Adventures in Europe, Chapter 22: Sliding Under a Big Bridge

Throughout my life, there have been several recurring themes in my dreams.

I’m not talking about the one where I become despotic ruler of the earth and crush dissent in my iron fist; that’s really more of an ambition than a dream. I also don’t mean the one where I suddenly realize to my horror that I have been enrolled in some university all year but I totally forgot about it and don’t know my class schedule, and I’ve only just become aware that today is finals day and I can’t even find any of the classrooms…which, annoying as it is, is pretty much a run-of-the-mill stress dream. Any of you who don’t have that dream, be happy.

Nor do I mean the one where I see myself standing in sort of sun-god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at me–that’s actually Val Kilmer, not me.

The dream that I have is about a bridge. And really, in some ways, I think it might be this bridge.

You can, if you want, click on the pic for a much, much bigger version (nearly four thousand pixels wide!).

This is a hand-stitched panorama of the Østbroen Bridge, or the Great Belt Bridge, in Denmark, which we passed beneath (by inches) on the way from Gdańsk to Oslo. I put it together in Photoshop from a half-dozen pics I took by setting my camera on a rail on the front of the ship and holding the shutter down while I rotated the camera by hand, on account of ’cause I don’t have a modern DSLR capable of doing panoramic shots by the power of Science and elfin magic.

Which, as a side note, if anyone out there wants to contribute to me getting a better digital camera than my first-generation EOS digital, I’d be most appreciative.

My dreams have often been illed with impossible bridges. In some versions of the dream, I’m on a flat, two-lane bridge, completely lacking guardrails, that extends five or six hundred miles into the water and then slowly dips below the waves, leaving me stranded without enough room to turn around and go back the way I came.

In others, the bridge is more like this one, only in the center it starts to rise more and more steeply until finally I have to stop the car, get out, and climb. There’s usually a narrow catwalk, or sometimes just a tightrope, that makes up the center of the bridge; I walk across it, climb back down on the other side, and somehow my car is waiting for me to get in and finish the drive.

In yet other versions, it’s a long, high suspension bridge that ends on the far side on the roof of a skyscraper or other tall building. I drive across, and then find myself on the roof, with no way to get off the building onto the street below.

So when I saw this bridge, which is impossibly long (it’s apparently the largest bridge outside Asia and the third largest in the world, or so the ship’s captain said), it felt kind of like a weird homecoming. In, y’know, my head. When I’m asleep. But only sometimes, and not during the times when I’m Val Kilmer and it’s the thing with the pickles.

We passed beneath it with, as I mentioned, only inches to spare. I really wanted a photo of that, but my camera battery chose that precise moment to die, which I thought was absolute dog’s bollocks, but there it is.

I particularly like the windmills on one end, and the way it touches down on a little spit of land and then promptly dives into an underground tunnel and disappears on the other, which you can’t quite see in this panorama.

I have no idea what this bridge means, nor why it’s been a central fixture in my dreams for so many years. I have noticed that I haven’t dreamt about it since we passed beneath the Østbroen Bridge, for reasons that entirely escape your humble scribe.

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 21: Up, up, up, up, up, up, and away!

Just a stone’s throw from the torture chamber and amber museum in Gdańsk is the Church of St. Mary, the largest brick Gothic church in the world.

I’m sure their geometric proximity vis-à-vis hurled rocks is probably no accident, as churches and stones seem to go together like whiskey and hunting. It is, even by the scale of St. Petersburg religious edifices, altogether a grand structure, towering hundreds of feet over the faux Old Town like Godzilla over a small Japanese seaport on Tokyo Bay.

I couldn’t get a decent picture of the church proper, as it’s crowded so closely by neighboring buildings that the only way to do it seems to be helicopter, so I grabbed this one from Wikimedia Commons.

I will admit, when we arrived in Gdańsk I didn’t expect to find myself looking down at the spires rather than up at the spires.

The church started out as Lutheran and then eventually went Catholic, in a reverse of the normal order of things ’round the Baltic. I’ve never been quite sure about all the doctrinal differences ‘twixt the two, except that Catholics follow the Pope and Lutherans follow Lex Luthor, the archvillain who nailed a list of ninety-five complaints to the door of the Fortress of Solitude, protesting among other things the sale of indulgences, the role of confession in the forgiveness of sin, and the prescription-only status of Rogaine.

As a currently Catholic church, St. Mary’s lacks some of the more exuberant display of not-idols-no-really that many of the other churches in Eastern Europe boast. It is nevertheless still quite a magnificent structure, its soaring white interior carefully calculated to produce a maximum sense of shock and awe in the psyche of an illiterate serf.

There are a few not-idols available for the faithful to not-worship, but for the most part it’s all towering arches and huge naves and such.

This church has seating for 25,000 worshippers inside. Yep, you read that right. That’s three zeros after the comma, meaning the Blessed Mother can still kick some ecclesiastical ass and show those so-called “megachurches” in Texas how it’s done, yo.

The Church of St. Mary was, once upon a time, home to a large number of artistic treasures. That was before the Thirteen Years’ War, the War of 1569, the Prussian War, World War I, World War II, and the Soviet occupation. It’s been looted by a Who’s Who of historical world superpowers: the Teutons, the Prussians, the Nazis, the Red Army, you name it, all of whom have pretty much treated it like a drunk eighteen-year-old girl backstage at a hair metal concert.

It does still have a few treasures that haven’t been carried off or melted down, though, like this bit of sculpture,

I don’t know what it’s actually called, but I mentally dubbed it “Jesus Does a Facepalm.”

It’s also home to this enormous two-story-tall astrological clock:

This thing tracks the astrological constellations and about eleven thousand and two important dates in the lives of the hundreds and hundreds of sacred figures of Catholic monotheistic tradition, and–get this–it even has clockwork saints who chase each other around the top of it like Punch and Judy after a free and vigorous exchange of ideas over the issue of whether or not the essence of the Trinity can be divined wholly by the carnal senses without the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.

