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


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


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.)


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.


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.)


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.