Saturday, December 5, 2009

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” W. Shakespeare

4 November 2009, Krakow

Sorry that I’ve become so lax in keeping you up on things. The last week of October was spent in Warsaw, lunching with various friends I haven’t seen in ages and helping Assia unpack her kitchen boxes; her shipment from Serbia had arrived. “Gina’s lunch,” as we all tend to call the RNWW luncheon that Gina has been organizing for years, meant a chance to touch base with that international group of business women and to introduce Assia and Marta to the group, since they joined us. Years ago I asked Gina what the initials stood for; I’d been trying to put words to the letters. But she said it stands for “Really Neat Women in Warsaw,” which is what the group encompasses.

Kim, a Peace Corps friend, was in town, and we spent a long, rainy lunch catching up. He’s working for a consulting firm in NYC now. And Anna, one of my few Polish friends who’s “my age,” at last found time for lunch. We went to Radio Cafe, which pays homage to Radio Free Europe. Anna teaches at a hotel/hospitality industry university and asked me to speak to her class before I leave Poland. I’ve worked in tourism in every project except Ethiopia and need to think about what to cover in the talk.

Bob arrived on 1 Nov., All Saint’s Day. Bob’s a friend from my days in Macedonia; he divides his time between overseas consulting assignments and living in Reno or Buenos Aires. He made a stop-over between Afghanistan and Kosovo gigs.

That evening he, Marta, her roommate and I went to Powazki Cemetery so Bob could experience this important Polish holiday. We went to that cemetery because many famous Poles are buried there as well as a great uncle and aunt of Marta’s. Despite the frigid temps and harsh winds, the cemetery was mobbed with people looking for the grave sites of relatives and friends where they would leave lighted candles. Some graves had scores of candles, others only a few and some none. We never found Marta’s relatives so left the candles on an unlighted grave, as is protocol. Bob took video during the evening, which is available at this You Tube link.

On Monday Bob and I hopped the morning bus to Sandomierz, armed with sandwiches that I made from the hotel’s breakfast buffet. (Yes, I am turning into my mother.) We relaxed that night, then on Tuesday, I borrowed a car and took him to my favorite tourist/historic site in the region -- Krzysztopor Castle, about 45 minutes drive away in Ujazd. Those of you who’ve followed my travels over the years have heard me wax poetic about this ruins of a 17th Century castle with its interesting architecture -- 365 windows for the days of the year (plus one that was only open during leap years), four major towers for the four seasons, 52 rooms for the weeks in a year and 12 ballrooms for the 12 months. The tower where the dining hall was located is said to have had an aquarium of exotic fish on the top floor that was visible from below. And the castle had amenities that were quite advanced for the times -- a ventilation and heating system as well as a system that provided fresh water throughout the castle.

Krzysztopor was among the real castles that author James Michener included in his book Poland. So when I moved to Sandomierz the first time in 1994, it was a “ must see,” and I did ... several times. Everyone who visited was taken to see the place and climb all over the grounds; there were no restrictions and still are very few. This was my first trip back there in years, and I’m glad I went. The ministry has started to take action to preserve and protect what remains of the castle and to protect visitors from untimely falls into holes or from unstable walls.

As we braved the trip (it was another bitter cold, windy day), I thought of a Shakespearean quote that was always on the door of a college friend, an English major who didn’t like Chicago winters and I’m sure would equally dislike those in Poland. I have no recollection of which play, sonnet or whatever it’s from, but the quote always comes to mind when winter sets in for real. Hence, the headline on this post.

7 November, Warsaw

Midday Wednesday Bob and I took the express bus to Krakow (with sandwiches from home this time). It was raining again, so thankfully we located a helpful ticket seller in the new bus terminal; he drew a simple map to our hotel, which wasn’t too far away. After settling in and checking email (of course), we went to the Old Town Square to a restaurant that offered the traditional Polish food that Bob wanted to try. Then we walked over to see Inga and Tosia, almost 7. Frankie, 11, was in Egypt with school friends, and David was in Africa on business. We spent a lovely time talking, then arranged to get together again on Friday before we left for Warsaw ... and I agreed to stay with the girls next week. I’ll share babysitting honors with Basia, their regular sitter.

