Category Archives: Theater

Poland: Part 15 – Back to Wroclaw, Suzuki, FRAGMENTS, and NEFÉS

June 28th – Early Afternoon

I awoke all stuffed up, miserable, and sore this morning.  Really didn’t sleep well.  I know I’ve been complaining a lot lately about this cold, but I’m actually pretty lucky that it hit me at the end of the trip, as opposed to the beginning.

After breakfast, we got on the bus and drove for 2.5 hours back to Wroclaw.  Tried to nap on the bus, but no luck.

It’s good to be back in Wroclaw, and around relatively familiar surroundings – it’s probably the closest thing I could call to home out here.  Compared to Poznan, Wroclaw fits me like a pair of comfy running shoes.

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29-Jun-2009 07:28, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.84, 10.8mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 64

 

We’re at a different hostel this time.  I like the decor.  I think Em would like it, too:

Our last hostel, back in Wroclaw

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Our last hostel, back in Wroclaw29-Jun-2009 08:01, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 118

 

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29-Jun-2009 08:01, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 156

 

After unloading our stuff at the hostel, we went to go have dinner.  Guess what we ate?  Pirogies!  I have to admit, I was getting a little sick of eating pirogies day in and day out, but I figured it’d be a long time before I had authentic Polish pirogies again, so I ate up.

2:55PM

I’m at a theatre, watching a talk session with Tadashi Suzuki, the famed Japanese theatre director/philosopher, and founder of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training (not to be confused with the training technique for music).  So, what’s the Suzuki Method of Actor Training?  Hard for me to say – I’ve never taken it.  But my movement instructor learned Suzuki during a sabbatical, and my girlfriend Em ended up learning it in her class.  From what I’d heard, it’s a lot of leg-work, feet-work, stomping, etc.  Here’s a description of a Suzuki course to give you an idea:

Suzuki is a powerful physical training technique drawing from ballet, martial arts, Kabuki and other disciplines. Focusing on breath, the center and the lower body, with stomping, slow movement and explosive gestures, Suzuki brings attention to the voice and its connection to the body.

Anyhow, I’m watching him during this talk-back session, and it’s a pretty interesting interview process.

You see, I don’t believe Suzuki speaks English or Polish.  The interviewer speaks both Japanese and Polish, but only Japanese to Suzuki.  Suzuki responds in Japanese, which goes through his personal translator, who speaks it in Polish.  A fourth guy on the edge then translates the Polish into English to give us poor Canadian sods an idea of what’s going on.

I must admit, I welcome the opportunity to zone out a bit while I wait for the English.

Here’s a shot of the linguistic circus:

At the Suzuki talk

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At the Suzuki talk28-Jun-2009 09:53, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.37 sec, ISO 100

 

The talk seems to be centered around modern technology, and how Suzuki believes it is damaging our collecting ability to remember our history.  Interesting, but I think I’ve heard that one before.

After the talk, I got up, realized I was exhausted, and headed back to the hostel for a short nap.

Late

I woke up at 5:52PM with a start.  The hostel was empty.  I’m groggy, and I have the faint suspicion that something is wrong.  Unable to fathom what it is, I put on my clothes and stretch.

And that’s when I notice my ticket for the next show:  it’s supposed to start at 6PM.

I have a lightning fast consultation with the hostel computer for directions to the theatre, and then a quick chat with the hostel desk girl for advice on shortcuts, and then I hit the street.  I sprint to the theatre at top speed.

And somehow, magically, I make it.  I was lucky – the theatre was pretty close to our hostel.  I enter the building and eventually find my comrades who had had no idea that I’d been sleeping when they’d left.

I didn’t even know what show I was seeing, until I looked at my ticket again…

FRAGMENTS By Samuel Beckett, Directed By Peter Brook

Wow!  Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook!  Now those are two names I definitely recognize.  I had studied Brook in both highschool and University, and Beckett in the latter.

I even saw Peter Brook that night – I walked past him in the lobby.  He was in the middle of a conversation with someone else, so I didn’t interrupt (I don’t even know what I would have said if I had…”you do great work”…?).

He’s shorter than I thought he’d be.

Anyhow, the show was absolutely awesome.  I loved it, back to front.

Fragments is a series of shorts originally written by Samuel Beckett.  The set was very sparse, containing only what was necessary.  The costumes were simple.  The acting was fantastic.

What was it?  Well, pretty black comedy is what I saw.  Gallows humour.

A one legged beggar and a blind beggar try to strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.

A lady in a rocking chair speaks hypnotic circles while waiting (and yearning) for death to take her.

Two men wake up in burlap sacks.  One goes through his day, “worldweary and bemused”, with every possible obstacle in life causing him to groan and sigh.  The other man goes through his day (and the same obstacles) with unbelievable energy and optimism.  Both end up in the same place at the end.  Classic Beckett, and wonderful clowning by the two actors.

Those were the three shorts that stood out for me, anyhow.  I really enjoyed them.

After the show, we all rushed out to the opera theatre…we had another show to see.

NEFÉS by Pina Bausch

Wow!  Another name I recognize!  From what I know about her (which, admittedly isn’t much) Bausch’s name is synonymous with incredible and original choreography in modern dance.

And that’s what we saw.  Incredible dance.  Incredibly choreographed, and incredibly executed.

I won’t lie – I’m a sucker for contemporary dance.  I lapped this show right up.

This, despite a partially obstructed view (the old opera theatre was gold and gorgeously ornate, but had some unfortunately placed pillars).

I can’t even begin to describe the dancing.  This clip is the best I can do:

Anyhow, thumbs up.  Here’s a shot of the curtain call:

The Pina Bausch dancers!

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The Pina Bausch dancers!28-Jun-2009 17:44, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.98, 11.6mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400

 

After leaving, I grabbed a few slices of pizza and chatted about the show with Ryan, Sonia, Chantelle and Una.  It was generally positive reviews.

I went back to the hostel, shaved, showered, and hit the sack.  Tomorrow would be our last full day in Wroclaw, and in Poland.

