Friday, September 18, 2009

Here we go again ...

JUNE 2009

June 16 in Sandomierz, Poland

Select the right answers to complete this phrase: Suzi must be back in Poland because:

  • She can buy bath towels and socks at the post office when I mail letters or buy stamps;
  • A vegetarian pizza comes with peas, corn, carrots and an offer of ketchup;
  • If it weren’t for photos, she wouldn’t understand more than 10 percent of my daily newspaper;
  • Her flat is on the 4th floor and requires 8 flights of steps to reach on foot, no elevator;
  • She can get lost in the forest in the city park and not worry about being mugged;
  • Carrefours Express is an anchor store in Galleria Sandomierz;
  • There are at least four mobile phone operators to choose from and no requirement that I sign a contract;
  • Hala, Halinka, Ania and Piotr still work at the Center for Promotion of Entrepreneurship;
  • “Truskawkowa Niedziela” (Strawberry Sunday) will be celebrated on 21 June this year;
  • She's turning plastic baggies inside out and washing them for re-use.

Of course the answer is all of the above. Because while many things have changed in Sandomierz since I last lived here (1995), some haven’t. My oral Polish often gets mixed up with Macedonian, Albanian and Spanish; reading is about the same as before. Four of the original staff who helped lead the Center to become the completely sustainable NGO in our plans continue to work there. New shops and shopping plazas have sprung up everywhere around the town, including a Galleria, which must be the Polish equivalent of “mall,” since I see it on virtually every mall in the country. And the strawberry festival that we started in 1994, continues to draw locals and tourists; this will be the 16th annual event! FYI -- ever since I saw the inside out plastic baggies drying on a clothes line at a male Peace Corps colleague’s flat, I’ve followed his lead and kill a few less plastics wherever I am, including Minnesota.

For those who don’t know for sure what this new adventure is, I’m testing out retirement for the next six months. After spending the month of May traveling (more on that shortly), I have settled into a closet, uh, small apartment in Sandomierz, where I managed my first USAID project in ’94-95 and return twice a year to serve on the board of the Center. My apartment may be small, but it does have a sofa bed for guests in case anyone wants to come visit. Hint, hint.

Okay, May. The first week was in Minneapolis getting ready for a 10th anniversary memorial for my son Peter. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long; I still want to call him about things that only he can appreciate. (The same is true of my mother who died 11 years ago.) The picnic I planned was more than I could have dreamed -- a so-so day turned into perfect picnic weather. Kanyr and Hagen family were there as well as friends from all phases of Peter’s and my lives -- our homes in Crystal, St. Louis Park and NE Minneapolis, from Minda PR, The St. Paul Companies and Peace Corps, from Breck School and Roseville High, from my running and his snowboarding days. A bunch of Peter’s friends that I haven’t seen in years all looked the same; I swear, they haven’t aged one day. A few folks brought their kids -- a whole new generation got to know each other and tried out croquet, made available in memory of Peter’s infamous 4th of July “Gatsby Party” where everyone wore white and the toilets backed up (also held at the Fosters’ where this picnic took place). We had enough leftovers to send to a shelter, so my mom would’ve been proud. And Peter would have loved this day as much as I did.

The second week was in Jackson MI, “birthplace of the Republican Party,” and thankfully home to at least one locally owned and operated coffee shop with wi-fi. Our aunt turned 90 earlier in May, and her nephew, his wife and I planned a big open house to celebrate. About 50 or so friends and relatives attended, including some she and our uncle hadn’t seen in 20 or more years. Aunt Betty was overwhelmed with the outpouring of people and cards and gifts. Someone gave her a bunch of lottery tickets -- haven’t heard yet if she won anything.

Third week found me in Nicaragua with a friend from Booz Allen. We stayed in Managua and in San Juan del Sur with a high school friend of hers. The hospitality was incredible, the temps sometimes unbearable and the R&R much needed. We led a slow, relaxed life all week -- sleeping late, reading trashy books, napping in a hammock, leisurely shopping an old outdoor market and a modern mall, visiting the oldest cathedral in the contiguous Americas in Leon and a few other sites. It is easy to understand why our hostess and her family decided to move back from Florida to Managua.

I ended the month at the semi-annual board meeting of the Center, where I met my new landlady, then left for Pristina and Skopje. I had a PRN-WAW round trip ticket to use or lose and was able to change it to originate in Warsaw, thanks to a very dogged travel agent. I was able to visit with a few expat and Albanian friends in Pristina, then drove to Skopje with friends Violane and Stephen who were en route to Greece.

