The Trumpeter of Krakow

krakowAfter a surprisingly hot day, we’ve had a big storm here in Krakow. My hotel room lies on the top (4th) floor, tucked under the eaves. Outside my window stretch the rooftops of Old Town and, not far in the distance, the famous tower of St. Mary’s Church.

The church’s fame rests on a number of things, including its spectacular wood-carved altar piece. But more influential in shaping the public character of Krakow happens to be an event that takes place in the church’s tower: the trumpeter.

Yes, the famous “Trumpeter of Krakow.” (Perhaps you’ve seen the children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow, a fictional work first published in 1928). The 13th-century legend tells of a trumpeter placed on watch to warn the besieged town of approaching Mongol troops. He spotted the enemy and began to play a tune to signal danger. What tune? Well, arguably the one still played today known as Hejnał Mariacki (St. Mary’s Dawn), although it can never be proved.

We sometimes forget that wind and percussion instruments were early warning systems in historical times. The blare of a trumpet or clang of a gong could travel long distances to alert a commander of approaching danger. In this case, the tune played by the long-ago trumpeter was cut short, says the legend, by an arrow to the poor chap’s throat.

Whether true or not, the legend’s power is such that every time, every single time, the tune is sounded from St. Mary’s tower, it is rendered in such a way as to be cut off abruptly, mid-stream, with a kind of trumpet gasp.

Now when I say “every time,” I’m not joking. Because this tune is sounded four times at the top of each hour. First the trumpeter rings the hour on the tower bells. A few seconds pass. Then, if you’re within one or two kilometers of the square, you will hear the strains of the melody.

The trumpeters today play in a specially constructed area that includes a place for a limited number of viewers (tower-climbers) and a resting area for the trumpeters. There are a number of selected musicians who share the 24 hour/365 day shifts. It is a great honor to become one of the trumpeters who opens a window on each side of the tower (north, west, south, east) and plays this tune, once in each direction!

Below, on the square, tourists and even locals stop to listen, applaud, or even cheer. Often they return the brisk wave the trumpeter gives upon completing each strain before snapping the window closed and turning to play in a new direction.

You can see in this video just how it looks from the perspective of the trumpeter. Considering how beautiful Krakow’s massive square is, especially in summer when filled with flower vendors, or during the Christmas Market when snow adds extra radiance, you can imagine that the trumpeters never tire of the spectacle.

But, of course, it is a job. Still, what a job! Can you imagine the job description? “Trumpeter needed to devote years to perpetuating an extraordinary musical and cultural tradition, one with enormous significance both to the people of Krakow and to the Polish nation. Not too many pitches required but intonation must be perfect.” And, for that matter, trumpeters approach this short tune with certain individual differences, as you will here if you sample a second video.

We’re extremely lucky on our Smithsonian Journey’s tours to stay in hotels along Floriansky Street, just off the square. That means I can hear the trumpeter from whatever room I occupy, no matter which tour. Do I tire of it? Never. If I wake in the middle of the night, and it’s the top of the hour, I hear the tune. While getting ready to go down for breakfast at 6, 7, or 8, I hear the tune. Walking around the square, I hear the tune. It’s marvelous.

The rain is really pouring now. But it’s 3 minutes until 9 p.m. and the trumpeter is up there. He’s standing at the window, warming up the mouthpiece. The blast of rain may block out this iteration but in a few hours the storm should pass. The midnight melody should be crystal clear. I’ll be eager to hear it.

No Selfies

Selfie_icon.svgTwice on Sunday I forgot to take a selfie. The first time came during a joyous afternoon reunion here in Latvia with two long-ago SMU students. Both fantastic musicians, these “kids” were members of our orchestra in the early 1990s, a time many refer to as a Golden Age in our newly fashioned Artist Certificate program. They (and others from countries like Russia, France, Czech Republic, China, Bulgaria, and Spain) brought enormous talent, a razor-sharp work ethic, and hearts overflowing with enthusiasm.

