Looking for Poland

This was our first trip to Poland, and Krackow, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our first stop. Krackow dates back to a little Stone Age settlement.

 It’s is remarkably well preserved for a city that has stood for over a thousand years, and survived the hell that was World War II.

 

Even the McDonalds there is deeply rooted in Poland’s ancient history.

Literally!  During its construction, medieval foundations were discovered and incorporated into the restaurant design. We bought a cup of coffee so we could go downstairs to check out the McVault in the basement, and it was like nothing you’ve ever seen in The House That Ronald Built.

Krackow suffered under the Nazis, but Warsaw got pounded.  At the Warsaw Uprising Museum we watched a movie that gave us an aerial view of post-war Warsaw. Of that bustling metropolis, only miles and miles of rubble and ruins remained.  The scale of destruction was unimaginable.

 

When the Poles defended themselves against the German invasion, the Nazis response was to destroy hospitals, schools, churches, universities, and commit mass murder upon both Jew and Gentile. When finally forced to retreat, out of spite the Nazis blew up anything still standing.

The Peugot Building was built where the old synagogue once stood. The Jewish Historical Institute is next door, in a reconstructed building that housed the Jewish Library.

Between the Nazis and the Soviets, over 400,000 Warsovians were murdered in the war. Those lives and all their promise can never be replaced. But the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city, brick by brick.  Canaletto’s 18th century paintings were used as visual references to recreate beloved heritage sites.  All along The Royal Way that artwork is displayed…

…in front of the structures that were rebuilt using them as guides.

You can’t say they don’t make ’em like they used to.

The Warsovians resurrected the Old Town Square too.

 Some say it’s like Disneyland, too perfect, but I thought it was beautiful, and I loved all the cool details.

 The royal palace in Warsaw…

…was also destroyed and reconstructed.

Some furniture and other treasures were spirited away before the Luftwaffe bombings, but the throne room and the banner with its royal eagles were destroyed.

  Only one of the original eagles survived, and somehow found its way to the United States.  It was used a model to replicate the original design.

 The clock in the Knight’s Hall, featuring the god of time, is forever stopped at 11:15, a moment never to be forgotten– the exact time the Nazis bombed the palace.

Poland’s history is harsh and fascinating, colorful and complicated.

Reminders of its painful past are everywhere–like the memorial to the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews killed in this bunker by the Nazis. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, which was called Hitler Platz when occupied by the Germans.

We saw statues honoring the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising…

…and one honoring the children who worked for the resistance, although their roles involved carrying messages more often than guns.

There was the memorial to the 15,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Soviet army at Katyn.

There were even teenage street musicians in uniform, singing war songs.

On a street corner we glanced down and realized we were standing on what used to be the Ghetto Wall.

So much suffering.  So many stories, most of which can never be told.

After living under the jackboot of the Nazis, like so many other countries of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured further decades of Soviet oppression.  But each new rebellion brought them closer to independence.

The success of the Solidarity movement was a long time coming, a difficult struggle that was as much for freedom as for bread.

It is all inextricably woven into the fabric of their nation’s past.

I wondered how it had affected the people…

…and how much of it was passed from one generation to the next.

After centuries of oppression and foreign rule…

…Poland is now a prosperous and independent Democracy.

I saw joy there, most often in stolen glimpses.

But wherever we went we felt safe.  People were always polite and helpful….

…although rarely quick to smile.

I’ve heard that Europeans believe Americans smile too much and too easily, and perhaps we do.

But in Gdansk…

…an old woman caught me watching her.  I could either avert my eyes and hurry on, or smile and give a little wave, which I did.  And when I did, she smiled back with such unexpected warmth that I couldn’t help myself–I blew her a kiss.

That was Poland in a nutshell.

All words and photos copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Texture.

Tiny Miracles

I have been out in the world again.  All the stories I’ve seen and heard and lived have been patiently but eagerly contained, just waiting to be told.

 

In Poland and Lithuania, where we were traveling, World War II still casts a long shadow over the land.  That is a long, hard, sad story.


But little stories are everywhere, and more often than not, you will find stories within stories.  In fact, they will find you.

In Vilnius, even the walls contained stories.  We started to notice things, like faded Hebrew lettering on an old wall…

…Or a Star of David scratched in stone seventy years ago.

We learned that our apartment was in the Vilnius Ghetto, where more than 42,000 Vilnius Jews were imprisoned before they were murdered.