Click here to go to Part 16: Last Full Day in Poland, and THE TEMPTATION OF QUIET VERONICA

Click here to go back to Part 14: Guerilla Walk and CALIGULA

Poland: Part 14 – Guerilla Walk and CALIGULA

June 27th

My journal for this day starts with an entry at 10AM,  recapping what happened the night before.  The next entry is at 1:55PM.  I’d have to conclude from this that it was a slow morning – probably just eating breakfast, checking email, and chatting with the others.

1:55PM

Apparently, tickets for the Guerilla Walk (an event that both Tamara and Peter praised endlessly last night) are sold out.  We’ve been put on the standby list though, so we’ll see if we can get lucky there.

I’m feeling pretty tired and incoherent.  Again, the bunks in this hostel aren’t very comfortable.  Not sure what I want to do today…

I’m in the Poznan square with Linn, Yev and Alexi.  We’re feeding pigeons.

My throat is still really sore, but Tara and Tom gave me some Robatussin, Alexi gave me some Polish cold medication, and Yev gave me some vitamin C.  And I’m constantly munching on Halls.

Hopefully it’s not a lethal combination.

4:35PM

I’m with Yev and Alexi, and we just watched a film called “Attempt of a Portrait of Jerzy Grotowski”.  Pretty interesting.  Next is another (rare) film on Grotowski, which demonstrates some of his rehearsal techniques.

I found a YouTube clip of the video:

The actor demonstrating it is ripped, and moves his body really violently…he’s snapping his neck around all over the place (see 4:00 onward).  It looks uncomfortable, but I guess he knows what he’s doing.

We’re going to watch a bit of it, and then leave to try to do the Guerilla Walk thing.

5:30PM

After watching a bit of the second Grotowski film, Yev, Alexi and I made a break for it and headed to the meeting place for the Guerilla Walk.

I wasn’t entirely sure what this Guerilla Walk thing was…Peter and Tamara had been (intentionally?) vague about it – saying that we just had to do it.

When we got there, we found out that some folks who had reserved tickets couldn’t make it – so we, the standbys, got the tickets.  Thank you drama gods!

We got into a lineup, and noticed that a bunch of other folks from the UCDP had also made it in.  We got closer and closer to the end of the line, and when we got there, a person asked for our passports.  Apparently, we would be getting a headphone set for listening to our tour guides (like at Auschwitz), and they wanted our passports as deposits.

Hm.  As a cautious traveler, this set off warning bells.  I had been instructed from the get-go to not let my passport get out of sight, and that Canadian passports are particularly valuable on the black market.  But, I watched my comrades fork over their Canadian passports for their headsets, and I eventually did the same.

So, I got my wireless headphones, and waited in the designated area for the “walk” to begin.

THE GUERILLA WALK – By Olliwood Productions

This might have been my favourite part about our trip to Poland.  I’ll do my best to describe it.

The tour group was about…I’d guess, 50 people.  All of us had wireless headphones on.

There were two tour guides.  One was decked out with an impressive portable DJ-ing rig and broadcasting system (large antenna out of his backpack).  The other guide had headphones similar to ours, but with a microphone to speak to us.  There was also some support guys walking around with spare batteries for our headphones in case we started to run low.  There was a camera guy filming us.

The banter between the two tour guides was absolutely hilarious.  It was something like morning-radio-show banter, mixed with highly-skilled freestyle rap.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Our guides then took us on adventures in the city.  We walked through a town hall (?…seemed like some sort of administrative building…) that Hitler had once visited, and listened to Chaplin imitating him from The Great Dictator.  We were then led out of the “bowels” of the building on to the street.

And already, we were putty in their hands.  The guides were very skilled at making us all feel like a mob that was cooler than anyone else around us who wasn’t wearing headphones.  A strange feeling of invincibility seemed to sweep through us as we marched along, invading various parts of the city.

We would periodically stop to watch our tour guides complete some kind of “mission”.  For example, they would do some “Guerilla planting”, and plant a flower at a city park.  Other times, they’d climb up a portable ladder to second-story apartments and say hello to the people inside.  If they found a lady, they’d ask for a lock of her hair.

They would chat with interesting people they found on the street, and give them a microphone so we could hear what they were saying.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

And the entire time, there was a cool hip-hop back-beat, and periodic freestyle rapping from the DJ.  The entire tour group would dance sporadically.  I’m sure we looked silly or strange to people without headphones walking around us…but we just didn’t care.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Eventually, our guides led us inside of a building.  We walked up a flight of steps, and through some dark passageways.  There was a lot of us, and it was getting cramped.  Our destination was a darkroom, and it was pitch black.  All of us, all of the tour group, was in pitch black.  And then suddenly, beer was being passed around, our tour-guide lit up his neon suit, and we were having an impromptu “darkroom disco”.  Most of the music was Michael Jackson.  And it was awesome.  We danced, blindly.  We held hands with silent strangers that we couldn’t see.  Whooping and hollering in the dark.  Very cool experience.

We eventually left the darkroom disco.  The beer had really loosened up the tour group, and we were all getting pretty silly and dancy.  We waited for a streetcar, and danced until it finally showed up.

There were a few other missions after the darkroom disco…we put up some QR Codes around the city, saying things like “Something from nothing”, or “I love you”.

We gathered at a public, indoor swimming pool, stood around it, and sang a song about amoebas.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

We intercepted a wedding party and talked to the newlyweds.

We saw Stormtroopers.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

It was 3.5 hours of amazing.  And it ended in fireworks and a huge Michael Jackson dance off in the middle of Poznan square near one of the impromptu shrines:

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Onlookers without headphones gawked as we danced our buns off to music that only we could hear.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

But why just tell you about it, when I can show you?  They filmed the whole thing.  I pop up a few times in the video, along with my comrades.  This will give you a good idea of what we were doing.

After the tour, and after we’d calmed down a bit (the whole experience had really pumped us up), Jiv and I had an interesting conversation about the meaning of the piece.

While it could simply be viewed as a fun tour, Jiv noted certain patterns in its design and content.  Patterns like the amoeba song, the Hitler speech, the blind darkroom dance.  He said that it was an interesting study in mob mentality – and that it really only takes a charismatic, likable leader (our tour guides), and direct 1-way communication (the headsets) to create a mob.  We had become a benign, dancing, adventuring mob.  But violent, dangerous mobs could be created in the same way.  I think Jiv is right.

After the Guerilla Walk, we grabbed some food (we were starving), and then went to go see Caligula.