Some believers claim that the world will end in 2012, when this astrological clock finally winds down. Others await the triumphal coming of the Great Savior, who with the Golden Winding Key of the Epoch will once again set the clock into motion and usher in a new Golden Age under the Sun of Precious Stones, once thought by the Aztecs to have been destroyed by jaguars but now known to have been under the couch with the TV remote this whole time.

Near the entryway to the church, a guy was sitting behind a card table with a sign in English advertising climbs up the tower for five zloty, which is something like a buck fifty or so. Behind him was a narrow wood door with a small flight of stone steps leading up.

My sister and I opted for the climb. Now, what I expected for my buck fifty (or, more accurately, for my sister’s buck fifty) was a climb up one of the turrets to a place where we could look out a window or something. What I actually got was an episode of television’s Fear Factory, only with 70% less First World obsessive-compulsive concern over safety and avoiding gross bodily harm.

The steps start out deceptively, sort of like giant alien killer robots do.

They go up straight for a distance, then turn into a spiral nightmare where each step may be narrower than your foot, but at least it’s about three feet high.

But, as with giant alien killer robots, they’re more than meets the eye. I figured the spiral bit would go up for a while and come out into a room where we could look out the windows and say “Oooh!” and “Aah!”. Then again, I also figured that Sarah Palin would have gone away by now, so that shows what I know.

The main vault of the church got bombed out in WWII, and has never been restored. Instead, they just kinda stuck a big concrete stairway around the inside of the shell and called it good.

What the photo on the left fails to convey, aside from the stark raving terror of this place, is the darkness. That’s somewhere around a ten-second exposure you’re seeing there.

Imagine climbing up a dozen stories on a crude concrete stairway in near-pitch-blackness, and you’ll start to get the general idea. Now picture that while being chased by giant killer robots from space and you’ll have the plot, or what passes for the plot, of a Michael Bay movie…but I digress.

The stairway did not lead out into a room where we could look out the windows and go “Oooh!” and “Aah!” Instead, it led outside, onto a three-foot by four-foot metal platform bolted to the very top of the church. They hacked a hole in the roof and put a doorway there, with a few metal steps leading up to the platform. All in all, there were 406 steps, not including the five metal steps up to the platform.

A guy was sitting on a folding chair on the platform, reading a book. For five more zloty, you could borrow the binoculars he had hanging around his neck.

Not that you needed them. The view was amazing–enough to make the scary climb up hundreds of steps in near-total darkness and the giant alien killer robots totally worth it.

When I said I didn’t expect to end up looking down at the church’s spires rather than up at them, I meant that literally.

Gdańsk is one of those towns that always made me pull my hair out whenever I worked on the Saudi version of the Royal Caribbean cruise catalog; it has a lot of churches. All of which are probably bigger than a Texas megachurch, and most of which look downright tiny when looked down on from up atop St. Mary’s.

Each corner of the topmost section of the church is protected by a lightning rod, and each lightning rod has a small metal flag embossed with a year (possibly important years in the church’s history, perhaps?).

Now, personally, I’ve always thought that putting a lightning rod on a church is a profound vote of no confidence in the divine power and mercy of the Lord, myself.

The lightning rods atop St. Mary’s feed into thick cables that serve double duty in helping prevent hapless tourists from plummeting to an unfortunate death many stories below upon the storied streets of Gdańsk, which is perhaps a dubious double duty were it not for the fact that, presumably, they don’t let people up here in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The gentleman with the book and the binoculars mostly ignored us while we took in the sights and mostly tried not to think about the 406 steps, not including the five metal steps up to the platform, that loomed in our future.

The trip down was, if anything, even scarier than the trip up, in no small measure because on the way down you can sort of see, dimly, the vast distances that one could travel feet over teacups if one were to make a misstep. My sister has a mild phobia of stairs as it is, so yeah. Terrifying up, twice as terrifying down.

About midway down, I paused to take a picture of a bell.

It’s a big bell, just kind of hanging there, with no way to ring it or anything; mostly, I photographed it to distract myself from the horrifying fear of imminent and sudden death.

We eventually made it down, and left through a different door than the one we entered through. We came out near this…this… Well, I’m not really sure what it is.

It looks kind of like a fountain, sort of, only there’s no water, which might in its own way be a fitting icon of religion in general. The women clustered around it are obviously pious; you can tell by the generally unhappy expressions that you always see in carvings of the pious people. In the annals of religious tradition, the intersection of “pious people” and “happy people” is almost always a null set, which may have been what inspired Friedrich Nietzsche, himself a profoundly unhappy person, it seems (but in an entirely impious way) to observe “The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”

There’s a statue behind the notafountain fountain thing, of some dude carrying a child. Don’t blink! Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck!

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 20: It’s a small world after all…

Gdańsk is known mostly for its amber and torture chambers. It’s also known for being a cosmic billiard ball in the great international game of pool, with various nation-states and empires and suchlike seeking control of it for various reasons. It’s changed hands more often than a counterfeit dollar bill in a brothel in Saudi Arabia, and has even at various times been a “free and independent city-state under the control of Poland,” whatever the hell that means. It sounds to me like the political equivalent of house arrest, but my grasp of Polish history is, sadly, insufficient to reach the finer points of you’re-independent-but-not-reallydom.

Just beyond the torture chamber and amber museum lies the Gdańsk Old Town, which is prettier but a lot less interesting than Tallinn’s Old Town district.

The Old Town streets are wide, spacious, and straight, which immediately makes anyone who’s ever been to any ancient city suspicious, and rightly so. If there are three things that any legitimately old city’s streets are not, they are wide, spacious, and straight.

The suspicions were confirmed when we ventured down that suspiciously wide, spacious, and straight street.

For an ancient Medieval city that traces its roots back to around 900 AD or so, those buildings look awfully clean and bright. I went around behind them–on a route that took me down along the canal district–and sure enough, from the rear those lovely buildings are unpainted, new, and mostly vacant. The whole thing is about like Disney’s Main Street USA, only with fewer rodents of the dancing variety and more of the Black-Death-carrying variety.