In Skopje it was obvious to me that I was winding down and enjoying it. I awoke around 6 am every morning as usual, then fell back to sleep until 8 or so. That is not usual for me; I rarely fall back to sleep, and now it’s become the norm. Hmm, retirement may not be so bad. Because Iva and Dona (Macedonian friends) and I had planned a few days in the mountains, I didn’t get to see many folks in Skopje. But the mountains at Mavrovo, as always, were spiritually and otherwise renewing despite the lousy service we got during our spa afternoon. Some people need the sea, others to dig in a garden but for me, it’s the mountains. I’m at my best when I can get to the mountains every few months. I need to remember that and act on it more often than I have in the last five years.

Now it’s mid-June and my ‘retirement test’ is in full swing. A typical day -- awake at 6, back to sleep and out of bed around 8:30; fill the kettle to heat water and the French press with Peet’s House Blend to make my morning brew; fix muesli, fresh strawberries and yoghurt for breakfast. Turn on laptop to listen to Minnesota Public Radio which broadcasts BBC at that hour. Check overnight emails and Skype SMS messages while having breakfast. Wash dishes and clean up kitchen. More computer stuff. Shower and dress for the day. Pack tote bag with the day’s necessities and errands. Between 11 and noon, out the door with recycling and garbage in hand. Dump those in appropriate containers and walk to either the New Town (my neighborhood) or the Old Town (where the Center is) or both. Visit the Center where sometimes I join the staff for lunch or use the copier or printer. Shop for food or household necessities that I don’t remember as being in my air shipment from Kosovo (it still hasn’t arrived!). Laundry, ironing and other household chores are usually done in the afternoon; don’t want to hurry into these things. (Housekeeper starts in a week, but I’ll do my own laundry and ironing. I actually enjoy ironing, strange as that might seem. I think it’s because something quasi-permanent is accomplished, unlike housecleaning where it’s all a mess five minutes later.) Dinner in early evening may be pasta or omelet with veggies, a sandwich or a salad ... or eating out, which I actually haven’t done too much. Evenings mean a short walk, then a movie on my Mac or reading while I listen to music.

June 18, Sandomierz

Found the rec center with the swimming pool today. Finally gave in and asked, and it’s not far from where I live. I’m going to ask someone to go with me so I can understand what’s available when, how much etc.. There’s a very small gym with equipment, swimming pool, masseuse and more. I’m told there is water aerobics, which I’d love, although I am vaguely considering trying to swim laps. I’m not the best swimmer so it’ll be a very slow process, but I know it’s good exercise for someone like me with bad knees.

As I walked today, a crew was cutting grass around a blok along the way. Interestingly they were using weed whackers, not lawn mowers. But the aroma of freshly cut grass was just the same and brought back memories of “lawns i have known and mown” from Pennsylvania to Illinois to Minnesota.

June 21

Truskawkowa Niedziela (Strawberry Sunday) and it’s raining for the third straight day! This reminds me of last summer in Addis Ababa where it started to rain on 1 July and was still raining when I left on 13 September. I’m not exaggerating when I say it rained daily in some way, shape or form ... and I swear the temperature never got above 70F. I froze all summer. If this keeps up, I may have to move to the south of Spain. Then I could combine some Spanish lessons ... hmm, a thought.

Ula, a friend from Krakow since my Peace Corps days, arrived on Friday in time for supper and a long catch-up chat. Saturday we got her fresh strawberries (not many left) at the outdoor market, then raincoats on and umbrellas overhead, walked to the Old Town to see if anything was happening. Not much. We bought some polished flint pendants from a street seller for next to nothing price-wise and played tourist in the castle museum and cathedral. Had coffee in a small coffee shop that’s more in the mold of something in Northeast Minneapolis than Poland -- overstuffed chairs and sofa, piles of magazines, lots of color to brighten a dreary day. And they make great cappuccino. In the afternoon we drove to Baranow Sandomierski, a castle that’s in Michener’s Poland and is a museum, conference center and hotel now. The main restaurant, where we had planned to have dinner, was closed for a wedding ... and the second had okay food but service rivaling the spa in Mavrovo, Macedonia.

Ula’s a great photographer and got some beautiful photos in both Sandomierz and Baranow. I will try to figure out how to upload these to Facebook so you can see them.

