Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A time to be thankful

4 November, Minneapolis MN USA

I have “young bones.” That’s what the tech said after completing my bone density test today. The test was part of my “Welcome to Medicare” physical, which alone was making me feel old. So the tech’s words were a joy to my ears ... something about this aging bod has remained somewhat like it was in the olden days. One more thing to add to my Thanksgiving list.

13 November, Minneapolis

It’s snowing! My first snowfall of the season (it snowed a little in MN when I was in CA, so I missed that). If you know me at all or have been reading this blog for long, you know how much I love snow. I have since childhood -- I was the first one out the door to play in the snow and the last one in. Snow angels, snowball fights, sledding down the backyards in our block or more dangerously, down the long sloping street out front (someone stationed at the cross street for safety, of course). We could really get going. It is one giant miracle that none of us was killed. One friend was very seriously injured on a slide down the front nine at a nearby country club; that run flowed into a copse of trees, one of which he hit. That’s when the club started to enforce its “no sledding on the golf course” rule.

The weather reports yesterday predicted 6-8 inches of snow today. Perhaps I’ll try out my new snow boots when I go to my water exercise class this morning. Since the snow has started early, I’m confident that the flight to Amsterdam will take off as planned tomorrow night.

Last year at this time, I was in Poland where we had significant first snowfall the first week of October. I’m sure I was the only person happy to see such an early arrival of cumulated white stuff and its continued presence. Must check the weather forecast for Warsaw to see what to expect on arrival. Snow boots should probably go back on the “to be packed” list. Poland has had the same mild autumn as MN, so I’ve been unsure how to pack for the trip. Although it’s never as cold there as here, it sometimes feels colder since I tend to walk more and there are no Skyways between buildings.

16 November, Hala & Michal’s farm, village of Czermin near Sandomierz, Poland

Arrived safe and sound late yesterday in Warsaw after an uneventful overnight flight from MSP and a couple of hours in the Amsterdam airport.

Hala and Michal were at the airport to bring me to Sandomierz. Traffic was horrendous leaving the city because it was the middle of rush hour. And I expected it would be even worse at the rondo in Gora Kalwaria. It’s a crossroads of the “highway” toward Sandomierz and another that is always full of semis coming from both north and south. They rarely stop to allow a vehicle to cross the rondo so waiting is to be expected (Hala sat for 45 minutes one time). But Michal found a way around this mess; it’s a windy old road or three that do the trick of keeping us moving in the right direction and re-connect us to the main road eventually.

The fog we hit last night in several spots is here today too. The day in general is gray, overcast, damp and chilly. Typical wintery day in Poland. Hearty Minnesotan that I have become, I am prepared with layers and three types of outdoor footwear from which to choose.

17 November, Sandomierz

I am back in the land of cobblestone streets and tractors with license plates (and slow-moving-vehicle signs .. or not), of large fresh garlicky salads for breakfast and $2 dinners with the Center staff midday, of daily lap swims and long walks in lieu of water exercise, pilates and driving, of exterior doors that open inward instead of outward. I am home. It does always feel like I’m coming home when I return to Poland, just as it does when I return to Pennsylvania. And the two do have their similarities. After all, I grew up in a land of immigrant central Europeans, two of my grandparents among them.

It’s election time once more in Poland. During my last visit, it was the national election to replace the president who’d died in a plane crash. (By the way, I understand a Polish delegation is coming to the US to ask us to investigate this already-much-investigated crash. It hasn’t been blamed on the Russians yet which is a must.) Now we’re having local elections. The list of candidates for burmistrz (mayor) of Sandomierz is incredibly long. Apparently new ‘parties’ have been formed solely for the purpose of putting forth candidates. A new surge of civic awareness? Not from what I’ve heard so far. More like opportunists looking for a cushy full time job. Sound familiar? Voting is on Sunday, as it always is here.

18 November

I am hopeful that I’ll be over the jet lag tonight. I sleep soundly for three or so hours, then I’m wide awake at 1 or 2 am. Hence, the middle-of-the-night emails some of you have received. Back to sleep at 4 and a rude awakening around 7:30, just in time for breakfast. No easing into the day as I usually do, enjoying quiet and coffee for an hour before I face the day. But perhaps tomorrow ...

Lesson for the day: Don’t have your iPod in your pocket when you’re in a toilet stall. Enough said. RIP Suzi’s pretty purple iPod.

19 November

Better weather today -- the fog burned off pretty early and the sun peaked through the gray sky most of the afternoon taking the chill from the air. I had lunch with Ewa, the wife of a Peace Corps colleague, Paul. Ewa’s here trying to get her family home repaired after last summer’s horrible floods. She said just getting the water baled out was a major undertaking. The workers are finally plastering and starting to paint. She may even have a kitchen by Christmas.

Speaking of kitchens, Hala and I spent quite some time in her tonight cooking for the weekend. She made zurek (Polish sour rye soup, my favorite) and I made leek and bean soup (a concoction I made up while living here in the ‘90s that her husband loves). We’ll have these over the weekend. Hala also made some meat using a new method that a cousin demonstrated while visiting last week. You cover a piece of raw roast or a chicken with cold water, add salt, garlic and some herbs, boil for 10 minutes, then set outside on the windowsill and by morning, it’s cooked. I ate a bit of the leftovers from the initial roast -- nicely done pork that was the slighted bit pink, very moist and tasty. Maybe I’ll bring the recipe home and try some time.

22 November

Today I wore my winter jacket, hat and gloves for the first time. The wind is making the temp feel even colder than it is. It’s not yet zero Centigrade (32 Fahrenheit). But after my morning swim, the extra apparel felt good. So did the swim. I’m up to 20 laps plus 15 minutes of water exercise without any flotation device.

Michal brought a friend and his wife home on Saturday. He’d gone to a nearby town to meet a university friend he had not seen in a long time; the friend was taking part in a conference. So Michal invited them to Czermin for the night. Hala readied their son Marcin’s room. That night we had an ognisko (bonfire) in the gazebo that Michal built a few years ago. The eight-sided gazebo is about 15 feet across; (removable) plastic walls protect us from the elements, and a hole in the 20 foot ceiling draws away smoke. We roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) and sampled an array of Michal’s homemade liquors.

I had volunteered to cook Sunday obiad (dinner) -- comfort food from my childhood: Mom’s meatloaf, cole slaw, homemade apple sauce and baked seasoned potato wedges ala Ed. Cole slaw the easy way -- all I had to do was add chopped sweet red peppers and a tangy dressing to the cabbage, carrots and onions that Hala had shredded for me on Saturday. And she ground the beef and pork fresh herself for the ‘klops’, no store bought stuff for this meatloaf and also no ground veal, a slight deviation from the original recipe. But we did have the ‘secret ingredient’ -- a dollop of Heinz ketchup. Never before having baked Polish potatoes, which are more like Yukon Golds than Russets, I peeled, cut and par-boiled them before baking. It worked beautifully. And the apples from their root cellar made an excellent sauce without any additions. Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, especially the potatoes.

Because Hala had hurt her back while helping her 90-year-old father with his weekly ablutions, Michal took me to Rudnik, about an hour away, to meet with Barbara, the Polish woman that I translated for last July in Amsterdam, and her parents. She seems to be doing well overall; she had a mild heart attack while in MN. But she is still facing an unpaid $20,000+ hospital bill. Her mother seemed to think I could do something to fix this, and I was at a loss for what to say. I know Americans are in similar situations. It sounded like the hospital was trying to determine how much she could pay and how much they would have to write off or something.

Lesson learned: Always ask about whether you need some kind of health insurance when traveling overseas. My Medicare supplement will at least cover an overseas emergency. I am going to check with the company that Booz Allen used for med-evac coverage to see what that would cost me.

23 November, Czermin

An email received last night from Bruce, a high school friend, reminded me that 47 years ago on 22 November, life as we had known it changed: President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. I think everyone in my generation can tell you exactly where s/he was when s/he first heard the news. I was crossing Sheridan Road in Evanston IL, after my freshman English class at Northwestern. Hearing a comment from a passing student, Ann, a dorm mate, and I thought it was a joke -- it was just not something within our realm of thinking. But as we got closer to the dorm, we learned the chilling truth. We all were glued to the television set for days until the caisson concluded its eerie march. We’d already seen Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred from the city jail -- no metal detectors in those days, and Lyndon Johnson sworn in aboard Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained pink suit and pillbox hat nearby. And since then, we’ve probably all pondered our positions on the Warren Commission Report.