Near our place was a statue in memory of Dr. Tsemakh Shabad, a Jewish doctor in Vilnius.  A lovely young Lithuanian named Yrita gave us the inside story.

 The good doctor was loved by all, especially the children, and not only because he believed most childhood illnesses could be cured with a warm glass of milk and a bit of chocolate.

When a mother brought her little girl to him, that was what he prescribed.  They had no money for chocolate, so for a week he had the little girl come by every morning to take her medicine– a glass of warm milk and some chocolate.  Sure enough, she soon felt better.

When the little girl’s kitten fell ill, she knew just what to do.

She took her kitten to the doctor and asked him to cure it.

The doctor told her that in this case, they would forego the chocolate, and stick with the warm milk.  I’m glad to tell you the kitten recovered as well.

Though Dr. Shabad died in 1935, the children of Vilnius still visit him.  When they do, they rub the kitten’s nose and make a wish, certain it will come true.

 

 Yrita told us that for little wishes, you rub the kitten’s nose.  For very big wishes, you might need to rub the doctor’s nose.

 Sometimes wishes don’t come true, not even the little ones, and not all stories have a happy ending.

Sometimes the best we can do is to search for a little light in the darkness.  Sometimes you will find it in the most unexpected places.

Tiny miracles can be found everywhere– even in a bit of chocolate, especially when served with a cup of kindness.

All words and images c2014 Naomi Baltuck.

Got Glow?

Have you ever met someone who seems to radiate light?

 And you wonder, is it magic?

Or love?

Or faith?

Or creative passion?

Or the simple joy of being alive?

i

It is inspiring.

Even contagious!

May you find whatever it is that makes your cheeks glow…

 

…your imagination take wing…

 

…and your heart sing.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme.

Chasing Rainbows


If a tree falls in the woods and I don’t photograph it, did I really see it?

Last week, amidst the throes of last-minute packing for spring break in Hawaii, I was mentally outlining the next chapter of my manuscript. That’s the only excuse I can give for walking out of the house and onto an airplane…

Without. My. Camera.

So Thom gave me charge of his new toy, a Pentax underwater camera, for use in or out of the water.  My hero!

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Its zoom wasn’t as powerful, but I was grateful.  As they say, “Any port in a storm!”


I snapped a handful of shots before it died. We changed the battery and…nothing.  Arrrrgh!  I thought about buying a new camera, but it seemed wasteful; I’m happy with the one at home.  Maybe just a one-use camera, a single roll of film in a recycled plastic case?  No, those photos always look washed out. Then I thought, I’ve been to Maui, and I’ll be back.  How many sunsets do I need in my archives?

 

I don’t need to chase rainbows

 

I decided to make a clean break of it, go cold turkey.  Perhaps my travel experience might even improve without a lens between me and my world.

Look, Ma!  No cams!


I confess, I felt the pangs of withdrawal.  My photographs help refresh memories I might otherwise forget.

 

 With my camera, I am never alone.

I anticipate with pleasure the sharing of pictures with friends, family, my blogging community.  Even sans camera, I was constantly framing shots in my mind’s eye. Sea turtles gliding in ocean currents.  Two hotel maids walking arm-in-arm down a deserted hotel corridor.  The underwater service station run by a pair of enterprising Cleaning Wrasse, with bigger fish lined up like cars at a car wash, patiently waiting their turn to be picked clean of parasites.

Oh, yes, and the kid in neon snorkel gear who shouted, “Mom!  Dad!  I can hear the whales singing!”  Eli and I smiled indulgently at his vivid imagination.

The next morning we were snorkeling off that same beach when Eli said, “Mom! Dad! I can hear whales singing!”  I thought he was teasing, but I ducked under the waves, held my breath, and listened.  And I could hear them too.  For an hour or more, we held perfectly still, just letting the whale song wash over us. I’d been coming to Maui for twenty years, but had never heard them. Had they been there all along? I was an astronaut, observing an alien planet from my little floating bubble, and was unexpectedly invited in for tea!  And inside my snorkel mask I cried.

When we staggered onto the beach and looked out at the water, we saw them spouting, teasing us with glimpses of their fins and shiny black backs.  We also saw the whale watching boat hounding them. Had they been communicating distress or just watching out for each other?  Finally the boat left.  And the moment it did, the whales began breaching and splashing, showing their big white bellies, time and time again!  I suspect they were jumping for joy and shouting,”Woo hoo!  We ditched ’em!”

