A Traveling Winter Term, but So Much More

Hello from Krakow,

Earlier this evening (on the 27th of December to be exact), a group of forty-nine fading students and four faculty or administrator leaders, who might have been even more tired, gathered together for their first meal as a group after about 30+ hours of traveling from Newark’s Liberty Airport to the southern Polish town, whose Slavonic trading importance dates back to the 10th century. What has become an annual faculty-led study abroad program has continued to grow in size and scope and this year, along with receiving 7 credits for their studies, this peregrinate group will visit the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, as well as the countries of Austria and Germany. Studying at the Polish School of Language and Culture, part of Jagiellonian University, students will be mentored and taught by internationally renown scholars in buildings that have stood since before the school’s founding in 1364. As the second oldest university in Central Europe, the university boasts such alumni as Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, the former Archbishop of Krakow, who would become Pope John Paul II.

While most of the tired group is hopefully getting a good night of sleep after a somewhat grueling first day and a half, I have awakened after a few hours of sleep. As I have been tasked with chronicling the group’s month-long experiences in a form of a blog, I decided to be productive if I was to be awake. Therefore, welcome to entry number one. Listening to students as we ate our dinner this evening, many of the somewhat “typish” comments or interrogatives were made. Managing the schedule of such a group, particularly when we are in two dorms 20  minutes apart, is no easy task, but Dr. Mykola Polyuha, associate professor of Language and Cultures, has this down to a science. As we dined, logistical information was provided. Four students with previous experience on the trip have returned to act as group leaders, and within a day I can say this decision to include these Four Musketeers, if you will, was a brilliant idea. I can see where camaraderie and group building is already happening and it will keep the entire experience more cohesive, more engaged, and ultimately, more comfortable. Those initial comments and questions about things like exchanging money or even something as simple as directions are no longer simple when you have little experience and every sign you see is in a language you do not understand.

Even though we will have been in Krakow less than 24 hours, tomorrow will bring class orientation and getting ready for classes that begin this same day. Because of the compact schedule, some classes will be in session six days a week, but there are other requirements that include field trips and excursions to places like Schindler’s Factory, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, or before the end of the first week, the most notorious of the Nazi Death Camps, Auschwitz. Each day is a day that can profoundly change the view of those who learn about the complexity of Eastern/Central Europe as well take an actual historical walk through their first-hand cultural lessons each day. When I think about my previous trips, what astounds me most is now much more I learn each visit back. Walking the streets of a town that has existed since the Middle Ages, realizing that many of the things I’ve read happened where I am stepping, and seeing and listening to sights and sounds provides an opportunity for many who have never been out of the country.  What often happens is a beginning glimpse of just how connected we are even though we study or teach in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, the only town in the Commonwealth. One cannot help  but be struck by how most of the streets and building in this city of over 1,000,000 pre-exist any inkling of a United States.

This fall I was fortunate enough to find out that President Hanna, Bloomsburg’s new President, has intimate connections to Jagiellonian. His father has a rich history at this university. How fascinating it has been to have some of those conversations with him, but more importantly to share that common experience of a place far away. Perhaps the most important thing that might happen for a student is their eyes will be opened to some possibility or their mind will connect two points of learning that creates a new understanding of our increasingly complex world. Last year, just such an event occurred when, on one of our last days, I was fortunate enough to eat dinner with two of the Bloomsburg Bedouins. At dinner I asked what they believed to be their most important learning on the trip. One of the two responded (and I paraphrase), ” I realize there is so much to learn and there is so much more to the world than just our country. We are not as important as we would like to believe.” What a profound insight on the part of this thoughtful and reflective student-scholar. The first time I went to Europe, I was a sophomore in college. It changed my life. I understood in an acute manner that learning was so much more than memorizing and regurgitating. I wanted to be a sponge. That has never changed. For some of the 49 here now, that might just happen. In fact, I am sure it will. That first interim or Winter Class for me occurred in January of 1981. It still affects me. I do believe it is a foundational part of why I am a professor. For those who are doing the same thing this late December and early January some 37 years later, some will come face-to-face with the fact that this was so much more than a Winter Term faculty-led Study Abroad.