Some went on to forge stellar music careers; others moved into innovative jobs outside of music. No matter which avenue their lives took, it is always a tremendous honor to visit with them years later, wherever I may be.

In this case, the three of us spent a leisurely afternoon of reminiscence and rejoicing at a trendy Riga coffee shop. Now, here’s the thing: if we had been teenagers, we’d have taken a selfie — a dozen “selfies.” And I did intend to take at least one picture. But we were so caught up laughing, and recalling persons and events, we simply didn’t think about pictures. Only when I returned to my hotel did it hit me. Gosh, lost opportunity there, right?

The second omission happened earlier that same day. Our Smithsonian group was weaving its way through Riga’s Old Town, taking in the endless architectural delights. Our tour operator (a vibrant Lithuanian woman), was bringing up the rear when she found herself suddenly approached by a dignified man. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit and vest and, perhaps seeing her kind face, had begun to speak with her. I moved back to check things out. A retired Art professor in our group joined me, just in case something interesting was going on.

Within seconds we were drawn into their powerful conversation. I translated as seamlessly as I could for our professor who could barely believe his ears.

This gentleman, in 1940, had enlisted in the Russian army at age thirteen. A Russian born in Riga in 1927, he convinced authorities he was seventeen and got away with it. He then fought against the Germans and survived. He recalled seeing Stalin on multiple occasions while in Moscow. For him, of course, Stalin was the heroic leader who stopped Hitler.

After the war, this man came back to his home country. Latvia was part of the territory traded at Yalta to the Russians and subsumed into the Soviet Union. Folks in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia often say “the Russians liberated us but forgot to go home.” Such dry humor hides their deep bitterness at winning the war, only to be defeated by forty-plus years of disastrous Communism.

Past retirement by the time Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, declared its independence from of the USSR in 1990, this man seemed not to have had had his world turned upside down as did so many younger Latvian Russians. Simply put, persons (Russians) who were high up on the hierarchical ladder during the decades of Communism were suddenly cast down and, in many cases, cast out. If he did experience this, he didn’t mention it.

What he did tell us, though, had to do with a commemoration on May 9th (Victory Day) signed by Putin himself, of which he was very proud. Now at age 90, he was being officially honored as a soldier in the Second World War. He pulled his shoulders back strong and tall when he described the commendation.

As part of his recognition, he was receiving a two-week visit to a spa on the Baltic seacoast in June. It was pretty clear that he hadn’t spent life enjoying resorts. He couldn’t wait for it to begin.

I’ve been privy to such spontaneous conversations with World War II Russian veterans, although fewer as that generation is nearly gone. But my art professor had not heard anything quite like this. As with everyone in the group, he is drinking in reams of information during his first serious tour of the Baltic countries. And he is coming to understand the different heritages, languages, geographical features, and personalities of these three countries united primarily by common misfortune: invasions, occupations, destruction, and rebuilding. This has been the cycle, from pre-history through the Northern Crusades. From Napoleon to World Wars I & II and 40 more years of Communism. That’s it: shared misfortune and a border on the Baltic Sea.

As our group was drifting away from us, we had to say goodbye. He was reluctant to part with us. He was enjoying telling his story. Only after we’d parted did my art professor and I simultaneously clap ourselves on our foreheads: “Yikes, why didn’t we get a picture?” We consoled ourselves that maybe we’d see him near that same courtyard tomorrow.

But we didn’t. That’s the nature of touring. You get only one chance. And, unlike younger people, snapping pictures isn’t always our first instinct. We are more likely to gaze in wonder at the situations we encounter, the persons we meet. We are more geared to savor the moment than to post it to Instagram.

I wish I had both pictures. But actually I do. I have two pictures etched in my memory. The first shows a proud, 90-year old soldier whose eyes blazed as he told his story. The second shows me rejoicing in the presence of two now-grown-up “kids” who chose not to stay in an easier life in the US, but to return and offer their talents and hearts to a stunningly beautiful sea-side country that continues to struggle and rise on the wings of hope and prayer.