Caligula was being performed outdoors.  It was becoming a chilly night – I hoped the actors would be warm enough.

As an interesting aside:  outside of the theatre space, there was a monument to the Polish men and women who had worked on cracking the Enigma cipher:

Monument for Enigma cypher codebreakers

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Monument for Enigma cypher codebreakers27-Jun-2009 16:46, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400

 

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27-Jun-2009 16:46, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400

 

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27-Jun-2009 16:46, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400

 

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27-Jun-2009 16:47, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 148

 

I studied that for a bit, and then we went inside to see the show.

CALIGULA by Tomaž Pandur

Here’s the description of the show from the Malta! Festival website (though it looks like they just pumped the Polish version through Google Translate):

Caligula is a spectacle based on the Albert Camus’ drama but that spectacle suggests a different look at a history of Rome third emperor. It’s the story about the clash great ideas with the narrow-mindedness of the world and about the price that has to be paid by those who strive for perfection. This is the story about little people distroying, with the stubborness, everything that made them aware of their triviality – Caligula was brutally murdered and – what’s worst – he was slandered for ages. Pandula teared the shroud of the lies weaved by the Swetonius, duplicated later by historians and writers, and tells his own version of life and tragical Caligula’s end – the great visioner.

With his theatrical manifesto Caligula proclaims: ” Exciting illusion of the truth, the most beautiful spectacle in the world, the perfect place for the acts of God in the Earth, wonderful and attraction uncompared with anything, the thunder and lightning, destiny in the triumphal march… it’s the art of drama… people make mistakes because they do not believe enought in theatre.” This way the Caligula life became a living theatre, the journey without limits to the galaxy of everything what is invisible and unaware. The crowned poet with the divine clairvoyance of a hermit.

Hm.  Not the clearest description I’ve ever heard.  I’ll do my best to tell you what I saw.

Remember how I hoped that the actors would be warm?

Well, guess what?  The actors performed the entire time wearing next to nothing.  In water.  It wasn’t just a wet stage…it was…like, half a foot of water that the actors were standing and performing in.  I was freezing just watching them.

So, this was another take on the story of Caligula, the third Roman emperor.

And it was visually stunning.  I already told you about the flooded outdoor stage, but the rest of the set was this series of gray towers that looked like stone.  The towers would silently rearrange themselves in order to change the scenery.  The precision and expertise in the transitions was absolutely fantastic.  A marvel.  It was magic.

Once again, I think a lot of the story was lost in translation for me.  Plus, it was outdoors, and the actors weren’t mic’d (mic’ing would have been a nightmare in all of that water).  So hearing was a bit difficult.

There were certain points in the show that really caught my attention, visually.  The reflection of the water was used liberally to create some neat rippling effects on the set pieces.  Some additional “magic” was done with the set pieces – a stone tower would glide in front of an actor, and after it had passed, two more actors had joined the first.  Neat things like that.

So, visually, this show was stunning.  I also give full kudos to the actors for working in the freezing cold, naked, in water.  I can’t say much for the story or plot.  Still, an interesting show.

Here are some super blurry photos of the cast bowing:

Fuzzy shot of the CALIGULA cast

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Fuzzy shot of the CALIGULA cast27-Jun-2009 18:52, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 156

 

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27-Jun-2009 18:52, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 141

 

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27-Jun-2009 18:52, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400

 

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27-Jun-2009 18:52, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.38, 14.3mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 156

 
Those big blocks were mobile.  It was magical.

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Those big blocks were mobile. It was magical.27-Jun-2009 18:53, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 177

 

After the show, we all went back to the hostel.  As usual, reactions to Caligula were mixed.  Eventually, I landed on my lumpy mattress to try sleeping again.  We’d be heading back to Wroclaw the next morning.

Click here to go to Part 15: Back to Wroclaw, Suzuki, FRAGMENTS, and NEFÉS

Click here to go back to Part 13:  First Day in Poznan, Still Sick, and LA MENZOGNA

Poland – Part 13: First Day in Poznan, Still Sick, and LA MENZOGNA

June 26, 10:10AM

Just had breakfast – cocoa puffs again, and the strange Poland milk.  The bunks last night weren’t too pleasant, and I half-jokingly recall hearing distant gunfire through our windows last night.

Probably just my imagination.

Tamara is handing out tickets for the shows:  La Menzogna and Caligula.  She also tells us that it’s going to be hot and humid for the next few days.  Oh well, at least there isn’t a garbage strike to stink it up.

Oh, and a sad bit of news today:  Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett have died.

We hit the streets and started to explore.

The streets of Poznan

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The streets of Poznan26-Jun-2009 06:03, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 
Exploring Poznan

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Exploring Poznan26-Jun-2009 06:03, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

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26-Jun-2009 06:08, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.01 sec, ISO 64

 

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26-Jun-2009 06:32, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 6.17, 10.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 
The Poznan square

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The Poznan square26-Jun-2009 06:32, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.77, 10.4mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

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26-Jun-2009 06:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 5.64, 8.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64

 

11:42AM

Just got my official program for the Malta! Festival.  Wow!  Lots of big names in this festival – and not just theatre, but bands too!

Nine Inch Nails!  Jane’s Addiction!  Snow Patrol!  Radiohead! Unfortunately, we’re not saying long enough to see Radiohead or Jane’s, and we’ve already missed NIN – but Snow Patrol is on tonight.  I’ll bet that the tickets for them will have been sold out far in advance, but it still might be worth checking out.

12:25PM

Just finished eating a nice, simple, spaghetti and tortellini meal at a pasta bar.

We found a spaghetti bar....mmmmmm...

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We found a spaghetti bar….mmmmmm…26-Jun-2009 07:09, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 64

 
Rubin is lovin' the spaghetti.  I liked it so much, I ordered some more.

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Rubin is lovin' the spaghetti. I liked it so much, I ordered some more.26-Jun-2009 07:09, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 79

 

Everybody is talking about Michael Jackson.

The structure for today seems pretty relaxed.  I’m not exactly sure what’s on the itinerary.  I think I’m just going to tag along with the group I’m in and see what happens.

And my throat is still killing me.