It was like discovering your house is haunted with friendly ghosts going about their business, oblivious to that other world, except on those occasions when your worlds intersect.  I decided the rolling ocean is The Poker Face of the World, and just beneath the surface, a swirl of emotions, life and death struggles, joy, pain, drama, and countless stories play themselves out.

There was no way a camera could have recorded that breathtaking experience, and no way I would ever need the help of a camera to recall it.  Just when I resolved and resigned myself to a camera-free existence, Eli and I went for an afternoon walk.

And he taught me how to take photos with his Smart Phone.

 

Okay, forget everything I just told you about a camera-free life.  Because then Saint Eli indulged me completely, taking me back to revisit all the beautiful sights I’d admired.  We snapped all these pics and more with his Smart Phone.

Pretty pictures of stationary subjects…

 …that practically come when you whistle for them.

Other photos depended upon conditions like weather.

Or light.

Or where our feet happened to take us.

 

 My favorite shots are the unexpected ones, that dropped like ripe fruit falling from a tree into my lap.

Sweet.

Sweeter.

Sweetest!

 

As we sat on the beach watching the sun set, directly ahead of us a whale leapt out of the ocean so close I could see the lines on its belly.  It thrust one long fin into the air and waved goodbye. Exhilarating! A flash of wonder!  A glimpse of the sacred just for us! It is forever engraved in our memories and upon our hearts.

But I’m THRILLED that Eli caught it on his Smart Phone!

 

 

Okay, time to come clean.  I ADORE chasing rainbows…

…and I will ALWAYS go for the gold!

WOO HOO!

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck (and Eli Garrard!)

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Clean.

The Mistery of Life

One of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited is Switzerland, and not just because of the high altitude.

How can someplace be so wild and rugged…

…and yet so tidy and tame and settled?

You can take an escalator to the top of the mountain…

…and just when you think you’re alone in the most remote place in the world…

…you stumble upon a chalet where you can buy a cup of Ovaltine.

Or you hear cowbells and realize you are not alone after all.

When you’re looking straight up at the sky, where no mountain ought to be–surprise!–you realize it’s just playing peek-a-boo from behind the clouds.

We went for a hike, but the landscape seemed so domestic that we felt we should really call it  a stroll.

We stopped to make a friend or two along the way.

And belted out the words to The Sound of Music because…why not?

Unlike the deliberate and well-defined cable car ride up to our little village, there was no clear threshold, no magic doorway from domestic to wild.  The landscape changed so gradually we hardly noticed.

No cowbells here.

And then a shroud of mist descended so swiftly.

The path was obscured and maps were useless.

We couldn’t see the landmarks described in the guidebook.

It would soon be dark.  We had no choice but to put one foot ahead of the other…

…keep walking…

…accept the mystery and try to enjoy the adventure…

…And trust that sooner or later we would get where we were going.

That’s life.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Threshold.

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An Open Book

“Thou art alive still while thy book doth live, and we have wits to read and praise to give.”  –William Shakespeare–

Paris is a huge city, so crowded, so busy.

 

 Sometimes it’s difficult to see beyond the milling throngs.

   

But the city is an open book.

Its stories are there for all to read…

In a gesture.

Or a smile.

Or a sigh.

Life is happening all around.

So many faces…

…and each one…

…tells a story.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of Thursday’s Special: Street Portraits.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

The Object of My Affection

It will be thirty-one years next month since Thom and I sent out this wedding invitation.

(designed by my sister Constance, poem by Langdon Smith).

In his wedding vows Thom borrowed this passage from Robert Browning, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”   I thought they were sweet words, but I was slender and pretty, with my whole life ahead of me; I could hardly imagine growing old, let alone growing old in concert.   Now I understand their import, and cannot believe my good fortune in having found such a wise old soul in such a young man.

Thom gave me the world.   With him I made my very first trip overseas, back in 1987.  We spent five weeks exploring Britain and Ireland.

We loved traveling so much we went back to Europe the next year.  That was to be the trip of a lifetime, so we hit all the must-sees:  Rome, Florence, Venice,  Paris, The Swiss Alps, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Barcelona.

But instead of the trip of a lifetime, it became a way of life.

Travel is still a vital part of our life journey together.  I now see myself as a global citizen.  I wonder at the similarities between cultures, and celebrate the diversity.

We have shared this gift with our children.  We took them back to all the hotspots of Europe.  But the kids were good travelers and, with their encouragement, Thom and I have gotten more adventurous.  We have taken them to the Australian Outback, the Amazon, and Turkey.