Although we’d planned to rent a car and drive to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) on Thursday, the rental car company rep didn’t have time to bring it to our hotel. The hotel receptionist was very apologetic; this was the hotel’s first experience with the company and perhaps the last. We took a mini-van instead. That worked out quite well in both directions.

I’ve been through both camps three times in the past with other visitors. The experience was/is overwhelming -- Bob described it as ‘numbing,’ and I agree. And it is not one that I can endure again. So I have accompanied several friends who want to visit because I think it’s important that they have someone along for afterwards. I wait over coffee and a book for as long as they need. The restaurant has expanded and improved over the years, making the wait more comfortable.

The original concentration camp is jarring to see with its “Work Frees You” sign over the entrance and neat rows of well built brick buildings; it was previously a military camp. When the Germans set up the concentration camp, it was for Polish political prisoners who were a majority of the occupants in the early years. Birkenau (Auschwitz II), on the other hand, was specifically built to efficiently exterminate Jews. Before leaving, the Germans burned down most of the wood structures and destroyed the ovens in this camp, but you can still be overpowered by the enormity of this tragedy just walking through the ruins that remain.

While waiting for Bob, I sat on a bench along side an older woman from the UK. She and her son had decided on a return trip to Poland after many years, to see what had changed, and she said that her granddaughter insisted on coming along. Like me, she wasn’t up to a repeat walk through of the extermination camp. She said that after her first trip to Birkenau, she stopped believing in God and hasn’t seen a reason to change her mind since. I understand.

Bob took some video of the Birkenau camp.

We had taken a taxis to Birkenau and since the bad weather improved during the day, we walked the 3 km from back to the mini-van’s stop.

9 November, Krakow

Bob is now on ‘my list.’ He taught Tosia a new card game. She has taken to it like the proverbial fish to water. To play is her first request in the morning and her last at night. In Bob’s game the idea is to get all of the cards. And when a pair is shown, the first person to slap it gets all the cards in the pile. A tentative slapper when she was playing with Bob, Tosia has begun to play with her usual seriousness. And she is a pretty consistent winner.

Bob and Tosia played cards for quite some time Friday morning, then the three of us went across the street to Wawel Castle. It was a beautiful day -- sunny, clear and not too cold -- so we wandered around outside and took photos. Too nice to go indoors until required. The InterCity train ride back to Warsaw was smooth and easy. On Saturday I went with Bob to the airport, and everything went so smoothly that I was back in Warsaw much quicker than I’d expected. Thought I’d see if I could exchange my return ticket to Krakow for an earlier train ... and I did so with no argument from the ticket clerk. Amazing. I remember how virtually impossible that would have been a few years ago.

Got another surprise today in an email from a friend in DC. Leigh, a mutual friend of ours, is in Poland and wanted to get together. Leigh was the education officer for USAID in Macedonia. She, the PR person at USAID and I bonded over several bottles of marginal Macedonian white wine one night. So tonight I had dinner with her and her friend Christie; they’re en route to a leadership conference in Prague.

14 November, Krakow

The sun is shining. Hurray. The first time in more than a week. Would’ve been nice to have that when Violane and I were walking to/from Kazimierz and around the Old Town on the 10th or when Frankie and I walked up to the square to meet Leigh and her friend while they shopped in the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall, which has a series of stalls of local crafters of all sorts -- great place for shopping; reasonable prices even). We saw the Independent Day (11 November) parade go by -- in a downpour, so only a few stalwarts were lining the streets.

15 November, Sandomierz

Back home and back to raining. Good day to download and organize photos -- check out to see photos of my various visitors, our first snowfall in Sandomierz and some of my favorite sites to see in Poland.

Also a good day for ironing and making soup, catching up on emails and getting holiday gifts packaged for the kids that I write to, all of which I did. I’m feeling productive, although I still feel like a slug. I haven’t had any real exercise in two weeks. Walking is good but it doesn’t replace swimming or aerobics in my head as exercise. Tomorrow ...

17 November, Sandomierz

Yes, I went to the pool on Monday and swam for 30 minutes.