We passed the artificial lake in Tarnobrzeg, a large city across the Wisla River from Sandomierz. When I lived here, the “lake” was a gigantic hole, easily three times the size of Lake Harriet for those in the Twin Cities. It was the remnants of a sulfur mine pit, and I used to joke about it becoming a lake. Apparently someone heard me and figured out how to seal the surface well enough to do just that. Despite the bad weather, two sailboats were out, but in general the lake area is pretty desolate except for shrubs, trees and grasses. No multi-million zloty homes like you’d find anywhere in the US. Not sure if it’s due to land ownership issues or what. Didn’t even notice any marinas so I’m not sure how the sailboats accessed the water. Later Hala told me there are still questions over whether the water quality allows use ... and of course, land ownership issues.

Hala and I went to the strawberry festival. I’ve known Hala since my TechnoServe days in Sandomierz. She became executive director just before I joined the project and supported my lunatic idea of a strawberry festival. Now the Center and hotel are sponsors although the third festival was the last one organized by the Center before turning it over to the city tourism department, which is carrying on but not with little apparent vigor. I remember the second festival was a rainy day, off and on all day. We had promoted heavily in Warsaw, hotels, embassies and such. A busload of about 40 British and American embassy and aid types made the three-plus hour journey. They called it their ‘strawberry festival and coffee shop tour’ -- when it rained, they’d just try out a different coffee shop. That’s what I love about people in my business -- they generally roll with the punches, especially in those days.

June 22

Argh! It is raining again. Good day to start working on my taxes. Which is what I did all day. Organizing and trying to interpret all those receipts ... and the ‘tax organizer” sent by my accountant.

June 23

Thought we might have sunshine today; it was sneaking a look from behind the cloud cover for a short while but must’ve given up. It’s raining again. Had a deluge this morning, then after a bit, it got sunny, hot and humid ... just enough to fool us all. I went into the Center to use their printer and have lunch and coming back, to the post office and grocery. Waiting at a zebra crossing (crosswalk), a flash of lightning, the loudest thunder crack I’ve heard in years and another deluge complete with strong winds. My umbrella was useless, then destroyed, and by the time I got home I was soaked to the skin. It’s been some time since I’ve had that experience. Of course, the Internet is down now, and with my luck we’ll lose power too. I have no batteries for my flashlight. I knew there was something that I should’ve added to my shopping list. Ah, life in the fast lane.

June 27

Four rainy days later, I am growing webbed feet. Went for a walk with Marzena, manager of the hotel owned by the Center, the other night. We not only took a longer route than intended but got caught in another gully washer. Thankfully we were out of the gully (literally) by the time the really hard rainfall started or we might’ve been washed away. Today I read on a news crawl that several towns in the far southeastern part of the country are evacuating people because of severe flooding. ( It’s easier for me to read and understand the crawls than to understand the fast-talking news readers.)

Took a heavier-duty cane-style umbrella along today and of course, big black clouds but no rain. Went in search of a battery charger and computer cables for my camera (I seem to have lost, left or packed those somewhere) and a baby gift for my nephew’s new daughter. She’s the first girl child in the Hagen clan in 35+ years.

Lunch at “Pizza & Pasta” was a fresh green salad with chicken that was curry flavored and quite tasty. The salad, of course, included canned corn as well as fresh tomatoes, red peppers and cucumbers. I say “of course” because Poles seem to be fascinated by canned corn. It shows up in the most unlikely (for an American) places -- like fresh salads and pizza.

JULY 2009

July 4, Krakow

We’ve had our share of hot, humid days since I last added to this. I went to Hala’s farm twice and stayed overnight. One balmy Sunday we sat all afternoon near and under the gazebo her husband Michal built a few years ago. The gazebo has a grass floor, fire pit and smoke hole and in winter, plastic panels to keep out the cold air. While Hala read business plans for a grants program that the Center is administering, I read a trashy mystery. Later we walked for an hour over soggy paths and fields. As it got dark, Michal built a great fire, their son Marcin roared in from college on his motorcycle and we all roasted and ate garlicky kielbasa. A heavenly day.

The Center has two Halinas -- Hala and Halinka, to keep them separate -- and last Thursday was their name day, the day of St. Halina. Some of you may remember that in Poland name days are celebrated more commonly than birthdays, and the celebrant brings the treats.