Image: Claire Jones, A Selfie Icon (CC BY 3.0)

Walking through Vilnius

The cobblestones are large and uneven. They look like a randomly strewn field of stone bobble-heads. I teeter a bit, carrying bags of Lithuanian honey, chocolate, and bubbly water back to my Bed and Breakfast. Found on Expedia, this modest, squeaky clean hotel lies in the middle of Vilnius’ extensive Old Jewish Quarter.


Monument to Tsemakh Shabad* by sculptor Romualdas Kvintas

Despite the brilliant sunshine and cool breeze, jet lag washes over me. Maybe that’s why, just for an instant, I seem to see this leafy street as it looked in the 1930s, before the rounding up and exterminating of Vilnius’ Jews. Hitler’s insidious goal was highly successful here: the population of c. 57,000 Jews in this city known as Jerusalem of the North barely measured 2,000 by the end of World War II.

Vilnius’ Jewish Quarter was renown across Europe as a vibrant community—a prominent part of a cultured city dominated by Polish and Yiddish. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the past. I imagined myself as a Vilnius bobe (grandmother), carrying a heavy sack topped by a baguette that would teeter if I lost my footing. Only, I would not have lost my footing. My feet would know each crevice of the cobblestones, because this would have been my home.

At least until Hitler’s madmen set about in summer 1941 to empty this Jewish neighborhood and prepare it to become the Wilno Ghetto, designated for the incarceration of Lithuanian Jews. The goal was to reduce the number of Vilnius’s Jews to zero, a task accomplished first by mass exterminations (21,000), followed by street executions and subsequent starvation of the remaining population of Jews who were corralled into a ghetto stretching across these very streets. And yet even within the horrors of that ghetto, a cultural life was established, including a vibrant theater. Most of those who survived the Wilno Ghetto would later be deported to the death camps, particularly Majdanek. All of that took place here, where I now peacefully walk.


Vilnius University, Wilczińskiego, 1850

Vilnius has become my third favorite destination in Europe, after my beloved Weimar and the magical city of Krakow. Every political, religious, and cultural influence you can name has crossed through Vilnius. At one point, the Medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, coupled with the Kingdom of Poland, grew to be the biggest power in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea (no small accomplishment). At another time, the late 18th century, it completely disappeared off the map, victim of the brutal partitions of Poland.

In between, Lithuania has been conquered, ravaged, revitalized, and restored so often that one gets dizzy contemplating the timeline. Yet, somehow, it survived. That gene for surviving continues to matter today as the nation entertains new threats, from depopulation (as young people en masse seek better jobs elsewhere) to nervousness about Russia’s potential land-grab ambitions.

Lithuania is arguably Europe’s most religious country, with well-attended churches everywhere, primarily Catholic but also Orthodox and some Protestant. Even more than in Poland, one feels the spirit of traditional Christianity woven into daily life. Of course, on these Smithsonian tours we treat religious sites as historical and cultural landmarks, but after hours I like to wander through Vilnius and find churches open into the evening, populated with local people praying. There’s a particularly dear single-nave Gothic church known as The Chapel of Divine Mercy where candles are always burning before a famous painting of “Christ, The Divine Mercy.” It was painted in 1934 based on the descriptions of Polish St. Faustina Kowalka who had explicit visions of Christ many times in her short life.

No matter how intense our own US history and politics may seem, we have a simple story compared to the Baltic States or Eastern Europe—for that matter, compared to almost anywhere in the world. We look back at nearly 250 years of complexities and turmoil. They look back at centuries, even millennia, of cataclysmic grievances and disasters. I don’t know how one processes that much history.