In my trek down the canal district, I found this place advertising “In Our Shop Happy Day Half Price.”

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in his seminal opus “Pulp Fiction,” and with a tip o’ the hat to zaiah: “Engrish, motherfucker! Do you speak it?”

There’s really only one part of the Gdańsk old town that seems genuinely old, the rest having been blown to Hell and gone in the War of 1308, the Thirteen Years’ War, the War of 1569, the Prussian War, World War I, World War II, and the Soviet occupation, and that’s the town hall.

Which, as town halls go, is pretty cool.

I don’t quite understand the over/under door, but it’d be a cool theme for a BDSM play space. Doms in the top door, subs in the bottom door, perhaps?

When I rule the earth with my iron fist, my secret lair will have a double-decker arrangement like this. Each door will be guarded by a sentry. One door will lead to the main control center of my lair, and the other to Certain Doom. One sentry will always lie, and the other will always tell the–

Oh, who am I kidding? Both doors will lead to Certain Doom. The actual entrance will be via a long secret tunnel, which comes up in the back storeroom closet of a nondescript Motel 6 a few miles down the road.

Like most town halls, the town hall in Gdańsk features a clock. Or, really, an exuberance of clocks. That’s not the cool part, though. The cool part is that the Gdańsk town hall, unlike lesser town halls in certain OTHER ancient Eastern European cities, is proof against the vagaries of the Clock Keepers and Tinkerers Union, well-known throughout history for holding many a town clock-tower hostage until their unreasoned demands are met. We modern folks with our wearable chronographs and digital time-keeping instruments that sometimes double as miraculous distance-speaking box and scrying oracle sometimes forget how it used to be, but in ancient times, he who controlled the clock in the tower controlled the universe. Without accurate timekeeping, early peasants had no way to know when it was Planting Time, Hymn-Singing Time, Witch-Stoning Time, Running From the Tax Collector Time, or Bending Over to Get Reamed By The Nobles Again Time.

That’s why the architects of Gdansk saw fit to include…

…a motherfucking sundial. On the side of the building. How freaking cool is that?

My secret lair will definitely include a sundial. With lasers or something.

(Footnote: In the interests of full disclosure, I was totally joking about Medieval serfs not knowing what time it was without a clock, by the way. Every time was Bending Over to Get Reamed By The Nobles Again time.)

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 19: Torture and amber, living in perfect harm-oh-NEE!

Gdańsk, Poland, is one part working city and one part tourist city. As a tourist city, though, it lacks any obvious draw that other tourist cities have. Orlando, Florida has awesome weather and Disney World. Cozumel, Mexico, has awesome weather and Mayan ruins. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Niagara Falls, Ontario has…well, you know.

Gdańsk has industrial decay, a frightening history, and fossilized tree resin.

If the key to success is in making the best of what you’ve got, Gdańsk is brilliantly successful. They have, in fact, built their entire tourist trade, as near as I can tell, out of their frightening history and fossilized tree resin.

Shortly beyond the bronze statue of the dude trampling a cannon while holding a long, hard staff with a knob at the end, we located some street signs in English, always a good sign when you’re looking for a tourist attraction. The signs advertised the Torture Chamber and Amber Museum.

Now, I have often seen a torture chamber without an amber museum, and I have even once or twice seen an amber museum without a torture chamber, so I can be forgiven, I think, for not realizing that these two things naturally belong together.

The Poles are, unquestionably, historical leaders in the fields of both torture and amber, so if they say that a torture chamber and an amber museum belong together, I’m inclined to believe them. In fact, when the dungeon here at home is finally finished, I think it may be necessary to include a display of amber of some kind, or perhaps to put someone named Amber on display in it.

I find it interesting that in Polish, “torture chamber” appears to be one word. Score one for linguistic efficiency!

On any vacation, you really can’t get enough torture chambers for my entertainment dollar, so the offer of a torture chamber and an amber museum was too good to pass up. We headed off in the indicated direction, and soon found the promised torture chamber.

The archway, through which Im sure many a soul was dragged kicking and screaming, marks the entrance to both the torture chamber and to the Old Town district of Gdańsk. I’m not entirely convinced their spacial proximity is completely by accident.

We tried to hit up the torture chamber first, but it was closed until later in the afternoon. The courtyard seemed designed for maximum oppressive effect:

I like a thoughtful, carefully-designed torture chamber, myself. One that shows the designers were really focused on detail. It shows a level of commitment to the craft that’s becoming more and more rare in our modern era. Today, the CIA might torture a suspected insurgent in an abandoned warehouse in Cairo, but back in the day, the people of Gdańsk paid a great deal of attention to the artistry of interrogation.

Little touches, like these iron shackles attached to a bar in the courtyard, count for a lot in a torture chamber.

I especially like that the shackles can slide along the iron bar, giving the person chained here the illusion that freedom might be at hand. I might just lift this idea for my own dungeon, once the remodeling is complete.

And what torture chamber can really be said to be complete without an oubliette?

Some folks might say that using both an iron grate over the shaft leading down into the oubliette AND a heavy oak door that can be barred shut is overkill, but I think it shows commitment. This detail-focused, spare-no-expense approach to torture chamber architecture is something we could all learn from.

While we waited for the torture chamber to open, a couple of guys tried, in broken English, to rent us a golf cart. I’m not quite sure what the idea behind that was, nor why they felt that a golf cart was what we needed to make our day complete, though I’m sure that successfully renting it to us might’ve helped to make their day complete. Perhaps that’s all there was to it.

When the torture chamber did finally open to the general public–which is a statistically improbable phrase if ever there was one–we climbed a narrow, steep flight of steps up the tower into the amber museum. The narrow, steep flight of steps turned out to be something of a theme in Gdańsk, about more of which I will write later.

Gdańsk is, or so it’s claimed, one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of Baltic amber. And they make the most amazing things from it.