12:41PM

All the stores we’re going into today are playing Michael Jackson; mourning the death of the King of Pop.  People are carrying radios, and playing his music out loud.

It’s chilly and windy today.  Where was that humidity that Tamara promised?  I didn’t bring my jacket, and now I’m freezing.

4:06PM

We spent the last few hours walking around, eating, drinking, and talking:

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26-Jun-2009 09:05, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.11, 12.4mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 

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26-Jun-2009 10:05, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.55, 16.0mm, 0.007 sec, ISO 64

 
Ryan thinks Poznan is "A-OK"!

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Ryan thinks Poznan is "A-OK"!26-Jun-2009 10:06, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.01 sec, ISO 64

 

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26-Jun-2009 10:06, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.009 sec, ISO 64

 

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27-Jun-2009 07:11, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

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27-Jun-2009 07:13, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

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27-Jun-2009 07:42, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

Along the way, I met a nice Polish dog.  The owner was kind enough to let me pet her:

Polish dog

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Polish dog26-Jun-2009 08:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.23, 7.5mm, 0.016 sec, ISO 64

 
The owner was kind enough to let me pet her.

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The owner was kind enough to let me pet her.26-Jun-2009 08:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.012 sec, ISO 64

 

My throat is getting worse.  Bleh.  I think I’m going to go back to the hostel and take a nap.

6:00PM

Just woke up from my nap.  Skipped this Guerilla Walk thing that we had the option of doing today.  Not sure what that is, but Tamara and Peter are raving about it.  Anyhow, glad I took the nap.  I’m feeling a bit better.

7:15PM

Just had some, you guessed it, pirogies!  Pretty good – very filling!

Our next stop is our first show in Poznan, called La Menzogna.  The theatre is a 20 minute hike from the hostel.

The cigarette smoke from the crowd outside the theatre isn’t helping my throat much.  Cough cough cough.

LA MENZOGNA by PIPPO DELBONO

The theatre space was cavernous – it reminded me of either a large gymnasium, or a small aircraft hanger.  There were bleachers, and cushions on the ground in front of the bleachers to face the stage.

Initially, I sat on the cushions but eventually decided to migrate to the bleachers – it was going to be a long show, and I’d need the back support.

As usual, I’m a bit at a loss to describe this show.

First off, I went in (and came out) not really knowing what it was talking about or trying to say.

And that’s not only because it wasn’t in English.

Months later, with the help of the Internet, I am able to tell you what they were trying to do:

In December 2007, on Thyssen Krupp’s steel factory in Turin, a fire takes the lives of seven factory workers. From this tragic work accident, Pippo Delbono draws a theatrical, political and spiritual journey, in the line of his work, which combines theatre, dance, music and poetry, producing a unique stage language, which has brought him recognition from all over Europe. Delbono’s theatre is contaminated by life, raising questions he wants to share with the spectators, and a place of encounter and reflection on the nature of human being. La Menzogna aims to question human life’s dignity of and its place among our society.

As usual, reactions from my comrades were mixed.  I found the whole thing rather silly.  I believe the main character was supposed to be some sort of frightening ringmaster.  He did “edgy” things like coming into the audience, waving a lead pipe around, and snapping pictures of us…invading our space.  I found him rather boring and impotent.

And then there was the nudity.  At this point in the trip, I’d seen a lot of nudity on stage – both male, and female.

And you know what?  I get it.  I see what you did there.  You got all vulnerable for me.  Thanks.

The lead character got all naked, and it was almost as if he was saying to me, “Look!  Look how vulnerable I just became for you!  Look at what I’m giving you!  BASK IN IT!”.

And…again, I just thought it was silly.  And it had so much promise!  The set was absolutely gorgeous.  Ah well.  A disappointment.  I’d certainly choose it over Cleansed or Medea, though.

After the show, we walked back towards the hostel.  We stopped by a restaurant for a late dinner – it was Peter’s last night with us (he would be taking a train to Warsaw at 6AM the next morning and flying back to Toronto to prepare the Playhouse for the Fringe festival), so we all hung out with him to say our farewells.

The whole time, my throat was getting worse and worse.  The restaurant was engulfed in cigarette smoke.

I eventually left, and went back to the hostel to sleep.

Click here to go to Part 14: Guerilla Walk and CALIGULA

Click here to go back to Part 12: Getting Sick, To Poznan, and A Sketchy Hostel

Poland – Part 11: Journey into Auschwitz, and Adventuring Alone in Krakow

Gathering Dust

It’s been about 5 – 6 months since my last Poland entry.  There are a myriad of excuses for this:  tough school year, busy Xmas holiday, relentless work load…

But I have to say I’ve kind of been avoiding writing this one on purpose.  Why?

Well, for starters, I don’t have any photos.  Long story short, before we got off the bus at Auschwitz, we were told there was no photography, so I left my camera on the bus.  Then it turned out that there was no photography in the buildings, so I missed out on getting some snaps outside.

I’ve been able to get my hands on some photos.  A big thanks to Alex Rubin and Anj Mulligan for letting me use theirs.  I’m not entirely sure how using someone else’s photos will affect my narrative, but we’ll see.

The other reason I’ve been avoiding this one is because I wrote so damn much about it.  39 pages from my journal were devoted to this day.

Why so much?  Well, to be honest, it was a pretty emotionally charged day.  A lot of people were crying during the tour.  My reaction was just to write down everything I could see and hear, as fast as I could.  I hope I got everything right.  Please correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong.

Anyhow, enough stalling.  Here we go.

June 24, 7:45AM

It was an early morning.  I showered, shaved, sent some email, and then hung out in the kitchen/common area with Yev, eating some cocoa-puffs while she boiled water for tea.

The breakfast lady was in a foul mood that morning.  She stormed in to the kitchen and started rearranging things with a violent efficiency, clicking her heels.  Yev and I were silent.  Finally, I said “Dzien dobry” (good morning) to break the tension.

Wow.  That was the last straw, I guess.  The breakfast lady flew into a huge Polish rant as she stormed around us.  We couldn’t understand a word, but she was clearly upset.

Yev said she reminded her of one of her Soviet schoolmasters.

I didn’t wait to see how the fury played out.  I got out of there.  Yev stayed behind.

