Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Products in Poland

Poland used to be the Southeast Asia of Europe in the 19th century. Lodz used to be the center of the textile manufacturing business, and many of its old factories still remain today. These days the factories are mostly museums or shopping malls. The whirring of looms, clanking of gears, and the blood-curdling cries of peasant workers that have lost limbs in the horrific working environment have all fallen silent, but Poland does churn out some very nice things.

Vodka:
My personal favorite is Wyborowa (Polish for exquisite). It's easily consumed (Bud Light doesn't have shit on Wyborowa's drinkability!) My other favorite is Zubrowka, which derives its name from a type of grass, which in turn is the favorite of the Zubr Bison. In each bottle of Zubrowka, there is a single blade of the Zubrowka. The vodka itself has a slightly woody taste and is a pale yellowish-green.
If you are a fan of James Bond, you ought to know that Mr. Bond only drinks Polish or Russian Vodkas (he's been lately pandering for Smirnoff, which kind of sucks.)

Pottery:
Polish pottery is wonderfully beautiful. It's all very rustic, with intricate-yet-simplistic painted designs. Useful, sturdy and versatile, it's a wonder why it's not more popular in kitchens and dinner tables. There are several sets of designs, each just as incredible as the next. It is actually not that expensive either (some sets are more intricate, hence more expensive.) A three-quart pitcher is usually around $20 (at the going exchange rate. Last summer it would have been around $30.)
Polish Pottery
Tea pots and cups in a shop.
Polish Pottery
Gorgeous cookware and vases.

Koniaków:
Koniaków lace may not be as well known as that of Burano, but it does grace the tabletops of the Pope and the Queen. In recent years, the younger generation has decided to be more innovative in their products and have begun making lingerie and some women's wear. This lingerie is the SEXIEST stuff I have ever seen. Victoria's Secret could learn a thing or two.
http://www.koniakow.com/ is the website and online store. (http://www.koniartusa.com/ and http://www.koniakowusa.com/ are the US versions) It's quite expensive (then again, what isn't in the world of fashion?)

Coffee:
Actually, Poland doesn't have good coffee. I must say, most of the stuff you get in the stores is total shit. 80% of the coffee for sale is instant coffee and some of that is made of chicory (Lord save us!!!) They do have some very nice coffee houses, which serve good coffee.

Chocolate:
The Swiss and Belgians have traditionally owned this field, and rightfully so. Polish chocolate is quite good, and I like it a lot.

Pierogi

Pierogi are the plural of 'pieróg' (dumpling.)  In the US, we say "pierogis", which is technically incorrect because we're doubling the plural.  In Poland, one can see on the store windows ads for "chipsy."  No joke.  They're doubling the plural for chips in adding a 'y'.

Here's what I do for pierogi dough.  I make it via approximate amounts, so there are no clearly defined measurements.  Sometimes it needs a little more water, sometimes it needs a little less.  That type of thing (get the idea?)

5.000 cups of flour
Water
Two dashes of salt
Milk product, e.g. milk, yogurt, kefir (this is optional.)
1 egg (optional)

Mix all ingredients into a bowl and knead together until it forms a soft, pliable dough.  Don't make it too elastic.  Add more water to the dough until the consistency feels right.  Roll out on floured surface and use a sizable glass to cut circular pieces out.  Put filling on one side and fold over other side to form a crescent shaped dumpling.  Press edges together until they are sealed (some people dip their fingers into a cup of water and run it around the edge to create a better seal but I don't think it works that well.  It usually just gets kind of messy.)  Put uncooked pierogi into pot of boiling water and remove when floating (about five minutes.)
Can sauté afterward if desired.

See?  It's pretty vague, but that's pretty much how to make pierogi.  Fillings include mashed potatoes and cheese, saurkraut, sweet cheese, meat, anything else you'd want to stick in there.
The milk product will make the dough more fragile, but also softer.  Too much kneading will make it rather tough and bread like.

In-process pierogi.

Frying them up

Monday, December 29, 2008

DVDs

Which corporate asshole thought up DVD regions?  And why the fuck can I only change my computer's DVD region five times before it locks in?  I know, I know, it's to prevent piracy, but honestly, you think that they'd have found a better way?  Poland has DVDs in Region 2, whilst the US has DVDs in Region 1, a tad inconvenient.  They're only making a bigger case for torrent downloading.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

$5 Foot-Long

Well, they did it!!!
When I left in the summer, the Metro Warszawskie went from Kabaty to Marymont.  Tonight, I looked up at the map of the line, which had always stood oh-so incomplete and noticed that it went all the way to Mlociny!!!  No way!!  Not only did they complete another stop, they went another five (or something like that.)  (A didn't even notice that it no longer stopped at Marymont.)   Wow.  Now the subway is truly complete; now they can start building a second line.
Warsaw Metro
The completed line.

Ms. Manners

Since my arrival here, I've been making all sorts of faux pas, from going though doors first to lying down on the couch while company was present.

One thing that might come as a surprise (or might not) is using the formal way of speaking.  Polish, as many languages, has a formal and an informal way of speaking.  English just has the all-encompassing "You."  For instance, if I were to ask a question to someone my age, I might say, "Jak sie czujesz?"  (How do you feel?); however, if addressing an elder or someone of rank I would say, "Jak sie Pan czuje?"  (How do you feel? (formal)  Lit: How does Mr. feel?)  This seems fairly simple.  But, what if you're speaking to the mother, whom you know and everyone else just addresses as "Ty" (informal "you")?  Ought I to use "ty" or "Pani?"  Also, since I don't have a firm grasp on the language, using the "Pan/Pani" form is slightly more difficult when asking complicated questions.  It's kind of the same as in German, but they just have the Sie form which makes everything easier (even easier than the informal way.)

A friend of A's lives in The States and has remarked how he never opens doors for women because they might get offended.  I've grown up with this fact and it has come back to be a major source of friction.  The women here see it as expected and that if a man does not do it, he's horribly rude.  On the other end, I was taught to wait until everyone at the table was seated to begin eating (especially at large dinners such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.)  At Christmas Dinner, I waited a full ten minutes for A, who was out walking the dog.  In the meantime, her entire family has cleared their plates and had started on seconds, all the while urging me to eat.
Another this is that half the table left to watch Harry Potter on TV.
While it's taboo to go through the door before the woman, it's perfectly acceptable to claim that her place is in the home taking care of the children.  (See a previous post.)

Some things span cultures: picking your nose and/or urinating in public, calling a woman fat, refusing to shake hands, etc.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Food

Christmastime means good, hearty Polish cooking.
Polish Christmas Dinner
My plateful of appetizers, including: smoked salmon filled with cream cheese and herbs, a salad (kind of like a potato salad without the potatoes), cold cuts (mostly being ham and pork, but also some kindziuk, a Lithuanian cured sausage similar to salami) and bread.

As I stated before, Christmas Eve is devoid of meat and almost every dish contains at least some part fish. Barszcz and pierogi are also main features to the meal. Usually, the barszcz is served with small, pierogi-like dumplings filled with mushrooms. They're called uszka (little ears) because of the way they look. This Christmas we didn't have the uszki, just the barszcz served in glasses like a drink; although, we did have pierogi.
hard-boiled egg caviar
An appetizer I didn't have, hard-boiled egg with caviar. Usually a lemon is squeezed over it.