By “amazing,” I actually mean “creepy.”

The guy in the lamp on the left looks like he came from a Roger Zelazny book by way of a World of Warcraft boss in Icecrown Citadel.

I’m not actually sure the thing on the right is really a sculpture. It looks more like a homage to our new insectile space alien overlords, with the digital counter in the background counting down the days until they arrive to sweep the world clean of the unworthy and elevate the worthy to new heights of wickedness, or perhaps plant their eggs within the bodies of the unwary, or something. I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject of alien invasion, but my study of Hollywood movies has led me to believe that those are generally what one can expect after the arrival of insectile alien overlords.

The insectile theme is a popular one with the amber artisans of Gdańsk. According to various display signs posted throughout the torture chamber, the early Polish apothecaries believed amber to be infused with all sorts of magical properties, which careful research and the application of various potions to the raw essence of amber could bring out.

I actually suspect, looking at this thing, that it’s no accident amber and torture are so intimately entwined in the annals of Polish lore. It is my belief that the prisoners brought to this place were made, under the exhortation of scourge and chain, to craft small sculptures like this very one. Then, by the application of the alchemical processes, these sculptures would be brought to a kind of hideous life, whereupon they would be applied to the bare flesh of the condemned, to feast upon it in a ritual of agony until the prisoner broke and revealed all he knew. It was thought that by crafting the instrument of his own affliction, the prisoner could more readily be brought to reason, where “reason” was loosely defined as “saying whatever we want him to say.”

These apothecaries of amber are now all long gone, and the unholy secrets they coaxed from the brittle tree resin have gone with them.

Some believe, though, that they have not departed forever, but have merely perfected their dark arts to such an extent that they were able to preserve themselves perfectly within sarcophagi of mystically-charged amber, and so sleep a dreamless slumber, awaiting the day when they may return to welcome the arrival of our new insectile overlords, brought to us not from the stars but from the cunning craft of amber and metals, our destinies wrought with our own hands.

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 18: Gdańsk? Train? No, train! Train? Yes!

Back in the days when I used to work in pre-press professionally, there was one job I used to do every year that’d consume a month or two of my life, which was the cruise catalog for Royal Caribbean. The catalog was gorgeously produced–printed in CMYK plus two spot colors plus two metallic colors, with hundreds of pictures (all massively retouched).

The text for the catalog was printed separately from the rest of the catalog, so that they could print up a bunch of them and then decide how many to produce in each of the dozen or so languages they’re available in. US English, UK English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic…

The Arabic versions were the trickiest.

For the Arabic version, Royal Caribbean would run the book through the press again and print black squares over anything that the Middle Easterners would find upsetting. It was my job to go through every photo in the catalog and put little black squares over every building or object that represented any non-Muslim religion–church steeples, crosses, you name it. I also was required to draw a black outline over any woman shown in any photograph and fill her in as a solid black silhouette, and to black out any part of any picture that showed an alcoholic beverage or any form of gambling.

Now, there are a LOT of churches in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

After Tallinn, our next port of call was Poland, which seems, in the overall scope of history, to be a largely fictional country. We dropped anchor in the town of Gdynia, adjacent to Gdańsk in Gdańsk Bay and apparently the only port that could accommodate a hotel of our size.

This is the skyline of Gdynia, as seen from the port.

And here is the skyline as it would appear in the Arabic version of the Royal Caribbean cruise catalog.

There’s a lot of non-Muslim stuff in the world, and it seems there are folks for whom that’s most definitely not OK. I have great confidence, though, that right here in the US, Christian groups are working hard to become just as easily offended and sensitive as Saudi Arabia, and so to close the Sensitivity Gap that exists between our nations.

Gdynia is both a working town and a military port. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Poland has a military?” I thought the same thing myself. Like, when did that happen? Does the rest of the world know? Is it made of Legos?

As we were making harbor at Gdynia, I saw at least a dozen military ships, including destroyers (who uses those any more?), transports, and even a missile launcher.

Now, just one first-world aircraft carrier and its battle group could probably wipe out Poland’s navy in about…oh, fifteen minutes or so, but hey, if 1942 ever invades them, by golly, they’ll be ready!

The port of Gdynia offers the casual tourist much more of what we all have come to expect of Eastern Europe than most of the rest of Eastern Europe does: big machinery clawing its way over twisted scrap metal, surrounded by the ruins of civilization. There’s actually a scrapyard right there in the port!

And I love these cranes. Big industrial equipment is beautiful. I can just picture these things rising from their moorings and rampaging across the countryside, destroying all fleshy life in their path with their swinging steel balls. I know which side I’ll be on when the Rise fo the machines comes to pass…

We actually wanted to visit the town of Gdańsk, which is about 40 minutes by taxi or train from Gdynia. A line of taxis waited at the port, but none of the cab drivers actually spoke English, which led to an amusing misunderstanding that could easily have been taken straight from an episode of Friends:

Father: We want to go to the train station to take a train to Gdańsk.
Cabbie: Train? Gdańsk?
Father: Yes. We want to take the train to Gdańsk.
Cabbie: Oh! You want to go to Gdańsk! Okay.
Father: Yes. We want to take a train to Gdańsk.
Cabbie: Okay. Gdańsk.
Father: Train.
Sister: Train.
Cabbie: Gdańsk?
Father: Yes.
Sister: No.
Cabbie: Gdańsk?
Father: Yes.
Sister: No.
Cabbie: Gdańsk?
Father: Yes. We want to take a train to Gdańsk.
Sister: Train. Gdańsk.
Cabbie: Oh! You want to go to Gdańsk! Okay.
Sister: Take us to the train station.
Cabbie: Train station! Gdańsk! Okay.

The astute reader can probably figure out what happened next. It came as a bit of a surprise to the rest of my family, though.