Yesterday here was a rainy day. I spent the whole afternoon with Jadwiga, who used to work at the Center. She was among those we had to lay off in order to survive those many years ago. And rather than look for another job, Jadwiga started a business processing the cabbages grown on her farm into sauerkraut and later salads, including individual serving size, for sale in markets. Her company Megawita now does individual packets of carrots and cleans fresh apples for several schools. Oh, and pickles. In fact, the whole thing kind of started because of pickles. To earn some spending money, Jadwiga’s daughter and older son used to make pickles from excess cucumbers and sell them. I suggested Jadwiga do a company history that is titled, “It started with a pickle. ...”

Anyway it was a lovely day. We went to visit her daughter Magda, all grown up and the mother of two adorable sons. My first summer in Sandomierz in the mid ‘90s, Johanna, the wife of a US ag extension agent working in our region, and I would head to Jadwiga’s farm for a girls’ night out on Mondays; her husband would watch their three pre-school kids. We’d run with Magda on the country roads, usually walking back, then have coffee or sometimes dinner with Jadwiga and Magda. That was a fun summer.

24 November, Krakow

Winter is upon us, and I’m thankful for a warm bus, a safe bus driver and Michal (for getting me to the Sandomierz bus station) and Inga (with a vehicle to pick me up in Krakow). I threw my bags into the back of her SUV and off we went to a nearby mall to finish some pre-Thanksgiving shopping and have lunch. David was in town, working from their flat, and Frankie and Tosia were at school late today.

It only took Tosia about 15 minutes after she finished her dinner tonight to ask about playing cards. We did a couple of hands of “go fish,” each winning one, then she started on her homework.

Frankie remains an interested baker-in-the-making. So since no one particularly likes pumpkin pie, she and I made a cherry pie, which had been a must at our house because it was my dad’s favorite. After I found an adaptable recipe on the web, Frankie did all the work. She made her first piecrust, now cooling in the refrigerator (I almost said icebox; now that really ages me as that’s what we had when I was a toddler!). Her cherry filling is cooling on the stove. We had to do a bit of metric recalculating (I inadvertently added too much butter; no Crisco here) and substituting (corn flour plus a bit of gelatin for corn starch). But preliminary tastings say everything is good so far. Will let you know how the final product comes out tomorrow.

Thanksgiving Day, Krakow

Happy Turkey Day, Family and Friends around the world. On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of you, for those who came before and helped me become who I am, for those taking this incredible journey of life with me now. I am thankful for the time, all-too-short, that I had with my son Peter and for the years of patience, unwavering support and love of my parents. This has always been my favorite holiday -- perhaps because it comes with no baggage. It’s just the 3Fs -- family, friends and food.

David’s turkey dinner was a sight to behold -- the turkey perfectly brown and juicy, buttery mashed potatoes, stuffing capable of adding a few pounds to the hips, unlumpy gravy, my favorite green-bean-and-mushroom casserole, two kinds of cranberry sauce. Inga set a beautiful table, complete with individual red votive candles at each place and long tapers in the center. No football so the girls requested a movie. It was barely 5 pm but black outside. Inga moved all of the candles to the living room and lit a few more. She ‘babysat’ the candles while David, Besa the dog, the girls and I took a walk to the river, then around our very large block. We stopped at the new tourist information center, a lovely structure and plaza near the river; it was under construction and under water when I was last here. Unfortunately the souvenir vendors are getting very little business due to its poor location for foot traffic. I’ll stop tomorrow during the day.

The night air felt warmer than it had when I had walked in midday. Back home, we watched a Christmas film (the Jean Shepherd story about the young boy and BB gun), and Frankie cut and served the piece de resistance -- her cherry pie. It was heavenly, the crust was the flakiest that I’ve ever had and the filling, tangy and not ‘floury’ tasting as we’d feared. Everyone praised the baker and her work. Since we didn’t have time to make cinnamon crisps with leftover pie crust dough, we’ll do that tomorrow.

27 November, Krakow

Well, my life is nothing if not event full. I am making an unplanned and fast trip back to Washington, DC, for an interview with the Peace Corps Director’s Office. It’s set for midday on 6 Dec. So I’ll fly from Warsaw on 4 Dec. and fly back on 7 Dec., just in time for the Center’s board meeting, the reason I’m in Poland in winter. I’m praying that the weather will cooperate, and my flights to and fro will be as uneventful as my arrival in Poland. So, of course today it has started to snow. A light dusting on things but no accumulation. You know I love snow, so this is welcome despite my pending travel.

30 November, Krakow

Well, beware what you wish for, right?

When I awake here, I can see the trees in the center courtyard. And yesterday the barren branches were thickly laden with a white covering of snow. It had started in the wee hours and continued steadily well into the day. School was cancelled, and when I got up, Frankie and Tosia were outside frolicking in the snow with Besa the dog. Hard to tell who was enjoying the romp more.

Inga organized a last minute Christmas shopping outing at a new mall. I had already planned to meet Ula and Iza, two Krakow friends from my Peace Corps days, at another mall for lunch.

Of course, the boots I have here are more dressy than wintry. I left my new snow boots in Sandomierz. I had brought them on this trip because I knew I’d need them if I went to Switzerland, but that trip was cancelled as my friend Maura’s father became critically ill. Thank heavens Inga and I are nearly the same shoe size, and she has several pairs of warm winter boots. Those I borrowed were sheepskin lined and though not very tall, they were very warm and kept my feet dry as puddles began to form in mid afternoon.

This morning I thought I was back in Minnesota. As we had our morning coffee (me) and tea (Inga), we had the TV news on. All they were talking about was the snow ... traffic jams in Warsaw and other Polish cities, flights cancelled in Frankfurt and other European cities, etc. etc. I quelled my panic over potential delays in my DC trip, reminding myself that I don’t leave until Saturday morning. It was my mantra all day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fall has fell

1 October 2010, Washington, DC, USA

A beautiful day at last -- warm sunshine, a gentle breeze, leaves starting to turn their autumn colors -- sweater weather. A good day to visit my friend John at Arlington National Cemetery. I was living in DC when John died unexpectedly and returned to Minneapolis for the memorial and later attended his burial. Because John had served in combat, the interment at Arlington was complete with caissons. I remember John saying they didn’t ask him, they just told him to get to Vietnam. John was a well decorated Vietnam vet with the kind of accolades in his service record that others would’ve bragged about. Typical of John; none of us knew any of that until one of his brother’s obtained and shared a copy of the record. The reception after the burial was proscribed in John’s will -- lots of booze and all his favorite foods, like ham and deviled eggs.

I met John in fall 1987, about 18 months after I left my husband. A mutual friend of ours, Terry, who was also going through a divorce, introduced us the night she returned my mink coat. She’d borrowed it as part of a surprise for her new beau. John invited us to join a group that enjoyed weekly Sunday brunches together. It was started by two divorced women who knew what the self-help book I’d read said -- “Sundays are the hardest days” for divorced people. The women each invited a friend to the original brunch, and as time passed, those friends invited others, and it grew from there.

That first Sunday I went to brunch and wore the mink. I figured that if I didn’t recognize John, he would recognize the coat and he did. That was the start of a long and wonderful friendship not only with John but also a host of others who came and went from what I dubbed the Brunch Bunch. Over the years the Bunch frequented cafes, restaurants, bars and grills all over the Twin Cities in search of good cheap breakfast food, no buffets allowed but Bloody Marys a must.

John was a friend in the very best sense of that word. He was Will, with an occasional touch of Jack. We could laugh together and cry together. We supported each other through break ups and start ups. When I wanted to get dressed up and go to dinner and dancing, John dusted off his tux and off we went in a taxi so we could drink without worry. He loved Peter and “the boys,” as we called Peter’s supportive cadre of friends, almost as much as I. When I left for Uganda, John took over preparing the monthly family dinners that I started hosting when Peter was in high school, continued off and on later and started up regularly again after he died. And that morphed into a poker game, complete with cigars, for John and the boys.

I miss John, and I’m glad I had a chance to talk to him while I was in DC.

