Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Super Soaker – buy your own at Amazon 🙂

The defining element of the modern celebration of Śmigus-Dyngus is . . . the Super Soaker. Although the holiday is probably pre-Christian – so over 1000 years old – it has remained strong in Poland. In the 1400s, Catholic authorities tried to ban the practice, but with no luck. Evidently, it’s celebrated in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary as well.

In Poland, Easter Sunday and Monday are holidays, with no school from Maundy Thursday through the Tuesday after Easter. Lent and the Holy Week are still important cultural icons in Catholic Poland, so from Carnival – just before Lent – through Easter Sunday, devout Poles don’t have much fun. They make up for it on Easter Monday, in a nation-wide water-soaking free-for-all. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, as a lot of smart people simply stay inside! Young people though, especially kids, really enjoy this holiday!

Śmigus-Dyngus actually combines two very old customs. Śmigus involved hitting one another with willow switches, and soaking one another with water. This evolved into using the “palms” left over from Palm Sunday, but the water soaking remained. Dyngus referred to yielding painted Easter eggs, in order to avoid getting switched or soaked more, in a kind of ancient “trick or treat” ritual.

I’ve never seen willow switches being used, although that custom might remain in rural Poland. Thankfully, because I think that would hurt! Nor have I experienced the “dyngus” portion, with the chance to buy relief from a soaking. Over time, the soaking practice has changed, as well. At one time, the men would soak the girls on Easter Monday, and the girls couldn’t carry out their revenge until Tuesday. My friends tell me that men would use this custom to show their interest in a particular young woman – a kind of “mating ritual.” Later, the women began soaking the men first – with the same intentions :). Of course, the practice always had fertility overtones – and you can probably imagine the possible outcomes of soaking one another with water – one of the reasons the Church tried to outlaw the practice. Of course, if you didn’t get drenched – that was worse than getting soaked, because it meant no one was interested in you!

Nowadays, it’s whoever can soak first. Our Canadian friends got drenched one year when their kids soaked them in bed first thing Easter Monday morning. The young men in our church conspired to invite the young ladies to meet them Easter Monday – then soaked them. Our kids, without our knowledge, sat on the windowsill of our bedroom one Easter Monday and soaked all the neighbors as they went in and out of our apartment building. (Not the best way to endear yourself to your neighbors). This led to one of our better language flubs, when Kaye was telling our friends what our kids did, and instead of saying they “soaked” the neighbors, she said they “licked them all over.” (oblać-oblizać, 2 little letters)

This year, we have nearly a foot of snow on the ground, and the temps are below freezing. Pretty sure no one will be soaking anyone outside, although I could see some snowball fights happening. Personally, I don’t intend to find out. Like most years – I’m staying inside.

Easter in Poland

Easter Palm from dried flowers

Easter Palm from dried flowers

The Easter celebrations in Poland really begin with Palm Sunday, when most Poles will take a “palm,” like the one on the right, to church to be blessed. These palms are usually made from cut, dried flowers, and are very pretty. You can buy some mass-produced ones now in the larger stores, but the best are made by little old ladies, who then claim a corner of a sidewalk downtown, or in front of a store, and sell them in the week before Palm Sunday. For the amount of work they put into them, they are amazingly inexpensive.

The palms are a Catholic custom, and I don’t know any evangelical churches that incorporate the custom into Palm Sunday worship. I would love to, but our Baptist Church has an allergic reaction to anything that looks Catholic!

Monday through Wednesday, there are regular masses in Catholic Churches – which of course is true of every day of the year – but more people do attend these daily masses than at other times of the year.

Maundy Thursday is especially important for Catholic priests – and we have a LOT in Lublin. There is a special Mass (Mass of the Chrism) just for priests in the Cathedral, where priests renew their vows and celebrate the Eucharist. Holy oils are also blessed during this Mass. Later, in all Catholic churches, there is a Mass that includes the symbol of foot-washing. Some very committed Catholics will fast from Thursday evening until Easter breakfast.

On Good Friday, people will begin preparing for Easter breakfast, especially painting Easter eggs.

