Castles, Kings, Popes, and Dictators

Before I get going, my essays from Poland were written while on a few hours of sleep, a five hour time difference, and tired thumbs on my Android phone. Yes I’ve seen the typos glaring back at me like a snake in our henhouse, daring me to get involved, and I haven’t had the patience or energy to correct them.

espresso only gets this writer so far

My last day in Poland was spent in Krakow where I walked many kilometers through the old city in and around Castle Wawel. This part of Krakow is breathtakingly beautiful and 21st Century tech is woven through its ancient architecture. Like many historical cities and cultures, Krakow’s history involves mystery and mythology. Krakus was an ancient warrior king that slew Wawel the dragon thereby making the hilly banks of the Vistula River safe for development. Romulus and Remus, King Arthur, Beowulf, Thor, Moses, and Hera all have similar stories of slaying, saving, and civilizing an uncivil world. These stories are important to all of us, Moses no less than Beowulf. They represent artistic and theological expression and humanity’s desire for knowledge and purpose with respect to community. Why are we here? And what is our greater purpose beyond slaying dragons?

Wawel Castle, Krakow

Wawel Castle (vah-vel) dates to the 1100s, the city of Krakow goes back another three or four hundred years. And it’s important to know that written language only dates back to about 1500BC Sumeria. Incidentally, that first attempt at writing was hieroglyphics, recipes for bread and beer. Humans had only recently created written language and a few blinks of earth’s eye later and we were making incredible brick castles and glorious cathedrals. And therein lies the challenge of history, these castles and cathedrals were often built by the tip of the king’s, or pope’s spear. Until 1781, all history, all cultures save for Greece circa 400 BC, were ruled by one person, usually a man and sometimes a woman. And most of them had a frightening thirst for blood and land.

Poland’s public transportation system is brilliant

As far as our time on earth goes, humans are still evolving, growing, and occasionally regressing. We may believe we live in an unparalleled age of enlightment, yet our planet is still host to fire breathing dragons and wannabe Thors with medieval instincts and little regard for human life. Putin follows in the footsteps of Hussein, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, al-Assad, Mugabe, CeauČ™escu…I could keep going. And it’s tough to say no to the whims of the dictator when his spear is in your back. Just ask those young Russian soldiers that were told all of this was just an exercise, until it wasn’t.

church in Krakow’s old Square

How is it we have such magnificent churches across Europe, Africa, North and South America, where monarchs and presidents placed their hands on bibles and received their coronation. Stained glass buildings dedicated to a God whose most memorable act involved ten basic lessons for a successful life, and yet those laws were broken with impunity by those very rulers. Which Bishop, while holding that crown over their head, whispered “just ignore those commandments, Sire, because You are appointed by God.”?

trinkets for sale at Krakow’s central market

The choirs sang, the people bowed their heads, the pontiff spritzed everyone with holy water, and the ruler was escorted into the sunshine then whisked off to their gold-crusted office so they could plan the next round of genocide. I know, not all of those dictators put their hands on bibles, some used essential books of other religions. But you get the point, correct? Even Putin attended a prayer service after being sworn in. And I know the United States and our leaders are not without our own crimes and stains on humanity. Indeed, is any large federal government or church free from these sort of sins? I wish I had an answer. I do know that Ukraine is 50% Jewish, as is Zelensky. So much for Putin’s claim he is “de-Nazifying the Ukraine.” His flimsy excuse for this mass murder is keeping with the traditions of his predecessors, as many others had similar claims of cleansing. While we were in Belize visiting the Mayan temple at Xunantanich, another visitor, from Spain, was asking their tour guide about the human sacrifices committed by the Mayan leaders, then shaking their heads over the thought of such horrors.

nun pedaling through Krakow’s city square

However, at the same time of these Mayan atrocities, the Catholic church in Europe was busy burning “heretics” as fast as they could light the bonfires. Perhaps that is why so many of us are constantly jumping between houses of worship?

Years ago the US Coast Guard rescued a man lost at sea for 16 years. He was found on a Pacific island living a solo existence. Before he was lifted to freedom, the helicopter pilot asked him about the three small huts on the island.

“Oh? Well that first one is where I lived. That larger one over there with the tall roof, well that’s where I went to church. That third small one off in the distance? That’s where I used to go to church.”

Ukranian citizens applying for an American visa

I know. It’s an old joke.

On the flip side, would Poland, or any other country, be nearly as intriguing without the contributions to art and architecture created by those inspired by their church? Doubtful.

United Sikh volunteer offers some love to a Ukrainian kid

What I do know is when crimes of humanity happen, there’s always non-partisan help on the way; an outpouring of compassion from across the globe and these agencies, the effective ones, the ones that arrive quickly, set up early, and begin the often dangerous task of feeding those most in need, are never government sponsored.

Ukranian flag drawn by a school kid in France

When the fighting is over I would return to Poland without hesitation as I loved practically everything about it. I met some wonderful people that are now life-long friends and was able to enjoy some of Poland’s charms. And I’m quite envious of their public transportation and their walking/cycling paths. Rzeszow, where I stayed, was a city a bit larger than Greenville and there were paths like our own Swamp Rabbit Trail everywhere. I told Amy I wanted to move to Poland and she responded with “I’d love to visit Poland.”

Pub in Krakow

My time in Poland has come to an end and while that brings a sense of relief, I also feel as if I’ve abandoned the effort. When I arrived at the airport in Krakow I felt like I hadn’t done enough. That somehow I was letting everyone down: you, the Ukranians, my World Central Kitchen teammates, the Polish…everyone. On the flight to Munich I fell asleep and suddenly I was serving soup out of a small kettle to an endless line of hungry women with empty bowls held by trembling hands. And my kettle held but a few servings. I looked over my shoulder for back up, and none was in sight. The dream was so vivid I jolted myself awake and I must’ve shouted out because the flight attendant asked me if there was something she could do. I was told this sense of abandonment is common for those in these situations, indeed several of my colleagues reported similar feelings.

Tin Roof Farm

As of this morning, Amy has biscuits in the oven, the farm shows the signs of our recent rain and sunshine and I’m grateful for all of the love my friends, and those of you I’ve never met, have showed me. I was overwhelmed with all the encouraging emails, text messages, interviews, DMs, voice mails, and monetary gifts to help offset my costs. I made purchases for the Mama’s House tent in Mydeka, donated to WCK, put gas in the tank of other volunteers, and bought candy for little kids.

How are the Polish so fit when their doughnuts are this big?

And I’ve returned home with a new stamp in my passport and a new set of memories to enjoy. And when the fighting is over, the Russians have retreated back to the land of their dictator, and the clean up has begun, everyone that supported me and my WCK teammates will have played a small part in the victory. Remember, only James Bond gets to save the world, but YOU can save a small part of it. So which part will you save?

~ John



3 Responses

  1. Thank you for all of your efforts and service with WCK in Poland! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us all. We love, love Poland and the Polish people too (especially Krakow!). Welcome home.

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