Until next time.

Dr. Martin
Asst. Professor of English
Director of the DRPW Program

Krakow for a Second Time

 

IMG_3489Hello from a Polish dormitory room in Krakow,

Today was our first full day in Poland as a group. It was a  busy and interesting day. We began the morning trying to square away things like having the internet in our rooms, seeing if Wifi is a possibility in our rooms, which seems more than likely to be a dream, and then getting to the university and the first day of one of the two classes as well as a sight-seeing trip around the city. I saw some things I saw last year on my stay of only a few days and I saw some other new sites. We were at Wawel Castle where I had the nicest time with Robert a year ago. I also tried to call him today, but have not successfully contacted him yet. I did enjoy the day for the most part, but as I walked around a bit on my own, I realized once again how solitary one can feel in the world. It is always an interesting thing. Because I do not know Polish, almost every banner, street sign or advertisement makes me feel as an alien. There are certain words I can figure out from my other languages, but it is a struggle for me when I feel so illiterate and wish I knew so much more. . . .  It is now about 12:30 a.m. and not surprisingly, I am awake. This is where my hours are still a bit askew. The picture above is from the salt mine outside Krakow that we will be visiting. This carving of Pope John Paul the II, the only Polish pope is one of the amazing chapels in the mine.

This evening I thought about my own first trip to Europe, which would have been about 34 years ago. I went on a Interim Trip with Dr. John W. (The Pope) Nielsen. The interim has been mentioned before in my blog. I had to read books before I left by Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann and we visited a number of places they wrote about. We traveled from Germany to Denmark, going back through Germany (only the West then) to Italy and then to France, Switzerland and Spain. It was a significant trip for me because it was my first time to Europe and it changed my life. Second, there were a couple of interesting occurrences, including my getting ill and having to go to Germany on my own. Long story short, I ended up on my own for about two weeks and learned more Germany and got to visit more things than I could have ever imagined. For those of you old enough to think of the time period. I was in Germany when the hostages had gotten out of Iran, Reagan was just inaugurated, and the world still had some similarities. A  disco in Germany was bombed at that time. As noted it changed my life. I learned how to learn. What I mean is that learning was no longer merely memorizing the writing the answers down. So many people are content to merely consider the surface or what is in front of them and they refuse to ask the tough questions. Today in the Eastern European History class, the professor, Dr. Annamarie Orla-Buskovska, who was phenomenal, noted that she wanted students to think critically and to be original in their thoughts when they wrote a response paper. I wanted to stand up and cheer.

What does it mean to honestly learn something? What does it mean to question the why? That is something that has always been a part of who I am. My poor mother. As I was merely walking down the street today in Krakow, my senses were bombarded from every direction by the sounds, the sights, and there was so much to take in. The culture is both similar and profoundly different at the same time. A couple of students noted that Krakow streets made them feel like they were in NYC, but it was so much older. Both the student who is working as a sort of tour-guide/helper, who is a college student himself and the actual tour guide who spent time with us this afternoon, were and are, so passionate about their town. There is so much history and once again, as I felt the very first time I was in Europe, I am walking through the pages of history, the centuries of what others experienced, struggled to build, died to change, dreamed to fashion, so that others can have a life they did  not have. The lecture this morning about Jewish identity and what they have managed as a people to do, which is exist and matter when they are “a stateless minority,” was fascinating to me. When there are three students along on this trip (I think that is correct) who claim Jewish ancestry, I cannot imagine what it means to listen to what we heard today. As much as I have been accustomed to considering the Jewish history because of my previous life as a pastor or as someone who studied Holocaust, and still does, some of what I heard today made me think in ways I never had. That is exciting to me. I love when what I have become comfortable with gets shaken up and I have to rethink.