8 October, Minneapolis MN USA

I lost a friend today. No, she didn’t die, thank heavens. In some ways, that might be easier. She is gone nonetheless. When I returned from DC, I emailed her because I had seen mutual friends there and I hadn’t heard from her in a long time. Today I got her email reply -- a message that she said she should have said 17 years ago. At that time I did something that hurt her badly, she said now but not then. I was flabbergasted. I don’t go around hurting people on purpose but know I could have done that without realizing it. I didn’t know I’d hurt her or I would have apologized immediately. I remember she seemed withdrawn at the time, and I remember trying to talk to her. But she didn’t tell me then, so I couldn’t “fix it.” And she didn’t tell me when she came to visit me, and she didn’t tell me when I went to visit her a few years later, and she didn’t tell me in any of the many emails we shared over the years. She harbored her hurt silently for 17 years. So beyond apologizing, I didn’t see any point in trying to salvage the relationship. I emailed that apology and then I cried, mourning the loss from my life of someone I had thought of as a friend.

11 October

Yesterday friend Marilyn and I spent almost the whole day at the Guthrie Theatre seeing “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” (The term “the great game” comes from the rivalry between the British and Russian empires.) The three-part event, commissioned and premiered at London’s Tricycle Theater, consists of 12 one-act plays covering 150 years of Afghani history and culture. The Guthrie was one of a handful of US venues in which the London cast performed the event. You can see the parts individually over multiple days or all at once, as we did. Short intermissions within each part and very long ones between the parts made the long sitting time endurable. So did the superb acting and well paced, non-linear structure that required paying close attention. Short pieces called “Verbatim” (quotes from people like Hilary Clinton, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid and General MacChrystal) introduced each part. A few messages were pretty clear -- nations continue to repeat the same mistakes, including ours right now; we, and the Brits and Russians before us, fail to comprehend the critical importance of tribe over individuals; the Afghanis don’t trust us with good reason, given their disappointing past experiences; and no simple solution exists.

30 October, San Francisco CA USA

The month has passed quickly ... as my first 65 years seem to have. It’s been a month of excellent theatre, “The Great Game” as blogged earlier, and later “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre (thank you, Sue, for sending me the reminder of this theatre company that I’ve enjoyed in years past) and “The House of Spirits” based on Isabel Allende’s book at Mixed Blood (thank you, Susan, for keeping me up to date on this outstanding theatre) and thank you Jan and Linda for sharing season tickets with me. Both were outstanding productions, reminding me yet again about the outstanding quality of theater here. Live theater is what I miss most when I’m overseas. But I am beginning to get back into the swing of things. Have been pretty faithful to an early morning water exercise class and an early evening Pilates class at the Y. I am determined to get back into shape and keep my joints and bones from creaking. Plus my new Medicare-supplement health insurer covers my Y dues if I go there at least eight times a month, which isn’t hard to do.

My middle niece Dyana’s birthday is right after mine, and we had planned a long weekend on a warm southern CA beach. Dyana’s stationed at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. But she got word of her deployment to the Middle East toward the end of the year, and the increased training cut into taking the time off. So our celebration’s a bit lower key.

I flew into San Francisco last Wednesday. Early-riser-even-in-retirement Janet took me to the airport at 7 am amidst the season’s first snow flurries. The airport had been closed part of the day on Tuesday because of extremely high (hurricane style) winds. Between the wind, weather and rush hour traffic, it was good that we got an early start. And although my flight left about 30 minutes late, the take off was reasonably smooth and the four-hour flight was uneventful -- whew!

Jean, my best friend from grad school, picked me up at the airport, and off we went to the Sierra Mountains, California “gold country” as well as a wine region. We stayed in a mid 19th Century bed-and-breakfast hotel in Amador City (with a population of 200 it’s definitely not city size). Weather was good so with the top down on Jean’s Beemer, we cruised the winding roads to the old mining towns of the Gold Rush -- Sutter Creek, Murphys, Jackson among others. We visited Sutter Gold Mine to get souvenir samples and Angels Camp where Mark Twain was inspired to write “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” We rummaged antique stores, sampled “penny candy” from our childhood in a candy shop, tasted wines from local wineries. One of the wineries that we visited is owned by a consultant from my Macedonia project. It was fun to see John again and to meet his wife and son, who is now running the family business, a 350-acre complex of vineyard, winery, and tasting and sales room. The winery is now producing vranac, a hearty red wine that’s indigenous to Macedonia (don’t ask how the vine cuttings got to the Sierra foothills). We sampled that -- an excellent vintage -- and bought some. And I ordered a case of vranac and John’s excellent white wines to be shipped to MN.

Today Lisa, Jean’s daughter, and I went to the DeYoung Museum to see the Impressionists that are on view while their space at the D’Orsay in Paris is renovated. Our tickets were for 2 pm and although there was no line to enter, the exhibit was mobbed as might be expected but well worth the effort.

Dyana got in late ... she didn’t have Jean’s zip code so the Super Shuttle wouldn’t let her board. She finally reached me, which was when I also realized I’d typo’d Jean’s zip in my address book. I fixed her a light, vegetarian dinner, and we sat up until midnight catching up. Tomorrow two old friends from different parts of my MN life (Terry and Rosalind) will join us for Sunday brunch at Jean’s. Terry, who introduced me to John (mentioned at the start of this month) and I bonded at a football game of our sons when we discovered we were both going through a divorce. Rosalind and I worked together at The St. Paul Companies.

Halloween, San Francisco CA USA

I miss this holiday as it was celebrated when I was a kid -- getting all dressed up in funny costumes and marching up and down the neighborhood streets trick or treating with friends, then home to count the catch, have Mom abscond with a big part of the candy so we didn’t OD on sugar (and be happy when we’d get a fresh apple). This year I celebrated with a few good friends at brunch at Jean’s and a relaxing drive into eastern CA to return Dyana to her home in Concord. The weather continued to be perfect autumn weather ... hope it’s like this when I return to MN tomorrow!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Back to basics ...

2 August 2010, Minneapolis MN USA

This month is not starting out well. My friend Janet had an auto accident and is in the hospital undergoing tests. Marilou has had some problems with her wound site. Lisa is being treated again for her cancer. And Barbara, the Polish woman that I helped on the flight from Amsterdam, was hospitalized with a heart attack about 10 days ago and has no travel health insurance.

On the plus side, I have reconnected with several old friends, Doug and Larry, from my old Brunch Bunch; Darryn, we trained for our first marathon in the same group in 1988; and Connie and Tom, we met in a running group at the Y in the mid-70s and she’s my hairdresser too. Janet’s son Thom and Doug helped me retrieve a sofa from Goodwill that is now amidst the boxes and piles in the living room, awaiting word from the upholsterer that he’s ready for it. I have to find fabric too. Tomorrow night I’m going to Darryn’s son’s recital at the MacPhail Center for Music. And Wednesday I’m getting a hair cut -- hooray. Connie and I will have dinner afterwards and catch up.

9 September 2010

Well, it’s been a long time since I hit these keys to add to the blog. My apologies. Thankfully the month improved as time went on. Everyone seems to be doing better. But I did have to make a quick trip to Michigan to check on my aunt and uncle. Aunt Betty has two infections that aren’t responding to any of the medications. Not good. While in Michigan, I visited with two old friends, Bruce from high school and Eve from Poland ... nice breaks to a stressful week.

Much of the rest of August and September has been spent sorting 20 years of storage and trashing, stashing, recycling and sharing what I found. Lots of old tax files now await shredding and others were re-boxed ‘just in case.‘ Lots of unused household items were left by the dumpster or taken to Goodwill for others to use. Several boxes were stashed for a garage sale to be held in October. Cherished items, photos and art have found their way onto the walls and shelves of the condo. Quite a few Hagen and Kanyr family heirlooms have been distributed to appropriate nieces and nephews; no need for them to wait to enjoy them. I’ve found all kinds of forgotten photos that I’m sharing with those photographed -- lots of good memories.

I’ve downsized to a much smaller paid storage space and have reorganized the one in my building to hold what can be stored in a damp place. Phew. Busy month. Found some muscles that I hadn’t used in a long time ... and decided to join the Y and get back in shape. So to start, I’m taking Pilates three evenings a week and a Zumba, salsa-dancing exercise course, once a week ... and walking around a lake or downtown whenever I have time.

I went to Michigan for a week because my 90-year-old aunt wasn’t doing well. She is antibiotic resistant, making her recovery from infection very difficult. My uncle repeatedly says that they never expected to live so long. It’s a good reminder to me of the importance of taking care of this body that I have while I can just in case I follow in their footsteps age wise.

To that point, my 65th birthday looms in October. I have signed on for social security and obtained my Medicare card. Does this mean I’m old? Don’t answer that question! You are only as old as you feel, right? And that goes for me too.

30 September, Washington, DC, USA

I would never have expected to be stuck indoors because of a driving rainstorm and tornado watches/warnings in the DC metro area. That’s something I endured in my mother’s hometown in Illinois every summer or occasionally in Minneapolis or where I grew up in PA. But alas, that’s what we have ... and hence, me finally getting back to this journal.

Back home in Minneapolis before leaving for DC, I continued to clear out the boxes, and I’m down to one that needs attention. It’s full of souvenir boxes that I haven’t decided what to do with yet. The Goodwill sofa is being used until I decide what I want the living room to look like. IKEA only has glass doors for the bookshelves that I want, and there’s no indication when wooden doors will be available. But I still have to get the room painted so no rush there. Ray, one of my son’s friends, has his own business laying tile and while I’m gone, he’s re-tiling the surround and ceiling of my bathtub, and replacing all of the fixtures with new matching sets. Another room done. When I return, laundry room painting is next, then living and dining rooms.

I’ve been in DC for 10 days so far, visiting with friends, reconnecting with overseas contacts and enduring a day-long interview for an overseas country director position with Peace Corps. I know, you thought I was retiring ... and I may yet. None of the other full time jobs I’ve been asked to consider has been challenging and interesting enough to make me want to go overseas full time again. But this one does. I have been passionate about PC since it was formed when I was 15. It took me 30 years to get to be a PCV (volunteer), and that changed my life and my career path. The PC opportunity was too good to pass up. The process was daunting and exhausting but also worthwhile. I had six individual interviews plus a panel of three recently returned PCVs over the day. One interviewer was the woman who had been CD in Macedonia when I was there, and her PCVs had worked with our tourism group. I’ll know in early November if I’m a candidate. Fingers crossed ... positive thoughts ... a few prayers even -- all appreciated.

Spent my first weekend here with Elizabeth and Zoran, two friends from my Macedonia days. We went to “Opera in the Outfield” on Sunday afternoon -- the National Opera Company simulcast its opening production, The Masked Ball, at the Washington Nationals’ ballpark ... on the big screen where you see fans waving from the stands and larger-than-life instant replays. It was free and I was pleased to see so many young people and young families, the latter especially taking advantage of the grassy outfield to spread blankets and picnics.

Last weekend a friend from my BAH days (Regina) and I went to Somerset PA for my high school classmate’s 65th birthday. Regina’s had more surgery (you may recall she had foot surgery in February, and I helped her for a few weeks) and her divorce is dragging. Since the boys were going to be with their dad and his brother, it was a good time for her to get away and relax. Google Maps took us along a variety of roads from interstate highway to back country, and I only I missed one turn. We stopped for lunch in the Cumberland Gap area ... lovely huge resort where we could sit outside in the fresh air and sunshine and relax while we chowed down.

Friday we had dinner with Suzie (one of my oldest friends) and Lance (the birthday guy), Saturday we drove to see the temporary memorial for 9/11 Flight 93 at the crash site which is not far from Somerset, then on to Ligonier for the afternoon. Ligonier is a town left over from US colonial days with a French & Indian War fort, a quaint town square and traffic rotary, and lots of small shops and cafes. Regina enjoyed a ‘next-to-new’ shop a lot, filling two bags with items new to her. Too bad we were too early for the best of the fall leaf color and for Ligonier Days, when they shoot the fort’s old cannon across US Route 30. Quite a spectacle in early October. We also drove through the countryside, passing Rolling Rock, the Mellon family estate that seems to go on forever, and where we watched steeplechase races from the roadside when I was a kid. We drove through Linn Run State Park, visited so many times in my childhood. Linn Run is where our family had picnics and hikes, where my parents filled old jugs with spring water and where virtually every child in the family fell into the creek. It’s a magical, spiritual place for me and where my ashes and what remains of Peter’s will be scattered when the time comes.

Visiting friends in the Washington area always means OD’ing on an international variety of cuisines in a short timeframe, and that I did. Startrd with a Mediterranean dinner that Zoran made for himself, Elizabeth and me. Nancy, Ann and I had dinner at Georgia Brown’s, a Southern soul food restaurant that I’ve wanted to try since my DC-McLean commutes; I walked past it daily. I met Peace Corps friends Michael and Tamara for a Thai dinner near Dupont Circle while I lunched on Thai in Arlington with two development colleagues Alicia and Mike. Veronica (my Booz Allen officemate), Regina, her sons and I Sunday-brunched on dim sum at a Chinese restaurant frequented by tour buses full of Asian tourists. Peggy (from my Poland days and with whom I stayed during week one) and I did Mexican while Susan from TechnoServe picked Indian. The Ethiopian restaurant where Edwige (a Booz’r) and I shared a vegetarian platter and lamb tibs is only a block from where I was staying with Stacey (my PC roommate), her husband Michael (also a PCV) and their girls. And while I was at their place, Michael continued a tradition he started when we were all PCVs -- making incredibly delicious meals that respected Stacey’s vegetarianism yet fed our occasional need for something else. And believe it or not, I didn’t gain weight. All that walking does pay off.

My weekend on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, visiting Marie from the Acapulco group with a stop in CT to see high school friend Jane was postponed due to a bad cold and worse weather. I just couldn’t face a long train ride to the ferry when it was so cold and rainy. And thankfully I didn’t leave ... the weather caused the ferry to be cancelled!

The month is closing on a better note than it started ... my friends are all doing well, the bathroom is done and my chair-bed will be delivered when I return. Now to face birthday #65 ...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Home Again

1 July 2010, Warsaw Poland

How funny is this -- yesterday I sent a ‘happy birthday’ wish to a friend who has been teaching English in Korea for the last three years or so. I met Aaron through my son Peter; they were snowboard pals. When he died, Peter left Aaron his truck, and I took Aaron to take the test to get his first driver’s license. He passed on the first try. Anyway, Aaron’s birthday is actually today, but it was nearly ‘today’ in Korea when I sent the message yesterday. And I got an email from Aaron today. He’s in Skopje, Macedonia! Apparently doing a bit of summer-break travel and seeing the Balkans among other places. He’s en route to either Belgrade or Sofia today. Since my short time in Warsaw is pretty well booked with seeing friends here that I haven’t seen since last year, we agreed to catch up when he swings through MN later.

3 July, Warsaw

Got lots of exercise tramping around Warsaw on Thursday and Friday. And I got a striped suntan on my feet from the straps of my sandals. Well, at least I know I’m getting some sun. I’ve never been good at sunbathing; mostly it makes me sleepy to lay in the sun or even the shade on a sunny day.

Thursday I had dinner and spent the evening with my old friend and former Polish teacher Dorota, her toddler son Franiu and his father Jacek. Franiu took a while to warm up to me; he only sees me once a year. But before I left, he’d decided to entertain me my jumping naked on his bed, an expression of pure joy on his face as he bounced away from his mother and PJs.

Lots of sales so on Friday I went shopping and bought a few things. Don’t tell Hala; she thinks I spend too much money. Replaced two colorful teeshirts that I bought at Marks & Spencer in London five years ago with two more, equally inexpensive and durable from the same company in Warsaw. I wear them all the time. Marta, my friend and Hala’s daughter, her boyfriend Lukas and I had dinner at the apartment, then they went out to celebrate while I organized for the weekend. Lukas has passed a test and is now a ‘certified ethical hacker.’ Now is that an oxymoron or what?

4th of July, my brother’s birthday, US Independence Day, Election Day in Poland,


And I hope, a good day is had by all. I sent my brother an early greeting since I knew the Internet is poor where I am. Since I’m in the suburbs, I’m not attending the annual American Chamber in Warsaw 4th of July picnic. And I hope all my friends got out to vote for their candidate, Komorowski, as it looks like a tight election. To a person, everyone I know says the same thing, and tells the same bad jokes, about Kaczynski.

Yesterday I took the kolejka to Komorow, west of Warsaw, to see Danny, a Peace Corps colleague. The kolejka is a unique local train with only two final destinations but lots of stops in between, including Podkowa Lesna, where our Peace Corps training took place. So it’s an old friend but with new paint and upgraded waiting platforms. The last time I saw Danny was 12 years ago when he, his wife Justyna and their older son Bobby had just moved into their house. Bobby, now 14, is taller than Danny and has a brother Patrick, 10. It was great to see Danny and Justyna and catch up. We went to a barbecue at Justyna’s parents where lots of their friends and family were gathering. Sunny, warm, slight breeze -- perfect picnic weather -- plus lots of good picnic good. What more could I ask?

In the early evening I took the kolejka to the end of the line to spend the rest of the weekend with my friend Maryla, her husband Stas and son Tomek. I’ll ride back into town with them Monday morning when Maryla goes to work. I’ve known Maryla almost as long as I’ve known Dorota -- just under 20 years, a lifetime. She’d just gotten a promotion at the Marriott and later would be a speaker on customer service for a regional tourism conference that my PC counterpart and I organized. Stas is an amazing sculptor who started teaching at the fine arts faculty a few years ago. He also works on commissions and was recently asked by the Sejm (Parliament) to prepare two memorials for those skilled in the Smolensk airplane crash. I’ve seen some of Stas’ incredible work and was so pleased that he got the recognition of that commission. Tomek is a new college grad in his first job.

Years ago Maryla, Stas, Tomek and I went to Tunisia together on vacation. We had a wonderful time and lots of good stories and photos to bring back. Somewhere in my storage are photos of me riding a camel. Then there was Maryla being chased through the souk (old market) by a salesman who kept lowering the price on a dress she’d looked at; she finally bought it for $5. And the two of us walking down a street piled high with watermelons. Maryla wanted to buy a watermelon for Tomek but made no move to check out any of those around us. Finally I asked if she’d changed her mind as time was short. No, she hadn’t but she didn’t see any! When I pointed out that we were surrounded by them, she said, “Those are watermelons?” That’s when I remembered that the only watermelons I’d ever seen in Poland were the dark green skinned sugar babies ... these were the lighter green, giant football shaped ones more common in the US.

Now this weekend I sit in my room at the old manor house they’ve been renovating almost as long as I’ve known them and gaze out at a yard so lush with green that you can barely see the neighbors. This beautiful house had been many things under the former Communist regime, most recently a manufacturer of some kind that left behind a lot of dirt and years of its paper records. The restoration is returning the house to its previous magnificence.

5 July, Warsaw

Well, Bronislaw Komorowski was elected president of Poland so all of my friends will be happy; none was supporting Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the former president who was killed in a plane crash. Lech Kaczynski had not been expected to win and until he died, his brother had no interest in running. He had been a prime minister who left office after a vote of no confidence. (And one of the two chipmunks on the old ‘Polski Zoo’ satire program on Polish television in 1991.)

What I find so intriguing about the whole process (bad Kaczynski jokes notwithstanding) is that TVP1, a state-owned station, predicted and announced the outcome of the election based on exit polls about a minute after the voting polls closed at 8 pm last night. And Kaczynski conceded! I understand that not long after midnight, he was actually ahead, but in the end, the TV station was within a couple of percentage points of the actual result.

8 July, Minneapolis MN USA

Home at last! And it’s hot as #$%^4%^UIO. Humid too. Thankfully we have air conditioning. I’m at my friends’ house while I get a few things, like a bed, organized in my condo.

Had a final ‘Poland adventure’ in Amsterdam on Tuesday. Having cleared all the security hoops, I was sitting in the final lounge reading when I heard my name paged. A bit unsettling, to say the least. Had I forgotten something? What was wrong? I worked my way back to the security site and told them I’d been paged. The security person identified me to the others, so I wouldn’t have to go through that again, then took me to a man who said they’d noticed I came in on the Warsaw flight. Yeees. Did I happen to speak Polish because they have a passenger who doesn’t speak English, German, Dutch, etc. and no translator. I told him that my language skills should be good enough to help. And that’s how I met Barbara from Rudnik, which ironically happens to be about 30 km from Sandomierz. I translated the security questions for her and her answers for the Dutchman, got her through the scanners and talked with her while we waited to board. Once she was settled in her seat, I found a flight attendant and explained the language issue and told her where I was in case they needed me. In Minneapolis, I went through ‘Visitors’ to translate for the Immigration agent who kindly stamped my passport too. After we found our luggage, we worked our way to the outside world where Barbara’s Minneapolis aunt and cousins awaited her arrival. After a few words in Polish, I was on my way to the ‘usual location’ to await my ride.

Had lunch with Marilou yesterday, and she seems so ready for her surgery on Monday. Always the consummate organizer, she remains that ... making lists for the pet sitter, for friends etc.

10 July, Minneapolis

I am in awe at my good fortune in friends, friends of both sexes but especially women friends. I’ve realized this many times in the past, during my son Peter’s illness and death, for example. And I was reminded of that again last night. A small group of ‘old girls’ from the insurance company where I worked for 12 years pre-Peace Corps got together for dinner at the home of one of our number because another was in town. We talked for hours and hours, sharing good food and wine as well as what we’d been up to, supporting each other’s dreams and trials.

During the day, I’d gone to look at a car. I was feeling a bit of panic and hysteria because wheels really are a necessity in this part of the world, yet I would really love not to buy a car. I had planned not to buy a car, or at least to wait until January. But it’s hard to shop in this sprawling place without a car. I’ve been using one of Janet and Ed’s cars, but soon I’ll be back in my condo and that will be a more difficult option.

So after my dentist appointment, I visited a used car dealer that came highly recommended by my several people, including my dentist. And I found a used Honda Civic that I liked and that seemed reasonably priced but which has a navigation system, which I didn’t like and don’t need. Janet and I test drove the car, and it ran smoothly and well. I wrote to my brother-in-law Steve to seek his advice on the price etc. And got back the funniest email about how car price negotiations are supposed to fun fun! I took the flyer about the car to my ‘St. Paul Old Girls’ dinner to talk with Sue, who’s more of a car person than I’ll ever be. She immediately reminded me that I could buy a new Honda Fit (the car I originally said I wanted) for the same price as this ... and that I shouldn’t buy a car in a panic ... and that she and her partner have four cars and will be out of town for a month. So now I’m driving a snazzy, sexy two-seater Nissan convertible for the next month. See what I mean about my friends?

19 July, Minneapolis

No Internet, no radio, no TV. So there I was on Saturday night, laying on my new bed watching a movie on my laptop, and bad weather was coming in quickly. The sky was black. A siren started to blare, and I realized I had no idea what it meant -- severe thunder storm, tornado? Since I live a block from downtown, I didn’t feel at risk for the latter. I watched my movie and eventually fell asleep. Sunday my sister mentioned that last year a tornado came within a couple of blocks of my condo. I think I’m glad I got the Internet and cable connected yesterday. (Yes, on a Sunday.)

I’ve spent the last week unpacking, sorting, stashing and tossing the first two loads of boxes from storage with a lot of help and support from friends and family. I couldn’t get through this without them. Started the furniture shopping, and I found the dresser that I picked out last spring at the store’s warehouse for half price, and a headboard for the bed at Macy’s furniture sale. Still need to look for living room furniture and a day bed or sofa bed for the second bedroom. My friend Marilyn has great ideas and taste and has been going with me to look at furniture sales.

26 July, Minneapolis

Signed up for Medicare today. Guess that means I am officially ‘old.’ It will take affect in October, the month of my 65th birthday. In the meantime, I have appointments with a few insurance agents about the additional coverage that’s needed since Medicare doesn’t cover everything. Social security comes next. I have an appointment next week with the Social Security office, then I’ll decide if I’m going to sign up for my retirement benefit early.

So of course today I had an inquiry about taking part in a proposal for the Caucasus. I’ll explore it and see if it’s exciting enough to give up retirement for a while. The project wouldn’t start before January anyway, but I might need to participate in the proposal development.

I also joined the YMCA today and meet with a personal trainer next week to figure out what exercise program I should follow. The Ys have swimming pools, and I hope to return to regular swimming, plus maybe pilates and water aerobics too.

31 July, Minneapolis

What a week! Had the Caucasus interview, and it may start in fall. Didn’t say ‘no’ but am not interested in starting that soon on anything. Monday I have an interview for a Peace Corps country director position, country TBD, that would start in January at the earliest. Since PC is one of my passions, this one I will pursue.