I’m not surprised that both kids have grown up to be writers, storytellers, artists, and travelers, who are bilingual and trilingual.

Should I ever question my choice in a mate, I need only look at my children.  Through their eyes I see a better world, and am a deeper participant in life.

Dear Thom…

…You have always been and will always be the object of my deepest affection.

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Object

The Most Noble Story

There was once a widow who had three sons, Alberto, Eduardo, and Ernesto. She had spent a lifetime trying to teach them the meaning of charity and compassion.

The day came when she knew she was dying, and would no longer be there to guide them. She called her sons to her bedside.

“My sons, the only thing of value I have to leave you is my diamond ring. It was given to me by my mother, who had it from her mother, whose mother handed it down to her. It cannot be divided and it must not be sold, for one day, it shall go to one of your daughters. Now I must decide which of you is most worthy of this treasure. Go, my sons, and do good in the world. Come back in one week’s time and tell me your stories. The one who has performed the most noble deed shall inherit the diamond.”

By the time the three young men gathered again at her bedside, their poor mother was near death.

She said to her firstborn, “Alberto, tell me your story.” “Well, Mother,” said the eldest, “after much thought, I gave half of everything I owned to the poor.” “My son,” said the old woman, “no one can tell you that you haven’t performed a good deed. But it is not a noble deed, for have I not taught you that it is everyone’s responsibility to care for the needy?” She said to her secondborn son, “Eduardo, tell me your story.” He said, “Mama, I was passing the river when I saw a small child swept away in the current. I can hardly swim, but I jumped into the water and pulled the child out to safety. It was only by the grace of God that I didn’t drown myself.” “My son, you too have performed a good deed, but not a noble deed. Have I not taught you that everyone should be willing to lay down his life for that of a helpless child?” The old woman said to her youngest son, “Eduardo, come tell me your story.” Ernesto hesitated before taking her hand. “Mamacita,” he confessed, “I haven’t much to tell. As you know, I’ve no earthly goods, and I cannot swim a stroke. But I’ll tell you something that happened to me this week. Very early one morning I was walking in the mountains. I came upon a man sleeping at the edge of a cliff. If he were to stir in his sleep, he would surely fall to his death on the rocks below. I determined to prevent this tragedy. I crept over, so as not to startle him awake. Then I saw that it was my bitter enemy, Juan Miguel. At first, I thought to leave him there, for the last time we met, Juan Miguel threatened to kill me if he ever got the chance. But I knew what I had to do.  As I put my arms around him, Juan awoke and I could see the fear in his eyes as he recognized me. “’Don’t be afraid,’ I told him. I quickly rolled him away from the precipice to safety, and helped him to his feet. When Juan Miguel came toward me, I was sure he meant to kill me. But then he threw open his arms to embrace me. Juan said, ‘Last night darkness fell before I could get home. Rather than chance a misstep in the dark, I decided to spend the night where I was. I had no idea I was so close to the cliff edge. You saved my life, Ernesto, and after I treated you so poorly!’  To make a long story short, Mamacita, Juan and I are no longer enemies, but have sworn to be friends forever.” The old woman shed tears of joy. “My son, I have taught you well. That was truly a noble deed, and you are a noble man, for you risked your life to save a man sworn to kill you. With one act of kindness, you have transformed hatred into love and made the world a better place.” With her dying breath she told her sons, “The diamond shall go to Ernesto, but you must all remember that with each noble deed you perform, you shall add to the treasure that awaits you in Heaven.”

All three sons married and had children of their own. They, like their mother, taught their children the meaning of charity and compassion. When the time came, Ernesto left his mother’s diamond to one of his daughters. But Alberto and Eduardo left their children a gem worth as much as any diamond, for their children held in their hearts their grandmother’s precious legacy, the story of the most noble story.

All photos copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Enlightenment.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature.

The Most Noble Story is from Apples From Heaven, copyright 1995 Naomi Baltuck, and retold from a folk tale of Mexico.

NaomiPHOTO1-300ppi51kAqFGEesL._SY300_NAOMI BALTUCK  is a world-traveler and an award-winning writer, photographer, and story-teller whose works of fiction and nonfiction are available through Amazon HERE .   She is also a Contributing Editor and Resident Storyteller at The Bardo Group. 

Birds of a Feather

Birds of Peru—so many species, so many eco systems.  This little tyke was swimming with its mom on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.

The Uros people construct and live on Floating Islands of the lake, and might’ve taken their cue from the birds.

The Uros domesticated the Ibis for its eggs–they live side by side.