He did exactly as he’d been told, or at least exactly as he thought he’d been told, which was to take us to the train station in Gdańsk. The trip itself, through the suburbs of Gdynia and the surrounding countryside was (I though) a lot of fun and (my father thought) was absolutely terrifying. Polish cabbies have, it seems, only an abstract and theoretical grasp of the traffic laws, and indeed of universal laws of physics, which worked out to our advantage, as he was able to hurtle through time and space at least twelve times faster than any reasonable person might have thought prudent, or even possible, for that matter.

Later, my father would say that he’d never been so terrified in all his life. Now, me, I’ve had scarier experiences in bed, and I’ll be talking about those later, when I get to the France portion of this travelogue…but I digress.

The train station in Gdańsk is quite lovely.

There were, however, no people anywhere about who spoke English. It was quite uncanny; you’d almost think we were in a foreign country or something. This caused no small amount of consternation when it came to mapping a route to explore the city, though we were eventually able to muddle it through by resorting to the “find something that looks interesting and head in that direction” technique.

Gdańsk was blanketed in movie posters for The Last Airbender:

I wonder if the movie sucks any less in Polish.

I have often heard that travel to foreign lands is a great way to learn about the various traditions and customs that differ from those in one’s homeland. Travel, they say, broadens the mind.

Take commerce, for example. Now, if you’re going to engage in commerce, there are certain tools that you need for the job. Cash registers are useful, for instance. If you want to zap documents around instantly, as if by magic, a fax machine is good to have.

But within these common necessities lie significant cultural differences. Whereas an American office might have a neon “Open” sign or a portable PIN reader for debit cards, businesses in Poland, apparently, might find it useful to have a weasel or a badger on the counter. And fear not! You can, it would seem, get these things at any office supply store in Gdańsk.

I hear you can get the badgers with BlueTooth.

On our way toward the Old Town district of Gdańsk, about which I shall write more later, we passed this statue:

It shows a man astride a horse, which represents Truth and Reason, trampling a cannon, which represents Darkness and Ignorance, while in his hand he holds a scepter with a knob on the end of it, which represents…

No. I can’t. I just can’t. I mean, c’mon. It has a knob on the end of it!

One of the more interesting things about Gdańsk is its British influences, most likely the result of its close cultural ties with the United Kingdom. Why, you can even see it in the graffiti!

Not very many people know the central role that Poland played in the Gunpowder Plot. When Guy Fawkes decided that blowing hundreds of people sky-high with a gigantic bomb in remembrance of God’s Divine Mercy was a legitimate form of religious expression–an idea he wasn’t the first to conceive, and which remains in considerable vogue among people of all stripes today–he first traveled to Poland, where he attempted to buy enriched uranium from a shadowy Iranian figure whose name is not recorded in the annals of history.

When this attempt failed, thanks to the meddling of a bunch of teenagers and a dog in a van, he was forced as a last resort to use gunpowder, which he ordered in bulk from several mail-order houses under an assumed name. This proved his undoing, as we all well know, as the invoices were provided to His Majesty King James the Psychotic Bastard by the houses in question.

Nevertheless, to this very day, Poland’s support of Guy Fawkes’ noble services to the Catholic church is still remembered, which is why when the time came to choose a new Pope in 1978, the Catholic College of Cardinals finally saw fit to recognize Poland’s service, failed though it was, by elevating one of her citizens to Pontiff.

Or, er, something like that.

And speaking of the Catholic Church in Rome, we walked by a cathedral with this rather magnificent door in downtown Gdańsk.

Most people know that the Catholic Church is actually comprised of several different, but affiliated, branches of religious orthodoxy. The two best-known of these are the Latin Rite, which makes up most of the churches in the West, and the affiliated Eastern Catholic Churches, which make up many of the remainder in, naturally, the East.

This particular church belongs to the Congregation of the Han, whose sacred traditions extend back to 1977. Catholic churches belonging to this particular twig of knowledge on the Tree of Truth hold as sacred the Passion of Han Solo, which they believe parallels the passion of the Christ, especially as he was frozen in carbonite by the forces of evil and then, later, was resurrected to lead the people to grace. Churches in this tradition often construct the cathedral doors from solid carbonite, into which they place the bishop of the local synod and several assorted village children, in the hopes that one day they, too, will follow in the footsteps of Saint Solo.

A significant rift has occurred within the various churches of this tradition, following a new revelation in which, some say, Han Solo would never be the one to fire the first shot in any disagreement. This idea is branded as heresy by others among the pious, and it represents a thorny theological issue in which your humble scribe is reluctant to venture an opinion, lest I too be blown sky-high by a gigantic gunpowder bomb.

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 17: The Palace of Culture and Sport

On the way back from Old Town to the cruise ship, I got distracted, as I often do. Just before the Port And Livestock Ranch of Tallinn, about a block away from the ultramodern naked lady sculptures gracing the Tallink Spa and Conference Hotel, I found a wide, decaying flight of stairs climbing up to what looked like a cross between a stadium and a fallout shelter, combined with the post-apocalyptic future nightmare in that one scene from the future in Terminator 2, all in that peculiar type of concrete that seems to start crumbling about fifteen minutes after it’s poured. (As P. J. O’Rourke famously observed, “Commies love concrete, but they don’t know how to make it.”)

Urban decay is my Kryptonite. Well, that and redheaded lesbians. And bacon. And kittens. And goth girls. But urban decay is up there, definitely, and even though my feet were sore and the ship was due to leave soon, I could no more resist checking it out than I can eat just one potato chip. Mmm, potato chips.

From street level, it looks a bit like this.

The thing that you can’t tell from this picture, though, is the scale of the size of the bigness of it. It just keeps going and going, on and on, in huge terraces and steps rising far above the landscape and jutting a startling distance into the water.

Commies really, really love concrete.

Above the flight of stairs you see here is a second long landing, this one adorned with rows of steel posts painted in peeling cyan paint, with white balls on top–a sort of Communist tribute to tall, erect poles with knobs on top, all thrusting skyward to commemorate the victory of the working man over the bourgeois elite, or something like that.