Yev later told me that, after making a sandwich (which the breakfast lady saw her do), she made a super-quick pit-stop at the washroom, only to come back and find that her sandwich had been thrown in the garbage.  Presumably by the breakfast lady.

8:25AM

We boarded the bus and were en route.

It was a tense morning.  Tamara told us that the Auschwitz trip was optional, and so a few of us had stayed back.  The bus ride was unusually quiet.

I think everybody was preparing themselves.

9:45AM

I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera (or so I thought), so I left it on the bus.

After getting off the bus, we read a multi-lingual sign that set the behavioural tone for the rest of the tour:

Througout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim. In 1940, the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty subcamps.

The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deporters of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the settling for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz – men, women, and children – were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

When the SS realised that the end of war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oswiecim – Brzezinka on the sites of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979, these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.

PLEASE BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY RESPECTING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SUFFERED AND DIED HERE.

Next to this was a map of the compound.  Again, no photos, so something like this will have to do.

Looking at the map, my eyes were drawn to the familiar word “Canada”.  It turns out that, when new arrivals came to the camps, their belongings were stripped from them and sent to a special area of the camp called Canada for sorting and searching.  It was called Canada, because at the time, Canada was considered the land of plenty.  Here’s Wikipedia’s take on it.

Near the signs were, of all things, gift and souvenir shops, called the “informatory”.  Postcards, books, videos, photos…  seemed a bit in bad taste.  After seeing the gift shops, I noticed all of the smiling tourists around me, and I found that quite macabre.

It was particularly disturbing because of how quiet it was.  There were also “keep silence” signs all over the place.  So yeah, it was quiet.  Really quiet.

As we approached the entrance, we heard birds chirping.  It was overcast – the grass was still wet from the morning dew.

10:00AM

As we were reading the signs, Tamara had gone off to get the tour guide.  On her way back, her face was covered in tears.  She’d visited Auschwitz for a tour several times before, and firmly stated to us that she couldn’t bring herself to do it again.  So she went off to go wait in the bus.  It was an ominous moment.

All of the tour guides were dressed in black.  Ours was no exception.  After a brief, quiet hello, she gave us each a set of earphones and receiver.  This is how she would communicate with us during the tour.  This way, she wouldn’t have to yell for us all to hear her.  Instead, the tour became very personal, and she was able to speak softly to each of us individually.  I wrote in my journal that her voice was incredibly soft, caring, and soothing – and that she reminded me more of a nurse than a tour guide.  I really think part of her job was to soothe, as well as to educate.

We headed towards Auschwitz I.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

An Extremely Brief History of Auschwitz

Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, and eventually became the central administrative hub of the complex.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

The buildings of Auschwitz I were military barracks, originally constructed by and for the Polish army.  In the late 1930’s, Poland had been invaded, split up, and annexed to the Nazis and the Soviets.  So technically, Poland ceased to exist.  The Nazis saw the barracks in their new territory as “very convenient” for housing the growing number of Polish prisoners, especially considering the railroad junctions that led to it.  The Nazis set up shop, and the land and buildings became Auschwitz I.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Auschwitz I was originally established strictly for Polish prisoners, but eventually Gypsy’s and Soviet POW’s were held there as well.

Eventually, Auschwitz I got so packed with prisoners, that two more camps were built in close proximity.  Those camps were named Auschwitz II and III.

The Main Gate

This is the main gate to the camp:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The gate reads:

Arbeit Marcht Frei

Which translates to “Work Makes You Free”, or “Work Gives You Freedom”.

Surrounding the entire camp was a double electric fence:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

Entering the Camp

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The camp orchestra, composed entirely of prisoners, would play lively German marches as the prisoners were led into the camp.  It was humiliating and dehumanizing.  This also made it easier for the guards to count and keep the prisoners in step.

The men and women were then separated, and sent to different barracks.  There would be 800-1000 prisoners assigned per barrack, which only had 2 stories.  The prisoners in Auschwitz I were cramped to the extreme.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The roads we walked down were all empty and quiet, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them filled with the noise of thousands upon thousands of prisoners, being crammed into the buildings.

It was pretty disturbing.  In this shot, you can see me scrambling to scribble all of this information down in the background.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

We then entered one of the barracks, which had been converted into a museum.

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

A sign loomed overhead reading:

The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

The Barracks

Auschwitz was almost in the center of occupied Europe.  With the already-established railroad system, the Nazis were able to send over 1,000,000 prisoners to Auschwitz.  The majority of those prisoners were Jewish.

It didn’t start out that way, but at some point during 1942-1943, Auschwitz became an extermination camp.

A sign on the wall broke down the prisoners as follows:

1,300,000 sent to Auschwitz
1,100,000 Jews
140,000 – 150,000 Poles
23,000 – Roma / Gipsy’s
15,000 – Soviet Prisoners
25,000 – Other

90% Jews

A large, glass, transparent urn in the barracks held human ashes in rememberence.

During the original invasion of Poland, the Nazis focused on capturing/executing as many Polish monks, priests, lawyers, leaders, and educated people as possible.  This was their method of “destroying” Poland’s culture and identity.  After an uprising in Warsaw, 13,000 Poles were sent to Auschwitz I as punishment.

Many photos were taken at Auschwitz by the SS for their own use.  Those black and white photos lined the walls of the museum.  We weren’t allowed to take photographs, so I can’t show them to you, but I can describe some of them.  Imagine black and white, blurry photos of extremely thin, extremely gaunt, bald people, wearing prisoner garb.  Imagine seeing photos of them digging graves for themselves, or jumping to a particular height for a guard’s amusement, or running at top speed in a big circle “just because”, so the guards could watch.

SS “doctors” were always present at prisoner arrival to “conduct selections” on who could work and who could be executed immediately.  There were photos on the wall of women, children, and old people, being sent to their death.  They look calm, because they didn’t know.

The Jews who weren’t executed immediately were put to work.  Some were sent to Auschwitz III, which was a work and manufacturing camp.  Prisoners were forced to make things there for the Nazis.

Other prisoners became Sonderkommandos, which means they assisted in the execution of other prisoners.  Sonderkommandos would work in the crematoriums and gas chambers, and were forced to witness and commit various horrible atrocities against other prisoners.