In other news, when I signed on on line for Medicare, the local rep cancelled my appointment. So I made another to discuss social security for later in August. But my Medicare card is in the mail, and I’m almost done researching additional coverage providers.

Making the condo a home continues. I have almost finished my bedroom, a lovely oasis in the madness of moving and redecorating. But the living room is back to being a disaster area again. I sorted and tossed another quarter of my storage, and have piles for garage sale, relatives, the local scavengers and trash.

Funny thing happened during furniture shopping. For the heck of it, I stopped at the Goodwill Industries store (for my non-US readers, that’s a charitable re-sale store); I was in the neighborhood anyway. Well, I found a love seat and it was upholstered in exactly the same fabric as a chair that I bought for my ex for Father’s Day in the early 80s! Went back the next day, checked it over thoroughly and bought it. The ‘guts’ looked good, so I’ll have it re-upholstered. And then I’ll be able to find a fabric I really love, which has been a challenge no matter which store I visit.

In the meantime, I have test driven several cars. Today I will go try a Ford Focus with five-speed shift, my preference. The salesperson says he can get me a red SEL, which is what I’d like. I may also go to a Honda dealer and try out a Civic, but it has far fewer ‘extras’ than the Focus and the price is higher. Plus no one seems to have a five speed Civic. I am hoping to make a decision this weekend since it’ll undoubtedly take a bit to take delivery. I have taken my brother-in-law’s advice that it’s supposed to be fun. I am preparing myself to ‘walk away’ if I don’t get what I want.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Of floods and jams and postal cards/Of politics and ghosts

June 1, Sandomierz, Poland

Today is Children’s Day in Poland, so I sent celebratory post cards to my kids’ mailing list -- 15 in the US, two in Poland, one in Switzerland and two in Uganda -- plus since I was writing, cards to elderly relatives too. Someday I have to figure out how to make mailing labels on this Mac. My hand gets cramped just from addressing. But I know how much children love to get mail that is addressed individually to them.

I’ve had many questions about all this post card sending. So to explain. It started with Jonah, the older son of Peace Corps friend Larry and his wife Karen. When Jonah and I met for the first time, he was three and living in London. After Karen introduced us, he immediately identified me as the sender of Js. And that I was. I had seen some cute wooden renditions of the alphabet at a Macedonia crafts fair and decided to buy some for Jonah and a few other kids of friends. Anyway, when I met Jonah, I was in London for a wine promotion for the Macedonia project. It occurred the week of Peter’s birthday (and of the birth of Jonah’s brother, Spike). I took Jonah to Regent’s Park Zoo for the afternoon of 5 September. I hadn’t encountered such awe at new experiences and sights in a long time. I recall how much Peter, almost 15 at the time, enjoyed the zoo when we visited. A perfect memorial ...

Anyway, I couldn’t believe Jonah remembered about the J. So I decided to continue and have found a few more Js (and Ss, As, etc.). However, because the group keeps growing, I switched to post cards. And I’m learning to print them as several of my young readers can now read the cards themselves.

7 June, Sandomierz

The evening news is full of the floods and the coming presidential debate. A wave of water came down the Wisla over the weekend, and Sandomierz got hit hard again. Sandbagging at the glass factory, more houses under water, businesses moved to higher ground when possible. The mosquitos are already Minnesota-like -- big, abundant and aggressive.

10 June, Sandomierz

Lots to catch up on. I haven’t even told you about our weekend in Wroclaw, where the weather was perfect and the city beautiful. We left for the five-hour drive after dinner on Corpus Christi Day. Because of closed, flooded roads, Hala’s husband Michal, who did all the driving, had to take a longer route than usual, and we saw more of the countryside. We arrived in early evening at Hala’s cousin’s apartment where his mother/her aunt awaited us. Hala’s cousin and his family had previously made plans for the long holiday weekend and would be gone but left her aunt with the keys so we could use the three-bedroom flat. They also left a couple of maps and their teenaged son, whom we saw occasionally. He helped us make up beds, showed us around the flat and discussed places to see. He also initiated a lively political discussion and from his tone, I think he expected that Hala and Michal, being from a village, were Kaczynski supporters, which they forcefully proclaimed they were not ... while Auntie said she was. She, like so many elderly Poles, is also sure the airplane crash that took the president’s life was part of a Russian conspiracy, sometimes even Prime Minister Tusk is included in that cabal. No amount of evidence to the contrary will sway them.

Friday we slept in, then went to Hala’s aunt’s brand new flat for breakfast. Since Hala’s on one of those liquid diets, Michal and I ate breakfast but of course didn’t consume enough to satisfy Auntie. Afterwards, map in hand, we rode the tram into the town center and spent several hours wandering around the beautiful Old Town Square. The weather was heavenly, sunny and warm but not hot , a nice occasional breeze -- good walking weather. And good festival weather. One was being set up, Europa na Widelcu (Europe on a Fork), on the square. Needless to say, food was the focus ... wine and beer too. When I returned in the evening, samplings of local delicacies from virtually every country in Europe were on sale as well as stalls selling beer, wine and specialized items from fancy olive oil to pungent cheeses.

The one place I wanted to see in Wroclaw is the Panorama, a famous painting of the battle of Raclawice in which the Poles, led by Gen. Taddeus Kosciuszko, defeated the Russians at the end of the 19th Century. Kosciuszko was already a hero of the American Revolution at the time. So we meandered over numerous cobblestone streets and through several parks to where it is housed. It’s so popular that tickets are sold for specific times and none was available until 6:30 pm. Hala had already seen the painting, and Michal didn’t want to return, so I only bought one ticket. Then we wandered further, across a small bridge to the smaller of two islands. There we visited Wroclaw’s most beautiful church, and it was truly stunning with its high baroque ceilings. And we stopped at Pope John Paul Hotel for a coffee break; we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Then on to the Cathedral before catching a tram back. After a very quick dinner, I returned by tram to see the Panorama, making it with a few minutes to spare. By then, my knees were killing me -- they do not like cobblestones and similar hard, uneven surfaces. But I was committed to seeing this historic painting.

Promptly at 6:30, about 30 of us wound around and up the building ramps to the top where we had 30 minutes to hear about the battle and view the painting. The painting appears three-dimensional and is a 360-degree panorama. In addition, the space between the viewing platform and the painting has been decorated with artifacts that perfectly match the painting, so you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. The realism of the painting is quite awesome, as was the battle. The Poles were seriously outnumbered yet beat the Russians.

On my way back, I walked to the square and enjoyed some ice cream and live jazz from the festival bandstand before taking the hint of my aching knees and calling it a night.

On Sunday after Michal and Hala went to church and Auntie hosted breakfast, we set out for the Centennial Hall, built when Wroclaw was still Breslau and part of Germany. Someone decided that it would be a good idea to build an exhibition hall to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig ... and hence was born “a monstrous monument of modernism,” as one guide describes this 42 meter tall, wedding cake structure; the dome alone is 23 meters tall. Designed by Max Berg, it is a feat of engineering and design which helped place it on the UNESCO list of important buildings. And it’s still in use for rock concerts ... and rock shows. A mineral and rock exhibition was taking place when we were there, and we decided to take a look. I had enjoyed a similar exhibition in Krakow a few winters ago. We spent hours looking at handmade jewelry, loose stones and crafts. I picked out a few gifts, and Hala and I settled on two necklaces as thank-you gifts for her aunt.

By the time we’d finished with the rocks, we were starving, so we returned to the square and “News” restaurant where white asparagus was headlined ... then all promptly forgot to ask about it! We three women had fish, Michal a chicken dish -- all excellent. Hala did get a few pieces of ‘szparagi’ with her steamed veggies. Tummies full, they went off to the cemetery where Hala’s uncle is buried, and I stayed on the square to look at the festival and do a bit more ‘sklepping.’ (Sklep is the Polish word for store, and when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, someone coined the word sklepping to mean shopping.) My friend Ewa from Pulawy recommended Cafe La Scala’s Tort Besowy-Migdalowy, which is basically a pavlova (a meringue and almond cream tort) served with a fantastic, tart raspberry sauce. It’s slightly different from the pavlova at Restauracja Tradycyna Polska in Warsaw that I’m always raving about, but it was awfully good anyway.