I helped Hala make a torte. She had already made two huge thick sheet cakes that were ready to be assembled, but which about four hours! Hala whipped eggs and sugar by hand on the stove forever, then after cooling, gradually put this into the Polish version of a KitchenAid mixer where soft butter was being whipped. I lost count of the number of quarter kilos of unsalted butter that went in before the brandy was added. This mixture was divided and each half flavored -- one with chocolate, the other with lemon. Then assembly, beginning with the delicate surgery of making two layers out of each sheet by cutting horizontally. While Hala did all of this, I tested and offered suggestions and cleaned up all the utensils and pans and bowls we were using. Some things our mothers tell us to do (clean up as you go along) are actually good ideas! No dirty dishes when we were done just before midnight. The finished torte was about six inches tall, and I sampled the next day at the Center -- delicious as well as lovely, if I do say so.

Yesterday I took a bus to Krakow for a long weekend with friends. First bus trip in Poland in some time, a new bus that only stopped once so we made the trip in record time. Arrival was a bit disconcerting though -- a new bus station. The old one had been replaced by a huge galleria, which I knew from previous visits to Krakow. I just didn’t know where the bus station had moved to. Took a bit of wandering before I saw a tiny sign indicating the direction of the train station, which I took. That was a location from which I could navigate. I walked through throngs of tourists for about half an hour to David & Inga’s apartment across from Wawel Castle and near the Wisla River. Unexpectedly Inga was outside the door when I arrived, so we walked up and up and up to their flat together.

July 6

It was a fun weekend teaching Frankie, 11, and Tosia, 6, how to play their Candyland board game and Go Fish card game. Tosia in particular got very good at cards and eager to play, so that’s how we started and ended each day. Frequently I was trounced. The girls and I took a boat ride on the river, wandered all over the Old Town, had lunch in a new garden restaurant and ate sinful ice cream concoctions on Saturday, and we all went to the “American Dream” exhibit at the National Museum of Art on Sunday. A lot of the exhibit was a walk down memory lane for us Americans, but especially me -- they built a piece of Route 66 down the center of the main room, a highway we drove often when I was a kid; a soda fountain was straight out of the ‘50s; lots of photos, paintings commercials took me back in time. An excellent exhibition overall. We also went into the area that has artifacts from everyday life in Polish history, including some incredible furniture -- intricately inlaid bureaus, beautifully carved chests, gorgeous brocade-covered settees.

July 11, back in Sandomierz

Before leaving Krakow on Tuesday, I had lunch with friend Iza at Galleria Krakowska, the huge newer shopping mall that’s in front of the train station. It’s the one I traipsed through on Friday to get out of the bus station -- all three are inter-connected underground. Not long ago Iza quit her job of many years (manager of a successful micro-enterprise fund) to do freelance consulting. We talked about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship as well as caught up our personal lives. Then she showed me The American Bookstore where I spent my monthly “allowance” on novels in English. What a find this store is -- everything from my usual trashy mysteries and detective novels to good literature. Lots of choices and even new releases, something I don’t often get in the English-language section of local bookstores where I encounter a phletora of authors I’ve never seen. I’m sure publishers are unloading all the books they can’t sell in the US to foreign markets.

Yesterday’s adventure started with my first bus trip to Warsaw. I was nervous as the day before I’d had some intestinal issues, and God only knew what kind of bus I’d travel on or how frequently it would stop. Well, it was a quite modern and comfortable bus that made only a few stops, just long enough to allow passengers to get on/off. The trip was completed in record time -- four hours -- but left me at Warszawa Zachodnia, the western bus/train station. I needed to drop off my tax files at FedEx in the Marriott Hotel in the center before heading to my friends’ house in the western suburbs. I was so focused on getting this packet off to the accountant that it didn’t dawn on me to just take a train to Maryla and Stas and ship the packet on Monday morning. But it got done and I arrived in Milanowek at about 4 pm. I was surprised that the train station didn’t look any different from my Peace Corps days 18 years ago, especially considering this was a pretty well-off suburb even then. But others things have changed, like the addition of three large chain markets, including a Tesco from UK.

Oh, almost forgot. Have had inquiries about a couple of jobs. One, ironically, is in the Balkans. The other is a two-week stint in Ethiopia for Booz. Nice to be wanted but if neither comes through, I won’t cry in my chardonnay.

16 July

The short-term Booz job fell through and still waiting word on the Balkans, but something else was added to the mix -- another in the Balkans, or rather three positions that a European organization needs to fill. I’m off to Tirana for an interview next week. Will make for some hectic traveling, so I’m staying in Warsaw between Tirana and London. Not my preference but the idea of riding the bus back/forth within a few days is even less appealing than washing out undies in a hotel sink.