Herring is the most common fish in Poland. It's called Śledź (shledge) and is a staple of Polish cuisine. If it's not herring, the fish is always something similar, i.e. it's always a whitefish. In the US we think of whitefish as trash fish and mostly used for soups and stews (or making fish 'n chips.) Salmon, swordfish, tuna, trout, these are the fishes we enjoy the most. Fish with high fat content and distinct flavor. Fish that looks good on the plate, and not like some sort of maxipad that's been run under a tap for fifteen minutes.
Anyway, on Christmas Eve we had: herring in oil with onions, herring in some sort of jelly (I didn't try it), herring chopped up in a small side salad, greek-style fish (burbot was used instead of herrring.)
The coolest tradition, I think, is buying a large, live carp; taking it home and putting it in your bathtub; killing, gutting, cooking and serving it on Christmas Eve. Not very many people do that these days, but it used to be popular.
Polish Christmas Dinner
Christmas Dinner: Main Course. Pork loin, carrot salad, mashed potatoes and a salad with oranges. The sauces to the left are horseradish, beet and horseradish and a cranberry sauce.

As for drinks, we didn't have much in the way of alcohol. Two bottles on Christmas was enough for the whole holiday. The white was OK, but the red was dreadful (it was a Spanish red and tasted kind of like transmission fluid.) At both meals the main drink was Coke. Juice and water were also available. On Christmas Eve, we were served a compote made from dried fruit. It came in two versions, one was sweetened and the other was not. Both tasted kind heavily of prunes, but it was OK.

Christmas Traditions

Christmas is kind of big, so I'll cover it in a couple parts.  This year, it was not a white Christmas, but it was cold.

Christmas Eve in Poland is a bigger event than Christmas Day (in terms of traditions.)  It's a day of abstinence from eating meat, and if one is urged to attend Mass; however, not everybody does.  The main festivity of the day is a huge meal, which is mostly composed of fish dishes.  Before the meal we each took a large wafer (akin to the Host one receives in Church except they're big and square and have little pictures pressed into them) and everyone said hello to each other and wished each other health, wealth, good things, happiness, good grades in school, etc.  I mostly just stood there awkwardly and grinned while nodding.  After you wish the other person well, you exchange a small bit of your wafer (you pinch it off the other person's wafer) and each it.  Then, you move on to the next person.  After everyone has wished everyone else well, you all go around the table again.  There was a short, short reading of the Bible, and singing a carol.  I did not burst forth with a melodious rendition, but stood there and listened to verse after verse.  We sat down for the feast finally and began eating.  One curious thing I noticed, is that people here don't wait for others to sit down (or even be at the table or in the room) to begin eating.   For a place where manners are heavily enforced, I found this to be sorely lacking and quite surprising.
During the end of the meal presents were passed out.  It might just be this family, but the gifts were all anonymous and attributed to Santa "Saint Mikolaj."  I received a DVD copy of "Ogniem i Mieczem" (With Fire and Sword), which surprisingly works in my computer's DVD player (so it must be a Region 1 DVD.  I've had problems before with playing other European copies of DVDs.)  I also got a knife set in a handsome wooden case.

On nearly every corner there are Christmas trees for sale.  Most are rather small, which makes sense because most people have apartments.  We opted for one in a pot.  It's been referred to as a "Charlie Brown" tree because it lacks the heavy ornamentation that adorns all other trees.  A string of lights and a handful of bulbs bought from a nearby Tesco are sufficient.  Still, it's the largest of the family.  Other members have fake trees or ones so small they're more like saplings.  My pleas for a traditional method of getting a Choinka were rejected.  I wanted to slog into Kabaty, at night if need be, and chop down a worthy tree.  My mother recently claimed that her tree was the best of all time (a boast I had trouble believing, but that just might be my envy.)  My uncle went to a tree farm and chopped down his own tree (my aunt was not impressed with the one he chose.)    Both my mom and my uncle chopped down large trees and just took the top (an acceptable method.)  Going to a farm is not exactly the same as hunting for that perfect tree, but it's still better than buying one off the street corner.
The tree salesmen nearest to the apartment were way too overpriced.  We had to go one subway stop and got one for half the price: 40zl versus 99zl.  I had to carry the tree on the subway with the top snagging all sorts of places on ceilings (have you ever really noticed how topographical ceilings are?  One doesn't notice it until having to lug a tall object about that scraps against all surfaces under ten feet in height.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kazimierz

Kazimierz is the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. It resides on the northern bank of the Wisla and is adjacent to the Old City. Apparently, it used to by on an island, but part of the river was filled in, connecting it to the rest of Krakow. There are a few museums and sites to see, most notably there are a few synagogues. Only one synagogue is worth a visit, the Old Synagogue, and the rest are pretty mundane. I actually found the place to be quite boring and got lost there several times. The Old Jewish Cemetery is kind of neat, but the new one is even nicer. It's pretty huge, with graves packed in closely together; trees, covered in ivy, tower above.
Old Jewish CemeteryOld Jewish CemeteryOld Jewish Cemetery
There was a museum that displayed old Polish folk art. They had mockups of the interiors of traditional peasant houses as well a large display of traditional Polish dress (quite cute.)

Back to Basics

Well, I'm back in Poland.  The more I travel via bus or plane, the more I despise it.

Poland in winter is the grayest thing ever.  In Warsaw, where most of the buildings are concrete, it's even more so.  Right now the sun is just rising and shining beautifully in my eye, and the clouds are scarce.  It aims to be a beautiful day.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Museums

Poland is not really renown for its museums.  The city of New York probably has more artwork than the whole country; indeed, the Louvre probably has more (and only displays something like 10% of it's collection at a given time.)  Much of it was either burned or looted during WWII and not everything was recovered.

Krakow boasts a beautiful Leonardo Da Vinci (Lady with Ermine), and used to have a Rembrandt (it went missing in the forties.)  The Sukiennice also held a nice collection of paintings before it was closed for renovations (it won't be open until 2010.)  The Wawel has a very nice collection of Ottoman war treasures that were seized when King Sobieski came to the aid of Vienna in 1683.

The National Museum in Warszawa is worth a visit and is quite sizable.  They have a variety of artwork and historical artifacts, ranging from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to the early Christians of North Africa.  They also have a good collection of Polish art.  This includes the jewel of the museum (in my opinion) Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko.

Kasia in front of Bitwa pod Grunwaldem


One place not to go for museums, is Kazimierz Dolny.  The Museums here are worthless, overpriced (the giant museums of Warszawa and Krakow are cheaper) and have collections that are dwarfed by most high schools.

Gender Roles

(Note:  This is just what I have observed, not necessarily what I believe, endorse or judge.  Any angry remarks can be promptly shoved up your ass.)


I once read an article about a Polish monk who was offering sexual advice to couples.  He said that most of Poland's problems stem, not from communism, but from chauvinism.  While women are by no means second-class citizens, I have noticed a distinct difference in people's views on gender roles.

Some of my students are well educated, have been to more places in the US than I have, hold well-paying jobs, and consider themselves modern.  Yet they still firmly believe in the traditional roles of men and women.  Men are supposed to hold the jobs and support the family, women are supposed to cook, clean and raise the children.  One memorably said, "For a girlfriend, it's better to date the pretty, thin girl, but for a wife, it's better to have to woman who can clean, cook, looks OK."  Clearly this is almost the opposite of the New American Wife.  Women are expected to cook anymore, and finding one that can cook well s considered a snag (only if she's got the personality and the look.)  I asked a student what the price of milk was in Poland, he replied, "I don't really know.  My wife does the shopping."

Pan Rothstein, my former Polish professor, remarked how marriages between American men and Polish women tended to work out, while marriages between Polish men and American women were doomed to fail.  American women are more independent.  Many don't want children, can't cook worth shit and aren't really bound to tradition.  This mindset is contra to the traditional Polish mindset and so friction can get quite high.

