plus weeks, which was significant. If I can create a firm foundation there, I believe I can move forward in a manner that I can feel positive and proud of. I do want to work from a couple different vantage points or entrances of sorts. I honestly believe there has been more deterioration of senses (which has affected acquisition more profoundly than expected) in the past year than I had any inkling had happened. It not only affected my classroom options, but also my studying. The most consequential seems to be the length of time I can continue to work at all of it, and that limitation frustrates me beyond words. Therefore, to compensate I must figure out something more efficient and effective. Then, and the director of the summer program, Dr. Prizel-Kania, probably can shed light on this for me, knowing what my ultimate goal to be, what is the best way forward. What I do know is that any lack in proficiency is no one’s particular fault. It is not about blaming, but rather accepting the reality of the situation. What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is the instructors I am blessed with did everything in their power to help me. My three instructors, Mikołaj, Dominika, and Sylwię are incredible at what they do. Likewise, the program works for the great majority of those enrolled, most who are in their 20s. I do know that learning a language is a special skill and I know being older offers different challenges. I am wondering if I recognize those challenges as I reflect on myself or if I am missing something. That has occupied my thoughts more than one might think since last Thursday (it is now Tuesday morning – about 4:00 am. for those of you on the East Coast). What I believe I need for my own sense of sanity is to get to a level of hearing and speaking that is comfortable, and I think there are some ways (outside of complete immersion in Krakow) that might offer such an opportunity. I think my own sense of inadequacy had more to do with most of my struggle this summer than anything else.

In addition, what I have come to realize is that learning a language you plan to speak (and maybe it is because I learned German so long ago and when I was dumped into an immersion situation with it, I was in my 20s) versus a language you read is something very different. The needs are different, but likewise the learning process is much more comprehensive. If I return to my stool imagery, I am not sure a three-legged stool will work, it is much more like a four-legged chair or perhaps table. The extra leg is needed because hearing and listening become important on a different level. Second, the idea of a table is that the area covered is much more extensive and it needs order and structure (perhaps more accurately, I need order and structure). That is another component of immersion that is, perhaps, contradictory to how learn most effectively. I need structure and order, which means I need time to think and assimilate. That is in part because I need to make sense of things, but also because I think it takes me longer and I am more frightened by feeling as if I have no control. This trip has been different from my previous trips for a couple of reasons. While I know my way around Krakow better than ever before, I have feel more isolated than I ever have. While I found a level of being comfortable in Moscow after a few days, I was not comfortable to travel on to St. Petersburg by myself. I felt vulnerable in a manner that I had not in many years. While some of that certainly disappeared here in Poland, something has happened to make me less content or calm than I have in the past. I am not sure from where that comes or how it occurred, but I do know that I do not like it. Earlier this summer I was sharing lunch with three former colleagues and the first of the three and I were waiting and I did what I always seem to do when I go into my colleague, Dr. Decker’s office. I align things and make things orderly (fortunately he humors me and merely tells me it will get messed up again). She noted my actions and asked me if I were an OCD person. I had never really thought about it (seriously, I had not), but I responded, perhaps I am. As the summer has continued, I have noted to the degree that is true. Holy Crap!!! So then I began to reflect and wondered from where that propensity had come, and how long had I been such.

I am sure my psychology colleagues would have a heyday with this, but what I realize is we were required to keep our rooms very orderly growing up. I did not struggle to do so. We dusted the house every morning (every day, but Sunday) and on Saturday we dusted, vacuumed and stripped our beds to be washed. I was not allowed to leave my room in the morning before the bed was made. It is still one of the first things I do in the morning. We were not allowed to leave clothes out on a chair unless they were folded and neat. I thought all of that was normal and that every house did things like that. I have long since learned that is not true, but those of you who know me, know I cannot even function if my space is not orderly and well kept. While there are moments I fall short of that, for the most part it is who I am. I do know that I go through streaks from time to time also. I am forced (yes, a strong word), but it is something I do to myself, to try to understand this need for structure and order. During my time here in Poland sharing the Air BnB with another person, who was there prior to my arrival and who will be there after my departure, I have been required to rethink how what I do affects the other in a different way. There are been some compromise (and most of that has to do with his smoking (and the managing of that habit), but one of the things I realized early was I was the intruder if you will. He had a pattern and my requests would change his pattern. My reason for asking for some leeway on the smoking is more of a health issue than control, but I struggled to even ask for that. What all of this tells me is that I will avoid conflict at all costs, even at my own detriment. The reciprocal nature of that is when I finally have had enough, my response is not proportionate to the issue at hand. Of course, as usual there are so many issues that are part of that puzzle. I know most of them, but managing them is something quite different. . . .

It is about two weeks after I wrote this initially and I am back in the States and have been for a week. It has been a week of decompressing and reflection. It has been a week to ponder and regroup. It has been a weekend of trying to wrap my head around the inability of our country to deal with violence and make some meaningful moves toward curbing the violence, the gun-usage, and the hate and bigotry that seems to be engrained in every region, section, state, municipality, and neighborhood of this land. How we got here is certainly a complex issue. How we move toward something different is perhaps more complex, but doing nothing accomplishes one thing: more shootings with assault style weapons and more people dying needlessly. Certainly it is a mental health issue; it is an anger management issue, but there are things we can and should do. I have written at length about all of this, so I am not going to iterate it, but damn!! 30 seconds and 9 lives lost because there was a drum magazine in a semi-automatic assault weapon. What more needs to be said if you think with any logic at all. That is undoubtedly exasperating, consternating, and simply pathetic. States have authority to make changes; so does the federal government. This senseless violence is a social epidemic and it needs to be managed and approached as such. It is a health concern in so many ways. I have nothing more to say, but the response to the Ohio governor by people in Dayton seems to cover it: DO SOMETHING!

In terms of my Polish I am doing something and working on making changes as I move forward to work on it systematically and regularly. I think that will work much better with my learning style. It will result in a foundation that is stronger and more effective. It was a tough and, at times, overwhelming summer, but I will prevail and manage this. Thanks to all who have reached out to me in the past weeks to check on me. I am grateful. As I write and finish this blog, it is the day that Lydia would have turned 95. I still love and miss her.

