Sunday, November 28, 2010

Season Change and First Snow

I'm used to the season slowly fading into each other.  The four seasons are each distinct, but they shift rather gradually.  Here, they shift immediately.  In September, I woke up one day and the air temperature had dropped fifteen degrees and the trees were shedding yellow leaves.  Then, these past few weeks there was an abrupt change from 55-60º days to days in and below freezing.  Last night was the first real snowfall.  Wednesday night, it snowed a little, bit it only stuck around on people's cars.  It's like someone flipped a switch; the changes were so sudden and swift.  There was no melding of the seasons, just one morning it was summer and the next it was fall.

The final harvest of the year.

After many weeks (months really) of procrastination, I finally cleaned up on the balcony.  My glorious jungle, my main achievement of the year, my proudest monument, had wilted and died.  I was harped on constantly because I didn't want to clear away the scraggly tomato vines the covered the place.  I finally buckled down and cut out the vines, clearing away what fruit still clung to them.  The tomatoes are placed in the kitchen, and probably will be made into a sauce (most likely for gnocchi.)

But the snow is here (about an inch or two) and I can say I am pleased.  I hope it sticks around for Christmas, because I do love a white Christmas.  I, and many other Varsovians, went for a Sunday afternoon walk in the woods.  The trails had mostly turned to mud, but if you walked on the virgin snow it gave that satisfying scrunch.

People trudging across the fields in Kabaty.

For the season, I thought I would share a nice little tune called Shchedryk, better known (in Anglo Countries) as Carol of the Bells.  It's actually a Ukrainian New Years Carol that was given new lyrics (the original lyrics are about a sparrow flying in and wishing the master of the household a lucky year.)  Eastern Slavs don't really celebrate Christmas at the same time as the Western (due to a different liturgical calendar).  But Christmas isn't the main holiday of the season, New Years is.  It's as if the roles were switched: Russians and company are visited by some Santa (Father Snow or whatever) on New Years; they get presents then and the main celebration takes place of Christmas, which is a scaled down affair.  It's not just that they have Christmas in January, it's also that the Soviets tried to stamp out religious holidays and promote more secular ones instead.  Regardless, below is a very nice carol.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Eleventh and Travels

I was particularly excited for this November, mostly because I thought I would be able to spend the 11th in Poland, which happens to be its Independence Day.  First off, you might ask why a nation that claims to be 1000-years old and whose inception started with the baptism of a king would need an independence day.  Well, it celebrates its independence from Germany, Austria, and Russia, which was secured on November 11th, 1918 (yes, the end of World War I), ending a partitioned rule of 123 years.  Next, you might ask why I would care at all since the Poles don't really have any super-fun holiday extravaganzas.  From what I've heard, Independence Day is just a day everyone stays at home and the military holds some token parades.  Meanwhile, the people in the States hold raucous parades for just about every holiday they can (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter.)  Well, I've just never seen it, and I really wanted to see it.  Unfortunately, I was recalled to the US (on tragic circumstances) and spent the day (Veterans Day) hearing from veterans describing the free meal they got from Applebee's.  On the flipside, I did get to spend the Fourth of July in the States, instead of Poland as I have or the past couple of years (mostly by drinking a few beers and watching Gettysburg.  There's nothing more satisfyingly patriotic than watching the Confederates' dreams and hopes crushed on the battlefield.)

My journey to the States was surprisingly uneventful; everything went as smoothly as could be.  I flew Air France, and every flight was on time.  The layover in Paris was short enough and on both flights I didn't have to sit next to any horrible miscreants.  Even my passage through Customs was swift.  (Not that I'm plugging for Air France.  It was almost two years ago when they cancelled my flight from Paris to Warsaw on Christmas Eve and couldn't get me out until Christmas Day.  Then, they left my baggage in Paris.)
The trip from Boston to Rome (I flew Alitalia on the way back) was a different story.  The lass at the ticket counter  squeezed me up to seat 11A on account of the flight being full, which I immediately fantasized that I was bumped up to Business Class or the mythical First Class.  Unfortunately, I was relegated to the first seat of economy.  It wasn't all bad: there was no seat in front of me that would recline backwards and I got to exit rather quickly, plus I could stick my feet up on the partition.  The bad thing was the family across the aisle (and whose fat grandfather sat next to me) with the noisy toddlers.
I've never had a problem with kids on an air plane; if anything they're usually better than the horrible adults that usually ruin my flight.  The babies cry during takeoff and landing, but then quiet down after ten minutes and sleep the whole time.  These little brats didn't sleep at all and did nothing but talk really loudly and cry.  I mean, they. would. NOT. shut up.  Meanwhile, their loving parents proceeded to ignore them and continue to watch their movies.  The mother saw fit to change one of their diapers in the cabin instead of the bathroom, where there are perfectly good accommodations for changing a shit-filled sack from little child.  Also, they turned on a DVD player sans headphones so the rest of us could enjoy the crappy kids movie.  And another thing: when I first arrived at my seat, I was greeted by the grandmother playing with the two kids in my seat.  She then went, "Oh, you're the one sitting here." and spent ten minutes picking up toys and uncooperative kids to clear out and let me sit down (meanwhile backing up the line for people waiting to get on the plane.)  Did she just think that someone wasn't going to sit in that seat on an over-booked flight?
The flight from Rome to Warsaw was fine, but I was picked out by Customs for inspection, who scanned my bag.  The guard then spent a few minutes writing something down and said I could go.  Why the need to write down something when nothing happened?  They feel the need to note anything of importance and whatnot.  It's like when a few years ago I got off a late train and headed for the benches under the walkways in Centralna to wait for a friend.  Two policemen followed me and took down all my information in a little book then let me go.  Doesn't really make sense.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Yesterday was All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day/Hallowmas.  Yes, Hallowe'en gets its name from All Hallows Eve, which is the day before All Hallows Day.  You are that much smarter.)  In many countries, including Poland, it's a large festive holiday.  Everyone visits the cemeteries to place flowers and candles upon their loved ones' graves.
In Poland, in particular, it's one of the more major holidays I've witnessed.  Special bus lines run often, ferrying the enormous crowds to the cemeteries on the outskirts of the cities.  The cemeteries themselves begin to look like bazaars, with candle sellers, florists, vendors selling special candies called Skórka Panska (Lordly Skin/Leather.  It's like a hard taffy.) and baked goods (tiny bagels!), plus others selling gloves, scarves, socks, hats, earrings, and mittens.  Young and old flood in amongst the dead, searching for the graves.  Some wander about, trying to discern which headstone is the right one.  When they get their, they clear away the fallen leaves, dead flowers, and extinguished candles and replace them with new ones.  Sometimes, they come and discover that another family member has come and already placed candles and flowers.  The grave sites turn into mini gardens and shrines.  Most say a small prayer, and leave, perhaps to find the next grave.

Scouts selling candles.

The crowd on the way to a cemetery.

Florists doing brisk business.

A virtual market and bazaar at the cemetery gates.

A shrine to those who perished under communism.

The crowd inside the cemetery.

The graves decorated with candles and flowers.

Supposedly, gypsies come to the cemeteries and hold mini parties atop their graves.  After wandering around a little, keeping an eye out for drinking and feasting gypsies, I rationalized that it was too early in the morning for even gypsies to take to the bottle.

After a visit to the ancestors' graves, the families usually return home for an afternoon dinner.