I recently had the chance to spend nearly a week in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I wrote about it over on the gorgeous photo blog Bust it Away. Please click and enjoy 🙂
Seventy years ago today, the Red Army released the last inmates of Auschwitz. Approximately 7,000 people lived to see that liberation, but over a million did not. Today Auschwitz is a museum, and seven years ago I spent a quarter of an hour outside its gates.
It was the end of a glorious summer trip: by train from Moravia through Slovakia to Kiev, up to Moscow and then Helsinki; by ferry across the blue and white waters of the Gulf of Finland to Old Town Tallinn and a Baltic road trip to Art Nouveau Riga, to medieval Krakow with its flowers, horse-drawn carriages and the best dumplings in a stiff contest.
Of course the trip was going to end in Auschwitz; there was no question of missing it. However, I was sure I could not take the tour. I could not see the exhibit of shoes. So we agreed to drive by Auschwitz at the very end of the day, after the gates had been shut.
Auschwitz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is not like Quebec City or Česky Krumlov or the Cathedral at Chartres. And while I knew this, I was still not prepared for the drive through the Polish countryside on a summer afternoon, following the signs for “Muzeum” to the town of Oświęcim, down a street where children played in the shadow of their communist-era flat blocks that abruptly gave way to fencing and the dorms of the concentration camp.
We pulled up in front of the gates. It was not the infamous sign that got me, it was the innocuous railroad tracks: the end of the line for interminable cattle car rides across Europe that ended far too soon for all the mothers and lovers and sisters and brothers who had the last look at their loved ones at that spot. “Work Makes You Free” was the destination for some, the rest were immediately sent to be gassed.
I stood by those tracks and thought of Sophie’s choice. I thought of Anne Frank. I thought of the countless other stories and accounts I’d read, the names I’d forgotten, the names I’d never know.
It was a passing cloud that darkened the sky and blocked the light. It was the setting sun that made the air suddenly grow cold and the windows of the buildings black out into big blank eyes. It was not the memory of millions of tears, but fresh ones that made my face wet.
My travel companions were still trying to take the perfect picture of themselves in the dying light. I had to ask them to go. We drove away in silence, but I thought how the buildings were in remarkably good condition and could easily be used again.
I didn’t stop crying until we were over the Czech border. I never saw the pictures my companions took that day. I never took any pictures of my own, but those fifteen minutes, standing outside of Auschwitz, are indelibly etched in my eyes.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany
photo credit: Bust it Away photography
In August 1989, I visited Europe for the first time ever. In school we had learned about the Cold War and spent hours discussing the Bomb. On my trip I started in London and was taken to France, Andorra, Switzerland and Germany.
Two months after I got home, the Wall fell. My whole family stayed up to watch the late night news and watch round-eyed as Germans chipped away at the Wall and danced on top. My mom cut out the newspaper article the next day and stuck it to the side of the fridge with a colourful magnet. It remained there, surrounded by kids’ school portraits and postcards, turning deeper shades of yellow over the years. A pen pal in Germany sent me some pieces of the Wall, which I kept on careful display in a cubby of my roll-top desk.
Three years after the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was history. Six years after that, I was living in Moscow. Since then, I’ve spent more than four years of my life in countries of the former Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and the former Communist Eastern Bloc (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia).
The Fall of the Berlin Wall has affected me personally in countless ways, from the history I’ve studied to the languages I’ve learned and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. My eyes still get wet when I watch the TV footage from twenty-five years ago.
But I’ve never been to Berlin. I will go there one day, and I can’t wait.
a section of the Berlin Wall on display in Montreal. Can you guess which side faced East?
<aRodin/Claudel tells the tragically true tale of two French sculptors: Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. It is brilliantly choreographed by Peter Quanz to music by French composes including Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy, along with a haunting recording of "Je te veux" by Erik Satie that sounds as if it's being transmitted directly from a radio in the past.
Throughout the scenes the main characters are accompanied by twelve statues who can be molded, posed, or smashed awkwardly to the ground. The statues are dressed in minimal costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco that perfectly match the variety of skin tones so that they truly look as if they are made of clay. Dancing only in their feet, the sculptures allow us to appreciate the lines of classical ballet along with the beauty, strength and fragility of the human form.