On Sunday I talked to my sister for the first time in a few weeks, and I was happy to learn that Mia, her 11-year-old tabby who had been the runt of my late cat’s litter and her spitting image, is responding well to the treatment she’s getting for a bowel cancer. That led to a discussion of how much we have come to dread, even hate, the year-end holidays. Why you ask? Because something terrible always happens in our extended family. Our mother dropped dead on 22 December, my ex died a month later. Peter was diagnosed on 2 January. Barbara’s estranged husband died last December. And in between too many dear friends been diagnosed with cancer or died during the extended holiday period. We had hoped that Mia’s cancer would be the ‘terrible thing’ of 2009. But today I learned that one of my best friends from college has a lung disease that still isn’t diagnosed but isn’t cancer. @#$%^&*

19 November, somewhere between Warsaw and Sandomierz

I’m in love ... with a store and its staff. The fellows at the iSpot store in Warsaw are fantastic. I told you last month about how they fixed my laptop after it crashed, even recovering a lot of the files. Well, this could be titled “Crash Redux.” My computer froze up on Tuesday, right after I installed a bunch of software updates and a new episode of “House.” I had been looking forward to watching that episode over a glass of wine and some pretzels.

I made an emergency bus trip to Warsaw on Wednesday, going directly to iSpot. When I walked in, Tomasz recognized me and just shook his head and smiled ruefully when I said I’d crashed again. After I explained what happened, he tried booting the computer to no avail -- he got the same blue screen that I had. A quick call to Piotrek resulted in an explanation and a solution. One of the updates I’d downloaded has been causing quite a few problems for people ... and the only way to fix it was to erase and re-install. Thankfully I invested in a large back-up drive and had been using Time Machine, a Mac system that periodically backs up everything AND preserves the previous back up (it doesn’t overwrite like most). I left the laptop and back-up drive in Tomasz’s capable hands with his promise to try to have it done so I could catch the early bus back to Sandomierz today.

And he made it. At 10 am I got a call that Mac was ready and by 11:15, I was at the bus station. In between I picked up and tested Mac -- everything was as it had been, minus House, which downloaded after I disconnected the back-up drive. Well worth the cost; my AppleCare isn’t valid in Poland. In addition, Tomasz upgraded my Snow Leopard, which gives me faster speed and additional space on the hard drive, for free. I left Tomasz and his colleagues a box of breakfast sweets as a ‘thank you’ and a promise to not crash again and to stop by to say ‘good bye’ before I leave Poland.The day outside may be gloomy again, but I am feeling sunny.

20 November, Sandomierz

I had an email from my sister this morning. It’s about Christmas. Barbara noted that despite our ups and downs, our family has been fortunate to always have had enough food to eat and a roof over our heads. Others have been less fortunate, many more than usual at this point in time. So instead of buying gifts for my brother, his wife and me, she’s adopting three people through a Volunteers of America/Minnesota program and will shop for gifts for them. VOA also requests a gift certificate for purchase of a holiday meal from either of two large local supermarket chains. Barbara received some information about her adoptees -- an elderly man, an elderly woman and a teenage boy -- including things they would like to receive. The requests are incredibly practical -- no ties or perfume or designer togs, but rather a warm winter coat, bed sheets, dishes and such. The teenage boy asked for a blow dryer for his sisters.

This is such a wonderful way to honor the spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. If any of my Minnesota readers are interested in adopting a family, you can contact Kristin Cook at If you’re somewhere else, I’m sure you can find VOA in your state on line and would bet there is a similar program. The needs this year are too great.

25 November, Warsaw

Another era has ended. Yesterday I walked up Marszalkowska street intending to stop at the Centrum Galleria to check out leather gloves. I managed to lose one of mine in the rush to get a bottle of water before I got onto the Sandomierz-Warsaw bus on Monday morning. My friend Halinka, who drove me to the bus, lent me hers.

What a surprise to find the Centrum Galleria closed. I had seen a ‘likwidacja’ sign on my last trip here but had assumed it was a store-wide sale. Not. As for 2 November, the store is no more. Inside were workers disassembling display equipment.