Still, it all comes down to a worn shoe crossing the cobblestones, doesn’t it? It comes down to each (today peaceful) street punctuated by the voices of children in the adjacent park. It comes down to the faith we continue to have that somehow the massive problems of humanity can, and will, be solved.

My tour begins officially in two hours with a welcome dinner. Then we spend two more days in Vilnius, continue on to Riga, then Tallinn, and end up in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lilacs are in bloom. It’s not as cold as I had feared. And so far, no one’s expectations have been left unfulfilled. It’s all good.

Still, my quiet times are what I cherish. And the moment of being pulled into Vilnius’ Jewish past will stay with me for a long while. But for now, it’s time to grab my list of guests, put on a big smile, and step forward into a job that continues to amaze me.

*Tsemakh Shabad (1864-1935) was a Jewish doctor and political activist in Vilnius.

The Gifts of Travel

carol-bermudaQuite rightly, people say, “It’s incredible what you see and do on your travels.” Especially since beginning to work as a Smithsonian speaker, it has been precisely that: incredible. The panoply of cities and countries I tour, plus the unfathomable experience of gazing upon the open sea . . . well, I never stop pinching myself.

Growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, the likelihood of travel was zero. The world did not extend past my back yard. Admittedly, it was a big backyard that included a field with a garden and a baseball diamond we made ourselves. We had a rickety grape arbor and flourishing chestnut trees too. In those days, kids and dogs roamed freely, and our back yard was a favorite spot for the neighborhood. Things were not dull.

But with all of that, I dreamed of travel. Every day, I gazed out my bedroom window to the hill rising above our street. Named Round Hill, it had older, fancier houses on it. When we drove across it, I could see a good deal of northwest Roanoke stretched out below. Beyond that, in the distance, lay the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. And beyond that lay the world.

Not unusual for the times, our family did not travel. Vacations were something that the characters in my books took. Travel was what Odysseus did. And Captain Ahab. Despite yearning, I never thought I’d get anywhere.

But I did get to travel, beginning with college, and ratcheting up hugely when I was thirty and did doctoral research in the Soviet Union. And since then, I can barely recall all of the opportunities. The child dreaming out of her window could never have fathomed it.

So now, docked at the Bermuda Royal Naval Port, with the Union Jack flapping outside my balcony and a stone fortress stretched almost eye-level in the distance, I continue to be humbled by my life of travel. Grateful, thrilled, excited, and humbled.

And yet, surprising still to me, the best part of it, believe it or not, can be the simple moments when one connects with fellow travelers. Just now, I was in the café on Deck 5, where yogurt, pastries, and fruit linger for those who don’t make official breakfast times. A fellow was standing there, puzzled, before the complex coffee machine. It has all sorts of settings (espresso, cappuccino), plus a button for hot water. Surrounding it all are different-sized cups, multiple racks for tea bags, silver dispensers for cream and milk, little plates of jams, and different sized spoons elegantly covered by linen napkins. Believe it or not, it can be confusing the first time you use it. And men, I’ve noticed, do not enjoy being confused by such things.

The staff was fully engaged in an emergency drill. That means 95% of the 500 plus personnel had donned life jackets and were positioned in the stairwells, at the life boats, and throughout the halls, checking each cabin to make sure their “practice guests” were evacuated. It’s astonishing for those of us still on the ship, going quietly about our business (as we’re told to do) to watch while they scurry through such drills. The trombone player from the band is right there with the pastry chef and the engine room specialists.

But meanwhile, this fellow was trying to figure out his tea. I was happy to help. The little honey jars he was seeking were nowhere to be found. But, hey, I’m an old hand, right? So I know where they keep things on the ships. At least, some things. Especially honey.

I reached under the counter and pulled out a jar. We split it, remarking on the absurdity of us seeking honey while these serious people are practicing to ensure they can save our lives in an emergency. A few more philosophical comments ensued, and we nodded and parted directions.

