Yesterday I was off to Toruń to give the beginning-of-the-school year lecture to the entering biology students at Nicolaus Copernicus University. The school was founded only in 1945, but has antecedents dating centuries earlier to the University of Vilnius (founded 1579), many of whose students and faculty migrated to Toruń after World War II.
But before I left, Malgorzata began making quince jam from the harvest of fruit from a bush right outside the front door.
When I returned in the evening, the fruits had been turned into jam. But the cooking was a mess: “Never again!”, said Malgorzata:
Toruń (population about 200,000), situated on the river Vistula, is a medieval city founded in the 1100s and once the site of a castle housing the Teutonic Knights (Russia began on the other side of the river). The old part of the town, which is lovely (see below) is now a UNESCO Heritage site. Here’s the location:
Toruń is famous for two things: Copernicus (who was born there) and gingerbread, which was supposedly invented there. We’ll get to Copernicus later, but gingerbread is everywhere. The story that it was invented in Torun is probably wrong, but the city was certainly famous for gingerbread beginning ages ago, and I was told it was used as currency there. Wikipedia reports this:
In Poland, gingerbreads are known as pierniki (singular, piernik). The most famous are called Toruń gingerbread (piernik toruński), a traditional Polish gingerbread that has been produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń. It was a favorite delicacy of Chopin’s when he visited his godfather, Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, in Toruń during one of his school vacations.
My day began with a visit to a local theater where Justyna and her boyfriend Michal (who kindly drove me from Dobrzyn to Torun) were acting in a play performed for (and also starring) handicapped people. Entering the theater, one sees a mural of Copernicus—made out of gingerbread!
See? The mural has both regular gingerbread (always frosted) and the chocolate-covered variety:
The play—actually a series of different scenes—is not only put on for handicapped people, but involves them as participants. Justyna and Michael were in a dance scene without words, with the male dancers in black (not shown) representing the difficulties and prejudices faced by the handicapped, and the female dancers those who are compassionate. Justyna (to the right) was one of these; you can see the two people in wheelchairs performing in the scene, one of whom has tipped her wheelchair over and is covered with a shroud:
It was a moving presentation, literally and figuratively. Justyna is studying for her Ph.D. in biology at Torun, and Michal is a DJ in local clubs, who also performs with symphony orchestras, producing a hybrid form of music.
It was then time to go to the University and meet the dean. Dean Kozak, better known as Prof. dr hab. Wiesław Kozak, turned out to be a terrific guy, friendly and garrulous. He had studied immunology in the US for fifteen years, at the University of Michigan, the University of New Mexico, and in Augusta, Georgia. Finishing up his second and last term as Dean, he sits in perhaps the most magnificent academic office I’ve ever seen, full of draperies, old carpets and antique furniture:
The Dean told me that one piece of furniture dated to the sixteenth century, contained no nails, and was designed to be converted into a coffin!:
The office also held an Art Nouveau clock, which I photographed since I love items from that era:
The biology “convocation” was very formal: first the deans and deanlets entered to a recording of a trumpet fanfare, in full academic regalia, with the dean sporting a gold necklace. There was a welcome speech in Polish, new doctoral candidates were welcomed on stage, and then I gave a 30-minute talk on the wonders of evolution (I have no photos of that one). We finished with a singing of the traditional “Gaudeamus Igitur.”
I mentioned religion only briefly, explaining that in America, and probably in Poland, resistance to accepting the truth of evolution comes largely from religion. But even that brief statement angered one faculty member, who trotted onstage afterwards and chastised me for even mentioning religion. He claimed that Catholics had no problem with evolution (I contradicted him, mentioned the Church’s view on the literal ancestry of all humans from Adam and Eve) and asserted that there was no conflict between science and religion since everyone reads the Bible as metaphor. I corrected him further, citing the statistics in the US and UK that most people take things like Heaven, Hell, Satan, Jesus’s divinity, and of course God’s existence as literal truths. No doubt they do in Poland, too.
It still amazes me that people object to the plain fact that virtually all opposition to teaching evolution comes from religion. Such is the special treatment that faith is given not just in the US and UK, but almost everywhere. This religious source of creationism of course greatly discomfits accommodationists, who claim that there’s no conflict between science and religion, and it’s almost amusing to see them twist, turn, and dissimulate to avoid the obvious. It’s religion, stupid!