Dlaczego niektóre rzeczy sprawiają, że zastanawiam się

Dzień Dobry, i wiłam z Poleski,

I am not sure there is a reasonable translation for what I wanted the title of this blog to be in Polish, but what I am trying to get across is  there are things that cause me to turn my head and wonder, did that just happen? What this says, sort of, is “things that give me pause,” or things that seem so counter intuitive to common sense that I can only wonder something along the text acronym world, a sort of inappropriate and nonetheless necessary, WTF? This startling exclamation has become a rather daily mantra as I walk the streets of Poland 🇵🇱, but, but simultaneously, try to understand the brokenness that seems to characterize the country from where or which I come, a country that has been a beacon of hope (and in spite of all, somehow remains so), a country whose government of checks-and-balances has been the hallmark of regulating ourselves when common sense seems to disappear. Each day as I am here in Europe, I take the time to check the news and see what is happening at home, but I am at the point that it so frightens me, I am not sure I want to know. The daily, seemingly-never-ending, shit-show we call our national Capitol becomes more embarrassing by the day. The latest fight between “the Squad” and the President continuing to stoop lower than I imagined possible only furthers my concern. As I am six hours ahead of you, therefore, I am finishing a day, but not see that the President wants to assert, arguing that he was not supportive of the chants at his North Carolina rally. Agreed, he did not join in, but the smug and appreciative smile on his face says more than enough. What did he expect to hear as a response to what he said about the Representative from Minnesota? Does no one see the irony in what is happening here? He argues that the Squad, and please know I do not agree with everything they say or do either,  should go back to where they came from. Three of the four of them were born in the United States, so where does that say they should go? His comment about their ethnic background puts him into a discriminatory situation, plain and simple. The point is: when they say something that he believes problematic, he says they need to go back from where they came (and all the problems with that statement are a post in an of itself). So if they say something from their place in Congress or wherever, it is inappropriate, but as he wraps himself in the flag (which he has literally done) and tries to argue patriotism, he said because he is being patriotic and supporting the country he cannot be racist, regardless what he says. Bull . . .  I say. That is his basic argument. Most certainly, I do not think he has used that specific logic or stated it, but I am not sure he is the most logical President we have had in the Oval Office. In fact, I might go as far as to argue he is on the other end of that spectrum. Now he argues because he tried to speak, he was cutting off the chant. If he spoke, that would have stopped it. Period.  His rallies from the previous election cycle are certainly demonstrative of his using incendiary language and even supporting some of the violence at his event (e.g. get him out of here. Knock the hell out of him). Now he wants to feign that he would not do such things. Incredible.

What needs to happen is the Congress (and please note I did not denote a specific party) needs to do the work they have been elected to do and serve the American people. Then let the chips fall where they may . . . or will.  As we are into debates already . . . those running for the Democratic Party nomination need to explain what they will do to better serve the American people and the world should they be elected president. Lay out a strategy that demonstrates that you care about all of America . . . that the policies will do something to support the wealthy, but also give care to those who were not able to get a million dollar loan from their father. When and if you get the nomination, do not play his game of insult and detract. If you get in the mud puddle with the pig, you are going to get dirty and pigs love the mud. They are used to it. That is my thoughts about dealing with the hush-money paying, genital grabbing, bully with a 4th grade rhetorical level, the one, whom we somehow elected in 2016. He is arguing the economy is humming and certainly the stock market has been hitting records, but about 50 percent of people, who have the money to invest in the market do not (2016 Gallup Poll). That does not count the people who do not have the disposable income to begin with. Therefore, for whom is the economy humming? If it is only for those connected to the Dow and S&P, which is what is being touted by the White House, there is an issue. Then there is an example of our illustrious legislatures at the national level, who are there to serve the people. My second example of just how low they stoop or out of touch they seem to be is with former doctor (M.D.) and Senator. In a typical example of supposed fiscal responsibility, Senator Rand Paul objected to a unanimous consensus vote to support the 9/11 Fund, something that Senator McConnell noted to the recently deceased NYPD detective he would make sure a vote was accomplished. My issue with the Kentucky Senator is an issue of ethics and reality. He noted that the 10+ million dollars this would cost should be offset by other spending. Okay, but wait! This is the same Senator who voted for the Tax Reform Bill that has added a trillion dollars to our national deficit. I am not an economist, and math is not my strong suit (and it also seems that Polish is not over the last few days), but give me about a 99% break . . . because 10,000,000.00 is one percent of 1,000,000,000.00. I think more than your ribs must have been broken by your neighbor, Senator Paul. You are also reprehensible for this stoppage. This brings me to the other side of things for a moment. I think Speaker Pelosi has so much more on the ball than many think. While I am supportive of much of what AOC and other freshman Representatives are questioning, I do believe there is a way to manage both sides. I think the Madam Speaker is an astute and worthy balance to the Senator Majority leader, who I will address before this blog is complete.

My rhetorical background comes into play. While the President speaks of a 4th grade rhetorical level, his rhetorical strategy is more acute and calculating than many believe. This is where some of you might find what I write difficult, but there are two things to remember before you judge my words as they come from some careful thought and significant struggle. First, I was a history major in college (and I have loved history since middle school) and second I wrote my dissertation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was the German Lutheran pastor involved in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. After watching what Hitler had done in Germany from 1933 when he became chancellor, the group of well-placed individuals involved in the plot to remove him turned to their pastor and co-conspirator as they struggled with the reality of their actions. Hoping he might provide some absolution for their deeds on the Christmas holidays of 1942-43, they asked him to reflect on their situation. Absolution is not quite what they received; he wrote to them: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; . . .” While I do not believe the American public has been silent either before or since the President was elected, the silence of the Republican party on so many actions or words used, which are below the Office of the President, is shocking. The disregard for the judicial system, the intelligence community, the DOJ, pre-Attorney General Barr, or the granting of security clearances in a nepotistic manner (against the advice of those who had the right to advise) provides my reason for pause. Yet, the list could go on and the incredible disdain for our democracy is, once again, beyond words. I know some will ask the question if I am insinuating (or jump to the conclusion) that our President is evil? For me, that is an honestly difficult question. Is bullying evil? I believe it can be to those being bullied. Is arrogance evil? When the consequence of that arrogance is to create discord, mistrust, and fear, which I do believe is a fundamental strategy of Mr. Trump, one can argue for some sense of evil in that. Certainly, I believe the Republican Party and those who have fallen somewhat lock-step (and the similarity  or image of that term with a military is not unnoticed) with him can certainly have their actions be regarded as equivocation. Particularly when those who have not supported him are called out, ostracized, and labeled more vile things that the deplorable term (remember the election) ever indicated. The President’s response this past week for former Speaker Ryan is a good case in point. I think Ryan’s rather pathetic argument for what he tried to do to “manage” the President is another example of equivocation and pretense, and all under the guise of patriotism or democracy at work.

Bonhoeffer would go on to write: ” . . . experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.” To  say we have become suspicious of others in a profound understatement in our present national climate. We have come to the point where disagreement with someone makes them the enemy. There is no democracy in that. There is no freedom in that. Those are profound statements, but important ones. We unfriend people; we no longer speak with them; we have become afraid to question or stand up for what we believe because it is termed unpatriotic, socialist, and something worse. Sending someone home or arguing they should go back to their shithole country is how our President finds it reasonable to speak about or to those with whom he disagrees or when they disagree with him.  He tweets his disdain on Sunday mornings almost liturgy. He name calls and again, uses his bully pulpit as the incredible bully he is. He argues for a strict interpretation of the constitution when it serves him (or more accurately his base or those who might support him) and yet he cares little about constitutional rights. His attack on checks and balances is a basic affront to the constitution. Recently, he worked to figure out a way to side-step the SCOTUS  on the census(though at the last minute someone must have gotten through to him). He argues the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech when it serves his purposes, and yet in his own actions he will block people on Twitter with whom he disagrees again (which the Federal Appeals Court just told him that is not okay). Certainly I do believe we are worn down from going on three years of continual fighting and bad-mouthing. This is not one-sided – it is the one thing about which we are truly bipartisan. Most of the public has thrown up their hands; it a national issue and it is a serious one. Certainly there is a cynicism that has become part of who we are. It is my hope, again as noted above, that someone, or some-ones, will step up and demonstrate they can argue for policy and country and not get into the garbage slinging, something the President seems incapable of doing. He calls it the “art of the deal.” I call it the epitome of being an ass. Can we return to substantive talk about the country and the things that matter versus becoming a continual us against them? That is where the cynicism is most apparent. I am not sure anyone believes we can.

This past weekend, I ended up in more back and forth that I am usually comfortable doing. The topics: immigration, health care, and a few other things that are central to our public debate. What astounds me is how so many really good people, and those who call themselves Christians, can support this person who has equivocated himself arguing for the sanctity of life, but then disrespects almost everything that is fundamental to our humanity and everyone, particularly women. Behind this Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate has flooded our judiciary with judges who will rule against woman, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTQA, or anyone who does not seem to believe as they do. I am smiling as I think of those whom Jesus chose as disciples. I am not sure any of them would fall into our category of who’s who in terms of wanting them as friends or role models. As I have noted in many of my previous blogs, I did not grow up in a particularly diverse area, but I did learn about respect for the other. Certainly my entry into the Marine Corps taught me things about people and the world that NW Iowa could not. Certainly my work beyond as a pastor and eventually as a professor has reminded me of how fortunate we are to have the diversity of opinion that I find in my classes (and is something I try to foster).  Contrary to what some accused me of this past weekend (not personally, but as they argued against the left-wing, liberal conspiracy of the academy) of indoctrinating my students. As I tell my students every semester when they ask me what I want, my response is always the same: I want to you think; I want to you to analyze; I want you to be able to make the connections, to be able to synthesize the things you learn with the world in which you live. As that former pastor, I am just enough of a smart ass to say, “I believe God gave you a brain to do more than hold your ears apart.” So the question becomes as Bonhoeffer noted so importantly: “Are we still of any use?” As I have noted in other blogs, I know what this discrimination does to people; I know what it did to my sister. There is significant time until November 2020, but there is a lot of national soul searching that needs to happen. We need to as a people stand up against all forms of discrimination and speak out when our government does things that are not true to the morals and principles that promote respect and dignity. Discourse is important; disagreement and the ability to do so in a civil manner is as important now as ever. When people are bullied into silence; when people are rounded up and treated as subhuman; when we separate families and cage children (I have been to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Auschwitz); when those we elect cannot conduct themselves in a manner befitting the office to which they are elected, we have a problem and a serious one. Are we of any use? Yes, and further more, hell, yes. It is time to read; it is time to listen and research the issues; it is time to consider who we are and how we want to conduct ourselves as individuals and as a nation. It is time to use our power at the ballot box. If we believe we want a country that finds racism and bullying in the White House as acceptable, we will re-elect this monster. If that is who we have become, I fear where we are headed. The image at the outset of this blog is of Flossenburg, the camp in which Bonhoeffer was hanged and cremated shortly before its liberation. He was hanged in April 1945. It is not again unrealized to me that I am only kilometers away from Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious of the death camps in the Second World War.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Gratefulness 40 Years in the Making

Cześć w chłodniejszy poranek z Krakowa,

What I have said is “hello on a cooler morning” from the sort of intellectual capital of Poland, the former capitol city, Kraków. It is actually by 7th time to this city of a little over a million people. With sites like Wawel Castle, the picture at the top of this post, Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the city, Oskar Schindler’s factory and the second oldest university in Central Eastern Europe, each day is a living, walking-tour through 8 centuries of history (or more), but the importance of Kraków as a trading, political, and religious hub begins in the 13th century. Each time I return, I am amazed by some source of beauty and what seems to be of significance that I might have missed on a previous visit. My trip to Kraków comes on the heels of 5 days in Moscow, a first time for me to be in Russia, and before I begin another Polish language immersion for 7 weeks. In 1980/81 I traveled to Europe for the first time, allowed the opportunity by the yearly interim travels of Dr. John W. Nielsen, and the generosity of Harold and Dorothy Wright, who unexpectedly and through no deserving on my part, paid my way to participate on that class, appropriately titled “Auguries of Loneliness.” There was so much to learn on that trip and part of it was health things, which I now know were a precursor to what has happened since.

That trip was more than merely reading Hemingway and Mann for me; it was infinitely more than traveling to places I had only observed or pondered in our Humanities art or religion lectures. It was a life-altering experience; it was an awakening to learning how to learn. It was a realization that America, in its youthful arrogance, was much more a product of millenniums of progress than we might care to admit. From sitting in a pub with a shot of aquavit and an elephant beer to walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, from listening to the music of Buxtehude, the Danish/German organist at the Cathedral in Lûbeck, to tromping through the snow in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my life was going through a daily transformation that provided an astounding foundation for the person I am today. When I went to Europe as a sophomore student at Dana, I was not a typical sophomore, I was 25 years old and I had already spent time in the Marine Corps. As I have previously noted, if it had not been for a couple other veteran students (Mike Keenan first comes to mind because we both ended up on 4 North Holling as freshmen), I am not quite sure how that first year might have gone. Yet, as a person beyond the typical college age, there was so much to learn both intellectually and academically (and they are not the same), but I did not realize what that even meant at the time. It was more than memorizing and then regurgitating what I had studied. It was so much more about synthesis and integration and understanding that we are products of our historical and cultural background. That is what professors like Drs. Nielsen (all three of them), Olsen, Brandes, Bansen, Jorgensen, or Stone would teach me. That is what Hum events, a student church council, and choir tours would engrain in me.

This summer I am back to Kraków for yet another visit. While more of them have been in the role of the Pope and bringing students, this one is again (for a second summer) about being a student and taking a Polish language immersion class. It is about preparing for an event that is still more than a year away. I have been invited to teach technical writing at the School of Polish Language and Culture at Jagiellonian University. The university is the second oldest in Eastern/Central Europe and the alma mater of Nikolas Kopernikus (Polish spelling), and Pope John Paul II. It is overwhelming to consider that I am walking in the same hallways as such people and being offered the opportunity to teach in the spaces. I am reminded in a world that has become increasingly nationalistic that the faculty of this university were all imprisoned when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Jewish Quarter in this town is next to Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the town of Oświęcim is nearby (you know it by it more infamous German name: Auschwitz). After education, travel and cultural immersion are, I believe, the best way to spend one’s money.  Through the immersion of being in that place, the cultural experiences and learning the language of the other helps one begins to understand how they think and what they value. That realization came from sitting in Bodil Johnson’s German class for me. It came from the struggles I remember in Dr. Delvin Hutton’s Greek course.