In the background, the spire of the Old Town cathedral rises behind the chimney of an abandoned factory or rock-crushing plant or something that’s slowly crumbling away outside the wall.

This is what I wanted to see in Eastern Europe. Acres of gray concrete surrounding the disintegrating ruins of industrial buildings. You can’t get enough of that for my entertainment dollar.

The Plateau of the Rods and Knobs, which I had mentally taken to calling on it, continues to another level of stairs and another plateau rising ziggurat-like into the air:

The whole structure is filled with these cutouts that plunge into unexpected rows of doors. Standing at the front edge of the Plateau of Rods and Knobs, atop the stars rising from the street, one finds this:

I went down and tried all the doors (they were locked) and looked inside (it was dark). By this point in my tour of Tallinn, I had exhausted my camera’s first battery and the second was nearly spent as well, so I didn’t want to try to use the flash to get a picture of the gloom beyond the doors, for fear that I would not be able to chronicle the rest of this magnificent, exuberant tribute to Soviet-era concrete.

Proceding along toward the other end of the Plateau of Rods and Knobs, and whistling the Terry Pratchett song “A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End” to myself, I encountered another bank of these enigmatic doors.

Peering inside, through a second row of doors just within, I saw a faded round desk with the word “Information” above it in several languages. At least I believe it was the word “Information” in several languages; it may have said “Information” in English and “We welcome our stony, silicon-based space monster overlords” in Russian. At least if you can say all that in just one word in Russian. Which, for all I know, you can.

Beneath this row of doors, an unexpected stairwell plunges to a SECOND row of doors into the cavernous ziggurat.

The view from the weed-choked ground surrounding the Rods of the Soviet Worker with their Knobs of Triumph over the Bourgeoise is really striking.

Atop the next flight of steps runs a low concrete wall that has in the years since its erection been decorated with the most amazing graffiti. What’s most amazing about it to me is how graffiti everywhere in the world, even behind the rusted hulk of the former Iron Curtain, looks like it all belongs in New York City.

The structure continues out into the water, projecting toward the port like a great gray Stalinist finger of aquatic accusation at the imperious West.

Across from the wall with its Eastern European interpretation of thug-life gangsta art, the view gave a magnificent portrait of our cruise ship, the Star Princess, dwarfing a far lesser cruise ship from Germany.

When I got back home, I turned to Google Earth to try to get a sense of what this place was. There’s a great overhead shot of it, that shows the Spa and Convention Hotel just below and to the right, and the berthing for the cruise ships next to the flat grassland that kina sorta makes up the Port of Tallinn.

According to Wikipedia, the place is the Tallinn Linnahall, formerly the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, which was built in 1980 to host the Olympic yacht races and renamed some years later after everyone realized what a douchenozzle Lenin was.

I found another Web site that claimed this place was used as a venue for concerts as recently as two years ago. Nowadays, it’d be the perfect place to film movies about the space monster zombie apocalypse.

Apparently, the CEO of Estèe Lauder has been trying for some years to get financing to renovate this place and turn it into, I don’t know, a secret fortified lair or a home for anorexic runway models or a Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too or some such thing. There was talk about getting the US government to underwrite a loan to do the renovation, on the grounds that the United States has a strategic interest in Soviet-era concrete ziggurats or something, but apparently the government said “Umm, no,” and that was that.

Which is too bad. If I were an evil villain or the CEO of Estèe Lauder, I would totally make this place my lair. It even has a helipad on the end!

We interrupt this stream of travel-posts for a very important message

I don’t normally consider movie reviews as a form of public service bulletin, but in this particular case, I have to make an exception.

zaiah and I just went to see the movie “Skyline,” based only on its tailer on Apple’s Web site. The trailer promised spaceships and space monsters and global invasion and cool aerial dogfights and stuff, so we figured, how could we go wrong? Other than, y’know, Independence Day. But that’s neither here nor there.

Elsewhere in my journal, I have occasionally said bad things about other movies. I take them all back–and heap them on this one. Compared to this disaster, Independence Day is Faust. Hell, compared to this disaster, a badly-edited cell-phone recording of a bunch of grade school kids doing an impromptu production of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall in the back of a 1977 Chevy panel van on their way to Six Flags is Faust.

I literally can not remember the name of a single character in this movie.

There are spoilers below. You can skip them if you want to. I recommend that you read it anyway. I’m about to save you at least ten dollars.
Click for the Horror

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 16: First, press the Ancient Monument key…

Tallinn, as I said once before, is a city of contrast.

Now, I’m not dissing on all those other cities that come up when you do a Google search for “city of contrast.” I’m sure Scottsdale, Arizona, has lovely contrast. Why, I hear they have commercial buildings and residential buildings there!

But if you want some serious, mainline-quality, high-grade, industrial-strength contrast, Tallinn is the place to be.

As soon as we left the ship and made our way past the sheep, we found ourselves on one of Tallinn’s main streets. Following the road in one direction leads to the walled Old Town district, which its Medieval gateway and ancient town center. The other direction looks like this.

At the midway point on that road, right where the curious tourist comes out onto the main street from the port/sheep ranch/massage parlor, is the ultramodern Tallink Spa and Conference Hotel. It’s not “ultramodern” in that “nanotech and self-modifying metamaterials” sort of way, but in that stainless steel and brushed aluminum way that was popular, like, I dunno, ten years ago or something.

Why, yes, they are that magnificent, and thank you very much.

This is one thing I admire about Eastern Europe; they don’t have this weird and kind of freaky notion that the sight of a nipple will scar the brains of children for life, forever dooming them to a meager existence as a cackling, drooling pervert, trolling Chatroulette with an oversized trenchcoat with which to display undersized wares.

And ultramodern, stainless steel and brushed aluminum design brought with it, apparently, a knowledge of female anatomy entirely lacking in the day of Peter the Great, back when nobody had ever actually seen a human female up close.

