Monday 27 May 2019

Next-Generation Classicists in Prague & Warsaw Police Station

Peter and Prof Malika Hammou
In a week when two reports suggest that stress among academics is rising exponentially, I was impressed by young colleagues at conferences in eastern Europe. Faced with zero job security, overwork and low pay, the youngsters convening and giving papers at a Prague conference on performances of ancient drama revealed determination, political commitment and intellectual bravura. I was especially struck by two Aristophanes experts, Maddalena Giovanelli from Milan and my own PhD student, Peter Swallow, with whom I’m editing a book on what made/makes Aristophanes funny. Classics’ future will be bright in their hands.

In Prague I was fascinated by the Museum of Communism, which tells of the the 1968 and 1989 revolutions, but also a remarkably objective version of the 1948 election (when the Czechs voted in a Communist government) very different from the narrative of coercion and rigged ballots which western history books will tell you. I was also entranced by the National Marionette Theatre, where the Bohemian tradition of large puppets throws new light on Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. 

Don G.'s sinister puppet demandind his droit du seigneur 
Don Giovanni’s biting class politics—the arrogance of aristocrats and the emotional honesty of peasants—seem paradoxically more alive when enacted by jointed automata. But I was distressed by the failure in Magic Flute to cut or change the shameful racism of Monostatos’ song about being an ugly black man in love with a beautiful white woman. Although, mercifully, the puppet was presented as a red-and-orange devil (I have seen excruciating blackface tenors in this role in Austria), the words were unchanged. Unacceptable.

Sleuth and Classicist Dr Paulouskaya
The chief excitement in Poland, where I went to lecture on children’s versions of Plutarch in the secular education movement 1890-1938, was the recovery of my phone after losing it on the first night somewhere between the hotel bar and my bedroom. That famed Byelorussian sleuth Hanna Paulouskaya, whose day job is lecturing at Warsaw University, showed the amazing technological competence of the next generation of academics; she went on Google “Find My Device”.  

Difficult to describe in Polish?
And there, on my laptop screen, was my phone, flashing in its dying-battery throes (only 3% left!) a message that it was in a suburban police station. Since my own grasp of Polish consists of one sentence, "Please may I have a beer?", without Hanna’s help, the visit to the Komisariat Policji in Villanova would have been catastrophic.  I was terrified they would ask what the picture was on the screensaver, since it’s a socialist painting of ancient Greek builders rather than a pet or a beloved relative.

Hanna explained that I was a Professor. The benevolent police officer looked at me with genuine pity. What I will never know is what happened to my phone during the lost 24 hours when it moved several kilometres (it was Friday night--did it go clubbing?), nor what honest Warsavian bothered to hand it in. So, just in case such a person ever reads this blog, I have learned a second sentence in Polish: I am eternally grateful to you! Jestem ci wiecznie wdzięczny!

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