I remember the day I received a message that Dorothy Wright wished to speak to me in Parnassus. I walked from Holling to PM and trudged up the to the second floor late afternoon on a rather blustery fall day. Dorothy pulled me aside to sit at one of the tables and told me she had known my grandmother. If you have read this blog with any frequency, and one post just recently, you know that my grandmother was (and is) my hero. Dorothy and she were acquainted somehow (I think Eastern Star). She inquired about my going to Europe with Dr. Nielsen for interim. I had attended the interest meetings, but because I was paying my own way through college, there was no way I could afford the $1,500.00 the trip would cost. When I informed her that I had decided not to go, she asked if finances were an issue. I told her (somewhat lying) that it was one of the issues. In reality it WAS the issue. Then she informed me that she and her husband, Harold, were willing to pay my way. I was dumbfounded. I asked her if I could think about it for a day. She said, “Certainly.” And I was allowed to go. I do not think my feet touched the ground all the way back to Holling Hall. The Wright’s generosity changed my life. Through that interim class of 1980-81, both the places and some of the people, I was transformed into a person who wanted to be a sponge and learn everything I could. I have often noted that trip is what encouraged me to believe I could eventually go on an get a PhD and (want to) become a professor. This past year, through the generosity of yet another amazing woman, I was able to endow two travel abroad scholarship funds where I presently teach. One is in the name of that latest benefactor and the other is in honor of Harold and Dorothy Wright.

I was in Blair one day in early June for only a few hours. I did stop to see Dorothy, who is still alive and quite well. I wanted to thank her in person for what she had done for me almost 40 years ago. We, as Dana alumni, speak regularly about what was (and is) called the Dana Difference. Harold and Dorothy Wright are a prime example of that difference. They reached out to a young man who was not a typical student, but who was, much like many others, trying to figure it all out. If it were not for an incredibly brilliant man, who began at Dana and obtained his PhD from Oxford, and his willingness to do all the tedious and laborious work to arrange such interims, 100s of students would be less culturally aware than they are. Dr. Nielsen’s insatiable passion for teaching others both in the typical and the global classroom is still affecting me. He set the bar high for those who want to emulate what he did. There is a bit of an irony that 46 years ago to the day as I write this, I was taking my first plane ride to MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego, California. Certainly my time in the Marines would shape many of the attitudes and practices I still hold today. However, there have been so many plane trips since then. Dr. Nielsen took me on my first trip to Europe. This trip is my thirteenth, and has included five days in Moscow to visit the Russian student I had in class this past year. While it was only a layover, I was also in Finland for the first time. Beginning next week, I will be taking Polish (a second immersion class) 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. The plan is to do the same next summer. While I will teach the fall of 2020 in English, I want to be able to communicate on a normal level with my students in Polish.

Slavic languages are inflection languages meaning that the endings of the words are changed to reflect how the word is being used in the sentence (a quick example in Polish is the word for cheese. Ser is the word for cheese, but to denote something with cheese it would be serem). It has not been difficult to understand the grammar for me, but there are seven cases instead of four and there are sounds that our English-speaking mouths are not used to creating. There are also sounds that my 60+ year old ears have some difficulty ascertaining. That is part of the fun. While I can say simple things from my first foray into the language, it is my hope that the summer course will create a more profound foundation usage of this language, one that overlaps Czech, Slovak, Russian, and Ukrainian. Grammatically there is a lot of similarity, but the Latin versus the Cyrillic alphabet creates an additional learning curve. I am also grateful to my Bloomsburg colleague, Dr. Mykola Polyhua, who has been so gracious in creating the foundations and relationships I now have here. Gratefulness is not something that occurs once and disappears. It is something that becomes part of who we are. It changes us, and allows us to hopefully change the lives of others. What I know as I am into my 60s is I have learned so much, and yet there is still so much to learn. I was thinking about it as I walked the streets of what is called Stare Miasto (Old Town) today. If all goes according to plan I will turn 65 when I am in Poland next year for a six month trip of more language and teaching. Some ask me when I am going to retire. It is one of the questions I guess people feel compelled to ask as they see my white whiskers and grey hair. I have no plans, at least presently, to do so. I am so blessed to be able to do what I do and love doing it. Again, the very fact that I can say any of that is because of Harold and Dorothy. Their generosity changed my life. I had no idea that a requested meeting in Parnassus would be so life-changing, but it has been exactly that . . . and for that I am grateful beyond words. As I work at the table in my little Air BnB, I am still astounded by the fact that I am able to be 4,400 miles from my home doing what I love to do and having a job that allows and encourages me to do so. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and direct a Professional and Technical Writing program, has been so supportive of my work and continues to be so. It is yet another place to which and whom I am grateful. I feel undeserving of such blessings, but somehow, I have been blessed beyond measure. I hope to be half as much a blessing to others. My thoughts about a sort of paying it forward as they say. Somehow this song came to mind.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Michael Martin


Prayers Answered

Hello from Costa on ulica Karmelicka,

It is always interesting to return to somewhere you have been before. The change in perception that occurs from familiarity is a difficult thing to quantify, and if the return is more than once, understanding the changes that occur go beyond mere perception to emotion. I think of how Riverside, the blue collar suburb of sorts where I grew up in Sioux City was my home for the great majority of my childhood. Yet, in a sort of reverse of what I am alluding to, it has been so long since I spent time there that some of the memories of places that no longer physically exist (like my grade school). How much of our emotional, spiritual attachment is based on the physical experience? How is it that memory is evoked by movement, sight, repetition? These are things I lay awake sometimes and ponder. I am sitting in a coffee shop I came to my first time in Kraków. However, a barista from my summer work here who worked at a Costa I had immigrated to is now at my original Costa hang out. Each Costa carries memories with it. I was unaware that Mariusz had transferred, but he saw my Facebook post and let me know. It was nice to connect a familiar face from my extended summer to the Costa of the past 5 years.

More importantly is how my geographic awareness of Kraków is so much more acute than in my previous visits. It is interesting to me how summer for me leaves more lasting impressions for me. Is it because of language? Is it because I walked so extensively and spent so much more time taking in things. I also think the light of the summer and the longer days also affect my ability to assimilate things. I think part of it is that I am happier and more energetic.

However, as I walked to Dom Profesorski this morning, the memories of students from each year I have been here came teeming back. To see some of my own students on this year’s trip as well as long-time colleagues here for the first time was quite a boost to my morning. I am only here for not quite a week, but even the few days of refacing my summer steps in the winter season has come something to assimilate this Krakówian (a sad attempt to connect Polish with an English adjectival ending) experience even more. As I sit in Costa and work on my last blog of 2018, I realize things still do not slow down.

Yet, I cannot remove the poignant memories of my first visit to Kraków and Poland. I had left Wisconsin and said an incredibly emotional final goodbye to an amazing woman who had become my mother and so much more. I was coming to the ancestral country of her husband, a person I had not met. I remember Lydia’s Christmas Eve Polish conversation with the spirits in them corner of her room. I had asked her if George (Zdzislaw) was there. She nodded in the affirmative. I then asked her if she was ready to go home. She shook her head decidedly and sternly in the negative. She knew what she wanted to the very end.

Four years ago I was wandering across center city Kraków for the first time being shown around by Robert, Maria’s father. Ironic, how a student connection created what had become an integral part of my life. It was a day much like today, a bit grey an while chilly and damp, not anywhere really cold. We went into the church where Saint Pope John Paul II had served as the Archbishop of Kraków. I lit a votive candle and prayed. I actually took the time to reach out to George specifically in the prayer. I asked him to convince her it was time to come home. It was the first time in my life I wanted to let someone I do loved go. It was the first time in my life I remember reaching out to someone I believed to be beyond the bonds of this life to request their intervention into the world I knew. In spite of my theological foundation, I wondered the how, but believed more in the reality of its possibility. As I raised my petition, i remember my eyes filling with tears, but also feeling a sense of calm, believing it was time to let her go. Again, for the first time in a very long time, I prayed for what was best for the other. I remember telling Robert what I had done as we left the confines of this holy space. The remainder of my day was preparing for a New Year’s Eve that would be spent with the Paras.

What happened in the next 24 hours or so still amazes me. I would go to sleep on the first of January, ready to imagine a new year. I had not been long when my cell rang. It was Nathan telling me that Lydia had passed away. It was still January 1st in Wisconsin. To this day, and particularly on this same day of the year, four years later, I am as convinced as ever that my being in Poland, George’s ancestral county an in the parish of the former Archbishop had consequences for the simple, yet fervent, prayer of a dutiful, surrogate son. This fall my Bible as Literature students asked me how I understood the workings of faith. When I am asked such things in that class, my default is to remind them it is not a religion class, but rather a literature class. Yet much like my confessions professor in seminary as we pushed him on his opinion about something about the Lord’s Prayer, I allowed for an answer. I said both simply and humbly that faith for me is best understood through the single verse out of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This has been my foundational verse for most of my life, and even more so as a seminary student, pastor, and beyond. To pray requires faith. To pray requires both a sense of assurance and of hope. To pray to that unseen requires a strong conviction (or maybe even a simple one) that your words actually are heard and make a difference. Then there is a belief that what happened in the next 24 hours were a consequence of the said prayer. The very fact that I am recounting it four years later illustrates that somehow I have the assurance of this thing hoped for.

Today as I sit in Costa, I cannot help but remember the various student groups who have been here in this amazing city on the last week of December into January. My first year, there were three students in particular. Joe had been a student in my Foundations class and would go on to graduate school, not just anywhere, but in Israel. I am quite sure that what he learned from Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska had a profound influence on what we would study. The next sure I was fortunate to come along in a different way, as part of the faculty-led program. Again, some of the most amazing students were on the trip. I think of a veteran military student who would come back in Krakow the following summer to study Polish and work on his dual citizenship. I think of another student with aspirations to go to work in the Peace Corps and was accepted until his health created a difficulty. I think of a young woman who was both an outstanding student and absorbed every cultural event or exhibition we visited like a insatiable sponge. There were students the next year who are now here for the third time leading others, that is how much Krakow has influenced them. Last year, we were blessed to have the president of the Alumni Association for the university come and accompany us on part of the trip. During those years, I was fortunate enough to visit places like Budapest, Lviv, and Prague. Twice I have gone to Austria, and Lydia’s beloved city of Wein, but I need to go back on my own and spend some time. As I returned for this trip, I have met the group at their accommodations on ulica Garbarska, but I am not traveling with them. In fact, I am traveling on my own  with a most dear person and on Thursday will be flying to Italy to visit my great friends, Marco and Belinda and their two amazing children. It will be the first time I have been in Italy since 1981. After a week there, I will be going to Spain and visiting my friend, Elena, a former student at MTU, and one who visited me on my second trip here to Krakow. This visit is a promise kept. I think the important part of all of this is how the amazing connections and people I have met have changed my life and made is such a blessed one.

As I finish this blog, I am reminded of that first journey. It is now still the first of January in the States, but it is early on the morning of the 2nd here in Krakow. I walk up this morning about 2:00 a.m. It was exactly the time Lydia passed on four years ago. I did not realize it at the time, but the time corresponded to my answered prayer. It is interesting how I believe those spirits and powers outside out lives work both in ways too subtle for us to realize and sometimes in ways to obvious to miss. I know that the people who I met from Comforts of Home, Lydia’s abode for the final almost four years of her life, still influence me. Carissa, the administrator who treated Lydia as her own grandparent if you will, Angie, Breanne, Leah, Leighann, Marissa, Mindy or Stacey, and others whose names escape me at 6:00 a.m., will always be dear to me for the care you provided her. It is now the beginning of yet another year. I wonder what prayers are being offered even today as those individuals in the twilight of their lives are struggling with the most simple of tasks. I wonder about those amazing caregivers who give more of themselves than even they realize and for so little monetary compensation. I wonder about even my own existence when there are sometimes more maladies than I could have ever imagined to manage for an aging, but still small-child at heart, traveling professor who seldom grows old of learning something new. What are the prayers I will offer as I finish this blog. I think my prayer is simple and yet profoundly difficult.

As I read the news in America from here in Central Europe, I pray that our elected leaders can learn to listen to those who have elected them (and I realize the cacophony of voices is difficult and painful to hear for all the disharmonious sound) and act for the mutual benefit of the country that has elected them. I pray that a President who was duly (and embarrassingly at times) elected might realize that the tweeting that he does has consequence, whether it be some random thought or his real intention, and when he puts things in public, it is done as the President. I pray that we can see a global and civilization that needs care and mutual respect for all people, that the desire to have freedom and the ability to thrive is a human desire not a gift that belongs to only certain people on the winning side of a wall. As I travel and see students from Bloomsburg once again, I hope they will see the profound goodness of the places they visit and remember the profound evil that we as humans can unleash given the right circumstance (their visit to Auschwitz this weekend). It is all here in this beautiful country called Poland. I pray for all my friends and even those outside that realm that they might be blessed with health, with a sense of happiness or contentment, and that the things they do will be a blessing to those around them.

Welcome to a new year and bless you all. Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

The War to End All Wars

Hello from a Starbucks in Selinsgrove,

Hiding away and working, but trying to imagine the feelings of not only the important players on the stage in France 100 years ago, but also the simple people, those in France where much of the carnage of a trench war was fought to the families who lost loved ones in a war that was fought to stop war. Were we as countries that idealistic a century ago? Certainly I write on the Centennial of that event with the privilege of hindsight, but did we have a more optimistic spirit a century ago? Did we simply believe the nationalism that was prominent that day would recede into a historical footnote and cooperation would prevail? Was the title of this blog something that was a sincere hope or merely a slogan for a weary and war-torn world? By the time I would be born less than 40 years later, we would already fight another World War, one that this time would encompass the globe. The nationalism of Germany, which occurred with perhaps some justification in light of Article 231, the Fascism of Italy and the imperialism of Japan certainly speak to the consequence of nationalism, which is certainly rampant today.

During the last five years as I have traveled to Central and Eastern Europe, the rise of nationalism in Hungary and Poland or the division in Ukraine has demonstrated that nationalism is alive (and as an oxymoron, well). Brexit in England and the, what I deem as troublesome, red MAGA caps are both examples of globalistic rebellion. Today, the French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the consequences of these current nationalistic moves that sweep our world. He said, “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism” (11Nov18). He noted that such actions threaten the very democracy two World Wars fought to preserve (11Nov18). He went even further calling nationalism treason (Breitbart). I do wonder what those WWI veterans would think about the wars we wage now. Certainly the equipment would boggle their minds. The firepower and the way we use our strength and might. What would they think of the bravado of people like Kim Jung Un, who should be seen as an adversary, Rodrigo Duterte, who is an ally, but somewhat dubious, or Vladimir Putin, who certainly rules Russia with a stronger iron fist than our President seems to believe? What would they think of not only our military technology, but our personal technology and how it is used?

Before you believe I somehow see a century ago as preferable to now, I do not, and there are numerous and significant reasons to feel that way. I do believe the Americans, those perhaps born in the recent shadow of our own civil war, were, however, at least beginning to realize the need for a world who gave more than a rat’s ass about other countries. I also believe our government was quite imperialistic, but the consequence of being pulled into WWI would push some to see the significance of a need for at least some global care, and mutual concern. I also realize there were still a number of social and political battles that would take another half century to begin to confront. Many are still being confronted and perhaps we have backslid a bit or a lot, depending on your viewpoint. It is interesting to me that I find I am much more accepting of the other than I was as a child growing up in NW Iowa. I do not think it was that I did not accept, but I had little to no exposure to the other, and most of what I knew I saw on television. I did grow up knowing there were certain terms I was forbade to use, but I just this week in corresponding with an high school classmate, she noted the struggle one of our Native American classmates had and how it affected him for years following high school. I remember him well, and while I merely thought he was quiet, I had no idea he was so bullied because he did not fit our WASP neighborhood and high school. I do not believe I even had a black person in my school until I was in 12th grade and we had redrawn the boundaries of our city high schools. What I realize now is how we are privileged as whites, and even more so as white males. I remember writing a blog about this around four years ago. I wanted to defend my white privilege because I had worked so hard for where I was. There are some remnants of that thought process, but at this point, I mainly want to see all people valued and respected. I find myself believing more and more that when one of us is discriminated against, it hurts all of us. I find myself believing more and more that we need to see our place in the world as important, as significant, but not as the moral/political exemplar. In fact, it seems as if we are anything but presently, and that is not a comment pointed only at the executive branch of our government. As I have noted lately, the lack of civility and the unwillingness of our legislative branch to work in a bipartisan manner is unconscionable. I listened to a GPS episode in which Fareed Zakaria interviewed the French President after the commemoration of WWI, to which I referred earlier in this post. I find myself agreeing with most everything the French President asserted, and his contention that Europe needs to care for Europe and not see America as the primary fall-back for the EU made a lot of sense to me. I find President Macron’s approach to be moderated and thoughtful, but also realistic in the present world.

There is little doubt that the last two years have created some concern for our European allies. There is little doubt that the MAGA doctrine has had consequences that push the United States off the pedestal and has made the torch of the Statue of Liberty lose some of its luster, if you will. I am not saying that having all of NATO work together a bit more thoughtfully, both in terms of finances and non-financial resources, is wrong, but the manner in which the message has been delivered (tweeted, which is an entirely separate problem) has serious rhetorical issues. You cannot go around threatening the rest of the world and then believe they want to work with you or will trust you to work with them. Again, I find all of this a bit embarrassing, but it seems there is little our President finds embarrassing. Over the past few days, I have had both my Russian students and my American students ask me what I thought about our elections. I think the elections did little more than illustrate what any thinking person should already realize. We are as divided and polarized as ever. While I am a bit hopeful because we have a better checks and balances in our legislature, I am not convinced that the probably next (and former) Speaker of the House is the best way to proceed (and it pains me to say that). I believe she did a pretty good job as speaker the first time, but it seems that we are in such a different world now, and she is almost as polarizing as Sec. Clinton was. I have little doubt that President Trump will blame the House for everything he can for the next two years. If the Democratic-led House does not manage things that demonstrate a clear sense of caring for things that go beyond the beltway, I believe the damage that will be done to the Democrats will have generational consequences, but the immediate consequence will be an additional term for the current occupant of the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that causes me more concern than I even have words.

The reasons for concern are legion, and it is not by accident that I use that term. I do not think the Democrats have a good plan for the next two years or beyond, and no matter how carefully I look, I see little in terms of a plan that demonstrates how we can move the country forward in a manner that respects all of us. The lack of respect that has been revealed in the last two years goes beyond what I ever thought possible. I will also say that I do not believe President Trump is responsible for all of that. I read an article recently that points a finger (at least legislatively) at Newt Gingrich. I think there is a lot that rings true in that argument. I think there are certainly ways to govern that do not have to make the opponent the enemy, but somehow we have forgotten that, or perhaps we no longer believe it. I am all about being passionate about one’s beliefs or positions, but as I note for my students, the reason for argument is to reach consensus. One can point out the differences of a position without making the other out to be an idiot or the enemy. It seems the wars we wage today are class wars, and speaking of the French, that has disastrous consequences for them following their revolution of 1789. It was not called the Reign of Terror for no reason. It seems the wars we wage today are about education, location, or even occupation. We pit the educated (whom we now vilify or certainly those who teach are vilified) against those we deem uneducated. My father did not go to college, but he is one of the wisest people I have ever met. Education is about more than higher education (and I say that as a college professor). We seem to continually pit those in urban or suburban areas against the rural parts of our country. Again, seeing the rural folk as uneducated or parochial. Having grown up in NW Iowa, I know rural and many of those who live on or work on farms or in our agricultural sector or doing manual labor should not be treated as somehow less because they do not wish to have the hustle and bustle of the ‘burbs as a way of life. On the other hand, those who live in the ‘burbs or in the city have certainly valid concerns about what is happening in many of their neighborhoods and the violence that seems to plague our inner-city locales. I have both groups of students in my classes and I see how differently they understand the world in which they live and both hope to grow old. Then there is the issue of what someone does to make their life manageable. This is also complicated. From issues of job security to job availability, how do we make it possible for everyone to live a life that has meaning and quality. The complication of this question goes far beyond what I can do in a blog post, but it is significant. I see too many students who come to college and waste money and time. I seem too many people who are told that if you do not go to college you cannot be successful. Again, this might prove to be surprising for some.