Gassing of prisoners took place underground.  A single gas chamber would have 2000 prisoners crammed inside of it at one time.  Prisoners who entered the gas chambers were told that they were taking showers.  Fake faucets in the ceilings and walls helped sell the illusion.

After the doors were shut, crystals of Cyclone B were dropped in through openings in the ceiling.  After 20 minutes, all were dead.  Sonderkommandos would then go in and carry the bodies to the crematorium.

Before the bodies were cremated, Sonderkommandos had to cut off the hair from the women.  The hair was packed into bags, and sent elsewhere to be turned into hair-cloth and other textiles.  The ashes of the prisoners were used as fertilizer.  Everything was reused.

At one point, we entered a room in the museum, where behind a large pane of glass, we saw mounds of human hair that had been found at the camp.  Massive quantities of dead prisoners hair.

This was the point in the tour that most people started to lose it.  Lots of tears.  Lots of crying.  I kept scribbling.

Any belongings or valuables brought by the prisoners into the camp were sent to the camps called Canada I and Canada II for processing.  The plunder ended up being part of the evidence that was used to prove the atrocities that had happened at the camp.  Like the piles of hair, we saw piles of glasses, piles of shoes, piles of Jewish prayer shawls, combs, brushes, suitcases, clothing, prosthetics, crutches, pottery, bowls, cutlery… everything was sorted.  The quantity was simply horrifying.

In my journal, I noted that the lighting in the barracks was quite muted, but that the exhibits (the hair, combs, etc) were under bright flourescents.  It was really macabre – like seeing a body at a morgue.

The next part of the exhibit was even more horrifying.  It turns out that 20% of the victims of the camp had been children (90% Jewish).  There was a room, absolutely packed to the brim, with children’s shoes.  So many shoes.

And that’s the thing – I noted this in my journal:  it’s not just the atrocity itself, but the sheer size of the atrocity that is so horrifying.  The piles of shoes and the hair really gave us a sense of that size.

Prisoners

Of the prisoners that weren’t immediately executed, 50% were Jewish.  Many were Polish.  All were treated like property.

There were some prisoners who were given some of the responsibilities of the guards – for example, being in charge of work units.  These prisoners were always German criminals.

The prisoners were deprived of all of their human characteristics.  No names.  Just numbers.  Photos were originally used for identification, but this was eventually changed to tattoos because a prisoner’s appearence would change too much.

The Nazis were meticulous record-keepers.  Prisoner IDs were linked to prisoner files that held details such as education, age, and history.

Hunger was rampant among the prisoners.  There wasn’t nearly enough food for all of them.

One sign we saw gave us a breakdown of the daily life of a prisoner.  I couldn’t get it all down, but the pattern was obvious:  prisoners were slowly killed with work.  They were punished and beaten.  Most lasted less than a year.

All non-Jewish children became prisoners.  These children were also often subject to horrific “scientific” experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.

Among other things, Mengele apparently wanted to find ways of creating twins and triplets, so that German “Aryans” could reproduce quickly.

Other atrocities were performed by Dr. Carl Clauberg who tortured Jewish women, in an attempt at finding ways of sterilizing them.

It was a lot to take in.  We went back outside.

Back Outside

We were at the execution wall.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

Prisoners, often naked, were shot in the back of their heads.  It is estimated that 10,000 prisoners were shot at this wall.  There were also posts were prisoners could have their arms strung up behind them for hours, as torture, and as punishment.

There were also starvation cells.  In one of those cells, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death with 9 other men.

Eventually, we entered a building where the first experimental mass killings took place.  There were suffocation cells.  There were cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night.  Pretty horrific.

The “camp hospital” existed for propaganda, to keep the purpose of the extermination camp a secret.  The hospital was really the “crematorium waiting room”, since selections would often happen there.

Roll call was also used as prisoner punishment.  If a prisoner escaped, or it was suspected that a prisoner had escaped, the remaining prisoners would be punished.  They’d be lined up and counted outside of their barracks, again and again.  Sometimes they’d be out there for 20 hours straight.

Only 144 prisoners successfully escaped Auschwitz.  Captured escapees were tortured for information on their escape, and then executed.

Crematorium I was originally an ammo bunker.  The crematorium was dark…stone…dusty…gritty.  It was all so much monstrous efficiency.

Break

The first part of the tour was over.  We handed back our headsets and took a 10 minute break.

I wrote that the sun was warm, and that some of us were hungry.

12:05PM

We just got a small snack.  We’re all sitting outside.  Everybody is quiet.  Some of us are eating.  Some of us are drinking coffee.  Some of us are smoking.  Some of us are crying.  It’s pretty rough.  It’s hard to be an optimist here – hard to feel good, anyhow.  Just…devestated.

12:20PM

We’re late.  Our 10 minute break went on too long, and we’re late getting back on the bus.  We’re heading to the next camp.

The bus really has never been so quiet.  But what do we say to one another?  This is no place for joking around…no place for making quips.  What’s the first thing you say?

There are storm clouds in the distance.

It’s a 3km drive to the next camp.  Tamara says that there are no exhibits…just the barracks and other buildings, the railroad tracks, and the gas chambers.

Auschwitz II

We’re here.  I recognize where I am – I think I had seen it in Schindler’s List.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

It’s brick and fields, barbed wire, and wooden barracks.  It’s starting to rain gently.  Those of us with umbrellas put them up.

The fields here used to be Polish homes and farmland before the residents were evicted by the invaders.  The barracks were constructed from materials from destroyed buildings.

Not all of the barracks are still standing.  Some have been dismantled.  Others have crumbled with age.

The gas chambers have been destroyed, but the ruins are still there.

There’s grass and flowers now, but during the war, everything here was muddy and swampy.

We closed our umbrellas and went into the barracks.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The Barracks

Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

The barracks reminded me of stables for horses.  Wooden bunks, and a single stone oven for heating.  At least 400 people per barrack.  No toilets inside.  No washrooms.  Just buckets and ditches in the ground, and barrels of water outside.

There were “toilets” outside, which were really just holes in the ground with wood frames built over them.

Members of the prison resistance would meet by the ditches/toilets, since the guards would never go near them (due to the smell, and disease).

Like Auschwitz I, there’s barbed wire everywhere.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The Gas Chambers, and Liberation

75% of Jews were gassed on arrival to the camp.