I was lectured on my poor manners when I failed to hold doors open for women.  I tried to explain that in the US, most men don't do this.  In fact, it can get you yelled at.  While it used to be a simple gesture, now it's taken on a symbol of male superiority for some reader.  Women don't like to be thought of as weaker (hey, it's no skin off my ass.  I get first dibs into the door and I don't have to be polite by holding it open.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Auschwitz and Wieliczka

A train ride away from beautiful Krakow lies Oświęcim (Osh-vee-ow-cheem.) I actually went by bus with a tour group. It's a package tour that can be purchased fairly cheaply (I think it was 80zl or something per ticket.) It includes a tour of Auschwitz and Wieliczka, the nearby salt mine. Also, included in it is a walking tour of Krakow, which we chose not to do.
It was a rainy and drizzly day in spring. Very dreary. The bus ride (a van, actually) there was around two hours, with the organizer calling us "my dears." We first went to Auschwitz I, entering a camp of large brick buildings not unlike dormitories (they were barracks first.) There is the "Arbeit Macht Frei" above the gate (Translated mostly as "Work makes you free." But I'm going to add the inevitable dash of extreme pretension and translate it with my rudimentary German as "Work Makes Free" (literal.) Anyway, the basic gist of it is "Work sets you free," "Through work, there is freedom," or "Within work, there is freedom." I think most people have the literal sense that they were trying to tell their captives that if they worked enough, they would be set free; however, I think it's more of how the prisoners should put their everything into work, let it define them, and through that they will spiritually be set free (but not actually set free.)) The tour guide was pretty good and gave us a tour of some of the buildings. The most horrifying exhibit was the hair of 40,000 women. In the same room was a bolt of cloth made from human hair and a Nazi officer's uniform made of the same material. It almost unbelievable to see the hair of 40,000 human beings piled up in a small mountain behind glass.
arbeit macht frei
The notorious slogan. That lady in the middle there annoyed me by always getting in my shots (like this one.)
A barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I
A barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I

Several tours were going around at the same time as we. The one right in front was a group from (presumably) Israel. Many members were draped with the Israeli flag and took to waving it from windows when they had the chance.
After the tour of Auschwitz I, we went for a break and ate at a small cafeteria. Back on the bus for the tour of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This tour was less extensive. They showed us two of the buildings, one being the toilets. Then, they let us wander about for a half-hour before we had to leave. We elected to climb the main guard tower above the entrance.
auschwitz
The rain and mud made it even more somber.
Auschwitz

A small group of Americans were left and we went to Wieliczka, home of the salt mine. This place is absolutely beautiful. The mine is defunct, and one might be thinking, "How interesting can a salt mine be?" I agree, salt is not actually the most interesting of compounds (chemists might disagree) and is a very basic seasoning. But there, there are sculptures, small lakes, a restaurant, an entire church, gigantic rooms, chandeliers made from salt crystals, and (this is the best part) you can lick the walls!!! The tour guide showed us on particular sculpture, which looked like it was carved from a normal type of stone (like a dark, dark jade), then stuck her flashlight against the stone to show how the stone was semi-translucent. The air is very nice and supposedly can work wonders for those with pulmonary ailments. It's pretty snazzy.
salt sculpture wieliczka
A salt sculpture (one of many.) In reality the salt is very dark and green. The effect of looking like frost or snow comes from the reflection off the salt crystals from the camera's flash.
wieliczka
A staircase leading ever downwards.

The tour ended, and we headed back to Krakow. Since our van was overflow from the bus and did not have TVs, we couldn't watch the introductory video on our way to Auschwitz. The organizer promised us that we could show up at the tour office the next day for a free DVD, but that was not the case. I think we came back more than a year later and asked for it, but no luck.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Back to Poli

I'm going back to Poli, Poli, Poli.

Anyway, in a week I'll be in Warsaw. I can't wait. There's something about this city… hmmmmm. A lot of Poles don't like it. They mostly admit that it's because Warsaw has all the money and jobs. Apparently all the people there are assholes too (I don't think so.) The way they imagine people from Warszawa is the way we imagine people from New York: arrogant pricks. I didn't really find that to be the truth.
Like most capitals and finacial centers, it's busy, noise and sometimes dirty. It's not really known for its architecture, and all it's old buildings were razed to the ground. In fact, Warsaw is a fairly new city. Most of it dates back to the fifties and sixties. They are throwing up new, large and impressive buildings, but the Palac Kultury i Nauki still dominates the skyline. I actually kind of like that too, even if it does represent Soviet domination.
Places like LA and Detroit and almost all universally reviled for their hideousness and lack of soul. Places like Pheonix and the endless sprawls of elsewhere do nothing for me. In Warszawa, there is something.

I hope to make it to Krakow and any other city I can. Lodz, especially. I also hope to be back teaching, but a little less and not in the schools.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trains

Trains in Poland are a mixture of rotting infrastructure and cutting modernism.  Like the I.C.E trains in Germany (I have ridden no better train), a super-fast, modern InterCity zips about with the riders in comfort.  But most, and cheaper, trains stick the old compartment-style car (personally, it's my favorite) with no enforcement on the non-smoking rules and bathrooms that would make any hobo gag.  Riding to Gdynia (a 9 pm train that took five hours) taught me how packed a traincar could get.  Riding back taught me how miserable it can be to travel.  I found a flea that very same day I arrived back in Warszawa.
The trains go most everywhere (not to Kazimierz Dolny) and places the trains don't go, the buses do.  Since there is a lot of construction on the rail lines, it can be faster to take the bus, sometimes several hours quicker.  While most trains are not the most modern, there are not without creature comforts.  The express train to Krakow offers a small snack and a free drink (tea, water, coffee, juice, etc); however, it's only on the way from Warsaw to Krakow and not the other way around.
Warszawa Centralna, to me, is beautiful building.  One of my favorites in Warszawa.  It's imposing, reminiscent of a more communistic time.  It's great, sweeping wings spread out majestically.  Inside is a wide open hall, and underneath is a maze of tunnels leading to the tracks.  It's really quite something.  In the inner hall they even have a crackling intercom system that is just so… rustic.  Most Poles hate it and most agree that it's hideous.  I feel somehow drawn to it.  Walking across that great inner hall always feels like an adventure.  It's flanked by smaller stations which service region trains.  I've never been in them.
Warszawa Centralna
Warszawa Centralna

On occasion, I can get lucky and sit in a empty compartment.  Two benches to choose from, with enough room to mostly lie down.  Other times, I'm stuck with a smoker.  Traveling with different people in a compartment can be tough.  In the summer, someone might close the window when you want to open it, and close it when you want it open (same with the door into the compartment.)  In the winter, it can be worse.  Women having hot flashes have no restraint in lowering the window to cool off, even though you are obviously shivering and suffering from hypothermia.
One good thing is that Poland does not have a high amount of fat people.  You know those fat, hideous excuses for humanity that insist on taking up as much space as they can with their enormous, cellulite-filled asses?  The ones with tits the size television sets and whose every breath sounds like a ratty, old refrigerator's compressor?  Plus the random sounds that only a horse giving birth should make?  Well, there are not a lot of them here, which is actually a great blessing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Updates-Schumpdates

I kind of petered off on the writing.  That's OK.  Mostly it was because I left Poland at the beginning of September, but I'll be returning soon.

In August we went to Sosnowiec, a mining town near Katowice.  It's sizable, but very industrial and I didn't actually see a lot of it.  I hear it's basically just a mining town (think of a European New Jersey.)  The train station was kind of nice.

Besides that, I didn't go very many places outside of Warszawa.  I did explore more of Warszawa, and found some places I never knew existed.  It really is a nice city.

Anyway, I'll be returning to Poland soon, and more tales to come (as well as more updates.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Today

I was walking down the street today, and I was struck by how many Polish flags there were. Yesterday too! On the subway, on the buses, from houses and stores...
At first I noticed it when I went to take the bus and it was fluttering Polish flags. Later, in the subway I saw two smaller ones perched on the dashboard by the driver. Exiting the subway I saw a family with two young boys carrying the flags with the PW anchor (Polska Walczaca) as if they had just come back from a trip to the zoo. I thought nothing of it really.
Then I realized that it was August 2nd, and yesterday was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. It's silly that I forgot about it, because I just read a book called, "Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw" by Norman Davies. It's pretty good and pretty critical of everyone, the Soviets most of all.
Well, Warsaw, hats off to you
.Old Home Army Soldier
An old soldier who fought it the uprising.

Letters Polish uprising
A letter to a young Polish soldier from his sister.

Zakopane

It's pronounced "Zack-o-pahn-eh."
Downtown Zakopane
Downtown Zakopane

It's a small town southwest of Krakow in the Tatra mountains. I was only there in March, where the snow still crested the mountain tops. It's quaint, and the mountains about are quite beautiful. Apparently it's a big vacation escape for skiing, mountaineering and just plain visiting.
One can ascend one of the mountains (hill, more like it) by a small tram elevator. In Fribourg they have one just like, except that one uses waste water for power.
At the top there's a view of more mountains, particularly of one called "The Sleeping Knight." I wouldn't suggest more than an afternoon here, but it's worth the two-hour bus ride from Krakow. The bus also stops in places like Nowy Sacz.
A view of the Tatras
A view of the Tatras

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Students Redux

Tomasz greeted me yesterday in boxers and socks, but at least he had on a different shirt. He still says some of the most crude things I've ever heard, but this time it was not about the sexual things.

Franio, oh Franio. My three-year old student has left me. Just as well. Want to know how stupid I felt prancing about to kids' songs with a cat puppet on my hand? The answer is, "very."

I was overjoyed that I was able to tell a joke to my students. At the "Speak and Spell" school, I was holding classes with Julita, 23, Barbara, 40-50 or older, and Elizebeta, age not known. Julita speaks English the best, and we were talking about names and naming children. Ben King had told me a good joke, so I used it: A baby indian asks his father, "Where do children get their names?" And the father says, "Well, when a child is born the father takes it and walks outside the teepee and the first thing he sees becomes the child's name. Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking?" Julita got it and laughed, but the other two women thought long and hard going over each word. They finally didn't get it. Their loss.
The other student at that school, Martyna (three Martyna students in one summer) probably has some of the greatest potential I have ever seen. She is thirteen and has learned English for three years, but has a wide vocabulary, understanding of grammar, and most of all, can tell the difference between bad and bread, dad and dead, sad and said, etc. She knows about the long "th" and short "th" (wiTHer versus wiTH) but like the other student, Tosia, she doesn't seem like she wants to apply herself. It is a shame.

Skin Market

Over the weekend I went to the Baltic coast, to a tiny village called Gdynia. Little more than a gathering of ramshackle huts, it is still a nice place to get away from it all and join the many thousands of tourists that throng the beaches for miles.
The Tricity (Trojmiasto) consists of Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. Perched in the middle of Poland's Baltic coast, it's often a vacation spot for those who don't go to Greece, Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria or Croatia. A tiny peninsula, Hel (yes, pronounced like "Hell,") juts out and curves around like a little, feeble arm trying to give the rest of Poland a hug.

The Stare Miasto of Gdansk

I finished up my last lessons on Friday and took the 9:45 pm train for five and half hours. I had figured that with such a late train the wagons would be next to empty. Wrong. I was able to get a seat in a crowded cabin, and I was quite lucky since there were many more people stuck in the corridor. I sat between a guy in his twenties who spent a great deal of time looking at a porno mag that also had guns and weapons in it. Kind of like a "Chicks with Dicks" but instead of dicks there were articles on sniper rifles and heavy machine guns. The other guy next to me was about seventy, had bad breath and tried to make conversation with me in broken English. Between my broken Polish and his broken English we eked out a small conversation. He was joining his wife and son in some other town (I forget which,) he said he had lived in the US and was into Mathematics. He sometimes asked strange questions like, "What do you believe?" and if I understood when John Paul II spoke in Polish. I replied that I had never heard JPII speak in Polish, and maybe that made him think that I was a bad Catholic.
The train was very, very hot and I arrived in Gdynia around 3:15 am. Taking a taxi (which was overpriced) to my friend's house I arrived at around 3:30 or something. Bed time.
On the way back, it was worse. The train, which was the 11:25 pm train, was full before even getting to the station. I was forced into the corridor, right by the bathrooms. Most of the time was spent crouched in a two-foot wide corridor trying to balance and find a place for my camera bag. To my left a guy passed out and laid dowd, blocking the entire floor, and to my right a couple pretty much did the same. People going to the bathroom had to pass over all of us, but since I was "in that spot" where they didn't want to trample the couple and didn't want to trample the guy snoozing on the floor, I had to get up every time a person passed. The girl from the couple kicked me in the head once, talked loudly and smoked. Five-and-a-half sleepless hours on this disgusting floor. Katarzyna said it would be "an experience." Meeting the Pope is an experience; Flying on the Concorde is an experience; getting a blowjob from the Queen is an experience. This was hell.
What is there to do in Gdynia? Well, there's the beach. There's also a pleasant wood which has paths through out it, as it towers on eroding cliffs above the sea. It was so hot, so very, very hot.
One can walk on the beach from Gdynia all the way to Gdansk if you have the stamina. The water is greener than the water on MDI, and has more sea plants in it. Not really seaweed like kelp or bladderwrack, but more of the "matted hair" variety with some grassy looking thing. In places it turned the water into a "spinach soup" as Katarzyna and her friend, Agata, put it. I described it as an oil spill.
The next day we took the ferry to the Hel peninsula to a town called Jarnista or something. At the pier there was a naval band or something, with cheerleaders!!! How cute!! The band played and the cheerleaders had red and white pom-poms are did a whole routine with them. How precious. Going to the far side of the peninsula, we ended up on the Baltic sea on yet another endless beach full of people. Here the water is quite shallow and really clean. No seaweed or anything like that. The water might be a bit cooler (so I was told) and maybe bigger waves, but it was fine. The sand on these beaches is not like the sand on Sand Beach, which is made up of crushed shells. Here, it seems to be more salts, which is OK since the shells of Sand Beach stick to your skin and are more sharp-edged.
Two days in the sun on a fair beach, not bad.

The beach on Hel

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lodz

Łódź (Woodge), which means "Boat" in Polish, is located in central Poland. Most people don't really think of it as a beautiful city. Factories ruled there. Huge garment factories, when Poland was the Southeast Asia of the world. There are not any royal palaces or gigantic castles with majestic overlooks. There are tons of brick buildings which were once used to exploit the limitless peasantry that inhabited the area.
David Lynch is said to have a fond love for the city. He even bought a defunct power plant (in which I actually spent the night.)
An inhabitant has called it, "The City of Sex and Business," but I found this to not really be the case.  Apparently it has quite a lot of business, but it is still dwarfed by Warszawa.

Of the two times I've been there, I've been to the decrepit power station and to several museums.  One was the old concentration camp.  Much smaller than most would think of, it used to be an old factory.  Another was called the White Factory, part art museum and part factory model where they display machines used in the textile business.  An old palace built by a textile baron was very interesting.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Solidarity's Dream

They have an unimaginable amount of huge malls here. They're not so much places to shop, as they are temples to Capitalism. (Actually, at the beginning of every fiscal year they sacrifice a real, live communist in hopes that the gods grant a bountiful year of wide profit margins.) These malls are gigantic, and they are everywhere. In Warsaw there are two malls that are directly across the street from each other, and most likely have the same stores. It's blows my mind that all these stores that sell all the same, overpriced shit can actually turn enough profit to stay open. Somehow they do.
Anyway, on the outskirts of Warsaw there's a mall in an old tractor factory, aptly called "Factory." The stores are only clothing stores, mostly catering to higher fashion, but they are also cheaper (more wholesale prices), but the stores are smaller and the mall is rather bare bones (crappy fluorescent lighting, concrete pad for a floor, no amenities like a food court or anything.) All the stores selling suits also had guys with (presumably) their girlfriends. Some seemed to be their mothers, but I don't think I saw a guy trying on a suit without asking the advice of some female companion. Clothes shopping is high on my list of torturous activities, and I cannot fathom why people find it relaxing or fun. A student of mine, a lady in her forties or fifties, said that she thought that shopping to women was like hunting for men. I thought this was really cool. Maybe not hunting, but still fulfilling the gatherer instinct. She, Barbara, described how it is to "hunt" for an outfit.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Krakowian Affair

Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, lies deep in its south. Its Old City was not razed like Warsaw or Wroclaw and it retains all the pride of an imperial city. Centered around it's Stare Miasto, Krakow spreads out on both sides of the Vistula, much like Warsaw. The Old Town is ringed by small, delightful parks. It also used to be surrounded by Medieval walls, which I am sure were quite impressive. All that's left of the walls is a small section at the head of the city, with the Florian Gate and the barbican. An outline of the former walls still marks where they once stood. They were torn down because they had fallen into disrepair, with the moat used as a trash dump that was becoming a health hazard.
The Stare Miasto is one of Poland's finest jewels. The Sukiennice (cloth hall), which was the world's first department store, stands in the center and is home to many shops and stalls, with a fine art museum at top. The museum is undergoing renovation, so it'll be out of business until something like 2010. (Work goes very slowly here in Poland.) St. Mary's Church is staggeringly beautiful inside. A royal blue ceiling, painted with tiny golden stars, creates the impression of a heavenly sky.
The Sukiennice at night
The Sukiennice at night

The district of Kazimierz (also named for Kazimierz the Great) was the Jewish section of Krakow until WWII. Most times I been there I've gotten lost, and to be perfectly honest, it's really not that great. There are several synagogues, which are now museums, and only one, the Old Synagogue, is really worth a visit. It holds many Jewish artifacts. The Jewish cemeteries are quite nice, with the older, smaller one dating back to the 16th century. I have only visit the larger, newer on, and only that during winter. Huge, vine-covered trees tower over a small forest of stone. Paths wind about through the raised graves. It was quite peaceful to visit during a light snowfall. It was also convenient to be wearing a winter hat, since men must don hats in accordance to the rules.
I only once went to the nearby park of Ojcow (Fathers'.) Apparently it is quite nice to bike and hike to see the castle ruins in them as well as the natural beauty. I was not able to see any of these ruins, but walked along a frozen road to find the "hamlet" (a scattering of houses that makes Somesville look like a roaring metropolis) in which everything was closed. Since bus service was not exactly on frequent intervals we had to walk to the nearby town, whose name escapes me at the moment.
The Wawel, like all main tourist sights, is mobbed with an un-godly amount of people. Lines form to go inside the cathedral, which is no small chapel. Throngs of misshapen Brits drink overpriced coffee and laugh like idiots over the most numbingly retarded observations. If you hate tourists as much as I do, visit Krakow in the dead of winter or even in early spring. Warsaw may be the entry point to these unsightly masses of flesh, but they soon cram their fat asses into buses or trains and head to Krakow.
The Zygmunt Bell in the Wawel Cathedral
The Zygmunt Bell in the Wawel Cathedral

I'm tempted to compare the Wawel with the Royal Palace in Warsaw. The Wawel was head of the Nazi command, so it escaped the fate of the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace was painstakingly rebuilt, finished 1988. The Royal Palace is far more opulent (and has the most amazing bathroom in Poland. It's even better than the mens' room in Gunness at UMass.) But the Wawel still is pretty cool. One can climb to see the Zygmunt Bell and from the bell tower see the whole of the Krakow Stare Miasto. The Wawel has a Cathedral, which is very beautiful, which the Royal Palace doesn't have and the Wawel has far better landscaping. One can walk about on Wawel hill and then descend for a walk along the Vistula.
The Opera House in Krakow
The Opera House in Krakow

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ogrod Botaniczny

The Warsaw Botanical gardens are stunningly beautiful. At first I thought it was another waste of money, but deeper in it becomes a virtual oasis in an urban desert. Not that Warsaw is all gray and dreary (except in winter), it has many parks and tons of shaded avenues. But the botanical gardens are something special.
The rose gardens has many beautiful varieties, from sea roses that climb a trellis archway, to fragrant orange roses I've never seen before. Some small pools provide life for reeds and duckweed, and a fountain provides a soothing drum to the background noise of traffic. It's really nice how effortlessly the flower beds give way to giant, towering trees.
Rank-wise, I'd p
ut it as my second favorite garden, behind the Asticou Azalea Gardens in Northeast. Indeed, it reminded me a lot of the Azalea Gardens. The shady paths that meander about in a lazy manner. This is a place of simple enjoyment of nature and reflection. Being on a tour group would be a nightmare with the guide barking about how this bush is the only such bush in all of Eastern Europe and then, without time to enjoy said bush, you must march off to see the next roslinny.
One of the beds from the Warsaw University Botanical Gardens
One of the beds from the Warsaw University Botanical Gardens

Nearby, in the Lazienki Krolowski, the monument to Chopin has the greatest amount of roses I have ever-fucking seen in a single place. Beds of roses upon roses create a virtual sea of red fragrance. All summer long they offer Chopin concerts free of charge.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Kazimierz Dolny

Yesterday we went to Kazimierz Dolny, which is a small town along the Vistula. It's touted as one of Poland's hidden jewels and is anything but hidden (the problem with hidden jewels is that everyone wants to go to them.) Swarms of tourists. Swarms. Big, fat men, taking off their shirts or just rolling them up to allowing their grotesque pudge flop out for everyone to see. (Horrors.) Did I tell you how much I hate tourists? I despise them. Families with screaming brats and crowds of recently retired, old women who waddle about and get in my way.
To get there we needed to go to a bus station near the National Stadium. The stadium is ringed by an open-air market which is largely stocked by the entire population of Poland's minorities. Vietnamese vendors sell mostly clothes, bags, shoes and stuff, but also fake documents and most anything else like that. All the stuff is amazingly cheap and there's a definite "third-world" feel about it. At one stall I saw shirts being advertised as "American T-Shirts" which most certainly came from some impoverished Asian country. The bus station is in the midst of all this and is rather run down. The tickets were around 20PLN, so there weren't bad. The buses are a tad old and lack amenities, but I wasn't complaining (I was on the way back, believe me.)
For some reason all the bus drivers here are total assholes. They're all so gruff and grumpy. The bus ride took about three hours, and it stopped quite a bit on the way there. In the country things aren't exactly roaring like they are in the cities, so many decrepit bus stops haven't seen any renovation in their entire existence. On our way back, we took a 'bus' which was actually a van with a bus style seating. The day was incredibly hot, and the bus was so full two people had to stand the whole way. There was a hatch at the top which provided some relief until some lady closed it because it was mussing up her hair or something. The rest of the ride was sticky and hot and uncomfortable. When we got to our stop, since we were at the back we had to make our way up to the front. The sliding door was stuck and couldn't be opened from the inside so we couldn't get out. The cocksucker driver, who had been talking on his cellphone (illegal) and smoking (illegal) while driving, said, "We need to leave, you've had enough time to leave." Aga snapped at him and the total jerkoff got out and opened the door and we went on our way back home.
Kazimierz Dolny is actually rather quaint and has a charm of its own. It's an old town, and not much has changed since it was founded. The roads are true cobblestones and I'm surprised that cars were able to navigate them without suffering multiple punctures in their tires. There are ruins of a small castle overlooking the city and further up there's a lookout tower which provides a nice view. Both of these place, the tower especially, were mobbed. Climbing up the tower proved most difficult. There was a steady stream of people going both directions, but the tiny stairs were inadequate. At one point an old fat lady (I would have thought she was nine months pregnant if she wasn't forty years past her prime) started flipping out and yelling about how the only way to get by her was to fly over her. I would have like seen if she, herself, could fly by tossing her out one of the windows.
The castle is small and nearby is the "Mountain of Three Crosses." We got up for free, but they usually charge 1 PLN to go to a clearing to look at three wooden crosses. They not only charge you for everything here, they overcharge you. There was an implements of torture "Museum" (I use that in the loosest sense) which cost about $2.50 a ticket to go see six torture devices. It was the biggest, the biggest, the biggest rip-off I have ever seen. Complete waste of money. We almost went to the Golden Arts Museum, but it was one room with a tiny collection of gold and silver. (When I say tiny, I mean that you can go into an antique store and see a greater variety for free.)
The day was oppressively hot, but a cool breeze did flow off the Vistula. A walk down the Vistula is not as great as it sounds, but it wasn't bad. The water may look blue from afar (and especially in pictures) but up close it's greener than the Charles. By the shore there's some trash and sludge, but we saw some people swimming in it a ways away and also across on the other shore. The main church is actually very nice and offered some protection from the relentless sun. Vendors everywhere sell bread shaped like a rooster which is made by a local bread factory. The bread is really good and soft, like a sweet bread.
There was a Jewish Restaurant which came recommended, so we decided to give it a try. Called, "U Fryzjera" (At the Barber's) it serves pretty expensive fine dining food, but you can get free pickles down at the bar (how sweet is that?) The service is slower than cold molasses. In fact, we watched group after group come in, get their drinks and order and then leave after waiting too long. I had pickled brisket on a bed of couscous that came with a portion of a spicy-sweet beet salad and an enormous serving of horseradish (about six times the amount that a person with even slightly working taste buds would eat.) Aga had beef-stuffed dumplings with really delicious sweet sauteed carrots. Afterwards we had sugar cake with honey which was burned at the bottom but soft and light throughout (even at the burned part on the bottom.)
After we had eaten we wandered about looking for an interesting place. There wasn't any so we went and waited at the bus stop until a bus came.
Kazimierz Dolny from the ruins
Kazimierz Dolny from the ruins.

Kazimierz Dolny is a haven for artists and craftsmen. There are shitloads of galleries and vendors. There are also a lot of terrible musicians. When I say terrible, I mean total crap (off-key, rhythmless, with squawking voices.) This town has the highest population and percentage of lame street performers of any city or town I've been in. One particularly bad guitarist was accompanied by her friend, who accosted passersby by standing in front of them and sticking out a hat, demanding money. It's enough to shove her aside and say, "No!! No fucking way!!" I sympathize, a little bit, with these new bohemians, but just because they sit outside and butcher chords does not entitle them to any reimbursement. Spend the money for some private lessons, then maybe you'll deserve to have a few coins dropped in.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Torun

Twice have I been to the medieval city of Torun. It's a great place. The Stare Miasto (Old City) is sizable and has beautiful buildings that escaped the large-scale destruction of the past century. Near the center there are the ruins of an old castle of the Teutonic Knights. The residents of Torun rose up and revolted; they then promptly tore down the castle and used as a dump for the next few hundred years. All that remains are some old walls and some of the cellars (pretty cool) but it costs money just to wander amongst outcroppings of ruined brick.
The Old City is not large, one can walk from end to end in about ten-fifteen minutes. Plus, the streets are mostly car-free. Copernicus was born and raised here, and they don't let you forget it. Also, Piernik (Gingerbread) is Torun's second claim-to-fame. The Pole's have an old saying, "Vodka from Gdansk, Girls from Krakow, Piernik from Torun, Shoes from Warsaw: These are the best of Poland." Or something like that.
Part of the Stary Rynek in the Stare Miasto
Part of the Stary Rynek in the Stare Miasto
El Paso is known for it's Tex Mex, San Francisco is know for it's gays and Torun is known for it's piernik. There's a piernik museum where you can go and make your own gingerbread. They bake it for you and you are able to take it away and eat it. Torun also thrives off it's medieval times by selling stupid, poorly made, worthless shit on the streets. Wooden swords, crappy spears, and stupid, plastic figurines are found in troves upon hawkers' stands. They did have some stands at the entrance to the old city, which were selling quality goods. There was one stand selling Polish pottery which some beautiful pieces. I almost bought a pitcher and bowl that would have cost around $75, but I didn't. There were stands selling grilled cheese (not the sandwich type. Just slices of cheese called oscypek, which is saltier than a sailor's balls.)
There are also some beautiful churches (as there are in every European city) but sometimes they charge you to take pictures or even enter. They also have some medieval granaries, which are worth a note.
I remember in Rothenburg an der Tauber I could along the wall for a good long time. I've yet to be in a city in Poland where one can do that. Krakow ripped down its walls, Warsaw barely has any left, Torun doesn't allow you up. The architecture is insanely beautiful, but modern times have led to it being semi-ruined with modern signs slapped up against ancient facades. It's a real shame.
Eating crepes (nalisniki) at Manekin's is awesome. Their absolutely delicious. Pan Michal advised me to go there, claiming they were the best crepes of his life. They may not be the best crepes of my life, but I haven't eaten tons of crepes so they very well may have. They have sweet crepes filled with fruit or sweet cheese and smothered in cream and chocolate. Or they have ones filled with vegetables and meat covered in sauce (or in my case, cracklings.) It's nice to sit at the table and enjoy some crepes and people watch.

Sie essen das Essen in Essen.

Poland has a city called "Boat" (Lodz) and Germany has a city called "Food" (Essen.)
Since coming here, I've eaten more brined and cured food items than I have in my entire life and I expect to develop an ulcer soon, if not stomach cancer. Largely, it is of my own accord.  Sauerkraut (Kapusta Kiszona), pickles and sour pickles (the sour pickles are fermented much like sauerkraut) (Ogorki Conserwowe and Ogorki Kiszone) as well as cured meats like kindziuk and dried kielbasa.
As in America, there is a difference between what people eat at home and what they eat at a restaurant. While they do have pierogi, barszcz and (ugh) flaki, mostly it is eaten for special occasions.  Barszcz, a classic, is usually served at Christmas, and it's quite different from what most people think.  While it is a beet soup, it's not thick like the Russian kind.  Instead, it is (guess!) semi-fermented.  It's clear, acidic and made by doing some small fermenting with rye bread.  Flaki is supposed to be eaten in the winter and/or when you are very drunk.  It's a hearty soup made from tripe and looks like some dog just threw it up.  I don't know how it smells, but I assure you that I'm not eager to find out.
American food is commonly thought of just hot dogs and hamburgers (both of which are German.  Hamburger (Hamburg) and Frankfurter (Frankfurt)) but there is actually a lot of originality.  Take a Thanksgiving feast:  Turkey, Pumpkin pie (these types (apple, pumpkin, cherry) are not common outside North America) pecan rolls, mashed potatoes (served all around the world.)  This is good food, and you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who will object.  It has a good balance of protein, starch and veggies (usually there are brussels sprouts, salad, maybe asparagus.)  One complaint of German cooking is that it is often only protein and starch (mainly potatoes.)  Also, there are more "Asian" restaurants in the US than McDonalds', Wendys' and Burger Kings combined (upwards of 40,000 (I think.))  General Tsao's Chicken is a purely American creation.  The Chinese don't eat that shit.  Most Japanese would be appalled at our sushi and most Thai would find Pad Thai (in the words of Jon Stewart (or one of his writers)) "Bland and unfamiliar"  (Jon Stewart's America the Book:  Democracy Inaction. (rest of citation to follow.))
So, just as one has misguided thoughts of American food, so one has of Polish food.  Almost.  True, they eat a lot of pierogi and have a lot of restaurants that serve it, they aren't eating it as often as we think.  They each generic meals of potatoes, salads and meat, not prepared in any sort of way.  They eat spaghetti.  They eat pizza and drink cheap beer.  They eat cereal and granola and yogurt for breakfast.