I do believe there is a lot of positive consequences to a college education, but that is not just about a job. On the other hand, I do not believe that everyone needs to, or should, go to college. I do believe that working in the trades, which has a long history (and a successful one) in my family, is certainly a valid and thoughtful vocation, one that can make a difference in other people’s lives. What makes someone successful? What is success? It is more than money; it is more than prestige; it is more than collecting the most or biggest toys. There is so much I could say, but I need to do some other work, so I am off, but I leave you with one of my favorite scenes from my favorite move, Dead Poets Society. The amazing Robin Williams, as Mr. Keating, speaks to his students about the importance of thinking and learning. Perhaps we can all learn something from what is said here.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

When Geography Becomes a Place

Hello from Starbucks,

I am in another Starbucks and I know that it is more than merely another trip to the green mermaid branded coffee shop, in spite of that fact I have not been in this individual Starbucks before. As I walk in I see the familiar colors, the familiar layout, the typical board of options and even similar bathroom layout. The look is similar to one in one I have visited in PA, CA, VA, WI, UT, MN, IA, or IN. Yes, NYC, IRELAND, POLAND, CZECH REPUBLIC, AUSTRIA or CANADA. I think you get the point. They want us to feel at home, to feel familiar and welcomed, in spite of the fact that they got into some serious boiling water for their lack of welcome in the City of Brotherly Love not long ago. Branding is something all of succumb to whether we realize it or not. I believe some of the more successful branding campaigns in history include the aforementioned Starbucks; others include Apple, Microsoft, Hershey, or Harley Davidson. I am sure there are others you can name, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind for me. Terms like “the Big Three” referring to General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler once powered Detroit, but that is no longer the case. Companies that were standards of my childhood like Sears and Roebuck, J.C. Penney, or Montgomery Wards have fallen by the wayside of clothing or tools giants and now even the behemoth Walmart must be trying to figure out what to do with Jeff Bezos and Amazon as they seem destined and determined to become the one-stop-online-shop (OSOS) of everything. It seems the only thing that can rival them are the things they need like Google or other technology to support their continuing growth into most anything and everything. The reality of entrepreneurship on steroids seems to characterize what Bezos is doing. Of course, it can be argued Warren Buffet did the same thing, only 30 years earlier, and did it more by beating the pavement than wiring it together by technology. While I must admire their foresight and ingenuity, I cannot help but be concerned about the consequences. Where will the convenience and the OSOS cost us more than save us. Perhaps it is appropriate that the acronym includes an SOS.

I sort of went on a roll there, not realizing how all of that fit together for me. I think I find myself questioning more frequently and more critically some of the things I see happening on a regular basis. At times it makes me feel like a curmudgeonly aging white male, much like the uncle I have mentioned in a previous blog or two. The irony of that questioning for me is I will not have to deal with the consequences as long as my students. I will not see how the consequences might fundamentally change daily life as I have known it, or they know it now. Certainly technology has fundamentally changed how we communicate – or fail to – how we write, how we manage information – or fail to – how we shop, how we believe what we see or hear – or don’t. Again, I could go on, but you get the idea. I believe that technology must be seen as one of the profound contributors to the discord, the lack of decorum, civility or general lack of manners that seems to be plaguing us today. Or more accurately, our human addiction to our gadgets and the subsequent usage. Yet, I do subscribe to the belief that there is a rhetoric of technology. All I have to do is observe students anywhere on campus. Before they are out of a classroom as class is dismissed, their phones are out and they are consumed as they try to see what Instagram post or snap story they have missed in the last 50 minutes. They can see their way forward as if their cell phone is a seeing-eye dog (service animal) helping them get to their next class as they wander around like zombies in that 20 minute interval. They can walk up steps, down steps, between people or order without looking up as if the phone is their brain in their hand. Yesterday, I inadvertently left my phone somewhere on campus, and I realized shortly after it happened, and even had some sense as to where it was, but I did not follow up and get it until this morning. So I was without it for almost 24 hours. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did have my iPad at home and I did search out it’s location last evening and saw that it was probably where I suspected. I did get an email this morning that it had been turned in. So there was some surety that it was not stolen. That is helpful, but I did not feel like I was at a disadvantage with no phone. The continuing growth of the technological influence on communication and writing is something I ponder almost daily, and while I could say much about that, I will wait for another post to speak about that.

While I noted in my last blog I do not want a do-over, and that stands, if there is something I wish I might have done earlier, it is sort of two pronged. I wish I would have growth up in a time where learning other languages was encouraged. That was not something that was ever mentioned in my household. I had a great-aunt who could speak Norwegian and prayed in her native language, but that was the extent of any exposure I had. Related to that, I wish I had been taught about the importance of travel and experiencing other cultures. Certainly part of that ability was having the financial resources, and that definitely was not the case. What I am grateful for is that I enlisted in the Marines out of high school. That certainly offered me opportunities to learn about places outside of Sioux City, my NW Iowa town of 100,000, which I believed was a pretty big place. The second thing that did a great deal to broaden my horizons was to meet the Peters family. The pastor and family that came to Riverside Lutheran Church as I was getting out of the service. They had been in NW Iowa before, but this stop of the itinerant pastor’s existence included time in Germany before returning to the Midwest. It was their use of German in daily conversation, as well as a son who became a great friend and a serious crush and more on a younger sister, who is also still a treasured friend, that started me down the road of loving to learn language. It is now 40 years later and this summer I will enroll in the second intensive language program I have ever done. This one is a speaking language, however; the last one was Greek and I crammed two years into 12 weeks. This was much more about reading and writing. Yet, I remember the first time I heard Dr. Craig Koester read Greek in a Johannine Theology class. It was like listening to a story teller. His ability to read Greek as if we were reading English with inflection and tone, pauses, and appropriateness was unlike anything I had ever heard. I could have listened to him all day. What I learned in all of this, which I am just now really coming to terms with, is how much I was fascinated by language. I have said more than once, I wish I had gone into linguistics.

In the second half of my life, I have traveled much more frequently than in the first half. While I was 25 when I went to Europe the first time, the trip that changed my life and my perspective of what Europe was and how important it was to my understanding who I was as an American, I did not make a second trip out of the country as a civilian until I was almost 30. That trip was during the time I was in seminary and I went to then what was known as East Germany. It was a country behind the iron curtain, and it was an experience that revealed to me things I have seldom seen or experienced since. That first trip through Checkpoint Charlie is an experience that changes one’s life. While I have noted this in earlier posts, what still stuns me the most is how quickly I acclimated to the restriction of travel, ability to shop where I chose, or eat whatever or wherever I wanted. I remember how completely unprepared I was when I asked a East German seminary student I met to write me after I would leave and he said that was not possible. Perhaps more importantly, I remember when the wall came down later and he wrote to say hello and to tell me how they would have to be taught and learn about the concept of freedom. We take so much for granted. This past January, while traveling with the Eastern European Study Abroad group, we went to Lviv, Ukraine and sat at the border for 3+ hours. All of this freaked out our students a bit, but my memory of a much more serious investigation when we went into East Berlin in 1985 told me this was not nearly as ominous. Yet each experience when you live it causes a reality check that colors our understanding of the other person. What still causes me pause is how we are all human beings, but we seem so affected by our contextual situation that we can view what we deem apropos or tolerable in such profoundly different ways. It begs the question why and how? Again, I do realize some of this because of the same journey to what was then the Eastern Bloc. Thomas, the seminary student who could not write to me, noted when he could that he would have to be taught the concept of freedom. If one never has something, it is difficult to realize what it means. It is the same overall concept I am trying to convey in this post. It is one thing to see a country on a map and realize it exists. It is also something to see it in pictures or videos when another person has taken them or posted them. It is something entirely different when you have gone there and experienced it. There is an issue both in the contextual situation and then the experience of language. I think it is when the two experiences, which affect most of our senses, that we are compelled to see how we move from geography to place. It matters not whether it was German, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and most recently Ukrainian (which adds a different alphabet to the mix), there was always some point where I felt overwhelmed by the experience. It is interesting how we try to accommodate, or perhaps not for some, the other, particularly when we are in their country. I have always found it necessary to attempt to use their language and show deference to their customs. As we age, however, we are more aware of how we can Anglicize most any language with our unique American accents. I had this conversation with someone just recently as we were addressing the idea of how we  acquire another language more completely, which is so much more than learning vocabulary and managing to read and comprehend.