I took the time this evening to read the first pages of Paul Johnson’s book, History of the Jews, as we were asked to do. It was also intriguing and made me realize a number of things I could do with my Bible as Literature course, things I have not done. I have an entire couple lectures that I could do for that class that I had never considered and as literature would work terrifically well. It does not take much to make me happy sometimes. There is so much more to consider about the Old Testament and beyond the Torah or the history. There are issues of feminist writing in a patriarchal culture; there are other writings that exist outside the Bible about Biblical characters, if I can use that term, and that goes beyond Philo and Josephus. That is what I learned the most about in my reading this evening. What is also strange is I feel somewhat like I did when I was often up in my dorm room at Dana College. I remember classmates asking why my lights were on at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and I would tell them I was still studying. That is where I learned to honestly study and realize what it meant to actually learn something.

How is it we really come to know ourselves? How is it begin to really understand our place in a world that is so complex and difficult? I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea that the world is more difficult. I think it has always been so. It might be true that we are more aware of our interdependence on each other, but one can hope that would be beneficial rather than malevolent as it seems it is. From where can we find that soft inner voice that pushes us to do for others rather than for ourselves? Can we be selfless even some times rather than selfish most of the time? I am reminded of a song by Celtic Woman . . .  It is called “The Voice” and I will add a link to it at the end of the post. How does the world speak to us? How does our history speak to us? How do we hear the voices we need so desperately need to listen to as we wander on our own paths? I think I am reminded of this every time I go to another place. As Americans we forget there is so much more to the world than our little corner . .  .  most of us are parochial enough we are not even able to understand our own country let alone the rest of the world. When I am standing in a castle that has a history of more than a millennium I am reminded there was a lot of world before there was a United States and the culture that comes with such a spans of time needs to be valued. Their language needs to be valued. What they have brought to the world long before we existed needs to continue to be celebrated. Now before you believe I am not proud or patriotic, put it away. I merely realize there is so much more beyond Texas where I was born, the Midwest where I was raised, or the East where I now live. One of the things most impressive about our country is its diversity, not only in its people, but in its landscapes. Indeed, in a scant 235 years +, the country has had an amazing impact on civilization, but with great giftedness comes even greater responsibility to the rest of the world. I do not mean that as a political statement, but rather an ethical one.

As it is now about 3:30 in the morning in Poland, I am going to try to get some sleep. I plan to be up in about three hours and I am looking forward to another day of learning.  It has been nice to sit in my little room and ponder. Here is the link for the video.

 

Thank you as always for reading and I will be trying to post regularly as I travel with 3o amazing Bloomsburg students.

Dr. Martin

 

 

Remembering an Amazing Life

Hello from JFK,

It is exactly a year ago today that I would be leaving Lydia for a last time. It was an amazing day because Carissa was able to get the little tornado into the shower and wash her hair and get her a bit more comfortable. The picture here is of her that morning. My thoughts these last days have certainly been about her often. It seems impossible that a year has already past. I would be leaving for Poland on the 28th, so it is a couple days sooner, but this time I will be there for three weeks.

As I have lived through another calendar year, the reality of losing someone who affected me so significantly almost a year ago has really struck the core of my being in a profoundly different way. Seldom does an entire week go by that somehow, somewhere, some way my thoughts are not focused upon this strong, vibrant, and determined little two-digit-midget, as I called her. The loss of her stunning blue eyes, her infectious smile, and her strong Austrian accent are all things that  miss seeing, hearing, or experiencing. And she was an experience. Her interest in things economic and the world in general never ceased to astound those who knew her. Even for some time after she was living at COH, she watched for the mail like a hawk waiting for her Wall Street Journal (WSJ). She read the complete journal article by article and she had such disdain for those who did not care to understand such things. I remember her telling me a couple years before the 2009 economic meltdown that it was coming. She was so brilliant about such things.

I have heard her classes were very difficult, but she certainly knew her subject matter. Shortly after I started living next to her, she asked to see how I had my WPS pension invested. When I told her what I had done she said I was too conservative. She then performed a 10 year analysis on my pension, finding that the difference between a fixed account, which is what I had, and have, had performed amazingly close to what she had. She was satisfied, but only after she had done her due diligence. Of course, if you knew Lydia, even a slight bit, none of this would surprise you. She was careful and thoughtful about most things. This is not to say she could not be a bit stubborn about things. She certainly had an opinion about most anything. Well, perhaps that is a bit far-reaching. If it was worth her notice, and certainly some things were not, she probably had an opinion. Usually things that did not interest her she would note, albeit rather curtly and in her distinct Austrian accent, “that is just stupid”. I would have loved to take a class from her because she would have forced me to think. There is a rather successful business person in Menomonie who told me more than once. I had her for two economics classes and I got Ds in both of them.