My friend Armine who was born in Armenia, grew up in Pasadena, I met in Serbia and now lives/works in Moscow is doing the London Triathlon. (How’s that for international.) Happy days! I’m off to London at the end of the month to support her and visit assorted friends there.

21 July

What a week. We learn that Walter Cronkite has died and mark the anniversary of the first human to walk on the moon. Years ago when I was in Vienna, I actually saw Walter Cronkite. I was like a kid seeing her hero in real life ... well, I was an adult seeing her hero. He was in a park behind the Hofburg Palace recording promo spots for the annual New Year’s concert. He looked so distinguished in his black top coat, no hat. I restrained my desire to run up and meet him, opting to stand for a few minutes to watch a pro at work.

Walter Cronkite was my hero from his earliest years when I was a mere journalism student focusing on print, not broadcast. He was what we, the journalism students of the 60s, wanted to be ... and I honestly think I can say “we” and not just “I.” He set a standard that few have come close to. I remember when my reporting class had to write and present a five-minute broadcast news segment, and virtually all of us ended with something along the lines of Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is ...”

An era has truly passed. I worry about the state of journalism today. How did reporters become such reviled figures? And what will happen to the quality of news -- and the state of the world -- as more and more amateurs take over? By amateurs I mean all of those bloggers and tweeters who have become the “new journalists” who have so much to say, so many opinions to share, and yet no underlying understanding that facts, objectivity, clarity are fundamental to good reporting. They have no training that emphasizes and teaches these, no code of conduct to live up to. And the public doesn’t seem to care.

I was leaving my first reporting job when Apollo 11 helped the first human step onto the moon’s surface. Because I was working on my last “big” story -- on unwanted pregnancy and how young women dealt with that in 1969 (Florence Crittendon Home vs illegal abortion) -- I don’t recall having to get local reaction to the historic Apollo event ... although I’m sure someone did. It was de rigeur at the Southern Illinoisan newspaper where I worked.

What I remember about the event was years later in the ‘90s. I was given a film to preview that was made by a human rights group in southern California. It’s a film about making a film -- actor Michael Keaton plays the person hired to prepare a film promoting the hiring of workers who are handicapped, and he does an unconventional film: a beautifully choreographed Broadway-style chorus line of people in wheelchairs is one segment that I will never forget. And also the last segment, an astronaut steps onto the moon, then turns and you notice the person has only one leg while the “One small step ...” line appears on the screen.

23 July

Attention, RPCVs. Polish stores now charge for plastic bags at the store! Remember when we had to bring our own ... and Helen put the frozen liver in her closable tote and forgot it was there for three days ... and the Poland VI who said she could never date a man who carried a plastic bag? And before we IVs left, plastic bags were everywhere. Buy an apple, get a plastic bag. Heaven forbid that you should put your carrots and potatoes in the same plastic bag or do without. The clerks almost seemed insulted when you declined. Well, now they don’t give you one unless you ask and pay ... and they aren’t always those heavy and reusable reklamowkas (bags with advertising on them) either. Ah, the times they are a changin’.

25 July at Hala and Michal’s farm in Czermin

Another rainy weekend but brightened by an overnight at the farm with Hala and her family. Although we couldn’t take our usual walks in the forest or roast kielbasa over a bonfire, it was lovely to again play sous chef to Hala as we made fresh vegetable soup; put up three jars and a crock of dill pickles; and made a raised-dough coffee cake with fresh blueberries. Nothing like the warmth of a home to drive away the “rainy weekend blues of a singlet.” I feel like part of the family.

Hala’s husband Michal is the first to get up (at 5 am) and starts fresh coffee and tea. So if I’m not awake already, my nose starts the process.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed the typewriter on this letter. It seemed appropriate on multiple fronts -- my early training as a reporter, for example -- but more importantly, my continual yearning for the Royal Standard on which I first learned touch typing back in ’62. Now I pound away on my MacBook, still baffled by most of what it can do but glad I don’t have to start all over every time I make a mistake.


6 August

Returned from two weeks in Warsaw, London and Bath to a pile of snail mail. What a novelty.

Warsaw was mainly to get ready for London. But my friend Gina who always organized a monthly women's luncheon set one up so I had a chance to reconnect with a few people I haven't seen in years. And we all made a plea to continue the luncheons.