But then, thankfully, the Dean dragged me off to lunch, a multicourse Polish feed in his fancy office. I had requested local fare, and they complied in spades. The first course was a very traditional Polish soup,either żur (sour rye soup) or biały barszcz (a soup made of bread, and meat stock, loaded with sausage, pork, and hard-boiled eggs). This would have been enough for lunch on its own, as each of us got a substantial tureen:
We were then served one of my favorites, a selection of pierogi: Polish dumplings, these ones filled with either meat, spinach or kasha (buckwhat), and topped with nuts and raisins. On the side were pickled beets and cabbage.
I thought the pierogi was the main course, but it was only an appetizer. The main course was a form of schabowy, pork cutlets rolled up, wrapped in bacon and filled with cooked plums. It was served with boiled potatoes. The Dean then asked, with a twinkle in his eye, whether I would like some wine. Of course I said, “yes,” and he disappeared into the adjacent room, returning with a bottle of 2008 grenache/shiraz from Australia, which was terrific. (The Dean said he has a collection of over 1,000 bottles.) As neither Justyna nor the assistant dean were drinking, the Dean and I made substantial inroads into the bottle.
And oy!, was I full after lunch:
Before we left to see the town, the Dean gave me largesse (European universities tend to give you nice presents when you give a big lecture). First, a heavy bronze medal celebrating the 60th anniversary of biology at the University (1952):
I also got a gift basket containing varieties of gingerbread–all wrapped in cellophane with a red bow! There were four types, including chocolate-covered, chocolate-filled, and traditional plain gingerbread. I also got a pen and pencil set and a silver University of Torun keychain with Copernicus symbols on it.
After lunch I briefly met my friends Kaja Bryx and Jacek Tabisz, officers of the Polish Rationalist Association, which awarded me Polish Rationalist of the Year two years ago. They travelled three hours to finally deliver my award, a glass trophy to which Kaja had added a special symbol. Can you spot it?
On to the Old Town, with the first stop being the home of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), famous of course for his heliocentric model of the solar system. This is the house where he was born, and you can see that the family was prosperous (his father was a copper merchant). Copernicus didn’t live here his whole life: he traveled widely, including to Italy, and ultimately settled in other towns in northern Poland.
Sadly, the house was closed for the day, but I was promised a return visit next year so that I could go inside:
A famous statue of Copernicus stands near the town hall:
Nearby is part of the two-building Gingerbread Museum (the other part is several blocks away). We didn’t go in, but I am puzzled how one can have two buildings devoted wholly to the history of gingerbread.
Gingerbread shops stud the city, and there are dozens of varieties of the stuff. Here’s one of the bigger shops where you can buy chocolate covered gingerbread, plain gingerbread, gingerbread in fancy boxes (one looking like Copernicus’s house), gingerbread filled with rose jam, prunes, and so on. The treat, which I enjoy very much, is popular with locals as well as tourists:
Some of the varieties on offer (Polish-speaking readers are invited to translate):
The historic Old Town contains lovely old buildings:
And there’s the Leaning Tower of Toruń, built as a fortification in the thirteenth century and now leaning, though not as drastically inclined as the tower in Pisa. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia:
Justyna told me that if you can stand with your back against the part of the tower that leans outwards, and not fall over, you are a good person; but bad people cannot do it. The angle is such that it is barely achievable—by some. Justyna and Michal could do it:
. . . but I could not!:
There were several nice bronze statues in the town. One of the most famous is the Torun Donkey Statue. As one website notes, it depicts a grim history:
The city pillory, a wooden donkey with a sharpened tin ridge along its spine, appeared in the corner of the Old City Square presumably in 1629. It was mostly used to discipline Toruń soldiers who, seated on its back, frequently had lead weights tied to their legs to intensify the pain. The convicts suffered double punishment: in addition to the protruding back sinking into their bottom, they were exposed to public humiliation.
On a park bench in the town square is a statue of the lady with the goose that laid the golden egg. The precious egg appears to be falling from her basket:
A famous and unprepossessing shop in the Old Town sells pączki, delicious polish donuts filled with jam or cream. They are made all day, and you can buy them hot. (I much regret not having tried one). I was told that there is often a line of people down the block waiting to buy these hot pastries. Pączki resemble Krispy Kreme donuts, but are filled, and are much tastier and more substantial (you can see Justyna’s reflection in the window):
I end my photographic tour of the city with two pieces of cat graffiti I found: