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A Year in Poland

Editor’s Note: Ashby Bland Crowder, M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Professor of English, American Literature, and the Humanities and a member of the Hendrix faculty since 1974, spent the 2005-2006 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar teaching American Literature at the University of Lodz in Poland.

By Ashby Bland Crowder

When my wife Lynn and I arrived in Poland in early September of 2005, it was almost as warm as Arkansas—and the days much longer. But how things changed in the next few months. Poland’s latitude substantially dispenses with daylight by mid-December; at 3:30 in the afternoon (so-called) it was as dark as the inside of a cow. It is hard to say when full-daylight emerged in the winter morning because the ubiquitous coal-burning stoves set a haze that made the whole day crepuscular. Once June came round, there was almost no darkness. It did not get quite all the way dark at night, and by 4 a.m. the sun, blazing in one’s curtainless bedroom window, urged one’s face to the ruelle in the hope of just one more hour’s sleep. Winter was very much better for sleeping. Time in Poland is as out of joint as Hamlet says it was in Denmark.

For about fifty percent of my year in Poland I was, in effect, deaf, dumb, and illiterate. The Polish language to me was a cacophany of meaningless noises, I was unable to say words that people could understand, and everywhere I saw signs, newspapers, schedules, and menus that I could not read. I did not advance much beyond “dzien dobry” (hello) and “do widzenia” (good bye) in the extremely difficult Polish language.

You might think this a terrible fix to find myself in, but not so. I rather entered into a fresh relationship with my surroundings: I became hyper-visually orientated. I became an inveterate gawker at everything--the carved fox coming round the tree on the facade of Leopold Kindermann’s art nouveau villa; the carved statues of mill-workers standing right there with the Greek gods atop Palac Poznanski (which was the residence of the owner of the next-door and now closed weaving and spinning factory, one of the largest in nineteenth-century Lodz); the evening silhouette of the Julian Tuwim park-bench statue and the long shadow it cast down ulica Piotrkowska; and the peeling stucco of the secondary streets, the brick exposed like raw flesh, the city and the people too poor to heal these sick buildings.

Observation of people and other creatures is another aspect of my experience as an illiterate. In Park Staroczieiski one morning in early spring I saw two young women greet each other with the traditional Polish cheek-kisses; then they put their bags down on the park bench and ran off on their morning jog around the park together. In what American city of 850,000, I wondered, would two women leave their belongings unattended on a park bench? As I walked on I cast my eyes back on a gathering of casual teen-agers near the bench, but they seemed no threat to the girls’ belongings.

Read the full account of Dr. Crowder's time in Poland:

Snow transforms the landscape
Except for a few pigeons, communists long gone
The small wounds of poverty
Progress also brings loss
No time to stop for death
Holocaust horrors penetrate language barrier
English creeps into Polish vernacular

Plus, check out Dr. Crowder's Poland Fun Facts.