Monday we finished backing and tidying up the flat before a final breakfast at Auntie’s, then back on the road for home. We took a break halfway to enjoy grilled trout for dinner en route.

11 June, Krakow

Weather report -- it’s HOT! It was already 70F (21C) as I waited in Sandomierz for the intercity bus yesterday morning. The bus of course was very late because it started elsewhere and had to take a longer, more circuitous route because of flooded roads. I was almost ready to give up, assuming I'd misread the schedule for sure, when this land cruiser of a bus pulled in. Ah. Instantly I knew the AC would work. By the time my friend Inga picked me up at the bus station here four hours later, it was 88F (31C). Climbing the eight flights up to the flat was more than the usual chore ... and I volunteered to walk the dog while Inga returned phone calls. I am determined to get a lot of exercise while I'm here.

After we had a very light lunch at 3:30 pm (neither of us had eaten since 6:30 am), we went to the opening of "Cupcake Corner." The school van dropped daughters, Frankie and Tosia, there. This is a new cupcake and muffin bakery/coffee shop owned by a young Pole, but his baker is an American woman with a Polish husband; their kids go to school with the girls. The place was mobbed, had no AC and no aroma. Inga commented on that, putting words to what was missing. They definitely need to rectify that; it's half the pleasure of stepping into a bakery ... okay, a third of the pleasure. The cupcakes were creative -- pina colada, chocolate obsession, carrot cake, peanut butter, moccachino, a flowerless chocolate as well as the more usual vanilla and chocolate topped with sprinkles. They're much smaller -- less ‘tall’ -- than cupcakes at home, but nonetheless quite tasty. I think Inga is right that the price is a bit high at 6 PLN (almost $2 per cupcake), especially for this market. They will definitely be a specialty item, not a regular routine.

Last night Frankie, Tosia and Frankie's friend Aga practiced for Sunday's Jamboree (the annual school picnic and fun day). Tosia, 7, is a born entertainer; she won a singing competition, best newcomer, I think ... actually she'll sing along with a taped song, but you can actually hear her voice fairly well. It was an uptempo song of unrequited love, like so many in my tender years but one of the newer Girl Bands, I think. The older girls (12 and 13) offered to be Tosia's Pips although their choreography reminded me more of the Doo Wop groups. My task is to record the live performance on Sunday. Inga is meeting David (her husband and my PC friend) in France for a week while I "babysit" the girls and Besa, the dog.

12 June, Krakow

Still hot, although the weather forecast says it’ll rain later and be cooler tomorrow. Cooler would be most welcome but not rain. Also something akin to a tornado apparently ripped off roofs and uprooted trees somewhere between Warsaw and Gdansk. And mosquito abatement will start in Krakow next week. Can’t walk the dog in the planty (a park the surrounds the Old Town).

Interesting comments during recent discussion of two main presidential candidates. Kaczynski was questioned as a suitable candidate because (a) he isn’t married and has no children; (b) has never had a driver’s license; and (c) hasn’t got a bank account or credit card. Apparently he’s lived with his cat and his mother. He’s always had someone to wait on him. There are also rumors that he’s gay, which if true, he’d never admit in this homophobic environment. He’s not expected to win. And despite eight candidates, a run off may not be necessary. Komorowski may win on the first ballot, which would be a first for Poland.

Enough politics. Tosia has decided to learn roller skating, and she’s come to the right teacher. I was actually quite good at roller skating when I was young. Off we go!

19 June, Hala’s farm in Czermin village near Sandomierz

Had a wild and wonderful week as the Reenes’ babysitter, very busy with virtually no time for my journal or email. The girls were great -- hardly any sisterly fights, virtually no hassles getting them up for school at 6:30 am and good weather not only for the school picnic and Jamboree but all week. Tosia decided to learn how to roller skate. So a week ago on Saturday, she dressed in her protective gear, looking like a hockey player. We set out for the planty and her first lesson. Had a great time helping her and she learns quickly. In my day, I was actually pretty proficient at roller skating both indoors and out, so it was fun to teach Tosia. Just wish I’d had some skates of my own. Frankie made cupcakes from scratch for school and home one night, from downloading the recipe to clean up. OK, I helped a little with the latter. As I told their parents when they returned yesterday, the only girl who misbehaved has four legs. Besa had previously gotten up on a kitchen counter and polished off a loaf of bread. Hence, all bread is now stored up high behind cupboard doors. Well, during the week, she got onto another cabinet and consumed a box of cookies, destroyed Frankie's insulated lunch container to lick out the dregs of pesto and olive oil, and got into a trash bag that I forgot to carry down out and she ate some leftover frosting, part of a sandwich and licked the butter wrapper clean. She was a handful when we saw any dogs, but especially females, on our thrice a day outings. One day somehow she slipped her collar and took off down the street with a beautiful male black lab. We were near a construction zone but thankfully she returned within a few minutes unscathed.

20 June, Czermin

I know I've written a lot about the devastating floods that hit Sandomierz and other parts of Poland along the Wisla (Vistula) River, and some of you have mentioned seeing this in US papers. And I know I've mentioned "Ojciec Mateusz," a weekly television program that is the most popular in the country, was based on a French program and takes place in Sandomierz. Several times a year the cast and crew come here for location and other shots. In fact, one day last summer they were filming outside the hotel that the Center owns, and I saw them, including the gorgeous actor who plays the mystery-solving priest. Anyway, the cast did a live concert in Sandomierz last Friday to raise money to help those affected by the floods. The Old Town Square was covered with people who stood on cobblestone streets and the stone square for a couple of hours to hear the concert. Because I had to be in Krakow until yesterday morning, I wasn’t able to attend. But the state-owned TV station that broadcasts the program and is also a sponsor of the benefit has been playing the concert in half-hour segments.

The first segment Hala, Michal and I watched on Saturday night featured the actor who plays the police captain singing Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and similar era tunes in English. He has quite a nice voice, and the band was terrific -- very Tommy Dorsey. We've seen three segments so far, all different. In what was the first segment, the "priest" was the emcee. Each actor (priest, mayor, 2 police officers, priest's housekeeper) talked about how much Sandomierz had become their town too. It was quite a fantastic promotion for the city. Some Polish soft rock groups sang and were excellent. And all five actors sang, both solo and ensemble. They have good voices though only one is known as a singer. They did the US oldies in English, and of course I sang along to a lot of them. The cameras panned the audience, and we saw several people we know, which was kind of fun. People living on the square were on their decks or looking out their windows.

So today I'm on iTunes downloading "Sinatra: A Man and His Music," one of my favorite albums that I have on LP but not CD. That's what I'm listening to as I write. When I'm done, I'm going to try to find the CD that the "police captain" said he'd made -- he has a good voice and does a nice job on Sinatra-type tunes.

I’m also keeping an ear open for news of today’s presidential election. The polls just closed, and already the television station Michal is watching is predicting a winner! Most of the ballots are paper, so it will be some time before the actual result is known. But given that it’s only one office, albeit with 10 candidates, the counting won’t take too long. Oh, the winner being predicted on the basis of exit polls is Komorowski, who has led the pack throughout and the candidate all my friends here favor.

Everyone at the farm went to vote: Hala and Michal right after church and Hala’s parents later in the afternoon. Stay tuned for election results.

22 June, Sandomierz

It's been interesting watching the electoral process here. The mass of early candidates eventually became 10 on the ballot. None got a majority so on July 4th there will be a run off between the top two, Komorowski and Kaczynski. That's very typical of elections in this part of the world, unlike in the US where you can get 35% of the popular vote and be elected. The key to the runoff will be who gets the votes of the 3rd place candidate who was from the SLD, the old urban communists and party of former President Kwasniewski. That candidate, I've forgotten his name, got 15% of the votes and Komorowski only got 41+%, Kaczynski 35+%. Will be interesting to see what happens.

As expected, Kaczynski did well in rural areas and among the elderly; he also got a vast majority of the votes of Poles living in the US who are still Polish citizens. General feeling on that around here is that Poles living abroad are disconnected from the realities of the 'old country' and more inclined to idealize Kaczynski because of his brother's tragic death. Reality is that his brother accomplished nothing. He was always looking backwards, trying to blame Russia for any and all Polish ills (that's why he continued to pursue Katyn after most had thought it was a settled issue when the Russians finally 'fessed up). He rarely if ever did anything to move the country forward. In particular, he did virtually nothing for this, the eastern, part of the country which is still the most impoverished and under-served by anyone's programs. Despite a majority of the wojwode (province) voting for Kaczynski, he is highly unlikely to do anything either.

Enough politics. Strawberry season is nearing its end. Truskawkowa Niedziela (Strawberry Sunday), the festival the Center initiated in 1994, was held on Sunday to limited turnout, I’m told, due to the lousy weather. Because of the weather, Hala and I decided not to attend as she had no official role this year, unlike last year when we attended in a downpour because she had something official to do.

Yesterday after work, Hala and Michal bought almost 40 kilos of fresh strawberries. A few kilos went into Michal’s fermenting jug to start a new batch of ratafia, a delicious naturally sweetened fruit-based liqueur that he makes. The rest were washed, and we started to make strawberry jam. I'm taking liberties with the "we" -- I was mainly the gofer and pot stirrer. We used about a third of the berries and filled several dozen jars with jam before closing up shop just before midnight. The rest of the berries were stored in containers in the basement refrigerator until tonight.

I remember making jam with my mother as a kid. She put up all kinds of jams, fruits and veggies every year and stored them in the 'fruit cellar' that was underneath our front porch and always cool. As a young mother, I did bread-and-butter pickles with my husband's aunt for many years and the occasional batch of jam, but my kitchen preference was baking cookies. And I did a lot of that. I was determined that Peter would never be able to say he’d missed out on homemade cookies because his mother had a full-time job!

Tonight besides helping with jam, I need to finish making Texas Chili for Michal. When there earlier in the year, I sent Michal a postcard with the recipe and promised to make it. He has been fascinated with chili since I gave him several packets of chili spices, compliments of my Peace Corps Bestest (and Texan) Susan. The spices allowed for varying degrees of hotness, from no alarms to five alarms. I’ll be making about one alarm; no one on the farm likes food as spicy as I do. Stay tuned.

24 June, Sandomierz

We had a fierce wind yesterday, and a chilly one. I was glad to be at home at the farm where I started to get organized for leaving on 6 July. In January, I took as much with me at 20 kg per suitcase allowed, plus two friends had taken suitcases back for me. I know, I know. I am a clothes horse. I never know what I’ll want to wear until I awaken, so I brought way more clothes than I needed when I left Kosovo, plus a bunch of household necessities like comforters, bed linens and such. While they aren’t heavy, they are bulky. One suitcase is now packed and weights only 15 kg. It’s an old one of Peter’s, totally unstructured rubberized canvas and huge. Still couldn’t fit my pillow though. So I’m going to use a suitcase that I brought from Kosovo, borrowed from friends there, to pack the pillow and what’s left. I’m still leaving a huge box of mostly papers -- last year’s tax support documents, for example, and board meeting minutes. And I’ll leave a complete make-up kit, sleepwear, pair of dressy shoes and flip flops and some clothes here for the time being, so I don’t have to drag everything when I come to board meetings.

Not much time left and still a number of people to visit. Unbelievable but I haven’t even been to Warsaw yet, just landed at the airport and drove out here. So this weekend I’m off to the south, near where I used to live. Ula, a Krakow friend since Peace Corps, and I will drive to Zamek (Castle) Niedzica which overlooks a gigantic artificial lake that was under construction when I was a volunteer. They had already moved people to higher ground and were building the dam, as I recall. That was almost 15 years ago.

Then it’s back to Sandomierz for a night or two and on to Warsaw with Hala and Michal on the 30th. Lunches, dinners and such with friends there are planned, including coffee with Danny, a PC colleague that I haven’t seen since the mid 90s, and his wife and family. They met while several of us were riding the kolejka (local train) into Warsaw.

29 June, Sandomierz

Well, the ghosts of Room 10 in Niedzica Castle chose not to show themselves last weekend. The castle was built in the 14th century by a Hungarian family and was an important outpost in Polish-Hungarian relations, which by the way, have been generally cordial throughout the years. Years later the family emigrated to Peru. In the mid 19th Century a family member married an Inca princess, and because of a likely war with Spain, they returned to Niedzica bringing along Inca treasures that belonged to the princess. According to the legend, their daughter, Umina, was murdered outside the room where we stayed trying to protect the treasure from thieves. The thieves weren’t caught, and Umina supposedly haunts the castle to scare off those looking for the gold that her father hid in the castle.

Another legend is about Brunhilde who was drowned in a big well in the castle over some kind of matrimonial dispute. Her picture is on the wall in Room 10. Those are just two of the many legends that surround this fortress that sits high above the Dunajec River, many are about torture of the locals and some instruments of torture are on view in the torture room of the castle, as is the well; the Inca gold has never been found. Throughout its history, the castle has mainly been owned by Hungarians, Horvaths for many years and lastly the Salomon family who left Poland and the castle in 1943. In 1949, it was taken over by the state during ‘agricultural reforms’ and given to the Art Historians Association, which still has ownership. The castle’s few hotel rooms are reserved mainly for visiting art historians and their conferences.

Across the Dunajec is Czorsztyn Castle, a 14th century border castle that is described as the Polish counterpart to Niedzica. This castle has been a ruins since it was struck by lightning in 1790. We had to take a paddle wheeler across Czorsztyn Lake, then hike around the end of a cove and up through the forest to the castle. The ruins have been well protected and enhanced with wooden staircases that took us to the upper reaches. The views of the lake, farms, forests, valley and opposite castle were spectacular, like those at Niedzica.

Besides tramping around castles, we visited the Dunajec (hydroelectric) Dam (completed in 1994) and walked almost all the way across -- possible for this acrophobe because the walkway was wide and the dam’s sides were long and slanted; I didn’t have to see straight down. We discovered the hard way on Saturday night that everything closes very early in this village, and since we’d polished off a bottle of wine already, we were unable to drive elsewhere. Poland has zero tolerance for driving while drinking, and we weren’t going to chance driving over unknown, winding mountain roads. So we ate the pate and cheeses that we’d brought for breakfast.

Sunday we drove to a nearby spa town, Szczawnica, which took me back to my first Christmas in Poland. Most of our training group boarded a bus at the crack of dawn one very cold December day and set off for the southeastern mountains, where eventually I’d live as a PCV. The snow was already several inches deep and hadn’t been plowed. We were housed and fed for $4 per day! Susan, David, Amy, I and a few others were assigned Sauerkraut House, so dubbed by Susan because it smelled like the cook had just made sauerkraut. While I love sauerkraut, the smell is unbearable when you don’t get the accompanying chance to eat it. The bridge group set up a permanent game in another house while others wandered the town to discover a ski rope tow and a foot bridge to the other side of the river. On Christmas morning we crossed the bridge and walked the river path, several of us pulling tree branches to dump snow on those behind. Snow ball fights ensued with much loud laughter. Then we hit the Czechoslovakian border (this was 1991), and a very very young, armed border guard. He looked as frightened as we were surprised. We quickly changed our plans (an unofficial trip to a new country) and walked out onto the frozen river where a wooden fence marked the border. Huddling in front of the fence, our arms sticking through the fence to the other side, we took turns taking photos while the guard watched on suspiciously.

But this is a new world. What was once one country is now two that belong to the EU, and the border has no guard; even I, a non-EU citizen, probably could have crossed without my passport. Instead, I wandered around the town, checking out the renovations that had taken place over the years. The town is as charming as Krynica, the spa town that’s so close to Nowy Sacz where I lived as a PCV. I declined to join Ula on the chair lift to the top of the mountain and went in search of the Sauerkraut House but to no avail. Later, back at the castle, we opened some wine and waited for our pizza to be delivered. We’d ordered it from a nearby cafe that morning.

30 June, Warsaw

Shall I end on a political note? Lots of bad Kaczynski jokes still going around, including one about the nation wanting a first lady who doesn’t use a litter box. Reminds we a bit of the US where abortion seems to be a litmus test for all politicians; here it is in vitro fertilization. What either has to do with a person’s ability to govern a nation and set foreign policy is beyond many here as well as me. And there is some rancor here over the voters from Polonia (Poles in the US) who have no sense of the realities of Poland today yet will vote in the election and help shape its future.

PS For those of you who know my friend Marilou, she is doing well and awaiting surgery. For details, see her caringbridge site: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/marilouthibault/guestbook