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.

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.)

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 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. is the website and online store. ( and are the US versions) It's quite expensive (then again, what isn't in the world of fashion?)

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.

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


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
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


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 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


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.
The rain and mud made it even more somber.

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.
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 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


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.)