In November, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army could reach the camp.  Nazi soldiers began destroying the evidence of what had happened at the camp, starting with the gas chambers.

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 
Photo Credit:  Alex Rubin

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Photo Credit: Alex Rubin

 

In January, 1945, with the Red Army getting closer, SS command ordered that all prisoners at Auschwitz be executed.  This order was never carried out.  Instead, the camp was evacuated, and the prisoners were sent on death marches to another camp in Wodzisław Śląski.  Prisoners who were too sick or weak to march were left behind.  Those 7,500 prisoners were still there when the Red Army came to liberate them.

According to Wikipedia:

Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.

Final Words

Some of the buildings and ruins in Auschwitz II are sinking, and the museum is working hard to restore them.

Just past the last gas chamber is a large stone monument.  Large, Easter Island-like heads and monoliths.

At the base of the monument are numerous plaques, all in different languages.  Here’s the English one:

Photo credit:  Anj Mulligan

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Photo credit: Anj Mulligan

 

The monument is surrounded by flowers and wreaths.

The tour is now over.  We thank the tour-guide, and, in the rain, follow the train tracks back out the main entrance.  Birds chirp.  Grass grows.  Puddles. Life continues.

It’s no surprise to me that existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd came about in reaction to these atrocities.

And that’s it for my Auschwitz notes.

3:30PM

Just got off the bus.  Had a nice long nap – I think most of us did.  We’re back in Krakow.  It’s sunny and warm.  Tamara has given us free time now.

5:30PM

Had a nice big late lunch (or early dinner) with  Alex, Linn, Una, and Jiv.

Onion soup, garlic bread, and a banana-chili shake.  Nice!

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Onion soup, garlic bread, and a banana-chili shake. Nice!24-Jun-2009 11:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64

 

We discussed Auschwitz – it seemed OK to do now.  We all agreed that it was a devastating experience, but we were glad we did it.

Our moods were starting to lighten.

We also saw a guy in a beer suit walking around:

Giant beer suit!

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Giant beer suit!24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 
The giant beer suit stalks its prey...

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The giant beer suit stalks its prey…24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

And we also saw some breakdancers doing some moves in the market square.

Krakow breakdancers

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Krakow breakdancers24-Jun-2009 11:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 11:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 11:34, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

I caught some of it on video:

After eating, I went to the phone to call Em.

6:05PM

Just got off the phone with Em.  Told her all about Auschwitz.  Missing her a lot. I decided to try to make myself feel better by getting some lemon sorbet.  It’s a pretty good deal at 4z.  I found Alexi and Yev drinking coffee in the square, and joined them while I finished my cone.

I think Yev borrowed my camera and took these photos:

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24-Jun-2009 13:14, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.007 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 13:14, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

7:05PM

I’m on my own now.  There’s some big crowd in the square, and I hear clapping.  Buskers?

Ah, looks like another breakdance group.

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24-Jun-2009 14:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.23, 7.5mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

And there are accordion players here!  They’re playing some classical music.  Nice.

Krakow accordian players

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Krakow accordian players24-Jun-2009 14:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64

 

And a mime painted all in gold (though in this shot, he looks like he’s on break):

Mr. Gold.

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Mr. Gold.24-Jun-2009 14:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.009 sec, ISO 64

 

There’s also a group of people giving out free hugs.

All of this activity is occurring around another statue of Adam Mickiewicz:

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24-Jun-2009 14:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.5, 15.5mm, 0.012 sec, ISO 64

 

7:15PM

I listen to the accordion players for a while.  They’re playing the William Tell Overture.

Eventually, I exit the square into a side street.  I hear violins…eventually, I see the players:

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24-Jun-2009 14:24, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 100

 

And I think I hear a dulcimer being played somewhere.

7:25PM

The street I strolled down is called Florianska.  At some earlier point, I had gotten the urge to check out some of the local music scene, and the girl at the hostel told me to walk down this street.  She said there was an indie rock bar around here called The Lizard, but I haven’t found it yet.  And I’m slowly approaching the end of the street.

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24-Jun-2009 14:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

So I haven’t found The Lizard.  My quest to find some indie music is a failure.  I did peer through the window of a closed music store, though.

Heading back, the sun is starting to set.

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24-Jun-2009 14:50, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64

 

I’ve suddenly realized that there’s less than a week left in my trip.

7:30PM

I’m sitting in some park, listening to the birds.  While I recognize some of the calls, most of the birds sound really different than what I’m normally used to.

Thunder rumbles in the distance.  I think there will be another storm tonight.

7:50PM

I’m back in the square.  I hear bagpipes somewhere – the notes from the pipes are reverberating off of the walls.

Eventually, I see the piper.  He’s really far away, and I have to zoom in with my camera:

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24-Jun-2009 15:06, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.023 sec, ISO 64

 

The square seems pretty busy for a Wednesday night.  I imagine the place gets absolutely packed on weekends.

It’s a whole spectrum of age groups out this evening.  I’m also hearing a variety of languages.  Polish, English, and German for starters.  Italian too.  Mostly white people.  One or two exceptions.  Some rollerbladers.

The Trumpet

An ambulance raced by, driving through the crowded square. As it passed, I heard a trumpet playing a tune from the top of the cathedral, and then abruptly stop.

I heard the same tune over the bus radio when we first landed in Poland, but I think I forgot to write about it.  It has something to do with a trumpet player trying to warn the city of invaders, and then being shot in the throat whiel playing – hence, the sudden stop.

A crowd of people has formed in front of one of the cathedrals.  Lots of talk, buzzing, but no English.  Not sure what’s going on.  Is it a tour about to start?  Church service?  Mass?  At 8:07PM?

The Birds

I’ve noticed some noisy, high-pitched, tiny birds flying from building to building.  They’re abundant.  Maybe bats?  I feel like an idiot trying to take a photo of them, but I do it anyways:

These little noisy birds were everywhere

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These little noisy birds were everywhere24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64

 

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24-Jun-2009 15:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 64

 

The three men playing on the accordions are still there, and now that crowd is starting to move.  I guess the cathedral was acting like some big meeting point for a tour group.  The accordion players are doing the William Tell Overture again – they seem to have a repetoire of about 5 songs.