In the Amazon jungle, villagers living along tributaries of the Amazon River raise chickens for eggs and meat.

Other birds, like Manolo the Mealy Parrot, are kept for pets….

…and watchbirds. (Don’t even think of touching his bread.)

They wander in and out of the houses like family.

We also saw a huge variety of birds living wild in the jungle, such as the Tiger Heron.

I believe this is a Social Flycatcher.  Maybe it just eats flies at parties?

Some birds I caught only a glimpse of on the fly.

Others looked familiar, like this Pygmy Owl.

Or this Kingfisher.  The Kingfishers fly so fast I could only get an image at night, when it was roosting.

Or this White-winged Swallow, which was different but similar to our swallows.

Most of the birds’ names I never knew or have forgotten, but they were fascinating.

This one looked like a lone hunter…

…while the vultures tended to hang in a crowd.

If we have birds in the U.S. that come out at night and sit on the beach looking like, well, a beach, I haven’t heard of them.

A Black-fronted Nunbird?  The coloring is right, but the beak is smaller and it’s so fluffy.  Maybe a chick?  Oh, well, a bird by any name would sing as sweet.

The birds in the Peruvian Andes were different than the ones we saw in the Amazon.

I saw this feathered friend at Machu Picchu.

This one too.  It’s not so different from the hummingbirds that sip nectar from the hanging baskets on my deck.  

But some are very different from the birds we have at home–like the Toucan who was natural history before I could get to my camera, or the Night Heron whose portrait came out fuzzy.  Most unique was the Huatzin, a pheasant-sized bird resembling something out of  prehistoric times.  Its face is blue and unfeathered, its crest large and spiky.  It makes its home in the swamps and marshy lakes in the jungle.

A crop is an enlarged pouch of the esophagus, where food is stored before it is digested.  Some birds have them, and some dinosaurs did too.  But the Huaztin’s crop is so large it makes flying difficult.  It uses its crop to digest food using bacterial fermentation, which makes them smell very bad.  The Amazon people call them ‘Stinkbirds’ and won’t eat them.   They croak, hiss, groan, and grunt.  Huatzin young have claws on their wings.  When pursued by hawks or arboreal predators, they drop from their nest into the water and claw their way back up the tree when it is safe.  Strange and fascinating!

I don’t see anything common about a bird, even the ones found in my own backyard.  Descended from dinosaurs, these feathered creatures are miraculous to me–so varied, so delicate, so powerful, most possessed of the gift of song and the superpower of flight.  All I need is a pair of binoculars and a camera, and I am off on a flight of fancy.


All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Birds.

My Wish For You

Winter break!!!!!

After a long quarter and a case of pneumonia, Bea came home for winter break, taking the train up from Stanford with her BFFs, Ben and Michael.

And my son Eli flew into Sea-Tac after ten months in Argentina!

Such great kids!  And it’s wonderful when your best friends just ‘click’ with each other.

They filled our home with music…

…and were prone to spontaneous bursts of dancing…

…and juggling.

And they cooked too!

Not for nothing are they known in certain parts of California as ‘The ‘Stache Squad.’  All for one, and one for all!

 

A game of Risk becomes a costume affair.

 

Bea and Eli shared their hometown, and took in a bit of culture while here.

Proof that the sun sometimes shines in Seattle!

Gifts were exchanged, most of them homemade.

Eli’s gift was to write an original murder mystery for the whole gang.  He put his storytelling experience to good use.

It was, of course, a costume affair…

…set in Russia in 1860.

It seemed to capture the social turmoil of the times.

We were sad to have to send Ben home in time for Christmas.

But it felt like we had already had Christmas, and the icing on the cake was a day of snow, a rare treat, a white Christmas.

The only thing missing was Ben.  So the kids made…


…a SnowBen!

Of course, juggling ensued.

And huggling.

And snow angels!

And it wouldn’t be a proper snow day without hot chocolate.

Another bunch of friends and family have arrived, and it’s hard to believe we have yet another Christmas to celebrate.  It makes me realize that holidays have less to do with the dates on the calendar than the light we create in our hearts and homes and between each other.

My dear friends and family and blogging buddies from all over the world, after health and happiness, my wish for you is this:

May you never be too old for dinosaur pancakes.

…or dress-up…

I wish you a Merry Christmas, a happy Solstice, Kwanza, and New Year.  And whatever the New Year brings, may you always have, no matter what the calendar says, or however large or small, an occasion to celebrate and  a shoulder to lean on.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Winter.

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