Even now, there are moments I find it difficult to comprehend, nay, perhaps accept that she is actually no longer there in Menomonie. I wonder at times if it is because she seemed almost larger than life or if it is because I am, and was, in Pennsylvania when she passed? I was actually in Kraków, where I will be later today. I remember earlier that day praying in the church of Pope John Paul II that George might convince her to let go. That was New Year’s Eve day. Even now, a year later, I also have to say a most sincere thank you to the Langtons for coming in from North Carolina to be with her. Then there are all the amazing caregivers who cared for Lydia in the 4 years she lived at Comforts of Home. She changed so much in that time. While she was no longer safe in her home, she was quite an amazing person and still very independent when she came to live in a north Menomonie. She took care of the plants, she helped set the tables, and she was less than pleased when I would cook because I was not sitting next to her. She knew what she wanted and why she wanted it. I remember the first Memorial Day  I did a cookout for everyone. The residents and staff were ecstatic, save one person. She thought it was “okay” as she gave a look of nonchalance and waved her hand as if to say, “Do not think of yourself too highly, Michael.”

To this day I regret that I was not there that last day, but only God knows (and I mean that literally) how long she would have hung on had I stayed. To the last person, we are sure she did not want to put me through seeing her pass. I still feel in my heart that she became and was the mother who did as much for me as my grandmother did when she served as my mother when I was a small boy.  I have in my blogs compared them before. They were both independent; they had both lost their husbands before they were ready to do so; they were both elegant and had a beauty that endured throughout their days. They both had incredibly kind and giving hearts. When I think of either one of them I am profoundly aware of both how loved and how blessed I was, and still am, by their presence in my life. In terms of time, it has been 38 years since my Grandma Louise left this world. For Lydia, I cannot seem to come to grips with the reality of an entire year within the week. What I know is her loss has affected me more significantly than any other loss in my life. Is it because I too am older? Is it because I am still realizing how influential she was and how loved I was?

A year ago I was praying you would let go, only because I wanted you to leave a life that was little more than mere existence. A year later it is me struggling to let go. I cannot seem to finish everything or anything I need to do  (and that seems to be across the board). Too often I seem stuck in a haze of my own existence, but an existence missing its heart. You found your way into my heart, Lydia. You made life worth doing in ways I did not know before. You were my mother, my family. As I write this I am struggling to see the screen through the tears that have welled up in my eyes and now trace their paths down my cheeks. It is not the first time this has happened, and it will probably not be the last. I remember last Spring in class I cried more than once in class. My image as a hard-ass professor was pretty well blown.

I remember writing last year at this time you are my guardian angel and I would try to not make your job too difficult. As you know, once again, I am in George’s country; you also know that I wrote a sabbatical proposal to work on the historical fictional novel I promised I would write. I am hoping that proposal is approved. We’ll see what happens. As I approach the first anniversary of your passing, ironically I am in the same place I was a year ago. I remember lying in bed and sobbing, sobbing that you were released from the shell of the phenomenal woman you had once been; sobbing because of the hurt from the profound loss I was experiencing. Sobbing because I was not with you. As I am preparing to land in Kraków I have been up for about 36 hours and I am tired, but I am thinking of you, remembering with both joy for the amazing life you lived and how I was blessed that you loved me so much, and a sadness that I am writing about your memory, about your beautiful eyes, the radiance of your smile and that amazing accent calling my name. What I wouldn’t give to see and hear you again. What I wouldn’t give to have one of the caregivers, usually Leighann, calling to tell me you wanted to talk to me. What I wouldn’t give to have Carissa sending me another picture of you and her. I love you still and forever.

Michael