Centrum Galleria was the post-Communist incarnation of an old state-owned department store, Centrum. Easily a city block long and actually three stores, Wars, Sawa and Junior, each battling to be more 1950s dime store the other. Think Murphy’s, Green’s or whatever your local incarnation of that 1950s staple was: exposed wood floors, “Evening in Paris” cologne, 45s of Patty Page and Perry Como, barely disguised floor walkers, a cafeteria upstairs that made great grilled cheese sandwiches. As the ‘90s slipped into the new millennium and I was in the US and the Balkans, the Centrum morphed into Centrum Galleria. Think JC Penney’s at its best -- modern displays full of bright lights and chrome, solid merchandise at reasonable prices. I shopped there frequently when I traveled to Poland for board meetings. Even outfitted myself there once at the expense of Austrian Airlines, which had lost my luggage. Got a beautiful all wool, fully lined pants suit for $100.

Several of the buildings were sold or leased to other big retailers that moved into Poland as Poland moved toward EU membership -- C&A and H&M apparel stores, Sephora cosmetics -- and some large local stores like EMPIK (music, books, software). And the central building became Centrum Galleria. No indication of what it’s next life will be.

30 November, Einsiedeln, Switzerland

It’s snowing! I am a happy camper. Some/many of you have heard me wax poetic about snow, so I won’t repeat that. I’ll just say that since early childhood, I have loved the stuff. I was the first one into a snowsuit and the last one back home at night -- in between, sledding, snow forts, snowball fights, snow angels. As a ‘middle-aged’ adult, I took up downhill skiing and loved it. And there’s something magic for me in just sitting quietly -- and warmly -- indoors and watching big fluffy snowflakes fall onto statuesque evergreens.

I arrived in Switzerland for Thanksgiving week with Maura, Fed and Oscar, who’s now 4 1/2. Maura’s from the Boston area, and we met when we were both working in Warsaw; she met Fed, who’s Swiss-Italian, when both were on vacation at a resort in Mexico.

On Thanksgiving, Maura, Oscar and I went into Zurich for a traditional turkey meal at the Zurich International Women’s Club. But yesterday (Sunday) we did the deed at home -- a fat juicy turkey with sage and porcini stuffing, roasted potatoes and carrots, sweet potatoes smashed with Oscar’s excellent assistance, fresh cranberry sauce, and dessert: apple pie by me and chocolatey brownies by Maura, both served with ice cream.

Maura and I went shopping and to lunch on Saturday afternoon while Fed and Oscar played at home. Shopping with Maura is always fun -- and expensive. On my last trip to Zurich, I blew about $1000 but still wear most of those clothes. This time, despite my best efforts to buy anything, I couldn’t resist a pair of dressy slacks that I actually need and an interesting purple sweater that goes well with the slacks. It’s only money, right? That evening I stayed with Oscar while his parents had a night out. We all feared that he might be upset, but au contraire. He was an angel, even went to bed without so much as a peep. However, Maura and I forgot we’d planned to make the pies on Saturday, resulting in a small panic on Sunday as we considered the logistics of baking the turkey, veggies, two pies and brownies ... in her single oven. Thankfully it’s a convection oven, which speeds up cooking, and made it possible for everything to be ready on time. We and our guests (friends of Maura and Fed with two sons) were appropriately stuffed at the end of the day.

Today Oscar bundled up in his waterproof snow gear to attend his activity group. Regardless of the weather, the group goes outdoors and does outdoor-related activities. With the darkening sky, falling snow and accumulated fallen snow, the line of pre-schoolers was barely visible as they trudged toward us at the end of the day.

Last time I visited Einsiedeln, Oscar was still a toddler. Now he’s a boy whose favorite word is “no.” Maura says when he tells you that, it means he likes you. So I’ve decided he loves me. He’s very curious, has boundless energy and flirts a lot; he reminds me of Peter at that age. And like Peter, he has his favorite films. Peter’s were first Ferris Buehler’s Day Off and later The Blues Brothers. He watched them so often that I could quote most of the dialogue. Oscar loves Polar Express, an animated Christmas film ... and after a few days with him, I now know a lot of that film’s dialogue. I’d never seen the film before and did enjoy it. Tom Hanks is the key voice in the story, and the detail and cleverness of the animation reminded me of Dr. Seuss. I’m off to another viewing. More another day.

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