Enjoyed good times and good meals in London, with friends Tim and Amy from Peace Corps, Vesna from the Macedonia project and Armine from the Serbia project and now in Moscow. Walked my legs off, almost literally. Hours and hours every day. Walked an hour from hotel to the Apple Store for an early morning class I'd signed up for, wandered that area (Regent St.) and did lots of window shopping, keeping my vow -- no buying other than the running shoes I needed. Then eventually walked back. (The entire trip I never got near Harrod’s!)

Met Stuart, a friend of my friend Bob (of Reno and Buenos Aires; we met on the Macedonia project). As Bob predicted, we had an instant rapport. And I hope we can find some project for the three of us. We would have fun as well as get a lot done. That night I met Armine and several of her friends who live in London, for pizza in a new Notting Hill place. The pizza was well worth every calorie.

Tried to take the river boat to Hampton Court Palace; it's the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's coronation. But the cruise wasn't operating, and I didn't want to walk to the bus station. So I took a tube, then walked to the Imperial War Museum. What a place. A typical huge old stone building like so many there and set in a lovely park. A local university’s graduation had ended not long before I arrived as evidenced by all the smiling cap-and-gowned young people and proud parents smiling for cameras of all kinds.

The museum entry is full of cannons and other armaments, a sub, an airplane cockpit etc. on the floor and all kinds of planes hang from the ceiling. The Holocaust exhibit was comprehensive and very well done with photos, copy blocks, artifacts and filmed interviews with people who had survived. The last was one of the features that I think really sets this museum apart. Definitely creates an impact. They did the same in the "Children at War" exhibit, which really brought home how the dislocation during the blitz affected kids. My friend Ted recommended this museum, and I'm glad I made the effort. Next trip it'll be another visit to the British Museum, which has a new central area that I'm told is impressive. I only did a quick run through the Egypt section once years ago (saw the Roseta Stone and lots of mummies).

Armine’s decision to compete in the London Triathlon was my ‘good excuse’ for this trip to my favorite big city in the world. She finished in a good time, and it was fun to see the event itself. Thousands of participants started in waves over two days. We spent several hours on Saturday scoping things out, getting her registration packet, arranging to rack her bike, etc. Then on Sunday we set out at 4:30 am by hired car for the 6:30 start time for women. Because so much of the event was on city streets, detours abounded and confused as we neared the ExCel Center. Our driver stopped to ask two event workers for directions and was told, “I don’t know. I’m with traffic management.” Uh, and traffic management means what?

Monday afternoon I took the train to Bath Spa, 90 minutes from London, but I have no idea in which direction! Got there in time to wander the town in a drizzle and find a nice tapas bar for dinner. Yesterday I did more walking tour on my own and made a reservation for the Thermae Bath Spa in the afternoon -- four hours in the spa (rooftop pool, indoor pool and jacuzzi, steam baths with four different aroma therapies), then my treatment -- body scrub and Pelos wrap (peat mud) -- and finally a light dinner in their restaurant. Great way to spend a very rainy day!

The treatment was interesting. After the body scrub and application of peat mud, I was wrapped in plastic, then an empty water bed mattress was folded around me. When the mattress was filled, I floated surrounded by warm water while I got a foot massage. It definitely soothed the aching muscles from all that walking. Ironically the therapist was from Poland.

Got up early Wednesday morning to catch a train to London, then a van service to the airport and finally my flight back here. I stayed overnight with Hala's daughter Marta in "my" old apartment on Dabrowskiego and took the fast bus home Thursday morning. Unfortunately for traffic management, the annual pilgrimages to Czestochowa have started. It took more than an hour to get out of Warsaw alone Ugh. I'm glad to be "home" for a while!

11 August

Walking into town to mail packages today, I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face and felt like a ... That’s what I was thinking about. How does a particular age “feel”? I’m nearing 64 -- what is that supposed to feel like? Lots of people tell me I don’t look that old -- probably all the red hair I let my friend and hairdresser Connie talk me into all those years ago. My response is always the same, ‘This is what (fill in age) looks like these days.’

I remember thinking about this when I was in Peace Corps training outside Warsaw. Every morning the housekeeper where I was living would watch me from the kitchen window as I exited house, walked across the yard, closed the gate and disappeared out of her sight. In those moments I felt like a six year old going off to first grade.