The archway to the Old City is guarded by this place:

Unlike the Port of Tallinn Shack-o-Massage, this place actually did tempt me. I thought about it, really I did. In the end, two things stopped me: I am still not entirely sure that Eastern Europe is current with the hip new ideas regarding invisible things called “bacteria” and “viruses,” and I also wasn’t quite sure that Tallinn has the notion of money, as in things other than sheep or goats that you can exchange for goods and services.

The streets of Tallinn outside the wall look, and sound, pretty much like the streets anywhere else. Inside the wall, it’s a completely different world.

The first thing that really struck me in the Old Town part of Tallinn is how quiet it is. The thick stone walls are extraordinarily effective at blocking sound, so that the howling of the ice weasels and the clamoring of the barbarian hordes wouldn’t distract the ancient Guildmasters from the task of counting their money. (See? I kid, I do. I know Tallinn gets the concept of money. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they invented it.)

Stepping between the Old Town and the modern part of the city is jarring. Even the air feels different; the walls block the wind, so the Old Town has a stillness to it that’s quite peaceful and lovely.

There are cars in the Old Town area, but they’re few and far between, and when one drives by you become acutely aware of how noisy and clanky they are, in a way that you don’t when you’re surrounded by them all the time.

What you do hear in the Old Town is the sound of people. People talking, people laughing, people calling out to other people. Cities like New York and Chicago have a lot of people, but the human noises are, day and night, almost entirely drowned out by the noise of traffic and machinery. In Tallinn, you are aware of the presence of human beings all around you. It’s a very interesting, and for me unusual, experience.

The Old Town district is home to an old cathedral that is to the exuberant, over-the-top excess of the Russian Orthodox houses of worship what Alanis Morisette is to Lady Gaga: they both do basically the same thing, but in such different ways you have to wonder if they came from the same planet.

The clock on the side of this church is made of wood. I think that’s pretty damn cool.

The inside is, when compared to the Church of Alexander II Was a Fucking Idiot, downright Spartan in its simplicity.

The door to the church is marked with this little round symbol. You see them all over parts of Eastern And Northern Europe; the symbol indicates a point of historical interest.

If it looks familiar to some of the folks reading this, it should. You know who you are.

It’s the same symbol Apple uses on the Command key for their keyboards. And that’s intentional; Apple actually copied the Command key symbol from this very marker. Which is also kind of cool. (According to Wikipedia, some Swedish Mac users refer to the Command key as the “Fornminne,” or Ancient Monument, key. Now, normally, I personally don’t trust Wikipedia to tell me the sky is blue, and this story sounds highly apocryphal to me, but it’s a fun tale anyway.)

But I digress.

The cathedral is just a stone’s throw from the town center, which I’m sure is no coincidence. Given the shackles adorning the pillars around the town hall, I have no doubt but that the folks who attended services here could, on a fair and sunny Sunday afternoon, get a bit of exercise and indulge in a little sport by flinging rocks and other small, dense objects at the faithless unbelievers shackled to the town center, in the interests of camaraderie and good spirit.

This is an ancient tradition almost entirely ruined by the invention of television; nowadays, folks would prefer to get their amusement by watching reruns of “Friends” on TV, and another custom falls by the wayside, neglected and ignored by the modern age.

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 15: The history of Estonia? But that would be Tallinn!

(With props to Marnen on Twitter for the title)

Prior to this trip, everything I knew abut Estonia I learned from reading Dilbert cartoons about the fictional land of Elbonia, which is generally described as being waist-deep in mud and overrun with weasels.

Elbonia is loosely modeled on Estonia, so that’s generally what I expected when we arrived: mud, weasels, and Eastern Bloc squalor. And maybe some funny hats. The Elbonians in Dilbert always wear funny hats.

I got none of those things. No mud, no weasels, and definitely ixnay on the ats-hay. Instead, what I found was one of the most interesting, beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, was the hilight of the cruise for me, even though we spent only one afternoon there.

To be fair, the visit started inauspiciously. The Port of Tallinn isn’t so much a “port” as it is “a desolate wasteland with sheep wandering around in it.” Actual, literal sheep.

Clumped together in the middle of this wasteland is a sprawling, ramshackle collection of little tents and huts, packed to the gills with people hawking all sorts of wares–kind of like a scene from a William Gibson novel or perhaps a low-budget, indie remake of Bladerunner. At the edge of all the stalls selling leather goods and little wooden boxes and sunglasses and small, inexpensive keepsakes of Eastern Europe, I spotted this place:

I was tempted, I must admit, but I battled with the temptations of the flesh, and…

Well, actually, I lied. I wasn’t tempted at all. Not even for a moment.

I kept going right past this shack and its really not very tempting offer, past the bored-looking guard at the gate to the port who was the closest thing we discovered to any sort of passport control, and out into the city itself. A few blocks from the port, we encountered the ancient stone wall guarding its center.

Tallinn is a city of contrast.

I know everyone who writes about traveling says that about some city or other at some point. A Google search for “city of contrast” gives you about 153,000 results. New York is a city of contrast. Scottsdale is a city of contrast. Anchorage is a city of contrast. Sacramento is a city of contrast. You know what? Those guys don’t know shit about contrast.

The heart of Tallinn is an ancient Medieval walled city full of narrow, winding roads. A modern glass and steel city has sprung up outside the wall, wrapping the Old Town in a busy hub of international commerce and high-tech development.

The streets of Tallinn are picturesque, like Stockholm is picturesque, but with at least 80% less essence “I loooooove my kidnapper” going on.

Commerce has long been the living, breathing heart of Tallinn. In the early middle ages, the city grew wealthy and powerful by trading textiles throughout the Baltic. A strong guild system developed here; at one time, each street in the town belonged to a different guild, and you had to be a member of the guild to work or live on that street. Guilds are a great idea when you have an illiterate population who can’t read instruction manuals or user guides.