Home made pierogi

Poland, I think, is overlooked for its food and cuisine in general.  They utilize a lot of pork, potatoes and beets (beets is often understated when listing main ingredients for Polish cuisine.)  Just like the French stick liver in everything (oh, that horrid offal), the Polish stick beets in everything (it's mostly just a side-dish.)  French fries are just as common as they are in the US.  Kielbasy (all types) are cornerstones. Dumplings and soups, soups, soups!!!  Chlodnik is a delightful yogurt, beet, cucumber and radish soup served with a sliced hard-boiled egg atop.  Perfect for a hot afternoon, as it is more refreshing than any soft drink.  Barszcz Bialy is served with a dollop of sour cream and eggs.  Zurek is warming, and all the soups are filling.  One soup I had, I don't know the name, was made with ogorki kiszone (sour pickles) and it was fucking awesome.

A mushroom soup in a bread bowl.  The bread was delicious.

I remember once, when I was in Krakow, I went to a nice restaurant.  It was my last night in Krakow and I was alone, so I thought "Why not?"  I think I had duck.  At the end, I ordered a "Swiss Coffee" thinking it would be something like a mocha; all hot and chocolately.  I was wrong.  It was black coffee and rum, and was probably the most bitter beverage I've ever had.  I found a few years later that the place was one of, if not the, nicest places in Krakow.  That explains my bill.

Die StudentenInnen

As I try to teach the wonders and beauty of the English tongue, I meet a great deal of interesting people. They range from the ten-year old girls in my first ever class, to the the new bourgeois. They have taught me a lot, not just about the Polish Way, but I have been able to study their thinking.

Martyna, Martyna and Tosia were in my first class. They were ten and spoke broken English, (better than I spoke Polish) but I was not intimidated. Everyone at the Benefit school had told me how they liked to chat, but I never really encountered it that much. Claudia (a million blessings upon her) had wisely told me that the hardest part was keeping them interested as they got bored quite easily. Quite easily indeed.
The class was ninety minutes long and was conversation based (can you imagine conversing for an hour and a half with preteens? What the hell was I going to talk about?) The heads of the school, Ewa and Beata, advised me to use the language book which the girls' grammar teacher used (so we could coordinate our lessons.) Claudia said that the girls hated the book and that she never used it once. She also said that they had read and listened to Rumpelstiltskin. I decided I was going to give them a poem by Shel Silverstein because it was easy, interesting, and it would take up a great amount of class time. I found and printed out "One Inch Tall"; I glossed the words I thought would be hard; and then I set about putting down questions, really simple ones like "How long did it take the author to write the poem?" Well, the first class was a near disaster. The poem was way too hard, they disliked it, they didn't respond to any question I asked them even when it concerned themselves. Luckily it was cut twenty minutes short because the girls had to go on a trip (also, there were only two girls there) so I was saved. I took away many valuable lessons. Number One: kids have short attention spans. Number Two: Have a lot of stuff planned. Stuff you thought would take days to cover in a normal class. Number Three: Kids don't consider language games fun.
The second class went much more smoothly, I was able to go over animals and we watched "Wallace and Gromit: Cracking Contraptions." The threesome was there and the class was ten minutes short of two hours, but it was better, albeit exhausting.
The girls were actually extremely smart and had great potential for English. One, Martyna L, actually applied herself and was undaunted by some questions that I thought would be too hard for even some more advanced learners. Martyna S was a character, and she always answer a question, no matter what I asked, with either a "yes" or "no." I would ask, "HOW was your weekend?" Answer: "Yes." (I'd shake my head) "No.... yes? No?" It would be like this for every question. "How old are you?" "No."
Now I come to Tosia. Tosia, I think, had the greatest potential but was a slacker to rival some high schoolers. She was more preoccupied in doodling, poking holes in her paper, chewing her paper and generally bringing down the morale of the class. She refused to play games; she wouldn't voluntarily answer questions; and I was unable to administer a small slap to get her in line. When she had to do any lengthy speaking she would just babble in Polish in that "matter of fact" way which I despise. However, she sometimes showed amazing talent and exhibited that she was more focused on being a pest that really exercising her talent. For instance, I asked a question which was very simple and I knew she could answer. She was doodling and just replied, "Nie rozumiem." (I don't understand.) "Tak, rozumiesz." (Oh, yes, you do, you little brat!) I replied. And then she answered the question!
I had several other classes, one with three teens and one with four adults (and another with a pregnant lady and apparently another group of adult whom I never saw.) The pregnant lady dropped out before I was able to teach, and the adults ended their classes two weeks later because of the end of the school's semester. The teens lasted four classes until their semester also ended. They were my favorite group, but they could be a bit silent sometimes.
I used to arrive at the school really early in the morning, and find that the benches were all wet. I used to blame it on morning dew, but I recently arrived to find a shopkeeper watering the sidewalk and gravel parking lot. He was watering it so earnestly as if he was thinking to himself, "Hmmmm, the broccoli should have come up by now. And I'll be damned if I'm not picking tomatoes by August!"

Apart from teaching at the school I also hold private lessons. My first private lesson was with a fellow, Roberto, who lives to the far southwest of the city and it's quite a commute to get there.
I have another private student, who's probably thirty-five years old, and lives in the southern part of Warsaw. When I first went to his apartment to give a lesson, I entered in the building and thought to myself, "Hmmm, should have brought a gun." On the inside it looks like heroin addicts are overdosing behind the grungy doors, and that at least one hooker is on the premise. His apartment was clean, but he was a bit odd, and at the end he gave me 45PLN in a big, sweaty pile of change. That's like paying someone $45 in bill denominations no greater than five, or paying $10 all in change.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Small Bits of History

The Poles are very proud people. Actually, all Europeans are (more on this later.) While Poland is not exactly the biggest heavyweight in today's world arena, they have a very rich past which influences many things today. They were once a powerhouse of Europe (with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) but after The Deluge (see other sources for comprehensive coverage) they were reduced to a bunch of squabbling nobles who then began to see their country carved up between the three Empires: Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussian (later German.) After the WWI they were granted independence; expanded their borders in a successful war against the Soviets; and then disappeared again after being carved up again between the Russians and Germans. Pretty much, since then, they've laid low under the Soviet mantle until a rebirth as a democratic republic (Rzeczpospolita Polska.)
We Americans basically view WWII as something that happened a long time ago. Most people think everything has past, and most Americans can't even remember the good 'ol CCCP, nor have they realized that it collapsed not too long ago. In their view, all it did was provide a wealth of nifty retro t-shirts. We're friends with Germans, we're friends with Russians, and many Russians come and work for the summer (Hi, Galina!!!)
However, here the past is very much alive. Apparently it's very much alive in the rest of Europe as well. The Poles still remain bitter towards the Germans, if for nothing else than their (German) leading role in the EU. The Poles also don't have warm feelings towards their Slavic brothers, the Russians. Never have. They didn't when the Polish troops set up a puppet Czar, and they didn't when the Russians set up a puppet Polish President. (In fact, I get the general feeling that the Poles really only like the Czechs; the Ukrainians are iffy, and I don't know about the Byelorussians.) So, while we go, "But that was so looooonngggg ago. Get over it. I mean, we're pals with the Brits." the Poles have a more brooding resentment. Well, I guess it's like the South. You know how the past painfully comes alive and people still haven't gotten over Appomattox? Well, Europeans still haven't gotten over 1939-1945. That's a lie, the Germans have, but the French haven't and the Irish never cared.
It also doesn't help that several cities, which are historically Polish are now in the hands of Lithuania (Vilnius), Belarus (Brest), and Ukraine (Lwów.) It's kind of like how Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) is historically Prussian (German) but Russia saw fit to annex it. Much like how Hawaii was a small kingdom and then, somehow, became a state.
Paws off  Estonia
Paws off Estonia!!!