In a scene in the studio, Rodin (Marcin Kaczoroski) and Claudel (Valentine Legat) sinuously twine and untwine in the lines of "The Kiss," but only for a moment and then its gone.
Who is made of clay and who is made of stone? You'll know by the end of Rodin/Claudel by Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montréal.
In August 2008, while living in the Czech Republic, I jumped at the chance to take a two-week class in Kyiv (Kiev). I had been there earlier that summer for less than twenty-four hours between two night trains en route to Moscow.
“Don’t take the night bus,” my Ukrainian friends warned. I would be robbed while I slept, and people would steal my backpack from under the bus when we stopped. As a precaution, I kept my backpack with me and enjoyed the Russian dubbed version of “Gladiator” on the mini-tvs. The bus seemed to be full of mostly migrant male workers heading home. The border seemed like a huge movie set or a Soviet-era leftover of floodlights and catwalks.
“Use the bathroom on the Polish side, before you cross the border,” my Ukrainian friends advised. It was the last fully functioning toilet I would see for two weeks.
There was no sleep to be had as the driver took the pot-holed roads to the capital at full speed. In the morning, I wasn’t fast enough to capture the charming horse-and-cart I saw on the main road, but I needn’t have worried as I was to see plenty more.
I was very glad to see Sveta’s smiling face at the lively parking lot as bus station when we finally arrived. A friend of a friend, she had been my tour guide for my previous day in Kyiv. Now she took me stay with another friend whose family who lived closer to where my classes would be.
The family lived in a three-room flat in a typical Soviet-era block that looked exactly the same as the flat blocks of Moscow and St Petersburg. Every morning I wound my way out of the complex down to the main street and took a bus past the little old ladies selling produce from buckets: mushrooms, beans, bundles of herbs. I’d get off and walk through a similar neighbourhood, passing an old lady sweeping the street with a broom made of branches, to get to my school.
My afternoons were occupied with trying to change money. After class I’d race from one bank to another, trying in vain to change my Czech crowns or get an advance on my credit card before they closed. I should have brought US dollars, Euros, or Russian roubles. I imposed on the generosity of my hosts until the last day, when I miraculously got an advance on the card. I saw a newsmagazine with a picture of an army boot with Georgia sticking to it like a piece of gum, ready to stomp on Ukraine, but I didn’t have the money to buy it.
My hosts were very busy collecting items to send to Eastern Ukraine, which had suffered devastating floods that summer. They would take it in turns to guard the depot 24/7 until the items could be transported out. Every night I would come back and talk with the mom in the kitchen for an hour. She would ask about my day, correct my Russian and tell me to eat more. Then I went to my room, their living room, to study.
My class went ten days straight, with no break for the weekend, so I had two free days at the end. My host sister took me on an evening disco cruise on the Dneiper to celebrate, pointing out the stunning sites on the river as we danced the night away.
I wanted to find the village my great-grandfather came from but there’s some confusion over the name and my new friends talk me out of it.
“Do you want to go to Chernobyl?”
We headed out of the city and stopped for a tea break in middle of the forest. Then we went to Tanya’s house for tea. She had a beautiful garden to feed her family and lovely cats. Her son had been accepted to a major college in the city, but he needed a laptop. Where could she get the money for a laptop?
Of course, one can’t actually visit Chernobyl without a special pass, but we stopped for a picture by the sign. About twenty villages that surround it are closed; their names still appear in maps but in brackets, but I’m informed that there are great mushrooms there which are (illegally) collected and sold in the city markets.
Then we went to visit another Tanya, who lived right on the edge of the villages whose names are in brackets. Her son, Sergei, had just got back from Spain, where a special program enables him to spend every summer with the same family. Every summer they make her a beautiful album of what he did and send her a box of chocolates. “Take them,” she said. The family in Spain doesn’t know she has a stomach condition that prohibits eating chocolate.
Another Tanya heard us speaking English as we walked through the village and stopped us. She is wearing rubber boats on her way to muck out the horses. “I’m an English teacher,” she explained, “I wish classes had started, you could come and be a guest speaker. I listen to the BBC all the time. Conditions here are terrible, you know. We thought it would be better after the end of the Soviet Union. I never thought I’d have kids, but then when I was forty…” she shakes her head and points at an adorable little boy peeking shyly out of a protective huddle of kids.