A basket of painted Easter eggs

A basket of painted Easter eggs

Old Polish pagan beliefs said that eggs chased away bad luck. I would be curious to know if this is the root of the custom of painting Easter eggs in other countries as well. Many people, especially those with kids still home, will paint their own. Although just like the palms you can buy some mass-produced ones, the best ones are sold by the same little old ladies, who seem to have not moved from their sidewalk.

The faithful will prepare a grave for Christ at church, and many will take part in the Stations of the Cross processions. Each area of the city will have its own procession, with the most important one beginning at the Cathedral, and making its way through the Old Town. This procession is an “ecumenical” procession, involving representatives of other churches, including Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and sometimes Pentecostal. It is based on the “Scriptural” Way of the Cross. After the Way of the Cross, a figure of Jesus will be laid in the grave, to await Easter Resurrection.

Some men will be chosen to guard the grave through Saturday, and during the day Saturday, many people will come visit the grave. When they visit, they will also bring Easter baskets to church to be blessed. These baskets are highly symbolic, with each element having some meaning connected to the death and Resurrection of Christ. However, basically, they are a wicker basket lined with a white cloth, containing some bread, kielbasa and ham, an egg, vinegar, salt and horseradish. In addition, there will be a little lamb, sometimes made of wood or plastic, but best if it’s made of bread or sugar. These baskets are blessed by a priest, and everything is ready for the Easter breakfast.

Easter Sunday begins with the Resurrection Mass at 6:00 am – another one of those great ideas that hasn’t caught on at our Baptist Church :). Easter then is a family day, and after Mass, begins with everyone sharing with one other some of the blessed eggs. Easter breakfast includes a malt soup – sometimes in a bread bowl, hard-boiled eggs, white kielbasa, cold cuts, horseradish, and a special cake called a Babka. (which is slang for little old lady – go figure).

Easter Monday has its own special tradition – old, pagan, and one of the greatest traditions in the world – but that’s for the next post.

Easter Monday in Poland

In my town, Lublin, Poland, nearly all the places of worship are in the Christian tradition. Although there are 350,000 people in Lublin, non-Poles and non-Christians are a tiny minority. There is one Islamic Center, and four “dharmic” religion centers, but no mosque or Eastern temple. The only choice left is a Jewish synagogue. In 1939, Lublin had 42,000 Jews, more than 100 Jewish synagogues, a Jewish hospital and orphanage, and one of the most important Yeshivas. Lublin was a cultural and political capital for Eastern European Jews. However, the Nazi occupation saw most Lublin Jews exterminated, and all but one synagogue destroyed. That one synagogue ceased to function in the 1980’s, because less than 10 Jewish males could be found in the area. It remained possible to visit it as a tourist, but services were very rare.


Lublin Yeshiva

However, in 2005, the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was re-opened, and a synagogue was built inside, finished in 2007. (More about the synagogue here: Virtual Shtetl)I visited this synagogue, but I think it is impossible to simply visit this prayer room without being mindful of the Jewish history of Lublin, and the incredible suffering involved. The Yeshiva and synagogue are in a building built in the early 20th century that was “appropriated” by the Medical College of Lublin after World War II, and was not returned to the Jews until the beginning of this century.

Next to the synagogue are 3 rooms that show the history of the yeshiva and Jews in Lublin, with plans for a Museum of Hasidism. Although there are no pictures or other mementos of Jewish suffering in the main room of the synagogue itself, those rooms are only a few steps away.

Majdanek Concentration Camp

Majdanek Concentration Camp

In addition, just two blocks away is the “New” Jewish cemetery, where thousands of tombstones and graves were bulldozed, crushed into gravel, and used to pave the entry road to the Nazi death camp of Majdanek. So, a Jew could march across the tombstones, and perhaps bones, of his ancestors as he made his way to the gas chamber.

A short video tour of the synagogue can be found here: Virtual Shtetl video. This was my second visit to the synagogue, and this time I realized how similar the room was to a small Christian chapel. My first visit, I was struck by the differences, but this time the similarities seemed more striking. Of course, this is a new synagogue, so everything is freshly painted, the oak floors look brand new, and the bookshelves on the side of the room are still nearly empty.

There are 7 wooden benches on each side, facing the front. Each bench has a small book shelf and reading shelf in front of it. There are also fabric-covered wood strips near the floor, in front of each bench, where a kneeler would be in some Christian churches. These strips are evidently foot rests, however. There are four Corinthian style pillars on each side, painted green, supporting a balcony. The synagogue has a side entrance, and there were no special requirements to enter, at least for a tourist like myself.

Near the front, there were 2 center-facing benches on each side. I wondered who would sit here, but I noticed one picture from a special service in the synagogue that showed these benches turned to face the congregation, with what looked like VIPs in these front benches. There were also reading benches, with no seats against the front wall. These had indentations on the top front, the right size to hold writing utensils. There was another reading bench in the exact center of the room, facing the front, again with no seat.



There was a raised platform (called a Bema)  in the front center of the room , with another reading bench, no pen well. There was also a seating bench on this platform, far enough back from the reading bench that one would have to stand and approach it in order to read. The raised platform was surrounded by a cast iron railing to set it off from the rest of the room.

The front of the room is dominated by a tall raised platform with steps going up to a large locked wooden cabinet (the Ark). The cabinet is oak, decorated with the same Corinthian pillars, topped by 2 round pieces – that looked like overturned goblets. The top center of the cabinet has a wood and gold emblem of the 10 commandments, with a red and gold crown on top. There are lions or lambs facing the crowns on the tablets.

The walls have simple, normal Polish wall sconces with halogen bulbs, but one small menorah is on a shelf high on the front wall. A sign below the menorah said that it is a gift to the Jewish community in Lublin, in memory of 40,000 Lublin Jews killed in WW2. There is also a red electric bulb, made to look like an eternally burning flame on the front wall. There were also 2 Hebrew pages framed on each side of the large cabinet on the front wall. One thing seemed a little out of place – a small advertisement for a Polish flooring company attached to the base of the platform in the front of the room.

There was also a cast-iron container for donations – about one-fourth full, with almost all American dollar bills. (Only one Polish banknote) There was a reading or teaching room in the back, on the side. I found a number of books there, all in Hebrew and English (no Polish books). These books included some synagogue service manuals, and I looked through one of them. There were lots of responsive readings, similar to psalms, but with no Scripture references and I didn’t recognize any particular psalm. There was another room on the side, near the front, with pictures of rebuilding and reopening the yeshiva. There was also a sink in this room. I was not able to go up to the balcony

Women's Balcony

Women’s Balcony

(the section for women), but I could see some pages of text hanging on racks. There is also a large chandelier in the center of the room, with halogen bulbs, and floodlights around the top of the walls, pointed toward the high ceiling.

I was interested by the similarities with Christian churches – especially Catholic – and by the fact that there was almost no sign of being in Poland.

(All images from Wikipedia – I didn’t take any pictures)

Preaching in a Polish village

Yesterday, I visited Rudka, a village on the Ukrainian border, to preach in the Baptist church. I’ve preached here many times, but I thought I would describe the visit this time – to let you experience it along with me.

Rudka is about 80km from Lublin, and now, with some newly built highways, it takes about 80 min to drive. The drive is through mostly flat farmland, with long hills that provide the opportunity to look far across the countryside. As you pass Chelm, and near Rudka, the terrain becomes more swampy and forested. Rudka is right on the Bug River, the eastern border of Poland.

Catholic Church in Rudka

Catholic Church in Rudka


Baptist Church in Rudka

Baptist Church in Rudka


Rudka meeting room

Rudka meeting room

meeting room in Rudka

Rudka meeting room

The route from Lublin brings you right past the cute little brick Catholic church, and straight toward the Baptist church. The Baptist church was built in the 1980s, with money from America, and is quite a bit larger than the Catholic church – probably the only place in the country where this is true. During the winter, though, the Baptists meet in an old wooden schoolhouse next to the church. They moved this building onto the property about 10 years ago, and remodeled it into a small home. About 1/3 of the building is comprised of the meeting room, with a fireplace. Since the church only has about 25 members, the room is perfect for winter services. The auditorium in the church building isn’t heated, so until they were able to remodel the school, services in the winter were pretty miserable! Rudka struggles with a frequent problem in Poland for evangelical churches – the large building that Western money helped build has proven very difficult and expensive for the small church to maintain.

I arrived about 9:30 for the 10:00 am service. In our church in Lublin (a fairly large city), the music group is practicing by 9:00, and people start arriving for church by 9:30, mostly because of city bus schedules. In Rudka, however, the first person came at 9:50, an old lady who had walked about 2km. However, by a couple minutes past 10, everyone who was going to come had done so, and the service started. We sang choruses, the leader, Jacek, read a passage, and, as is traditional in our smaller Baptist churches in Poland, there was a time of prayer –when anyone and everyone who wants to prays, and a time for testimonies – again, open to anyone. I preached, and closed with another prayer time. We sang a couple more songs, announcements and offering (some things are completely cross-cultural!!), and wrapped up the service.

The congregation was a mix of old and young, although there were less than 20 people at the service. Most of the younger people had gone to Chelm to hear a former pastor speak.

Afterwards, we had lunch together. A few people had brought food to share. Not everyone stayed, but most did, and another couple came, after attending a service in Chelm, just to share lunch with us. Informal and relaxed, but a couple people did share testimonies again about God working in their lives. We ate and fellowship for another couple of hours, and I headed home.

The group in Rudka is definitely less time-conscious than we are in Lublin, or than most churches in America. This is probably a common difference between urban and rural settings. Also, although they always say how much they appreciate my coming, and my preaching, I think the high point of the day is lunch together afterwards. And I wholeheartedly agree, and I think it should be that way!! J It’s a small group, and they have squabbles just like any other group, but that family time together is at least as important as the sermon.

I would encourage you to remember Rudka in your prayers. Pray for Jacek and Bozena, Darek, Mariusz, and other leaders. Pray that they would be faithful in their witness – it’s harder in the village than it is in a city, where anonymity is the rule. Pray that they would be able to keep their relationships strong, even during times of conflict.


Posted: January 21, 2011 in Travel, Turkey

Our family visited Turkey over Christmas break, 2010. It was my second trip to this amazing country, but first for the rest of our family, and first time for all of us to visit Istanbul. I’m not going to tell you the best places to visit, or even give you a travelogue of our trip. Other people have done a great job with both of those, and using trusty google, you can easily find better travel advice, pictures, history, etc. than I could ever give you.

I’d rather share some personal reflections/impressions – in no particular order:

1. It changes everything when you visit someplace with kids in tow. They notice things you don’t – things you wouldn’t notice. I always prided myself on being observant, but several times this trip, one of the kids saw something that I never noticed. Of course, it’s partly due to the fact that a couple of them still see the world from a height about 24 inches lower than mine – i.e. closer to the ground. It’s partly due to the fact that we all notice what is important to us. For instance – they see McDonald’s, I see local seafood bar.

2. Turkey is noisy. They said that in all the tourism sites, but wow – they were right. Even after years of living in a good-sized city, of visiting big American and European cities – nothing quite compares. I’m going to guess that this is true of most Asian cities – interesting to find out. It’s not just the cars, and the constant honking – the loudest thing is the babble of human voices. It’s constant, ubiquitous, almost overwhelming for a Wisconsin country boy (cows don’t do that, usually).

3. Mosques are intriguing. We went inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – I would guess that comparing it to a local neighborhood mosque is like comparing St. Paul’s cathedral with our Baptist church in Lublin – but still. Although you can see a bit of the influence the early Christian church had on the formation of Islam, especially in the shape and style of the minbar or ambon/pulpit, a mosque is significantly different. (I know – duh!) Beautiful, quiet, contemplative – those were the words that occurred to me. Of course, it may seem much less quiet and contemplative during a Friday prayer service. Btw – side note – I would never, ever want to live within shouting distance of a mosque. Those calls to prayer are hauntingly beautiful the first time or two you hear them. Every day, though, 5 times a day, starting at dawn? No, thanks!

4. Istanbul truly is a world-class city. So many things make this statement true: Istanbul’s location straddling Europe and Asia; it’s history, reaching back nearly 3000 years; it’s status as a capital of empires – Roman, Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman; it’s current size (5th largest city in the world) and importance. It was one of the European capitals of culture in 2010. Here’s the thing, though. Lublin, Poland, is candidating to be a European capital of culture in 2016. Now, I love Lublin. It’s a beautiful city, a great place to live, and a city definitely worth visiting. I would much rather live in Lublin than in Istanbul. And Lublin has had its significant historical moments – I should do a blog article about this great city. But. Lublin isn’t Istanbul. In fact, it’s hard to think about Lublin in a context that includes Istanbul. Now, I hope Lublin wins the candidacy. Just saying, though. Wow. Big difference between the two cities.

So – go visit Turkey. Some of my friends have listed it as their favorite country. Another buddy said he could check Istanbul off his bucket list. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, Istanbul would have been on it. On the way, you’re welcome to stop off in humble Lublin, of course.

Even Poles laugh at the their own bureaucracy – probably the citizens of most countries do. European bureaucracies, especially post-communist ones, seem to be in a class all their own, however. I have been pleasantly surprised this year just how nice all the government workers have become. But – some other things haven’t changed. Yet.

We picked up our car from the shipping company on Friday, and we have the rest of the week to make it to the local customs office to clear our personal items and begin the process of getting back the money we paid to cover customs and taxes. Wouldn’t you know it, though, the shipping company didn’t give me one necessary document – so I have to wait. Holiday this week, Independence Day, so it’s a short week. Hopefully the paper comes in time so we won’t pay a fine.

Meanwhile, we have been in the process of getting our temporary residence cards. We entered Poland August 14, so we have until November 13 on our tourist visas. I turned in all our paperwork about 2 weeks ahead of the deadline – in other words, in plenty of time. The very polite young woman in the immigration office, however, wrote down the wrong date on the outside of our files. On Monday I went in and asked about our papers, and she was suprised to see me. She thought we still had another 2 weeks. So all of a sudden she had to get busy with our case. When she reviewed it, she realized that one of our documents needed to be rewritten. I got it done, brought it in, but then once again – it wasn’t quite right. Did I mention there’s a holiday this week? If we don’t have the decision by Friday, we have to leave the European Union to get our passports stamped. No big deal – IF WE HAD A CAR!

Since the car won’t be cleared by customs by Friday (customs clearance is likely to take another month), we may have to take a train, or fly, to Ukraine. Not outrageously expensive, but it means a train trip in the middle of the night, with a return in the middle of the night as well. Sigh.

My buddy here says files in government offices need to “ripen.” He laughs when I dream about the possibility of getting something settled in a few hours, or days. When I told him how I always saw people dashing from one office to another in the same building, he said that’s because carrying papers back and forth gives them (the papers) more importance. He said I really wouldn’t want my case to be settled so soon. Then it would look as if they really hadn’t given it the time and effort required for such a weighty matter.

Okay. Whatever. Just please – the cases weigh enough already now. Could we have our residence cards and customs clearance soon?

Follow-up: I got a call from the immigration office about noon today (wrote the above last night). We got approval for 2 years here, so we don’t have to leave the country. I still have two more visits to the office, so I think the final total will be 10 trips to the immigration office. Again, my buddy helped me understand – by waiting this long, having me come in so many times, and calling me 5-6 times, the lady in charge of our case demonstrated how important she was. He says it’s a good lesson for me – to understand that I’m not alone in this world, that I’m dependent on someone else, that bureaucrats are important people, too. Of course, he’s laughing so hard as he tells me these things – I’m tempted to kidnap him and send him to Arizona – see how he likes dealing with immigration!

Wroclaw Lock Bridge

Posted: October 30, 2010 in Travel, Wroclaw
Tags: , ,

We were in Wroclaw in early October. Wroclaw is a beautiful city, but Ostrow Tumski  in early fall is especially nice. Ostrow Tumski refers to the islands in the middle of the Oder River, where the oldest buildings are located. One of the more interesting places is a metal bridge with hundreds (thousands?) of locks attached to the side. Each lock is left by a couple, usually when they get engaged. Some of the locks were quite old. My favorite, though, was the bike lock. I’d love to hear the story of that one. Two people who love to bike together? An impromptu engagement, and that’s the only lock they had? Just being different?