When I try to do new things on a computer, I feel ancient. Not sure what particular age, just old. I often describe myself as a Luddite ... my way of explaining why I am so computer-challenged. That’s why I went back to a Mac for my personal computer. Yesterday the challenge was uploading photos to a web site so that others can see them. Thankfully Apple does make things easier, so with a bit of trial and error, I got it done. Check out the photos at

I feel almost as ancient when my knees start acting up, which makes me think of my elderly aunt and uncle. I have acquired the Kanyr family’s propensity for arthritis in the knees.

14 August

Back home after a few days visiting Ewa in Pulawy. Ewa is the translator we use for Center board meetings. We spent two full days playing tourist, mostly in a drizzle or a downpour. Amy, one of the Peace Corps colleagues that I saw in London, did her PC service in Pulawy, so I promised to take lots of pix and post them. Ewa and I took a bicycle ride around town for an hour or so, stopped for coffee and rolls and to take pictures. Although I’d only been in the town once or twice before, it clearly has changed. New sidewalks, bloks that have been painted cheerful colors, a new galleria.

Wednesday we went by city bus to Kazimierz Dolny, a quaint town of Sandomierz vintage that is nearby. It seems everyone has been to Kazimierz, which frankly has less to offer than Sandomierz but has always been more effectively promoted. I was taken aback by the giant King Kazimierz in the town square. It reminded me of the small souvenir dolls I’ve gotten -- cardboard conical bases with round wooden heads, all dressed like Santa or in traditional attire. This thing seemed so out of place. I cannot imagine anyone in Sandomierz doing something like that.

The next day we went to Naleczow, a spa town that produces two of my favorites -- a nice mineral water and those delicious chocolate-covered prunes that I’ve shared with many of you. It poured the entire day, but we were reasonably dry under our cheap orange and blue plastic raincoats that Ewa bought at a kiosk when we arrived. Her friend Agnieszka joined us for a wet wander and some picture taking, then lunch before we returned to Pulawy, which was dry and sunny. Ah, well.

We took a mini-bus to Naleczow which made me think about transportation and how ubiquitous the mini-bus is. While towns here have city bus services, privately owned mini-bus services seem to thrive by taking people between two or three key intra- or inter-city points only. More than one service in Sandomierz makes a circular route between the hospital and town center, another to the glass factory.

15 August, Sandomierz

If I were prone to paranoia, I’d wonder what everyone knew but me. I got up early to get back into the swim of things exercise wise (pun intended), and the pool was closed. So I walked to the bakery where I usually get bread ... closed. So I walked to the bakery next to the farmer’s market ... no vendors in the market and the bakery was closed. It’s 8 am on Saturday for God’s sake. Twilight Zone time? Then I remembered the processionals to Czestochowa. Today must be the holiday. Oh, great. No bread, no matzo for my freshly made bialy ser (literally “white cheese” but also used to identify a spread made with bialy ser, onions, garlic and spices). Home I go to clean up the apartment and myself, then a long walk to Carrefours Express. Surely they’ll be open ... Oh, forgot to mention. My cleaning lady who was on vacation the last two weeks has badly sprained her foot. She won’t be climbing my 8 flights of steps for a few weeks. Back to doing my own cleaning for a while. I am so spoiled.

Aside on matzo -- a fellow Peace Corps volunteer Len and I first found matzo ... maca in Polish ... in a self-service supermarket in Warsaw in 1991. We were astonished since Poland has so few Jews. But I, in particular, was delighted to find maca since at that point Poland also had no decent crackers. The crackers were all Ritz-like and so fatty that they crumbled at the touch of anything. Bialy ser spread on maca was (and still is) my favorite quick meal. So I was delighted later to find maca in a shop in Nowy Sacz where I did my Peace Corps service and bought a couple of packages, thinking I’d buy more when I ran out. Not. I forgot how quickly supplies of anything were bought and how long re-supplying could take. Next time I found maca, I bought 10 packages, much to the astonishment of the check-out clerk.

18 August, Hala and Michal’s farm in Czermin

In the village with Hala and family. We’ve been preparing herbs -- Hala cuts them from the garden. She has heard the story of how I pulled up a large patch of asparagus seed plants because I thought they were weeds. That was during my college job at the CT State Training School for Delinquent Girls. Anyway, we had quite a good assembly line going today. Hala cut and did first wash to remove mud. I took over for rinse two and three, then took the whole wet pile to a table where I made small bouquets, used a gum band (rubber band to non-Pittsburghers) to hold them and hung them from a wire to remove the water. Later they’ll go into a dryer. The herbs are organic though not registered as such, and despite the substantial quantity we’ve prepared, Hala says they’ll consume the whole lot. Perhaps in my next career I should become an organic farmer.