The history of Tallinn is rich and turbulent, if by “rich and turbulent” one means “fucked up and weird.” If someone other than Michael Bay were to make a movie about Tallinn’s history, it would go something like this:

The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become wealthy and powerful trading furs and textiles to our neighbors.
(They become WEALTHY AND POWERFUL by trading FURS and TEXTILES to their NEIGHBORS)
Peter the Great: Ho there! Tallinn is wealthy and powerful. I shall conquer it!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Nuh-uh. You have a silly hat.
Peter the Great: Uh-huh! I have a huge naval armada!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Um… Okay, we’ve been conquered. Now what?
Peter the Great: I will buy furs and textiles from you.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Uh, right.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Listen, you know you could have done that without conquering us, right?
Peter the Great:
Peter the Great: What?
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Never mind. Look, we can work with this.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become more wealthy and powerful trading furs and textiles to Peter the Great!
Vladimir Lenin: I have deposed the Tsars and become Supreme Ruler of Russia!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Whatever. You want some furs and textiles?
Vladimir Lenin: I wish to destroy the bourgeois elite and the notion of private capital in favor of a centralized economy that will eliminate free enterprise and bankrupt all of Russia, and then set us down the path of a ruinous, decades-long conflict with the West that will result in to complete collapse of all of eastern Europe!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Wait, what?
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: You’re kidding, right? That’s your plan?
Vladimir Lenin: Ha ha ha! Yes, I am kidding.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Whew! Because we thought–
Vladimir Lenin: No, I’m serious. That’s what I’m going to do. I was kidding when I said “I am kidding.”
The Guildmasters of Tallinn:
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Listen, we’re going to secede from Russia now, okay?
Vladimir Lenin: Okay.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: We cool?
Vladimir Lenin: We’re cool.
Joseph Stalin: Watch, as I invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of my empire!
Adolf Hitler: You will not invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of your empire. I will invade Estonia and conquer Tallinn as part of my empire!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn:
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: Guys? Listen, about that–
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: OMG what is this I don’t even AAAAUGH!
Joseph Stalin: You are now part of my empire. Henceforth you will be known as Estonia SSR.
Joseph Stalin: I will destroy free enterprise and plunge you into poverty and set you on a ruinous, decades-long conflict with the West that will result in the complete collapse of Eastern Europe.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: What, that again? That’s a TERRIBLE plan!
Joseph Stalin: Wait, I’m not finished!
Joseph Stalin: I will also begin a disastrous experimentation in agriculture, based on pseudoscience and ideological orthodoxy, that will result in the deaths of tens of millions of my own citizens!
The Guildmasters of Tallinn:
Joseph Stalin: And then I will become paranoid and start murdering my most loyal supporters!
Joseph Stalin: Also, I will execute anyone who says that this is a terrible plan.
The Guildmasters of Tallinn: *headdesk*
(JOSEPH STALIN executes the GUILDMASTERS OF TALLINN and DESTROYS ESTONIA’S ECONOMY and sets out on a ruinous decades-long conflict with the West that BANKRUPTS all of EASTERN EUROPE)
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Man, this sucks.
(The Soviet Union COLLAPSES)
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: You guys suck.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Hey, European Union, can we join you? Because these guys suck.
The European Union: Your proposition intrigues us. We will hear your proposal. What do you have to offer us?
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Um…we have…
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: We have conferred amongst ourselves, and, err… We have mud.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: And also small, inexpensively-made objects which can be sold to tourists.
The European Union: Your offer is insufficient. If you wish to join our club, you must have something uniquely yours to contribute. The Germans make motor cars and Hummels, which are small, incredibly expensive objects that can be sold to tourists. The Italians make outrageously overpriced suits from gray yarn. The French are known worldwide for their elaborate weapons systems that don’t work and also for their bad attitudes. The Swiss make cuckoo clocks and enormous particle accelerators which create black holes that will doom us all. The British have blood sausage and desperation.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: We can design microchips and software for cell phones. Do you like cell phones?
The European Union: Let us confer amongst ourselves.
The European Union: We have conferred amongst ourselves, and we have decided that we like cell phones very much. We accept your proposal.
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Really? Cool!
The Former Guildmasters of Tallinn: Let us become rich and powerful, but not as rich nor as powerful as we were, by designing microchips and software for cell phones, and also small, inexpensively-made objects which can be sold to tourists!
(They become SOMEWHAT LESS RICH and QUITE A LOT LESS POWERFUL making things for CELL PHONES and also small, inexpensively-made objects for TOURISTS)

The city of Tallinn is one of the oldest and best-preserved Medieval cities in the world, but it’s not a museum. It’s an actual, living city. The line between the old part of the city and the modern part of the city is jarring; in one area, you have skyscrapers, and in another, you have this.

On one of the narrow, winding streets snaking along the edge of the Medieval wall, we found a local dining establishment.

I think it’s part of a chain. We saw these places throughout Eastern Europe. I bet the food’s pretty good, since they’re so popular.

The center of Tallinn’s Medieval district is the old town hall, which has functioned as the hub of Tallinn’s civic life for…well, for longer than the country I live in has been a country, really. The town hall is gorgeous, and is right smack in the center of the town square. I never really knew what a “town square” was until this trip.

Here, many of the most essential functions of Medieval society took place. Rules of commerce were established, guild and social matters were adjudicated, heretics and unbelievers were strung up for torture, townspeople were married, and gossip was exchanged. Some of the relics of these bygone functions are still apparent on the stone pillars that line the hall.

I kinda want a pillar in my basement that looks like this. I promise I will only use it for good.

I found this sign in a small shop just off the town square. I think it lies.

I’ve had days without wine, and I’ve had days without sex, and I can state with authority that they are nothing alike. All I can think is that whoever wrote this sign, probably doesn’t have sex the way I do.

I love this old house.

It’s run-down and collapsing now, and for some reason that only makes it even more beautiful I have no idea what the story of this house is, but I bet it’s fascinating. Were I to have infinite resources (which I don’t), and were I to move to Tallinn (which I wouldn’t, though I do love the place), I would want to buy this house and fix it up. It is, to my eye, heartbreakingly beautiful.

Plus, it would be an awesome place to host BDSM play parties, yo.