I stop to take a picture of two men in a horse and cart. “Yeah, take your picture!” one of the men yells. “Why don’t you take a picture of that guy? He’s the one who got us into this.” I pose awkwardly under the statue of Lenin.
We stop to visit someone’s 80-year-old babushka whose wooden cottage is painted in bright blue and green gloss. “Come in, come in!” she invites me when I hang back. “I paint my house every summer!” Inside, the cottage is as neat as a pin with wooden furniture pushed up against the walls: bed, table, chairs. Pickles, bread, and cheese are laid out. “Eat, eat!” she commands. I play with some kittens. “Take one!” she offers. “Go pick some apples!”
We go to pick apples. “Chernobyl apples,” my friends laugh as we fill our bags from the enormous orchard.
We stop by a small tranquil lake, where my new friends share their picnic with me: sandwiches, tomatoes, cucumbers. “Isn’t it beautiful here? Tell all your friends to come.”
The next day I head 80 km south to Bila Tserkov (White Church) to visit a friend from back home who married a Ukrainian. The mini-bus is jammed with kids. Since you pay for the seat, the kids’ dad has four all piled up one on top of the other. One is carsick. The bus pulls over and all the women help with a plastic bag, tissues, a candy, water. We continue, with the driver admonished to go more carefully.
After dinner we walk though the beautiful grounds of the 200-year-old Aleksandria Park, the trees green and the air warm, full of couples on a romantic stroll and laughing kids.
My last night in Kyiv is spent in Sveta’s grandmother’s apartment. Her grandmother has gone to the dacha, so I get her bed in the living room, a creaking wooden room with bookcases soaring to the ceiling where I pass a sleepless night.
My tummy has been hurting and I’m eager to leave. I feel Sveta is not getting ready quickly enough to get to the bus station in time. There is a problem with the lock. We have to stop to buy a bottle of something for someone in the Czech Republic. The streets are clogged with traffic because today is the first of September and all the children are going back to school with their parents for the opening ceremony: arms full of flowers and white puffs in the girls’ hair. We finally find the bus and Lyuda is waiting there with her parents. Olya’s dad meets me with a package for her.
Lyuda’s mom has packed us an enormous lunch and we eat it and the Chernobyl apples all the way back to Czechia. Lyuda is taken off the bus before Poland to have her documents double-checked and she’s almost in tears when she finally gets back on. “It’s my fault,” she says, smiling through her glistening eyes. When we finally cross into Poland, we’re in the European Union and the entire bus breaks into applause.
Lyuda’s Czech husband is waiting for us off the bus. “So,” he says, “How was your trip?”
When I get back to my country my camera is stolen. I have the stamps in my passport and a few photos I can scrape from emails I sent. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget my trip to Ukraine.
In a world constantly inundated with words, words, words, it is sheer bliss to find a place where everyone must turn their cell phones off, sit quietly in the dark, and experience a story unfolding in music and dance.
After marvelling at the classic technical perfection of the Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake, I thought I should never see it again. But I was intrigued by the idea of James Kudelka’s choreography, which promised to be “ingenious…and add dark psychological complexity” to this 139-year-old ballet based on a German folk tale.
Program notes were not necessary in this production. Costume designer Santo Loquasto contrasted the brown and green velvets of the real world with the ethereal white swans, whose tutus perfectly evoked the look and loft of feathers. Tchaikovsky’s thrilling score, combined with the incredible grace of Greta Hodgkinson and strength of Guillaume Côté, plus twenty swans in Act II, created many electric moments. At one point of dramatic emotion, my scalp was tingling!
Our seats in the upper balcony attracted a motley crew: a well-dressed couple speaking Russian quietly, three guys in track suits who looked like they dropped in directly from a railway waiting room in Central Asia, a young Brazilian dancer seeing her first full-length professional ballet, and three girls on a night out, one of whom proclaimed “Ridiculous!” at the objectification of Siegfried’s potential brides in Act III. She was surely pleased with the twist at the end of this production!
Because there are no recording devices allowed, it was two hours of ephemeral beauty for that audience only. I can only hope to experience the National Ballet of Canada‘s Swan Lake again.