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November 28th, 2010

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

Which, as town halls go, is pretty cool.



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



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

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

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

That's why the architects of Gdansk saw fit to include...



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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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



I don't know what it's actually called, but I mentally dubbed it "Jesus Does a Facepalm."

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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




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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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