NOTE: I really hope there's not some sort of professor reading this and pointing out flaws that may have manifested in my recollections of the research/reading I've done.
Anyway, so back to the Poles being proud. I will probably go into this in greater depth and I may come up with a reason why the EU will not become a sovereign state because all the countries still hate each other (with a passion.) I was used to thinking that Europe was a place where people mingle and get along and there are not borders and they let go of their nationalism. I was wrong. The nationalism here puts the Republican Party to shame (but there are fewer accusations of "lack of patriotism.")
There are signs that Poland is moving forward and that they are moving on. People seem to care less that the former President, who declared martial law in 1981, is going on trial. They are turning their attention to the 2012 Euro Cup, and are hoping to avoid a major embarrassment. Poles still feel a slight twinge when remembering their lost territory, but most of them wisely say that it's not worth trying to get it back. They point out that Germany has just as much claim to Poland's western cities (which were given to Poland after WWII) such as Szczeczin (Stettin) and Wroclaw (Breslau) and since these cities are important to industry, it would be hard to give them back. Also, since the Poles were all expelled from the Soviet-annexed cities, there's no Polish population left to demand a union with Poland (unlike in Northern Ireland, where there is a sizable Catholic minority that desires a united Ireland.)One can see that someone tried to chisel away the sickle and hammer
One can see that someone tried to chisel away the sickle and hammer.
They haven't taken the step of removing the monuments to the Soviet Soldiers, like Estonia did (and caused quite a ruckus.) But, the monuments are in disrepair and largely ignored. (For instance, many monuments to heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, and others such as Gen. Pilsudski are often laden with fresh flowers and are vandalism free.) Warsaw has gobs of monuments. Monuments to every Pole who ever made a name for himself, and many more to non-Poles. They have a monument for George Washington (Jerzy Waszington) as well as a major artery named after him. It surprised me, since First and Foremost probably didn't do jack-diddly for Poland. (The US had the first modern constitution and Poland had the second.)

Tres

First off, they have a great subway here. It's only one line, but it outclasses every other one I've been on (except in Prague, where there were no turnstiles.) The trains at fast and so smooth! You don't even need to hold onto a rail or anything. The stations are well lit, well laid out, simple, look more like train stations. They are also exceptionally easy to enter, with wide, clean stairways descending underneath the earth. The platforms are huge and clean (the subway trains are very clean too, and there aren't rats crawling all over the tracks.) You know how in New York you walk into the station and you go, "Who's bright idea was it to lay down rubber on the platform?" and then you realize, with revulsion, that it's old, dirty chewing gum? Well these places are free from trash and are piss-free! Honestly!!! It's fantastic. They focused on the wrong things on the Big Dig. They should have spent the bajillion-gajillion dollars on replacing Boston's decrepit metro system. The trains are slow and noisy, they rattle and there are rats running all over the place. They should blow a line open and let the Charles River sweep everything (tracks, trains and all) out to sea and then start from scratch. The stations are a pain to get into, the platforms are disgusting, dark and poorly laid out. It would be worth it if they took one year and ripped the system apart.
The buses are a bit of both. They have the brand new buses which are clean, silent and smooth, and then they have the older buses that are more at home in a trash compactor. I swear, if it weren't for them being so drafty, I'd insist on having a canary hanging in each bus because of the diesel fumes and exhaust. (I think it wise to keep a keen eye on the young, elderly and infirm, as they are most likely to asphyxiate first.) They are anything but silent and they haven't had their shocks replaced since they were first installed in the factory (assuming that they had shocks to begin with.)
The trams are on par with the buses. They have several new ones, looking very futuristic and the glide right along, but they also have the ones from earlier decades. These chug right along and aside from a little shaking, which is partly the track's fault, they're fine.
All forms of public transportation here are packed with people. In Karlsruhe, it was not unheard of to find a seat midday. Here, there is no chance. The subway is crammed with folks (the buses as well) until it drops off around five pm. After that, most everything clears out. Old women and men are given priority, as are pregnant women. It's kind of nice to see the younger folks stand up and offer the elderly a place to sit. Usually the big-bellied lady will just waddle up and whoever is sitting there immediately vacates.

Dwa

I actually started this log a month into my stay here. This is my second introduction, where I add in all the shit I forgot in the first one.
Who am I? I'm a mysterious stranger sent abroad to teach these savages civilized ways and maybe bed a couple of them. (NOTE: Aga, this is a joke. The only person I sleep with is my Cheburashka. He keeps me from getting Kafka dreams.)

And so begins my tale:
I'm cursed. The person sitting next to me must always be over forty-five, likely to have heavy nasal or throat congestion, likely to be at least eighty pounds over weight, and I will most likely despise whomever it is within the first few seconds of laying eyes upon him or her. This time it was disgustingly fat Russian woman who decided that the other two empty seats in the row were hers and made sure I couldn't claim at least one of them. She also snored while the guy across the aisle hacked and snorted and sniffed enough to drive one mad. But the planes were on time and they didn't lose my luggage!! (Both accomplishments are pretty rare these days, and two in one stroke is a blessing!)
Poland is the grayest country ever. Of all the time I've spent here I think I can only count four sunny days. It is overcast and dismal.

I would like to say that I have only been to Poland in the colder months of the year. I've been there in late November, January, February and March. Out of something like one-and-a-half months, prior to this trip, there were only four days of sunshine. Since late May (real late) it has been sunny and hot and glorious. Warmer and sunnier than any summer on MDI since that huge drought that caused a lot of problem. The nights are pretty warm too (unlike on MDI.) There are also far less mosquitoes, but that's probably due to the urban environment. Well, not completely. Once I went out to Aga's family's dzialka (Russian: Dacha) which is like a camp, but less so. It's outside the city, has a small plot of land by other dzialki (plural) but is essentially a camp. It's a small house with a kitchenette an upstairs that could be a big bed room. It's a lot like the cabin on our property in Maine. Anyway, even there, there were no mosquitoes, and that's right near a river (not the Vistula.)

Eins

Welcome to my web log. Here can be found my musing and experiences abroad and at home. Aside from the lewd title, you shall not find any knobs or the polishing thereof because, frankly, it's a private matter. For the select population who will actually read this, I commend you. You have the patience to slog through my ill-conceived plans and my half-finished ideas; and apparently you have nothing better else to do, so you must live pretty sad lives. In fact, the idea of me spending time writing this is sad in and of itself.
This blog may or may not follow a particular format, so do not try to think that it flows linearly. I make many tangents, call up past memories and sometimes rant about something that has nothing to do with anything. So, if I go off on how we can get off oil (we can) or how the orange I ate for breakfast had too many seeds, do not be surprised. These may have nothing to do with Poland, oh and by the way, the log is mostly about Poland, but I'm the one writing and probably the only one reading it, so the whole this is akin to talking to a wall.
Feel free to point out grammatical errors, failings in logic, or background information. If you should respond with a moronic post that could have been written by a twelve-year old with ADHD, it will most likely be deleted.
Enjoy.