My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.

Click here to go to Part 11.5: Back to the Hostel

Click here to go back to Part 10: Journey to Krakow, Wawel Hill, and The Dragon.

The Importance of First Impressions: How Theatre Criticism Might Inform Peer Code Review

Discussion Plays

I have seen plays that have very clear stories, and very clear plots.  I leave the theatre knowing what has happened, and I can be pretty confident that the people who sat around me in the theatre all got the same message as I did.

I have also seen plays that are completely the opposite.  There doesn’t appear to be a story.  There doesn’t appear to be plot.  There are no real characters.  For these plays, all of a sudden, I have to do the work in order to make sense of it all.  And you can be pretty sure that every single audience member got something different out of it.

I want to talk about this second kind of play.  For now, I’m going to call this kind of play a discussion play, because for me, the best part about these kinds of plays is the discussion I have with my friends afterwards. We’ll all sit down in a restaurant or a cafe, order some food, and try to figure out what the hell we just saw.  Theories are tossed around.  Everybody brings their own unique impressions and observations to the table.  A very rich ecosystem of ideas develops.

Back to Peer Code Reviews

(trust me, this all ties together in the end)

When Jason Cohen did his Peer Review at Cisco Study, he noticed that code that had been prepared by the author for review seemed to have a lower defect density than code that had not been prepared.

What do I mean by prepared?  I’ll let Jason Cohen explain:

The idea of “author preparation” is that authors should annotate their source code before the review begins.  Annotations guide the reviewer through the changes, showing which files to look at first and defending the reason and methods behind each code modification.  The theory is that because the author has to re-think all the changes during the annotation process, the author will himself uncover most of the defects before the review even begins, thus making the review itself more efficient.  Reviewers will uncover problems the author truly would not have thought of otherwise.

(Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review, p80-81)

Looking at the data, author preparation does seem to have a palpable effect.  As Cohen notes, “for all reviews with at least one author preparation comment, defects density is never over 30; in fact the most common case is for there to be no defects at all!”.

The study has two explanations for this:

  1. Authors gave their code such a thorough look while annotating them, that most defects were eliminated right off the bat.
  2. Since authors were actively explaining, or defending their code, this sabotaged the reviewers ability to do their job effectively.

Cohen buys into the first explanation.  He writes:

A survey of the reviews in question show the author is being conscientious, careful, and helpful, and not misleading the reviewer.  Often the reviewer will respond to or ask a question or open a conversation on another line of code, demonstrating that he was not dulled by the author’s annotations.

I have huge respect for this study.  But I don’t entirely buy this explanation.  As Cohen later mentioned in an email to me, this conclusion is not derived from a controlled experiment, and also suffers from selection bias.

Back to those Discussion Plays

One of the worst things that can happen to me before going into a discussion play is for someone who has already seen it to tell me their impressions of what they thought was going on.  As soon as I hear their opinion, my own objectivity is compromised.  Whether I want to or not, I’ll have their impressions in the back of my mind, and I’ll be using it as a measuring stick or reference point for my own opinions and critiques. They’ve carved a cognitive path through the work, and I’m doomed to notice that path, and react to it.

This is horrible.  This limits me.  This more or less hobbles my ability to contribute something unique to the pool of ideas and criticisms in the after-play discussion.  Every impression I have is tainted by someone else’s first impression.

Don’t get me wrong – I love hearing about everyone’s impressions.  But after I have formed my own. This way, I believe we cover more ground.  A group of us watching a discussion play will carve unique cognitive paths through the work without influencing one another.  When we finally open up and present these paths and ideas to one another over food and drink, I believe we cover more ground.

I have no data to back this up.  Only years of theatre-going experience.

A Code Review Anecdote

I recently received an email from a colleague of mine.  She wanted me to go over some of her Javascript to make sure it was up to snuff, since she was relatively new to the language.  I noticed that she had also sent a copy of the email to another developer who has pretty sharp Javascript chops.

When I finally had some free time, I went back to her email to write up the review.  I felt bad – it was late, and the other reviewer hadn’t made a peep on the email thread, and she was hoping to use the code relatively soon.  So I dove in, wrote my review, and sent it off.

A little while later, the other developer sent me his review, saying:

And here was my answer, which I didn’t send to you so as not to influence your reply.  😉

So the author of the code received two unique reviews, and neither of them had influenced the other.  When I read his review, I noticed that we covered some similar ground, but a lot of unique ground as well.  I suspect this wouldn’t have been the case had he sent his review to me first.

The Hypothesis

I hypothesize that author preparation in code review sabotages reviewers abilities to objectively carve their own unique cognitive paths through the code.  They see things from the author’s point of view, and this dulls their critical eye.  Because of this, I believe fewer defects are detected.

I will take this hypothesis one step further.

I suspect any review, by the author or otherwise, will taint future reviews.  If someone has already reviewed some code, I suspect this review will impact and possibly limit the ability of other reviewers to look at the code objectively.  Like author preparation, I suspect this prevents reviewers from getting their own unique, valuable first impressions of the code.  And I suspect that this causes some defects to go undetected.

Testing This Hypothesis

It’s a simple idea really.  Take a chunk of code, and get some number of developers to review it.  Take this same code, add some author preparation comments, and get more developers to review it.  Do all of the normal balancing, etc.

The question:  do the number of detected defects drop?  If so, this looks like evidence that author preparation sabotages review ability.

Take the experiment one step further.  Take some code, have someone else review it, and then have participants review this code, having seen the first review.  What happens to the number and type of defects that they find?  What happens if they don’t see that initial review?  What yields high defect detection?

Sounds doable.  Sounds interesting.  Sounds like something that would answer a few questions.

Implications and Ideas

So what if one or both of my hypotheses are true?  What does this mean for peer code review?

Well, if author preparation alone sabotages review ability, then the answer is simple:  don’t let the authors prepare the review.  The code goes up, and they stay silent.

But what if both are true?

An idea:  how about I tweak MarkUs’s ReviewBoard so that reviewers cannot see what other reviewers have said until they’ve given one review?  What would happen to the defect detection numbers?  Would reviewers react negatively to this?  Would there be lots of repetition in the comments?  Sounds like something worth looking into.

I’d love to hear some thoughts on this.  Anyone?