22 August, Sandomierz

Talked Hala into going to Krynica with me for a few days. Marcin, her son, suggested that her husband Michal should go too. I agreed; we all needed a short break. I made reservations in Krynica, my favorite Polish resort town in the mountains south of Nowy Sacz where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I never tire of visiting Krynica; it’s one of those mountain places that renews me on all levels.

So Wednesday-Friday we hiked and ate and rested and walked and ate and rested. We could smell the outdoor grill of an informal “bufet” near our hotel the first afternoon and decided to give it a try for dinner. Hala and I had excellent fresh trout in garlic butter. And having been so virtuous at lunch, we went to the Pijalnia Czedoladowa (Chocolate Drinking Hall) at the end of the day for some sinfully delicious hot dark chocolate. Mmm mmm. Well worth every calorie.

Neither of them had been to the top of Jaworzyna, the highest peak in the area. So we took a gondola up and hiked down for two hours. The insides of my thighs are still sore and my knees would like to quit. We took a side drive to Milik, about 20 km. away; it’s the village where Michal went to Scout camp almost 50 years ago. But alas, no remnants of the camp remained. Coming home to Sandomierz, we drove the long way around -- leisurely enjoying the Poprad River valley which borders Slovakia, then on to Muszyna, Piwniczna, Rytro, Stary Sacz and Nowy Sacz, whcih were all part of my Peace Corps years, then connected with the route back home.

Today was a day of catching up -- laundry, shopping, a bit of cleaning, and back to the pool. You can tell the harvest has begun. The number of vendors at the Stary Rynek (Old Market Square) has grown considerably since my last visit a couple of weeks ago. Lots of informal vendors -- those with an overturned grate and a few boxes of raspberries or small assortment of veggies. The assortment in the stalls has broadened -- peaches, nectarines, blackberries and plums along with leeks, eggplant, zucchini, colorful peppers, root vegetables galore and tomatoes that smell and taste like tomatoes (although not as good as those I get at Hala’s farm). The cukes are small now, better for pickles than salads. Did I mention that I made a jar of garlic-only pickles at the farm? Michal, who is the pickle jar packer, was a little offended when I asked him not to put dill weed in my jar. Next time I go there my pickles should be ready to try.

23 August

Today would be my father’s 93rd birthday. It’s been almost 20 years since he died, and I still miss him. Daddy worked shifts so I didn’t see much of him sometimes and he was a steelworker with less than a high school education, but I learned a lot of important things from him. I learned that men could cook, wash dishes, run vacuum cleaners, all without being asked and without resentment. I learned how to “stretch” freshly made concrete when you haven’t made quite enough for the sidewalk (insert clean wet stones) and how to change the oil in a 1960s model Plymouth. I learned that girls can do anything because my dad never limited me. There was no question in his mind that I would go to college, have a career, take care of my family, realize my dreams whatever they were.

Daddy taught me how to drive because he was the parent with more patience. He endured my first accident, half a block from home when I still had a learner’s permit. He was helping me to turn onto our street without going off into the mud; no curbs or sidewalks in our neighborhood. I hit the back quarter of a neighbor’s car coming in the opposite direction. My sister, in the car with us, jumped out and ran home to announce that I’d “wrecked the car.” Mom was surprised not to see blood and bruises when we finally arrived.

After his suicide, I learned just how physically debilitating mourning can be. I went from running five miles a day to barely putting one foot in front of the other. Even before Peter was diagnosed with cancer, my father’s death taught me that life was too short to suffer fools and waste time on people and things you don’t enjoy. Maybe I couldn’t eliminate all the “shoulds,” they are so, so engrained. But I sure could cut them down to size. So feeling his blessing inside me, I chucked the corporate job. And I could realize a dream I’d had since high school, joined the Peace Corps and started this grand adventure that you’re sharing with me. My mom always said that I had my bags packed and by the door in case someone suggested a trip.

28 August

Awoke today to a totally overcast sky and some fog, the kind of day Poland is so noted for.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Suzi! I loved catching up on your travels the past few months! So many things you mentioned reminded me of our time in MK and RO. I'm so happy you're documenting the everyday stuff because the everyday stuff of an expat is almost always VERY interesting! Keep it up.