These are the moments I love best while traveling. I’ll see him on the ship several times while we cross the Atlantic to Barcelona. He and his wife probably will come to the lectures. But that brief moment of multi-layered engagement won’t be repeated. Nor will it be forgotten.

The grand, the astonishing, the historical: these are what I dreamed of as a child. These are the undeniable and priceless gifts that come from travel. But equally significant are the tiny moments—the ones that don’t go in history books or novels. Times when we can grab a door for someone with mobility difficulties, engaging in a a pleasant exchange about life while we our eyes connect. Or the moment we can find someone a spoon of honey for a steaming cup of tea.

An Island Reminds Me

atollThere’s a stark volcanic rock outside of my balcony. It juts up from the water as the lone point of profile across an endless horizon of Caribbean sea. We’re anchored in St. John’s Bay. Behind us lies Gustavia, a luxury port in St. Barts. People don’t bargain in the markets here. It’s not that kind of place.

Foreboding in the early morning light, this island of rock has mesmerized me for some reason, although I’ve seen plenty of similar structures since I began to work on ships as a Smithsonian speaker. It is so bold, so proud.

Despite its dissimilar profile, it reminds me of the mysterious island in Arnold Böcklin’s series of paintings known as Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). In each of the five versions, created between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin made slight variations, including reconfiguring the shape of the rocks. A figure clad all in white appears in each, accompanying a coffin to the isle. She is regarded variously in the different interpretations, but usually as a symbol of death, or as the deceased seeking repose on the island. Any masterpiece of art invites such speculations.


Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel III

Sergei Rachmaninov certainly speculated on Böcklin’s paintings. He was intrigued enough to compose one of his most gripping tone poems using the same title. Luminously beautiful in its opening, the orchestra introduces a rolling figure of five beats that hypnotizes the ear. Contrasting sections shape the piece into a cleanly symmetrical musical form, echoing the spacing of the stark rock towers and verdant crevice on Böcklin’s isle.

Isle of the Dead (whether paintings or composition) reminds us how an artist’s creativity casts a wide net, encompassing everything imaginable from topography at sea to ambiguous symbols. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it created, or intended to be received, in a vacuum.

So as the morning continued, I found myself wondering if my peak in St. John’s Bay would be impressive enough to evoke such a luscious piece of music or masterful painting? Perhaps. A bevy of fishing boats clustered around it all day. The catch has to be good there. Initially it seemed not a single tree grew on the rocks, but as the dawn gave way to morning sky, I saw pines speckling the craggy surface. Their needles glowed with iridescent green. If I could swim there, would I find tropical flowers tucked into the clefts of the cliffs? What creatures might live on such an outcrop in the middle of the sea? Did birds prefer my peak to nesting sites on the shore?

As I speculated, somehow this massive rock jolted my memory back to fourth grade, when I first learned the basic vocabulary of geography from Mrs. Clark. You’d have to search hard for a teacher like Mrs. Clark today. Prim, with a ruffled collar peeking out from her proper dark suits, she simultaneously intimidated and embraced each of us. A child simply succeeded in Mrs. Clark’s class. The force of her talent as a teacher somehow scooted each of us into the path of progress.

I doubt Mrs. Clark ever saw even a fraction of the places she taught to us. Ordinary people didn’t travel back in those days. Instead, she probably worried herself every night as to whether her tireless efforts would make a difference in her pupils’ lives. She probably did not worry whether she would be remembered by us kindly in the future. Her purpose was to educate, not impress her persona upon us.

Such a teacher leaves a miniature presence on nearly every child. Decades later, that teacher’s voice will return, whispering, “Yes, see, that’s what I was talking about.” So, to all of those Mrs. Clarks laboring with an individual child or a room filled children, you will not necessarily see the fruit of your labors at the end of your year. But seeds do get planted. They may sprout like hibiscus in verdant climes when that fidgeting child gradually finds his footing in the world. Or they may jut dramatically out of the sea, joining hands with an adult’s understanding of far vaster knowledge.

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