Too often, I hear students or others say, I took ______ (you can insert the specific language), but I cannot really use it. What they are implying is they cannot speak adequately. Yet what does that mean? For most, it is a combination of both vocabulary and accent. What does it take to sound like a native speaker versus a person who is merely trying to string some words together in another language? What happens when we struggle with the language so much that we are merely trying to pronounce the words (lacking both structure and inflection)? The first thing that happens is fear. The second thing is we no longer try because we become overwhelmed or embarrassed. As someone who has three different languages using Rosetta Stone on their computer, it has become more and more apparent to me why they manage the lessons as they do. Learning a language is all about employing all your senses because each sense affects your cognition in a different manner. It is where you begin to see the geography as a place; it where you begin to see the people as an individual. It is where you begin to see the complexity of the world in a way that makes it more about exploration and learning than comparing and contrasting. What I have realizes is the best way you can spend money is by travel. The more you travel, the more you realize how people have the same basic needs regardless of language, culture, location, or any other noun you wish to add to the list.  We want to be happy, healthy, and somehow make a positive difference. Time to grade some more as the end of the semester is upon us once again. As far as a video, I have decided to use Enrique Iglesias. Amazing how passionate the Latino/a culture is.

Thanks as always for reading and I hope your semester ends successfully.

Dr. Martin

Three Cities, Three Countries, One Day and Almost Done,

Hello from our bus,

I have always been amazed by outstanding drivers and our current bus driver, who has spent time in Canada, but speaks fluent Polish, might be one of the best I have ever experienced. As our group is 54 people with all included, we need a very large bus to keep people comfortable. Combine a very large bus with some incredibly narrow European city streets (remember some of these roads have been around for centuries, and long before motorized transportation was imagined) and you have a recipe for some possible tight maneuvering. Well, you would never know that to be the case because he is so capable and smooth. Whether it was making his way down a nine percent grade in the dark on snow covered roads or backing the bus down narrow confines, he managed both with relative ease. On two separate occasions he has had to make significant journeys on two lane roads, but he does it with such ease and efficiency that many of the group are able to catch some sleep along the way, and he is always on time and gracious as he managed the luggage for the entire group. Why begin a blog focusing on a bus driver? Without him, none of this would have been possible.

Bratislava was unlike any other city we have visited. It is the capital city of Slovakia, but it is quiet and rather small-town feeling, During out tour on a Tuesday, mid-morning and early afternoon we covered a great majority of the historic city and never ran into a great number of people. On Monday night, after arriving around 8:00 p.m., trying to find a place to eat was a bit of a chore. Yet, the city is also incredibly beautiful and the architecture stunning. Yet, there was a constant as there had been in every city we have visited. Once again, the profound mistreatment of the Jews was noticeably evident. I remember my first visit to Buchenwald over thirty years ago. A large oak tree stood outside the gate. I picked up a leaf from that tree and kept it in a Bible for many years. I tried to imagine what that tree would say if it could speak. Then I found my way to Dachau, not realizing that I would someday know someone who had both escaped and survived that place. Finally, I found my way to Auschwitz. I have been there three times, but each time I find myself as overwhelmed as the first time, perhaps more so. During the last three years, as students with either relatives who lost their lives in this hell-hole or students, who are Jewish become overwhelmed with emotion, I am forced to question on a more profound basis my own specific denominational faith background as many who belonged to what was known as the Reich Church supported this loathsome, hideous, and unpropitious plan to erase an entire people, another monotheistic faith, from reality. Certainly, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, and others who formed the Bekennende Kirche, the Confessing Church, would stand up against the Final Solution. Some would lose their lives for that position. When asking many of the students what experience was most altering, Auschwitz comes up far an away the most profound experience of their three-plus weeks here in Central/Eastern Europe.

The second thing that comes up in their conversations is the different personalities of the countries and places they have visited. I think that was particularly evident as both L’viv, Ukraine and Bratislava, Slovakia were added to the itinerary. Each time a new place is visited, another language, another culture, another gastronomic experience is added to the tapestry of events that make each of us unique. Each time someone finds an opportunity to be that sponge, mentioned in an earlier blog, they are forever changed. Their understanding of what it means to be a student is transformed because they are now a student of the world. Their understanding of what it means to be an American will be re-examined because they are forced to see and hear that English, while still the lingua Franca, is not always going to get them by as easily as they might imagined. Their understanding of how the world works is altered because they now must consider in a new more concrete manner what it means to live in a globalized world. What all of that means is not yet apparent. There is no recipe card that will help them in making that transformation, increasing that understanding, or managing that new found perspective that must now be considered. What has occurred in a mere 25 days will take a life-time of unpacking. What might happen? For some it will create a newfound wanderlust, a insatiable desire to travel again. For others, they might never come to Europe again, but either way, they are changed.

This month-long transformation, which began with a flyer, word-of-mouth from another student, a heart-felt request of parents to travel, and eventually meeting together in Newark the day after Christmas has provided an academic altering of how they understand the history of another major faith, of what the fall of communism in the late 1980s-early 1990s did to the entire world, and to business or international relations. Some of the students have learned that film in Central/Eastern Europe is quite different than the block-buster, Academy Award, Hollywood glamour, genre they have known all their lives. At the same time, they have visited relatives, learned to try and enjoy food they have never known of, and use trams, subways, and buses in ways they never knew they would. Each of these experiences create a new person. For us as faculty, it is life-changing also. Each group is different; each group teaches us as we are fortunate enough to travel with them. Learning, changing, and growing has no age boundary. That is one of the most wonderful things about working with college-age students. Together we all change. From attempting Escape Rooms in Krakow to eating breakfasts in a Communist Kongress Headquarters in Prague, this is not your basic Winter Term course. As I complete this last blog of the trip, I want to thank an amazing group of students. Thank you for your curiosity and willingness to take some chances. Thank you for your inquires and the willingness to search for your own answers. Thank you for working together in a pretty amazing way as many new things were thrown your way. To the four student leaders: your past experience and willingness to care for others made more difference than you know. Finally, to my colleagues, Dr. P., Dr. V., Lynda, and Marc (at the end of the trip), it has been wonderful to work with you these past 25 days.

To all who have read the blog, thanks for reading and tomorrow night we will be back in Bloomsburg, different people for all we have experienced.

Dr. Martin